This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism.

Finally, I feel old in a metaphysical sense. To understand this, let’s start with a curious pair of books: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), both written by Henry Adams. My parents had a two-volume Time Life “great books” series paperback edition of The Education of Henry Adams that I discovered in their library one rainy weekend and read in one sitting. Editions of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres were harder to come by, but I discovered a Doubleday Anchor paperback in a used book store years later to round out my own education of Henry Adams.

Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) was the scion of Boston brahmins, member of the famous Adams family which included the 2nd and 6th US presidents, and an American historian who produced a nine volume study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidential administrations. He was also a man of letters, writing two novels to boot, whose life straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He was obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him. Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in these two books. His first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, was a historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

That old order, the Ancien régime, the Europe of the Middle Ages was manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam according to Adams. He admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing world view.

For Adams, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, the liberté, égalité, fraternité and démocratie of the French revolution, the modern era’s nation-states and national capitalist economies all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” The movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific world view in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. He subtitled his two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Virgin was central, man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe. Yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith, man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces. The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’ […] [c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

So I understand it. I get the lure of traditionalism in its organic, anti-individualist, communalist aspects, even though I’m firmly rooted in modernity, a contented child of the modern world. Which is why I’m leery of postmodernism. I’m appalled by the collapse of Leftist class politics to identitarianism and populism. I hoped that the nation-state would be transcended by a stateless, classless, global human community, not disintegrate into ultraviolent tribalism. I’m an abject atheist now terrified that the world’s religions are splintering between ultra-orthodoxy and neopagan revival. And I’m horrified that, throughout all of this, capitalism will still prevail.

On the one hand, I think that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” once the orthodoxy of a tradition is rejected. I see this in the history of the Catholic faith I rejected, and in the Marxist faith I’ve acquired that Doris Lessing has argued “could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds.” On the other hand, I think that capitalism has a totalizing, globalizing impulse that is built on cycles, each of which engenders a Leftist reaction that attempts to supersede capitalism. The Left that arose out of industrial capitalism nearly succeeded in smashing that system. I don’t see the same potential arising out of the postmodern Left.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

There is little scholarly disagreement that Friedrich Nietzsche is at the heart of postmodernism in centering an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” I consider the revival of this “radical conservative” and “aristocratic individualist” philosopher—much admired by Fascists—to be generally troublesome for a postmodernism that claims to be Leftist. Postmodernism becomes highly problematic when it attempts to rehabilitate philosophers like Martin Heidegger who enthusiastically if opportunistically joined the Nazi party, only to think better of his decision later. Thus far we have an intentionally fragmentary, pluralist, vaguely leftist populism. Once we reinstate overt Nazis like Carl Schmitt and recruit parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola, we arrive at the European Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. He championed a Traditionalist identitarian “Europe of a thousand flags” comprised of separate tribal ethnies. This is rightwing populism pure and simple.

“I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism,” writes Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. “I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.”

I’m not just old, I’m crotchety. Postmodernism obliterates not just tradition, but history. I am, and we are, nothing without history.

Fred Jameson, portrait by Mark Staff Brandl

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams (2 volumes) by Henry Adams
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos
The Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton
The Sokal Hoax ed. by editors of Lingua Franca
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ed. by Stuart Sim
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin

 

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Hope is the mother of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2020

Train Tracks

Hope is the mother of fools.
—Polish proverb

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.
—Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

 

There are two common ideas as to why revolutions happen. The first, more traditional one is that when people are driven to the wall, when they are on the brink of starvation, when they lose all hope, they revolt. The second theory popularized in the 1950s, and first formalized by James C. Davies in his J-curve hypothesis, was called “the revolution of rising expectations.” It refers to circumstances in which the rise in prosperity, opportunity and freedom gives people hope they can improve life for themselves, their families and their communities, and so they revolt. Two apparently opposing reasons why people start revolutions—classic hopeless immiseration, modern hopeful expectations—except that as far back as the 1800s Alexis de Tocqueville observed that bastions of the French Revolution were in regions where living standards had been improving.

