Left of the Left: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2022

I sometimes view humanity’s sordid past as one long, interminable tale chronicling organized bands of murderous thugs trying to exterminate each other. Much as I admire the sentiment of pacifism and humanism, I’m neither a pacifist nor a humanist. Homicide seems to be part of our species, with genocide often its inevitable conclusion.

I’ve been on the left of the Left for most of my life; from being a left anarchist in my youth to a half-assed libertarian Marxist today. That means embracing a vision of stateless, classless global communism even as I abhor the terrors perpetrated by Leninist movements and regimes. I consider all forms of Fascism an abomination, and I dismiss the red-brown sophistry of Third Positionism as fascist sleight-of-hand. In the wake of the precipitous 1989-91 collapse of the Communist bloc, there’s been an upsurge of tankyism/campism on the Left that sees world conflict in terms of US-led imperialism versus any and all opposition to imperialism. That anti-imperialist “camp” is considered socialist by default, even when it’s in defense of patently capitalist, authoritarian, totalitarian, even outright fascist regimes. Then there’s the steady rehabilitation of overtly Fascist/Nazi politics. Last column I commented that, when I was growing up I only saw Nazis as fictional TV characters. Now I see them unashamedly flaunting their fascism in the Republican Party and in demonstrations I’ve recently organized against.

So why do I identify with the Left, despise the Right, and consistently choose socialism over barbarism every time?

First, the mass uprising metric. There have been scores of popular mass socialist uprisings around the world in the last 150 years[1]. Whether lasting a few days or many years, these revolutionary moments ultimately failed in that they could not consolidate a viable, liberated socialist society from those uprisings. Frequently they were usurped by Leninist vanguard parties, occasionally they were coopted or suppressed by social democratic or liberal capitalist regimes, and just as often they were smashed by Fascist forces. But their initial impulse was for socialist self-emancipation. There have been no popular mass Fascist uprisings anywhere, at anytime. That includes the January 6, 2021 soft coup encouraged by Trump and organized by the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other modern-day Freikorps in Trump’s name.

Writers have sometimes tried their hand at imagining a successful libertarian socialist revolution, the most famous being Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. I’ve included libertarian socialist utopian fantasies in most of my published fiction. The closest I got to experiencing real existing socialism that was dynamic, democratic and viable was when I lived on a kibbutz for six months in 1974. And yet I critique socialist Zionism as a settler-colonial “socialism for one people.” All of this however is based on the fact that socialism usually starts in popular mass uprisings, which in turn inspires the hope for a liberatory socialist future. The same can’t be said for Fascism. There is a famous photo of Gabriele D’Annunzio and his private army of nationalist irregulars being greeted by cheering crowds during the seizure of Fiume in September, 1919. Much like Mussolini’s underwhelming, thoroughly staged 1922 March on Rome, Fascism may have garnered a measure of popular support but it never inspired broad based, spontaneous, mass armed insurrections. Reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s exhaustive and exhausting biography Gabriele d’Annunzio only reinforces that fact.

Second, the mass murder metric. Worldwide, all Leninist movements and regimes since 1917 have butchered around 110 million people according to The Black Book of Communism by Stéphane Courtois et al.[2] By contrast, the Nazi regime alone obliterated over 40-50 million human beings in something like 12 years across continental Europe. That’s an order of magnitude difference in mass murder. To quote from R.J. Rummel’s Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder (1992): “[a]nnually […] the Nazis killed six to seven people out of every hundred in occupied Europe. The odds of a European dying under Nazi occupation were about one in fifteen. […] The annual odds of being killed by the Nazis during their occupation were almost two-and-a-half times that of Soviet citizens being slain by their government since 1917; over nine times that for Chinese living in Communist China after 1949. […] Given the years and population available to this gang of megamurderers, the Nazis have been the most lethal murderers.”

This is partly due to the real ideological and material differences between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Consider the example of Poland, first under Nazi occupation and then under the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.

The Nazis believed in the innate superiority of the Aryan race, meaning the German people, as well as in the unalloyed virtues of war. When Germany occupied Poland in 1939, the country had approximately 30 million people. Nazi race ideology held that all Slavs were untermenschen—subhumans—even though they were as “white” and as “European” as the Germans. The Nazis had no plans for any sort of territorial identity for the Poles (or for that matter the Russians or Ukrainians) in the German drive for lebensraum to the East. It’s no coincidence that the major Nazi extermination camps were all located in Poland or that the Einsatzagruppen mobile death squads operated entirely on the Eastern front. By the Soviet liberation of Poland in 1945, six million Poles—one in five—had been killed. At that rate of attrition, and given any ongoing Nazi occupation, the Polish people would have been liquidated a decade and a half before 1989, when the Warsaw Pact finally collapsed.

