Street fighting spirit: “What’s Left?” April 2011, MRR #335

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
No

Written about British Pakistani New Leftie Tariq Ali, this tongue-in-cheek Rolling Stones ditty remains a rousing anthem to a familiar type of political testosterone. I remember that, during the 1970 Isla Vista riots, a local record store hoisted massive speakers onto their roof and blasted “Street Fighting Man” full blast as students battled police in the winding streets of that soporific beach town. Covered by folks as diverse as Rod Stewart and the Ramones, the version done by Zack de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine embodies the bombast, if not the fury, intended by the Stones.

An acquaintance once commented that politics is a young man’s game. From the Paris riots of 1968, which inspired my initial interest in politics, to the current Cairo riots, young people dominated the streets. And by young people, I mean young men. For while the 60s saw a considerable uptick of female participation in what, at the time, we all considered to be revolutionary activity, the campus occupations and street fighting were still a man’s world. Similarly, reports from Tahrir Square at the beginning of the anti-Mubarak uprising described a surprising sexual equality in the numbers participating in the occupation. But when Mubarak’s supporters, with the help of the secret police, assaulted the protesters with horses and camels, and then laid siege to the square with rocks, molotovs and guns, the complexion of the protest quickly changed to mostly male. Excuse me, but since I don’t give a flying fuck about what’s politically correct, I’m not beyond crediting biology for differences in strength, and testosterone for increased levels of aggression to account for the dominance of young men in street politics.

Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Street politics is the crucial referent here. To be young, able to hurl abuse and more at the cops, then to outmaneuver and outrun their fat, riot-gear-encumbered asses; that’s what’s thrilling about being a street fighting man. It’s what, approaching 60, with bad feet and a bum knee, I can appreciate only vicariously, or as ever-receding personal memories. I mean, it’s not like I can’t participate in politics per se. Much like war, in which old men make the decisions while young men do the fighting and dying, politics entails the young in the streets and the old in the smoke-filled back rooms. But politics without the streets—the politics of meetings, deal making and compromise—was always an absolute bore to my way of thinking. So, that leaves me on the sidelines, taking in the only politics that truly matter—street politics—as a spectator sport.

Whether as a spectator or as a participant, being a partisan of those who take to the streets to fight the powers that be can produce a skewed view of things. Siding with rioters against the police is like being a Mets or a Red Sox fan in that you’re bound to be on the losing side most of the time. For every Cairo, there are ten thousand Tehrans. Yet such persistent defeat never seems to dampen an irrational optimism among sympathizers whenever and wherever rioting breaks out. I’m in a radical reading group whose ultra left members invariably go into paroxysms of adulation every time a bunch of students go on a rampage, break windows, block traffic, burn dumpsters, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This exercise in youthful excess, in turn, has been elevated to the absurd heights of a revolutionary strategy by the current crop of insurrectionary anarchists and left communists. Oddly however, Glenn Beck seems to be the only one serious about a specter of permanent insurrection, seeing in Egypt the hand of the Invisible Committee and “the beginning of ‘the coming insurrection.’”

Such surprisingly naïve enthusiasm, and sadly infantile rebellion, is far better than the opportunistic instrumentalism of much of the Leninist Left. When not considered cannon fodder for the party and the revolution, street politics are judged progressive so long as they strike a blow against US hegemony, and insurgents, whatever their political persuasion, are defined either as “objectively anti-imperialist” or in terms of “the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.” Thus, Leninists of various stripes defended the Islamic students who took American embassy personnel hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981 as radical, even as those students pledged their undying loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shiite revolution.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man
No

Leave it to Leninism to squeeze all the juice, all the insurrectionary spirit, out of street politics. If the Left were honest, they would take Bakunin’s infamous remark that “the destructive urge is a creative urge” and admit that the destructive urge is sufficient unto itself. There is something absolutely elemental about the whirlwind of destruction unleashed by taking to the streets, and taking them away from the powers that be, even momentarily. We’re not talking about simple hormones here, but about something deeper, Freudian, archetypal; something that transcends human biology to reach what is essential to life. The desire to reduce illusions to ashes, power to shambles, civilization to smoking ruin must be seen in the light of the sheer aesthetic joy in the conflagration itself. It is the stuff of the demiurge, which in Christian mythology goes by the names Satan and Lucifer. Or, as it goes in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds,” which Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased upon witnessing humanity’s detonation of the first atomic bomb. I’ve communed with this deity of destruction perhaps a dozen times in my life thanks to my involvement in radical street politics. An intoxicating experience each time. Which is why this armchair stuff is such a drag.

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