Why is sectarian animosity such a salient feature of American left-wing politics? The bitterness of the discord often surprises casual observers, who don’t understand how it can be that people lash out most forcefully at others whose convictions seem, to an outsider, to be rather similar.
Freud theorized that such animosity was a general phenomenon of all human associations, calling it “the narcissism of minor differences.” Here’s the relevant passage from Civilization and Its Discontents:
It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other — like the Spaniards and Portuguese, for instance, the North Germans and South Germans, the English and Scotch, and so on. I gave this phenomenon the name of `the narcissism of minor differences,’ a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier.
Freud thought the resulting harshness and strife were human givens, rooted in biology:
There are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform. Over and above the tasks of restricting the instincts, which we are prepared for, there forces itself on our notice the danger of a state of things which might be termed `the psychological poverty of groups.’
Freud’s examples of afflicted groups were those that were national-territorial and those that were religious.
Religious wars — wars between groups whose branch dogmas diverge from a common trunk — run rife through history. The great Christian example is the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century, which led to some eight million dead not only from warfare but famine and plague. About 20 percent of the German-speaking peoples perished. The animosity between Shia and Sunni Muslims is well known. It may be that the religious dimension of sectarianism is fueled by its abstraction, since sectarian disputes are, at bottom, disputes over abstractions. I can perhaps demonstrate to you that the apples from Tree A are sweeter than those from Tree B — we can perform a double-blind test, or conduct a chemical analysis — but I cannot, in the same way, demonstrate that Jesus Christ was born to a virgin mother.
But sectarianism has a history on the political left that goes beyond theological or territorial disagreements.
One need only think of Stalinists and Trotskyists — or, even more sweepingly, of “even-numbered internationals,” as an old SDS colleague of red diaper origins used to refer, half-ironically, to the enemy. One thinks of ferocious antagonisms that developed in the Black Power movement of the late nineteen-sixties, and the feminist movement shortly thereafter, among others.
Indeed, movements that are visionary or revolutionary seem particularly prone to sectarianism. In The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968, an astute book on the Paris riots, authors Tom Nairn and Angelo Quattrocchi (a Scottish radical and an Italian radical, respectively) put their fingers on the psychologic of the sectarian fight over possession of a revolution that is only an abstraction — that is, not a realistic prospect. They cite Antonio Gramsci on the “strange logic of sectarianism,” which, among Marxists in particular, was internalized into a bottomless faith in organization, in the ability of the group to accomplish by sheer drive and hard energy all that ‘history’ is failing to do.
The fierce, arid tension of this subjectivity is then interpreted as the revolutionary spirit, the right fighting atmosphere. It appeals as the apparent contrary to the condition of the hated bourgeois society… This rigorous neo-puritanism offers personal salvation, as well as the promise of social revolution.
Sound familiar? Nairn and Quattrocchi continue,
This and all the other traits of sectarian Marxism indicated — its arrogance, its violent elitism, its instant and cutting condemnation of all deviations from the ‘line,’ its chronic substitution of insult for argument, its mystique of exclusive worker militancy, the cult of organization — reflect the basic, precarious defensiveness of such movements.
But why do revolutionaries go to war with each other over minor differences?
There seem to be two reasons.
First, there are group dynamics. Groups that to some degree overlap in their membership and concerns recruit from (more or less) the same population. They have to offer prospective recruits a reason to join, and stay bound to, one camp or the other. To do so, these groups draw sharp boundaries. They differentiate and repel in order to compete. Think, for example, of the ferocious animosities that develop between football rivals (Harvard-Yale, Cal-Stanford).
But there’s an even deeper dimension: the purity fetish. In order to become and remain loyalists, individuals stifle their ambivalences. They must line up with the team, or the leader, absolutely. For this imperative, there will be external incentives: If you don’t follow me, you’re a deserter, and I’ll have to shoot you. But there is also an internal process. Psychoanalysts have long described the process as splitting. When differences between X-ists and Y-ists grow salient, I may well feel beleaguered, dragged down, perhaps paralyzed by internal tensions. If I discover even a trace of Y-ism in my intimate feelings, I grow confused. William Butler Yeats wrote, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” We also make internecine warfare.
So I must suppress my doubts. The uglier the Y-ists look to me, the more effectively I must convince myself that my X-ism is pure. The tribe feels the need to purify itself of contaminants. Unity crusades benefit from xenophobic binges and vice versa.
Freud made this point in 1930:
The dream of a Germanic world-dominion called for anti-Semitism as its
complement; and it is intelligible that the attempt to establish a new, communist
civilization in Russia should find its psychological support in the persecution of
the bourgeois. One only wonders, with concern, what the Soviets will do after
they have wiped out their bourgeois.
Well, we never got to find out.
But back to the present.
Many activists and journalists of my acquaintance report a volume of intense hatred that came their way over recent weeks because, until she dropped out on March 5, they supported Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid. Most of these reports, as best I can judge, come from women. Here is one:
The other day, an AOC tweet appreciating Warren’s SNL skit got nasty responses from many Bernie-stans with tens of thousands of followers.
This is AOC, the person who is likely most responsible for saving his campaign after the heart attack.
I am now told on a regular basis that I want people to die.
I asked someone a question about their proposed strategy the other day (a known Bernie supporter) and two tweets later instead of answering the actual question they had turned to tweeting out my personal information and attacking me. They never answered the actual question; instead, it became a personal attack.
In the New York Times, Nellie Bowles reported on the viciousness of certain hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters. Many other examples could be found. Of course, Sanders enthusiasts are not uniquely responsible for such demoralizing rancor, such spewing of venom and threats. But at this moment in our perilous history, attention must be paid to why Democrats are so divided and what is to be done about it, particularly if — as some Sanders supporters have vowed — some on the left will not vote for any candidate other than their first choice.
The Sanders campaign has made much of its inclusiveness. But who is the “our” in “Our Revolution”? If Democratic voters in almost every primary prefer the “corporate hack” Joe Biden to the “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, what is to be done about those benighted voters? Can you be elected president of the United States without them? Have they all been misled by Wall Street? By corporate media? Given that Wall Street and corporate media exist and will not be wished away before November 8, what is to be done? Retreat to the destructive Green canard that — like Bush and Gore and Clinton and Trump — Biden and Trump are Tweedledee and Tweedledum?
Can a social movement commit to embracing a pluralist form of inclusive politics? The Bolshevik sleight-of-hand that some on the Democratic left seem to be proposing is a frivolous game. Bargain with Biden, absolutely; bargain for cabinet positions, sure; less important, but still symbolically useful, make platform demands. Make it altogether clear to the Democrats that they have not come all this way to see a resurrection of Robert Rubin/Timothy Geithner economics in Treasury.
It would not be accurate to blame the Democratic establishment for Biden’s victories, just as it would be neither cute, nor hip, nor revolutionary to sit out a Biden-Trump contest and heighten the risk that Donald Trump and his vicious, unscrupulous party will have four more years in which to wreck the republic. It would, in fact, be contemptuous of the people who would be most gravely harmed by his madness.
Bernie Sanders and his supporters have earned an honored place in history for moving the Democratic consensus to the left. Now is no time to let the narcissism of minor differences turn a promising moment for American progressives into yet another self-inflicted defeat for the American left. This is a moment of truth.
Todd Gitlin, the author of 16 books, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, teaches journalism, sociology, communications, and American studies at Columbia University. Follow him @toddgitlin