The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

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

Class war, not race war: “What’s Left?” September 2013, MRR #364

I wanna war, between the rich and the poor
I wanna fight and know what I’m fighting for
In a class war, class war, class war, class war
This war, that war, class war, last war

The Dils, “Class War”

I’m a twenty-first-century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate because of color and gender, religion and national origin. It’s just that I rarely worry about those things because there’s a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.
Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

Leonid McGill, lead character
Walter Mosley, All I Did was Shoot My Man

Who knew, in 1979, when I was pogo-ing to “Class War” by the Dils, that the Kinman brothers would go on to front a drowsy little cowpunk band called Rank and File. An oft-quoted criticism of that latter effort was that it was “music to fall asleep in the saddle by.” It was even rumored that one of the Kinmans (Tony or Chip) had, horror of horrors, become a Republican.

As an aside, can anyone remember the pogo?

I’m unable to authenticate the turn to the conservative side by either of the Kinmans. Not that conservative punks are non-existent, but they are rather a rare breed. Johnny Ramone and Lee Ving come immediately to mind, followed by Bobby Steele, Dave Smalley, and Joe Escalante. There’s a prominent right-wing libertarian streak to some punk rock, as can be seen in the band Antiseen. And, for fuck’s sake, Iggy Pop once voted for Ronald Reagan.

Left-wing punks are more numerous by far. Just look through the pages of this magazine over the years for the umpteen bands proclaiming anarchism, and the somewhat fewer ones who claim socialist or communist politics. To list all the leftist punk bands would be daunting indeed, but this is not to say that punk as such is left-wing by nature. Punk is overwhelmingly apolitical, invested in nothing more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A time-worn mantra by now, repeated for some sixty years by generation after generation, youth counterculture after counterculture, iteration after iteration of rock musicians and their fans. Generalize this understanding of rock music to society at large, however, and the analogy quickly breaks down.

America has a halfway decent history of class struggle, given the relative youth of this country. Objective circumstances have driven the American people, large parts of it, onto the proletarian side of genuine, protracted class struggles until recently. Such was the case, off and on, during the Great Depression and thereafter, from 1929 up through 1950. Much more rarely, subjective consciousness within the American people reached the stage of what could be called “class consciousness,” when folks believed that “a better world is possible.” There were a few general strikes—St. Louis 1877; New Orleans 1892; Seattle and Winnipeg 1919; San Francisco and Minneapolis 1934; Lancaster, Stamford, Rochester, Oakland 1946—during which the working class, very briefly, moved beyond class struggle into open class warfare, and ultimately, into potential proletarian revolution. But class struggle of any sort has become almost non-existent since the 1970s.

To my mind, the American public has become a passive lot since then. Political pundits like to claim that the American public is innately predisposed to their particular political point of view. Glenn Beck has argued that the American people are basically conservative, unless they’re bamboozled by the liberal mainstream media and that socialistic Democratic Party. Michael Moore has contended that the American people are essentially progressive, except when they’re being tricked by the fascistic GOP and their Wall Street overlords. I’m of the opinion that Americans, most Americans these days, are just trying to get by. When they’re not busy surviving, folks in this country are interested in being entertained, by what the ancient Romans called “bread and circuses,” which is the very old school equivalent of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” Both objective and subjective experiences of class struggle are the exception, rather than the rule today. For the most part, as Americans, we just want to be entertained.

That leaves politics in this country in a very sorry state indeed. The official mythology is well known. There are two official political parties; the Democratic and the Republican Parties. The Democratic Party stands for American workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities; promotes big government when it comes to regulating business and certain types of social engineering; defends civil liberties and individual morality; seeks to tax the rich and expand the welfare state for those less fortunate; and crusades for a strong military. The Republican Party represents those of middle income as well as big business; advocates limited government through economic and social deregulation; supports traditional civic and moral values; pushes to reduce taxes on the wealthy and to dismantle the welfare state; and demands a strong national defense. But, as former Alabama governor George Wallace was fond of saying, “[t]here’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.” Whether we consider the Democrats and Republicans as two parties each representing the interests of capital, or in fact just a single party of the capitalist ruling class, the Democrats representing its left face and the Republicans representing its right; the reality is that this country is really, really fucked up.