De Tocqueville was a French aristocrat, historian and political scientist who analyzed the 1776 American and 1789 French revolutions, but didn’t comment on the geographical dismemberment of Poland during the same period. Perpetrated by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the three territorial divisions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795) ultimately resulted in Poland ceasing to exist as a sovereign state. Which is ironic because the Alexis de Tocqueville Center for Political and Legal Thought was founded in 2007 at the University of Łódź in Poland. The Polish people have had a fraught relationship with both hope and revolution. Not as fatalistic as their Russian slavic counterparts, the Poles are often quite politically pessimistic and yet incredibly rebellious, staging numerous protests and uprisings, from the country’s dismemberment to the present.* Since the Polish right turn under the Law and Justice party after 2016, Poles have taken to the streets against reactionary judicial reforms, restrictions on abortion, and for women’s rights. In turn, ultraconservative far-right elements have countered with protests against the restitution of Jewish property, immigration, and  COVID-19 business lockdowns.

You might say we Poles are simply revolting.

Jacek Malczewski, Vicious Circle, 1897

I’m proud of my rebellious Polish heritage. Yet I’m the first to acknowledge that Polish protests and revolts have frequently been tinged with a persistent antisemitism. Given my recent analysis centering utopianism as a key tool for Leftist reform and revolution, I’m specifically interested in formulating an argument for “revolution without hope.”

William Morris’s book News from Nowhere has been considered a utopia without utopianism, as was Leszek Kołakowski’s essay “The Concept of the Left.” Karl Marx formulated the notion of communism as a classless, stateless, borderless global human community, yet he refused to indulge in elaborating the details of his communist utopia, unlike the utopian socialists before him who were all too eager to blueprint their utopian schemes. Two Leftist survivors of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, debated the need for an “existential revolution.” A concept of the power of the powerlessness that was not “merely philosophical, merely social, merely technological, or even merely political,” the idea of an existential revolution was meant to avoid the dictatorship of party politics and external proposals for change, but which instead had an “intrinsic locus” rooted in the particulars and totality of “human existence.” Thus it was utopian, and clearly doomed.

YIPpie turned communist Abbie Hoffman wrote a book called Revolution for the Hell of It! that was said to have earned him a 5-year prison term at the “Chicago 8” conspiracy trial. That sentence was subsequently overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but the flippant notion that we make revolution for the sheer hell of it, on a whim, is a degeneration of the idea that revolution is natural or a right. Or as Maoists opine: “It is right to rebel!” What I’m exploring instead is a realistic utopianism, a revolution without hope or despair and therefore without entitlement or expectations.

Hope and its twin, despair, are to be avoided. Both involve expectations of the future, either desire or distress, that run counter to the hear-and-now of the revolutionary moment. Of course, realizing a revolution involves tactics and strategy—planning in other words. But the revolutionary act is the ultimate zen moment when the catchphrase “be here now” reigns supreme. The lead-up to revolution invokes organization and Lenin, but the revolution itself summons spontaneity and Luxemburg. This also means not dwelling on the past—on past slights, injuries and grievances—nor seeking to avenge, revenge or retaliate for past wrongs. Misery and pleasure tend to be immediate feelings exacerbated by memories of the past and expectations for the future. Attempting to live in the here-and-now does not eliminate either misery or pleasure. So we are still faced with what exactly causes revolutions and on what to base a revolutionary response, whether misery or pleasure.

Chemnitz Karl Marx Monument

I tend to side with pleasure and the famous misquotation of Emma Goldman’s that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Goldman never said those words, but rather lived them. I also tend not to believe that deliberately maximizing popular immiseration, social chaos, capitalist oppression and state repression will hasten the coming of any revolution, which is accelerationism. I have some sympathy for the strategy of indirectly pushing the capitalist mode of production to its limits in order to bring about a revolution. Tangential accelerationism, if you will.

For Marx, an economic mode of production was comprised of interacting forces of production and relations of production. Forces of production encompass means of labor (tools, machinery, land, infrastructure, etc) and human labor power. Relations of production entail voluntary and involuntary social relationships formed during the process of production as well as the official and de facto power relationships that both undergird and are the result of the division of profits from society’s total labor. If either one outstrips the other, there is a heightened potential for revolution. Or as Marx argued: “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (“Preface to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859)

When aggressive working class struggles push for more free time and more money for less actual work, as with the old IWW campaign for an eight hour work day and forty hour work week or the modern demand for eight hours of pay for four hours of work, this forces the capitalist mode of production toward its limits. Class struggle heightens the contradictions in the relations of production which, in turn, speeds up the development of the forces of production. The working class has no control over what technologies or infrastructures are introduced by capitalism, but it does have some control over how organized and militant the labor movement is in fighting capitalism. Creating a combative labor movement and a revolutionary working class has the advantage of not only indirectly hastening development of the forces of production but of directly confronting and potentially overthrowing the capitalist ruling class.

