Fascisms: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2022

Jeremy was a dandy. At a time when young men were going hippie—growing their hair long, wearing faded, ripped blue jeans with western or tie-dyed shirts, buckskin or Edwardian vests and sandals or cowboy boots—Jeremy wore sharply pressed pleated dark slacks, pastel dress shirts with smart cardigan sweaters highlighted by the occasional ascot, and black or brown wingtips. This was 1970 and I was just such a wannabe hippie when I boarded the local Ventura city bus to sit down next to Jeremy. He sniffed in disdain at my unruly appearance and went back to writing in his notebook.

“I’m on the Prom Committee,” he said, holding his pen in the air between thumb and forefinger. “We’re developing the theme for this year’s Prom. What do you think about ‘a taste of bittersweet’?”

I had no school spirit nor had I plans to attend my high school prom so I simply shrugged. Jeremy was a walking contradiction. Everybody knew he was gay even though he was not out. He was overtly Catholic however and always wore a silver crucifix with a finely tooled image of the bloodied Jesus around his neck. Michael boarded the bus the next stop and sauntered back to where we sat. Michael was a year older and now a freshman at UC Santa Barbara where he had participated in the Isla Vista student riots that burned down the Bank of America. He wasn’t just a shaggy hippie but also a burgeoning New Leftist like myself. Michael and Jeremy despised each other. So while Michael and I chatted, Jeremy and Michael ignored each other. Then Michael happened to mention he “planned to hitchhike around Europe in the summer.”

“Spain is quite lovely, although a tad hot in the summertime,” Jeremy feigned a casual air. “I visited Spain last summer for an Opus Dei retreat and I had such a wonderful time.”

“I ain’t going anywhere near fascist Spain,” Michael snarled. “You ever hear about Guernica? Franco is a mass murdering Fascist war criminal.”

“Oh, please!” Jeremy scoffed. “Franco is not a fascist, he’s a Traditionalist. Under Franco, Spain nationalized the oil industry. But it has a mixed economy little different from other Western European countries, with a thriving free market sector.”

“Franco is a fucking dictator,” Michael said. “And you’re a fucking moron.”

“And you sir are a dupe of Communist propaganda, a shill for Moscow, a useful idiot.” Jeremy finished their conversation and went back to designing his Prom invitation.

Last column I started on Fascism’s[1] logic as the OG of Third Positionism that claimed to go beyond Left and Right; using Gabriele d’Annunzio’s militaristic Italian irredentism and his Fiume Arditi putsch as examples. D’Annunzio invented all the main fascist tropes (plebiscites, adoring rallies, ranting balcony speeches, the Roman salute, a cult of personality). His and Alceste de Ambris’s Charter of Carnaro promised a mishmash of city-state idylls (ancient Athenian democracy, the medieval Italian commune, the Venetian Republic), socio-economic chimeras  (national syndicalism, corporatist socialism), and calculated absurdities (a syndical corporation devoted to “the mysterious forces of progress and adventure,” music as a governing principle). D’Annunzio’s fascist “utopia” never made the leap from words to action. There has never been the attempted realization of any utopian Fascist society anywhere.[2]

Gleichschaltung—the “meshing of gears,” the coordination of every aspect of German society (federal states, churches, trade associations, media, private clubs, et al) and their synchronization to the will of the Nazi party and its Führer—simply infected all of German society with the power struggles within the party and its competing bureaucracies. The “left-fascist” Italian Social Republic, the insipid Republic of Salò that was a puppet of the occupying German military, drew its inspiration from the equally bogus 1943 Manifesto of Verona. Verona called for the abolition of the monarchy, the establishment of a balanced centralized/decentralized republican government,  a sovereign Constituent Assembly, an independent judiciary, freedom of press, syndical associations and factory commissions in industry that were pro-labor in orientation meant to constrain the capitalist class, the transformation of badly managed businesses into parasyndical and parastatal cooperatives, the expropriation of uncultivated lands and their redistribution to poor farm workers. This vast array of promises never existed beyond words on paper.

