The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

Background of hammer and sickle on old wooden floor

The libertarian fantasy: “What’s Left?” January 2020 (MRR #440)

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

John Rogers
Kung Fu Monkey — Ephemera, blog post, 3-19-09

The idea of expanding the traditional one-dimensional Left-Right political spectrum into a two-dimensional political map is an old one. Beginning in the 1950s, several double-axis models were proposed: Authoritarian-Democratic/Radical-Conservative (Eysenck), Left-Right/Ideological Rigidity (Greenberg & Jonas), Traditionalist-Secular/Self Expressionist-Survivalist (Inglehart), Liberty-Control/Irrationalism-Rationalism (Pournelle), and Kratos-Akrateia/Archy-Anarchy (Mitchell). The American libertarian David Nolan proposed his two axis diamond-shaped Nolan Chart in 1969 based on economic freedom and political freedom, which everybody knows about but nobody uses outside of libertarian circles. Which brings is to the problem of libertarianism.

A basic two-axis political model was promulgated concurrently by Bryson and McDill (Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought, 1968), and Meltzer and Christie (The Floodgates of Anarchy, 1970); an economic Left-Right/political Authoritarian-Libertarian foursquare arrangement that has since become a boilerplate for the political compass used by the website of the same name. In turn, the political compass format has become a widespread internet meme. The top left square represents the authoritarian left, the top right square the authoritarian right, the bottom left square the libertarian left and the bottom right square the libertarian right. Each square embraces numerous political thinkers, leaders, organizations, and parties, but only three of these squares actually represent real existing political systems. There have been authoritarian left societies like Communist China, authoritarian right societies like Franco’s Spain, and for brief periods of time various libertarian left anarchist and socialist societies. But there have never been any libertarian right societies. No real existing hidden Rocky Mountain Mulligan’s Valley redoubts. Ever.

This lack of a “Galt’s Gulch” in a Colorado mountain valley somewhere, past or present, is the necessary starting point for critiquing the absurdity that is libertarianism. For the moment, forget that a right wing politics obsessed with property rights has unashamedly stolen the terms “libertarianism” and “anarchism” from the Left to use in defining themselves. Right libertarianism is all theory and no practice, with no “in real life” to get in the way of its bullshit abstractions. It’s no accident that Milton Friedman’s Chicago School monetarist economics was first implemented in Chile by the fascist Pinochet government. Right libertarian economics are not anchored to any corresponding social reality, never have been and never will be. It exists only as pure fiction, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and nowhere else.

This lack of social grounding to the economic theories of right wing libertarianism, and in particular anarchist capitalism, accounts for assholes like Murray Rothbard and his loathsome politics. Rothbard disagreed with Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, just about anybody who claimed a similar laissez-faire economics because, when there’s no social reality to back up your economic theories, every faux detail of your pretend system becomes crucial to defend. It’s like Medieval Scholasticism arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Rothbard quickly abandoned any pretense of defending liberty (and “libertarianism”) in calling himself an anarchist capitalist, and more specifically a property rights anarchist as private property was the only right he assiduously defended. Along the way, he made it clear he despised women, people of color, and LGBQTI+ people in particular and any form of civil rights in general. He criticized “the cult of science” and defended holocaust denialism, sought to gut civil liberties and proposed a retributive “eye for an eye” criminal justice system, justified the torture of criminal suspects and railed against free market open borders, ad nauseam. His consistent antiwar stance and his nominal defense of children’s rights notwithstanding, Rothbard’s politics were so thoroughly reactionary that it’s little wonder there’s a hazy continuum, no, a slippery slope between right wing libertarianism and far right fascist politics.

Matt Lewis described this as “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” in The Daily Beast when he wrote:
A friend of mine who is libertarian suggests that other libertarians never liked [Christopher] Cantwell, and that he was simply using libertarianism “as a shield for expressing a lot of disturbing viewpoints.” Despite the negative stereotypes, casting yourself as libertarian still has some cache[sic]. Celebrities like Bill Maher and Vince Vaughn have identified with the label—which seems to be a way of expressing some conservative viewpoints while still supporting the decriminalization of marijuana and distancing yourself from social conservatism. Libertarians won’t continue to enjoy this status if the alt-right is allowed to tarnish their philosophy, too.
And conservative pundit Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review in defending his fellow conservatives by claiming:
If libertarians have a pipeline for kooks, it is probably because they have some non-mainstream views. But if you have perfectly acceptable views, you probably have a pipeline for grifters. Conservatives have a mix of mainstream views and non- mainstream views. Consequently we are always fending off kooks on one side while being preyed upon by grifters on the other.
My explanation is far simpler. If you’re not grounded in social reality, if you have no “real existing” social system upon which to base your theories, you have nothing to prevent yourself from drifting into reactionary absurdity, if not outright genocidal fascism.

(Mainstream conservatives have long decried libertarianism [meaning the Libertarian Party] as “unwitting enablers of socialism,” defenders of “open borders” against sensible immigration policies, supporters of “unpleasant, unaffordable housing,” and opponents of “vital enabling infrastructure.” [Edward Ring, American Greatness, 10–2-19] Their argument is that the Libertarian Party unwittingly tilts “the political balance in favor of the progressive agenda across a host of important national issues.” It’s far better to realize that libertarian economics are a joke because they don’t work without the backing of statist politics.)

