Antiwar: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, May 2022

“Peace is not simply the absence of violence or war”—a truism I grew up with in the 1960s. When I first got politics in 1968 I called myself an anarchist-pacifist and affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, War Resisters League, and similar organizations which promoted the concept that in order to achieve a social order based on peace, one had to use nonviolent methods. I flirted with the eastern religious concept of ahimsa and the western religious notion of turning the other cheek, as well as more formalized nonviolent practices like Gandhi’s satyagraha.  But soon the contradictions of pacifism, specifically the argument that nonviolence doesn’t save lives or guarantee peace in the short or long run, dissuaded me from remaining a pacifist. Besides, I didn’t have the integrity or discipline to practice any form of nonviolence. And while I rejected the pacifist notion that nonviolent ends require nonviolent means, I incorporated the whole “means-and-ends” argument into my anti-authoritarian politics at the time.

So I opposed the Vietnam War, not so much out of principle but out of self interest. I was subject to the draft and I didn’t want to be conscripted and shipped off to die in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia. Thus I wasn’t part of the peace movement so much as I participated in the antiwar movement. I’ll briefly discuss one small aspect of the anti-Vietnam War movement’s wide and convoluted history—the attempt to build and sustain a single, overarching antiwar organization in the US. The broadest umbrella coalition of people, organizations and issues seeking to end America’s intervention in Southeast Asia was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe).

Formed in 1966 when the movement was largely anti-conscription, civil disobedience and pacifist oriented, the Mobe lasted until 1969 when it was succeeded by the short-lived New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) which faded away after acrimonious splits in 1970. The Mobe was dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party early on, which set the coalition’s demands (“immediate, unconditional withdrawal” as opposed to “negotiated peace”) and its strategy (ever larger mass demonstrations versus lobbying or confrontation). Acting as the Soviet-centric Communist bloc’s “loyal opposition,” the SWP claimed to be a Communist party critiquing the bloc’s “degenerated/deformed workers’ states.” Bridling against the SWP’s influence over the Mobes, and fighting the Mobe’s hostility to the tactic of civil disobedience, several new organizations sought to affect the antiwar movement in alternate ways—from the multi-issue, multi-strategy People’s Coalition of Peace and Justice that split from New Mobe in 1970 and organized around the “People’s Peace Treaty” to the direct action-oriented MayDay Tribe which attempted to shut down Washington DC through mass civil disobedience in 1971.

Labeling claims of undue SWP sway over the antiwar movement as redbaiting the SWP contended they had nothing to apologize for. The rancorous split in the anti-Vietnam War movement—between a controlling, hardline Marxist-Leninist organization and a more diffuse, broader based progressive antiwar movement—did weaken the movement and cause a lull in protests and demonstrations. The SWP-dominated National Peace Action Coalition which replaced the Mobes, like the MayDay Tribe and the People’s Coalition, were mired in Cold War politics. Under the rubric of imperialism versus socialism, the nature of America’s global role and the character of the expanding Communist bloc ruled debates well beyond the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the dwindling of the antiwar movement.

From 1975 to 1985 grassroots mass organizations like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War declined in size or disappeared altogether. The ML vanguard party Left fragmented into Trotskyist sects and Maoist New Communist Movement groupuscules. A promising US labor militancy collapsed as union membership fell by 5 million, unionized labor dropped below 25%, and industrial unions were decimated. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan witnessed a minor resurgence in the antiwar movement when President Carter reinstated draft registration, but SWP influence continued to wane in organizations like the Committee Against Registration and the Draft. When President Reagan armed the Afghan mujahideen, to stick the Soviet Union with its own Vietnam-style quagmire, the Soviet-Afghan war served as an important factor contributing to the 1989-1991 collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