This final point is particularly salient with the virtual demise of American labor struggles after 1980, and the rise of neoliberalism across the political spectrum after that date. Class struggle, let alone class war, has all but dropped out of the American political lexicon, if not its social reality. Democrats are circumspect about using the terms class, let alone class war, when talking about taxing the rich or aiding the poor, preferring euphemisms such as fairness and compassion. Republicans accuse Democrats of class warfare if they so much as hint at increasing taxes on the wealthy or opposing cuts to so-called entitlements, all the while engaging in actual class war against America’s poor, workers and its middle classes at the behest of society’s wealthy. Yet increasingly, both Democrats and Republicans share a common politics of downsizing government, dismantling the welfare state, demolishing what unions that are left, deregulating the corporate economy, privatizing anything that is public or social, and globalizing the influence of capitalism and America’s military. Truth be told, the class war in this country is all but over. The American ruling class has won. We, the rest of us, have lost.

Little wonder then that we, in this country, are obsessed with race, not with class. Even when America’s class war was going full force historically, race was a particularly pernicious problem. These days, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the American people, and the Democratic and Republican Parties, are both fascinated with, and in denial of the importance of race in this country. This preoccupation with race wreaks havoc on the fringes of society and politics. On the far right, white supremacists look forward to racial holy war, all the while talking vaguely of America’s working people. And an “angry white male” who is a regularly featured columnist for TakiMag extolls the working class nature of such terms as “redneck,” all the while claiming that every black person he knows is as dumb as a bag of rocks.

The befuddlement on the American left over class and race is even more profound. The fossil Communist Party which believes that all issues—race, sex, gender—must be subsumed to that of class, and those anarchos who proclaim “no war but the class war,” have all been relegated to the dustbin of history. But what analysis to replace class with? Those Trotskyist and Maoist remnants of Marxism-Leninism that try to jostle race with class into some sort of new configuration are playing second fiddle to those anarchos who seek to give equal weight to class, race, sex, and gender, who consider being working class as just another form of identity politics, or who tend to elevate the problem of white skin privilege over everything else. That is, of course, when those anarchos aren’t fucking shit up for the sake of it, in nihilistic insurrection über alles.

Myself, I tend to favor a class struggle analysis, whether its hardcore as in the Dils lyrics, or more nuanced, as in the Walter Mosley passage quoted above. Unfortunately, my uncertainty only grows as I grow older. That’s the case not just regarding class struggle, or the relationship between class and race, but with virtually everything else.

Occupy Oakland/Oakland Commune RIP: “What’s Left?” January 2013, MRR #356

The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp–a work of such indelible power, it seems to have existed before it was created, like some deep-rooted, banished memory, inescapable as nightmare.

Jay Scott Morgan, “The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn,” New England Review

Francisco Goya’s horrific painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, was part of the artist’s Black Paintings. He painted it toward the end of his life as part of a series of canvas and mural artwork found in his house outside Madrid. The series in general, and this work in particular, expressed Goya’s despair with humanity, his distress at Spain’s ongoing social turmoil, and his despondency over his personal isolation and his own physical and mental problems.

Goya’s dark spirit was due, in part, to having lived through Napoleon’s disastrous Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814. Napoleon called it the “Spanish ulcer,” while the Spanish referred to it as their “War for Independence.” A major element of the Spanish fight was a brutal “Guerra de guerrillas” (War of little wars), which elicited vicious reprisals from Napoleon’s occupying forces. This was not the origin of guerrilla warfare, as Sun Tsu detailed the basics of insurgency tactics and strategy in his Art of War. Yet the Spanish popular resistance to Napoleon achieved unparalleled levels of savagery. Karl Marx considered the Spanish war for independence one of the first national wars, and Ronald Fraser labeled it “Napoleon’s Vietnam” in his magisterial history Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War, 1808-1814. Whether one of the first wars of national liberation or one of the first counterinsurgency quagmires, it was also a violent civil war, a terrible internecine war, and a bloody fratricidal war. No wonder that Goya’s Black Paintings were so dark and filled with terror.