I won’t regale you with my sad slapstick attempt as an anarchist to work with libertarians over forty years ago. I’d rather approach the utter lack of social reality behind right wing libertarianism from a different angle, that being the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. As a dyed-in-the-wool Leftist, I’ve long espoused the ideal of a stateless, classless, global human community based on to each according to need, from each according to ability. Formulated by Karl Marx, the Leninist version of this ideal realized Marx’s “lower stage of communism” as a one party totalitarian state socialism of breadlines, secret police and gulags. The anarchist version, as realized in the anarchist regions of Spain during the 1936-39 civil war, witnessed the burning of monasteries and nunneries, pistolero justice, and the CNT/FAI eventually joining the Republican government according to Paul Preston. Kenan Malik well illustrated the discrepancy between the ideal and the real in the Kurdish libertarian socialist experiment in Rojava when he wrote:
Influenced by the American environmentalist and libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, [Abdullah Öcalan] has rejected the idea of a separate Kurdish nation state, arguing instead for “direct democracy without a state” and for the centrality of women’s rights in any social change. […] There is a danger of romanticising the Rojava revolution. There have been credible allegations of ethnic cleansing and of the silencing of dissent. A report from Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank, suggests that, for all the talk of decentralisation, the PYD still ensures it retains access to power. [Guardian Weekly, 10-27-19]

Mussolini said of Fascism: “The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.” But in the case of both Italian Fascism and Nazi Germany, the centralizing and totalitarian drives of Fascism were never actually fully realized. In both regimes, for instance, the church as a social institution was never completely subordinated to the state. Lastly, one can only wonder with horror about the society that would emerge from an economic theory that promotes the complete privatization of all social and governmental services (licensing, standards, police, courts, money coinage, etc) and the conversion of all social relationships into property relationships. However, I think a terrifying inkling can be gleaned from an Ann Coulter MSNBC commentary when she said: “My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that’s because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism.”

Libertarian—laissez-faire—free market economics have long been a tool used by governments of various stripes: conservative, fascist, liberal, even socialist. But a fully realized libertarian society—a stateless society based on “pure” capitalism—has never existed and never will. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about something really crucial; whether or not to support Aragorn II, son of Arathorn II and Gilraen, King of Gondor, for the throne.

SOURCES:
Know Your Enemy:
Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative and It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand by Jerome Tuccille
Critiques:
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy and Grundrisse by Karl Marx
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump by Corey Robin
“The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer” and “Why Libertarians Apologize For Autocracy” by Michael Lind
“Critiques of Libertarianism” by Mike Huben
“Libertarianism, Capitalism and Socialism” by Richard D. Wolff, Economic Update (12-12-19)

Punk politics, personal politics and post-political politics: “What’s Left?” December 2019 (MRR #439)

The guy who helped the most in the campaign was like one of the big anarchists in San Diego.
Bob Beyerle, interview, MRR #102

“Hello, I’m with the Bob Beyerle for Mayor Campaign,” I say to the over sixty-year-old Latino man standing hesitantly in the front door of his house. “I’d like to talk to you about the horrible job Chula Vista’s City Council is doing. Not only are they subsidizing the construction of a bayfront yacht club, a luxury fourteen hundred room hotel, fourteen hundred condominiums and twenty-eight hundred exclusive housing units in a bayside tourist mecca, they’re rapidly expanding the city east of Interstate 805 with gated, guarded upscale housing developments like Eastlake, Rancho del Rey and Otay Ranch. Meanwhile, the city west of 805 is deteriorating. Eastlake is using a million gallons of water for a scenic lake that you’re not even allowed to use unless you live in this exclusive community while the rest of us are forced to live with between 20% and 50% water cutbacks. The City Council is catering to the wealthy when what we need is more funding for public services and new affordable housing developments with parks, schools, and emergency services. Bob Beyerle is for controlled growth and the environment, promoting local business and curtailing big business, and encouraging citizen involvement. Please vote Bob Beyerle for mayor on election day.”

I’m average height but the man barely reaches my shoulder. His more diminutive wife hovers behind him, clearly concerned. Both are suspicious as I hand them some campaign literature. Bob and I are precinct walking for his mayoral campaign in a sweltering May afternoon in 1991. I’m wearing a bright orange “Pedro Loves You” t-shirt while Bob Beyerle (aka Bob Barley of Vinyl Communications fame), wearing a sports coat and dress shirt, is talking local politics a few houses down the block. As the front man for the punk band Neighborhood Watch whose signature song is “We Fuck Sheep,” Bob goes on to do press interviews, candidate forums and house parties.Bob’s campaign also puts on a fundraiser at La Bella Pizza Garden featuring Jello Biafra. My personal first impressions of Biafra are operatic; diva, prima donna, bürgerlich. Better to call his 1979 San Francisco mayoral campaign a publicity stunt, with its prank platform demanding that businessmen wear clown suits within city limits and paying the unemployed to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods. Biafra gripes that some of his proposals—to ban cars citywide, legalize squatting in vacant tax-delinquent buildings, and force cops to run for election in the neighborhoods they patrol—were serious. But then, Jello is always the consummate showman who never walked a precinct in his life. Biafra’s politics are a joke because he’s a dilettante whereas Beyerle’s politics are punk because he’s the real deal. Both lost their respective mayoral campaigns but placed in the middle of their crowded fields.

