I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.
I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.
There I was, boring some friends with the story of how I got politics at 16 in 1968. For that tumultuous year, and several thereafter, most of my friends and I thought that The Revolution was just around the corner. We predicted a popular uprising any day against Nixon’s law-and-order fascism. To which the crusty nonagenarian of the group, Ben, commented, “What in hell were you smoking?”
I published a science fiction novel, End Time, in January of 1994 in which, among other things, the people of southern Mexico rise up in anarchist revolution led by a group calling themselves the Zapatistas. Coincidental to the book’s publication, the EZLN launched their uprising in Chiapas. I in no way predicted the real Zapatista rebellion, but had simply used history to create plausible future scenarios for my story. Most reviewers thought I had, however, so I played up this fortuitous circumstance to get more publicity, and sell more books.
I’ve never been very accurate in my forecasts, even though I’m not shy about making them. Five months ago, I predicted that it would be Clinton and Giuliani in November, and that the US would bomb Iran this spring. It now looks like Obama and McCain will be squaring off for the presidency. I can only hope that my forecast of US military action against Iran is equally wrong. For while few could have predicted the current economic crisis that began with the breakdown of the US sub-prime mortgage market and has expanded into an economy-wide credit collapse, the consequences of attacking Iran should be obvious to anyone.
Just in case they aren’t, let me spell them out, one more time.
I assume that the US engages in military aggression in conjunction with Israel. Their combined attack is a comprehensive assault targeting, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but also that country’s military and political infrastructures, launched sometime this spring when the weather is optimal. The goals are to significantly set back Iran’s nuclear research and development program, and to affect some form of regime change. It’s doubtful that the disastrous results of such a military campaign would be significantly mitigated if the US opts for an American-only strike, or limits military targets solely to nuclear facilities. So let’s start with Iran, and move outward.
Military attacks alone cannot achieve regime change in Iran. The general populace does not rise up against the government, nor do regional or ethnic uprisings seriously threaten Iran’s national stability. What does happen is that hard line forces associated with the Revolutionary Guard, already on the ascendancy over the arch-conservative theocratic mullahs, use any US/Israeli strike to consolidate their power and take out their opposition. Iran stops selling oil to the US and Europe. That country is in a “state of war” with the West, which involves, in part, harassing petroleum shipments from Iraq and the Gulf states, if not blocking the Straits of Hormuz altogether. On a wider front, Iranian terrorist elements initiate attacks on US, Israeli and European interests around the world.
Shiite Iran makes an alliance of convenience with the Sunni Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to strengthen and broaden the guerrilla resurgence against US and NATO forces. In Iraq, the Shiite population of the south rises up and makes that part of the country a no-go area for the US military, effectively removing southern Iraq’s oil supplies from US control as well. The Sunnis of western Iraq also revolt, driving the US military out, into the last, remaining region of Iraq still friendly to America, the Kurdish north, with perhaps a territorial corridor to the Green Zone in Baghdad. The US-installed Iraqi government pretends to function for a while longer, but the country has splintered de facto into three mini-states. That fact is not lost on Iraq’s neighbors. Iran trains and arms the southern Shia to the teeth, as does Syria and Saudi Arabia the western Sunni. Turkey, now cognizant that northern Iraq is a Kurdish state in all but name, invades and occupies the northern mountainous region of this Kurdistan, ostensibly to “help” the US fight Kurdish PKK terrorism. The Kurds respond to the Turkish invasion by intensifying their guerrilla war inside and outside of Turkey. The US, too preoccupied with problems in the rest of Iraq, is unable to stop this escalation. Meanwhile, oil reaches $400 a barrel and the industrialized North, with the exception of Russia, slides into a prolonged economic depression.
The outright participation of Israel in the third American assault on an Islamic nation in less than a decade reverberates throughout the Muslim world. Lebanon collapses into another civil war, with Hezbollah now the dominant military and political player. Pakistan completely loses control of its western provinces, taking one more step toward becoming a failed state. A failed state with nuclear weapons. Fundamentalist Muslim attacks on US forces, corporations, and individuals skyrocket internationally. Many European countries with substantial Muslim immigrant populations experience varying degrees of urban insurrection, and the United States is once more subject to terrorist attacks on its soil. Civil liberties are curtailed, conscription is reinstated, internment camps are built and populated, total surveillance becomes the norm, and civil society is thoroughly militarized.
You’d think that the quagmire-like nature of US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the dire circumstances of the American economy, would dissuade Bush and Company from further military adventures in Iran. The recent forced resignation of Admiral William Fallon, Central Commander responsible for the Middle East, has been widely interpreted as a sign that the US executive is indeed preparing to go to war with Iran. An Esquire interview reveals that Fallon was a vocal critic of the administration’s military policies in Iraq and belligerence toward Iran, and describes him as the lone man standing in the way of Bush attacking Iran. Yet I’ve been foretelling an impending US military strike on Iran for the past four years now, thankfully without much accuracy. I appreciate how damned hard predictions are to make as I finish this column in the middle of March, with spring yet to begin. Readers of this issue, the May issue and the 300th issue of Maximum Rocknroll will probably know the accuracy of my prognostications. I do hope that mine are wrong.
Three hundred issues. Who would have predicted it?
We Fascists are the only true anarchists. Once we’ve become masters of the state, true anarchy is that of power.
The Duke in
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Today, both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called “the two poetries” of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the “Red-Brown alliance” in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of “left” and “right.”
Dreamer of the Day
Francis Parker Yockey and the
Postwar Fascist International (1999)
It was the December, 1993 annual general meeting, at the old MRR Clipper Street house. The one with the spacious, downstairs record library slash radio-recording studio. It was the night of the Great Purge.
