Are Revolutionary Beliefs an Adolescent Fad?

Continuing yesterday’s topic of stereotypes about radicals, there’s an line which goes: “anyone who is not a socialist at 18 has no heart. Anyone who is still a socialist at 30 has no brain.” More broadly, it’s often suggested that socialism – and, even more, anarchism – is something adolescent, a phase which one grows out of.

This isn’t entirely without truth – people’s opinions do tend to change with age, after all, and plenty of people are more radical when younger. But I don’t think this is something about the beliefs themselves, so I’m going to just lay out a different way of analysing the matter.


In Melanie Klein‘s psychoanalytic work there is a contrast between what Klein calls the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’ positions. Stripped down, the point is this: we encounter successively good and bad experiences, and there are two ways to organise this, each tending towards different problems and pathologies.

We might ‘split’ (hence ‘schizoid’) good and bad, and see a world of good objects and bad objects in conflict, which tends towards paranoia because there’s a being of pure badness out there who must be fought.

On the other hand, we might see good and bad as aspects of the same thing, which tends towards depression because if we can neither obtain the idealised good object, nor escape badness by destroying the bad object, what’s the point in doing anything?

A successful mind is one which employs both methods as appropriate, distinguishing what’s different and identifying what’s not, but Klein postulates that infants in their first year begin in the paranoid-schizoid position and then have to move through the depressive one in order to mature emotionally.


Having probably completely butchered Klein’s ideas, I want to apply them to political development, where the ‘object’ dealt with is not any immediate object but that entity which we can call, for want of a better term, ‘society’.

So one has – personally and by empathy with others – both positive and negative experiences of ‘society’. The initial ‘paranoid-schizoid’ position is to see distinct bad guys and good guys, which in analysis tends towards simplifying, in emotion towards feelings of urgency, strong identification with a cause, and hostility towards perceived enemies, and in extreme cases towards more clearly ‘paranoid’ conspiracy theories.

On the other hand, the ‘depressive’ position is to see it all as one homogenous vista, where the good guys aren’t much good and the bad guys aren’t so bad. Either everyone is given the benefit of the doubt, or everyone is dismissed because ‘they’re all the same’. In analysis this will promote not simplification but a kind of faux-nuance, with ‘two sides to every story’ and the truth always somewhere in the middle; in emotion, despair and apathy.

Now, it’s quite plausible to imagine that many people show something like the development Klein describes: initially very paranoid-schizoid, then passing into depression when the sharp oppositions of that position become untenable.


Here’s an anecdotal example from my own past. My earliest political commitments were to rationalism (pro-’science’, anti-’religion’) and veganism. This generated a tension around the issue of vivisection, where the consensus of scientists and the demands of animal rights were in sharp conflict.

The ‘paranoid-schizoid’ response to this tension is to maintain the separateness of good science and bad animal abuse by arguing that animal experiments are actually scientifically useless or misleading. This amounts to a conspiracy theory: the scientific consensus on a certain scientific question (are animals good models of human physiology) is rejected, and nefarious motives attributed to scientists to explain their support of it.

For a short period in my youth I took this position. But eventually I realised that the superficially plausible but essentially paranoid case that I was accepting wasn’t really any different from superficially plausible anti-evolution arguments that I would eagerly debunk when they came from creationists. Although I still oppose vivisection, this involved shifting to a ‘depressive’ position, both in recognising that on there were were good arguments on both sides, and in recognising that the scientific establishment was both an enemy and an ally in different contexts.

What’s my point? For now, not much more than this: the important criterion for someone’s belief is whether it can be maintained both in paranoid-schizoid and in depressive periods.

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11 Responses to Are Revolutionary Beliefs an Adolescent Fad?

  1. Russ says:

    I went through that exact issue (and some similar ones), but it didn’t pose the same intense dilemma it seems to have for you.

    I basically learned to separate the validity of reason and the scientific method in themselves (including their limitations) from the practitioners, who I recognized are mostly nihilistic instrumental reasoners serving corporate interests.

    Similarly, even where it comes to medically necessary research, I said “What difference does any medical advance make if it’ll increasingly be the monopoly of the rich? In that case even medical advances become weapons against us, something to be combatted.”

    So in everything, the fight against corporatism supersedes all other concerns, since the progress of that fight dictates the status of those concerns. Animal research, for example, however ambivalent in an absolute sense, is under these kleptocratic circumstances a corporate weapon against us, and therefore should be fought across the board, and therefore the hard core anti-vivisection position becomes the right one for the context, regardless of whether or not one considers that too black-and-white in an absolute (i.e. sterile ivory tower) sense.

    So I guess in the terminology of the post I’d say the struggle against corporatism and for participatory democracy dictates “schizoid” positions everywhere and leaves no room for “depressive” ones, since it leaves no room for taking any issue “in itself”, where one could contemplate the ambivalence.

    Underlying all this, I would guess that in most people’s propensity toward schizoid or depressive ways of looking at things, temperament precedes ideology.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I worry this is, as you somewhat say, one-sided. For instance, you ask ““What difference does any medical advance make if it’ll increasingly be the monopoly of the rich?” Because it may nevertheless save (i.e. extend) my life? Or substantially reduce my suffering in various ways? Because it already has on several occasions? You say that medical advances ‘will be increasingly’ the monopoly of the rich – implying that they are not entirely the monopoly of the rich.