I’ve been called a class traitor, a scab, a rat, a collaborator, an undercover cop by many of my comrades on the left of the Left—left anarchism and communism specifically—once they learn that I vote and engage in electoral politics. Electoral politics is a politics for fools they contend as they spout the usual slogans: “Don’t vote! It only encourages them!”, “If voting changed things, it would be illegal!”, “Vote for nobody!” and “Freedom isn’t on the ballot!” Funny thing is, I’ve always voted, even when I was a stone revolutionary anarchist. I never thought it was an issue as voting takes all of ten minutes, and a single ten minute act once or twice a year doesn’t legitimize the entire bourgeois corporate state apparatus. To assert otherwise is either mysticism or moralism. As for electoral politics, I considered it neither the only valid be-all-end-all nor the ultimate bamboozling evil. Rather, it’s harm reduction for mitigating the worst and making piecemeal of the best in politics. I’ve always lived by the sentiment “I vote, and I riot.”When the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, I ran for Ventura School Board on a Summerhill/Free School platform alongside a democratic socialist City Council slate, both organized by a member of the New American Movement. None of us won any elected positions in the 1972 city elections, but our leftwing programs and political campaigns did eventually push the City of Ventura to build a municipal bus system. And just two years before, in 1970, I traveled to the student ghetto of Isla Vista next to UCSB for three riots in which a Bank of America branch was burned to the ground. I’ve had a personal politics that endorses and attempts to combine parliamentary and revolutionary components, a political strategy built on integrating multiple tactics.

Which is not the same thing as diversity of tactics.

I devote most of my time to politics outside of the electoral/parliamentary realm, which I define broadly. That can range from writing to rioting, although at my age I don’t do much of the latter. As for the much narrower electoral/parliamentary arena, I prefer to engage in local over national politics, and with issues and propositions over personalities and candidates. And I try to make connections—be they principled or personal, through practice or theory—between the various aspects of my politics.
Diversity of tactics by contrast acknowledges the validity of different tactics but refuses to make linkages let alone work out common ground between them. Perhaps the most famous example of diversity of tactics involves the St. Paul’s Principles:
1. Our solidarity will be based on respect for a diversity of tactics and the plans of other groups.
2.
The actions and tactics used will be organized to maintain a separation of time or space.
3.
Any debates or criticisms will stay internal to the movement, avoiding any public or media denunciations of fellow activists and events.
4.
We oppose any state repression of dissent, including surveillance, infiltration, disruption and violence. We agree not to assist law enforcement actions against activists and others.

Adopted prior to the 2008 Republican National Convention, the agreement allowed different groups with different protest tactics (conventional street protest, guerrilla theater, civil disobedience, black bloc, etc) to act side-by-side without denouncing each other as counterrevolutionary reformists or ultraleft adventurists. But it also didn’t allow the individuals or groups in question to get together to potentially synthesize their diverse tactics into a common strategy. An atomized diversity of tactics became the strategy, and an ineffectual one at that. The 2008 RNC was not shut down, and the movement opposed to the 2008 RNC grew no more unified, stronger or effective. It was a live and let live strategy that was simultaneously a political devolution. At best, diversity of tactics is a stopgap, never a solution.I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvere Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base”:

In biology, an autonomous organism is an element that functions in­dependently of other parts. Political autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a “general line,” to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.

Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered that the “desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above” was not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness. It’s like realizing you’re a profound asshole, but then deciding to call that your singular virtue.

I’ve since realized that “to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line’” rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. Used to be, a political party or a trade union or some similarly organized (hierarchical, centralized) association could be depended on to step in and finagle the unity and commonality people desired. But since the goal is to come up with alternate ways of organizing ourselves—presumably non-hierarchical, decentralized, and anti-authoritarian—it’d be nice to come up with a new way to overcome our differences to achieve tactical, strategic and theoretical unity to defeat our enemies and attain our goal of a liberated society. However, having once spent two days virtually nonstop trying and failing to achieve consensus in an organization over whether to codify a two-thirds versus three-quarters alternative voting structure once consensus breaks down, I don’t have high hopes in this regard.I don’t have solutions to the problems posed here. Which means I feel another series coming on, perhaps with discussions of democracy or frontism or populism. This whole subject is really quite broad.

SOURCES:
(1) Personal recollections
(2) “He Didn’t Kiss Babies, and He Didn’t Kiss Asses,” interview with Bob Beyerle, Maximum RocknRoll #102, November 1991
(3) Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis by Ryan Moore
(4) Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Lotringer & Marazzi, Semiotext(e)

Joseph Trumpeldor: the man and his legacy

This article is a follow-up to my Maximum Rocknroll column on Jewish socialism vs Jewish nationalism and should be considered a non-canonical column.

UTOPIA ATTEMPTED

I call them “horseshoe heroes.”

I consider the assertions of horseshoe theorists—that far left and far right closely resemble each other like the ends of a horseshoe—to be utterly bogus. Yet I acknowledge that a select few individuals have become icons simultaneously for both the Left and the Right. I’m not talking here about Keith Preston’s pan-secessionist idiocy which likes to claim that everyone from Mikhail Bakunin to Julius Evola are default “horseshoe heroes” and therefore “go beyond Left and Right.”  I’m instead pointing to the vagaries of Third Positionist figures like Juan Perón who managed to be embraced by the political Left and Right through their actions and ideas.

One such individual was the early socialist Zionist Joseph Trumpeldor who achieved the status of “horseshoe hero” long before Third Positionism was a thing. In the process, Trumpeldor’s death-in-action became the inspiration for elements of Labor Zionism to transcend their Jewish-based ethnic socialism into true international socialism. Finally, Joseph Trumpeldor and his legacy gave rise to the utopian myth that a true social Zionism might have transcended the political Zionism that prevailed. If political Zionism meant the colonization of Palestine by any means necessary to establish a Jewish State—Israel—social Zionism intended the communal settlement of Palestine/Israel as a non-state binational commonwealth, with autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities residing side by side.

