Once upon a time, the left (or most of it) thought they had history all figured out: they could interpret day-to-day politics in light of the tectonic shifts in social formations, and they had an endpoint to aim at, a model of an alternative, noncapitalist economic system. For some, this became an excuse for amoralism, the notion that the glorious revolutionary ends justified actions that would be morally repugnant by any other yardstick. The intellectual reflections of this amoralism, the writings on this topic by Trotsky, Merleau-Ponty, Fanon and the rest, are now seen as little more than an embarrassment.
Today the problem is more likely to be the reverse. Lacking a convincing view of history or the potential transformation of the existing order—in other words, lacking the basis for a systematic strategy—activists on the left are at risk of embracing an extreme moralism. If we don’t know how to change society, at least we can separate ourselves ethically: we can be the good people in an evil world.
So much political debate today has the unspoken premise, “How can I protect myself from being guilty?” Not in my name, they say, although the horrors are no less when some other name is invoked. Actually, wanting to not be guilty is a fine emotion, but it should be a springboard to effective, strategic action, not a politics of personal virtue.