Against But Not Anti: “What’s Left?” December 2017, MRR #415

I fancy myself a “citizen of the world,” but I’m merely a denizen of these United States of America. As such I feel obliged to oppose US imperialism and seek to dismantle the American empire. But that doesn’t make me an “anti-imperialist.” To quote Gilles Dauvé: “I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.”

For me then, part of not being a dyed-in-the-wool vulgar Leninist anti-imperialist and opposing imperialism “objectively” everywhere is focusing primarily on my country’s imperialist exploitation and appropriation around the world. I really don’t spend much time and energy railing against, for instance, either Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism.

Russia is a US rival and sometime enemy that has imperialized Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine, etc., while Israel is a US ally and client state that has imperialized the West Bank and parts of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Those military and economic encroachments are only secondarily my concern as I am currently focused on US saber rattling in East Asia (Korea) and South America (Venezuela).

There can be extenuating circumstances of course. I am Polish by family origin so when Russia recently threatened Poland over the removal of WWII Soviet era statues I took notice. My wife is a Jewish “red diaper baby” and she has a consistent anti-Zionist take on Israel. But we don’t spend every minute of every hour of every day denouncing respectively Russian or Israeli imperialism.

What’s more, I suspect that my fellow American netizens who spend all their time and energy condemning Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism have ulterior motives. In the case of Russia it’s Cold War anti-communism and in the case of Israel it’s old fashioned anti-semitism. Long associated with rightwing politics, anti-communism and anti-semitism are more and more products of the Left.

Anti-imperialism is one of those unifying principles common to Leftist organizations and movements. From the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program to more generic points of unity, an ideological laundry list is de rigueur for the Left. Classical anarchism remained largely aloof from this requirement until the rise of the New Left in the 1960s. The practice of formulating points of unity as a programmatic norm and organizing method eventually became part-and-parcel of anarchist organizations and movements generally as they incorporated elements of New Left and old Left politics, an argument post-left anarchists are fond of making. As for the ultraleft, we’ve tended to make each point in any list of basic positions a thorough treatise worthy of its own volume of Capital. Antifascism is yet another unifying Leftist principle.

We’d planned to go to Crissy Field to confront the Patriot Prayer fascists on August 26 when the whole Bay Area was mobilizing despite cancelled bus lines, locked down militarized neighborhoods, unnerving uncertainties, and real physical dangers. There was a lot of political pressure for the National Parks Department to cancel the permit, which didn’t happen, even as other similar provocations around the country were shut down. The overwhelming media coverage of the proposed event guaranteed that the Bay Area Left showed up in force on Saturday.

Other protest events had been planned nearby, such as the SF LovedUp Mobile Dance Counter-Rally just down the bay at Marina Green Park. And lots of folks thought the best strategy was to avoid Crissy Field altogether for symbolic anti-fash events elsewhere. Me, I think it’s always necessary to confront fascism directly. So when Patriot Prayer cancelled their rally the night before and it was clear Joey Gibson had flown the coop the morning of, I was relieved and elated, but also disappointed. Things had changed from directly confronting real live fascists to symbolically protesting the rise of fascism, and I’d done enough symbolic protesting during my last half century of leftist politics thank you. So while I was glad, I only briefly attended the largely celebratory demonstrations at Alamo Square and then the Castro, and I didn’t care to march down Market Street yet one more time. Truth be told, while I was happy San Francisco had repelled the fascists through our mobilization, the symbolic mass demonstrations that followed were a bit of a letdown.

Leave it to Berkeley to set the standard for directly confronting the fash, when a demonstration of 7,000 anti-fascist protesters marched on MLK/Civic Center Park, with 500 embedded black clad antifa overwhelming the police and taking over the park on Sunday, August 27.