When I studied the history of Zionism as an undergraduate at UCSC, I sponsored a student-organized and lead class on the subject of socialist Zionism with two other students. My fellow student teachers were both left of the Left Jews who identified with the Chutzpah Collective in the United States and sympathized with Matzpen in Israel. For them Joseph Trumpeldor was the exemplar of just such a social Zionism.

JOSEPH TRUMPELDOR: SOCIALIST ZIONIST

Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, in 1880. His father served as a cantonist during the Caucasian War and was designated a “useful Jew” who was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Joseph was proudly Jewish, but his upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. The years leading up to 1905 proved crucial to his development. He was a patriotic Russian who volunteered for military service in 1902, served during the Russo-Japanese War, and fought in the siege of Port Arthur. He lost his left arm to shrapnel, was briefly a Japanese POW, and returned the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army, becoming the first Jew in the army to receive an officer’s commission in 1906.

The wave of revolutionary socialist militancy around the failed 1905 Russian workers soviet revolution overlapped with one of the bloodiest waves of Russian antisemitic pogroms from 1903 to 1906, introducing Joseph to both socialist and Zionist agitation. He professed sympathies for anarchist syndicalism and admired Peter Kropotkin, promoting Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid and eventually declaring himself an anarchist communist. And he gathered with fellow youthful Zionists in St. Petersburg by 1909 to study Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin and A.D. Gordon, and to advocate for Jewish self-defense.

Affiliated with the Poale Zion tendency within Labor Zionism, Trumpeldor emigrated—made aliyah—to Ottoman Palestine in 1911 where he did farm work, most famously at Degania, often considered the first kibbutz and the “mother of all kibbutzim.” When the first World War started, he was declared an enemy national by the Ottomans and went to Egypt where he met fellow Russian army veteran Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It’s unclear how far along Jabotinsky was in his slide right toward Hebrew fascism, but this may have been the first historical example of a red-brown alliance on the level of personal friendship. Apparently, they bonded over not just the need for Jewish self-defense, but the notion that the “new Jew” needed to be an armed Jew.

They approached the British about organizing an armed force of Jewish volunteers to fight against the Ottoman Empire and seize Palestine for the British Empire. Instead the British agreed to sponsor an auxiliary volunteer transport mule corps, an idea which Jabotinsky rejected outright but Trumpeldor enthusiastically accepted. The Zion Mule Corps was born. The Mule Corps participated in the fierce fighting on the Gallipoli Front as the Zionist volunteers Trumpeldor recruited acquitted themselves with bravery. Joseph refused to leave the battlefield despite being shot through the shoulder and Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson reported that “Captain Trumpeldor actually revelled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it…” After the dissolution of the Zion Mule Corps, Trumpeldor, Jabotinsky, and one hundred twenty Mule Corps veterans served together in the 16th Platoon of the London Regiment’s 20th Battalion. Their initiative for a Jewish armed force was ultimately accepted and expanded by the British military into five battalions of international Jewish volunteers, the 38th to 42nd Service Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, raised in the British Army, and were referred to as the Jewish Legion. The 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions saw combat in Palestine against the Ottomans. The Zion Mule Corps and Jewish Legion were deemed the first formal, all-Jewish military units organized in nearly two thousand years. Officially, the fighting Jew had been reborn.

Trumpeldor returned briefly to revolutionary Petrograd in 1918, organized Jews to defend themselves, and established the HeHalutz youth movement that prepared immigrants making aliyah for agricultural settlement in Palestine. HeHalutz eventually became an umbrella organization for various Zionist pioneer youth movements. As Britain and France carved up the Middle East, Joseph returned to what would become British Mandated Palestine where he was posted to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi by the unofficial Zionist militia Hashomer (successor to the Poale Zion controlled militia Bar-Giora) to organize defense for the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee. By then Theodor Herzl’s slogan about Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land” was proving the lie as Palestinian Arabs agitated against both Zionist colonizers and Western imperialism. The British had encouraged Arab nationalist rebellion against the Ottomans starting in 1916. Called the Arab Revolt, it lasted through 1920 and the Nebi Musa/Jerusalem riots.

The intent of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence—in which the British government agreed to recognize Arab national independence after the war in exchange for the Sharif of Mecca sparking the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire—was betrayed first by the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, then the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and finally the 1919 Versailles Treaty. Western imperialist designs on the Middle East were clear, and when a territorial adjustment between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Lebanon lead to the administrative transfer of the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee from the former to the latter in 1919, the Arabs in the region grew alarmed. The Zionist settlements in the area preferred to remain under British rule and so the Hashomer militia tasked with defending Jewish colonization in Palestine was put on high alert. When Lebanese Shi’ite Arabs attempted to search the settlement of Tel Hai due to their suspicions of French espionage, a major firefight ensued with Hashomer in which five Arabs and eight Jews were killed, among them Joseph Trumpeldor who was wounded in the hand and stomach before dying while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi in March, 1920.

Trumpeldor’s supposed final words: “Never mind, it is good to die for our country” modeled on a famous Horace quote, may have been a sincere dying sentiment, an ironic Russian deathbed curse, or a dubious apocryphal allusion now contested for decades. In any case, Trumpeldor became a symbol for Jewish self-defense and a national hero for Zionists on the Right and Left. Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionist Movement named its youth movement Betar, an acronym for “Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor.” Labor Zionism honored him as the defender of the kibbutzim movement with several memorials, including one for the eight who died at Tel Hai. The settlement of Kiryat Shmona is named after that attack. In August, 1920, the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor and Defense Battalion (Gdud HaAvoda) was founded in Palestine.

