Socialism of the present moment

Around three years ago I ran into an old work colleague that I had not seen for years. I remembered him as an obstreperous old-school lefty who was seemingly incapable of social interaction without causing an argument and/or offence. I was a fellow ‘lefty’ myself and even I found him impossible, and to be quite honest, wholly obnoxious. My natural inclination upon seeing him was to recognise that this engagement would take at least five minutes of my time so I sought to make it as easy as possible for the both of us by pushing at a door which I assumed would still be at least slightly ajar. The conversation went something like this:

‘Remember our old boss, what a wanker! I still recall you abusing him in staff meetings.’

‘Yes, I remember that.’

‘He didn’t change after you left, you’ll never guess what happened last year!’

But already I could tell he wasn’t playing ball. There was a passivity about him, a listlessness in his eyes, at least that’s what it seemed like from my point of view.

‘You seem different,’ I continued. ‘Have you calmed down?’

‘My wife made me go on a mindfulness course,’ he responded. ‘All this stuff is just not worth it.’

I was both stunned and impressed. If this guy could ‘let it go’ then I could too, surely? But, on the other hand, I didn’t want to let go of my anger. Anger was my righteous response to perceived injustices, was it not? My anger was in fact, my identity, my personality.

No, I could not give this up.

There was a reason for my anger. I was struggling in a hostile work environment that had been slowly killing me for many years. My only protection was anger, resistance, and my socialism. This was the narrative I told myself every day, and to give these things up would be tantamount to rendering myself defenceless.

Fate smiled on me, and due to a variety of circumstances, I left the job and knew that this was the perfect time to reconstruct my broken identity.

In fact I had little choice.

For many years, a growing interest in the broad idea of ‘Buddhism’ (or calming down) and a decline of my faith in the possibility of revolutionary socialism had opened up the possibility for change. But concrete circumstances prevented any real development. It was a case of one step forwards, three steps back, and an inevitable return to type every time the proverbial hit the fan. Now that I was ‘free’ I could change how I saw the world, my narrative, and perhaps most saliently, my identity.

This process is an on-going work-in-progress.

I started to meditate on a semi-regular basis. Fear prevented me from full commitment. What if it failed to work? I would be stranded in an existential no man’s land. I took baby steps, all the time being emotionally supported by my wonderful partner, family and my rekindled friendship with Stuart (the other writer on this blog) who had also been undergoing a similar journey. Over time I meditated more frequently and opened my mind to ideas and practices which had hitherto been blocked. I had previously understood the words, but they just bounced off my mind. I was not ready and words are never enough.

And this last insight struck me with a certain poignancy. Had my previous socialist identity just been words and abstract concepts? A futile resistance to life itself, masquerading as a critique of capitalism (whatever that might actually mean)?

Possibly.

Capitalism is very real, but what if, horror-of-horrors, this is just life – this thing we call ‘capitalism’? How to deal with injustice? How to create a more humane society?

***

In many respects mindfulness is the antithesis of socialism. Whereas the former exists in the present moment, the latter dwells in the past and the future. Mindfulness teaches ‘letting go’, socialism advocates day to day ‘resistance’ to existing reality – the bridge between the past and future erected around concepts and abstract ideas ie, words, thoughts. Looked at from this perspective, it is mindfulness rather than socialism that appears to be the materialist philosophy. All that is ‘real’ is the present moment or the ‘now’.

I have come to the conclusion that socialism’s best hope might actually exist in the here and now – a ‘socialism of the present moment’ if you will. As people become mindful and align themselves with an inner silence, which is essentially an alignment with the universe, a personal transformation which contains the seeds of social change are inevitably sown. Paradoxically, by giving up the ‘revolution’ (resistance) we open ourselves to the possibility of not only changing our own perception of reality, but social relationships as well. Perhaps a ‘mindful capitalism’ is all we can realistically achieve, but would it still be ‘capitalism’ – if capitalism itself is only a product of our own over-active intellectual minds? Socialism’s main drawback is its most attractive feature – it takes the ‘truth’ far too seriously and this is precisely what makes it so addictive.

Like my old friend, it is possible to be a ‘good socialist’ even if one’s personal skills are severely lacking. As long as one adheres to the agreed theory or party-line, such things are of no more importance as to who one sits next to in the after-meeting pub piss-up. Moreover, it can be seen as a virtue. The reason Comrade X is constantly rude and lacks common empathy, compassion and understanding is because he is so fixated on the project of global human emancipation… just not the actual humans in the room in the here and now. There never can be such justification in the world of mindfulness, other than the open admission that you have attached yourself to vices that you were planning to lose.

The power of mindfulness is its lack of muscularity. It is you – naked, alone, seeking reconnection to those around you, the void, the universe. Reconnection is frequently lost – sometimes several times a day. Each time first principles are revisited and reactivated. There is no dogma of pedigree, or time served. Each time is the first time – one strips down and starts again. There is no belief or theory just ‘This’ (whatever ‘this’ may or may not be.)

So I took off my ‘cloak of socialism’ and hid it away in the wardrobe. Or have I? With the passing of time I sometimes realise that I am in fact still wearing it.

A paradox? Maybe not.

We give up the ‘revolution’ to gain the only realistic possibility for true revolution – the spiritual one.

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This morning’s Tolstoyan moment

This morning, while reading War and Peace when I should have been getting on with other things, I got increasingly absorbed and excited about the message of two particular chapters – those of chapters 12 and 13, volume IV, part IV. These tell of Pierre Bezukhov’s new life in Moscow following the expulsion of the French and his revelation about the key to a good and happy life. While reading, I marvelled that these wonderful two chapters had not struck me more forcefully in my previous readings of the novel, so I resolved to commit them fully to memory. To do that, I turned to the back of the book, where there is a one or two line summary of every chapter. I would mark the chapters that had moved me so much so I could remember where they were and return to them regularly. And what did I find when I went to do that? That I had long ago already marked those very chapters!

Readers of Tolstoy will recognise this human foible. A resolution to live a better or more rewarding or more active or more-whatever life gives way, sometimes even in the very next moment of life, to a complete forgetfulness about one’s previous resolution. I believe in Anna Karenina, if memory serves (doubtful, I admit!), somewhere near the end of the book, a similar determination by Levin to live a more patient and less angry and more Christian life is spoilt in the very second following the one in which he makes the resolution by an impatient and angry remark directed at his wife or servant. Why should this be so?

Is it because what Thich Nhat Hanh calls our “habit energies” and unmindful behaviour and forgetfulness are so much stronger than our good intentions. It’s why Hanh says that Tolstoy’s stories (he’s talking in particular about this one) are perfect but for their lack of advice about the skilful means whereby we might turn our good intentions into a life lived well. This is the meaning and purpose of meditation.–Stuart