I’d intended to demonstrate in San Francisco as an unaffiliated leftist against fascism, not as antifa. For one thing I’m 65 years old, take blood thinners, and have bad knees. I’d stopped the blood thinners days before in case I got hit upside the head by a rogue nazi. But I was there to demonstrate against, not to fight the fash, so I wasn’t going to be on the front lines. I admire antifa and their stated strategy to confront fascism everywhere with direct action. I post a lot of pro-antifa stuff on my facebook profile. But I also hold to a diversity of strategies (per Doug Henwood of The Nation), where “some of us are fighters, some of us organizers—and some of us like to write about history, theory, and the current conjuncture.” I was never good at the “boring hard slog of organizing” and I’m too old for “street-based politics.” So now I kibbitz from the sidelines and go to demonstrations and protest against fascism.

Notice I didn’t say I was antifascist. I have Gilles Dauvé’s reservations of liberal antifascism: “I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.” Antifa suffers from a similar political monomania, tempered only by it’s emphasis on direct action and it’s de facto anarchism.

And I have criticisms of antifa’s direct action and default anarchism as well. Militarily speaking the decentralized black bloc tactic might work well as cat-and-mouse with the cops, but it’s more like brutal gang warfare against alt.right paramilitary formations. It lacks the capacity to scale up to higher levels of organization, logistics, and mobility, so I think antifa needs to investigate other historic antifascist modes of self-defense such as militias and commando operations.

I have the usual ultraleft critique of anarchism, but for now I think that antifa’s implied goal of anarchism is so far removed from its tactics and strategy as to be useless. To understand my point, consider the goal of democratic socialism held by orthodox social democracy. To achieve that goal social democrats usually put forward parallel political party and labor union mass strategies out of which spring a myriad of tactics—education and propaganda, electioneering and organizing, shadow governments and mass strikes, etc. Rules of engagement are derived from one’s strategies and measures of success from the outcome of one’s tactics. By contrast, antifa has a single strategy—stop the fash—which produces limited tactics—education, doxxing, direct action. Strategy and tactics are so immediate and narrow as to have virtually no direct connection to any stated or implied goal of anarchism. Frankly, I don’t see how one leads to the other except for the usual @ cliché that antifa’s means and ends are identical.

I’m critical of anti-imperialism even while I’m against imperialism. I have criticisms of antifascism and antifa even while I’m against fascism. Similarly, I have problems with most anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist stances even while I’m against capitalism and colonialism. I like to think my political critiques are well-reasoned and not simply a product of my characteristic devil’s advocacy, my knee-jerk contrarianism expressed by Groucho Marx and the Ramones when they sang: “I’m against it!”

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Je Suis Charlie: “What’s Left?” March 2015, MRR #382

I woke up on Thursday morning, January 8, to learn of the massacre of twelve French individuals at the headquarters of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, by two other French nationals, Muslims who claimed allegiance to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This Al Qaeda affiliate which operates primarily in Yemen acknowledged that it had directed the Paris attack “as revenge for the honor” of the long-dead Prophet Muhammad, who had supposedly been blasphemed by the bandes dessinées of Charlie’s four famous cartoonists. Right away, I noticed that virtually all of the online stories and posts covering the bloody assault from major media outlets featured a video of the two masked gunmen fleeing their strike that looked severely edited. When I tracked down the original, full version of that video, it showed what was missing: the escaping gunmen wounding an unarmed policeman on the sidewalk outside Charlie Hebdo, then circling back to dispatch the policeman with a shot to the head as he lie begging for mercy.

This was just the most obvious example of media self-censorship in this incident, an act of squeamishness made more ironic by being contrasted in my mind to the regular cop-heavy American TV fare with its colossal—if fictitious—graphic body counts. Add to this the media outcry over the attack on “freedom of expression” that the Charlie Hebdo massacre is assumed to represent and the irony is complete.