LABOR BATTALION: LIBERTARIAN COMMUNISM

Gdud HaAvoda was established with the help of Trumpeldor’s third aliyah followers in Hashomer Hatzair who emigrated from Crimea. Based on principles of communal labor, settlement and defense, all income was pooled. They paved roads, drained swamps, worked in construction and agriculture, and established several kibbutzim, including Ein Harod, Ramat Rachel and Tel Yosef. After learning their skills in the battalion, many former members left to join the Solel Boneh construction company. When Gdud demanded a unified organization for all Jewish workers, the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel) was founded in Haifa in December, 1920, and grew rapidly. David Ben-Gurion, head of the Ahdut Haavoda political party, was elected its General Secretary in 1921. As a powerful, fully independent entity, it operated without any interference from the British colonial government.

The Histadrut attempted not only to unionize all Jewish workers in British Mandated Palestine but to own as much of the business and industry in the Jewish Yishuv as possible with a lock on the economic activities of its member communal and cooperative farms through the establishment of the Nir company, an aggressively centralizing syndicalist strategy. This accorded well with Ben-Gurion’s nationalist plans to make the Histadrut into a Jewish “state in the making.” The Histadrut also offered social and cultural services and health care (through Kupat Cholim). Its function was not to socialize the means of production it held but to strengthen its role as a “national enterprise.” Workers were wage labor hierarchically organized and centrally controlled, albeit cooperatively structured. According to Ze’ev Sternhell: “The Histadrut was interested in accumulating wealth and gaining political power, not in creating a socialist utopia.” This ran afoul of Gdud’s social strategy to “build up the land through the creation of a general commune of Jewish workers” rooted in a Palestine-wide cooperative system of equality and democratic self-management. The battalion wanted to establish larger agricultural settlements skilled at including agriculture and industry combined into a single institution, paving the way for a true socialist commonwealth based on “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Already the largest workers’ commune in Palestine, Gdud considered itself the direct progenitor of the Histadrut, while the Histadrut considered the battalion a direct threat—an economic competitor and political rival. Gdud wanted to “democratize” the Histadrut while the Histadrut wanted to take over, or better yet dissolve Gdud altogether.

Conflict arose between Gdud and Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda and then the Histadrut from the start. Gdud wanted to be an independent contractor bidding for public works jobs directly from the British Mandatory government’s Department of Public Works, whereas the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda demanded exclusive control. Ahdut Haavoda’s Agricultural Workers’ Federation and the Histadrut’s Bureau of Public Works only reluctantly allowed Gdud to participate in the settlement of the Jezreel Valley in 1920-22. These conflicts came to a head in 1922-23 over the issue of common treasury. For Gdud, common treasury meant that losses would be compensated with gains socially, thus maintaining an overall positive balance sheet over time. For Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut, each specific loss needed to be balanced out by a corresponding gain, an item-for-item accounting in a general treasury. When Kibbutz Ein Harod, which belonged to Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda party, demanded that Gdud repay its debts to the kibbutz, the Histadrut backed the kibbutz and accused the battalion of misappropriating funds. It was implied that if the battalion could not honor its obligations, Gdud should be merged with Ahdut Haavoda. Gdud eventually did repay its debts while criticizing both the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda as not sufficiently socialist. But in doing so it gave the Histadrut the upper hand, and tacitly acknowledged that national goals were to be given priority over social values. Already disappointed that the Histadrut lacked centrality and a capacity to seize control of its related labor organs, Ben-Gurion used the Gdud Executive Committee’s leadership crisis in 1926 to force the eventual liquidation of the battalion by 1929.

The 1922-23 crisis over finances prompted Gdud to split between a pioneering rightwing and an overtly socialist leftwing that championed a genuine social Zionism. The battalion’s Left continued to demand a general commune in a socialist Palestine and made common cause with Hashomer Hatzair over creating a binational Arab/Jewish state in Palestine/Israel. To Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Labor Zionism shift “from class to nation” as the culmination of political Zionism, communist elements organized within Gdud to work to transform Jewish ethnic nationalism into international working class consciousness. The Gdud Executive Committee split politically over this and subsequently expelled a communist fraction in 1926, leading to the battalion ceasing work in 1927 prior to its complete dissolution in 1929. The Histadrut’s main rival had been gutted, its leadership decimated. Some members of Gdud’s communist fraction returned to Russia, where they formed a commune named Vojo Nova (Esperanto for “A New Way”), which was later liquidated during the Stalinist purges.

UTOPIA BETRAYED

Gdud HaAvoda and its communist splinter represented the Left’s most advanced position both within socialist Zionism and socialism in Jewish Palestine, striving to pose a social strategy based on class as opposed to a national strategy based on ethnicity. In the final analysis, the battalion could not overcome socialist Zionism’s primary contradiction of being a settler-colonial “socialism for one people.” Yet Gdud was a credit to the political legacy of Joseph Trumpeldor as well as the inspiration for a social Zionism that produced its own negation in the communist splinter expelled by Gdud. In the end, a communally based binational commonwealth of contiguous autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine/Israel proved utopian, and the international communist alternative it engendered insignificant. Yet the myths surrounding Joseph Trumpeldor remain potent. Unfortunately, Trumpeldor’s legacy is marred and that mythos muddied by his appropriation as a nationalist hero by Revisionist Zionism’s Hebrew fascism. As a result of some questionable ideas and actions, his varied associations, a love of war and adventure, Joseph Trumpeldor also qualifies as a “horseshoe hero” combining diverse aspects of the Zionist Left and Right prior to his death.

