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Can a socialist smile? Is it possible to be joyful while one rebels against the world? These questions seem to me among the most important any socialist can ask herself. The answers, after all, are not so clear. Aside from perhaps that strange species of people known as critics, it is difficult to imagine a group of people so sullen and moribund as socialists. One is often more likely to find cheer in a funeral than in a meeting of leftist radicals. But if it is difficult to imagine a person one would more wish to avoid having a dinner with than a socialist, there is at least an arguably good reason for it. It’s not as if socialists are all deep-seated pessimists, carrying around copies of Schopenhauer in their pockets just in order to lord their own gloomy presentiments over their otherwise sanguine friends. They don’t hate laughter or smiles or even babies. If socialists were truly pessimistic, they would long ago have given up the hope of a different kind of world; they would have ditched the whole revolutionary project. They would have dropped the life-benumbing boredom of economics and dialectics and done more rewarding things like taking Caribbean vacations or other favorite pastime of the mega-rich, like wrecking the global economy. It’s precisely because socialists, contrary to all appearances, have a fundamentally faithful view of human beings that they can hold out some hope for the future. It’s only because socialists, unlike postmodernists, have some trust in reason and the basic rationality of human beings that they think most people can dispel their ideological illusions. And it’s only because socialists believe the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people that they might have even the slimmest hope of a better future. Socialists are not sordid because they are pessimists. Nor is it sheer perversity. While there is a certain joy in irritating self-smug liberals, this alone can’t account for the great unhappiness of socialists.

If socialists are often deeply unhappy people, it is because they don’t “draw the magic-cap over eyes and ears as a make-believe that there are no monsters.”1 They see the world in all of its horror and monstrosity and absurdity. And unlike liberals who think that all the great problems of history were solved in the brain John Maynard Keynes, socialists don’t think that a bit of social engineering here and a touch of wishful thinking there are sufficient to the problems of capitalism, still less to the hopes of ordinary people for decent lives.2 Rather, like Christians who believe that there is no resurrection without crucifixion, socialists believe that social transformation is a gruelingly painful process.

There are other reasons socialists often seem more like zombies than like human beings. Unlike their liberal or conservative counterparts who have the luxury of constantly being surrounded by like-minded people and encouraged in a culture which shares their common basic assumptions, socialists are, from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment to go to sleep, at odds with the world. It is one thing to help the world reproduce itself. It is quite another thing to try to change it. If socialists are so often weary and worn-down, it is because they are constantly swimming upstream, an effort which, needless to say, takes a considerable amount of energy, especially when the odds are so stacked against them. To be a socialist is to say no to the world and to hold that rejection in the face of all opposition. It is very easy to stand for most things, if only because everyone else is standing with you, easier yet to stand for nothing. But it is very difficult to stand for the few things which matter most when they are unpopular. It often seems that the whole world is conspiring to defeat you. The weight of common opinion threatens to wear you down in your daily struggle with the world. And this process which repeats itself day in and day out often feels hopeless. Under such conditions it is very natural to feel powerless, if not simply worn out. So it is perfectly reasonable why so many would-be revolutionaries get burnt out and in the twilight of their lives become the living images of everything they once opposed. What is remarkable rather is that this isn’t the fate of more socialists, that so many continue to hang on in face of perpetual opposition.

So if socialists are often a gloomy bunch, there are very good reasons for it, and it is very easy to let these reasons fool us into thinking it is impossible to be happy as a socialist. But it isn’t true. Can a socialist smile? Yes. Is it possible to be happy while one rebels against the world? Yes. We know this because we have innumerable examples of people who, in the midst of hardship, manage to be joyful, just as we have innumerable examples of people who, in the midst of success, manage to be deeply unhappy. We need only think of Nelson Mandela, who smiled as he struggled for freedom. Or Bonhoeffer, who reflected on the beauty of “life’s polyphony” as he was set for execution.3 We need only think of the gentle Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who led opposition to the Vietnamese war. These facts alone should suffice to convince one that the connection between joy and the circumstances of one’s life are at best superficial and provisional. Above a certain threshold, there appears very little in the way of any necessary connection between joy and the circumstances of one’s life — including whether one is struggling with the world or not.

The question, then, is how. How does a socialist bring together joy and struggle? How does a socialist, not turning a blind eye to all the horrors of the world or ignoring the massive challenges, smile? We might begin by reversing the question. If the one who is a socialist can smile, can the one who smiles be a socialist? Like the answer to the first question, the answer to this one is also somewhat elusive. Our typical notions of serenity and struggle render them mutually exclusive. Either one is an angry Marxist or one is a happy Buddhist, leaving little room for happy Marxists or radical Buddhists. A part of this stems from certain conceptions we have of serenity. We often equate serenity with apathy and detachment with indifference. But is this equation true? At some level, it seems to be. Just as the better portion of socialists seem to be forever angry with the world, the better portion of happy people seem to be blithely unaware of it or hopelessly indifferent to it. Perhaps the only reason some Buddhist monks are so happy is that they don’t read enough Chomsky. Cheap serenity is an easy solution. If you want to be happy, just ignore the horrors and absurdities of existence. Ignorance is bliss. On this account, there seems to be a kind of natural connection between serenity and apathy, between detachment and indifference. Even so, this connection doesn’t hold all the time, and it cannot account for the happy Marxists or the radical Buddhists, or all the people who do manage to bring struggle and joy together. After all, there are socialists who do smile and Buddhists who do struggle with the world. Even the current Dalai Lama is a self-identified Marxist.4

