The Urge to Purge

The Revolution always eats its own.

Wokeness, identitarianism, anti-racism, progressivism – whatever label one chooses to affix – has become an integral aspect of modern politics and the academy. Universities, high schools, and extracurricular activities have been especially prone to infection by this novel crusading ideology. There has been a panoply of these stories over the course of the past few years, with professors being defenestrated for speaking Chinese, a brouhaha over whether the entire field of Classics is racist, administrators looking at banning ‘offensive’ words like “American,” and more. One such story, published last week by the online outlet Compact Magazine, has received a great deal of attention. (Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Compact nor its New Right ideology, but even a broken clock can be right occasionally.)

The piece, titled “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” is written by Vincent Lloyd, a professor at Villanova University. He tells the story of his time as seminar leader for the prestigious Telluride Association summer program for high schoolers and how it descended into a dystopia of progressivism run amok, eventually turning its fire on the professor himself. The tale is not itself novel – there have been myriad such pieces across the media environment – but aspects of it are especially interesting given the professor’s own unabashed left-wing ideology.

The piece is worth reading in full, but there are some quotes that stand out, both in understanding the truly cult-like dynamics on display among the students and in the professor’s complicity in his own cancellation.

The Telluride Association, a century-old institution meant to “cultivate democratic communities among high-school and college students,” puts on summer programs for high schoolers each year, where the students are able to take college-level courses and live in an intellectually stimulating environment. Recently, that liberal mission had been overcome by radical progressivism. From the piece:

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, a group of black Telluride alumni pressured the association to examine the racism that, they claimed, was baked into the organizational culture. “We have all experienced anti-blackness within the association and through its programs,” their open letter said. The result was a redesign of the summer seminars: Telluride would now offer only “Critical Black Studies” and “Anti-Oppressive Studies” seminars. The former would “seek to focus more specifically on the needs and interests of black students.” The seminar I taught—“Race and the Limits of Law”—would be classed with the latter.

The author discusses the malign influence of his teaching assistant, Keisha, a young graduate of an Ivy League university who led the afternoon sessions which were meant to enhance the daily seminar time. He blames her for turning what was meant to be a learning experience – both academic and personal – into a stultifying recitation of anti-racist dogma. Lloyd writes:

Keisha was tasked by Telluride with serving as a teaching assistant in my class and organizing workshops for the students in the afternoon. I welcomed Keisha into the class, suggesting that we find some days when she could lead discussion or share her own research. Instead, she largely remained silent during class for the first three weeks, counter-programming the seminar in the afternoons. During a week on the racist background of the US immigration system, Keisha found one of our texts, the foundational Asian-American memoir Nisei Daughter, insufficiently radical, so she lectured to the students that afternoon about the supposedly more radical Yuri Kochiyama. Keisha was frustrated that our week on incarceration began with George Jackson and not a black feminist, so she lectured on Angela Davis that afternoon. I talked at length with both Keisha and the class about learning unfolding over time, about the need to wrestle with an idea before moving on to the next one, and about the overall direction of the course, but for her (and soon for the students), everything had to happen now.

Lloyd, himself “no stranger to anti-racism workshops,” was shocked at the false platitudes that Keisha was instilling into these young minds. Those assertions included:

  • Experiencing hardship conveys authority.
  • There is no hierarchy of oppressions—except for anti-black oppression, which is in a class of its own.
  • Trust black women.
  • Prison is never the answer.
  • Black people need black space.
  • Allyship is usually performative.
  • All non-black people, and many black people, are guilty of anti-blackness.
  • There is no way out of anti-blackness.

Given the level of ‘privilege’ these students had – wealthy, intelligent, headed to elite universities – these doctrines were unlikely to apply to their daily lives. In Lloyd’s words, “The students had all of the dogma of anti-racism, but no actual racism to call out in their world, and Keisha had channeled all of the students’ desire to combat racism at me.” After a presentation of ‘harms’ he purportedly caused, Lloyd was essentially blackballed from his own class, with the majority of the students voting to continue only with the anti-racist workshops. Unsurprisingly, the Telluride Association sided with the radical students over their slightly-less-radical professor.

One is never immune from denunciation in leftist circles, as this meme humorously attests.