Emily Greenhouse commented in Bloomberg (“What’s at stake in Europe’s response to Charlie Hebdo,” 1/8/15) on the “complicated cultural realities” across the continent as illustrated by France. Home to the largest Jewish minority in Europe, France also has the largest Muslim population in Europe. So, while French president Hollande proclaimed a nationwide battle against racism and anti-semitism in 2015, “[f]or all of France’s fine political abstractions, ethnic identity is inescapable. Everyone is obsessed with where everyone else comes from. The French government tells itself that it doesn’t ‘see’ or recognize race, so racism is impossible—but those are just words.” Holocaust denial, as well as overt anti-semitic hate speech, is illegal in France as well as the rest of western Europe, but this is not the case with anti-Muslim or anti-Arab hate speech. Using the case of the French government’s political harassment of comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala to illustrate the larger issue, Greenhouse writes: “It might upset some people that Dieudonné’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Jews—is illegal, while Charlie Hebdo’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Muslims—is not.”

Charlie Hebdo itself exemplified this contradiction by, on the one hand, firing a cartoonist in 2008 for making illegal anti-semitic comments while, on the other hand, regularly printing perfectly legal, nasty anti-Muslim cartoons. Jordan Weissman argued in Slate: “So Charlie Hebdo’s work was both courageous and often vile. […] We have to condemn obvious racism as loudly as we defend the right to engage in it.” Free speech absolutist Glenn Greenwald goes the step further in his column “In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons” on The Intercept website (1/9/15). “One defends the right to express repellent ideas while being able to condemn the idea itself.” Greenwald lays out this principle, which he heartily supports, while taking things to an extreme, which is his wont:
But this week’s defense of free speech rights was so spirited that it gave rise to a brand new principle: to defend free speech, one not only defends the right to disseminate the speech, but embraces the content of the speech itself. Numerous writers thus demanded: to show ‘solidarity’ with the murdered cartoonists, one should not merely condemn the attacks and defend the right of the cartoonists to publish, but should publish and even celebrate those cartoons. ‘The best response to Charlie Hebdo attack,’ announced Slate’s editor Jacob Weisberg, “is to escalate blasphemous satire.”
Greenwald then proceeds to reprint some vile Nazi/white supremacist anti-semitic cartoons, as well as some of Carlos Latuff’s more thoughtful, virulent anti-Zionist cartoons, in a tongue-in-cheek “solidarity.” This is plainly a case of “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” to use an old cliché. Greenwald proceeds to lambast the suppression of ideas and the media’s self-censorship “out of fear (rather than a desire to avoid publishing gratuitously offensive material)” and argues that “there are all kinds of pernicious taboos in the west that result in self-censorship or compelled suppression of political ideas, from prosecution and imprisonment to career destruction: why is violence by Muslims the most menacing one?”

Glenn Greenwald excoriates unreflective calls for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in order to bolster his defense of the right to express repellent ideas while condemning those ideas themselves. I do admire free speech absolutists like Greenwald, while not being one myself. One reason I am not is based on “fine political abstractions” like not believing in the concept of “rights.” Our “rights” cannot be guaranteed by some spook in the sky (God) or some piece of parchment (the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) or some fanciful state of nature (which seems in conflict with concurrent notions of “the survival of the fittest”). If we depend on the government to defend our “rights,” then what the government gives the government can certainly take away. And if we depend on ourselves, individually and collectively, to defend our “rights” through organization and action to advance our power, we come awfully close to declaring that “might is right.” The idea of “rights” then is sorely lacking in any intelligent foundation.

My main reason, however, is practical. If I belonged to a minority group, and some other group of people were organizing to massacre me and other members of my minority, I would do everything in my power to defend myself and my group to prevent being killed, including denying my attackers their free speech as a tool for organizing their attempt at genocide. In a previous column, I defended Vidal Sassoon’s history in joining the British 43 Group of Jewish war veterans in 1947 to streetfight against Oswald Mosley’s resurgent fascist Union Movement, with the 43 Group’s intent to bloody the Union Movement’s members, shatter its organization, and crush its social movement. Individual freedoms can never be absolute as they are invariably in conflict, with my freedom to stay alive in conflict with some fascist’s freedom to liquidate my commie pinko ass, for instance. If some Nazi scum were talking smack in preparation of wiping out me and my fellow Reds, I would not hesitate to shut them up to keep them from organizing and carrying through with their plans.