In 1979 Christian Bouchet’s “left-fascist” Mouvement Nationaliste Révolutionnaire (MNR) proposed a second French Revolution, a united Europe independent of the American and Soviet power blocs, opposition to “Yankee imperialism,” nationalization of monopolies and expropriation of multinational corporations, “abolition of bourgeois privileges,” taxation of capital, national syndicalism within economic corporatism, a Mediterranean-centered foreign policy, working alliances with Third World national liberation struggles, and the establishment of a strong yet decentralized state. To these quasi-leftist propositions, the MNR also combined far right demands for a defense of French and European civilization and the termination of unskilled immigrant labor.

When Bouchet transitioned his MNR into Nouvelle Résistance (NR) in 1991 an organizing strategy reminiscent of the New Left was adapted. It called for creating a “counterpower” of “liberated zones” and “concrete utopias” within the established order; a “counter-society” of cooperatives, small businesses, agricultural communes, alternative media, and artisanal enterprises as a decentralized network of alternative institutions to achieve economic self-sufficiency, subvert the legitimacy and authority of “the system,” and facilitate a unified anti-system resistance. Ultimately, Bouchet abandoned much of his so-called Leftism to join with Le Pen’s National Front under the slogan of “Less Leftism! More Fascism!”[3]

Much has been made in academic circles of the contrast between “right-fascism” and “left-fascism,” which is truly a difference without a distinction. Nazis and fascists claiming to be “leftwing” have made various excuses as to why they never achieved their fascist “utopias,” starting with the vacillating personal dictatorship of Gabriele d’Annunzio in Fiume. The Nazi “leftwing” of Ernst Röhm  and the Strasser brothers, who called for a faux anti-capitalist “second revolution,” were purged by Hitler and the Nazi “rightwing” during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Between 1929 and 1943, Italian fascists blamed the failure to fully realize Mussolini’s totalitarian fascist program (creation of the “new man” within the fascist corporate state and a unified Italy) because the authoritarian National Fascist Party had to share power with the Catholic Church and the Italian monarchy. The rump Salò Republic after 1943 was controlled by the Third Reich, so Mussolini then blamed the need to prosecute the war against the Allies for his failures to move left. And the scores of neo-Nazi/fascist “leftwing” groupuscules that emerged after the end of WWII succumbed to constant sectarian infighting and culled regroupment, not to mention a general lack of popular appeal, long before the nonexistence of their varied “left-fascist” programmatic “utopias” became apparent.

But the real reason for the failure of “left-fascism” ever being realized is because there is no true utopia possible within fascism. “Left-fascist utopia” is an oxymoron, and the difference between “right-fascism” and “left-fascism” is bullshit. There can be a rebirth or re-creation of the nation or race, what Roger Griffin called generic fascism’s palingenetic core, but this is a harkening back to a mythic Golden Age, not the desire for some future leftist utopia.

In “The Concept of the Left,” Leszek Kołakowski wrote: “Social revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.  The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form.  And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” Further along, he wrote: “[T]he Left cannot do without a utopia.  The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law.  Utopia is the striving for changes which ‘realistically’ cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning.  Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity.” Utopia is thus integral to the Left, whether Leninist, left communist, anarchist, or even social democratic. Utopia was the raison d’être for the Russian 1917 Revolution and the 1936-39 Spanish civil war. Little wonder that the generic socialist utopia of a stateless, classless, global human community of liberty, equality and solidarity has such resonance. Fascism has no comparable relationship with utopia. In Russia efforts to enforce Bolshevik policies through military means were known as war communism. A similar attempt to enforce the CNT-FAI’s policies through military means in Spain could be called war anarchism. But without a fascist utopianism there can be no war fascism. Only war.

The bombing of Guernica by the Condor Legion and Aviazione Legionaria was intended to demonstrate the effect of total war. Fascism romanticizes hardened, hierarchical warrior societies like Sparta (which Frank Frost described as “an experiment in elitist communism”) and prefers a state of constant, low-level warfare. Young men are continuously conscripted into the crucible of battle, to be forged into soldiers where the weak are purged and the strong are made stronger. Returning to Roger Griffin’s insight, if utopia is replaced by rebirth, re-creation, or recapitulation, there is also genocidal war. The “liquidation-of-the-Slavic-untermenschen-to-make-room-for-the-Germanic-volk” palingenesis of Hitler’s lebensraum type of genocidal war. To paraphrase Randolph Bourne’s famous quote: “War is the health of Fascism.”