I’d been doing shitwork at MRR for almost two and a half years, ever since I moved to the Bay Area in July, 1991. I’d also written a couple of guest columns under the pseudonym “Lefty” Hooligan. Tim Yohannan liked them enough that he proposed I do a “three dot” Herb Caen-style news column for the magazine’s recently revived news section. “All The News That Fits” was a regular feature of the news section by the time of the general meeting, though no one outside of Tim and I knew I was “Lefty” Hooligan.
Downstairs was jammed with volunteers, on rumors that something big was in the works. It was Tim Yo’s show that night, and he did a pretty fair impersonation of Mao, the Great Helmsman, unleashing the Cultural Revolution. First, he axed two-thirds of the music the magazine covered, claiming that what he was excluding just wasn’t punk rock. Then, he canned MRR co-founder and conservative columnist Jeff Bale, arguing that he didn’t want political opinions expressed in the magazine that could be read in the mainstream media. Tim proposed that individual columnists could cover the kinds of music-pop punk, crossover metal, emo, oi, etc.-that were now outside MRR‘s official purview. He also offered to let Jeff continue to do record reviews, an offer Jeff refused. The compromises were choreographed, as was combining Jeff Bale’s firing with the music purge, in a heavy-handed Stalinist minuet.
Tim sought to play off the right-Jeff Bale who wholeheartedly supported the music purge-against the left-those volunteers who liked what Tim considered to be non-punk music but who also didn’t like Bale’s increasingly conservative political bent. There was a lot of protest and grumbling but, for the most part, the strategy seemed to work. The only time Tim got worried, he later confided, was when Larry Livermore tried to rally the opposition to Tim’s actions. Larry pointed out that, without the magazine’s dedicated shitworkers, Tim couldn’t publish MRR, then went on to argue that since “we all” had recently turned out the Republicans from the White House by voting for Bill Clinton, MRR‘s volunteers should vote down Tim’s proposed changes to the magazine.
I was a drinking man in those days. I was on my third bottle of Red Hook, and feeling little pain. I don’t remember if I actually interrupted Larry’s ersatz Joe Hill speech, or simply waited for a pause in his diatribe to interject my little jab.
“I kinda remember the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency,” I said, gesturing with my nearly empty beer bottle. “But I don’t remember the election of Tim Yohannan to run Maximum Rocknroll.”
That broke Larry’s momentum. Within minutes, a dozen folks were voicing versions of “yeah, this is Tim’s zine, and he has the right to do what he wants with it.” The debate shifted from Bale’s firing and the music purge, to whether Tim had the authority to do what he was planning. And even though Larry excoriated the rest of us as sheep in his next column, when it came down to it, most of the volunteers sided with Tim’s right to run the magazine as he saw fit.
I still have great affection for Tim Yo’s memory. To call him a Stalinist would not have insulted him in the least. He was a hard assed bastard, often puritanical, who prided himself on being an outright asshole, when necessary. He ran Maximum like a well-oiled machine, and he never lacked for conviction in pursuing what he felt was right. The man had balls, and while his decisions in 1993 eventually spawned HeartattaCk and Punk Planet zines in response, they also helped revitalize punk rock yet one more time by insisting on a return to musical basics. Most of us shitworkers at the time thought Tim was too dogmatic in his political opinions, and too rigid in his musical tastes. Yet we respected the man, and worked for him, not merely because he was willing to stand up and fight for what he believed. When Tim decided to take on an issue or an individual, he gave no quarter, took no prisoners and fought to the bitter end.
I was reminded of the Great Purge recently when a locally administered anarchist internet board had one hell of a time ejecting a lone, locally based national anarchist who joined up to propagandize the anarchist milieu. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. I trust that anybody with access to Google can search out the parties in question, so I don’t have to name any names here. Frankly, I don’t want to give the national anarchists any more publicity. As for the anarchist board, they’re a bit of an embarrassment. It took them over a week of some of the most spineless debate imaginable to agree to ban the anarcho-fascist, and then only after it was pretty convincingly revealed that the NA was pursuing a strategy of political entryism. With all that, the administrator only reluctantly decided to shitcan the NA because he didn’t “have the (emotional) time to be arguing about this with strangers right now.” Is it any wonder anarchists keep losing revolutions?
The emergence in the Bay Area of self-declared national anarchists that regular anarchists now have to contend with is one more turn in the syncretistic politics on the far right. There are already national revolutionaries, autonomist nationalists, and National Bolsheviks. Rather than waste column space detailing the convoluted and arcane evolution, say, of national anarchism from the pro-Catholic International Third Position and the pro-Qadddafy National Revolutionary Faction, I’d like to make some broad comments on political syncretism, left and right.
Syncretistic tendencies seeking to combine seemingly opposing political ideologies can be found across the political spectrum, of course. But anarchism has proven to be wildly, almost indiscriminately syncretistic, hence the anarcho hyphenation that virtually every anarchist employs. One is an anarcho-pacifist, -individualist, -capitalist, -mutualist, -feminist, -syndicalist, -communist, -primitivist, or some combination thereof. Why not anarcho-fascist? That fascism enters the house of anarchism through the door of nationalism should not come as a surprise. For all of modern anarchism’s vehement opposition to the nation-state, nationalism and patriotism, there are several points at which anarchism is vulnerable to the siren song of nationalism.
Early anarchist writers like Proudhon and Bakunin distinguished between nationality and the nation-state, championing self-determination for the former and abolition of the latter. In turn, early anarchist movements in Russia, China, and Mexico had a decidedly grassroots nationalist caste. It was only in response to the persistent internationalism and class analysis of Marxism, which came to dominate workers movements after the Russian Revolution, that anarchism became more critical of nationalism, and more internationalist in perspective. This populist (some call it völkisch) form of nationalism reemerged in the anarchist milieu via the British Alternative Socialist Movement and the Black Ram Group in the 1970s and 80s, which attempted to reclaim various pre-Marxist utopian and socialist concepts from the far right. Finally, a number of former Black Panther Party members, and other individuals associated with the black liberation struggles of the 1960s, rejected their previous authoritarian politics for anarchism, all the while retaining their commitment to revolutionary black nationalism.
