Potentia Habet Terminos Non: “What’s Left?” November 2016, MRR #402

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I don’t recollect the TV commercial in question, but everything is available via YouTube nowadays. I do remember the controversy surrounding it. A cute, freckled, blonde-haired little girl is in a field of flowers picking the petals off a daisy, counting them out as she goes. When she picks the last petal, a countdown begins, she looks up, and the camera dives deep into her eye. A thermonuclear explosion goes off against the black background as a snippet of Barry Goldwater’s speech plays laying out his perceived choice before god between love and annihilation. Then the final verbal message, the stakes are too high, plays over a title card plea to elect Lyndon Johnson president in 1964. It was the first time I was aware of someone warning against potential Republican fascism, and that only obliquely in a vague, entirely faux “liberty or death” sort of way.

The whole world was exploding in 1968, or so it seemed. Paris, France and Prague, Czechoslovakia experienced a short-lived revolutionary spring; the guerrilla Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam; the Mexican army brutally massacred students in Mexico City; Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and riots erupted across the US; Robert Kennedy was also gunned down; a police riot at the Democratic National Convention brought Richard Nixon to power—these were but a few of the events that politicized me. I became an anarchist and went from a pious pacifism to wanting to join a rapidly radicalizing SDS, which by that time was tearing itself apart thanks to New Left sectarianism. My precipitous political development had me believing that Nixon—the law-and-order candidate—would round up all the hippies into labor camps, shoot black people on sight, and usher in a red-white-and-blue fascism. With the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, I immediately registered to vote Peace and Freedom Party. In 1972, I voted for the People’s Party’s presidential candidate Benjamin Spock in the primaries and George McGovern in the national election.

Living in San Diego by 1980, I was a full-on lefty anarcho making a transition to commie ultraleftism. Ronald Reagan was running for president. As California’s governor, Reagan had said in reference to quelling riotous student protesters: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” No wonder me and my fellow lefties, and many liberals to boot, thought that Reagan would call “action” on a Hollywood version of fascism for the country when he got elected. Reagan liked to start and finish his various political campaigns in San Diego for superstitious good luck, so I was part of the protest at the Chargers/Padres sports stadium that hoped to “welcome” the newly elected President Reagan into office. My girlfriend got into a scuffle with a cop and I spent the rest of the evening bailing her out of jail. In hindsight, Hinkley did a far better job in welcoming Reagan to the presidency, but the left of the Left was fully prepared for some Weimar-style street fighting. It was bullets, not ballots, or so we thought.

These Republican campaigns helped move American politics inexorably to the right, but they did not bring about a homegrown fascism. Indeed, the Democratic campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama also contributed in their own ways to the rightwing drift of US politics without actually inaugurating fascism proper. So now we’re being told by various liberals and progressives that Donald Trump represents more than your ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill rightwing, authoritarian, racist, nationalist politics; that he actually steps over the line into fascism proper, capital “F” Fascism if you will; and that we have no choice but to do everything in our power to elect Hillary Clinton, up to and including what Bill Maher recently suggested by warning: “Every cause has to take a back seat to defeating Trump. He’s like an infection, you don’t fool around with it. […] There’s no room for boutique issues in an armageddon election.”

Bullshit!

An article in The Economist entitled “Past and future Trumps” (7-16-16) argues that Republican Trump fits the strongman type, much like the dictatorial caudillos of Latin America, but with an Anglo American emphasis on nativism, isolationism, and populism. This election pits him against Democrat Clinton who is a corporatist, globalist, and multiculturalist, and it behooves us to remember that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin. Or as Gore Vidal once quipped: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” There actually might be more than a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans this election, to paraphrase George Wallace, but both are rightwing parties bent on taking the US further to the right, one in a free-trade globalist direction and the other in a protectionist nationalist way.

So, which is it? Are the Democrats and Republicans fundamentally the same? Or are there differences that make a difference between the two parties? Is Trump your usual rightwing Republican asshole? Or is he a fascist-in-the-making, a crypto-fascist, an ordinary fascist, or a formal Fascist? Perhaps I should make up my mind.

