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Identity as Ideology
by Theodore Dalrymple
Like many persons possessing limited insight into the future, I had supposed that, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, utopianism would die out in the Western world. I was mistaken. Identity politics in the West is veering in the direction of totalitarianism. A book I read recently, Jusqu’à Raqqa: Avec les Kurdes contre Daech (“Until Raqqa: With the Kurds against Daesh”), by André Hébert, helps explain why. The author—who for obvious reasons uses a pseudonym—is a young Parisian from a bourgeois Catholic family who became a convinced Marxist at the age of fourteen, and has remained one for sixteen years until the present day.
The pseudonym is an homage to Jacques-René Hébert, the French revolutionary journalist who died by guillotine in 1794. The book chronicles the author’s time as a foreign volunteer fighting against ISIS in Northeastern Syria alongside the forces of Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK, a party that aims to bring about both national autonomy and social revolution, including the permanent abolition of all private property in favor of temporary usufruct.
The author explains what led him to volunteer:
Although I am since detached from religion, the Catholic education that I received no doubt contributed . . . to sensitize me to the fate of the oppressed and the way to help them. As a child I was profoundly affected by the Gospels, which exhorted believers to share their wealth with the poorest. I quickly understood that the overwhelming majority of the members of the bourgeoisie to which I belonged claimed to share these values, without however putting them into practice. Revolted by this hypocrisy, I searched for answers outside religion.
There is little doubt that the author’s search is as much for personal redemption as for the improvement of physical and social conditions. Early in his book, he writes:
Internationalism is above all the ability to share the struggles of the excluded across the world, to rebel against the injustice that they suffer as if we suffered it ourselves, having awareness that, despite the barriers that separate men, we all share the same condition and the same combat against alienation.
Alienation, of course, is a spiritual concept rather than a material one, even in Marxism. As the author’s confession shows, it is possible to be alienated, to be uncomfortable with the state of the world and of human life in general, even while one is personally comfortable, enjoying good prospects, and deprived of nothing that could reasonably be expected of a political and economic dispensation. Young people like Hébert feel that they have no right to enjoy anything until the world is made perfect, and that they have a duty to make the world, or at least to help make it, perfect. There is no mistaking the youthful self-importance and grandiosity in this.
As an intellectual, Hébert (who holds a master’s degree in history) would be contemptuous of those small particulars that William Blake enjoins us to perform if we would be good in general. Why not, for example, befriend and visit some of the lonely old people whose plight is unfortunately so common in our society? The reason is that doing so would change nothing, or very little, whereas bringing about revolution somewhere implies fostering revolution everywhere. (Hébert seriously suggests that the PKK’s radical social and economic arrangements in the areas conquered from ISIS in Syria have universal application.)
In a world of doubt and complexity, Hébert seeks certainty:
From the militant’s point of view, there was not a shadow of a doubt that it was our duty to support this cause. . . . When one realizes that this wasn’t only a conflict for the self-determination of a people, but also a revolutionary war at the service of a democratic and collectivist ideal, there is no more room for doubt.
Doubt is here experienced as stultifying, a nagging pain to be eliminated. (The suffering Hébert’s decision must have caused his parents does not enter into his calculations.) Does not the Qur’an begin by asserting that what follows cannot be doubted, and are not soldiers for ISIS unperturbed by doubt?
Hébert’s collectivist dream is far from being his alone, despite the disasters such dreams wrought in the twentieth century. As a slogan painted on a wall outside the Pereire Métro station in an upper-middle-class district of Paris put it, Fin du moi, début de nous—“The end of me, the beginning of us.” The moi of the slogan is an untranslatable pun on the homonym mois, that is to say, the fin du mois, the end of the month, which is the period when many French families find themselves in financial difficulties. The slogan thus cleverly insinuates that collectivism—a world of us rather than of me—will put an end to these difficulties once and for all.
The author, being a young man, was no doubt motivated by a sense of adventure. When I was young, I too loved danger of the political kind, though I never made the mistake of supposing that by courting it I was performing a transcendent moral duty (rather than addressing certain minor psychological problems of my own). The author scarcely recognizes his thirst for adventure, though he admits the exhilaration of battle. One realizes the wisdom of the Delphic injunction to know oneself.
The end of the book makes plain the spiritual or existential search that is at the heart of Hébert’s decision. He was a brave man who underwent considerable hardship, but an action cannot be judged by its boldness alone. Hébert writes of his return to Paris after the fall of Raqqa and the destruction, at least for now, of the so-called caliphate:
Once the joy of recovering the pleasures of which I had been deprived by being in Rojava [the de facto autonomous Kurdish region of northeastern Syria] was over, I fell rapidly to boredom, lack of interest and then to nostalgia. The nostalgia of belonging to a society with a goal, a collective that bore up and inspired its actors. In returning to the West, one became once more a simple atom in an unformed and apathetic aggregate, a self-centered individual inserted in “networks,” for lack of a real society . . .