It’s no accident that the period roughly between the fin de siècle and the second World War saw a myriad of larger-than-life “men of action” arise who subsequently differentiated themselves between Left and Right—André Malraux and T.E. Lawrence, George Orwell and Joseph Conrad, Joseph Trumpeldor and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The latter pair, as participants in Zionism, moved respectively left and right as their movement grew and diversified, much as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí claimed different politics as Surrealism developed. It was a crucible time, a condition of severe trial brought on by world events in which different elements violently interacted, melted, were reduced to their essences, and occasionally synthesized into something new. In such crucible times it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ideological decay and revitalization, between cultural decadence and renaissance, between social decline and progress. Whether we live in similar times remains to be seen.

 

SOURCES:
(1) The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon
(2) The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism by Arie Bober
(3) The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State by Ze’ev Sternhell
(4) The Zionist Legacy: Water and Agriculture Management in Israel by Legrenzi, Trentin, et al

pt. 2: Third World Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” October 2019 (MRR #437)

I had a favorite t-shirt in the 1980s, one I owned several of and wore frequently. It was red with a stylized black silkscreened image of Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara printed above his popular quote: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.” Korda’s image of Che with military beret and solemn expression was taken during a Cuban state funeral; handsome, heroic, and seemingly immortal. I wore the t-shirt around the UC San Diego campus without incident or even much notice, but I liked pushing the envelope by wearing it all around the very conservative city of San Diego.

While wearing the shirt and eating my customary grease-, carb- and meat-heavy breakfast washed down with several bottles of Negra Modelo beer outside Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla circa 1985, I noticed a young man glaring at me. Harry’s was a local favorite, so I assumed he was a surfer because of his shaggy haircut, Quiksilver Hawaiian shirt, colorful boardshorts, and leather huarache sandals. He frowned at me over a decimated plate of food next to which rested a russet guampa, a hollow calabash gourd lipped with silver from which a silver bombilla straw protruded. A waitress poured more hot water into his maté gourd before bussing his dishes and leaving the check.

“You realize Che was not Cuban,” the man said after taking a sip, his Spanish accent patrician.

“He was Argentinian,” I said. “But Castro’s revolutionary government granted Che Cuban citizenship ‘by birth’ in 1959.”

“Bravo.” He raised the guampa in mock salute. “Not many yanquis, especially gabacho izquierdistas, know much about Guevara’s background.”

I nodded, then continued demolishing my breakfast. He counted out his money to pay for the meal and stood, cradling his gourd.

“I presume though you think Che is Third World. He certainly has been made into a symbol for Third World leftist revolution. But Argentina is not a Third World country, ethnically speaking. Argentina was settled by Spanish, Italian, and German migrants who completely wiped out the native indiano populations. There was no race mixing. The Argentine population is almost pure European. Che Guevara was as white as you or I, so it is laughable to consider him Third World.”

I’ve mentioned Ernesto “Che” Guevara in relation to fellow Argentinian Juan Perón and his Third Positionist justicialismo ideology. Third Positionism—the myth of a politics that is neither left nor right—has one source in the Third World after the second World War but another source in the First World before the first World War. Extreme Left movements first converged with ultranationalist authoritarian extreme Right movements between the revolutionary syndicalists influenced by Georges Sorel and the Action Française of Charles Maurras in the early 20th century. This matured in Italy during and after the first World War with the ultranationalist, irredentist activities of Gabriele D’Annunzio which culminated in his seizure of the city of Fiume, as well as in the evolution of Benito Mussolini from the far-left wing of the Italian Socialist Party to the first Fascist seizure of power in 1922. The 1922 March on Rome shifted the development of Fascist Third Positionism from Italy to Germany with the proliferation of rightwing antisemitic organizations and movements alternate to the Nazis like Conservative Revolutionism, Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and the like. Even Ernst Röhm’s tenure in the NSDAP’s Sturmabteilung (SA) constituted Third Positionism in its claim to be the vanguard of the “National Socialist revolution,” with Röhm calling for an overtly anti-capitalist “second revolution.” When Hitler assassinated Röhm and Gregor Strasser on the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, orthodox Nazism was consolidated and the move to Third Positionism was curtailed during the second World War.

Cross contamination was inevitable given the violent antagonism between Marxism and Fascism. Taking on Marxism’s class based schema, Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini developed the concept of the “proletarian nation” in 1910 which transposed the class struggle to the struggle between nations. D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and the Strasser brothers among others defended this notion. But it gained little traction until the defeat of classical Fascism in Italy and Germany, the instigation of the Cold War between the Soviet bloc’s “socialism in one country” and the American-led “free world,” and the upsurge of anti-colonial struggles in the Third World after the end of the second World War. Third World anti-imperialism didn’t just take the form of socialist struggles for national liberation, or even the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of underdeveloped and developing nations not formally aligned with either of the two Cold War superpowers. It often took a reactionary anti-imperialist turn that talked about going beyond Left and Right. In a phrase, it was Third World Third Positionism where proletarian nations struggled internationally against bourgeois nations.

I discussed Juan Perón at length and mentioned Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in passing in a past column. Of the MNR’s reactionary anti-imperialism Loren Goldner had this to say:
In the case of Bolivia, the multi-class nationalism epitomized by MNR intellectual Carlos Montenegro, with its problematic of the “nation” versus the “foreign,” combined in practice with the corporatist models attempted by 1936-1940 “military socialism” and the 1943-1946 Villaroel regime, and influenced to different degrees by Mussolini’s Italy, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in Spain, Nazi Germany, Vargas’s Brazil, Peron’s Argentina and the Mexico of Cardenas. Though the standing bourgeois army in Bolivia (in contrast to these other experiences) simply dissolved and had to be rebuilt (as it quickly was), theoretical disarmament set the stage for the practical disarmament of the worker militias. (“Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Imperialism? Interwar Authoritarian and Fascist Sources of A Reactionary Ideology: The Case of the Bolivian MNR”)
Goldner clearly defines a Latin American Third World Third Positionist bloc.