Mention of the Black Panthers points up that Marxism’s fervid internationalism has frequently been blunted, syncretized time and again with nationalism. The social democratic parties of the Second International voted to support the war efforts of their respective national governments during WWI, and Leninism has allowed Marxism to be hyphenated, until we come to Mao who wrote: “in wars of national liberation, patriotism is applied internationalism.” Needless to say, Lenin’s own support for national self-determination and his theory of imperialism greased the slide into an almost indiscriminate support for wars of national liberation, socialist or otherwise. And let’s not forget the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, which has managed to meld its Marxism-Leninism with orthodox Islam.
Perhaps the most syncretistic kind of politics comes from the right in the form of fascism. Historians of fascism are still at a loss to come up with a minimum definition of fascism that the field can agree upon, precisely because of its capacity to incorporate apparently unrelated, even outright contradictory political ideas. The clerical fascism of Portugal’s Salazar, the justicialismo of Peron’s Argentina, the European empire of Yockey and Evola, the electoral fascism of the British National Party, the thousand European flags of de Benoist, the faux-socialism of Mussolini’s Salo Republic; fascism is all over the place. There are even those historians, like Zeev Sternhell, who reject that fascism is a creature of the right at all, and contend that it expresses a synthesis of ultra-right and ultra-left desires for a post-bourgeois social order that essentially goes beyond right and left.
Indeed, it is possible to cite a number of individuals, such as Mussolini and Sorel, who started as socialists but who became fascists. Small sections of the syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist labor movements in France, Spain and Italy came to embrace kinds of national syndicalism in sync with fascist corporatism. Yet Robert O. Paxton’s observation in his The Anatomy of Fascism holds true. While fascists often talked a strident anti-capitalist polemic, they never walked the walk by attempting to abolish private property, liquidate the bourgeoisie, give power to the working class, radically restructure the state apparatus, or the like. At most, fascists strictly regulated the capitalist economy within the national territory they controlled, subjecting the native bourgeoisie, sometimes harshly, to what they perceived as the interests of the nation.
For it is in the exaltation of the nation through extreme nationalism that we find what is essential to fascism. Despite its bewildering diversity, there hasn’t been a type of fascism independent of virulent nationalism. Yockey’s European-wide imperium and de Benoist’s tribal ethnes are merely variations on this theme, quite easily reconciled through an updated feudalism that, like Charlemagne’s mythic empire, would continentally unite a thousand autonomous European ethnicities. National distinctions may often account for fascism’s syncretistic idiosyncrasies. Certainly, the fact that fascism’s foundation stone is nationalism defines it as of the right.
A former professor of mine likened politics to farting into a whirlwind-you never know where the smell winds up. Political syncretism can sometimes present one with the choice of working with some rather odious people who claim to be on the same side. The National Anarchist who caused such paroxysms on the above-noted anarchist board did argue that his being against the state and nation-state were what defined his politics, that his type of tribal nationalism (read, decentralized racial separatism) was incidental to his fundamental anarchism, and that anarchists of all persuasions should be able to connect, communicate, and perhaps cooperate in opposing their common enemy, the state.
Keith Preston, an individualist anarchist, has also argued on his American Revolutionary Vanguard website that left and right anarchists, separatists and secessionists should all work together to overthrow the government. It is no coincidence that these calls for left-right collaboration, like the original call to go “beyond left and right,” invariably originate on the right. The right seems to actively syncretize with the left along the axis of revolutionary opposition to the state, a characteristic not limited to fascism. In the late 1960s, a significant segment of William F. Buckley’s conservative, college-based Young Americans for Freedom split off as anti-war, anti-state, right-wing libertarians and anarcho-capitalists. Under the influence of folks like Murray Rothbard, who published Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought with Karl Hess from 1965 to 1968, these right-wingers veered decidedly to the left and energetically courted left-libertarian elements on the moribund New Left of the day.
Jerome Tuccille describes all of this, rather humorously in his books It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, from the perspective of one of those right-libertarian rebels. I was a left-wing anarchist at the time, and I’m here to confess that I was suckered into believing that some sort of left-right libertarian cooperation was possible. I participated in a couple of dismal efforts at seeking out some sort of common ground between left and right libertarians. I came to the realization, during a so-called left-right study group in which all the right libertarians were extolling the joys of hording gold and silver, that it was a waste of time trying to work with anarcho-capitalists.
Our supposedly minor differences-cooperative vs. competitive economics, social property vs. private property, collectivism vs. individualism-far outweighed our single, prominent commonality-our shared desire to abolish the state. We seldom attended the same events, we rarely took the same actions, and we hardly spoke the same language. What’s more, it wasn’t as if left leaning anarchists had all managed to get along, much less work together. And the shibboleth of unity on the Left was as much a pipedream, then as now. There was no good reason for left-wing libertarians to try and form an alliance with right-wing libertarians.
Just as there is no good reason today for the rest of the anarchist milieu to have anything to do with the joke that calls itself national anarchism. That won’t stop addled anarchos from paraphrasing Rodney King and pontificating that all anti-statists should try and get along. A couple of regular posters did just that on the anarchist board in question in response to calls to ban the national anarchist. At least King had the excuse that he was beaten senseless by the LAPD.
That nationalism proved instrumental in the process of syncretism in all but one of the historical examples described in this column is what’s particularly telling. As a stone internationalist of the Marxist persuasion, I’m aware of how much Marx underrated nationalism as a social force, and of how little the ultraleft has done to correct this deficiency. The same could be said for race and racism. And while these inadequacies are part of the reason I no longer call myself a left communist, this column has gone on far too long to discuss them here and now.
Next month, predictions gone awry.
