Against But Not Anti: “What’s Left?” December 2017, MRR #415

I fancy myself a “citizen of the world,” but I’m merely a denizen of these United States of America. As such I feel obliged to oppose US imperialism and seek to dismantle the American empire. But that doesn’t make me an “anti-imperialist.” To quote Gilles Dauvé: “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.”

For me then, part of not being a dyed-in-the-wool vulgar Leninist anti-imperialist and opposing imperialism “objectively” everywhere is focusing primarily on my country’s imperialist exploitation and appropriation around the world. I really don’t spend much time and energy railing against, for instance, either Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism.

Russia is a US rival and sometime enemy that has imperialized Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine, etc., while Israel is a US ally and client state that has imperialized the West Bank and parts of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Those military and economic encroachments are only secondarily my concern as I am currently focused on US saber rattling in East Asia (Korea) and South America (Venezuela).

There can be extenuating circumstances of course. I am Polish by family origin so when Russia recently threatened Poland over the removal of WWII Soviet era statues I took notice. My wife is a Jewish “red diaper baby” and she has a consistent anti-Zionist take on Israel. But we don’t spend every minute of every hour of every day denouncing respectively Russian or Israeli imperialism.

What’s more, I suspect that my fellow American netizens who spend all their time and energy condemning Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism have ulterior motives. In the case of Russia it’s Cold War anti-communism and in the case of Israel it’s old fashioned anti-semitism. Long associated with rightwing politics, anti-communism and anti-semitism are more and more products of the Left.

Anti-imperialism is one of those unifying principles common to Leftist organizations and movements. From the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program to more generic points of unity, an ideological laundry list is de rigueur for the Left. Classical anarchism remained largely aloof from this requirement until the rise of the New Left in the 1960s. The practice of formulating points of unity as a programmatic norm and organizing method eventually became part-and-parcel of anarchist organizations and movements generally as they incorporated elements of New Left and old Left politics, an argument post-left anarchists are fond of making. As for the ultraleft, we’ve tended to make each point in any list of basic positions a thorough treatise worthy of its own volume of Capital. Antifascism is yet another unifying Leftist principle.

We’d planned to go to Crissy Field to confront the Patriot Prayer fascists on August 26 when the whole Bay Area was mobilizing despite cancelled bus lines, locked down militarized neighborhoods, unnerving uncertainties, and real physical dangers. There was a lot of political pressure for the National Parks Department to cancel the permit, which didn’t happen, even as other similar provocations around the country were shut down. The overwhelming media coverage of the proposed event guaranteed that the Bay Area Left showed up in force on Saturday.

Other protest events had been planned nearby, such as the SF LovedUp Mobile Dance Counter-Rally just down the bay at Marina Green Park. And lots of folks thought the best strategy was to avoid Crissy Field altogether for symbolic anti-fash events elsewhere. Me, I think it’s always necessary to confront fascism directly. So when Patriot Prayer cancelled their rally the night before and it was clear Joey Gibson had flown the coop the morning of, I was relieved and elated, but also disappointed. Things had changed from directly confronting real live fascists to symbolically protesting the rise of fascism, and I’d done enough symbolic protesting during my last half century of leftist politics thank you. So while I was glad, I only briefly attended the largely celebratory demonstrations at Alamo Square and then the Castro, and I didn’t care to march down Market Street yet one more time. Truth be told, while I was happy San Francisco had repelled the fascists through our mobilization, the symbolic mass demonstrations that followed were a bit of a letdown.

Leave it to Berkeley to set the standard for directly confronting the fash, when a demonstration of 7,000 anti-fascist protesters marched on MLK/Civic Center Park, with 500 embedded black clad antifa overwhelming the police and taking over the park on Sunday, August 27.

I’d intended to demonstrate in San Francisco as an unaffiliated leftist against fascism, not as antifa. For one thing I’m 65 years old, take blood thinners, and have bad knees. I’d stopped the blood thinners days before in case I got hit upside the head by a rogue nazi. But I was there to demonstrate against, not to fight the fash, so I wasn’t going to be on the front lines. I admire antifa and their stated strategy to confront fascism everywhere with direct action. I post a lot of pro-antifa stuff on my facebook profile. But I also hold to a diversity of strategies (per Doug Henwood of The Nation), where “some of us are fighters, some of us organizers—and some of us like to write about history, theory, and the current conjuncture.” I was never good at the “boring hard slog of organizing” and I’m too old for “street-based politics.” So now I kibbitz from the sidelines and go to demonstrations and protest against fascism.

