From radicalism and hedonism toward responsibility and purpose.
My journey into radical left-wing politics began in 2003 when studying for a BA in Video Production. It was a fun course where I could indulge my love for the movies and documentaries by debating, writing about, and making films. Politically speaking, 2003 was a particularly turbulent year. It was the year George W. Bush and Tony Blair went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and as a result, the political environment in the West was extremely polarised.
On my university course was a social science unit where we studied subjects such as ideology, postmodernism, and identity politics. Teaching the ideology part of this particular unit was a charismatic lecturer, who was a well-known figure locally on the radical left. Over time he and I became friendly, regularly meeting to talk political theory and news, not least about the war in Iraq. In that political climate and with the influence of my lecturer, I began to take an interest in left-wing politics and causes. This was no accident as the lecturer in question, a self-confessed Marxist, laced his lessons and our discussions with the perspectives of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
In such political climates, university campuses, particularly those housing the humanities and the arts, become hot spots for radical activism, my university was no different, and I was right in the middle of it all. In time I got to know all the ‘faces’ on the left in the local area; helped organise and attended rallies; went to, and arranged political meetings, was embarrassingly part of the first generation of social media warriors; and the films I made for my course and the essays I wrote were politically themed. I was the archetypal radical student.
I completed my undergraduate course in 2006 and was awarded a so-called ‘first class’ degree. Upon leaving university, I felt somewhat listless, and as the father of three-year-old twin boys a little dissatisfied with the opportunities the degree afforded me in the area I lived. Living on the south coast of England, I didn’t have the time or the finances to start at the bottom of the ladder in the media industry; an industry based primarily in the capital. After some deliberation, I decided to go back to university and study a masters degree. I enrolled on a course in Multimedia Marketing and completed it with a Merit award. Not long after finishing my masters I got a job with a small local firm working as a telemarketer.
During my time studying for my post-graduate degree and in my new job I retained a passion for activism, continuing to mix with the radical left, but now increasingly so the Labour Party, too. I remained very fond of political theory, consuming the works of thinkers across the political spectrum. I devoured political news and in time joined the Labour Party.
Eventually, my reading brought me to George Orwell. George Orwell was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, who was vehemently opposed to totalitarianism but also an outspoken supporter of socialism. His work, The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, is a non-fiction book of two halves. The first half documents his sociological investigations into the bleak living conditions among the working class in the industrial north of England before World War II. The second half is a long essay on his middle-class upbringing, and the development of his political conscience, questioning British attitudes towards socialism. He highlights why socialists fail to win over working-class people because of a failure to communicate clearly, instead preferring to revel in their idiosyncrasies, debating the minutiae of this or that obscure theory while avoiding the day-to-day political issues about which people care. This part of the book had a profound impact on me and brought forth to my conscious thinking questions about my own motivations for adopting the cause of socialism. My political views and life perspectives began to change.
Thinking back this shift was likely the result of a combination of several factors; my job, I had by now moved into a managerial position, my role as a father and provider, and Orwell’s writings, all of which had forced me to ask myself some challenging questions. Why was it that I adopted a socialist ideology so readily? How much of myself was constructed on deception I told to myself and to others? Was it the reason I drank heavily? Is it all related? I pondered on these questions constantly.
Despite this questioning, I carried on with activism. It wasn’t until 2016 when a significant personal event upended my life did the uncertainty manifest so much that I attempted to answer the questions. I wasn’t being honest with myself. I realised that a lot of my activism had been attention-seeking mechanisms for my father.
My mother and father divorced when I was four-years-old, following his affair. My father moved in with and married the woman with whom he had the affair, taking on her children. In time having a child together. For many years my father and I did not have the greatest relationship, as I felt myself to be second best to his new family. Moreover, my father lived a very aspirational upper-middle-class life, while my mother and I were very much working class, despite my mother’s desire to transcend her social position. I was sub-consciously motivated by the need to demonstrate to my father opposition to his values. The values I believed had rejected me. Nothing I believed achieved this aim better than adopting and demonstrating my allegiance to the cause of the working class, a cause my father and his family, conservatives and royalists all, opposed. It worked and following some initial conflict got us talking again. The relationship thawed and we began spending time with one another and since have developed a good relationship.
My relationship with my father I soon came to understand was just one reason for me adopting this persona. Of greater significance was the realisation that I had been living in fear for years. I was scared to operate in the world with the rules that others lived by. Because I was scared of failure in the world as it is, I projected a persona that rejected that world. I thought if I couldn’t get on with the same rules as everyone else, I would deny them and live according to a new set of rules that better suited me. I figured it was better to reject the world I felt had rejected me and create a fantasy of striving for a brave new world where I understood the rules better than most. It was the same fear and confusion that caused me to drink more than I should. Radicalism and hedonism both were vices that buried what I came to understand as ‘my truth’.
It all became clear; my activism was often virtue signalling, activism I engaged in to demonstrate the supposed superiority of my values as I rejected the dominant values of society. It was a cold and stark realisation. I can only describe the immensity of this moment by likening it to standing naked on top of a mountain being lashed by the elements, or as a raw nerve exposed to the world, sensitive to the slightest touch. It was excruciatingly painful for some time, but once fully digested and understood, incredibly liberating. I was hiding from my fears and shortcomings with dogma and drink, rather than using them as barometers for where I was in life. Eventually, I realised that I could live free of dogma, I understood why I drank, and for the first time, I was free to discover my true self. The real me could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be, so long as I was completely honest with myself. I developed a near-obsession with the notion of truth.
At this time I also began to question the motivations of many other people I knew who had adopted a life of radicalism. I came to understand that many such people who, like me, gravitated in this direction are damaged in some way and radicalism offers them, at least on the surface, a purpose and a meaning to life. Like hedonism, radicalism can provide cover for something missing in our lives. Viewing life through this new lens I no longer trusted many of the elder statesmen on the left as it seemed to me they were compelled to live as they were as life offered them no positive alternatives or opportunities. They had vested interests in building their sectarian groups because, to be frank, their lives depended on it.
To live a life of radicalism, often, is to corrupt oneself, to hide from and lie to oneself and others. As it is with people who drink excessively and/or take drugs. They aren’t happy. They sell themselves short. Something is missing from their lives, as it was mine.
Radicalism and hedonism are too often seductive vices for the foolish, the misled, and the weak. When radicalism promises salvation and hedonism offers oblivion, they can so easily usurp us. Egos can be built on this mindset and a lifestyle of inadequacy, weakening one’s ability to adapt to the adversities of life, succumbing to hedonism or the out-of-the-box identity of radicalism, never tasting the success of fulfilling one’s true potential. To live this way requires less self-discipline as one ‘fights the good fight’ and/or follows ‘the road of excess’, but in time is brutal to mind and spirit, and drains one’s soul.
The radical left and the pursuit of hedonism were dead ends for me, as they are for many others. By finding purpose and taking full responsibility for the direction of my own life, I finally understand what it means to live authentically.