One of my many contradictions, from a Marxist perspective, is that I’m a wimpy, waffling agnostic, not a hardcore, commie atheist. The reason I’m an agnostic instead of an atheist has nothing to do with finding flaws in atheism’s arguments against the existence of God, or with finding redeeming features in the horror show that is religion. I’m undecided about whether or not God exists because, throughout my life, I’ve had personal experiences that might be described as spiritual, mystical, even religious.
I’ve had these experiences since I was a kid, long before the psychedelic drug use of my hippie days. A momentary, overwhelming sensation that I was a part of everything, and that everything was a part of me. A fleeting, all pervasive feeling that I had suddenly risen high above this mundane, everyday existence. The inexplicable awareness that I had briefly stumbled upon some greater reality, the true, scintillating reality behind this dingy, decaying façade that was life. I’ve had these experiences well after I stopped doing psychedelics. As for the psychedelics-acid, mescaline, psilocybin-they produced quasi-mystical experiences forcefully driven, selectively amplified, and seriously distorted by the chemicals in question.
I was loosely raised Catholic, though I don’t associate my childhood spiritual incidents with Roman Catholicism. My parents wanted me to get the sacraments up to Confirmation, just in case the Big Guy was Catholic. I was on my own after that, and I never bothered to go back to church. I’ve never tried to cultivate these mystical moments by pursuing a spiritual practice or, Marx forbid, an organized religion either. I simply experienced them, marveling at many of them, enduring the rest, and getting something out of them all. Of course, I’ve come to my own understanding of what Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referred to as the kairos, the how and why and what-for of this “time out of time,” this “most propitious moment.”
The how is simple enough. The actual experience, no doubt, is biochemically based, a natural, internal analog to the psychedelic drugs I experimented with during the early 1970s. That said, establishing such a cause-and-effect doesn’t reduce the spiritual event to a biochemical phantom, nor does it relegate the whole episode to some mechanical, materially determined process. To grasp why this is the case, we need to delve into a little bit of Marxism, in particular, Marx’s notion of dialectical materialism.
For Marx, the economic base of society gives rise to a superstructure comprised of society’s legal and political structures, as well as of the “higher ideologies of the art, religion and philosophy of bourgeois society,” as Karl Korsch described it in Marxism and Philosophy. Yet, just because the social superstructure is a product of the economic base does not make it any less real. “[Marx and Engels] always treated ideologies-including philosophy-as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.” “[I]t is essential for modern dialectical materialism to grasp philosophies and other ideological systems in theory as realities, and to treat them in practice as such.” What’s more, society’s political and ideological superstructure achieves a measure of autonomy to act back upon the economic base to change it, creating a dialectical relationship between the two that defines “bourgeois society as a totality.” Or as Marx himself put it in the Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Theory itself becomes a material force once it takes hold on the masses. Theory is capable of taking hold on the masses … once it becomes radical.”
This clearly distinguishes dialectical materialism from the crude materialism of Newtonian science, in which one billiard ball hits another in a simple linear chain of causality. I’d argue that dialectical materialism is much more akin to the systems and information theories pioneered by Gregory Bateson in the areas of psychology, biology and ecology. But how does dialectical materialism relate to my discussion of personal spiritual experiences?
In contending that mystical moments have a biochemical basis, similar to the endorphin high produced by vigorous exercise, I’m not refuting the reality of these events. No doubt, all individual thought and feeling can be traced back to biochemistry, yet it cannot be denied that these thoughts and feelings frequently have material effects and consequences in that we act on them. In the same way, human interest in and pursuit of spiritual experience spurs activities intended to reproduce and refine those experiences, generating on the one hand spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, chanting, and ecstatic dancing, and on the other hand the practices, institutions and ideologies of organized religion.
This isn’t to repudiate the fact that society’s economic base leaves profound marks on spiritual practice and organized religion, only to assert that the initial impulse for both resides elsewhere. Nor would I be surprised to learn that millennia of spiritual and religious activity, in turn, have acted upon this biochemical substrate to distill and shape it, and that the two have coevolved over time. The great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame or Chartre, can be appreciated, in part, as finely tuned machinery incorporating a variety of spiritual technologies designed to induce mystical experiences in the participating individuals. While the triggers for spiritual episodes are often social and cultural then, their impetus is transhistorical, imbedded in that problematic realm known as human nature. The instances of spontaneous, unbidden spiritual awakening, some resulting in the founding of entirely new religions, bear this out. The capacity for mystical experience seems to be hardwired to some degree into most of us, perhaps as a peculiar expression of the wider human pursuit of altered states through drug use, artistic endeavor, SM, asceticism, exercise and sport. The question is, why? What function does it serve?
Marx posited a kind of human nature in asserting that we are social beings, a concept covered by the hotly debated term species being. You can be sure that human sociality and spirituality are keenly related within the context of species being. That there is overlap between spirituality, sexuality and power also goes without saying. The spiritual experience is often described as fiery, capable of reducing all that is false to ash. In its crucible is forged the certainty of individual belief and the unity so necessary for social cohesion. I’m not sure what Marx thought about individual spiritual practice, but his views on the rituals, churches, traditions, theologies and holy wars of organized religion are well known:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.
Gotta love those dialectics. That religion in bourgeois society serves to delude, comfort and pacify the masses doesn’t tell us much more about the function of the more elemental mystical moment however. Aside from acting as a kind of experiential superglue for personal belief and social unity, there’s another aspect to spiritual episodes that’s worth discussing.
First, let’s talk a little bit about consciousness. Human consciousness arises from a very small number of neural circuits in the brain that monitor the rest of the mind, and the body. Given that consciousness relies on a small percentage of gray matter to function, it cannot possibly be all encompassing, and the scope of human awareness is thus severely limited. With regard to sensory perception, for instance, we are flooded with sensory information all the time, yet our conscious mind is only aware of a small fraction of that information. As an example, our clothing is in constant contact with the skin under it, stimulating our sense of touch over a wide area of our body. We’re not conscious of everywhere our clothing touches our skin though. We feel our clothes only in certain places, particularly when they impinge or restrict us. Therefore, the sensory input from the rest of our skin in contact with our clothes is filtered out of our awareness. Aside from purely biological filters, there are also cultural, social and personal filters that further restrict this torrential sensory flow.