A win-win.

The caveat? Fully developing the forces of production means eliminating economic scarcity. If workers achieve a successful revolution before this happens, what results is a generalized sharing out of scarcity. A socialism of scarcity instead of abundance.

Paul Klee, Angelus novus/Walter Benjamin

*(Polish unrest: 1789, 1806, 1830-31, 1846, 1848-49, 1863-64, 1905-07, 1918, 1923, 1937, 1944-47, 1956, 1968, 1970-71, 1976, 1980-81, 1982, 1988, 1998, 2015, 2016-17)

SOURCES:
Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville
News from Nowhere by William Morris
Collected Works of Karl Marx (50 volumes) International Publishers
The Arcades Project and Illuminations by Walter Benjamin
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
Revolution for the Hell of It! by Abbie Hoffman
When Men Revolt and Why – A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution edited by James C. Davies
Oxford University Press series on revolutions and rebellions
God’s Playground: A History of Poland (2 volumes) by Norman Davies

 

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Resignation from Maximum Rocknroll

I am resigning from Maximum Rocknroll as of today, Saturday, July 25, 2020. My heart is breaking as I do so. I have been a member of MRR for almost 29 years. But I realize that my time is up here at MRR for no other reason than I need to get on with my life. I love Maximum Rocknroll and the time I spent there so dearly I am in tears. But my involvement in MRR must end now.

Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

Buy my near-future science fiction novel 1% Free here.

Writing and self-isolating in a time of plague: “What’s Left?” May 2020 (MRR #444)

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.
—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always made sure to stay employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns I managed to double that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the nature of a writer to self-isolate. I tended to spend days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a modified Mac Plus in 1985. After the laptop was invented I would of course take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace and quiet. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me.

Of course that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems as a consequence. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have started patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the polio virus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined as a consequence of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both require comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living, hosted occasional tribal gatherings, and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I did volunteer work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect the “sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito
The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely
Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons

The take off that didn’t: non-canonical codicil to MRR #443

I’m a proponent of world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein, Amin, Arrighi, Frank et al). This theory is based on the analysis of longue durée commercial/industrial/financial “secular cycles” by Fernand Braudel who posited interlinked Venetian/Genoese (1250-1627), Dutch (1500-1733), British (1733-1896), and American (1850-present) cycles in the rise of the modern world capitalist economy. The so-called first Industrial Revolution (1750-1914) can be positioned firmly within the context of these cycles as a period of dynamic, sustained economic growth that Walt Rostow characterized as the “take-off” stage of world capitalism. Rostow’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution’s origins, in turn, reads remarkably similar to economic developments associated with the ebullient High Middle Ages (HMA; 1000-1300) when “urban life reemerged, long-distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling” according to David Routt. So why didn’t European protocapitalism “take off” in a prequel economic explosion during the HMA?

One reason, of course, was the Great Famine (1315-17) and the magna pestilencia of the Black Death (1347-53) which together wiped out between one quarter and three quarters of Europe’s population. But I would argue that the worsening relationship between Christian Europe and the Jewish diaspora dating from the collapse of the western Roman Empire (300-476) through the Late Middle Ages (LMA; 1300-1500) was also a factor.

The Early Middle Ages (EMA; 500-1000) is sometimes called the Dark Ages. The EMA witnessed Europe slowly, painfully emerge after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and various Germanic barbarian invasions due to a consolidation of the Catholic Church with Charlemagne’s conquests that formed the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Neither holy, Roman, nor an empire (per Voltaire), the feudal HRE did try to reconcile Christianity and Judaism through various papal/imperial sicut Judaeis policies of religious toleration in western and central Europe. This resulted in installing the ethnic Jewish diaspora in its midst as a “middleman minority” to serve as an engine for protocapitalist development. The economic success of this “middleman minority” strategy in turn fostered resentment and reaction among Christian Europeans. The HRE’s costly Crusades (1095-1270) to recapture the “Holy Land” (the Levant) from Islam resulted in 50,000 Jews being slaughtered in the First Crusade’s (1095-99) Rhineland and Danube massacres and the siege of Jerusalem. The First Crusade is often considered a turning point in European Christian/Jewish relations.

