I’ve been thinking about guilt, atonement and solidarity recently. Much of it has been brought about due to deaths of people that I cared for, while some of it is feeling responsible for things honestly beyond my control and my taking responsibility for it. That something is beyond my control seems to be irrelevant to me. I often find myself taking moral responsibility for things that others believe and act upon and as such, I realised that I am actually atoning for things that I have not done, would never do, yet I feel the need to fix, to repair and to create a different world where things that destroy individual and collective humanity and the planet we live on, simply just don’t happen. In many senses this is due to my belief in the importance of solidarity, which for me is an essential moral tenet to build a better future all …
In many ways, I think that there is a part of me that refuses to “grow up” and to concede that these things are beyond my control and I refuse to just get on surviving like most other people. That does not make me better or even “good”, it is just a driving force in my behaviour and actions. I wish that it made my life better or actually helped others beyond a small easing of their pain, but I understand that I cannot fix everything; quite honestly, I cannot fix anything by myself (I cannot even fix my life, how can I fix anything else) … positive change requires a wider collective movement by the majority of people. All I can do is to help empower others to fight, nothing more. I cannot remove their humanity by making decisions for themselves or force them to act. That would be me removing their autonomy and I will not do that. That is why solidarity is so deeply essential for any collective action; empathy, empowerment, and fighting together to build a better future.
I cannot help but wonder if my need for atonement derives from the Jewish religion, I was raised in. My parents raised me in the faith and it was more than simply being culturally Jewish. On Yom Kippur, there is a prayer called the Al Chet (this is said 10 times during Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur) in which Jews confess to not only their personal sins, but all the sins that they could possibly have done (it is a list of sins initially of the gravest sins and then partially by category of sins) and hit their chests while confessing. I always viewed it as a social form of confession, taking responsibility for humanity’s sins not only your own personal ones – as a sort of universal confession.
I don’t know if other Jews view it in this manner, but that is my own perspective. Somehow, to me, it is a prayer taking responsibility for the actions and thoughts of humanity as a whole. I have long wondered whether this is the basis of my feeling responsible for everything and my desire to fix it. I don’t believe in god at all, I am a very secular Jew and hence I am not driven by doing things in the name of a god I do not believe in. I was speaking with a friend recently and I was discussing my need for atonement; she was raised as a Catholic and is, like me, completely secular and she assured me that she is also constantly atoning. We were both wondering about the impact of certain aspects of the religion we were raised in. But the thing about atonement is that while you are doing it individually, it actually has a social component to it in this context.
But what is more interesting is the seeming acceptance of the social responsibility incumbent to not only apologise for what I have done personally, but added atoning and trying to make things right and this makes absolutely no sense except in the context of the social relationship between human beings. This goes well beyond my personal responsibility for my own actions; it includes the actions of others and it probably has conditioned my reactions to oppression, repression and aggression which often start with anger but I channel the anger into fighting back. But an individual fighting alone is never enough … you need a collective response
Solidarity and basic ethical and moral principles …
While writing this I realised that I cannot make a general statement about solidarity; what does drive actions of solidarity? While I can say that I stand in solidarity, why do I do so? Why do others do the same or don’t? I stand in solidarity because I find oppression and repression appalling; I have always abhorred bullies and dehumanisation. I wonder often whether people unable to feel sympathy (empathy requires a higher level of morality) are sociopathic or simply whether they are able to make a decision that what is happening is not relevant to them or that gross oppression is okay if there are higher (or, in my opinion, lower) considerations.
Do they see others as less than human (with themselves being fully human)? Certainly, that must be the case or they could not ignore and further the constant oppression and repression that many people live with on a regular basis. The ability of white supremacists to justify their beliefs and actions has to be based upon the belief that racialised and marginalised people are somehow less a person than they are; otherwise, how could they continue in their beliefs and actions? Is it the case that their individual valuation relies on the dehumanisation of others? This must be the case in a society where those in power treat (and this often takes the form of ideology as well) those that are oppressed or are unlucky enough to be dependent on wages and benefits as though they are responsible for their poverty, repression, and oppression; blaming the victim is a component part of oppression. You know the nonsense: “the poorest are lazy and dissolute, disabled people live off of society and don’t contribute, women choose to work in jobs that are “low-skilled” and low paid and demand society adapt to their childcare needs, LGBT+ are perverts trying to groom innocent children.” We know what is said about people of colour and I refuse to repeat this hate here; but racism is dehumanisation of people of colour and other marginalised groups and people of minority religious beliefs. What do those that accept these beliefs and actions gain from it? One more inch on the social ladder cannot be enough to support oppression, repression and individual and social violence against oppressed people … can it?