Goya’s depiction of Saturn has taken on added significance. Representing the Greek/Roman myth of the god of time and agriculture devouring his children, lest one of them should rise up and overthrow him, the original work was even more disturbing in that Saturn was shown with an erect penis. Museum restoration of the painting censored this feature. The painting has been used to symbolize the notion of a movement (struggle for liberation, movement for independence, a social revolution) devouring its own children. Supposedly uttered by Danton during his trial after the 1789 French Revolution, the phrase “the revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children,” was applied to the Russian Revolution after the Bolsheviks took power, and specifically once Stalin rose to power. Goya’s gruesome painting of Saturn personified this idea.

This concept has gained relevance in the Bay Area with the disintegration of Occupy Oakland. OO was the most radical of all the Occupy Wall Street actions across the country. A seemingly intractable occupation of the plaza in front of Oakland’s city hall, a plethora of demonstrations and marches (solidarity, pro-labor, anti-capitalist, anti-gentrification, fuck the police, decolonization, etc., etc.), periodic occupations of public land and abandoned buildings, running street battles between demonstrators and police as well as regular smashy-smashy excursions by black bloc anarchos, a symbolic general strike that actually shut down the Port of Oakland for a day; OO had the appearance of a revolution in the making. This appearance was deceptive, however.

Sharp divisions emerged in OO almost from its inception. While Occupy Oakland followed the all inclusive/make no demands template of Occupy Wall Street in general, a faction quickly emerged that declared for an Oakland Commune along the lines of “occupy everything, demand nothing” and the permanent insurrection of the Invisible Committee’s pamphlet “The Coming Insurrection.” The insurrectionary anarchist/black bloc extremism of the OC and the more moderate stance of OO played out in the debate over tactics, over “diversity of tactics” versus nonviolence. The OO moderates accused the OC of elevating tactical violence into an end in itself, while the OC radicals accused the OO of acting as “peace police.” An uneasy truce emerged between the two sides, which in turn elicited an even more conservative tendency calling itself the 99%ers, which sought to disassociate itself from any property destruction and police confrontations. Finally, the clear absurdity of taking property and claiming it as “occupied,” when the folks who had been robbed of it in the first place, often at gunpoint, were still fighting genocide and the stealing of native lands, initiated a Decolonization tendency. The Decolonization supporters immediately hurled charges of racism and white privilege at the various other OO tendencies, singling out OO’s anarchos for particular scorn as white, middle-class kids from the suburbs playing at revolution.

Matters only got worse when the Oakland PD permanently evicted OO from its main occupation site at the city hall plaza. Without a base of operations, the Oakland Commune continued its ‘Fuck The Police’ rampages through downtown Oakland, racking up random property destruction, violent police confrontations, and additional arrests. The black bloc, initially formulated by anarchists as a street tactic, increasingly appeared as the be-all-and-end-all of the OC’s practice. Boots Riley, known as the frontman for hip hop group The Coup, has been a pragmatic spokesman for Occupy Oakland, beholding to no faction, with radical credentials of his own. A strategist concerned with winning and not just losing in style, Boots made his criticisms of the black bloc anarchos clear on his blog: “The use of the black bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary. […] When almost every conversation I have with folks from Oakland about Occupy Oakland, has the smashing of windows brought up as a reason people don’t like that grouping, scientifically it means the tactic is not working.”