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Manifesto of Verona (1943)
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism (1968)
“Fascist Ideology” by Zeev Sternhell, Fascism, A Reader’s Guide: Analyses, Interpretations, Bibliography ed. by Walter Laqueur (1976); “Crisis in Fin-de-siècle Thought” by Zeev Sternhell, International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus ed. by Roger Griffin (1998)
Greek Society by Frank L. Frost (1987)
Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey and the Postwar Fascist International by Kevin Coogan (1999)
“The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology” by Roger Griffin, Che cos’è il fascismo? Interpretazioni e prospettive di ricerca ed. by A. Campi (2003)
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin (2004)
Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2013)
“Neo-fascist mobilization in contemporary Italy. Ideology and repertoire of action of CasaPound Italia” by Castelli Gattinara & Froio, Journal for Deradicalization (2015)
Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright (2017)
CasaPound Italia Platform (2017)
“How ‘Hobbit Camps’ Rebirthed Italian Fascism” by John Last, Atlas Obscura (10-3-2017)
“The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the Mainstream” by Tobias Jones, The Guardian (2-22-2018)
The Darkest Sides of Politics, I: Postwar Fascism, Covert Operations, and Terrorism by Jeffrey M. Bale (2018)
“CasaPound Italy: The Sui Generis Fascists of the New Millennium” by Bulent Kenes, European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) (2021)
“Hobbits and the Hard Right: How Fantasy Inspires Italy’s Potential New Leader” by Jason Horowitz, NY Times (9-21-2022)

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Fascism derives from the Latin word fasces and the Italian word fasci for a bundle of sticks. During the 1800s fasci also came to signify a political union, group, band or league of individuals, with most fasci being leftwing, democratic, socialist and revolutionary. The most famous of these were the Fasci Siciliani dei Lavoratori (Sicilian Workers Leagues). But in 1914 the Italian syndicalist Alceste de Ambris channeled revolutionary syndicalism into an anti-German, pro-war national syndicalist direction. This split Italian syndicalism with the founding of the Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria Internazionalista—the manifesto of which influenced Benito Mussolini who joined the group. He then fused it with Mussolini’s own Fasci autonomi d’azione rivoluzionaria into the Fasci d’azione rivoluzionaria. Mussolini reconstituted the latter into the decentralized Fasci italiani di combattimento (Italian league of combatants), which he later transformed into the centralized Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party, PNF).

As a sidenote de Ambris, ever the national syndicalist, fell out with Mussolini and his PNF. He then briefly associated himself with the leftist anti-fascist Arditi del Popolo (The People’s Daring Ones) to oppose the PNF, Mussolini and the violence of their Blackshirt (squadristi) paramilitaries.

[2] Fascism is often portrayed as having a chameleon-like ideology, a mystical synthesis of countless influences, a syncretic movement changing form to suit a variety of political circumstances. Hence the daunting task even to formulate a Fascist Minimum. Last column I settled on ultra nationalism + populist socialism + palingenesis = fascism as my Fascist Minimum. Fascism’s claim to be more nationalist than conservative nationalism and more revolutionary than revolutionary socialism gives us National Socialism, National Syndicalism, National Bolshevism, National Autonomism, National Anarchism, ad nauseam. Right away the problem arises of how to characterize military dictatorships like the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) in Peru or Pinochet’s Chile. Can they be considered fascist? Roger Griffin defined such regimes as populist ultra-nationalist which lack a central myth of national rebirth. The MNR led the leftist Bolivian National Revolution, then turned right. With Chile under Pinochet there is the added difficulty that the dictatorship embraced Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire capitalism. Whereas classic fascism (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy) was big on state-controlled and nationalized sectors and corporate/state coordination, Pinochet’s Chile was a business-friendly authoritarian model that saddled Chileans with little government support and expensive private sector services.

