The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.
Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843
I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.
Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.
Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.
As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.
Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.
What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.
Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.
Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”
One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.
DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.
Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.
I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.
Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.