ROAPE contributor, Yusuf Serunkuma, reviews a new book on the loneliness of the left. Left Alone is a highly original collection of urgent stories, reflections and short essays from around the world on the lived experiences of left loneliness from a variety of genres and left political currents. Serunkuma praises a volume that capture struggles in the trenches of authoritarianism, and on the streets of the capitalist world.
By Yusuf Serunkuma
In all struggles—before mass consciousness and awakening—strugglers, fighters, resistors or peasant/organic intellectuals have tended to start and sustain the struggles either alone or with very few comrades in arms. A few comrades. Because these moments tend to be long and winding, they come with corrosive spells of loneliness—and are often exhausting. The toll could be either mental or material or both. With the exception of openly violent exploitation (such as 1880s colonialism or earlier slave trade), where among the victims, the openness of violence itself mobilised resistance, most anti-exploitation struggles—especially against deftly disguised, fetishized and structured modes of exploitation—have fought to mobilise mass consciousness. A few inquisitive folks are able to make sense of the hidden hand of authoritarianism and extraction, which renders them enemies of the machine. On the other hand, living from amongst the oppressors—say in capitals in Europe and the United States—among the profiteers of colonialism, capitalism, slavery, apartheid, wars entrepreneurs, is even more lonesome, and outright dangerous. This is especially because the exploiters—as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman told us in 1988—tend to control the ways in which their exploitative practices are received in the public domain. This is the painful fate of Julian Assange or former UK labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
The same is true with present-day authoritarianisms across the world. Because of the violence cultivated within the public through a fear industry that includes killings, abductions, torture and arrests, entire publics are rendered helpless and afraid. In turn only a few bold individuals—almost considered reckless—are willing to stand up and fight. In the course of this, they are left alone because of the risks posed by their acts of resistance (which could be both outright activism on the streets or the intellectual radical positions they hold).
Daraja Press’ recent publication, Left Alone: On Solitude and Loneliness amid Collective Struggle covers commendable ground on this discussion of the subject of loneliness and solitude in struggles supposedly meant to be engaged in collectively. The book is a massive collection of fairly short pieces, but heartfelt, mostly personalised contributions by writers and activists from across the world: Kenya, Argentina, Italy, the UK, the United States, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Germany and several others. The contributors are from different backgrounds ranging from poets, theatre, academia (with topics such as Marxist political thought, communism, racial discrimination), and general activism. They capture struggles in the academia and public intellectualism, in the trenches of authoritarianism, on the streets of the capitalist world or all of them together at once. The book playfully but powerfully incorporates several genres of literary expression, ranging from poetry, painting to prose writing. There are strong academically written essays (such as Derefe Chevannes’s “The Problem of Pathology” or Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s “The Practicality of Utopianism”). There are poems by Lena Grace Anyuolo, Patrick Anderson, and Lena Stoehrfaktor, which although sombre and more reflective, serve to lighten up the readings. There are creative fictions (such as Leo Zeilig’s 2084), and biographical writing (such as alejandra ciriza’s “A Red Rooster Does Not Give Up”). There is an interview of Turkish/Kurdish scholar and activist, İsmail Beşikçi, which offers an even more radical reading of the subject of loneliness—as empowering!
The refrain from a poem by Lena Stoehrfaktor, summarises the ambitions of this book. She writes: “Before our outer shells can no longer hold us/ We must reach out to each other, so isolation won’t enfold us/ If we can bridge the gaps between us, it won’t be so crushing/ When the songs of exploitation tell us we’re good for nothing” (146). Indeed, written in the spirit of solidarity, the different contributors come to the subject of loneliness from different (mostly Left) vantage points, but all appealing for connections and solidarities: while some see it as a form of tiredness, fatigue, overwhelming conditions of labouring, trauma, marginalisation, disenfranchisement, dehumanisation (such as being pathologized), violent (unintellectual) defeat, or fear, others see it as the feeling that comes from holding a different radical view than assumed co-strugglers. But all these unite at that point of a quest for union and empathy.
Richard Gilman-Opalsky powerful essay wrestles with the intellectual loneliness, seeing this as that feeling “one may have whether alone or in the crowd…of being dejected, deprived of companionship, without sympathy or human solidarity (22). And later sees loneliness, of feeling “uprooted, disconnected from purpose, dejected, cut off from human solidarity,” and normally “a totalitarian government presents itself as the rallying cry against this condition” (23) as people find the imperative to create solidarities, organise and uproot this very government.