In contrast “right-fascism” (Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain) was a combination of conservatism, corporatism and extreme nationalism in defense of traditionalist Catholicism. This “right-fascism” championed palingenetic national regeneration (Salazar’s “New State,” Franco’s “New Spain”) in alliance with bourgeois conservatism and theocratic clericalism.

[3] Generic Third Positionist “left fascism” is fond of lengthy baroque manifestos, platforms and programs which don’t amount to shit IRL. Bouchet’s MNR/NR “left-fascist” program was typical of the nationalist-revolutionary movement in its schematic appropriation of capital nationalization and expropriation from the social democratic/Leninist Old Left and the alternative institutions and dual power from the countercultural/autonomist New Left. Under the rubric of far right nationalist revolution the MNR/NR failed to realize any of its flights of fantasy as a wannabe “armed party.”  Nor does attempting a Third Positionist neo-fascist social movement in the programmatic mold of the MNR/NR fare much better.

Consider CasaPound Italia (CPI). CasaPound (House of Ezra Pound) started as a right-wing youth-based squatters movement in a piss-poor imitation of the left-wing social centers created by Italian workerist/autonomist/squatters movements since the 1960s. A group of young neo-fascists occupied an abandoned state-owned building in the Esquilino neighborhood in Rome in December of 2003. Located in a run-down immigrant area—Rome’s “Chinatown”—and serving as a provocation, the squat called itself Casa Pound, styled itself a social center, and reportedly housed 23 families with a total of 82 individuals in 2010. It offered various social services (free medical checkups, food pantry, cafe, etc) available only to native-born Italian citizens. Squats followed in Rome’s Area 19, Latina and other locations across Italy, some of which have been legalized and others evicted. As a social movement initially based in street protests and demonstrations (which frequently devolved into violent street fighting) promoting right-wing alternative institutions and cultural activities (including an “alternative rock” band), CPI took pains to emphasize that it was not an extra-parliamentary movement. CPI tried to establish a political party in 2013 in order to run in the Italian and European Parliamentary elections, and when that failed it became a legally recognized “association for social promotion.” CPI has well under 10,000 members nationally, many of whom have aged out of their youthful aspirations, resulting in the founding of an affiliated “Students’ Block.” Calling itself “extreme, high center” instead of Fascist, CPI touts it’s “beyond Left and Right” Third Positionist ideology as being influenced by “Mazzini, Corridoni, D’Annunzio, Gentile, Pavolini and Mussolini” as well as Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez, and “the great anarchist singer-songwriters Rino Gaetano and Fabrizio De André.” Its interminable 18-point platform (each point with scores of sub-points) is the usual mongrel mixture of leftist populism and reactionary neo-fascism. Or as CPI itself describes its “main political struggles”: “Struggles for the recovery of national, economic and monetary sovereignty with the exit from the Euro and the EU. Struggles against immigration, against the installation of reception centers in neighborhoods, for national preference in the rankings for kindergartens and social housing. Struggles for home ownership (“Social Mortgage”) and birth support (“National Birth Income”).”

The CPI is portrayed as hipster neo-fascists who’ve learned the lessons of Fascism’s disastrous past to adapt fascism to the present. “Never before has Italy seen an explicitly neo-fascist group enjoying strategic viability that CasaPound today enjoys,” writes Bulent Kenes. “Although CasaPound remains marginal from an electoral point of view, its visibility in the Italian system is symptomatic of the ability of the extreme right to assimilate populist and alternative agendas in order to increase the attractiveness of their policies.” Yet the CPI is a pimple on the ass of Italian fascism compared to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party and the Tolkienization of the hard right.

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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. Continue reading

A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.

***

Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies. Continue reading

San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy

This is a non-canonical “Lefty” Hooligan column not available in Maximum Rocknroll.

I fly into Yupanqui International on an early Friday morning in late summer. The sleek, three-kilometer-high airport is on the outskirts of San Cristóbal’s mountainous capital city Túpac Amaru. Two signs greet those exiting the main terminal, crisp black and white banners on Avenida Revolución that read: “¡Tierra, Trabajo y Libertad! Por Eso Luchamos” and “Señores Capitalistas y Imperialistas ¡No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo!”