In keeping with the Wayback Machine theme this column started with, we of the 60s persuasion tended to call anything even remotely rightwing, authoritarian, racist, or nationalist “fascist” all the time. Our rather indiscriminate use of the epithet to broadly tar our political opponents tended to degrade the English language, not to mention any political discourse so that the term eventually became meaningless. It also obscured some real important political distinctions. Take black men for instance. Compared to white men, their unemployment rates are over twice as high, their incomes are less than one sixth, and their incarceration rates are nearly six and a half times as much. Could they justifiably claim they already live under some form of fascism, whether capital “F” or not, especially when compared to their white counterparts?

Some differentiation is thus in order, and we’ll start by defining fascism. Fascism began coalescing as a distinct rightwing politics during the first World War, gained ground in various European political movements in the interwar years before taking power in Italy and Germany, cohered like-minded regimes and political movements around a political/military alliance, finally to fight and lose the second World War. Not only do I consider fascism as encompassing both Italian Fascism and German Nazism, I think its military defeat in 1945 means that what we’re dealing with today is a neo-Fascist/neo-Nazi movement substantially changed by that defeat and by fascism’s propensity for political synchronicity, yet one still committed to a fascist minimum, a generic fascist core ideology. In the bewildering academic tangle that is Fascist Studies, I side with Roger Griffin who argues that:
[F]ascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

So while Trump’s alt.right fanboys definitely are fascists, as are many of his good-ol-boy back slapping paleoconservative followers, Trump himself is not a fascist. And no quantity of “Make America Great” made-in-China red baseball caps can make his clownish, blowhard politics into some kind of revolutionary palingenetic nationalism. He’s a demagogic schoolyard bully along the lines of Huey Long, but a more up-to-date comparison might be to Silvio Berlusconi. That’s not to say his campaign does not give aid-and-comfort to American fascists, or reinforce some of the more reactionary aspects of US politics, and therefore should be defeated. Yet the liberal/progressive scare mongering that we are on the eve of goose stepping into a Donald Trump presidency is way overblown.

Ah, but wasn’t Juan Perón one of those Latin American caudillos who promulgated a variation of fascism and aligned himself with the Axis powers during the second World War? And didn’t Gilles Dauvé argue, writing as Jean Barrot in “Fascism/Anti-Fascism,” that “Fascism was a particular episode in the evolution of Capital towards totalitarianism, an evolution in which democracy has played and still plays a role as counter-revolutionary as that of fascism,” and thus that fascism and democracy are but two faces of the capitalist state? Couldn’t US democracy turn on a dime and become fascism?

Yes, and no. Dauvé’s overly simplistic and somewhat dogmatic analysis posits a unitary capitalist state run by a unified capitalist ruling class where fascism is one of that state’s and class’s unified responses to a capitalism in crisis when democracy no longer works. (Another implication of Dauvé’s opposition to antifascism—that we don’t need to combat fascism—is belied by a like-minded ultraleft that never held back from fighting fascists.) This vulgar, mechanistic, ultraleft interpretation of Marx’s famous quote that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” does Marxism no favors.

We can agree that fascism is a special case of generic rightwing politics, and that American politics are of a piece left and right, without clearly grasping the relationship of one to the other. I suggest a little less Hegelian dialectics and a little more Heisenbergian simultaneity, in particular the latter’s uncertainty principle in which light is defined as simultaneously a wave and a particle. The idea that two contradictory things can also constitute a kind of unity doesn’t sit well with the more linearly-minded among us. Light is both particle and wave. A singular American party politics is both rightwing and leftwing, Republican and Democratic. Fascism is both a part of generic rightwing politics and sui generis. This duality also applies to behavior, in that we can simultaneously hold that US electoral politics are irredeemably corrupt while voting for the lesser of two evils, or realize that the capitalist ruling class has democratic and fascist faces in power while fighting that fascism in the streets. Two things can be fundamentally the same and yet crucially different.

