The story of the anti-revolutionary phenomenon known as the “ultra-lefts” is a psychological story. A story about minds that have been alienated from society, then manipulated into reinforcing the same power structures which produce this alienation. Not every individual who’s gone down this tragic path will be brought to a way of thinking that’s conducive to assisting in revolutionary progress. There are many developing radicals who can still avoid the fate of the ultras though, should they come across material warning them on how to avoid it.
As odd as it can feel to describe ideas in terms of pathologies, these two things are highly linked; somebody’s mental state can easily be a determining factor in whether they decide to embrace a new idea, or to discard an old one. Lenin alluded to this strange reality about the human mind in his analysis of the psychological condition behind anarchism. He called this condition “despair,” rather than merely “disillusionment” as could better be described as the condition behind Marxism, because despair was in his judgment the logical origin of a “revolutionary” ideology that’s not practically capable of winning. He said the reason for this fundamental deficiency within anarchism is “Failure to understand the development of society–the role of large-scale production–the development of capitalism into socialism. (Anarchism is a product of despair. The psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond and not of the proletarian.)”
Despair is an appropriate term to associate with anarchist thought because not only does such an emotion naturally lead one to ideas that won’t help someone achieve things; it’s also the emotion that’s been shown to disproportionately be shared by the types of individuals who are already ideologically inclined to become anarchists. Psychology Today has summarized a study on people across the political spectrum that’s “used data from the General Social Survey, a large-scale survey of American adults age 18 and older that is conducted every few years…[The researcher] Kirkegaard’s analysis found that, overall, liberals tended to report poorer mental health than conservatives. This trend was particularly pronounced for those of both sexes self-labeled as ‘extremely liberal,’ who tended to be noticeably worse off on several measures, not just compared to conservatives, but even compared to those identifying as ‘liberal’ or ‘slightly liberal.’”
Because those within the extremely liberal category are not all or even mostly anarchists, there are plenty of ideological directions other than anarchism that these types of leftists can be drawn towards—many of them just as destructive. That’s why the main people I hope to reach with this warning aren’t anarchists, who largely are already too hostile towards serious revolutionary practice to want to change. I rather aim to sway those who are presently more likely to go towards Marxism-Leninism, or who are already Marxist-Leninists yet still figuring out their mode of practice.
My words of caution to you are that just because you’ve avoided the error the anarchists make of expecting capitalism to be defeated without a state, doesn’t mean you can’t repeat their error of exclusively trying to appeal to liberals. Which is an error that makes your organizational endeavor isolated from too many of the people for you to be able to win; that renders you unable to effectively fight the imperialist psyops that keep the bourgeois state strong, and the workers movement impotent.
Up until last year’s escalation of the proxy war in Ukraine, it looked like U.S. Marxist-Leninists didn’t have many members who are at risk of contributing to this problem of left-wing complicity in imperialism. During 2019 in particular, those within this group were able to unite behind the anti-imperialist cause. The anarchists were the main ones on the left, moreso than the social democrats or the Maoists, who were pretending that the Hong Kong revolt was worthwhile for socialists to support.
At the time, Hong Kong looked like the perfect litmus test for who was serious about combating U.S. hegemony. Violent protesters, whose tactics in practice consisted of terrorism against their own neighborhoods, had mobilized in response to a Chinese extradition bill which was created simply as an accountability measure for the most heinous of crimes. The unrest was revealed to have been directly linked to the CIA’s National Endowment for Democracy, which funded the organizations behind the demonstrations (and by extension the riots, assaults, and murders that then came about). Ukrainian Nazis traveled to join in on the protests; the sign-holders displayed hate symbols; the demonstrators displayed British and U.S. flags (despite being in a country that’s long been fighting off imperialist attacks from these two countries); the movement’s leaders were directly collaborating with the heads of the American empire.
Marxist-Leninists in the U.S. were united in their view of the Hong Kong issue; and in the idea that fighting the information war against the Hong Kong psyop (as well as all other anti-China psyops) was necessary. So it appeared we wouldn’t need to have an American equivalent of the conflict between the opportunistic Second International, and the communists who were principled on anti-imperialism. It looked like everyone in the U.S. who called themselves a Marxist-Leninist was committed to fighting U.S. hegemony, making no such ideological struggle necessary. Then the Ukraine escalation happened, and everyone in the movement was faced with a more difficult choice. Their choice was no longer “should we fight the information war to help socialist China,” it was “should we fight the information war to help the Russian people’s anti-fascist struggle.”
Which doesn’t sound like a hard question, but many communists in the imperial center have certain allegiances; allegiances that conflict with their professed commitment to anti-fascism and anti-imperialism.
By Rainer Shea