Thus began an inchoate effort starting in the HMA to fully Christianize Europe’s feudal economy and its protocapitalist component by liquidating the Jewish “middleman minority.” This diffuse movement was associated often with growing if embroyonic national identities and sometimes with efforts at state formation. Jewish occupations were severely restricted, Jewish livelihood was marginalized, and the Jews themselves were massacred, then had their property confiscated through exorbitant taxation before being expelled from various feudal territories in western and central Europe. (Crimea, 1016, 1350; Silesia, 1159, 1494; England/Wales, 1290; France, 1306, 1322, 1394; Germany, 1348; Hungary, 1349, 1367; Austria, 1421; Cologne, 1426; Provence, 1430; Lithuania, 1445, 1495; Bavaria, 1450; Spain/Sardinia/Sicily, 1492; Portugal, 1497.) Marxists might notice the parallels of this with a process called primitive accumulation which preceded the formation of nation-states and national capitalist economies in Europe.

Ever worsening antisemitism became the order of the day. Jews were ghettoized, forced to wear special humiliating clothing, and forbidden contact with Christians. By the beginning of the LMA, the German and Russian cities of the Hanseatic League (1250-1650) were judenrein even as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gave refuge to Jews through the Statute of Kalisz. “That German commerce does not need the Jews is proven by the Fuggers, the Welsers, and the Hanseatic League, none of which succumbed to Jewish influence” wrote Konstantin von Gebsattel. Fernand Braudel noted: “There was no truly international economy before the Hanseatic League,” and also wrote that: “Genoa and Venice, in a parallel way, held the Mediterranean space necessary for their grandeur by force, or through the medium of merchant colonies.” He argued that “the world victory of the Atlantic” economy accounted for “the mortal blow to the Mediterranean space which surrounded Italy,” not the erratic persecution, restriction and expulsion of Jews in the Italian territories that marked “the displacement of chains and networks of Jewish merchants. But is it not rather that the success of Amsterdam attracted the Jews to settle there?”

Along with bankrupting Holy Crusades, a decimating Great Famine and the Black Death pandemic, other factors contributed to European protocapitalism not experiencing an industrial-style take-off by the end of the HMA/beginning of the LMA. These other factors included the Mongol invasion and the Hundred Year’s War. Oh yes, and feudalism itself was a major contributor, with its woefully immature state formation even in the LMA. Both the Baltic Hanseatic League and the Venetian/Genoese Mediterranean powerhouse were comprised of politically weak federations of rival city-states. But the often violent expropriation of minority Jewish capital by majority Christian capital certainly figured into the equation.

Raul Hilberg, in his three volume opus The Destruction of the European Jews, argued that the expropriation of the Jews was a necessary, connected precursor to their destruction. Yet he also wrote: “But what began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance, not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint and there was no budget for destructive measures. They were taken step by step, one step at a time. Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus – mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy.” The same can be said about the history of the Jews in Europe throughout the Middle Ages up until the Nazi Holocaust, albeit as an even more dispersed process.

Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg both identified the primitive accumulation needed for the development of European capitalism with the expropriation of the peasantry starting at the end of the LMA. Let’s consider the expropriation of the Jews during the HMA a kind of primeval accumulation, one that actually hindered the transformation of European protocapitalism into capitalism proper. Whereas primitive accumulation relied on nothing more complicated than the direct expropriation of peasant lands through practices like the English enclosure movements, primeval accumulation required the wide ranging yet scattershot expropriation of highly networked Jewish diasporic capital that was commercial, industrial and financial. This Christianization of Jewish diasporic capital—along with Crusades, famine, pestilence, war and feudal insufficiencies—disrupted the continental economy, destroyed the wealth of the HMA and hindered capitalism’s take-off for several centuries.

Pattern recognition and antisemitism: “What’s Left?” April 2020 (MRR #443)

Fight or flight.

This is the instinctual response our Pleistocene predecessors supposedly evolved when threatened with physical danger, attack or threats to survival while roaming the African savannas. It often involves an acute physiological reaction which Jeff Hester describes thusly: “Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic.” Hester argues that such instantaneous, visceral reactions to the possibility of being mauled by a cheetah or gored by a wildebeest are no longer necessary, even counterproductive given the not-so-mortal threats of twenty-first century life, which instead require thoughtful, measured responses. What isn’t acknowledged here is that fight or flight is sometimes pattern recognition become automatic, perhaps innate, and certainly unthinking.