The critics continued to pile on. The Oakland Commune was denounced as a “vanguard clique” by an OO breakaway group calling itself the Occupy Oakland Media. OOMedia accused the OC of “disruptive beliefs and actions” that amounted to “embracing destruction for its own sake … actively co-opting the encampment by renaming it according to their values … shutting down all critical conversation of violence, vandalism and ‘diversity of tactics’ … alienating and swaying opinion against peaceful protesters … [and] planning to infiltrate and instigate unrest in Oakland with or without the participation or consent of the people.” This was echoed by an individual poster named OccupyTheMob who labeled OC “agents of mass vandalism” and a “racist, criminal organization” composed primarily of “a group of ideological extremists relocated to Oakland in order to foment chaos and destruction.” Add to this list charges that groupings within OO mismanaged funds donated for bailing out arrested Occupiers and manipulated General Assemblies into predetermined decisions and the main gripes against the more radical tendencies within OO are apparent.

Allegations of financial malfeasance and assembly rigging, in turn, were called “baseless accusations” and outright lies. A grouping within OO calling itself the Anti-Repression Committee came forward to denounce the numerous threats being made against Occupiers who have refused to renounce vandalism and property destruction, contending that the “anarchists amongst us have been especially targeted with threats and vigilante violence.” The A-RC then noted that “[w]e are deeply concerned by the increasing demonization of ‘anarchists,’ the ‘black bloc,’ and ‘outsiders’ now being conflated under the term the ‘Oakland Commune.’”

Lilprole went so far as to attempt to rehabilitate the tactic of the black bloc against Boots Riley’s critique in his post “Knocking the Boots?” by first pointing out that the black block has a well established place in the history and practice of Bay Area protest politics. “[W]e saw the rise of T.A.C., or the Tactical Action Committee, who also helped popularize the black bloc tactic through weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, as well as the growth of a radical squatting scene in West Oakland, the degree in which I have not seen in any major metropolitan city in the US … [B]lack bloc type actions helped to express solidarity and expand sites of resistance … Lastly, ‘black bloc’ type actions have also been an ongoing facet of militant feminist, queer, and trans revolt in the bay as well.” This extension of the black bloc outside the anarchist ghetto has meant that the tactic is here to stay, and that its use will only grow as riot and insurrection in this country increase.

Note that I have not gone into the vitriol between the 99%ers or Decolonize and Occupy Oakland or the Oakland Commune. Note that I have not delved into the puerile criticisms of “insignificant groupuscules” like the miniscule Anarchist Anti-Defamation Caucus of the Anti-Bureaucratic Bloc. Note that I haven’t enumerated the myriad personal fights that mask themselves as principled political disagreements within Occupy Oakland. This welter of division and infighting illustrates one fact all too well. Whereas Occupy Oakland was once able to mobilize 10 to 20,000 people to shut down the Port of Oakland during the November 3, 2011 General Strike, nowadays Occupy Oakland’s “General Assembly no longer has large enough attendance to reach quorum–requiring at least 75 people” according to an Occupy Oakland Tribune article.

Which is a shame. OO generated a great deal of collective energy that went into work with labor, both organized and unorganized, community occupations, squatting and anti-foreclosure efforts, anti-corporate/bank campaigns, efforts to help threatened schools and libraries, debt forgiveness, campaigns to monitor police abuse, even work in communities of color. If nothing else “[d]uring the week of the raid on the [OO] encampment, crime in Oakland dropped 19 percent overall” according to Eric K. Arnold in his article on infighting among OO factions marking OO’s first anniversary on October 25. Despite the squabbling and bickering that was decisive in Occupy Oakland’s demise, Oakland remains a cutting edge laboratory for radical politics and practice.

But to use the term “Oakland Commune” implies some positive comparison to the 1871 Paris Commune or the 1927 Shanghai Commune, which is embarrassing. That’s because Occupy Oakland was far from a revolution, even a failed one. The metaphor of “Saturn devouring its own children” thus does not apply to the infighting and factionalism that has torn apart OO. A more apt metaphor might be a shark feeding frenzy, in which the creatures wound each other fighting over food and then proceed to rip each other to shreds. Except that OO’s trivial factions hardly merit a comparison to sharks. Perhaps a feeding frenzy among venomous, vindictive piranha is more to the point.
Hooligan Temp

Blaming government or capitalism: “What’s Left?” March 2011, MRR #334

The international economic meltdown of 2007 that resulted in the Great Recession we’re still living through has been characterized by state funded bailouts for banks and other financial institutions, and considerable hardship for most of the rest of us. When the French government recently decided to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, workers struck and youth rioted for weeks on end as French public opinion remained firmly against the government’s actions. By contrast, while the American government does next to nothing to prevent escalating home foreclosures and ongoing high unemployment, workers and youth, inner cities and campuses are utterly pacified, while the American public remains thoroughly passive.