Notice I didn’t say I was antifascist. I have Gilles Dauvé’s reservations of liberal antifascism: “I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.” Antifa suffers from a similar political monomania, tempered only by it’s emphasis on direct action and it’s de facto anarchism.

And I have criticisms of antifa’s direct action and default anarchism as well. Militarily speaking the decentralized black bloc tactic might work well as cat-and-mouse with the cops, but it’s more like brutal gang warfare against alt.right paramilitary formations. It lacks the capacity to scale up to higher levels of organization, logistics, and mobility, so I think antifa needs to investigate other historic antifascist modes of self-defense such as militias and commando operations.

I have the usual ultraleft critique of anarchism, but for now I think that antifa’s implied goal of anarchism is so far removed from its tactics and strategy as to be useless. To understand my point, consider the goal of democratic socialism held by orthodox social democracy. To achieve that goal social democrats usually put forward parallel political party and labor union mass strategies out of which spring a myriad of tactics—education and propaganda, electioneering and organizing, shadow governments and mass strikes, etc. Rules of engagement are derived from one’s strategies and measures of success from the outcome of one’s tactics. By contrast, antifa has a single strategy—stop the fash—which produces limited tactics—education, doxxing, direct action. Strategy and tactics are so immediate and narrow as to have virtually no direct connection to any stated or implied goal of anarchism. Frankly, I don’t see how one leads to the other except for the usual @ cliché that antifa’s means and ends are identical.

I’m critical of anti-imperialism even while I’m against imperialism. I have criticisms of antifascism and antifa even while I’m against fascism. Similarly, I have problems with most anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist stances even while I’m against capitalism and colonialism. I like to think my political critiques are well-reasoned and not simply a product of my characteristic devil’s advocacy, my knee-jerk contrarianism expressed by Groucho Marx and the Ramones when they sang: “I’m against it!”

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Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: “What’s Left?” March 2012, MRR #346

Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale is depressed.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Call me old fashioned, but I think winning is important. At least once in a while. It’s why I no longer call myself an anarchist. And why I hang onto the moniker of left communist by the skin of my teeth.

I’m not going to waste space detailing my critique of the “beautiful losers” attitude of both these political currents, an attitude that prides itself with time and again “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” I’ve done so in past columns, to no avail, and this sorry behavior just infuriates me because history is littered with the wreckage of too many crushed revolutions and too many corpses. In turn, recent modest successes by Occupy Oakland, which I described in my two previous columns, allow me to considerably narrow the focus of this discussion, allowing me the opportunity to be constructive and not give in to my outrage.

Sun Tzu minced no words when he wrote that victory is the main goal in war. A particular plan of action, involving collections of tactics, toward the goal of victory, is called a strategy. And tactics are the specific techniques that use weapons and personnel in various combinations to engage and defeat an enemy in battle. Goal, strategy to achieve goal, and tactics to implement strategy; it’s actually a simple hierarchy. It’s the same, whether playing a game of chess, defeating the Third Reich, or overthrowing the capitalist ruling class. And central to this whole affair is tactical and strategic flexibility in order to achieve your goal.

Occasionally, a natural disaster wipes out the enemy’s forces, or a spontaneous mass insurrection takes down the government, and you are left victorious by default. You still have to hold on to your victory, which still requires tactical and strategic flexibility. It’s the lack of this flexibility that, more often then not, brings about defeat. And nothing guarantees inflexibility more than an iron commitment to principle. Anarchists, and to a lesser degree, left communists were so committed to their libertarian principles that they preferred seeing their respective revolutions go down to smoking ruin rather than compromise those principles. We’ll return to this point later on in this column.