      • Russ says:

        Yes, they’re not yet entirely the monopoly of the rich, but will soon become that. (I’m talking about America; the neoliberal onslaught may be somewhat slower in Britain or Canada. I don’t know as much about that though what I hear about Cameron’s “austerity” doesn’t sound much better than what’s going down here.)

        We have a permanent depression setting in, the normalization of 20%+ unemployment, and it’s clear the kleptocracy views the health care system as nothing but a rent extraction machine. The proposed policy is to use the IRS as a strong-arm goon to extract protection money in exchange for a worthless piece of paper, while there will be no cost controls or realistic “regulatory” constraints on the health insurance rackets.

        Under those malevolent circumstances, it’s hard to imagine how, for as long as this system endures, the actual care available to the non-rich won’t approach the null set.

        For example, barring some radical change in financial prospects, I don’t expect anything in system medicine other than the emergency room (if that) to be available to me or to most people I know, say ten years from now.

        That’s one of the reasons I’m learning what I can about herbal medicine.

        So yes, I oppose redistribution of wealth upward in all its forms, including the use of public money for alleged social goods which will really be rationed by ability to pay in an extremely wealth-concentrated circumstance.

        The kind of America of which that isn’t true would be one which took the morally, rationally, and fiscally obvious step of instituting single-payer (if not full socialized medicine; I think the former would probably be sufficient). The fact that instead all government and business cadres including the corporate liberals combined to push through a health racket bailout centered on a gangster mandate proves the terminal malevolence of this system. So there’s no reason at all to expect any “better angels” to ever arise out of it, or for what little residual succor there is for the non-rich to endure for long.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        And for the rest of the world, for more than the next decade? You talk as though the tendency can only be for workers to get less and less, which if true wouldn’t explain how healthcare ever became accessible to them in the first place. You talk about what the kleptocracy wants and intends, but there are other social forces and they can have big effects as well. You talk as though the present economic period will never end, even though it has arisen partly through enormously influential but largely unexpected events.

      • Russ says:

        In just a few sentences there you accuse me of both thinking the trend is unchangeable and that I think it is signifcantly changing.

        (BTW, I’m not intending to come across with a tone of asperity in this debate; I like the clash of viewpoints and the stimulus to thought.)

        In fact, all the mid-century liberal advances were part of the cheap oil surplus. With Peak Oil, that period has come to an end. That’s part of why the power structure, in the 70s, switched over from “normal” exploitation (which could include the concessions that enabled the rise of a mass middle class) to neoliberal kleptocracy (whereby those concessions are being rolled back and that middle class is being liquidated).

        So in that sense, everything has changed politically. The kleptocratic process is intended to be terminal toward the intended refeudalization. (So that’s my answer regarding the rest of the world. Just as every power elite everywhere is part of the same global assault, every non-elite is the same intended serf, however advanced the liquidation process is in any particular country. And that’s the part I think is intended to be unchanging.)

        At the same time, physical resource limits are imposing a great change, the end of “growth”. A different way of putting what I said above is that it was easier for the corporatists to concede more wealth equality when the pie was growing, thanks to cheap plentiful oil. But now, with Peak Oil, the pie must contract, and the oil surplus recede, back to history’s normal economic course, that prior to the fossil fuel age.

        (I’ve come to be interested in anarchism by an indirect path. As a Peak Oiler I’ve been interested in economic and social relocalization, which Peak Oilers believe will be imposed by physical reality regardless of political intent. But many think it’s best to prepare for this and commence relocalization ahead of time, in a deliberate manner.

        Coming from Britain you may have heard of Transition Towns. I’m not an expert on it, and I get the sense that’s it’s middle-class oriented, but still the basic idea is to relocalize, de-size, deconcentrate, and decentralize economically, socially, and culturally.

        There’s controversy over to what extent this relocalization should be explicitly political as well. But to me it’s obvious that in the face of an increasingly aggressive kleptocracy determined to maintain its centralized power and economic structure, it would be folly not to organize things on a political basis as well.

        So what kind of politics are we talking about here?Decentralization, worker control, everyone needing to be a practical worker, everything organized on the council level – it’s clearly anarchist politics.)

      • lukeroelofs says:

        Fair enough; you may be right. The following claims all seem highly probable:
        i. that oil availability will begin to decline in the near future,
        ii. that this will tend to make energy less available,
        iii. that energy availability has a massive effect on general economic prosperity,
        iv. and that economic prosperity has a massive effect on political and social conditions.

        But on the other hand, the following things seem much more open questions:
        a. that economic prosperity has a stronger effect than all other influences on social and political conditions,
        b. that energy availability has a strong effect on economic prosperity than any all other factors,
        c. that no alternative source of energy can replace oil.

        Even suppose you convince me that each of these wins balance of probabilities, say 70% likely, the conjunction of all of them is then only about 35% probable. In fact, I probably wouldn’t give any of them more than 50% probability, based on what I currently know.