The “Free World” heralded the demise of the Soviet Bloc as the victory of capitalism over socialism. The bipolar Cold War world gave way to a supposedly unipolar world theoretically dominated by America. When the US-led coalition of 35 nations intervened militarily in Iraq in 1991 to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the extent of America’s lack of world leadership in the ruins of the international order became clear. Not only did the US coalition fail to remove Hussein from power, it did not take advantage of the Kurdish nationalist insurrection in Iraq’s north and the Shia Arabic councilist (shura) revolution in Iraq’s south. The mutinies and mass desertion of Iraqi soldiers were quickly countered by a Loyalist retrenchment that brutally suppressed the northern and southern uprisings. Unencumbered by the old Cold War strictures and a diminished ML vanguardism, the global antiwar response was widespread but inchoate. Marches, demonstrations, strikes, sabotage, base blockades, street action, desertion, refusals to fight, and other forms of resistance involved many millions of people around the world but remained diffuse. While this popular response inspired the libertarian Left a tankie/campist[1][2] reaction in the orthodox Left followed, speaking to a nostalgia for the “good old days” of Soviet-style socialism and Cold War confrontation.

The September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks in the US provided the excuse for America to invade Iraq again and occupy Afghanistan for over twenty years. It also revived the antiwar movement with a popular mass upsurge of protest and resistance that was often spontaneous and out-of-control. There was also the founding of the explicitly anti-imperialist Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition with pretensions to lead that antiwar movement. Initiated ostensibly by the International Action Center, the organizing force behind ANSWER proved to be the Marcyist[3] Workers World Party (WWP). Unlike the more narrowly focused SWP-dominated Mobes in the 1960s, the ANSWER Coalition propounded a list of demands reflective of the vanguard party behind the coalition. But ANSWER replicated the Mobes’ one-note strategy of organizing ever larger mass antiwar demonstrations.

The tight-fisted control of ANSWER and its demonstrations by the WWP, as well as its pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist focus, in turn prompted the formation of the alternate United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) antiwar coalition with over a thousand member organizations. With an emphasis on seven campaigns (Iraq, counter-military recruitment, global justice, nuclear disarmament, Palestine–Israel, civil liberties–immigrant rights, faith-based organizing) the UFPJ also organized large-scale protests and demonstrations, often in cosponsorship with ANSWER. But ANSWER’s controlling tactics at demonstrations, its sectarian approach to joint antiwar work, and the subsequent confusion caused when the Marcyist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) split from the WWP in 2004 pushed UFPJ to stop coordinating its antiwar work with ANSWER on the national level by December, 2005. UFPJ specifically cited ANSWER’s failure to honor time limits for a September 24, 2005, Washington, DC march and rally, delaying the start of the demonstration, and not providing enough volunteers for the event. ANSWER called UFPJ’s reasons petty, ugly and an attempt to split the antiwar movement, further criticizing UFPJ of moderation and collaboration with imperialist politicians. ANSWER left open the possibility of reconstituting a “united front” with UFPJ to “try to overcome the forces of division so as to march shoulder to shoulder against the real enemy,” but by 2006 ANSWER  was firmly controlled by the PSL.

The antiwar movement’s split between a hardline vanguard party and a broader progressive coalition within a mass grassroots movement persisted through opposition to US involvement in the Syrian civil war and the Ukrainian-Russian war, both heavily laced with tankie/campist stupidity. Ukrainian historian and activist Taras Bilous wrote an excellent “Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” in which he detailed this phenomenon:

British-Syrian author and activist Leila Al-Shami gave it a stronger name: the “anti-imperialism of idiots”. […] I will repeat only the main thesis here: the activity of a large part of the Western ‘antiwar’ Left over the war in Syria had nothing to do with stopping the war. It only opposed Western interference, while ignoring, or even supporting, the engagement of Russia and Iran, to say nothing of their attitude to the ‘legitimately elected’ Assad regime in Syria. “A number of antiwar organisations have justified their silence on Russian and Iranian interventions by arguing that ‘the main enemy is at home,’” Al-Shami wrote. “This excuses them from undertaking any serious power analysis to determine who the main actors driving the war actually are.”