All of this is crucially important, what with the violence at Charlie Hebdo threatening to “fuel support for the far-right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic politics throughout Europe” and here in the United States, again according to Emily Greenhouse. James Neuger details many of the particulars of this supposed turn to the right in Europe, from the National Front in France to Germany’s Pegida, in his article “Europe’s Islam Debate Erupts as Paris Killers at Large” (Bloomberg News, 1-8-15). It is far too simplistic however to argue that Islamic terrorism feeds rightwing reaction, squeezing out “freedom of expression” in the middle. This is actually part of a broader polarization of European politics which sees the rise of more extreme politics on both Left and Right due to a number of factors, as correspondents from The Guardian/Observer sketched in “Across Europe disillusioned voters turn to outsiders for solutions” in November of last year. Listed are not just the National Front but also the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in France, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement in Italy, the ultra-left Syriza and ultra-right Golden Dawn in Greece, leftist German Die Linke as well as rightist Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the rightwing Sweden Democrats and Norway’s Progress Party as well as the leftwing Feminist Initiative in Sweden and Danish Red-Green Alliance. Also discussed are Britain’s UKIP and BNP on the right and the pro-secessionist Scottish National Party, the rise of the Socialists and People Before Profit in Ireland alongside massive popular tax rebellions, and the left leaning Podemas Party that grew out of the indignados protests in Spain in 2011-12 in addition to regional secessionist movements such as the Republican Left of Catalonia. The Left’s anti-austerity and anti-globalization concerns are counterpointed by the Right’s anti-immigrant nationalism, with issues like anti-corruption and secession ranging across the typical Left/Right spectrum. But whether Left or Right, there are aspects to this “rise of insurgent parties across the continent,” to this anti-establishment, anti-EU upsurge, that mark a pause—if not a retreat—from the project of European integration.

How “freedom of expression” will fair through all of this is anyone’s guess.

BAY AREA CONFIDENTIAL…

When Tim Yo started me out with my own column, I was one of the original MRR news columnists. He wanted my column to be a study in three dot journalism a la Herb Caen, replete with snarky news items and snide bits of gossip. I took to the format like a fish to water, and ever since I’ve been a purveyor of snark and snide, news and gossip. Longtime readers remember I covered the incident when the East Bay BASTARD conference took umbrage with the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair for expanding to two days and overlapping one of their conference days. This caused a minor split in the local anarcho scene which produced, among other things, a second annual Anarchist Bookfair. So now there’s an overall Bay Area bookfair and an East Bay bookfair every year because, you know, old splits never die and besides, there can never be enough time or opportunity to sell anarchist merchandise to the kids.

The East Bay Anarchist Bookfair on December 14 of last year was a study in bucolic harmony where the lion lies down with the lamb, and AJODA folks staffed a table near one run by the Qilombo folks without incident. After the demise of Occupy Oakland, all of OO’s myriad tendencies (pacifist, insurrectionist, unionist, communizing, squatter, decolonialist, etc) were in the doldrums, depressed, at a loss for what to do and where to organize, and hence prone to sectarianism and infighting. The whole AJODA/Qilombo kerfuffle that I reported on last year was typical of the internal nastiness that the entire Bay Area anarcho scene was experiencing. The Left tends to form a firing squad, rifles facing inward, when they have nothing better to do. But with the death of Michael Brown, rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner, and protests around the country, Bay Area anarchos are no longer inward looking and focused on fighting amongst themselves. They’re looking outward, enjoying an upsurge of demonstrations, protests, and riots almost daily across the Bay Area, and no longer battling against each other.

