On Mental Health and Revolutionary Discipline

Paul Dawson

[W]hereas bourgeois discipline is mechanical and authoritarian, socialist discipline is autonomous and spontaneous… whoever is a socialist or wants to become one does not obey: he commands himself, he imposes a rule of life on his impulses, on his disorderly aspirations… The discipline imposed on citizens by the bourgeois state makes them into subjects, people who delude themselves that they exert an influence on the course of events. The discipline of the Socialist Party makes the subject into a citizen: a citizen who is now rebellious, precisely because he has become conscious of his personality and feels it is shackled and cannot freely express itself in the world.

Antonio Gramsci

In the time of coronavirus, when many of us have been isolated from friends, family and comrades for weeks or even months on end, the question of how to handle issues of mental health is more urgent than it has ever been before. The young people in Amerika especially suffer under high rates of mental illness; depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation are up across the board. These illnesses pose special problems for socialist organizers, nearly all of whom are millennials or younger and thus members of the hardest-hit generations.

Liberal politicians and the crooked news media have peddled false cures throughout this mental-illness epidemic in collaboration with the predatory “self-care” commodities industry. As many comrades have already noted, the liberal “self-care” and “self-help” approach to mental illness is individualistic and alienating. It cannot resolve the contradictions that lead to depression and anxiety: it can only hide them and compartmentalize them. Our media and our politicians choose to push these methods on the masses either because they want to wash their hands of our suffering and reject any responsibility to ensure our wellbeing, or simply because they lack imagination and cannot think beyond the petty trends of liberal ideology.

We revolutionaries ought to thoroughly reject these narratives, though many of us have internalized them to some extent— when you’re in the grip of a depressive episode, it’s all too easy to push your comrades away, to isolate and exclude yourself from organizing work, and to rationalize this behavior as some form of “self-care”. I myself have done this at times; I’ve seen many capable and talented comrades do it. It only makes things worse for the depressed individual, and it demoralizes our fellow organizers. Sometimes the end result is the abandonment of organizing work altogether.

But if people who are suffering from mental illness are not supported by their peers, then the whole organization is equally to blame for their dereliction. This is why so many calls have gone out among the Left promoting “community care”.

It is correct to advocate for community care over self-care, but it’s another thing to put community care into practice. We need to give active empathy to our comrades and check in with them regularly; when they show signs of apathy, anxiety or despair we should directly engage with them and take concrete steps to resolve the situation. This can involve any number of specific actions to relieve specific needs. If comrades are going hungry, we ought to feed them. If they are lonely, we ought to spend time with them. If comrades are struggling financially, we should make every effort to relieve their financial burdens. We cannot afford to remain oblivious to one another’s pain— if we don’t even support our fellow revolutionaries, how will we serve the masses?

But when we consider the onslaught of mental illness among the people of our country, we also must conclude that it’s not simply a problem of isolated individuals with faulty brain chemistry; it’s a social problem which is rooted in social conditions. We are not born broken. Capitalism is breaking us. Going to therapy once a week and taking antidepressants is not going to solve this problem, and even if every person in the empire began practicing community care, the “deaths of despair” would persist.

If you work in a coal mine and begin to develop black lung, visiting a doctor regularly will not keep you from dying of pneumonia; community care isn’t going to save you either, at least not on its own. You have to change the conditions within the mine.

We find ourselves in a similar situation. This is why we must begin the work of building a better world.

It’s hard to get up and engage in organizational work when we are filled with anxiety and despair, but it’s absolutely necessary. If we excuse ourselves from revolutionary activity because we suffer, we are only preventing ourselves from ending the conditions under which we suffer. As Mao said, revolution is not a dinner party. The road to it is paved with trauma and pain. But we’re already afflicted by trauma; we’re already suffering pain. The system of capitalism and the murderous institutions which uphold it are beating us down— they will beat us all to death if they are allowed to continue. The only question is whether you will choose to lie down and accept your fate, or rise up and fight through the tears.

I hope that we will all choose the latter path. I am trying every day to follow it, though, to adapt a famous slogan, my efforts are often neither sufficiently “red” nor “expert”. But I am certain that through constant and disciplined study and praxis, they can be. Every person has enormous potential within themselves; when we organize with our comrades, that potential increases exponentially.

Revolutionary discipline is the method by which we harness this great potential. It’s not merely a matter of showing up on time to meetings, or reading theory every day, or anything so individualized: it is a system of action and thought, constructed collaboratively upon generations of revolutionary experience, which allows us to understand and exercise power. And through our application of this discipline, we will come to find that the situation is not as hopeless as it seemed. Even day as we work together, we will grow a little stronger than we were before, a little smarter, a little more revolutionary. Before long, we will be an unstoppable force. With the guidance and leadership of the masses of working-class and colonized people, we can accomplish anything: our liberation rests firmly within our grasp.

As we study the histories of our revolutionary forbears, it might seem as if the leaders of past generations are superhuman, as if they were unique geniuses who possessed some inherent quality that made them superior. We shouldn’t think of them in this way. Remember that the masses are the true makers of history; Lenin, Mao and Sankara were only human. But they dedicated their lives to the liberatory struggle for power, and steeled themselves with the discipline required to take it.

So how do we use this discipline?

Revolutionary discipline should be a dialectical process rather than a rigid and static doctrine. The first step is self-criticism and mutual criticism among comrades, through which we can examine the flaws in our theory and praxis so as to improve them. Then we have to take what we learn and rigorously apply it in all spheres of our lives. The revolutionary path is not a day job— we can’t just hang up our caps at the end of the “shift” and forget about it until Monday morning. If you’re going to hang out with your liberal friends, why not talk about political theory and form a study group? If you’re going to shoot the shit with your coworkers on break, why not invite them out to do mass work? If you’re going to spend your time watching videos online, why not watch videos about Communist theory? If you’re going to do anything, why not make it revolutionary? If you’re going to be anything, why not be a revolutionary?

I have heard some comrades express that they “don’t want their lives to revolve around organizing”. Certainly, not everyone who participates in the revolution will be a full-time revolutionary, and nobody is asking comrades to dedicate one hundred percent of their time and energy to work and study. But if you consider yourself a Communist, if you recognize the necessity for socialism or barbarism, then perhaps you should ask yourself what is most important to you. Some comrades seem to be afraid of revolutionary discipline: they think that it’ll bind them to commitments that they would rather not uphold. But ultimately, it is far more freeing than binding. When we’re not practicing revolutionary discipline, we’re simply allowing ourselves to be carried down a path that we do not choose, to passively accept the discipline and mandates of bourgeois hegemony.

I know how easy it can be to accept this path, especially under the influence of mental illness: I myself have major depression, and I experience severe depressive episodes from time to time. During these dark periods, I try to remember what Huey P. Newton wrote in his book “Revolutionary Suicide”:

[I]t is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions. This possibility is important, because much in human existence is based upon hope without any real understanding of the odds. Indeed, we are all—Black and white alike—ill in the same way, mortally ill. But before we die, how shall we live?

This choice is up to you.