The author criticizes the mode of life from which he has sought to escape in so dramatic and dangerous a fashion. “The comfort in which we live is appreciable,” he admits, “but it is a tainted comfort.” It pleases the senses but dulls the spirit—an immoral result, given that it can “make us forget the absurdity of our existence in capitalist modernity.”
Reflecting on his time in Rojava, Hébert praises it for preventing precisely this soft and tempting incognizance:
Despite the danger and friends who were killed at our sides, the attraction of such a life is very strong, all the more so when it is compared to the mediocrity of existence in the decadent and declining West that we know.
Of course, very few take the road Hébert took. (He mentions that there had been up to seven hundred volunteers fighting in or for Rojava, of whom at least forty-five were killed.) Nevertheless, one wonders whether identity politics and the kind of devotion they evoke in contemporary society are not a somewhat less extreme answer to the problems to which, for Hébert, going to fight in Syria was an answer.
In fighting for good against evil, for oppressed against oppressor, for poor against rich, Hébert found an identity opposed to the one into which he had been born, or into which his ideology persuaded him he had been born. Whenever he mentions his parents, he praises them, for they were cultivated and open-minded people who encouraged him to explore various ideas about the world. But because the world is constituted as it is (as Hébert perceived it at age fourteen and ever after), they must have been oppressors and exploiters ex officio, for unlike him they have done nothing to change the world, and indeed continue to enjoy their privileged but meaningless existence.
There are, of course, people who devote themselves to causes that may seem unimportant to others, but which impart to their lives a sense of purpose. There is an association in England that devotes itself to rescuing hedgehogs in difficulty. This is an entirely harmless cause, and a laudable one if (like me) you lament the decline of the hedgehog population. But the people who participate in this association do not make large claims on others. The salvation of hedgehogs may be the meaning of their lives, but they do not make it the meaning of life, a matter of transcendent significance. They are active, but (except in very minor ways) not activists.
It is different with the adherents of leftist politics. There is an evangelical tone to their declarations, a sorting of the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, the saved from the damned. They do not merely want formal changes, as, for example, a perfectly reasonable change in the law after what may be years of unjust discrimination. They demand a reform of the human heart, and they intend to bring it about. They do not desire tolerance, either, for tolerance implies dislike or even disapproval, since no one merely tolerates what he likes or approves. Thus, it is not enough that people should live and let live; they must express their approval of what was formerly distasteful to them. The totalitarian consequences of this are, or ought to be, evident.
Reform, then, never satisfies, because it never goes far enough. The caravan of reformism moves on even when its ostensible aim has been reached, because the goal was never the particular reform aimed at but the imparting of meaning to lives that would otherwise lack it. Once an aim is achieved, another springs up immediately. This explains why satire is now dangerous, for with increasing speed and vehemence, what is morally absurd today becomes morally unquestionable tomorrow. Who would have thought even twenty years ago that grown persons would demand to be able to choose the pronoun by which they are known or addressed, and that they would take failure to comply with their wishes as a serious injury, actionable at law?
In my opinion, the implosion of the Soviet Union played an important and harmful role in this development. Though people who made political or social radicalism the main purpose of their existence denied that they had any attachment to the Soviet Union, the existence of an anti-West founded on political and social radicalism of the kind it espoused had a subliminal influence upon them. In Italy, for example, I remember buying a book written by a psychotherapist for members of, or sympathizers with, the Italian Communist party, advising them of how best to deal with their grief over the demise of the Soviet Union. This, despite the fact that the PCI had long renounced its allegiance to the Soviet Union. What was lost with the Soviet Union was the dream of an overarching politico-economic ideology that would bring about utopia.
But the need for a transcendent purpose, for an ideology that gives meaning to life, remained. If anything, the numbers of people needing it increased. But because of the demise of the Soviet Union, ideology became fragmented—Balkanized and privatized, as it were. Most people in need of ideology made their identity—sexual, national, religious, racial—the premise of an ideology. Restitution for present or past injustices suffered by their group became all-important, and by bearing in mind Gibbon’s famous dictum that human history is nothing but the record of the crimes and follies of mankind, they readily defined themselves by past injustices suffered by people like them, even if they had suffered nothing themselves. There is nothing like rage to disguise from oneself an existential void.
First published in First Things.