Suigetsukan Dojo’s Girl Army opted out of providing security for December 2014’s East Bay Anarchist Bookfair, so one of the organizers recruited a bunch of muay thai ruffians to help keep the peace. The verdict: the anarchist bookfair was so mellow it was boring. Just goes to show that it’s nice to have a common enemy in the police and the powers-that-be to generate some scene unity, even if that unity is faux and forced and flash-in-the-pan.

No free speech for fascists!: “What’s Left?” August 2012, MRR #351

Is it just me, or have an inordinate number of well-known people died in 2012? Perhaps I’m just being overly sensitive to my own mortality, now that I’m 60, but damn, the names are racking up. And there seems to be more than your fair share of dead musicians on that list. There was Etta James, Whitney Houston, Michael Davis, Davy Jones, Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Adam Yauch, Kindred McCune, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Doc Watson, Bob Welch, Jef Leppard. and Pete Hayes (as of 6/27/12).

I’d like to focus on a particular individual who died recently, and this one wasn’t a musician. British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon died on May 9. His was an unusual and provocative life.

Vidal Sassoon was born on January 17, 1928 in the London borough of Hammersmith of Sephardic Jewish parents. His father died when he was three, and his mother was so poor that she put Vidal in a Jewish orphanage for seven years until she remarried and could afford to raise him. He apprenticed as a hairdresser as a teen, but was too young to serve in the second World War. Instead, he joined a secret association originally of Jewish combat veterans, the 43 Group, after the war. The founding forty-three British ex-servicemen had returned from fighting in Europe, often having witnessed the consequences of the Nazi Holocaust in the form of Jewish refugees and extermination camp survivors, only to encounter British fascists running rampant in England’s streets. Oswald Mosley’s pre-war British Union of Fascists had been banned by the government in 1940, with Mosley himself interned after 1943, but fascism returned after the war in the form of Jeffrey Hamm’s British League of Ex-Servicemen and Mosley’s reformed Union Movement. Both organizations engaged in provocative public meetings highlighted by antisemitic speeches inciting race hatred, not to mention violent physical attacks on Jews and Jewish property, primarily in London.

The members of the underground 43 Group eventually numbered in the hundreds, veteran and non-veteran, men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish. They attacked the public meetings of these fascist groups and broke them up, actively infiltrated these organizations and their chapters, and confronted the fascist rank-and-file in running street battles. Voluntarily disbanded in 1950, the 43 Group was succeeded in 1962 by the unrelated 62 Group, which carried on the former’s anti-fascist resistance, and in particular its tactic of anti-fascist street fighting. Thus, street-level resistance to fascism in Britain has a long and quite honorable tradition.

Vidal Sassoon battled the fash in London’s streets at 17, his weapon of choice, a pair of hair styling scissors. He went on to join, first the Zionist Haganah, and then the elite Palmach at age 20 to fight for Israel’s independence in 1948. Then he founded his international hairdressing empire, based on the success of his famous wedge bob haircut in the 1960s.

Before getting to the political point I wish to make, I need to discard a lot of ephemeral political junk. First off, let me say I’m no friend of Zionism or the State of Israel, nor will I take on Sassoon’s contribution to the displacement of the Palestinian people. In his later years he would express opposition to discrimination against Israeli Arabs, but he never openly expressed criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Also, let me state that I’m not going to have much to say about the left communist critique of anti-fascism, along the lines of Gilles Dauvé and others, which maintains that liberal democracy and totalitarian fascism are merely two faces of capitalism, and that instead of fighting fascism, we need to overthrow capitalism. This line of reasoning, as the example of Dauvé amply illustrates, can have the uncomfortable consequence of providing a circuitous back door into holocaust denial. My concern here will be the role of free speech in an ostensibly liberal democracy when confronted by internal totalitarian threats.