Another Third World Third Positionist bloc emerged in the Middle East, determined by the rise of pan-Arab nationalism. Reacting to Western imperialism and Zionist colonialism, the pan-Arabic nationalist response was unsteady and uneven between the two world wars, going so far as to court “the enemy of my enemy” in the case of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in Mandatory Palestine. Reactionary Arab anti-imperialism after the second World War—as exemplified by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, various Ba’athist parties and regimes in Syria and Iraq, and the short-lived Egyptian/Syrian United Arab Republic—was explicitly national-socialist. Arab Third Positionism took inspiration from European Fascism, suppressed socialist and communist unions and parties while seeking Soviet aid, adopted corporatist economic models, promoted modernization and state nationalization of foreign and domestic assets, and engaged in “military socialism.” This reached a pinnacle in the Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, whose Green Book rejected representative democracy and promised a third path between capitalism and communism. Gaddafi’s Jamhariyah system embodied the true “state of the masses” funded by Libya’s oil reserves. Combine Arab Third Positionism with a virulent anti-Zionist opposition to Israel that readily spilled over into anti-Jewish anti-semitism and you have the closest approximation to orthodox Nazism to date.

I don’t have space to discuss the leftist ethnic nationalism of Labor Zionism’s “socialism for one people” in Palestine or Nyerere’s ujamaa socialism in Tanzania, nor of Third World Third Positionism in sub-Saharan Africa (Idi Amin’s Uganda) or Asia (the Juche regime in North Korea). Maoism’s repurposing of the concept of “proletarian nation” is also beyond our scope. The defining characteristic of Third World ultranationalist resistance to capitalist neo-colonialism and Western imperialism is not racial identity, but rather a reactionary Third Positionist anti-imperialism that seeks to substitute a struggle between nations internationally for the classic Marxist international class struggle.

White “First World” adherents to Third Positionism, in turn, have adopted a Third Worldist view of international affairs. This has meant overt solidarity with Third Positionist Third World regimes and movements on the grounds they constitute non-white racial nationalist resistance to Western multiculturalism, multiracialism and Zionism. Decrying the creep of non-white cultural influences into white Western nations from the colonies and vice-versa, First World Third Positionists nevertheless consider their Third World counterparts kindred spirits to white nationalist movements in the developed West. The European Nouvelle Droite has cultivated ties with Islamist groups, and US Third Positionists have sought common cause with the Nation of Islam and other Black Nationalist groups over anti-semitism and racial separatism. That doyen of ultraright high idiocy, Troy Southgate, fleshed out Third Positionism from his faux guerrilla National Revolutionary Faction to National Anarchism, his bastard ideology of decentralized racial/ethnic tribal autonomy. The move from white power and white supremacy to white nationalism and a white ethnostate, in fact, has Third Positionist ethno-pluralist ramifications in implying that non-whites can pursue racial/ethnic separatism and nationalism as well. The loosely-organized far right populist Posse Comitatus movement has even proposed extending white ethnonationalism down to the county level.

Despite the Third Positionist claim to “go beyond Left and Right,” it’s wise to remember Upton Sinclair’s sentiment that: “Fascism is capitalism plus murder.”

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

I’m against it!: “What’s Left?” January 2019, MRR #428

I’m against it.

Groucho Marx as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff
“I’m Against It,” Horse Feathers

I’m against it.

The Ramones, “I’m Against It,” Road to Ruin

I’m against it.

Capitalism that is. I’m against capitalism because it prioritizes profit over human need, exploits workers, engenders economic instability through overproduction and underconsumption, promotes social inequalities, degrades human community, destroys the environment, and encourages short term thinking at the expense of longterm planning. There is a vastly better alternative to capitalism in the form of socialism.

My antagonism toward capitalism is a standard, rational form of opposition. “A” is bad while “B” is good, so here is why I oppose “A.” I’ll call this vanilla opposition.

Then there’s contrarianism. It’s the opposition of that Beatles song “Hello Goodbye” the lyrics of which proclaim: “You say ‘Yes,’ but I say ‘No’.” It’s a reflexive, unconscious form of opposition. It’s actually a very punk form of opposition. In Anarchy Comics #3, published in 1981, Paul Mavrides and Jay Kinney penned the comic “No Exit” about hardcore punk rocker and visceral anarchist Jean-Paul Sartre, Jr., who gets transported 3000 years into the future when anarchism has finally prevailed and where “There’s no more war, oppression, sexism, racism, ageism, shapeism, sizeism!” Needless to say, J-P doesn’t react well. At one point he freaks and starts to “fuck shit up.” J-P’s future hosts admonish him: “Really J-P! There’s no need for this alienated behavior!! Since all property belongs to everyone, you’re only hurting yourself!!” To which J-P responds: “Yeah? Well, if it’s all mine too, I can wreck it if I want to, right?”

Such is the essence of this form of opposition, which I’ll call reactive opposition. MRR once had a columnist who specialized in this type of opposition and routinely played Devil’s Advocate in the pages of the magazine. If Tim Yo or other MRR coordinators insisted there be no racism, sexism, or homophobia this columnist would go out of his way to defend sex with children or call gays “homos.” I hung out with him a couple of times and whenever people reacted angrily to his antics a sly smile would cross his face. Ultimately, he was fired when his column was rejected for calling women who had survived sexual assault “cry babies” suffering from “survivoritis” in letting themselves remain victims. Ironically, he whined he was a victim of MRR’s anti-free speech PC attitude. In this era of Trump and Kavanaugh, he’s on Facebook writing post-MRR columns in which he regularly defends Trump and the horrors of Trumpism. As a dutiful contrarian, of course.