How then do we make account for those who are able to bring struggle and joy together? Bonhoeffer, writing from his prison cell in Tegel where he was set to be executed, gives us a clue. To his friend Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes, “I hope that, in spite of the alerts, you are enjoying to the full the peace and beauty of these warm, summer-like Whitsuntide days. One gradually learns to acquire an inner detachment from life’s menaces — although ‘acquire detachment’ seems too negative, formal, artificial, and stoical; and it’s perhaps more accurate to say that we assimilate these menaces into our life as a whole. I notice repeatedly here how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time. When the bombers come, they are all fear; when there is something nice to eat, they are all greed; when they are disappointed, they are all despair; when they are successful, they can think of nothing else.” Does he not describe us all? “They miss the fullness of life and the wholeness of an independent existence; everything objective and subjective is dissolved for them into fragments. By contrast, Christianity puts us into many different dimensions of life at the same time; we make room in ourselves, to some extent, for God and the whole world.”5

What accounts for this rare species of people, then, is that genuine detachment does not mean apathy or indifference or disengagement at all. Real detachment does not mean ditching the world to take up the far more relaxing regimen of chanting sutras and living a more sleep-like existence, just as real meditation does not mean casting calming spells on yourself, as a professor of mine once suggested. Rather, detachment, to paraphrase the Christian philosopher Simone Weil, means removing oneself as the imaginary center of the universe. It means so by undoing the attachments that give us a false sense of our own reality. As Weil suggests, the ostensible “reality of the world is the result of our attachment. It is the reality of the self which we transfer into things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment.”6 Through our innumerable attachments we gain a false sense of our own reality. I desire; therefore I am. It is as illusory as its Cartesian equivalent. “Attachment is a manufacturer of illusions.” Our attachments are innumerable. They commonly include things like money, status, knowledge, power, security, a sense of control, sex, recognition, etc. Among these, money is without doubt the most illusory and most poisonous. Money is a narcotic. Thus did Jesus caution against attachment to money in particular, the love of which is the root of all evil, as incompatible with the love of God. From these innumerable attachments stem our insatiable desires and cravings, always tainted by the poisonous influence of the ego. Such desire is always egoistic, a desire for a thing only inasmuch as it fulfills one’s own needs, selfish desire. “We are attached to the possession of a thing because we think that if we cease to possess it, it will cease to exist.” So long as we are attached to a thing, then, we can never desire it purely, can never love it. Love requires total detachment. It requires removing oneself as the imaginary center of the universe and extracting from desire the selfish poison of the ego. “That is why the only organ of contact with existence is acceptance, love. That is why beauty and reality are identical. That is why joy and the sense of reality are identical.”7 Contrary, then, to the view that one can be joyful while ignoring the brutal horrors of reality, joy, true and genuine joy, is only possible through it.

Detachment means letting go of our egoistic desires, in the process, undoing our egoistic selves. It means letting of of things we realize we do not need, of the things that promise happiness but never deliver it, and realizing that once we are detached, our joy does not depend on external causes and conditions. I once asked a professor of mine what detachment looks like. He told me to think of the Buddha, not chanting a sutra or meditating under a tree, but laughing hysterically. As Thoreau understood so well, detachment means joy is the condition of life. It means giving up our expectations, acting without expecting. But it does not mean giving up on the world. And it does not mean giving up struggle. As the philosopher Lao Tzu once said, do your work, then step back — the only path to serenity.8

Unlike so many ascetics who are very good at stepping back and very bad at doing their work, socialists are very good at doing their work. Day in and day out, they fight to make the world a more decent place. Their trouble is stepping back. Letting go. The reason so many socialists are unhappy is, at least in part, that they are attached to their own expectations. And so long as they are attached to their own expectations, they will be the grumpy curmudgeons they often are. If only they would learn to detach themselves in their struggle with the world, they would realize the wisdom of so many poets, prophets, and philosophers. Jesus Christ instructed his disciples to consider the lilies of the field, which do not fret or worry (Matt 6:28; Luke 12:27). And he showed them what this meant as he slept with preternatural calm in the midst of a storm (Matt 8:23-27). He understood that those born of the spirit are like the wind that blows where it wishes (John 3:8). For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was not just a radically just and peaceful form of social organization which threatened to bring all the powers of the world to dust, but also an inner peace. The Kingdom of God, he said, is within you (Luke 17:20-21). All illusory and egoistic attachments were foreign to him. Thus did he understand the paradoxical wisdom so familiar to the ancient philosophers: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). As Lao-Tzu said, “If you want to be given everything, give everything up.”9 It was on this basis that Jesus instructed his disciples not to lay up their treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but up in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19-20). And it was on this basis that Jesus warned against attachment to money in particular, the love of which is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). Thus did he proclaim that the love of money, which is a poisonous attachment, is not compatible with the love of God, which can only be fully expressed in detachment (Matt 6:24). And when a young man asked him what to do in order to gain eternal life, Jesus did not tell him to go to church or to pray or to read the scripture, but to sell everything he possessed, to give to the poor, to follow him. Then would he have his treasures in heaven (Matt 19:16).