A nasty addendum to this is the growing crossover red/brown politics infecting the Left. Leninists, socialists, social democrats, even anarchists are increasingly making common cause with fascists and neo-Nazis in support of Putin and Russian imperialism. Thus the old antisemitic “socialism of fools” dovetails cruelly with the new “anti-imperialism of idiots.” Leninists in the 1960s at least were rooted in Cold War realities. Today’s Leninists are delusional in longing for a socialist camp not likely to ever return.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead
Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement by Gerald Nicosia
“The ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots” by Leila Al-Shami (4-14-2018, Leila’s Blog)
“Against Campism, for International Working-Class Solidarity” by Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz (Winter 2020, Socialist Forum)
“A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” by Taras Bilous (2-25-2022, Commons)

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Tankies are Leftists who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still support “real existing socialist states” like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Stalinist, Maoist, or Third Worldist Communist Party hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers who champion a hardcore anti-imperialism. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States. And they support as “objectively anti-imperialist” such reactionary dictators as Lukashenko and al-Bashir and such authoritarian regimes as Iran and Myanmar. They get their epithet for applauding when Stalinist tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Tiananmen Square in 1989.

[2] As for “campism” Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz wrote the following summing up: Campism is a longstanding tendency in the international and U.S. left. It approaches world politics from the standpoint that the main axis of conflict is between two hostile geopolitical camps: the “imperialist camp,” today made up of the United States, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (or some such combination) on one hand and the “anti-imperialist camp” of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other less-industrialized nations on the other. The anti-imperialist camp is generally defined as all formerly colonized nations and especially all avowedly anti-imperialist governments in the Global South. This ideology has been a hallmark of political currents defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist, though others who don’t identify with that term also embrace it. Campism, somewhat surprisingly, considering the organization’s political lineage, now exists even within parts of DSA. We hope that our brief account and critique of campism will convince those in DSA who are attracted to it to reject it, for it distorts the very meaning of democratic socialism and leads socialists away from “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “workers of the world unite!” to the inverted nationalism of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In this framework, the division of the world between rival geopolitical blocs overrides other questions and provides the dominant political explanation for world events. It seldom addresses the internal class character of the nations of the “anti-imperialist camp,” and, regardless of the nature of their governments and economies, attribute to those nations a progressive character. It almost never criticizes the “anti-imperialist nations” and tends to ignore, denigrate, or outright oppose movements for democracy or economic and social justice that arise among the working classes of such states.

Contemporary campism, as described above, runs counter to the Marxist and broader democratic socialist tradition insofar as it stresses solidarity with states rather than international working-class solidarity. This tendency generally supports clearly capitalist states (such as Iran and Syria) or states that claim to be socialist (like China or North Korea), which have authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In the past, socialists from Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from Rosa Luxemburg to C.L.R. James, always emphasized that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. But when it comes to states in geopolitical conflict with the U.S., campism often opposes support for democratic movements, even ones clearly led by the working class, on the grounds that such movements jeopardize ostensibly progressive governments, and that supporting them would thus make U.S. socialists allies of our own ruling class. For example, this typically entails support for the Chinese state and the ruling Communist Party, even though it promotes a highly repressive form of capitalism and opposes workers’ self-organization and workers’ power. This viewpoint distorts the Marxist political tradition with its roots in humanism, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century workers’ movement, and which is first and foremost about the fight for working-class political power.

[3] Redditor VanguardPartyAnimal does a succinct, mean-spirited, and humorous job of defining Marcyism as follows: It’s a Trotskyite tendency formed around Sam Marcy of the WWP(?). It of course features the Trotskyite mainstays of permanent revolution and the notion of the deformed/degenerated/whatever workers’ state, but then takes off in the opposite direction from “traditional” Trots. For Marcy, socialist states are necessarily “deformed” because socialism simply cannot exist on the same planet as capitalism, and his “global class war” posits that class struggle on a global scale can ultimately be reduced to team socialism vs. team imperialism. The imperialists are the usual suspects and a socialist is anybody who for whatever reason finds themselves in opposition to the imperialists. In practice, this manifests in a sort of unprincipled “reverse Trotskyism” and unconditional support for any perceived enemy of the US to predictably incoherent and sometimes hilariously awkward effect, exemplified in the fact that a bunch of Trots are now condemning Mao’s decision to split with the USSR over Khrushchev’s revisionism in denouncing Stalin.

