Party of one: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2022

Four independent workers’ soviets operated concurrently in Moscow during the Russian 1905 Revolution. Proud Soviet historians were always quick to point out that the one aligned with the Bolsheviks operated a bomb-making operation out of Maxim Gorky’s apartment. Meanwhile, the more famous 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, precursor to the 1917 Petrograd soviet, had puzzling gaps in its official Soviet history until the anarchist historian Voline published The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 in 1947. In it he revealed that the soviet met in his St. Petersburg apartment.

Aside from the usual disputes over primary and secondary evidence or what constitutes historical fact, and before any arguments over what a particular history signifies, there are always the missing parts of history. What I mean is the things that happened and affected the course of history but that never got recorded in the historical record and thus were subsequently forgotten. The 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet met in Voline’s apartment and contributed to the development of soviet power whether or not that fact was entered into the historical record prior to 1947. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.

I’ve been writing this column for nearly thirty-one years. People who know me, who’ve read my writing, know that I comment on everything, from the mundane to what’s impolite to discuss over dinner with the family—politics, religion, sex, drugs, rocknroll, etc. I don’t lack for opinions. But over the years I’ve written columns that have never seen the light of day, including several decidedly sectarian ultraleft hit pieces. I wrote a rant about the 2014 Israel-Gaza  conflict that I never published. And I’m refraining from doing a column about the current Russia-Ukraine war even though I have plenty to say about it. These gaps in my Hooligan history are deliberate. If you’re looking for a particular opinion, it might just be sequestered away in self-imposed exile.

I’ve been more selective of late about sharing my opinions with the world for a number of reasons.

First, while I do have a sizable ego, I’m not an ideologue. I might think I’m right most of the time, but what I say isn’t some “correct political line.” Leftist political parties are notorious for formulating all-encompassing theoretical perspectives based on political principles or “points of unity” to determine the thinking and actions of their members. It’s called “the party line” and who or what the party supports or denounces is based on that line. As conditions change, the analysis of the situation and the set of actions can change issue by issue. The political party in question may range from a handful of members (the ultragauche groupuscule) to millions of followers and fellow travelers (the mass social democratic and Communist parties of the 1930s through 1950s). Whatever the case, the party line functions to provide ideological coherence, a basis for collective action, a recruitment tool, and a tool for corrective discipline. I’ve frequently joked that my columns constitute “the Hooligan line,” but my strong perspectives don’t amount to the “correct political line” nor am I a “party of one” intent on individually approving or critiquing every situation that arises.

Second, I’ve been known to change my mind. My words are not chiseled in stone like the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai. I do have my knee-jerk responses and my ideologically-constrained viewpoints but I’ve evolved over time. I started out politically as a left anarchist favoring popular self-determination who took on a “no war but the class war” stance that eventually became a stone internationalist left communism. Yet now I’ve returned to an appreciation of what I call para-nationalism—the subtle concepts of national identity present in the Jewish Labor Bund’s doikayt in Eastern Europe, the Black Panther Party’s program of community control in the US, the EZLN’s indigenismo in Chiapas, and the SDF’s democratic confederalism in Rojava. On a smaller scale, I argued that January 6, 2020, “was a riot not a coup” and that the participants “were selfie-taking wannabe social media influencers not insurrectionists.” But in the back-and-forth on FB I came around to calling what Trump did “an attempted autogolpes, a ‘self-coup’ that failed miserably because of his ineptitude.” Recent revelations about the conspiratorial planning of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys leading up to January 6 only reinforce my change of mind.

Third, I still act. To subscribe to an all-encompassing political analysis—a “party line”—often means only taking action the ideological rationale for which fits into the framework of that analysis. And to become a “party of one”—to formulate a binding personal analysis that covers each and every new issue that might arise—frequently means not doing anything at all because nothing is ever really good or “correct” enough. I’m going on 70 years old but I do more than sign petitions, write letters, give money, or go to the usual protest-march-rally-demonstration. I’m a member of various political mass organizations—actively with the National Writers Union and nominally with Democratic Socialists of America(1)—which have their own political lines that I critically support but not always fully endorse. I staff tables, join picket lines, participate in boycotts and strikes, do phone banking, attend organizational events, even join in the occasional riot. Or to quote Sartre: “To be is to act, and to cease to act is to cease to be.”