That is, unless one counts the growing Tea Party movement. Explicitly anti-big government, the Tea Party folks would give corporate capitalism free reign with tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization. So, what’s up with this country that, just as capitalism is proving itself bankrupt, the only apparent form of popular resistance turns out to be pro-capitalist? That the Tea Party movement had such a major impact on the recent midterm elections doesn’t speak well of the American electorate’s intelligence.

(I’m reminded of a couple of editorial cartoons, the first one by Joel Pett from the Lexington Herald-Leader in which the character is subject to ongoing capitalist abuse. A corporation lays him off, a corporation takes his home, corporate cash corrupts democracy, a corporation denies his medical claims, and corporations track his every move via surveillance, wiretaps, internet monitoring, and urine drug testing. In the last panel, he exclaims: “I hate the #@!% government!” Another political cartoon, by David Horsey from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, contrasts European and American reactions to government austerity measures. In the first panel, rioting French students battle the gendarmerie. For protesting government austerity in America, the illustration is of a Goldman-Sachs executive grabbing another man by his tie and yelling: “Save my tax cut, Senator! I don’t want to give up any of my million dollar bonus!”)

Why there’s such a dearth of class consciousness and class conflict in the United States at present, despite the ample material conditions that should generate the contrary, we’ll get to in a moment. That a spontaneous uprising of the working class, or the masses, or the people, or the multitude, or whatever, isn’t in the cards any time soon should be obvious in any case. The pious faiths of anarchism and left communism are less than useless when dealing with this unerring propensity of ordinary Americans today to act against their economic interests and class loyalties. The “American way of life” remains the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the survival of the planet with, perhaps, with the exception of a billion and half Chinese trying to emulate America. But at least the class war is alive and well in China, as sites like http://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/ amply demonstrate.

Lately, I’ve wondered what it would take to bring a little class war back to the American scene. Perhaps a charismatic, Huey Long type demagogue could stir up a populist, quasi-socialist, share-the-wealth movement among the American people. Then at the right moment this demagogue would be assassinated—an event that, instead of suppressing the movement led by him, would instigate a mass uprising that begins a resurgence of American socialism.

This scenario is a far cry from what is required to transform the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself, let alone a successful revolution that brings about the self-emancipation of the working class. Am I going so far as to deny the self-activity and self-organization of working people? No, but lately, I’ve come to understand how such sentiments for class autonomy come about. You see, for the longest time, I assumed that such impulses were innate to workers by virtue of them being a social class. That, up until the 1950s, the US labor movement was often the most violent and energetic in the world according to folks as diverse as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Jeremy Brecher, I attributed to the advanced nature of the American working class. Thus, I ignored that socialism never really took root in this country in any substantive way, that a labor party never emerged to challenge the two-party electoral system, and that factors like the western frontier, race and affluence easily deflected class struggle despite its supposed intensity.

When I did pay attention to such constraints on the class war in the United States, I thought that a little more historical development would be required to overcome any such limitations and obstacles. After all, weren’t immigrants invariably at the forefront of America’s class struggles, immigrants from places around the world with greater historical depth? Then I realized that the planet is not likely to survive the five hundred or so years of war, invasion, conquest, economic and social upheaval, etc., etc. that will be required to give this country the historical perspective for a halfway decent class war. Which then leaves me with John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up.” Published in 1972 when the United States represented approximately 6% of the world’s population consuming over 50% of the world’s resources, Brunner’s science fiction novel describes a planet on the brink of ecological collapse in which the only solution offered to humanity is the total destruction of America. The book concludes with this country descending into civil war.

Quite a grim little mood I’m in.

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