Freddie DeBoer had a (typically eloquent) encomium to socialism and a materialist approach to left-wing politics that included this:
That statement — the notion of radical equality, of radical egalitarianism, of the refusal to define oneself as part of an elite or an elect — that is the beating heart of socialist philosophy, the mission statement of any authentically left-wing practice. The goal is to tear down all forms of human hierarchy. We want to kill God, smash capitalism, and dismantle the state, and we want to do so in order to achieve a world of true human equality. Things don’t get better unless they get better for everyone. That is the purpose of our political engagement: to show people that, in the end, their seemingly conflicting political interests are one and the same, that someday we’ll build a better world for everyone, even those who don’t recognize it as a better world yet.
Freddie is a compelling writer because he always communicates the fun of tearing things down, in theory to build a better world. The idea that things don’t get better unless they get better for everybody is laughably false, and a terrible guide to any kind of real-world policy, but who cares? It feels good to say it.
It reminded me of this diatribe from Norman Rush’s 1980s novel about academics in love and utopian communities in Southern Africa, Mating:
Nothing is more interesting than revolution, or should I say insurrection, because all the imagery of revolution comes from insurrection, which is a different thing.
I’m getting so far outside my brief it makes me nervous.
I should just say that even if you think socialism is the way, a way, to save the village, then revolution is the worst way to bring in socialism – positively, hands down, the worst.
This is what I meant when I said, also long ago, Socialism is the continuation of the romantic movement by any means necessary. This was a parody both on Clausewitz and on some people, socialists, who no longer exist, called the Black Panther Party. Revolution equals insurrection and insurrection is the icon at the heart of socialism.
You can see why! Socialists, especially young socialists, love the idea of revolution. Every circle of sociology majors and bookstore clerks wants to call itself the Revolutionary Party of the Left or the Party of the Revolutionary Left or the Left Revolutionary Party of the People – anything so long as revolution is in the title. We can understand this. Everything we want in a society is what we find brought out in people in the moment of insurrection. Spontaneity! Spontaneous hierarchy! Self-sacrifice! Staying awake all night! Working until we drop! Audacity! Camaraderie! The carnival behind the barricades – what it feels like when the police have just been kicked out of your quartier! Free eggs, free goods … until the stores that have been sacked lie empty. One man one gun! And don’t forget what it feels like to throw open the gates of the prisons! What a great moment! This is the moment the true socialist worships and thinks will be incarnated in the society on the morning after.
As Freddie is fond of pointing out, our existing power structure is one that combines the inequalities and injustices (and wealth!) of capitalism with an increasing centrality of nominally left-wing identity politics. The rise of Trumpism is in many ways animated by a desire to burn down both sides of our current system.
But for all the fun of tearing things down, few have any idea what could actually be built on the morning after.