Losing the Fight for a Better World Takes a Toll

Choosing to be a leftist means that you are going to lose a lot. And losing a lot is not easy. How can we keep fighting while also acknowledging the emotional toll of losing over and over and over again?

Sign from Bernie Sanders's 2016 campaign for president on February 2, 2016, in Derry, New Hampshire. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

In 2011, my husband and I felt so defeated as leftists that we were soliciting content for a proposed website called “Why Fucking Bother?”

Barack Obama was president, and there was little dissent. The post-9/11 wars still raged but were met with no mass protests. Bailouts and recessions had met with little rebellion, either. “In Why Fucking Bother?” we envisioned perhaps an ongoing digital pep talk, as well as a serious analysis of our situation, convincing ourselves and others to stay in the fight.

People responded eagerly, hungrily, to this project. They wanted to contribute, and to read about why to bother. Feeling defeated, they felt seen in those feelings — and wanted a way out of them.

Typically, left-wing scholarly writing about social movements concerns strategy, tactics, material conditions. But increasingly we’re seeing another realm of inquiry, one that probably matters just as much: feelings.

From Enzo Traverso on left melancholy to the late Lauren Berlant on the “cruel optimism” of neoliberalism to Jodi Dean on comradeship to Sarah Jaffe on the politics of grief, left thinkers are beginning to understand that our emotions matter, and that these feelings drive our political actions and choices. Hannah Proctor’s Burn Out: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat is a fine addition to this literature and relatively unique in its specific focus on defeat.

Born in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat — which was emotionally devastating to many left of center Brits, just as Bernie Sanders’s defeat was here in the United States — Burn Out explores the grief, trauma, and guilt of many survivors of defeated left movements, from the Paris Commune to twentieth-century Communism to feminist and revolutionary movements of the 1970s to the UK coal miners’ strike of 1984–85.

Proctor seeks to interrogate the “Don’t Mourn, Organize!” style of left discourse. She recalls that during the UK student movement, activists passed around Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, with its epigraph from an Eastern Orthodox monk: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” Thinking of these words, Proctor writes,

I felt so angry. If people have to live in the hellish world while seeking to transform it, can’t they at least feel despair? What if it isn’t possible to believe in salvation, in redemption? What if it’s all too much to bear?

A few weeks after we began soliciting content for “Why Fucking Bother?”, the world answered our question: Occupy Wall Street began. Our project of facing and working through defeat no longer made sense. Like everyone else, we suddenly had plenty to do. In a real political moment, you do not need to ask, “Why bother?”: it’s obvious that we have so much to win.

That real political moment is still ongoing. Whereas in early 2011, there was no left mass movement in the United States at all, we then had Occupy, followed by the simultaneous rise of Black Lives Matter and the Bernie campaign (and Corbyn in the UK), the lasting democratic socialist revival, a renewed labor movement, and a Palestine solidarity movement. Each of those phenomena is intertwined, and I would guess that when future historians look at this period, they will see it as a time of growth for the Left, perhaps (we hope!) a time that led to some dramatic changes.

That said, we certainly have our share of defeats. They’re emotionally complicated, because unlike most of the world-historical defeats that Proctor chronicles, they occur simultaneously with victories and new beginnings. A student encampment is cleared by the police; another one arises the next day. Socialists are elected to office even as Republicans flip blue congressional districts right nearby. Unions are busted, union drives are won. Union contracts are lost, workers strike and win concessions.

What’s also complicated is that even as we balance the emotions of victory and defeat, we must live in a society that, as Proctor notes throughout, presents a constant reminder that our side has not won nearly enough.

Not only did Sanders and Corbyn lose, but Donald Trump and Trumpism is on the rise, and the regime that is currently in power, waging brutal wars and approving fossil fuel projects, generates headlines that offer 24/7 reminders that we are not. This is a recipe for despair, even as we are more engaged in organizing and action, en masse, than we ever could have imagined possible at the turn of last century.

Defeat Eradicates Joy

To me, an emotional constraint of left movements has been a dearth of space for joy. I’m not alone in feeling this way. There was a reason Emma Goldman felt the need to assert that it was indeed appropriate for a revolutionary to dance (it turns out she never actually said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” but as Corey Robin has written of other commonly misattributed quotes, such aphorisms say more about our collective unconscious desires than about the person being misquoted).