I’m walking across Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park with my backpack and sleeping bag in the fall of 1990. It’s a balmy afternoon with honeyed sun and liquid blue skies. I’ve just had a slice of pizza at Two Boots and I’m headed for the 1st Avenue subway station for a ride to Brooklyn. It’s almost two years since the infamous riots and the square is crowded with punks and crusties, squatters and junkies, tourists and residents. I’ve just passed through a group of black kids playing stickball when I approach three white punks camped out under some trees. Something isn’t right. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the way the punks are giving me the side eye, deliberately not looking at me while secretly sizing up me and my belongings. Maybe it’s the foot long rebar pole one of them is clutching as they pretend to ignore me. In any case, I decide to give them a wide berth and they are obviously disappointed. I sit on a bench to rest, far enough away to be safe but within sight of the punk delinquents. As soon as I’m out of their range, they target another passerby whom they proceed to viciously mug in broad daylight.

I recognized some dangerous pattern, if only intuitively, and I reacted to protect myself. Instinctive fight or flight responses too often become unthinking emotional reactions that amount to little more than bigotry, prejudice or superstition. Why then did I feel no fear among the black kids wildly playing stickball yet felt growing anxiety approaching the three seemingly cool punkers resting among the trees? Let me use some history to illustrate the difference between unthinking reaction and reasonable pattern recognition.

The Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious promulgated the Statute of Kalisz in 1264. This was the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland granting Jews personal freedoms, legal and communitarian autonomy, independent courts for criminal matters, and safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. Modeled after similar edicts for religious toleration enacted across Europe during the Early Middle Ages (EMA), it was ratified by the aristocratic Sejm and subsequent Polish kings even as Jews experienced massacres in and mass expulsions from England, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain during the High Middle Ages (HMA). By the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1773 to 1795, some 70-80% of world Jewry resided in Poland. Much of Polish Jewry wound up incorporated into Russia’s regional ghetto—the Pale of Settlement—after 1791, subject to escalating antisemitic discrimination, repression and violence that culminated in a series of genocidal pogroms. Ukraine alone witnessed 1,326 programs with up to 250,000 Jewish deaths and a half million left homeless from 1881 to 1920. This savage bloodshed ended only after Hitler’s Final Solution.

The Statute of Kalisz was to preserve the “pure” feudal nature of Polish society while promoting protocapitalist development. Jews were invited guests intended to be a middle stratum between an intact Polish peasantry/serfdom and aristocracy. Unable to own land, Jews were expected to take on shopkeeper, artisan, professional, trader/merchant, rent or tax collector, and moneylender roles prohibited these native Polish social classes by feudal custom and tradition. All this while the rest of Christian Europe during the HMA was increasingly restricting the occupations permitted the Jews and marginalizing their economic status. After the Babylonian Exile and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, autonomous ethnic Jewish communities with self-governing communal (kehillah) and mutual aid (landsmanshaft) institutions spread across the Middle East, northern Africa, Europe and beyond in an ever widening diaspora. Hubert Blalock and Edna Bonacich called this an example of an ethnic/racial “middleman minority” and noted that the minority’s financial aptitude, economic success, clannishness, and international networks combined with political restrictions, religious prohibitions and social prejudices to cause growing resentment and reaction in a host country’s native population. These popular resentments in turn were exploited and manipulated by respective ruling classes and their allied elites.

The acrimony and violence directed against the far-flung communities of this Jewish diaspora wasn’t fueled merely by antisemitism engendered by their status as a “middleman minority” however. Imperial machinations, uprisings and war, even tribal/national revolts figured into this barbarism as when a Cossack rebellion—the Khmelnytsky Uprising—slaughtered up to 100,000 Jews and Poles in its bid to form a Cossack Hetmanate in what is now central Ukraine in 1648-57. My parents regularly used “Cossack” as a curse.

By the time I visited my Polish relatives at the end of 1974, there were virtually no Jews in Poland. Yet racist antisemitism was rampant in the general Polish population—my relatives included—who were steeped in every antisemitic canard imaginable. Here I make no distinction between Catholic religious anti-Judaism and fully racialized Nazi antisemitism. A reworking of Sartre’s contention that Jewish identity is brought about and maintained by the force of antisemitism has become relevant once again, although not in the way thinkers like Georges Friedmann originally considered when his work The End of the Jewish People? posited an eventual disappearance of the Jews through assimilation and hyperspecific Israeli national identity. The fear, hostility and hatred of Jews that is conventional antisemitism is now an antisemitism without Jews in Poland.