We receive, and process, vast amounts of sensory data on many levels other than the conscious. Aldous Huxley proposed, in The Doors of Perception, that psychedelic drugs temporarily knock out these filters so that we experience heightened sensory impressions, even forms of synesthesia. Whether or not this is the case, the overwhelming influx of sense perception that comes in under the radar of consciousness does have other interesting side effects.
Sometimes, bits and pieces of this unconscious sense data percolate up into an individual’s awareness. The result is a hunch, an intuitive feeling, which cannot be pinned down to anything obvious. When patterns begin to emerge through this process, something quite innocuous can trigger a sudden, epiphanal moment. Then we say “everything fell into place,” “the scales fell from my eyes,” “all was revealed,” and “I saw things as they truly were.”
I’m intentionally using quasi-religious phrasing here in anticipation of my next point. There is a certain category of spiritual experience known as “the road to Damascus” moment, when the mystical episode bowls over the individual and literally changes his or her life. Paul, of the New Testament, had a profound religious awakening on his way to Damascus, and went from being a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer. Paul’s personal sense of his place in the scheme of things radically shifted in an instant. Perhaps this kind of spiritual experience is like a hunch on steroids.
What I’m postulating is that certain life-changing mystical incidents act on the deepest levels of human perception, our sense of ourselves and of our place in the universe. None of my spiritual experiences were ever that profound, though I always learned something from them. That all such spiritual moments come permeated with a sense of the supernatural Other, what we interpret as the sacred and the divine and call God, is what gives me pause. Ultimately, it’s why I can’t declare myself an atheist.
BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines, the implications of which would fill another column. I’ll close on the character Myra’s words. “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.”
I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail.
I’ve been in a confessional mode for these past few columns. I owned up to being middle class in the November issue, and talked about how that’s not a sure bet for economic security anymore. This is part of a larger issue I’ve been grappling with lately, that being the role of the working class in revolutionary social change. In December, I admitted that I no longer considered myself an anarchist or left communist because I didn’t think that social revolution was sufficient to realize a revolutionary society. That’s part of a larger realization that what seems to be possible is not communist, and what is communist doesn’t seem possible.
Right off, I’d like to anticipate some of my critics, who would seek to use my own Marxism against me. Given that I’ve confessed to being middle-class, perhaps I’m following my own economic interests in disassociating myself from these potentially revolutionary traditions. No longer working class, no longer radical, so the argument goes.
The current state of the world, if anything, has strengthened my analysis that thoroughgoing social revolution is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid a barbarism that’ll make the Dark Ages look like a Grateful Dead concert. Ecological collapse, social disintegration, war without end, mountains of corpses; it’s not a pretty picture unless there are some radical changes, and soon. Which makes it all the more difficult to admit that the ways I’ve pursued revolutionary social change for the past forty years haven’t been up to snuff. Or, that I really don’t know where to go from here.
I was in a similar indeterminate state in the mid-1980s, when I found the theory and practice of anarchism less and less tenable. I started reading Marx then, and gradually made the transition to left communism. I plan to do a lot of reading in my current state of limbo, maybe join a study group to talk out some ideas. Normally, I would also channel my political energy into projects that harbor a post-anarchist/post-left communist potential, while remaining on the lookout for ways to go beyond anarchism and left communism in whatever political work I’m doing. I haven’t been doing a whole lot of politics lately, however.
You see, I’ve become all too familiar with both the local anarchist and left communist milieus in the fifteen years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. And, you know what they say familiarity breeds. I’ve met some intelligent, committed, well-intentioned individuals. But, for the most part, I’ve encountered self-righteous, intolerant bastards, neo-anarchist trustafarian college kids, preening, solipsistic egomaniacs, subcultural, drug-addled crusty punks, belligerent, sectarian wingnuts; the list of dysfunctional types to the left of the Left is long. I don’t trust most of the people I’ve met and worked with to properly wipe their own asses, let alone do what it takes to win a social revolution and maintain a liberatory society.
That aside, there’s a more-revolutionary-than-thou attitude endemic in anarchist and left communist circles that I now find tedious. I have little use for the purity so often espoused by such folks. Myself, I’m a communist, but I’m riddled with contradictions. My crimes are many. I shower daily, I eat meat, I like dining in decent restaurants, I have a middle-class existence, I hold a union card, I vote, just to name a few. If, by some historical fluke, anarchism or left communism took hold in this country, bringing one or another gaggle of assholes to power, I’d be one of the first tossed into an anti-authoritarian reeducation camp.
I recognize that I’ve become a bit of a curmudgeon over the years. Yet the thought of going to a meeting and finding any number of local characters-A-squared, bolo’bolo Boy, C-squared, Puffy Amiyumi, K-squared, et al-in attendance, gives me the creeps. I’ve chosen discretion, and nicknames, as the better part of valor here. Life is too short to waste dealing with such idiots. And I’m also looking for a better way to do politics altogether.
Speaking of life being too short, Lance Hahn died on October 21, as I was beginning this column. I first met Lance in San Diego during the late 80s, when Cringer played several times at Bob Barley’s Vinyl Communications sound studio. They even did a benefit for projects I was doing through my ‘zine, San Diego’s Daily Impulse. I wasn’t a big fan of his next musical incarnation-J Church-because it was just too pop punk for my tastes. Plus, I didn’t care for their pro-situ, postmodern bent. But they were always a fun band to watch perform live. While in San Francisco, and besides the band, Lance had his record label, volunteered for Maximum Rocknroll, Gilman Street, and Epicenter Zone, worked a regular, paying job, and always had a half dozen other projects in the mix. He was musically prolific, multi-talented, and an all-round nice guy.
