The urge to purge

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of "The Intellectuals and the Flag."

SECTS ARE ALWAYS in need of heretics to blame, expel and punish. First, fervor takes hold, then rigidity. Righteousness dictates uniformity. Dissent seems dangerous, even treasonous. The spirit hardens: You’re either with us or with the evildoers.

This is nowhere more true than on the left. I’ve been rediscovering this cardinal principle since publishing a book a couple of months ago in which I argued what seemed to me to be the not-soterribly-controversial point that it was possible to be liberal and patriotic at the same time. A slightly iconoclastic idea, maybe, but for many of my longtime colleagues on the left, that was all it took. The night of the long knives had begun.

Why is the left so determined to eat its own? Sometimes it can be explained as the fervor of fighters determined to root out impurities. These keepers of the true flame are convinced that they have the people’s interest at heart -- and harbor the suspicion that the people are being misled by wolves masquerading as shepherds. The misleaders must therefore be thrashed.


Thus, in 1903, Lenin’s Bolsheviks, advocating a Communist Party made up strictly of professional revolutionaries, broke from the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democrats, who, they said, had sold out true Marxism in favor of “bourgeois democracy.” (Eventually, the Bolsheviks banned the Mensheviks.)

So too in 1969, the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground) determined that Students for a Democratic Society was being misled by the Stalinists of the Progressive Labor faction and by “movement creeps” like, well, myself. The urge to purge caused the collapse of a large, broad-based organization.

Sometimes the fervor that causes these schisms is the fervor of winners. In the French, Bolshevik, Nazi and Cuban revolutions, the victors wondered why, having seized power, they still confronted impediments to the swift completion of their appointed agendas.

Again, the pure blamed the impure. The purgers, such as France’s Georges Danton, were purged in turn. Before the seizure of power, coalitions of factions had masked conflicts of interest and ambition, and then when the masks came off, the factions went for each others’ throats. Power was thrilling, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Out came the guillotine, the firing squad, the gulag, the show trials, the hysterical accusations and desperate confessions.

At least as often, though, the sect becomes inflamed not because it has won but because it has lost. Out of weakness, it imagines treason. As it dwindles, it devotes more of its energies to the urge to purge. It loses patience with arguments about ideas. It is already dead certain of how the world works and needs obedience, not disputation. It develops a taste for scurrilous charges and loyalty oaths. To its own dissenters it says not, “Consider this point,” but, “How dare you?”

This is the case with the American left, which has been so remote from power for so many decades as to have made sectarianism something of its rock-bottom mentality. Losing becomes a veritable badge of pride -- a proof of its purity. Lest we forget: In a shudder of misjudgment, enough of the left believed that the Republicans of George W. Bush and the Democrats of Al Gore were two wings of the same ruling party to have voted for Ralph Nader, with consequences we’re not done living with.


Whether winners or losers, sects are inclined to be heresy hunters. My recently published book of essays is partly a defense of liberal patriotism, partly a tribute to intellectuals of an earlier generation (in particular, the sociologists David Riesman and C. Wright Mills and the critic Irving Howe), and partly a discussion of wrong-headed tendencies in the academic left. I meant to further some serious arguments about the nature of the American nation and history, about a patriotism of substance versus a patriotism of symbols and about why the left in this country has tended toward political marginality.

Predictably, some on the left -- including the Nation, the left’s largest-circulating weekly -- went into spasm, and the book was greeted with ferocious, ad hominem slashing and burning and sheer fabrication. (The hatchet reviewer assigned to my book, Daniel Lazare, falsely and at length claimed that I supported the Iraq war and in a later exchange of letters continued to do so even after I and other writers offered ample evidence to the contrary.)

A number of Nation contributors have for many years attacked writers associated with the quarterly journal Dissent, whose politics are more gradualist and realistic than those pining for revolutionary nostalgia can abide -- though they vary from a few like Paul Berman, who did support the Iraq invasion, to others, including co-editor Michael Walzer and myself, who opposed it.

I write this not to complain, but to note and bemoan a widespread disrespect for serious disputation. There’s a lot of this disrespect going around, all over the political spectrum. The confusion of manliness with belligerence does not help. The sound-bite culture does not help. The mixture of insinuation, sneering and yelling practiced by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Chris Matthews and Michael Moore does not help. A president who tells a reporter, “I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation,” and acts on this premise, does not help.

Nor does it help when the Bush White House muzzles government scientists who dare report what virtually all their colleagues think about climate change. In claiming that abstention is the best method of preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and that intelligent design deserves to be considered science, the administration enshrines mindlessness rather than rational thought as a governing principle.

The sectarian mind is at home everywhere -- left, right, you name it. On every front, passion plunges ahead while reason takes its time, cleaning up the mess. The sad, sick truth is that there is more than one sector of American society where intelligence has failed.