Clearly, I stand in solidarity with oppressed people because it is right, but what makes it right? Where does our understanding of what is right and appropriate develop and why do we feel like something is wrong, heinous or even evil? Morality is a social concept as in the absence of society what does morality refer to? And as a social concept, it derives from the context of the societies we live in and there are many things that may influence how people respond to inequality, oppression and repression. Many people abrogate their moral choices to some religion or to some clergyman, that is their choice. Others develop their own code of moral conduct; I am not a philosopher although I have in my life studied moral philosophy and I am certain that my moral beliefs are sophomoric and underdeveloped. They seem so insufficient … what is the relationship of the social reality on individuals and vice versa? How does the interrelationship between individuals and society condition our moral beliefs and actions?
I want to create a better world where there is no oppression, repression and violent aggression. The question for me is does my need to change the world derive from my personal sense of guilt, my need to atone which are very micro and personal issues? Atonement while it can be individual is larger than that for me; my atonement blends over into a more general level. I not only feel guilt, I not only feel the need to apologise (words are cheap; actions are what matters), I feel the need to correct the situation or redress it. This makes me wonder if my personal version of solidarity derives from this very basic sense of individual responsibility towards the social reality in which we live.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while; it is probably very superficial morally, but it is my code of morality that I have developed and it is based upon my interpretation of the religion in which I was raised, and also my own personal experiences and my empathy and solidarity with others facing oppression, repression and individual and social aggression. So, does my moral code begin with me as an individual relating to my guilt and atonement or does my universal solidarity force me to act individually as well as socially? What is the interrelation between individual codes of morality and the struggle for a better world for all? Ask any leftist and they will tell you that collective action is essential to change anything enough to benefit the majority and we are right. Yet my individual code of morality does impact on my struggle for a better world and oppression, repression and violence has impacted my own moral development. They are interrelated, we are a human collective and we cannot stand apart from the collective … yet the ruling classes in our societies only talk about individualism (and they, of course, blame us as individuals for failing in the context of the rules in these societies).
Why am I thinking of this and not able to think of anything else today? It is a whole series of things which started me thinking about my reaction to things. There are so many other things to write about; the world is a mess, fascism has revived, there are constant attacks on those without wealth, on women, on disabled people, on people of colour and LGBT+ people, yet I have spent the last few weeks (not only in seemingly endless political meetings, but between them) thinking of what the hell is driving me and my responses; it feels self-indulgent and it is, but I cannot stop thinking about it. Perhaps my old therapist would say I am ruminating …
I realise that on the other hand, I already feel solidarity for people but something happens which triggers my individual guilt and hence I feel the need to atone for what I perceive as a wrong. It doesn’t change the wrong that has happened, but I actively need to do something about it.
The collective and the individual
Let me provide an example. I will begin by contextualising my day, it started with an early meeting with a disabled people’s activist group, then I went to a memorial service for a mentor which had been very kind to me and which I had to leave early to go to the next meeting which was on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As most on the left know, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a toxic issue for the left; this is due to several things. On the one hand there are residual Stalinists (who seem to confuse Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship with Stalin and the Soviet Union), there are the Campists (who divide the world into zones of power and will oppose NATO on principle; it has never occurred to them that you can oppose NATO and oppose dictatorships somehow) and weirdly the pacifists (who want the war ended now) and on the other hand there are leftists that recognise the self-determination, agency, and right of self-defence of Ukrainians. They would argue that it is up to Ukrainians to determine their future and who is in political control. So, Ukrainians first need to get Putin and the Russian militaries out of the country and then fight for a different future for the people in the country.
Essentially, while most leftists will say they recognise the right of Ukrainians to self-determination, they do not recognise the right of Ukrainians to self-defence (and their right to get weapons from wherever they can). Even more, while they give lip service to the right of Ukrainians to self-determination, they refuse to recognise the agency of Ukrainians to actually chose the manner of their self-determination. So, that is not self-determination; it is bounded – even worse it is bounded by so-called needs and desires of the Russian government or by their hatred of NATO.
So, I found myself in a meeting which I helped organise and to which I invited a member from Ukrainian Sotsialniy Rukh to speak. What I witnessed chilled and appalled me: justifications for an invasion of a sovereign country by blaming the whole thing on NATO (which is impressive as it wasn’t NATO which invaded Ukraine), the accusation against all Ukrainians that they are fascist (so does a group of fascists mean that the whole country is fascist think what that means for the US when fascists are actually running at least one state; there are fascists in government in a number of countries), the fact that Putin will never leave unless Ukraine concedes territory (so they accept that Ukraine must be divided up into Russian zones of control and Ukrainian zones of control), that we need to end the war now (money is being wasted spent on war, the military industrial complex is making profits) irrespective of the occupation of Ukrainian land and the subjugation of Ukrainian people.