Lance died of complications from kidney failure. His last years were spent in DIY dialysis because he didn’t have health insurance. He had to ask the punk scene to help defray his medical expenses. (Those medical expenses are still formidable, and folks can contribute at vulcanvideo.com.) Lance was only forty years old when he died. Perhaps he had so much going on because, on some level, he sensed he didn’t have all that much time on the planet.
Forty years is about as long as I’ve been involved in politics, mostly spinning my wheels as it turns out. I have no desire to squander any more time and effort on fools, nor do I want to pursue political dead ends and pretend I’m accomplishing something. I certainly don’t want to exploit the memory of an exemplary punk rocker and a fine individual. Rest in peace, Lance Hahn.
I may have done one or two of these in the many years I’ve written a column for Maximum Rocknroll. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I feel compelled to make a couple of predictions for the year, seeing as how this is the January issue.
US Bombs Iran in the spring. I really do think Bush thinks he’s on a mission from God to battle the evildoers, plus he wants to have as part of his legacy that he “took care of Iran.” Of course, he will leave the Middle East, and the world economy, in shambles. Spring, because that’s the best weather for a comprehensive military attack.
President Giuliani. It’ll be Clinton and Giuliani neck and neck, and Giuliani by a nose. Pack your bags for Canada, Manhattan’s Mussolini is headed for the White House.
[W]henever a revolutionary upsurge comes along, drawing its strength from the bottom, without guidance from the top, the proletariat-or at least its most active segment-tends each time in differing ways and circumstances to spontaneously set up more or less identical democratic institutions. Councils are by no means particularly Soviet. Representatives democratically elected by the working people in a given locality or on a larger scale, and tending to take on legislative and executive powers, can be seen in the shop-steward committees in Britain, as well as in councils formed in Bavaria, Turin, Hungary, Catalonia, and elsewhere. The mere existence of councils does not automatically solve the problem of political power, of course. They can go on being “parallel” bodies right up until they are repressed. And historically, councils and committees set up spontaneously by workers seem to follow the initial burst of energy, with a subsequent rapid loss of momentum, due to lack of cohesion and an accelerated process of delegating responsibility.
Revolution in the Third World
Okay, so now for the question, the answer to which you’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. Why don’t I consider myself an anarchist or left communist anymore? Here’s the short answer.
The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02.
But, you ask, aren’t these the exemplary revolutionary moments in history that both anarchism and left communism claim in their genesis and resurgence, hail as undeniably liberatory, and consequently hold up for guidance and inspiration? Yes indeed, which brings up the much longer answer as to why I no longer profess to be part of either radical current.
Of the various examples of spontaneous revolutionary upsurge cited in the above paragraph, some considered themselves anarchist, others communist, and still others socialist. (With the rather dubious exception of France, 1968, however, none were explicitly left communist, or council communist.) Many of these upsurges never called themselves anything other than revolutionary, and anybody and everybody, including diehard Leninists, have mercilessly appropriated their history. But whatever their politics, and however liberatory their practice, these revolutionary historical moments lasted no more than a few days, weeks, or months, or in some cases a few years. Neither anarchism nor left communism has managed to create a revolutionary society that has lasted for any length of time.
“Oh, but that doesn’t mean that these short-lived social revolutions collapsed because of internal problems, or social contradictions, or human nature, or anything of the sort,” is often the rejoinder. “Nor is this history of failure an indication that anarchist ideas or left communist theory has failed in some fundamental way. These revolutionary moments were either crushed by the superior power of liberals, capitalists or fascists, or else Leninists, social democrats and other sordid leftists betrayed them.”
Anarchists are often heard spouting this pitiful excuse, even going so far as to contend, all evidence to the contrary, that these stillborn experiences actually prove anarchism to be correct. Left communists are usually more nuanced, conscious of contradictions, and self-critical of internal problems. All subtlety aside, let’s take this reasoning at face value. Shouldn’t anarchists and left communists be painfully aware that social democrats and Leninists are no friends of revolution, especially of bottom-up revolution, and are perfectly willing to suppress, sabotage or seize control of them? And, if a genuine, liberatory revolution is incapable of defending itself against the forces of reaction, how will a truly revolutionary society be possible, except by sheer accident?
A social revolution has to do more than just happen. A social revolution has to be able to defend itself, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and socially. It has to be able to win out against all enemies, externally and internally, and then it has to endure. So far, nothing remotely anarchist or left communist has been able to do this.
So, let’s set aside for the moment the destruction wrought by outright enemies and false comrades of these social revolutions. That leaves us with the particular mistakes and failings of the revolutionary forces themselves in each historical instance. In the Spanish Revolution, for example, the anarchists subordinated themselves to a Republican government dominated by social democrats and Stalinists out to subvert their July 1936 revolution-on-the ground, whereas the ultraleft POUM realized, too late by May 1937, that they needed to make common cause with Spanish anarchism in order to avoid the Stalinist ice pick. We can also consider the general mistakes and failings of anarchism and left communism as such. For anarchism, this includes a consistent failure to deal with the issue of power, increasing theoretical incoherence, and a pie-in-the-sky idealism that considers anarchist ideas sufficient to inspire successful anarchist revolution. For left communism, this includes an inability to sustain mass working class movements after the 1920s, a penchant for adopting undeclared revolutionary events like Hungary 1956 as its own, and the tendency to isolate itself in a metacritique of the rest of the Left.
I think it would be a mistake to stop there, though. As Gérard Chaliand’s quote at the head of this column suggests, there might be something in the very nature of these spontaneous revolutionary upsurges “from the bottom, without guidance from the top,” that make the ultra-democratic institutions they give rise to insufficient to the tasks of carrying a revolution through to victory. At least, that’s what I’ve come to conclude after forty years divided almost equally between anarchism and left communism.