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Party of one: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2022

Four independent workers’ soviets operated concurrently in Moscow during the Russian 1905 Revolution. Proud Soviet historians were always quick to point out that the one aligned with the Bolsheviks operated a bomb-making operation out of Maxim Gorky’s apartment. Meanwhile, the more famous 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, precursor to the 1917 Petrograd soviet, had puzzling gaps in its official Soviet history until the anarchist historian Voline published The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 in 1947. In it he revealed that the soviet met in his St. Petersburg apartment.

Aside from the usual disputes over primary and secondary evidence or what constitutes historical fact, and before any arguments over what a particular history signifies, there are always the missing parts of history. What I mean is the things that happened and affected the course of history but that never got recorded in the historical record and thus were subsequently forgotten. The 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet met in Voline’s apartment and contributed to the development of soviet power whether or not that fact was entered into the historical record prior to 1947. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. Continue reading

American socialism revisited: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2021

Socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor.

It’s an oft-repeated Leftist cliché that encapsulates an entire socio-political-economic analysis in a single sentence. It was first promulgated by Michael Harrington and frequently repeated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. The gist of this argument is that capitalist corporations receive government largess in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and favorable legislation while the general population is left to fend for itself. Big business regularly receives favorable treatment and corporate welfare from the government which allows corporations to “privatize profits and socialize losses.” The rest of us are shit-out-of-luck.(1) Continue reading

Anti-imperialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2021

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an “anti-imperialist,” since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.
—Gilles Dauvé

Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist, a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League (1898-1920) which opposed US annexation of the Philippines. For the League, just republican government was based on the principle of the “consent of the governed” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The imperialism of US territorial expansion thus violated the classical liberal precepts of self-government and non-intervention as put forward by British writers like John A. Hobson. Twain’s dark sarcasm and claims of America’s liberatory intent notwithstanding, he was neither so generous nor as damning regarding the US continental expansion of Manifest Destiny that expropriated the native peoples. The raison d’être of this type of anti-imperialism was simple; empire was bad and needed to be morally opposed.

Continue reading

Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

Continue reading

Boutique capitalism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2021

I’d gotten high on marijuana, hashish, LSD, MDA, cocaine, amphetamine, barbiturates, heroin, jimson weed, nitrous oxide, peyote, mescaline and psilocybin by 1972 living in Ventura, California. But I still hadn’t gotten drunk. I didn’t start drinking alcohol with any frequency until late 1974, over a year after I turned 21 and had already moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. But in the spring of 1972 I didn’t like booze. I didn’t like people who drank instead of getting stoned, and I hated loud bar scenes. So I was jealous and miffed when a friend regaled me with the news that “Hey, I was drinking at John’s At The Beach and John Lennon just showed up, jumped on stage and played ‘Norwegian Wood’.” And I was seriously annoyed to learn that Lennon returned two days later to play another brief set, this time backed by a few local musicians. Continue reading

This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism. Continue reading

Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever. Continue reading

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket. Continue reading

Enemy Of My Enemy: “What’s Left?” March 2018, MRR #418

Comrade.

The word conjures up images of Lenin and Stalin in heroic poses, May Day parades and the Red Army marching, red stars and red flags on proud display, the usual Cold War Soviet iconography. But the original word in Russian—tovarisch—simply means “friend.” A century of anti-Communist hysteria has turned it into an ironic epithet, an evocation of Satan, and a “tell” for fellow travelers. A mirror process among Leftists has turned it into a term of endearment, a signifier of solidarity, and a way to differentiate regular friends from people who have one’s back.

So, who do I consider my comrades?

I have a half dozen close personal friends, my wife included, who I would qualify with the term comrade. Most of them share my generally Leftist politics, and beyond these individuals I reserve the term for political people, groups, organizations, and tendencies on the left of the Left. In this category is much of the anarchist/ultraleft anti-authoritarian milieu that I regularly take to task in this column. I consider these comments comradely criticisms, for the most part, focused on problematic Leftist practice like sectarianism, looking for the next big thing, viewing the enemy of one’s enemy as one’s friends, etc. Embedded in these critiques of practice however have been criticisms of equally troublesome Leftist political theory. Two abiding, yet equally thorny Leftist political stances I dealt with in MRR #415 were anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, which have been “standard issue” on the orthodox Left since the 1930s but which have become part of the warp and woof of that anti-authoritarian milieu only since the 1960s. Continue reading

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