        Now, given that scientific research may play a big role in these three questions (e.g. discovering new ways to supply energy, or to improve economic output without increasing resource input), I don’t think we should write off the products of scientific research as something that can’t significantly benefit most people.

  2. Russ says:

    Well, (c) is simple physics. It took tremendous energy over billions of years to create the concentrated energy of the fossil fuel hoard we’re now drawing down, more than is in the hoard itself. It always takes more energy to concentrate energy than will be contained in the resultant concentration. And the industrial revolution has been the result of the concentrated energy of fossil fuels, which are the only available concentrations that can do so much work so efficiently. It’s simply physically impossible to find some magic technology which will do the same for e.g. sunlight.

    So if “replacing oil” means finding an energy source which can sustain civilization at anything remotely like today’s level of energy consumption, the chance of that is precisely zero. That’s according to physical science.

    Regarding (B), since you used the qualitative terms “prosperity” and “improve economic output without increasing resource input”, I’m not sure exactly what you mean. But if you mean according to standard quantitative measures of production, consumption, and “growth” (which are no metrics of my definition of prosperity), then again it can’t be done without cheap, plentiful fossil fuels. The EROEI is far too poor, not to mention the depletion of specifically necessary metals.

    If on the other hand we’re defining prosperity more in terms of spiritual, social, cultural, and political quality of life, there’s certainly sufficient energy for everyone to have Enough materially. We can live as human citizens, but not as Western style “consumers”.

    So if by (A) you’re referring to the desperate impulse among the collapsing Western middle class to find a way to prop itself up economically, including the malevolent way such beleaguered middle classes have reacted in historically similar situations, then I agree this doesn’t have to be the arbiter of what happens. At any rate, I hope we can figure out an alternative path which can be politically inspiring to enough people.

    I guess the dilemma is how to convince people raised on the lies of the bourgeois ideology (the “American Dream”, here in America) that “growth” is finished, the middle class existence is no longer tenable physically or politically, but that we can transform ourselves to a way of life just as fulfilling as what was hoped for in any previous dream, if we take back the country from those who are stealing it and reconstitute our economy along lines which are simultaneously more modest (producing “less stuff” and distributing it less widely) and far more rich (as everyone who actually works receives more of what he materially needs for less work, than under the kleptocratic dispensation).

    On the other hand, to trust in the current dispensation, including its research and “innovation”, I guess we’ll see how much e.g. expropriating yet more African farmland and burning the food grown there to power Western automobiles “benefits most people”. I offer that as a seemingly extreme but really typical example of how this system allocates its “research” and the output of this research. It’s self-evident that this is what Western governments will continue to do for as long as they can.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      (c) is not simple physics, it’s complex physics. Simple physics is that the energy that reaches the earth from the sun is about ten thousand times that which all of human civilisation expends. Whether there’s any way to turn some greater percentage of that into usable electricity is complex physics. Simple physics is also that e=mc^2, and so that humanity’s energy use for a year could be satisfied with roughly 1 kilogram of matter, if that whole kilogram was converted to energy. Whether there’s a viable way to turn enough mass into energy by nuclear fission or fusion is complex physics.

      Regarding (b) an example of what I meant by increasing output without increasing resource input would be a medical discovery that reduced the frequency with which people got sick and died young, or a more equitable distribution of food that made people more productive by reducing childhood malnutrition, or roads that allowed things to be transported more efficiently, or something else. Or the replacement of entertainment methods which are energy-intensive (like joyriding) with ones that are information-intensive (like board games). I’m happy to be remain ambiguous between ‘real prosperity’ (people’s happiness) and ‘GDP/capita’, because I think often GDP/capita can be increased by things other than energy.

      • Russ says:

        Regarding (b) an example of what I meant by increasing output without increasing resource input would be a medical discovery that reduced the frequency with which people got sick and died young, or a more equitable distribution of food that made people more productive by reducing childhood malnutrition, or roads that allowed things to be transported more efficiently, or something else.

        Yes, and there is where I think political improvements can achieve all we need with what we already technologically have, while no level of technological advance under the existing system will achieve anything other than to intensify monopoly, expropration, and the spread of misery “upward” as all but a miniscule handful of gangsters are liquidated downward.

        Which is what I originally meant in expressing skepticism regarding further scientific research. Like so many other things which look intrinsically benevolent in an ivory tower, removed from the real world context, it becomes less so in practice if undertaken under kleptocratic auspices.

        So that’s why these days my default tends to be, political transformation first, even at the temporary expense of things which may be theoretically beneficial but are not so under this dispensation.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        “there is where I think…no level of technological advance under the existing system will achieve anything other than to intensify monopoly”
        While I think that technological advance has already demonstrably acheived things other than that. You either disagree or think that this was an anomalous situation due to the availability of fossil fuels, which I think is a possibility but nowhere near clearly evidenced or proven. So I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  3. To remain non reactive to the pain inflicted on humanity& this planet and the neglect possible of the human potential requires a lot of neurotic sociopathic delusion energy.

    It is NOT a passive attitude.

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