According to Poles, Jews were guilty of killing Jesus, desecrating the host, engaging in ritual murder and blood libel, poisoning wells and spreading plague, having sex with animals, and being Satanic. The Jews controlled the media and the world banking system, practiced malefic profiteering and sinful usury, were complicit in conspiracies to spread both capitalism and communism, and plotted world domination. When I confronted my relatives and their idiotic antisemitic beliefs that Jews were plotting conspiracies against Poland and stealing the wealth of the Polish people with the fact that there were no Jews left in Poland— thinking that maybe they suffered from some weird sociological phantom limb syndrome—they countered with crap about the Soviets having deliberately installed Jewish commissars throughout the Warsaw Pact.

These blatant often millennia-old antisemitic tropes are refashioned, frequently with only minor variations, when other “middleman minorities” like the Armenians or the “overseas” Chinese are considered. Such minorities are part of larger ethnic diasporas that occupy key roles in indigenous capitalist economies to promote prosperity, engender economic benefit, and create new business and industry for the communities and nations in which they reside. Yet they invariably suffer discrimination, repression, hatred, violence, and genocide as a consequence of their intermediate position in society. The Jewish 1939-45 Holocaust and Armenian 1914-23 Genocide are well known. Less well known are the mass slaughter of Chinese in Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937-38 and the mass killings of Chinese in Indonesia, Papua/New Guinea and East Timor by Suharto and his military in 1965-66 under the auspices of virulent anti-communist campaigns, not to mention numerous localized anti-Chinese pogroms throughout Southeast Asia. Similar historical patterns and prejudices can be observed with the Muslims in India and the Indians in Africa.

The positive social and economic arrangements of ethnic “middleman minorities” as well as the negative racist, bigoted, violent and genocidal responses experienced by those minorities are real historical patterns to be reckoned with. The reactionary claims by racists and antisemites against those minorities are sheer horseshit to be summarily dismissed. The latter in no way absolves the former though. The Biblical Hebrews annihilated the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 21:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) much as the Israelis practice national genocide against the Palestinian people today. The Chinese have been slaughtering minority peoples from the Wu Hu and the Jie in 300 ce to the present day cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Uighurs. And the Armenians have been trading massacres with their Azerbaijani neighbors since the EMA all the way through the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994. I’m tempted to argue that we humans have a propensity for genocide ever since our Cro-Magnon ancestors potentially caused the extinction of our Neanderthal comrades between 40 and 35,000 years ago. Maybe next column.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
A History of the Jewish People ed. by H.H Ben-Sasson
The End of the Jewish People? by Georges Friedmann
Jews in Poland: A Documentary History by Iwo Pogonowski
Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations by Hubert Blalock
“A Theory of Middleman Minorities” by Edna Bonacich
The Stages of Economic Growth by W.W. Rostow
“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” by David Routt
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel
The Modern World-System v. 1-4 by Immanuel Wallerstein

Me and my columns

My next column is actually two columns. My regular MRR one is about pattern recognition and antisemitism while my non-canonical one is why proto-capitalism in the Middle Ages didn’t “take off” as European Jewish communities were being attacked and expropriated. What links the two pieces, besides a survey of Jewish history, is the bibliography. Lately I’ve been including lists of sources at the end of my columns to provide more extensive, related materials expanding on the subject matter of the column in question. The bibliography is at the end of my regular MRR column, but it overlaps with my non-canonical one.

I write every day. Finishing a particular piece of writing is another matter however. I recently started a column about the self-isolating process of writing itself and what it feels like to write in a time of plague. I had already finished my two current columns (now scheduled to post on April 1) and I’d hoped to finish this new one in time to switch it for the completed ones. The new one is more timely than the two slightly older ones. The writing is taking a lot longer than I anticipated and while I fully expect to complete it in due course, I haven’t managed that yet. I never suffer from writers block, but I do experience distractions and delays in my writing process. I’m never too anxious about it. My only deadline is for my MRR columns which are posted the first of the month, and I keep a cache of completed columns on abiding topics in reserve just in case something like this happens. I’m usually a nervous, antsy person but I’ve learned to “chill” and “go with the flow” when it comes to my writing.

The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

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