The city itself is remarkably free of revolutionary sloganeering and iconography. My rucksack, bedroll, and tent attract no interest as I wander the busy streets thronged with people, bicycles and electric vehicles. Members of the Workers Militia lounge in their camouflage uniforms outside an ice cream shop enjoying sugar cones. Children play and young parents stroll with babies in carriages as the elderly enjoy board games and lawn sports in a fragrant queñua-lined park. Patrons wait for matinee movies in the multiplex’s cafe across from an already crowded farmers market sharing the fountain plaza with cueca dancers practicing their moves and painters hoping to catch the morning light beneath the orange and purple façade of a high-rise nuevo pueblo.

The nuevo pueblos, longhouses and kanchas lining Boulevard Rafael Guillén are boldly colored and decorated with vivid murals, a lively mix of work and residence. Bien comunal warehouses, the community’s shared cornucopia, are painted harlequin green. The city streets are an enterprising assortment of small stores and businesses, gardens and orchards, schools and libraries, workshops and factories run by individuals, families, coops, collectives, syndicates, councils and communes, all of which ply their trade, craft and wares with pleasantly low key advertising. Necessities are free and plentiful, everything else is priced by a mutualist market. I buy a couple of fried bean-and-cheese papusas from a street vendor and fish out my cellphone. The capital has robust communal wifi, letting me plan my next steps online as I snack.

I need permits and visas for a trip into neighboring Zomia, or so I think, and I visit the US Embassy first. More specifically, the US Interests Section at the Spanish Embassy, since America has never officially recognized San Cristóbal. San Cristóbal maintains a Swiss-like neutrality, an aversion to foreign entanglements despite its role in mediating the international cordon sanitaire around Zomia. I spend the better part of the morning paying fees, filling out Section paperwork and talking to government clerks just to get permission to leave the civilized sector. And not so much permission as a waiver of liability.

There’s no direct way to travel into Zomia. A combination of no-fly zone, naval blockade and international economic embargo discourages airplanes, ships, trains and buses from traversing the territory. Visitors must first travel to an adjacent country, then physically cross the border into Zomia, usually on foot. Private cars are discouraged although not prohibited, while coop jitneys can be rented into the interior. Because I’m traveling in a nation not recognized diplomatically by the US and making application for unauthorized travel into outlaw tribal areas, the US Interests Section issues a red exit stamp for my American passport that denies any government culpability for my travel plans.

Just covering their asses.

The clerk at San Cristóbal’s Interior Ministry three blocks away gives my passport a dismissive glance, but I insist she ink it with the country’s routine exit stamp. Now I’m covering my ass.

Back on the street, I drink a café con crema at a sidewalk bar while a small troupe of theatrical performers entertain passers-by. A flock of green parakeets spins overhead. I notice a bookstore on the corner, Librería José Martí, with a helpful city map taped to the front window. A tile, stone and glass mosaic above the front door lintel features a pointillist portrait of the shop’s namesake flanked by those of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. New, used and antiquarian books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, pamphlets, posters, leaflets and vinyl records in Spanish; there’s also a tourist area next to an English-language section near the front. Free books are piled in a large wooden bin by the door and a shelf offers sundry stationary items; mostly pens, paper and postcards. A squat, monkish old man sits behind the counter engrossed in a leather bound book.

“Buenos dias,” I say. “Habla inglés?”

“I attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate,” the man smiles. “Go Bears.”

“Do you have any maps of Zomia?”

“All the outland maps, what I have, are on the bottom rack.”

He returns to his reading as I browse. I’d researched maps of Zomia while still in the States, but hadn’t found anything useful or portable. Google Maps on my cellphone is less than useless, with large areas around San Cristóbal left blank or only rudimentarily labeled. I find nothing apart from an accordian map of this part of the continent, also empty of details when it comes to Zomia. Instead, I buy a well-worn Modern Library paperback compilation of B. Traven’s novels in English, a current issue of the Weekly Guardian, and a half dozen postcards depicting the life, architecture and scenery of San Cristóbal.