I no longer think that the workers councils, factory committees, general assemblies, partisan bands, peoples militias and guerrilla armies of such social revolutions are up to the rigors of consolidating, defending and extending a revolutionary society for any significant length of time. In the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, the Friends of Durruti decided in 1937 that things weren’t working, and that anarchists and ultraleftists had to radically change their strategy for the Spanish social revolution to have any chance of succeeding. Among other things, the Friends of Durruti proposed a revolutionary junta-comprised of themselves, the POUM, and the CNT-FAI-to take power, as well as the forging of a disciplined Red Army to fight Franco. I, too, think that things aren’t working, in that social revolutions have uniformly failed, and that anarchism and left communism need to radically change their theory and practice as a consequence. Unlike the Friends of Durruti though, I don’t have a clue as to what to recommend.
There is a rather silly notion that moments like Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 are the orgasms of history; exciting, ecstatic, but of necessity short lived. As such, the social democratic or Leninist retrenchment that follows, even the ossification and bureaucratization of the original revolution, are all but inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’ve concluded is that social revolution and the institutions it creates, by themselves, are insufficient to sustain a revolutionary society. A pretty harsh verdict, I know, but one that took me four decades to reach. That’s forty years of studying history, engaging in theory and practice, and trying to put my politics to use in the real world.
While I can’t claim to be an anarchist or left communist anymore, I haven’t decided that Leninism or social democracy or some other brand of Leftism, or perhaps even liberalism, is the way to go. My commentary and analysis as “Lefty” Hooligan is still 85% left communist and 15% anarchist, as these are the political currents to which I still feel closest. But I’m actually in a kind of limbo, no longer really a part of these political milieus, yet outside the grace of knowing what is to be done. I know what hasn’t been working, but I don’t know what will. And while I would go to the barricades for an anarchist or left communist uprising in a heartbeat, I have no faith that it would succeed. That’s the politics behind why I no longer call myself an anarchist or left communist.
If pressed, I guess I’d still call myself a communist; an unaffiliated, nondenominational, small “c” communist. After all, I haven’t pulled a David Horowitz or a Larry Livermore, where I rabidly denounce everything I formerly believed in while rushing headlong to the right. In fact, I’m proud to be a commie pinko, even though, personally, I’m not too fond of most of the folks I’ve had to associate with, politically speaking. Again, that’s the subject for a future column.
I no longer have to work for a living, thanks to circumstances I won’t go into at the moment. I can do my own projects full time, and I can actually enjoy the rest of my life. I’ve got credit cards and investments. I own a car and a house. No doubt about it, I’ve become middle class.
In a way, I’ve loosely paralleled my parents’ journey up the social ladder. They started out as working class Polish immigrants from war-torn Europe in the mid-1950s. By the time I went off to UC Santa Cruz in 1972, they were solidly, comfortably middle class. I dropped out of graduate school in 1979 to join the wage-laboring proletariat. Now, I too am middle class, though my social status is far more precarious than was my parents’.
Take health care, for example. I exhausted my eighteen months of Federal COBRA Blue Shield health insurance from my last job a few weeks ago. I paid the full cost of the insurance, that is, what the company paid as well as what had previously been deducted from my paycheck, plus a COBRA administration fee. Now I’m on Cal-COBRA, the California-mandated equivalent, for the next year and a half. That’s costing me almost forty dollars a month more, for the same coverage. And, unless Ah-nold manages to push through his market-based knock-off of universal health care, I’ll use Federal HIPAA regulations to convert to a permanent health insurance policy, which promises to cost even more for less coverage.
Being middle class, I can afford to purchase supplemental health insurance to augment my HIPAA policy. That I’m now entirely dependent on legally protected health care and insurance portability has not escaped me, however. When COBRA screwed up a couple of months ago and reported that I wasn’t paid up, resulting in the temporary cancellation of my coverage, I completely freaked out. My anxiety went through the roof and I was in a panic until I straightened out the error. One of my middle class lifelines is my health care, and the incident demonstrated how shaky that was.
My parents made their climb up the economic ladder when folks had careers. People sought to work for a company for life. Unions had a measure of strength in those days, and one of their top demands was always job security. My dad worked most of his life for the government, a civil servant who went from loading dock foreman to managing the Pacific missile range. He retired early, and was guaranteed perks like access to high-level health care and a pension with built-in cost-of-living adjustments.
By the time I toppled out of the ivory tower’s rarified atmosphere, into the murk and mire of wage slavery, the idea of a career had become a joke. The deindustrialization of the United States was beginning in earnest, unions were crumbling, and corporate capitalism was demonstrating its lack of loyalty to the American working class in spades. Workers were reciprocating, and no one expected to work for the same company for life. I never worked at the same job for more than six or seven years. Many of the companies I worked for tried their damnedest not to provide benefits to their employees, one in particular going so far as to declare all its workers freelancers and independent contractors until busted by the government. My last job canned me, allowing me to take an early retirement as well, but leaving me with bare bones health care.
I realize that having shitty, expensive health insurance is better than having no health insurance at all. Forty seven million Americans-mostly working class and poor-are uninsured, so I hold onto my pitiful policy tooth and nail. Nor am I ashamed to say that if the Governator pushes through a better deal for me, I’d take it in a New York minute. My point is that, while being working class is still hell, becoming middle class is not the guarantee of security it once was.
My mom didn’t have to work. Now, it takes two people, sometimes working two or three jobs each, to maintain the middle class life my dad could afford on his salary alone. Not only has the range of health care and pension benefits become shabbier, it’s no longer a sure thing as health insurers regularly deny or cancel coverage, and corporate pension plans go belly-up one after another. Middle class saving has plummeted over the last forty years, and a good number of people in that middle class are also just one or two paychecks from the street. So, while it can be debated as to whether the American middle-class has shrunk demographically in the past few decades, there can be no doubt that, today, it takes a lot more time and effort to maintain a middle class existence that is far more economically precarious.
