Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports existing “socialist” states like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.

Attacking Iran (Again): “What’s Left?” May 2008, MRR #300

There I was, boring some friends with the story of how I got politics at 16 in 1968. For that tumultuous year, and several thereafter, most of my friends and I thought that The Revolution was just around the corner. We predicted a popular uprising any day against Nixon’s law-and-order fascism. To which the crusty nonagenarian of the group, Ben, commented, “What in hell were you smoking?”

Exactly!

I published a science fiction novel, End Time, in January of 1994 in which, among other things, the people of southern Mexico rise up in anarchist revolution led by a group calling themselves the Zapatistas. Coincidental to the book’s publication, the EZLN launched their uprising in Chiapas. I in no way predicted the real Zapatista rebellion, but had simply used history to create plausible future scenarios for my story. Most reviewers thought I had, however, so I played up this fortuitous circumstance to get more publicity, and sell more books.

I’ve never been very accurate in my forecasts, even though I’m not shy about making them. Five months ago, I predicted that it would be Clinton and Giuliani in November, and that the US would bomb Iran this spring. It now looks like Obama and McCain will be squaring off for the presidency. I can only hope that my forecast of US military action against Iran is equally wrong. For while few could have predicted the current economic crisis that began with the breakdown of the US sub-prime mortgage market and has expanded into an economy-wide credit collapse, the consequences of attacking Iran should be obvious to anyone.

Just in case they aren’t, let me spell them out, one more time.

I assume that the US engages in military aggression in conjunction with Israel. Their combined attack is a comprehensive assault targeting, not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but also that country’s military and political infrastructures, launched sometime this spring when the weather is optimal. The goals are to significantly set back Iran’s nuclear research and development program, and to affect some form of regime change. It’s doubtful that the disastrous results of such a military campaign would be significantly mitigated if the US opts for an American-only strike, or limits military targets solely to nuclear facilities. So let’s start with Iran, and move outward.

Military attacks alone cannot achieve regime change in Iran. The general populace does not rise up against the government, nor do regional or ethnic uprisings seriously threaten Iran’s national stability. What does happen is that hard line forces associated with the Revolutionary Guard, already on the ascendancy over the arch-conservative theocratic mullahs, use any US/Israeli strike to consolidate their power and take out their opposition. Iran stops selling oil to the US and Europe. That country is in a “state of war” with the West, which involves, in part, harassing petroleum shipments from Iraq and the Gulf states, if not blocking the Straits of Hormuz altogether. On a wider front, Iranian terrorist elements initiate attacks on US, Israeli and European interests around the world.

Shiite Iran makes an alliance of convenience with the Sunni Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan to strengthen and broaden the guerrilla resurgence against US and NATO forces. In Iraq, the Shiite population of the south rises up and makes that part of the country a no-go area for the US military, effectively removing southern Iraq’s oil supplies from US control as well. The Sunnis of western Iraq also revolt, driving the US military out, into the last, remaining region of Iraq still friendly to America, the Kurdish north, with perhaps a territorial corridor to the Green Zone in Baghdad. The US-installed Iraqi government pretends to function for a while longer, but the country has splintered de facto into three mini-states. That fact is not lost on Iraq’s neighbors. Iran trains and arms the southern Shia to the teeth, as does Syria and Saudi Arabia the western Sunni. Turkey, now cognizant that northern Iraq is a Kurdish state in all but name, invades and occupies the northern mountainous region of this Kurdistan, ostensibly to “help” the US fight Kurdish PKK terrorism. The Kurds respond to the Turkish invasion by intensifying their guerrilla war inside and outside of Turkey. The US, too preoccupied with problems in the rest of Iraq, is unable to stop this escalation. Meanwhile, oil reaches $400 a barrel and the industrialized North, with the exception of Russia, slides into a prolonged economic depression.

The outright participation of Israel in the third American assault on an Islamic nation in less than a decade reverberates throughout the Muslim world. Lebanon collapses into another civil war, with Hezbollah now the dominant military and political player. Pakistan completely loses control of its western provinces, taking one more step toward becoming a failed state. A failed state with nuclear weapons. Fundamentalist Muslim attacks on US forces, corporations, and individuals skyrocket internationally. Many European countries with substantial Muslim immigrant populations experience varying degrees of urban insurrection, and the United States is once more subject to terrorist attacks on its soil. Civil liberties are curtailed, conscription is reinstated, internment camps are built and populated, total surveillance becomes the norm, and civil society is thoroughly militarized.

You’d think that the quagmire-like nature of US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the dire circumstances of the American economy, would dissuade Bush and Company from further military adventures in Iran. The recent forced resignation of Admiral William Fallon, Central Commander responsible for the Middle East, has been widely interpreted as a sign that the US executive is indeed preparing to go to war with Iran. An Esquire interview reveals that Fallon was a vocal critic of the administration’s military policies in Iraq and belligerence toward Iran, and describes him as the lone man standing in the way of Bush attacking Iran. Yet I’ve been foretelling an impending US military strike on Iran for the past four years now, thankfully without much accuracy. I appreciate how damned hard predictions are to make as I finish this column in the middle of March, with spring yet to begin. Readers of this issue, the May issue and the 300th issue of Maximum Rocknroll will probably know the accuracy of my prognostications. I do hope that mine are wrong.

Three hundred issues. Who would have predicted it?

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