There’s an express coop bus at the downtown station that takes me to Béjar, a popular eco-sustainable ski resort on the border. I eat an early supper of hunter’s stew and hearty bread in the collective-run Cienfuegos chalet lodge high above the frontier village of El Dorado, in the snowy borderlands past the Almagro Pass, at the juncture of various gerrymandered national boundaries. The panoramic dining room view is spectacular; the sun brilliant, the deep blue sky laced with thin clouds, the broken mountains limned with snow and ice. Lichen-lined petroglyphs and shadowed cliff-dwelling ruins cascade down the opposite canyon walls. I dash off the six postcards, then savor the last bite of a cuchuflí dipped in chocolate before heading to the Bar del Papa. Papa’s Bar. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway stayed at the lodge while hunting big game and drinking everybody under the table at the bar. Over a decade later, Neruda is said to have passed through during his first exile, around the same time that two young Argentinian medical students downed a few cervezas, their 1939 Norton motorcycle parked at the lodge.

Émigrés haunt the bar’s lounge, like the dissolute aristo from next door Punklandia holding court at a table in a dark corner and lamenting the demise of his country’s ancien régime. A morose exile from “punker than thou” purges in his native land, he has rows of hair implants along his scalp like a doll’s head. In turn, the sexagenarian is surrounded by a small fawning entourage of twenty-somethings who call him crown prince and dauphin, and talk endlessly of helping him regain his rightful patrimony and restoring past titles and glories. The one with the hair transplants keeps fiddling with himself beneath the table, so I avoid shaking his hand when introduced to him in passing.

The bar itself is mobbed with rowdy drunks from neighboring Anarchistan. At first I take them for carousing workers, but soon enough determine from their shenanigans that they’re partying, upper-middle-class college kids. They’re mostly posturing hipsters; “beautiful losers” looking for “the next big thing” but morbidly incapable of enjoying themselves while having a good time. Anarchistan is infamous for its back biting, infighting, and outright sectarianism. A turf war between post-left and identity factions erupts at a local potlatch festival. A hyper-PC vigilante carrying out the unwritten tribal law that “snitches get stitches” punches the guest of a minor post-left @ chieftain, causing an equally minor scandal. Anarchistan militias thwart infiltration and subversion attempts from bordering national-anarchist fortress kingdom Illios. An antifa faction calls out a post-left faction for not being sufficiently, correctly anti-fascist. A post-left @ egoist happily collaborates with a neofascist publisher in neighboring neo-nazi Kekistan, causing a minor furor. Or so I hear, Anarchistan not being my preferred destination to visit.

My goal remains Zomia, and I have five hours of useful daylight left. I finish my last Xingu non-alcoholic beer and climb down to the collection of wooden buildings clustered about the brick-and-mortar jitney station and El Dorado canton courthouse on the snow-clad plateau; a border village with no real border to control. Passports and customs are handled by the same clerk who sells jitney tickets, porters the luggage and runs the outpost mail room. I hand him the postcards, and he rifles through my other papers and paperwork, clearly perplexed.

“You want to purchase a ticket for Zomia?” he says. “To travel to Zomia? But that’s impossible. Zomia doesn’t exist!”

And that’s where I’ll leave it. Zomia doesn’t exist.

Punk rock and the left of the Left, these are self-identified, self-activated and self-organized milieus. Zomia is by contrast a name for an entirely invented concept, an analytical category that is a product of imaginative history and anthropology. Willem van Schendel, a historian at the University of Amsterdam, coined the term Zomia in 2002 to refer to the southeast Asian massif, a mountainous region covering the Indochinese Peninsula well into southwestern China. He proposed a socio-cultural distinction based not on nationality or national boundaries, race or ethnicity, religion or politics, but on geography where the main difference is between fiercely independent tribal and often minority ethnic peoples in sparsely populated upland regions spread out over several nations versus dominant, densely populated lowland regions firmly in control of their respective national states. The word zomi means highlander in Burmese, and the highlands is where Zomia theoretically exists, where small autonomous groups of people can maintain ethnic and tribal identities and cultures distinct for centuries and generations from the surrounding dominant national societies.