From a basic reading of the piece, one may feel bad for Professor Lloyd. After all, he was kicked out of his summer job for being insufficiently anti-racist, a capital crime in modern progressivism. But if anyone had contributed to the atmosphere which caused his downfall, it was Lloyd himself. He writes:

This might be just another lament about “woke” campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues. But the seminar topic was “Race and the Limits of Law in America.” Four of the 6 weeks were focused on anti-black racism (the other two were on anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous racism). I am a black professor, I directed my university’s black-studies program, I lead anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and I have published books on anti-black racism and prison abolition. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia, my daughter went to an Afrocentric school, and I am on the board of our local black cultural organization.

And yet none of those progressive credentials saved him from the baying mob of his political fellows. This is not at all surprising if one knows the history of left-wing radical movements. To paraphrase the French Revolution era philosophe Jacques Mallet du Pan, the Revolution always devours its children.

Political radicalism, which was the true basis of the Telluride seminars, inevitably devolves into aggressive internecine conflict. It always has, and it always will. When the only goal is radicalism, eventually nearly everyone will be viewed as insufficiently ideologically pure. This has a long history on the left, which often finds itself trapped in a purity spiral of its own making, rapidly descending into the morass of rhetorical, political, and physical violence. Yesterday’s revolutionaries become today’s counterrevolutionaries, entirely at the whims of the radical throng.

The French Revolution is the ur-example of this phenomenon, being replicated over and over across the world in the centuries since. The Revolution of 1789, led by men like Mirabeau and Lafayette, was declared insufficient by the radicals on their left. Those radicals, the Girondins under the leadership of Brissot and Roland, shortly found themselves labeled as ‘reactionaries’ by the even more radical factions to their left. The Girondins ended up on the chopping block (quite literally), denounced by the Jacobins – the inaugurators of the infamous Reign of Terror. Even the Jacobins had internal purity struggles; Georges Danton – a noted regicide – and Camille Desmoulins – one of the Jacobins’ finest journalists (read: propagandists) – were condemned to die for their supposed lack of revolutionary fervor. The Terror only ceased when its architects, Maximilien Robespierre and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, were themselves devoured by the infernal machine of their own creation.

This process of revolutionary ideological violence was famously repeated across the European continent a century-and-a-half later. Russia in 1917 was beset by conflict – internal and external. The Tsar was overthrown by democrats and liberals led by Alexander Kerensky, seen by monarchists as a radical reformer. Although to the left of the Tsarist regime (a low bar given that regime’s intense conservatism), Kerensky’s faction was of a piece with the mainstream of European politics – he even continued Russia’s involvement in the Great War. Unfortunately, Kerensky was seen as no better than the Tsar by his leftist enemies. Those foes, united under the banner of socialism, overthrew Kerensky’s provisional government in favor of their own. He was lucky to escape to exile and died naturally in 1970 – many of his radical adversaries would have jumped at that relatively benign fate.

Stalin’s purge, in photographs.

After constituting a government of their own, the left-wing radicals began their own purity spiral; the socialists were overcome by the communists, and the milder communists – the Mensheviks – were themselves overrun by the purest of the radicals – Lenin’s Bolsheviks. After Lenin’s death, the internal ideological purges intensified. Stalin was infamous for his violent destruction of political opposition and labeling of enemies as counterrevolutionary forces. One of the more radical Bolsheviks and violent purge artists, Leon Trotsky, himself fell victim to this tactic. The Stalinist purges of the 1930s and beyond led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people deemed insufficiently loyal to the radicalism of the regime, replaying the fate of those consumed by the French Terror centuries before.

These are but two historical examples. There are myriad others, from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to today’s Palestinian terrorists. Thankfully, the current moment is far less physically violent than its revolutionary precursors, but it is no less prone to the urge to purge. Progressive students like the Telluride set, led by true activists like Keisha, are the foot-soldiers of these movements, driving the bus in ever-more-militant directions. Men like Professor Lloyd may have a brief time driving said bus, but they will inevitably be seen as insufficient for the moment and duly discarded.

After all, if you can denounce others for their lack of ideological purity, you yourself can be denounced by those purer than you. And to be sure, there is always someone who has a greater claim on purity. There is no ideological security in a progressive, revolutionary space. The insecurity on which these movements thrive also leads them inexorably to consume their own lifeblood. These purity spirals only end when they either run out of victims or they are put to rest by an actual reaction from the other side. The radicalism of the French Revolution was eventually put down by Napoleon’s “whiff of grapeshot,” while the Stalinist terror was ended only after his death by Khrushchev’s secret denunciation. We will have to wait and see how our own version of this timeless tale ends.

In the meantime, the progressive movement would do well to remember the old adage: live by the sword, die by the sword (or icepick).

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