I sat there with 2 other people that shared my position (solidarity with Ukrainian people, recognise their right to self-determination, self-defence and their agency to determine their future) looking around in horror. We argued against the other side and stood with the comrade from Ukraine in solidarity. For about 30 seconds, I honestly considered taking my computer and camera from the meeting to spare the speaker from Ukraine; but that would have been extremely childish (ignoring the obvious censorship involved) – since it was running on my tech, that was possible. But I couldn’t do that; that would be acting like those whose politics I detested. Moreover, I would not leave the comrade from Ukraine sitting there shocked and angry from what they heard. So, I waited the meeting out so that I could leave. The self-congratulatory attitude by the other side nauseated me. I went home and contacted the Ukrainian comrade and apologised to not only them but to the whole Sotsіalniy Rukh. That night, as a form of atonement, I formally joined the Ukrainian Solidarity Campaign (USC); I’ve helped out in the past, but I am already doing far too much political organising as it is (there are only 24 hours in a day), working locally, regionally and nationally on community organising, women’s issues, the disabled people’s movement, Palestine solidarity, LGBT+ support, etc. The next morning, I received a query from someone from in the USC asking what happened to their friend and comrade the night before which I had to respond to and apologise again. I realised that there was no way to make it better for the comrade from Ukraine …
The individual and the collective
I am also sad and grieving. In the past few months, several people that I cared for have passed away. 4 of them were women who I learned so much from, both as an economist and as a political activist. I mourn that they are no longer in my life; but I still have the knowledge that they passed onto me. I am well aware that death is a part of life; I am at that age when this is becoming more common. You come to terms with it, but that doesn’t eliminate the grief and pain.
I just heard yesterday about the death of my friend Fred … he had a rough life but decided to fight for others rather than himself. I tried for years to support him. After many years of trying, I found myself unable to cope with him (I was not in great mental and physical health) and to help him cope with their loneliness and self-destructive behaviour, his refusal to deal with his health issues, his inability to take care of himself, his constant need for support and encouragement. He was a trade unionist and a Marxist who fought the good fight; he also loved music and I learned so much from him. He refused to believe that he made a difference in other people’s lives; when reminded of all the positive things he did in his life, he often acted with surprise that others noticed. This person was a friend and comrade and I couldn’t cope with them and their needs, I felt overwhelmed and exhausted.
Yesterday, I just found out that he had died in his apartment alone and I feel guilty and I think that I have failed this person. So many people tried to help him; yet I feel that I failed, despite there being little I could do. I could have given more of my time, yet I didn’t and despite the guilt, there is no atoning that can be done to make things better. The person is gone and I feel that maybe, just maybe if I tried harder, if I didn’t give up, that would not be the case.
This is irrational, but he is in my thoughts and he is one of the reasons for this piece. I simply cannot stop thinking that I could have done more. I am grieving him and I am grieving that I failed him; I am thankful that others had stepped in when I could not do it anymore. For all my vaunted moral ideas, I failed … and that makes me feel guilt and shame. If I fail individually, does it undermine all my beliefs or are my moral beliefs far too rigid and it is impossible to fulfil them? I also cannot take away a person’s agency, even if I know that they are not fully capable (for any number of reasons) to make good decisions. But is that simply justifying my failure or is it a recognition that I cannot as an individual fix anything; that people must be able to make their decisions contextually or I am removing their autonomy (which would have made him even more miserable and denied his humanity to make whatever decisions they can make given the circumstances).
Some final thoughts
Am I caught between a rock and a hard place? At the moment, I am unable to tell what is grief and guilt and what is more important in a collective context to ensure empowerment and solidarity to support each other, but not dictate to others (we have had more than enough of that honestly; learning from the errors of the past is essential to not make those errors again!) … I have no answers, just lots of questions … how much of what I am thinking about is due to my own individual beliefs that are nothing but a guide which I often fail (I am human after all)? As an individual my actions are limited. How much of the misery that humans inflict on each is due to societies driven by anything but human need which require the existence of divide and rule ideology? What I do know is that we cannot simply act as individuals to address the situation; that since our problems are collective, morality and social change require collective actions. But that doesn’t help much with my individual guilt to be honest…
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