The name Zomia has gained currency over the past fifteen years, and the geographic reach of the concept has expanded to include the Himalayan and Hindu-Kush massifs. From the Hmong hill people of mountainous China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, this idea of a greater Zomia is enthusiastically embraced by academics, and even considered applicable to all highland regions everywhere like some international Appalachia archetype. There are glaring contradictions to the much broadened model however. The principle inconsistency is in the centralized, theocratic kingdoms (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan) in control of the Himalayan highlands, often for centuries. Strong expansionist imperial states are not incompatible with the independent mountainous tribal highlands that are central to the concept of Zomia, as the pre-Spanish Andean Inka splendidly illustrated.

Which brings me to James C. Scott’s 2009 work in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Zomia is made a metaphor for the struggle of all subaltern peoples for their autonomy and identity against the dominant societies in which they reside:
All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them. […] To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor.
For Scott, this is a conscious process not only of resistance but of an affirmation of the primitive and the local over the modern and the national. Scott posits a counter-narrative against ethnic assimilation into modern society in which such subordinated people become conscious refugees against modernity itself:
[Mountain tribes] seen from the valley kingdoms as ‘our living ancestors,’ ‘what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization’ [are by contrast] best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.
Scott makes absolutely clear that: [l]acking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy. (Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, 2012)

What Scott is arguing is that Zomia is not a conscious example of anarchism in action but rather of a variegated, anarchic social and historical experience involving peoples who have not been completely absorbed by overarching nation-states, even while that experience is coming to an end. Anarchy by geographic default, not anarchism by political design, as I’ve argued in other contexts, and a default anarchy that is quickly disappearing. The anarchy of the Zomia metaphor is upbeat but doomed.

San Cristóbal is a fictive country from my first novel End Time. Not so fictive are Anarchistan, Illios, Kekistan, and Punklandia, and my crude analogies should not be lost on the readers. The fiction of San Cristóbal and its environs is neither more nor less fanciful than the academic invention of Zomia, a name which works pretty well on its own.

Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408


It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

Spain Rodriguez, RIP: “What’s Left?” February 2013, MRR #357

The funny pages. That’s what we called the comics section of the newspaper in our family when I was growing up. Especially the full color Sunday comics.

My dad would spread out the Sunday comics on the living room floor and read them to my sister and me. Peanuts, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley. My parents claimed that I learned to read well before attending school by listening to my dad read the comics and following along in the paper. I gained an abiding love of all forms of graphic material from this early childhood experience. And my parents were happy to let me read anything and everything, so long as I read. I might have a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago next to a stack of Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp Tarzan paperbacks and a pile of Magnus, Robot Fighter, 4000 AD comics, drawn by Russ Manning, on my cluttered desk. That’s when I was in sixth grade.

By high school, and in addition to my homework, my dad was giving me Romain Gary novels and Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry to read. I was devouring everything science fiction, from Robert Heinlein to Andre Norton. I was also delving into pacifist literature, lots of Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, plus the political classics of left anarchism. Then there were the underground newspapers of the day. The LA Free Press, The Oracle, and The Berkeley Barb. Last, but by no means least, there were the underground comics. Initiated by R. Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, the stable of underground artists I followed included S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Spain Rodriguez.

Which brings me to this column’s jumping off point. Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez died this November 28, 2012, at 72. The year 2012 has been a rough one for me. I turned 60, and being conscious of my age made me aware of mortality in general. I noted how many musicians died halfway through 2012 in a previous column. Well, it seems to me that an inordinate number of people I grew up reading, listening to, watching, and otherwise paying attention to have died in the past year, Spain Rodriguez among them. I was an original fan of Spain’s proletarian Trashman (Agent of the Sixth International) comic superhero, and I placed an advanced order for his graphic biography Che once I learned Spain was working on it.