The 43 Group provides the initial dilemma. These were British Jews, initially all veterans, who had fought against fascism in Europe, and who had witnessed first-hand Nazism’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people in the Final Solution. Upon returning home, these British Jewish veterans encountered individuals and organizations espousing a fascism and antisemitism no different from what they had fought against in Europe, and which they perceived to be a threat to their country’s democratic liberties as well as to their own lives and the lives of their fellow Jews. They decided that such political beliefs and political organizing would not stand, so they organized themselves to confront, to fight, and wherever possible, to smash these politics in the form of the individuals and organizations that proclaimed those politics. In so doing, the 43 Group clearly denied those fascist individuals and organizations their right to free speech.

One side claims that, in some cases, free speech must be denied in order to preserve freedom of speech, and that to allow totalitarian fascists who would destroy democracy to democratically organize is tantamount to suicide. The other side claims that these arguments are the equivalent of fucking for chastity, and that this is an expression of Orwellian doublespeak in which war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. Both sides have had their adherents on the American scene. William F. Buckley, arguably the founder of modern conservatism, once argued that, in a democracy, it was proper to ban those political organizations like the Communist Party that advocated totalitarianism and that, once in power by democratic means, would overthrow the very democracy it had used to gain power in the first place. However, Buckley’s anti-communism was so strident that he came to support various far right, anti-communist regimes, including Franco’s Spain and South Africa’s apartheid government, and formulated a sickening apology for Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The American Civil Liberties Union, by contrast, is an example of a free speech absolutism that broaches no abridgment of the first amendment to the Bill of Rights. The ACLU has legally defended both the Communist Party (in flying the red flag in Stromberg v California) and the Nazi Party (in their march through Skokie, Illinois in Smith v Collin). But the ACLU has also defended the principle that money is speech in American politics, and subsequently sided with the Supreme Court’s anti-democratic Citizens United ruling overturning campaign finance regulation.

If I were to advance arguments from an ultraleft perspective, I might contend that free speech does not exist apart from the moment you struggle to assert your freedom of speech, or that action also equates to speech, or that it is necessary to go beyond democracy and democratic liberties. All of this can come off as pretty abstract and intellectual, when the underlying argument to the 43 Group is anything but. What if a group of people in society is openly advocating your murder, and the murder of people like you (Jews, blacks, women, punk rockers, whoever)? What’s more, what if wherever in the world people like those who want you dead have been allowed to organize and then have gotten into power, they have been true to their word and gone about executing people like you in campaigns of mass murder? What do you do? Do you allow them their free speech? Or do you stop them from speaking freely?

American jurisprudence makes a clear distinction between freedom of speech, which is guaranteed with varying degrees of regulation, and assault, of assault and battery, which is a crime. Assault, contrary to what the name implies, is the threat of violence, whereas battery is the actual, physical violence. Speech that threatens physical violence can be considered a crime, to be criminally prosecuted. Matters get complicated, however, when no direct threat of violence is made. In Britain after the second World War, Hamm and Mosley never openly said Hitler was right and that all the Jews should be exterminated. What they said, no doubt, was that the Jews run the media, own the banks and secretly rule the country; that the Jews are inherently evil, deceitful and predatory; that the Jews killed Jesus; that the Jews are responsible for capitalism’s blood sucking excesses, or Communism’s red terror, or both; that the Jews lied about the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps; that the Jews are behind an international conspiracy bent on world domination. Hamm’s thugs and Mosley’s goons took their cue from their masters’ hateful diatribes, went on rampage after rampage, attacked Jewish shops and synagogues, and assaulted Jews in London’s streets. There is no direct threat of physical violence in the speech, but the speech invariably results in physical violence. There is a code imbedded in the speech, easily denied in public, but also easily understood by its followers.

Members of the 43 Group, Vidal Sassoon included, also understood the code. They didn’t bother to wait for overt expressions threatening physical violence. They took action intended to silence the British League of Ex-Servicemen and the Union Movement. Were they justified? An august MRR columnist and free speech absolutist like Mykel Board would probably say no. I say yes.

The floor is open. What do you say?

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