The Soviet Union promoted the Marxist belief in a common humanity, a human race eventually united in its progress towards communism. Instead of eliminating or absorbing the peoples and nations along its western border, the Soviets created the Warsaw Pact in 1955, a fraternal federation of socialist nations under Soviet domination headquartered in Warsaw, Poland. The Soviet Union operated an extremely harsh system of forced labor camps, the gulags, and carried out the brutal repression of rebellious ethnic and national minorities. Yet neither of these were policies of mass extermination. The Great Patriotic War as the Soviets called the war to rid Europe of fascism and Nazism was certainly honored and praised. But war itself was never glorified. Forty-five years after it was liberated from Nazi occupation, Poland emerged an independent nation in 1989; bruised, battered, but still recognizably Polish.

Needless to say, I take this personally. I’m middle class despite my proletarian pretensions, so I would have been marked for reeducation or forced labor under a Soviet-style Leninist regime. But as a Pole under Nazi occupation I would have been targeted for liquidation. I may or may not have survived under the old Soviet Union, but I definitely would have been annihilated under the Nazi occupation.

(While both Courtois and Rummel need to be taken with several grains of salt, the same point is made by Paul Preston in his prestigious tome The Spanish Holocaust. Preston doesn’t discount, downplay, or apologize for either the calculated CP-instigated Red Terror or the more spontaneous anarchist-inspired massacres of capitalists and clergy in the Republican zone. He nevertheless contends that around 50,000 Spaniards were slaughtered by Republican forces, as compared to 150,000 Spaniards massacred by Franco’s rebel forces throughout Spain, leading Preston to conclude that Franco’s atrocities during and after the Civil War amounted to nothing less than a holocaust, “a carefully planned operation to eliminate … ‘those who do not think as we do’,” a mass murder of Spaniards unprecedented in Spanish history.)[3]

Should I then take the opposite tack and declare that each individual life is beyond precious, or that the agency and rationality of human beings, both individually and collectively, is to be valued above all else?

The human-centric nature of modern civilization, which is the essence of humanism, is as exterminationist as any Nazi vernichtungslager. The sixth and perhaps most wide-ranging ecological mass extinction is being fueled by just such a rational humanism, a prioritizing of human beings over everything, including the natural world. As for the sanctimonious hand wringing over one life for millions, there’s no need to indulge in some fanciful time travel scenario (eg “killing Hitler”). Societies engage in similar if less lethal decisions all the time in resolving to keep unrepentant killers separated from the general public. By remaining morally pure in refusing to sanction the assassination of one person, say a particularly reviled tyrant, potential mass murder is condoned through inaction and default.

Human beings existed for hundreds of thousands of years as tribal hunter/gatherer societies. Whether or not such primitive tribes were the “original affluent society” as Marshall Sahlins contended, they were profoundly egalitarian and communalist. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called this “primitive communism,” but it wasn’t a “utopia of basket-weaving peace lovers” (per Dean Burnett) by any stretch. Our early ancestors may not have engaged in the organized lethal violence we call warfare until they developed sedentary agricultural societies, but there is evidence that intergroup aggression often occurred between hunter/gatherer bands in the form of raids to steal foodstuffs and women. (Engels’ thesis in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that those origins were due to primitive matriarchies being overthrown by patriarchal coups intent on securing male lineages for children is incorrect. Apparently, women have always been considered “spoils.”) This includes observations that modern hunter/gatherers engage in ritual team fighting games to learn and exercise the coordination and motor skills needed for lethal raiding and warfare, implying there are elements of sport and pleasure to such homicidal behavior. Then and now, a particularly deadly raid against a small, culturally or ethnically distinct tribe might result in its complete annihilation. In other words, primitive genocide.

Like Marx, I consider humans to be social animals. But human sociality does not preclude a penchant for homicide or tribalism it seems. I’m not saying murder or sectarianism are innate to us as a species, or that these aspects of human sociality are immutable. I have no doubt human social development over time can curb or eliminate both. But I’m reminded of a witty definition in Ambrose Bierce’s Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary: “Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”

Personal recollections
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels (1884)
Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1902)
“Social Stratification in Polynesia: a Study of Adaptive Variation in Culture” (1954) and Stone Age Economics (1974) by Marshall Sahlins
Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder by R.J. Rummel (1992)
War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley (1996)
The Black Book of Communism by Stéphane Courtois et al (1997)
The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech (1999)
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller (2000)
How War Began: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Keith Otterbein (2004)
Reinvention of Primitive Society by Adam Kuper (2005)
The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory by Guilaine and Zammit (2005)
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston (2011)
Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2013)
Constant Battles: Why We Fight by Le Blanc and Register (2013)
“Time travellers: please don’t kill Hitler” by Dean Burnett (Guardian, 2-21-2014)
“Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya” by M. Mirazón Lahr et al (Nature volume 529, 1-20-2016)
“Coalitional Play Fighting and the Evolution of Coalitional Intergroup Aggression” by Sugiyama, Mendoza, White & Sugiyama (Nature, 6-29-2018)