Personally, I square this circle by not investing too much in the analysis or the actions in any particular case. Yes, US winner-take-all, ideologically narrow party politics are shit, but I don’t endorse third party nonsense or pie-in-the-sky calls for world revolution. Nor do I make a big deal of voting for the lesser of two evils, whether that’s Clinton over Trump or Sanders over Clinton. And make no mistake, Bernie is still the lesser of two evils. Yes, the bourgeoisie has democratic and fascist options when dealing with a capitalism in crisis, but I don’t deny that black people face a more fascistic existence in this country than do white people. Nor do I denigrate those who would fight fascists in the streets even though I don’t agree that the fight against fascism must be the be-all-and-end-all to our politics.

This is part of the centuries-old debate on the Left pitting reform against revolution. I never subscribed to the notion, popular in the 60s, that “the revolution” will happen sooner if we eschew liberal reforms or if reactionary politicians are elected. Nor do I buy into the myth that winning a string of incremental reforms brings us any closer to social revolution, let alone socialism, even while I acknowledge that incremental reforms do make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. The point is to be engaged in social change—whether incremental or revolutionary—without attachment, in the spirit of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” More on that next column.

FOOTNOTE:

[Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti-conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence. (Roger Griffin, “The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology”)

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No Longer Ultra: “What’s Left?” December 2007, MRR #295

[W]henever a revolutionary upsurge comes along, drawing its strength from the bottom, without guidance from the top, the proletariat-or at least its most active segment-tends each time in differing ways and circumstances to spontaneously set up more or less identical democratic institutions. Councils are by no means particularly Soviet. Representatives democratically elected by the working people in a given locality or on a larger scale, and tending to take on legislative and executive powers, can be seen in the shop-steward committees in Britain, as well as in councils formed in Bavaria, Turin, Hungary, Catalonia, and elsewhere. The mere existence of councils does not automatically solve the problem of political power, of course. They can go on being “parallel” bodies right up until they are repressed. And historically, councils and committees set up spontaneously by workers seem to follow the initial burst of energy, with a subsequent rapid loss of momentum, due to lack of cohesion and an accelerated process of delegating responsibility.

Gérard Chaliand,
Revolution in the Third World

Okay, so now for the question, the answer to which you’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. Why don’t I consider myself an anarchist or left communist anymore? Here’s the short answer.

The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02.

But, you ask, aren’t these the exemplary revolutionary moments in history that both anarchism and left communism claim in their genesis and resurgence, hail as undeniably liberatory, and consequently hold up for guidance and inspiration? Yes indeed, which brings up the much longer answer as to why I no longer profess to be part of either radical current.

Of the various examples of spontaneous revolutionary upsurge cited in the above paragraph, some considered themselves anarchist, others communist, and still others socialist. (With the rather dubious exception of France, 1968, however, none were explicitly left communist, or council communist.) Many of these upsurges never called themselves anything other than revolutionary, and anybody and everybody, including diehard Leninists, have mercilessly appropriated their history. But whatever their politics, and however liberatory their practice, these revolutionary historical moments lasted no more than a few days, weeks, or months, or in some cases a few years. Neither anarchism nor left communism has managed to create a revolutionary society that has lasted for any length of time.

“Oh, but that doesn’t mean that these short-lived social revolutions collapsed because of internal problems, or social contradictions, or human nature, or anything of the sort,” is often the rejoinder. “Nor is this history of failure an indication that anarchist ideas or left communist theory has failed in some fundamental way. These revolutionary moments were either crushed by the superior power of liberals, capitalists or fascists, or else Leninists, social democrats and other sordid leftists betrayed them.”

Anarchists are often heard spouting this pitiful excuse, even going so far as to contend, all evidence to the contrary, that these stillborn experiences actually prove anarchism to be correct. Left communists are usually more nuanced, conscious of contradictions, and self-critical of internal problems. All subtlety aside, let’s take this reasoning at face value. Shouldn’t anarchists and left communists be painfully aware that social democrats and Leninists are no friends of revolution, especially of bottom-up revolution, and are perfectly willing to suppress, sabotage or seize control of them? And, if a genuine, liberatory revolution is incapable of defending itself against the forces of reaction, how will a truly revolutionary society be possible, except by sheer accident?

