We’ve all heard some clever variation of the saying: “if you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” Some people substitute ‘socialist’ for ‘liberal’ and ‘capitalist’ for ‘conservative’ and others throw communism somewhere in the phrase. The key takeaway from each of these versions is that any form of leftism will make way for more rational, less leftist beliefs as the person ages. Anyone who holds onto their leftism in later life must be, by definition, a fool.
The underlying rationale is that leftism and youth both share common characteristics, namely immaturity and idealism. The relationship between idealism and leftism is often debated and does not concern me in this article. The more interesting aspect is the assumed immaturity. The more radical a person is (radicalism in this article refers exclusively to a principled refusal of capitalism or the state or both), the more naïve she is assumed to be. A call for revolution and a comprehensive restructuring of the world is often brushed off as childish and unrealistic, even by those slightly to the left of centre. Instead, they say, one should opt for reformism and moderateness because this is the approach that will yield results.
Leftists, especially those said to be radical, are often met with condescending smiles and refusal to engage in debates as if they were a hopeless case; a ball of passion and sensitivity that a rational conversation cannot untangle. Their very intelligence is in question here. An anti-leftist culture is purposely perpetrated to bully them out of their political beliefs. This dominant culture is reiterated in many popular sayings, the clear favourite being: “if socialists understood economics they wouldn’t be socialists.”
Leftist radicalism is seen as ‘just a phase’ that a person simply grows out of as she matures. At this point, it is important to note that many instances do exist in which radical leftist organizations attract people of all ages, as is the case for the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste in France, the new burgeoning radical left in the Arab world, etc. For the sake of the argument, let us assume that these are merely exceptions to the rule. Whether there exists an actual correlation between radical leftism and young age can only be determined empirically. Assuming that such a correlation does in fact exist, however, one can hypothesize many explanations for this other than naivety and lack of intelligence.
Youth is characterized by an abundance of time that adulthood can rarely provide. It comes with a particularly acute sense of individualism whereas adulthood entails the responsibility for dependents, namely one’s children and spouse. As such, any political engagement for adults carries costs that are not only borne by the adult herself but also by her dependents. Political engagement is time-consuming, energy-depleting and risky. This is why it is often seen as incompatible with a ‘typical’ adult life (full-time job and children) which requires time, energy, stability and security.
One might object to this argument by pointing out that centre and right-wing political engagement seem to be evenly distributed between people of all ages. One should note, however, that growing out of politics with age, for the reasons discussed above, is in itself a direct result of the existing ruling ideology, namely capitalism. For a centrist or a right-wing person, this demanding adulthood lifestyle will not clash with her beliefs but in fact perpetuate them.
Furthermore, right-wing or centrist parties are mainly parliamentary parties, which require less time and energy from activists as compared to the radical left which mainly operates outside parliamentary action. Further still, centre and right-wing political enthusiasts are not up against any serious adversary. Their politics bathe in the hegemonic rightist discourse and constitute part and parcel of it. Even the most politically engaged of these people therefore do not come under serious threat of any kind. Their agenda only calls for the preservation of the status quo, or its very moderate modification. They can afford to display their politics at the age of twenty just as they can afford it at the ages of thirty, forty and fifty. Radical leftists, on the other hand, in many cases have to deal with real dangers like verbal and physical abuse, imprisonment, exile and torture, because their very existence threatens those in power. It is therefore much easier for moderate leftists, centrists or rightists to reconcile their active political engagement with their adult life.
Another objection might be raised stating that if adulthood is so inherently incompatible with the radical left, then how do some (very few) people succeed in balancing the two? If this balance is indeed possible, they say, then the abovementioned obstacles inherent to adulthood are not the ones responsible for the taming of the radical leftists as they age. The only explanation left, these objectors insist, is that these radicals’ experience in the real world teaches them that in fact their politics are wrong. The few exceptions who remain radical as they age are simply the stubborn ideological people who refuse to learn that lesson, despite the objective evidence. In other words, these exceptions are the idiots referred to above. This line of thought is simply not nuanced as it does not take into account the changing conditions that govern people’s lives irrespective of age, intelligence and adherence to ideology. The difficulties brought about by adulthood are not prohibitive obstacles. The fact that they can be overcome does not discredit the argument at all. Those radicals who stop their political engagement have not necessarily done so because of their sudden realization that their cause and methods are not righteous. One should at least recognize the spectrum of possible explanations for this phenomenon that is often wrongly oversimplified.
In addition to the already inherent difficulties in winning an ideological battle over a hegemonic ideology, radical leftists are now faced with psychological warfare. Failure to grow out of your radicalism is interpreted as a deficiency in wisdom, intelligence and maturity. Radical leftists are thus intimidated into toning down their politics, if not changing them altogether. Choosing to remain true to one’s principles despite all the obstacles, both natural (brought about by changing socio-economic realities) and implanted (brought about by purposely anti-leftist culture), should testify to a person’s maturity, not lack thereof.