Detachment is not about becoming numb to the world. It is not about giving up the struggle, but struggling with joy. It is not incompatible with engagement. On the contrary, it is only through detachment that one can more fully engage the world and struggle with it. Only when we rid ourselves of the illusion that we are the center of the universe and expunge that poisonous influence called the ego can we be of real service to each other. Only then will the world that one fights to create not be the world she desires for herself, but the world others deeply need. We have already seen many examples of what this looks like. We need only think of people like Bonhoeffer and Mandela, and so many others like them. For an image of perfect detachment, we need look no further than the scriptures — Jesus saying to the Father, ‘not what I will, but what you will,’ the Christian god crucified forgiving those crucifying him.

The Christian term for detachment is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a particular form of detachment. It means detaching oneself from the enmity one might feel for others. It means letting go of the past without forgetting it. To forgive another is, in the same motion, to detach oneself from resentment and to release her from it. To be forgiven by another or even by God is to detach oneself from the past. And while Christianity, like socialism, holds out hope for a redeemed world, it is not attached to it. To say that the Kingdom of God is already present, here, among us, is to detach oneself from the future as well. Christianity recognizes that only in being detached from the future are we in a position to create it.

When one is detached, she sees that pessimism and optimism are both phantoms arising from our attachment to the future.10 As is sometimes quipped, the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true. Pessimism and optimism have little to do with reality, more to do with our psychological predispositions. The pessimist and the optimist see the same thing; they just react differently to it. Optimism, moreover, is quite different from hope, though a good number of Christians flatten the distinction. Optimism is a mode of feeling, of expectation. Hope is a mode of action. The difference is detachment. To hope is to act without expectations, and to do it with joy.

Quite aside from being an end in itself, joy is a revolutionary force, as so little of the population and so many of its masters understand. As a titan of socialism, the late Tony Benn, once said, “Keeping people hopeless and pessimistic” is a powerful strategy for the rich. “I think there are two ways in which people are controlled,” he said, “first of all, frighten people, and secondly, demoralize them.”11 Joy is subversive. It is difficult to control or keep in order. As the comedian John Cleese so eloquently put it, “laughter is a force for democracy.” Just as easily as it can tear down the artificial barriers between people, joy can tear down governments, take down tyrants, take over parliaments, and and build up societies. There is hardly a force in the world that can stop it.

Can a socialist smile? Yes. Is it possible to be joyful while one rebels against the world? Yes. Can struggle be joyous? Yes. It is possible through detachment, which does not mean disengaging the world, but engaging it more fully, and with more joy, acting without expecting. Lao Tzu called this kind of detached engagement wei wu wei, or doing not-doing. Christians call it hope. It is the zen of struggle. It is laughter in the midst of opposition. It is a revolutionary force, and those who stand to lose most from a popular understanding of this do everything to prevent it. They have manufactured an entire culture to frighten and demoralize us, to atomize and isolate and inoculate us, to turn us into cynics and pessimists. But no power on earth can rob us of our joy, of our mad, hysterical laughter. If only socialists would smile, if only radicals would laugh, ours would be a revolution they could never stop. So let us struggle with the world and laugh while we do it. Let ours be a joyful revolution.

1 Karl Marx, Preface to Capital: Vol.I (1st ed.), ed. Friedrich Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, New York: Modern Library, 1906, p.14.

2 Cf. Kelly Maeshiro, “Toward a Mixed Theory of Political Economy,” Essays, 16 March 2014,

3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Touchstone, 1997, p.305.

4 Ed Halliwell, “Of Course the Dalai Lama’s a Marxist,” The Guardian, 20 June 2011.

5 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, p.310.

6 Simone Weil, “Detachment,” in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles, London: Penguin, 2005, pp.278-9.

7 Weil, “Love,” in Simone Weil: An Anthology, p.292.

8 For a more detailed exposition on detachment, see my forthcoming essay, “Grace, Detachment,” Harvard Ichthus, 2014.

9 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell, New York: Harper, 2006, Ch. 22 (There is no pagination in this edition).

10 Cf. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Ch.13.

11 Tony Benn, qtd, in Sicko, dir. Michael Moore (Dog Eat Dog Films, 2007).