by Lierre Keith
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver, poet
The culture of the left needs a serious overhaul. At our best and bravest moments, we are the people who believe in a just world; who fight the power with all the courage and commitment that women and men can possess; who refuse to be bought or beaten into submsion, and refuse equally to sell each other out. The history of struggles for justice is inspiring, ennobling even, and it should encourage us to redouble our efforts now when the entire world is at stake. Instead, our leadership is leading us astray. There are historic reasons for the misdirection of many of our movements, and we would do well to understand those reasons before it’s too late.1
The history of misdirection starts in the Middle Ages when various alternative sects arose across Europe, some more strictly religious, some more politically utopian. The Adamites, for instance, originated in North Africa in the second century, and the last of the Neo-Adamites were forcibly suppressed in Bohemia in 1849.2 They wanted to achieve a state of primeval innocence from sin. They practiced nudism and ecstatic rituals of rebirth in caves, rejected marriage, and held property communally. Groups such as the Diggers (True Levelers) were more political. They argued for an egalitarian social structure based on small agrarian communities that embraced ecological principles. Writes one historian, “They contended that if only the common people of England would form themselves into self-supporting communes, there would be no place in such a society for the ruling classes.”3
Not all dsenting groups had a political agenda. Many alternative sects rejected material accumulation and social status but lacked any clear political analysis or egalitarian program. Such subcultures have repeatedly arisen across Europe, coalescing around a common constellation of themes:
Within these dissenting groups, there has long been a tension between identifying the larger society as corrupt and naming it unjust. This tension has been present for over 1,000 years. Groups that critique society as degenerate or immoral have mainly responded by withdrawing from society. They want to make heaven on Earth in the here and now, abandoning the outside world. “In the world but not of it,” the Shakers said. Many of these groups were and are deeply pacifistic, in part because the outside world and all things political are seen as corrupting, and in part for strongly held moral reasons. “Corruption groups” are not always leftist or progressive. Indeed, many right-wing and reactionary elements have formed sects and founded communities. In these groups, the sin in urban or modern life is hedonism, not hierarchy. In fact, these groups tend to enforce strict hierarchy: older men over younger men, men over women. Often they have a charismatic leader and the millenialist bent is quite marked.
“Justice groups,” on the other hand, name society as inequitable rather than corrupt, and usually see organized religion as one more hierarchy that needs to be dismantled. They express broad political goals such as land reform, pluralistic democracy, and equality between the sexes. These more politically oriented spiritual groups walk the tension between withdrawal and engagement. They attempt to create communities that support a daily spiritual practice, allow for the withdrawal of material participation in unjust systems of power, and encourage political activism to bring their New Jerusalem into being. Contemporary groups like the Catholic Workers are attempts at such a project.
The perennial trend of critique and utopian vision was bolstered by Romanticism, a cultural and artistic movement that began in the latter half of the eighteenth century in Western Europe. It was at least partly a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, which valued rationality and science. The image of the Enlightenment was the machine, with the living cosmos reduced to clockwork. As the industrial revolution gained strength, rural lifeways were destroyed while urban areas swelled with suffering and squalor. Blake’s dark, Satanic mills destroyed rivers, the commons of wetlands and forests fell to the highest bidder, and coal dust was so thick in London that the era could easily be deemed the Age of Tuberculosis. In Germany, the Rhine and the Elbe were killed by dye works and other industrial processes. And along with natural communities, human communities were devastated as well.
Romanticism revolved around three main themes: longing for the past, upholding nature as pure and authentic, and idealizing the heroic and alienated individual. Germany, where elements of an older pagan folk culture still carried on, was in many ways the center of the Romantic movement.
How much of the Teutonic nature worship was really drawn from surviving pre-Christian elements, and how much was simply a Romantic recreation—the Renaissance Faire of the nineteenth century—is beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say, there were enough cultural elements for the Romantics to build on.
In 1774, German writer Goethe penned the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, the story of a young man who visits an enchanting peasant village, falls in love with an unattainable young woman, and suffers to the point of committing suicide. The book struck an over-sensitive nerve, and, overnight, young men across Europe began modeling themselves on the protagonist, a depressive and passionate artist. Add to this the supernatural and occult elements of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, and, by the nineteenth century, the Romantics of that day resembled modern Goths. A friend of mine likes to say that history is same characters, different costumes—and in this case the costumes haven’t even changed much.4
Another current of Romanticism that eventually influenced our current situation was bolstered by philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau,5 who described a “state of nature” in which humans lived before society developed. He was not the creator of the image of the noble savage—that dubious honor falls to John Dryden, in his 1672 play The Conquest of Granada. Rousseau did, however, popularize one of the core components that would coalesce into the cliché, arguing that there was a fundamental rupture between human nature and human society. The concept of such a divide is deeply problematical, as by definition it leaves cultures that aren’t civilizations out of the circle of human society. Whether the argument is for the bloodthirsty savage or the noble savage, the underlying concept of a “state of nature” places hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic pastoralists, and even some agriculturalists outside the most basic human activity of creating culture. All culture is a human undertaking: there are no humans living in a “state of nature.”6 With the idea of a state of nature, vastly different societies are collapsed into an image of the “primitive,” which exists unchanging outside of history and human endeavor. 2
Indeed, one offshoot of Romanticism was an artistic movement called Primitivism that inspired its own music, literature, and art. Romanticism in general and Primitivism in particular saw European culture as overly rational and repressive of natural impulses. So-called primitive cultures, in contrast, were cast as emotional, innocent and childlike, sexually uninhibited, and at one with the natural world. The Romantics embraced the belief that “primitives” were naturally peaceful; the Primitivists tended to believe in their proclivity to violence. Either cliché could be made to work because the entire image is a construct bearing no relation to the vast variety of forms that indigenous human cultures have taken. Culture is a series of choices—political choices made by a social animal with moral agency. Both the noble savage and the bloodthirsty savage are objectifying, condescending, and racist constructs.
Romanticism tapped into some very legitimate grievances. Urbanism is alienating and isolating. Industrialization destroys communities, both human and biotic. The conformist demands of hierarchical societies leave our emotional lives inauthentic and numb, and a culture that hates the animality of our bodies drives us into exile from our only homes. The realization that none of these conditions are inherent to human existence or to human society can be a profound relief. Further, the existence of cultures that respect the earth, that give children kindness instead of public school, that share food and joy in equal measure, that might even have mystical technologies of ecstasy, can serve as both an inspiration and as evidence of the crimes committed against our hearts, our culture, and our planet. But the places where Romanticism failed still haunt the culture of the left today and must serve as a warning if we are to build a culture of resistance that can support a true resistance movement.