I won’t attempt to summarize his rich, varied life, from working in foundries and riding as a biker with the Vultures motorcycle gang, through all of his 1960s adventures, to being a devoted family man, a husband and father in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood producing comic books, graphic novels, and posters for various projects and causes. You can get those details by googling him and checking out wikipedia. David Talbot’s obituary on Salon is particularly enlightening. Instead, I’d like to focus on Spain’s leftist politics. A son of anarchist and socialist immigrants, Spain said that “[w]hen I was a kid I kinda didn’t like rich people … I just kinda had a bad attitude.” So, when he commented that “[m]y hopes are that mankind will build a more just society,” or when he announced on his website “Fight the Oppressor!” his sentiments were more visceral than cerebral.

“I had been interested in politics and history when I was in high school but, you know, it was more instinctual and more aesthetic and it slowly evolved. There’s a party, and they’re probably still around, the Socialist Labor Party, and they would have these get-togethers, and I would get involved in that. So, you know, I developed a Socialist outlook. As a matter of fact, me and Walter Bowart [editor of East Village Other] would get into these intense discussions on those issues. So once I did Trashman, I already had that kind of Marxist outlook.” Clearly, Spain understood ideology, but he was no ideologue. He drew a two page comic detailing the history of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno (Toward Revolutionary Art, 1976), published Che: A Graphic Biography about Marxist-Leninist Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 2009, and was working on a graphic history of the 2004 San Francisco hotel workers strike by the conventional Unite Here labor union when he died. All were essentially laudatory works, even as each was historically accurate and critically honest.

It would be incorrect to characterize Spain as a naïve artist type, a “useful idiot.” Mistakenly attributed to Lenin, the term “useful idiot” signified individuals who advocated for a cause whose goals they did not understand. Spain’s Nestor Makhno mentioned the democratic structure of Makhno’s guerrilla army “in theory,” but noted that Makhno and his inner command ran the army with a tight-fisted discipline. Spain also described how Trotsky ordered the arrest of anarchists, and how the Bolsheviks first allied with Makhno’s army, then ambushed, imprisoned and killed its leadership. Spain’s graphic biography of Che praised Guevara’s contributions to Cuba’s liberation as well as the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, while extolling Che’s personal charisma and courage under fire. Spain made no bones about Guevara’s “over-centralized decision-making” (read Stalinist idiocy) in running Cuba’s economy however, or the man’s problematic dealings with African guerrilla soldiers under his command in the Congo. And, if anything, Spain’s comics glorified the violence that he knew was inevitable in any revolutionary situation. Spain Rodriguez was a genuinely non-sectarian class war radical—exultant yet unromantic about socialism’s victories, unswervingly honest yet unapologetic toward its crimes—who had “faith in the revolution.”

Long time readers of this column know that I have been divisive, tendentious and sectarian in defense of my particular political “truth.” I spent last column describing the sectarian squabbling of various Occupy Oakland factions in excruciating detail. The main spokesman for an “insignificant groupuscule” I mentioned in passing has smugly and arrogantly contended that: “OO began its decomposition right around the end of the first week of the encampment. […] The ability of cliques to abuse the GA process began within that first week, culminating in the ultimately unsuccessful – but still demoralizing guilt-mongering of the Decolonize proposal several weeks later. The first betrayal by the union hierarchs occurred during that first week as well; a continued courting of those same creeps throughout the life of OO assured its death. Some of the Move-In Day organizers definitely finished off the edge of contestation that had been present throughout, resulting in a pathetic May Day and an even more absurd Oct 25 commemoration.” Imagine being so angry and bitter in the midst of what was such an inspiring quasi-revolutionary upheaval. Contrast this with Spain Rodriguez, driving around San Francisco in his 70s, no doubt dealing with the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him, saying: “I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. I’ve seen many cool scenes. I have hope cool scenes will keep on coming. I have faith in the revolution.”

The insistence on absolute purity, the unwillingness to accept anything less than 100% and consequent willingness to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the determination to always “lose with style” as Boots Riley has decried, what I’ve called the beautiful loser syndrome made manifest by political purists on the left, is ridiculous. In turn, I’d like to apologize for my cantankerous, ultra-partisan politics of the past, although I can’t say I won’t indulge in such stupidity in the future. Rest In Peace, Spain. Thanks for all the great comics.

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