Now, for the sixty-four dollar question. Might there be a reason for this, other than the relentless avarice of corporations needing to maximize profits?
My parents were part of a post-World War II economic wave that saw the explosive growth of private-sector wealth, suburbs, the white middle class, and a consumer-oriented economy. In 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a book, The Affluent Society, the title of which neatly summarized how America portrayed itself going into the ’60s. And affluence meant the ability to buy more and more commodities, with the growing leisure time to enjoy them. Both the threat demonstrated by union organizing and the socialist upsurge during the Great Depression, and the need during the Cold War to outperform the Soviet Union, helped to underpin an economic prosperity that, in turn, produced its own discontents.
This much-touted affluence did not include significant parts of the society-black people for instance-which helped precipitate a civil rights movement, race riots in America’s cities, the rise of a black middle class, black power, and revolutionary nationalism. The burgeoning affluent white middle class raised a generation with the comforts of abundance, only to see significant numbers of their children rebel, even reject their middle class status, by protesting the Vietnam war, immersing themselves in New Left politics, or dropping out to become hippies. By turning affluence into austerity and putting the screws to the middle class, it was hoped that a repeat of the social unrest of the 60s could be avoided.
There was an interesting notion circulating in those years that uprisings by the oppressed didn’t occur when social conditions were at their worst, but actually happened when there was the glimmer of improvement. The rising expectations and aspirations sparked by incremental progress was what prompted rebellion and revolution in the lower classes, not the total desperation of being up against the wall with nothing left to lose. Fostering a climate of increasing scarcity in which even the middle class finds it harder and harder just to tread water helps insure that America’s oppressed minorities don’t get any wrong ideas.
Those who participated in the various social movements of the 1960′s who neither flew off into the ether of Hindu/LSD mysticism nor sank into the quicksand of one or another kind of Leninism-that is, those who straddled the divide between the counterculture and the New Left-often came to similar conclusions about America’s affluent society. The more politically aware communalists, Diggers, Yippies, Provos, Motherfuckers, et al, realized that US society was so wealthy, so abundant in commodities and leisure time, that an entire alternative social order could maintain itself, even flourish, simply on what this society threw away. Some even fancied that their marginal cultural and political spaces would grow strong enough to entirely supplant the dominant society. The absurdity of this fantasy aside, any potential for creating an alternative social order by siphoning off or stealing a fraction of society’s prosperity was easily annulled by replacing abundance with scarcity. If the lower and middle classes spend all their waking hours just struggling to make ends meet, that possibility is effectively negated.
Not to be too heavy handed, but the history lesson here bears repeating.
America’s economic collapse in the Great Depression generated unprecedented labor organizing, the most radical elements of which had called for both revolution and socialism. The bourgeoisie responded to this threat with equal parts carrot, stick, and diversion. The diversion was entry into the second World War, which drafted American workers and shipped them overseas to fight and kill German and Japanese workers. The stick was a savage post-war anti-communism, under the catchall called McCarthyism, which domesticated the American working class and gelded its union movement. And the carrot was a post-war consumer economy and leisure society built on the myth that everyone was middle class. When the affluent society failed to lull significant segments of the population into soporific acceptance of the status quo, and instead produced the racial conflicts, political protests, and countercultural experimentation that we now call the ’60s, it was time for a further tweak. Austerity replaces affluence, the middle class is driven to the edge, and the ruling class once again turns their full attention to maximizing profits.
What may disturb some of you is that I seem to think that the capitalist ruling class-the bourgeoisie-is some kind of secret, totally evil, smoke-filled backroom cabal that is consciously conspiring to fuck over the rest of us. Nothing could be further from the truth. I really do loath conspiracy theories, of any sort. But I do assume that, nine times out of ten, people act out of their economic interests, and that different social classes in society have different economic interests. After that, systems theory and Marxist notions of “class consciousness” can adequately explain how the capitalist class asserts its interests, and control, over the working class.
A basic tenet of systems theory is that, an ecosystem for example, can be entirely self-organizing and self-regulating based solely on the autonomous, self-activity of its members. There is no “grand council” of the redwood forest for instance, yet the redwood forest functions just fine without one. There is overwhelming evidence that biological systems, and growing evidence that social systems, abide by this rule. All living systems, and in theory human social systems, thus have an innate capacity to self-organize and self-regulate. That this can apply to social classes within a larger society is not much of a stretch.
Follow up systems theory with Marx’s idea that one of the preconditions for a social class to gain power in society is for that class to become self-aware. In other words, class conscious. This requires that the class in question go beyond the unconscious self-activity, self-organization, and self-regulation common to all systems, towards the creation of organs and institutions of self-reflection. self-governance, and self-defense. In Marxist terms, the social class must move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself.” The bourgeoisie exemplifies just such a “class for itself” with its various business newspapers and journals, its numerous commercial and manufacturing associations, its vast private security and intelligence apparatus, and its well-oiled lobbying and influence machinery. Thanks to such class conscious activity and organization, they are in de facto control over government at all levels of society, affirming Marx’s definition of the state as “the executive committee of the ruling class.”
The capitalist ruling class, therefore, does not have to conspire to globalize the economy, or bust the unions, or undermine the middle class. It does so openly, discussing such matters candidly in the Wall Street Journal and then carrying them out through the marketplace and government policy. Obviously there is obfuscation, public relations, and influence buying. But out-and-out conspiracy? It’s hardly needed. Nor, I might add, is the bourgeoisie particularly evil. It is merely pursuing its class interests, with a vengeance.
Common wisdom used to be that the poor far outnumbered the rich, and that a strong, prosperous middle class was the best possible bulwark against the poor ultimately expropriating the rich. Supposedly, this was one of the lessons the bourgeoisie learned from the Great Depression. This astute observation no longer holds much influence these days as the middle class gets driven to the wall. Whether this means that poor and working people will rise up and “expropriate the expropriators” is, at this point, the subject of another column.