It had to be Gilman-Opalsky—a professed communist, and author of The Communism of Love—who blasts folks “generally regarded as smart and sensible – who think that the only thing wrong with the capitalist reality is that some presidents and prime ministers could be better,” (33) instead of seeking to dismantle the entire system. This view is echoed by James Martel, when fellow liberal Lefties soon realise that your views insist on dismantling the entire system, at which point they seek to keep away (94).
In a deeply personal, emotional and introspective piece, alejandra ciriza recollects the memories of struggle and exile after the 1976 coup in her home country of Argentina which brought in the murderous government of the Cono Sur. ciriza writes that the military junta that headed the coup in 1976 was so brutal that political persecution by the state included, “systematic use of terror, in broad daylight, forced disappearance, murder, confinement, and censorship, but [also] the methodical inculcation of fear” (45). Reflecting on this condition, as one of those who had been active in resisting the junta, ciriza recalls the pains of exile, the pain of brutal defeat, and hopelessness about the future: “It was a harsh isolation. The absences transformed into permanent anguish, the endless searches in the newspapers looking for a name … among the fallen” (52).
“So, this is what largely defeat is all about,” she writes, capturing the pain of loneliness when friends and comrades have been exiled or murdered. “The isolation, the rupture of the threads of collective fabric, of the connections with others, so indispensable for us to think and struggle, of loss of emancipatory horizons, which can be envisioned when the masses become conscious of their powers” (53). These different reflections on loneliness provide a spectrum of reflections covering different modes of struggle.
There is a beautiful word play with the title of this book, “Left Alone.” On the one hand, it could mean Left liberal politics—as often understood against Right wing conservative politics. On the other, simply being left alone, as used in the English language to mean, being abandoned, ignored, dejected, and alone. While both are readable as reflected in the book, the entire volume is conceived mostly as Left-identifying. This is a weakness of the book, especially for African/postcolonial/subaltern readers: it reflects a Eurocentric bias especially that most struggles across the world while being equally lonesome, fighters/activists and strugglers never identify as members of the Left. It is not our grammar. In fact, for Francophone West Africa, for example, the French Left continues to be part of the system that reproduces the CFA colonisation. And for many victims of bombing in the Middle East, Palestine or South East Asia and Latin America, it does not matter whether the leaderships in the United States or Europe are Left identifying. The pain is the same. Probably Left-identifying Barack Obama dropped more bombs on Pakistan than Right identifying George Bush—and this pattern remains unchanged.
Perhaps this overt inclination toward Left-identifying politics is a product of the lack of conceptual clarity on how struggle ought to be understood in its broader sense. It is in Leo Zeilig’s story—on the power of ground-level solidarities, traumas of no-end-in-sight, and pain of suicide—that you find a broader, more comprehensive sense of what struggles could mean, and what is normally being struggled against:
[Among] the 1300 individuals who own over half of the world’s wealth, who own the companies that dump grain into the sea to keep prices artificially high, and the politicians who order bombs to be strewn across our towns and cities, or the forest to be burnt to clear land, not for the landless, mind you, but for a few bastards who have stolen it. Perhaps you want something closer to hand, take the money wasted on military equipment which could be spent on schools and hospitals… (197).
Zeilig makes connections with the rest of the subaltern world, the postcolonial worlds suffering under the weight of bombs and capitalist extraction, while at the same time identifying with the challenges of being and living inside the western world which includes the neglect of schools and hospitals for the continued investment in endless war.
But these criticism of mine notwithstanding, it is a delightful, poignant read for whoever is involved in any struggle against capitalist exploitation and authoritarianism—especially when they find themselves alone and dejected. The message is clear: You aren’t alone.
Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn and Patrick Anderson (eds) Left Alone: On Solitude and Loneliness amid Collective Struggle (Daraja Press, 2023). The collection is available for download for a small donation on the website.
Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar, and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers which was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. He is also a scholar and researches topics in political economy, and teaches decolonial studies/new colonialism, and writes regularly for ROAPE.
Featured Photograph: Kimberly Chiimba is one of the artists featured in Left Alone; Kimberly is a young black British-Zimbabwean portrait painter based in London, UK. Best known for her bright, natural and hyperrealistic paintings of contemporary Black subjects.