But fictional Goldman is right: we don’t celebrate easily on the Left. When you win, your comrades must insist that your political victory is incomplete, or that it is, in fact, a defeat. Sometimes celebrating a victory can even be seen as a failure of solidarity, since, after all, most people are still suffering. Routine pleasures that apolitical people enjoy — everything from Christmas to organized sports — are viewed with suspicion.

If a fellow leftist asks, “How are you?”, you are not supposed to say, “Wonderful! I’ve fallen in love and also there are muskrats swimming in the pond.” Instead, you might allow an, “Okay, considering” — considering all the horrible things that are always happening in the world: war, climate crisis, exploitation, looming fascism. All this ritual negativity sits atop the fact that the work of left organizing is demanding, not always fun, and can take time away from the joyful parts of life, whether that’s time with friends, lovers and children, reading novels, or just sitting in the sun.

This is not the emotional elision that animates Proctor’s book. Rather than prohibit joy and celebration, Proctor feels we don’t talk enough about the despair and grief that accompany defeat — a huge feature of being on the Left in a capitalist world where we lose more often than we win.

Commendably, Proctor wishes to depart from the usual left use of history, which is to find present-day inspiration in past victories or revolutionary moments. (Reading that, I felt seen and even subtweeted; I appreciated that she admitted she too had written such pieces.) Instead, she asks, what can we learn from the emotional experience of defeat?

There is a sense throughout the book that political participation foists upon us an optimism and can-do spirit that doesn’t always feel authentic. Given pessimism of the intellect, isn’t optimism of the will a bit forced? She quotes the radical poet Muriel Rukeyser, who wrote in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, “that terrible time when everyone writes, ‘hope.’”

Given my own sense that the Left is always a bit melancholic, I was surprised that Proctor felt that defeated feelings were absent from left discourse. But as I read her absorbing study, I realized that activism foregrounds urgency and activity, often at a pace that encourages participants to push all emotions to the side besides a kind of forced optimism. The problem is that there has, historically, not been much room for any of our emotions in left movements. As Proctor writes, perceptively, “psychological experiences require patience while so much in the world demands urgency.”

Proctor doesn’t say much about joy, libido, or love. When she does, she sounds a bit annoyed, as if too much has been made of these feelings at the expense of the more complicated emotions of defeat. But her intervention should prompt us to attend to all the feelings. I applaud this, but also sense that Proctor may be part of the last generation for whom this argument is a necessary intervention.

Young people’s movements today are remarkably emotionally attuned. As Proctor acknowledges, left organizing WhatsApp chats are abuzz with references to solicitous check-ins (“Does anyone have the capacity to…”) and open declarations of emotional fatigue, including the phrase “burnout” from which Proctor’s book draws its title.

Proctor doesn’t write much about climate feelings, despite extensive recent discussion of them. The climate movement is constantly debating the value of optimism (what the climate writer Mary Annaise Heglar has called “hopium”) vs. “doomerism.” There is extensive discourse on “climate anxiety” and “climate grief,” sometimes discussed as impediments to action but also as radicalizing emotions or as problems to be worked through.

Many are working on this collectively, too, with the insight that, as Proctor agues, the psychological and the social can’t be neatly separated. Movement groups have also created “climate cafes,” in which people can talk about their feelings about the climate crisis. You could see all these conversations as a collective effort to grapple with the practical effect of decades of left defeat, which has resulted in the climate crisis, which is in turn contributing to a mental health crisis in our young people and many other people as well.

It may be that the climate movement has the right idea, in making space for all the feelings. The climate crisis is so depressing and scary, it’s understandable that it would prompt an emotional evolution in our social movements. And not a moment too soon. Whether freeing Palestine, bringing socialism, or saving the planet for our kids, we are going to need our resilience — and we are going to be living through some very big feelings.

Proctor concludes that the psychological toll of these struggles “should be acknowledged and can be mitigated,” and are also inevitable. As well, paradoxically, they should not stop us from engaging in our complicated and difficult political moments, with our complicated and difficult comrades and selves. She ends with an exhortation from the great Mike Davis that is at once more realistic and more profound than the “despair not” or “don’t mourn” platitudes so often foisted upon us: “Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely.”