A social revolution has to do more than just happen. A social revolution has to be able to defend itself, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and socially. It has to be able to win out against all enemies, externally and internally, and then it has to endure. So far, nothing remotely anarchist or left communist has been able to do this.

So, let’s set aside for the moment the destruction wrought by outright enemies and false comrades of these social revolutions. That leaves us with the particular mistakes and failings of the revolutionary forces themselves in each historical instance. In the Spanish Revolution, for example, the anarchists subordinated themselves to a Republican government dominated by social democrats and Stalinists out to subvert their July 1936 revolution-on-the ground, whereas the ultraleft POUM realized, too late by May 1937, that they needed to make common cause with Spanish anarchism in order to avoid the Stalinist ice pick. We can also consider the general mistakes and failings of anarchism and left communism as such. For anarchism, this includes a consistent failure to deal with the issue of power, increasing theoretical incoherence, and a pie-in-the-sky idealism that considers anarchist ideas sufficient to inspire successful anarchist revolution. For left communism, this includes an inability to sustain mass working class movements after the 1920s, a penchant for adopting undeclared revolutionary events like Hungary 1956 as its own, and the tendency to isolate itself in a metacritique of the rest of the Left.

I think it would be a mistake to stop there, though. As Gérard Chaliand’s quote at the head of this column suggests, there might be something in the very nature of these spontaneous revolutionary upsurges “from the bottom, without guidance from the top,” that make the ultra-democratic institutions they give rise to insufficient to the tasks of carrying a revolution through to victory. At least, that’s what I’ve come to conclude after forty years divided almost equally between anarchism and left communism.

I no longer think that the workers councils, factory committees, general assemblies, partisan bands, peoples militias and guerrilla armies of such social revolutions are up to the rigors of consolidating, defending and extending a revolutionary society for any significant length of time. In the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, the Friends of Durruti decided in 1937 that things weren’t working, and that anarchists and ultraleftists had to radically change their strategy for the Spanish social revolution to have any chance of succeeding. Among other things, the Friends of Durruti proposed a revolutionary junta-comprised of themselves, the POUM, and the CNT-FAI-to take power, as well as the forging of a disciplined Red Army to fight Franco. I, too, think that things aren’t working, in that social revolutions have uniformly failed, and that anarchism and left communism need to radically change their theory and practice as a consequence. Unlike the Friends of Durruti though, I don’t have a clue as to what to recommend.

There is a rather silly notion that moments like Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 are the orgasms of history; exciting, ecstatic, but of necessity short lived. As such, the social democratic or Leninist retrenchment that follows, even the ossification and bureaucratization of the original revolution, are all but inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’ve concluded is that social revolution and the institutions it creates, by themselves, are insufficient to sustain a revolutionary society. A pretty harsh verdict, I know, but one that took me four decades to reach. That’s forty years of studying history, engaging in theory and practice, and trying to put my politics to use in the real world.

While I can’t claim to be an anarchist or left communist anymore, I haven’t decided that Leninism or social democracy or some other brand of Leftism, or perhaps even liberalism, is the way to go. My commentary and analysis as “Lefty” Hooligan is still 85% left communist and 15% anarchist, as these are the political currents to which I still feel closest. But I’m actually in a kind of limbo, no longer really a part of these political milieus, yet outside the grace of knowing what is to be done. I know what hasn’t been working, but I don’t know what will. And while I would go to the barricades for an anarchist or left communist uprising in a heartbeat, I have no faith that it would succeed. That’s the politics behind why I no longer call myself an anarchist or left communist.

If pressed, I guess I’d still call myself a communist; an unaffiliated, nondenominational, small “c” communist. After all, I haven’t pulled a David Horowitz or a Larry Livermore, where I rabidly denounce everything I formerly believed in while rushing headlong to the right. In fact, I’m proud to be a commie pinko, even though, personally, I’m not too fond of most of the folks I’ve had to associate with, politically speaking. Again, that’s the subject for a future column.

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