Finally, there’s what I call dark opposition. Dark opposition stems from the seductive charms of the transgressive. The English Puritan John Milton wrote an epic poem intended to exalt his Christian faith by retelling the Genesis story of the fall of man. Called Paradise Lost, its main problem was that the figure of Satan, as evil incarnate, came off as way too charismatic and downright noble. So attractive was Milton’s portrait of the devil that Paradise Lost was a best seller in its day while his sequel of the story of that goody two-shoes Jesus, Paradise Regained, was a flop. Every modern rebel, whether adolescent or political, identifies with Satan when he declared “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” I’ll spend the rest of my time discussing dark opposition based on the appeal of transgression, or what in Star Wars lingo is called the “power of the dark side.”

BBC-TV did a movie, Longford, about the 1960s moors murders and the English aristocrat and prison reformer who became involved with one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, child-killer Myra Hindley. Hindley gets one of the film’s better lines when her character says “Evil can be a spiritual experience too.” The draw of transgressive evil is never to be underestimated. Numerous books have been written on the subject and several youthful subcultures have actively embraced the dark side of things, the most prominent being Goth.

But the appeal of the left-hand path goes back all the way to Vedic Vāmācāra practice and Tantrism which eventually entered Western spirituality through Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy, and Aleister Crowley. The latter couched it in terms of the occult and ceremonial magic where the right-hand path equated to benevolent white magic while the left-hand path meant malevolent black magic. Magick if you will. This distinction is common with occultists, among them parafascist Julius Evola who emphasized that those pursuing the right-hand path worked selflessly for the glorification of the divine while those on the left-hand path worked egocentrically for the glorification of the self. After the second World War, esoteric Nazism and Hitler worship emerged in various forms of völkisch spirituality in neo-völkisch movements, pioneered by such individuals as Savitri Devi, Robert Charroux, and Miguel Serrano. This is paralleled in the revival of anti-modern elements of tribalism, paganism, Traditionalism, and mysticism in everything from right wing politics (Alain de Benoist’s Nouvelle Droite) to music (industrial, black metal, neo-folk), terms often preceded with the combining form neo- (as in neo-tribal, neo-pagan, etc.) This is part of an opposition to modernism, of a revolt against the modern world.

Rarely has this amounted to a conscious embrace of the power of evil however. More often, and especially among the young, this has meant flirting with the devil, being naughty, getting an adrenaline rush, emotional thrill, or sexual charge from teasing the dark side. Sometimes it’s conveyed as a conscious provocation, the deliberate use of highly charged language and symbols to outrage those who are invariably labeled “squares.” This is the calculated method of musicians and bands like Boyd Rice and Death in June in the industrial and neo-folk genres who dress fash and talk fash but never actually claim fascism as an up front affiliation. In the end, a small percentage consider their embrace of the left-hand and the right-wing a positive good. That’s the stance of most involved in the ultranationalist Patriot movement because isn’t patriotism a good thing after all? Robert Anton LeVey defined his Satanism as a Nietzschean übermensch philosophy in opposition to the prevailing Christian herd mentality of society at large. And the virulently anti-semitic, Hitler-worshipping murderers of the neo-nazi Atomwaffen Division death squad believe that a new, expanded Holocaust—in which not just Jews and Leftists, but the immoral, degenerate and weak will be exterminated—is a positive, healthy social good.

These diehard characters are downright proud of their badass transgressive Nazi selves, unlike assclown Gavin McInnes and his ilk on the ultra-right who, when called out for throwing a Roman salute or reveling in racial slurs, disguise their dark shit with their disingenuous reactive crap. “Can’t you take a joke?” is their common refrain. Occasionally those who are in dark opposition are actively aided by those who are in reactive opposition. The Elbo Room, a long-standing San Francisco dive bar, recently closed its doors due to lease/landlord issues. In December, 2015, the Elbo Room gained notoriety by proudly hosting a show for the band Death in June and co-owner Matt Shapiro said: Death In June is not a Nazi band, nor a group that preaches hate. While they use controversial imagery and have songs with subject matter that some may find challenging, they are definitely not Nazis, nor hateful. I come from many generations of Jews. Do you think I could look my mother in the eye after booking a Nazi act? Shapiro wasn’t dissembling, he actually believes DiJ aren’t fascist, let alone Nazi or white supremacist. He called out the police against protesters he falsely claimed were wielding knives. “These folks were menacing and looking for trouble.” We have to take Shapiro’s word that DiJ are not fascist and that protesters threatened violence in this prime example of reactive opposition. Had it been the former MRR columnist mentioned above, he would have defended DiJ because they are fascists, in deference to his free speech absolutism. How punk.

Not.

Luis Buñuel once said: “Sex without sin is like an egg without salt,” implying a measured application of transgression to life. I’ll be the first to admit my vanilla opposition is neither aggro enough nor sexy enough for most rebels-in-waiting. Yet reactive opposition and dark opposition are so fraught with problems I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’ll readily admit having started out in reactive opposition in my youth and I’m sure some would argue that my present vanilla opposition is a sorry climb down from those heady days. But I’m quite proud never to have entertained any dark oppositional tendencies beyond faking Nazi mannerisms with a tiny group of friends taking German in high school. Now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed to the Supreme Court, I can sincerely call that a “youthful indiscretion.”

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