Finally, and most controversially, I aspire to realize what Suzuki-rōshi meant when he said: “Everything is One Mind. Everything is Buddha Mind.” I’m incapable of transcending the dualisms in my thinking, of not thinking I’m right and others are wrong, even if I tweak those dualisms with Marxist dialectics. Yet I make the effort to do the impossible, to try and understand that every duality is part of a single whole. I’ve been listening to Peter Coyote’s videos lately. Coyote was a Digger who took up meditation in the Sōtō Zen tradition in 1975, the same type of Buddhism I dabble in. He’s also an ardent leftwing activist as can be gleaned from his autobiographical books Sleeping Where I Fall and The Rainman’s Third Cure. So it’s simultaneously enlightening and disheartening to hear him say: “It’s not like you have to do away with the dualism. You have to not be caught by it. You have to realize that both sides of the dualism are just different expressions of Big Mind. Me and Donald Trump, the same expressions of Big Mind.” I won’t live long enough to see genuine socialism—the utopia of a stateless, classless, global human community—even as I work for socialism. Ultimately though, no one gets out of here alive. To strive to do what is impossible is a uniquely zen koan. Another amusing zen aphorism urges “don’t just do something, sit there” which sets up a final duality with the Sartre quote above.

One nice thing about having a ready reserve of columns at hand is that I’m able to cannibalize them to continue writing new ones. The first paragraph of this piece was actually recycled from something I never printed or posted. Returning to the missing parts of history, there is the further complication in that we don’t have facts, only the evidence for a fact. David Hume argued that gravity is not a fact. We don’t see gravity. We only have evidence for the fact of gravity every time we drop something and see it fall. Depending how skeptical we are determines how much evidence we need to jump from the evidence for gravity to the fact of gravity. Historians are keen on primary versus secondary sources when doing research and writing history. Voline’s anarchist history is both a primary source (an eyewitness account) and a secondary source (a compilation and interpretation of primary and secondary sources). Meeting notes from the 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, photographs of the meetings and those in attendance, even Voline’s rent receipts for his apartment would all constitute further primary sources if they could be produced. But given the corrosive effects of conspiracy theories and conspiracism (the growing belief in and promotion of political conspiracy theories) there is no guarantee that even solid evidence for historical facts will be accepted. Conspiracy theorists pride themselves in revealing secret history when in fact they fabricate pseudo-history.

I’m also lazy and have my own agenda. At best I’m an unreliable narrator, at worst a liar. And I can be an asshole, which accounts for a couple of withheld columns. But drawing analogies to history as a study of the past with my writing regimen which relies heavily on history has its limits. I long ago rejected the notion that history can be written objectively and scientifically. I’m not confined to history but use every available rhetorical device (narration, description, argumentation, persuasion, comparison, illustration, definition, personal remembrances, etc). I occasionally indulge in undisguised fiction writing. First and foremost I’m a writer.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 by Voline
Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre
“Precepts: Buddha’s Hand, Effort” dharma talk by Suzuki-rōshi
Sleeping Where I Fall and The Rainman’s Third Cure by Peter Coyote
“Anti-Nationalism in Ideology and Practice: Leftists and the Ukraine-Russia War” by Spencer Sunshine

FOOTNOTES:
(1) I support DSA, a pre-party formation, like I’ve supported other political party formations on the Left—with several grains of salt. I’ve voted ever since the voting age was dropped to 18 when I was 18. Sometimes I’ve voted for the lesser-of-two-evils Democratic Party candidate, other times the idealistic doesn’t-stand-a-chance-of-winning third party Peace and Freedom Party candidate, but I’ve always voted. The P&FP was founded in 1968, had party organizations in over a dozen states, and ran presidential candidates like Eldridge Cleaver, Benjamin Spock, Leonard Peltier, and Ralph Nader. Now it’s active only in California and has recently become the hostage to post-Marcyist ML wingnuttery. I joined DSA just to give support to something remotely, cogently Leftist in US electoral politics.

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