[1] ANNOTATED LIST: Paris Commune—1871; Russia—1905, 1917; Poland,—1905, 1918, 1944-47, 1956, 1970-71, 1980-81; Mexico—1910-20, 1994, 2011; Glasgow, Scotland—1915; Austria—1918; Germany—1918-19; Bavaria—1918-19; Ukraine—1918-21—Hungary, 1919, 1956; Northern Italy—1919-20; Ireland—1920-21; Shanghai, China—1927, 1967; Korea—1929-31; South Korea—1960; Spain—1936-39; Vietnam—1945; Indonesia—1945-46; Yugoslavia—1950-89; Algeria—1962-65; France—1968; Australia—1971-80, 1990; Chile—1973; Argentina—1973, 2001-02; Portugal—1974-76; Iran—1978-79; Canada—1981; Iraq—1991-92; Chiapas—1994-present; Rojava—2013-19.

[2] The death toll ascribed to other forms of socialism (anarchism, social democracy, left communism, etc.) is minuscule compared to the slaughter perpetrated in the name of Leninism. By contrast, during the 4 plus years of the American Civil War alone, between 620,000 and 750,000 soldiers died, along with an unknown number of civilian casualties. Estimates for the total casualty count (military and civilian) averages 1.5 million. That’s between 2% and 5% of the US population dying during America’s bloodiest internal conflict. As for the total number of deaths due to capitalism between 1492 and the present, 222,500,000 is a very conservative number:
100,000,000: Extermination of native Americans (1492–1890)
15,000,000: Atlantic slave trade (1500–1870)
150,000: French repression of Haiti slave revolt (1792–1803)
300,000: French conquest of Algeria (1830–1847)
50,000: Opium Wars (1839–1842 & 1856–1860)
1,000,000: Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849)
100,000: British suppression of the Sepoy Mutiny (1857–1858)
20,000: Paris Commune Massacre (1871)
29,000,000: Famine in British Colonized India (1876–1879 & 1897–1902)
3,445: Black people lynched in the US (1882–1964)
10,000,000: Belgian Congo Atrocities: (1885–1908)
250,000: US conquest of the Philippines (1898–1913)
28,000: British concentration camps in South Africa (1899–1902)
800,000: French exploitation of Equatorial Africans (1900–1940)
65,000: German genocide of the Herero and Namaqua (1904–1907)
10,000,000: First World War (1914–1918)
100,000: White army pogroms against Jews (1917–1920)
600,000: Fascist Italian conquest in Africa (1922–1943)
10,000,000: Japanese Imperialism in East Asia (1931–1945)
200,000: White Terror in Spain (1936–1945)
25,000,000: Nazi oppression in Europe: (1938–1945)
30,000: Kuomintang Massacre in Taiwan (1947)
80,000: French suppression of Madagascar revolt (1947)
30,000: Israeli colonization of Palestine (1948-present)
100,000: South Korean Massacres (1948–1950)
50,000: British suppression of the Mau-Mau revolt (1952-1960)
16,000: Shah of Iran regime (1953–1979)
1,000,000: Algerian war of independence (1954–1962)
200,000: Juntas in Guatemala (1954–1962)
50,000: Papa & Baby Doc regimes in Haiti (1957–1971)
3,000,000: Vietnamese killed by US military (1963–1975)
1,000,000: Indonesian mass killings (1965–1966)
1,000,000: Biafran War (1967–1970)
400: Tlatelolco massacre (1968)
700,000: US bombing of Laos & Cambodia (1967–1973)
50,000: Somoza regime in Nicaragua (1972–1979)
3,200: Pinochet regime in Chile: (1973–1990)
1,500,000: Angola Civil War (1974–1992)
200,000: East Timor massacre (1975–1998)
1,000,000: Mozambique Civil War (1975–1990)
30,000: US-backed state terrorism in Argentina (1975–1990)
70,000: El Salvador military dictatorships (1977–1991)
30,000: Contra proxy war in Nicaragua: (1979–1990)
16,000: Bhopal Carbide disaster (1984)
3,000: US invasion of Panama (1989)
1,000,000: US embargo on Iraq (1991–2003)
400,000: Mujahideen faction conflict in Afghanistan (1992–1996)
200,000: Destruction of Yugoslavia (1992–1995)
6,000,000: Congolese Civil War (1997–2008)
30,000: NATO occupation of Afghanistan (2001-present)
(David King/Quora)

[3] To avoid endlessly arguing over “who is the real socialist,” and incidentally whether Hitler’s National Socialism was true socialism, I’ve defaulted to using generic textbook terms in the above essay. By socialism I mean social democracy, anarchism, syndicalism, libertarian Marxism, Leninism, etc. And when I use capitalism I mean laissez-faire to corporate capitalism, Fascism, Nazism, Francoism, etc.

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