Occupy Oakland’s modest accomplishments—the reoccupation of Frank Ogawa Plaza a day after brutal OPD repression, the total shutdown of Oakland’s Port on November 2, the attempted communization of the TAS building that evening, and the partial shutdown of west coast ports on December 12—happened almost despite a movement riven over tactics. On one side, there were your classic peacenik types insisting on nonviolence and, on the other side, black-clad anarchos itching to riot. At one extreme, humor-challenged pacifists who inserted themselves between rioting anarchos and the Oakland Whole Foods, and who wanted to shut down everything, the whole march to the Port of Oakland, the instant the black bloc started breaking bank windows. At the other extreme, fashion-challenged black blocsters who insisted on “diversity of tactics,” to the point of shouting down any opposition at General Assemblies, and who were committed to “making revolution” by fucking shit up through the streets of downtown Oakland. These are the folks wedded to their principles at either extremity unwilling to compromise their tactics, who in fact are more than willing to shoot down the main event if they don’t get their way on particulars. Somewhere in between these poles (and aside from the opportunists like union/party hacks intent on policing demonstrators into faux nonviolent conformity, or the provocateurs of various persuasions interested in violence for other than revolutionary reasons) there are the people willing to be flexible, willing to be nonviolent at the moment, but also willing to resort to a little more aggression when necessary.

Boots Riley, of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club fame, as well as a prominent organizer of Occupy Oakland, made the following excellent observation on his Facebook page with respect to pacifists threatening to bolt due to anarcho violence:

The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy. If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn’t have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike. Occupy Oakland, on the whole, has a radical analysis that leads us to campaigns that others wouldn’t and which also capture people’s imagination. For instance, as I’ve said before, Gandhi was vocally against strikes because physically stopping someone from what they want to do is violent. Occupy Oakland has called for a diversity of tactics–which is different than our New York comrades, however I don’t think that is supposed to mean that you use every tactic every time. We are so large here precisely because our actions have teeth. If the police blockaded at the port–we would have had 2 choices. The first would have been to let them stop us from getting there–with them thereby calling a victory against OO. The second choice was for us to quietly push through them with the shields we had in the front of the march and using our power in numbers to get through. That would, technically, not fall into non-violent philosophy. I think it is the fact that police knew that we had tens of thousands and we would push through there if necessary, that caused them to stay away. Also, everyone here seems to be inspired by Arab Spring, Greek movements, and other similar movements in Europe. None of those were non-violent in nature. The Egyptian folks burned down a police station, for instance. Everyone I know thinks that tactics like that here would cause the movement to be crushed, so those tactics are not on the table–I’m just pointing out that people are saying that this is emulating a movement which was pretty violent. But, I think the discussion is about tactics, not about adopting non-violent philosophy. On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland–are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you’re missing the point and you’ll be missing out on history. Don’t let the media frame the discussion. The average everyday person was empowered by what happened on November 2nd. Every movement has contradictions, we aren’t told about them so we think this movement should be different–there was violence during the Civil Rights movement. The pastor that had MLK’s job before him at Ebeneezer Baptist Church had just made all of his congregation buy shotguns. The NAACP had an ARMED chapter in North Carolina. You can wait 50 more years for your perfect movement, or you can realize that it’s here.

I thought it important to quote Boots in full regarding the need for tactical, and by extension, strategic flexibility. One thing he doesn’t touch on, but which is of equal importance, is the need to use experience, past practice, and history to determine which tactics, and what strategy, to apply under any given set of circumstances at any particular time. Gene Sharp wrote a powerful, three-volume magnum opus The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in which he details historical incidents of civil disobedience being used effectively against a variety of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, including Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union. And while nonviolence is underutilized as a method to achieve social change, there’s little doubt that it also has its limits. A strong argument can be made that, without Federal government intervention in Birmingham, Alabama and the rest of the south, the likes of Bull Connor would still be turning fire hoses and siccing German shepherds on the likes of Martin Luther King and fellow Civil Rights activists to this day.

Last column, I criticized insurrectionary anarchism for its rigid commitment to black bloc tactics when I discussed the occupation of the TAS building in Oakland on December 12. While I praised the attempt to communalize this space, I disparaged the hackneyed, formulaic confrontation with the OPD that resulted in a massive rout and wholesale arrest of those involved. During the mass antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco in March of 2003, when hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets to disrupt “business as usual” in the heart of the city, anarchos engaged in a number of black bloc breakaways that attempted to use the larger demonstrations as cover for their mayhem. On March 20, several hundred black-clad youth tried just such a breakaway march and were bamboozled by the SFPD which, with their own tactical rigidity, resulted in the breakaway being corralled and most of its members arrested. These examples of the inflexible engagement by anarchos in a set of unoriginal, dare I say tired actions, despite experience and history to the contrary, illustrate that insurrectionism has its limits as well.

I’ll leave the final word to Sun Tzu, from The Art of War: Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

Whither Occupy Oakland: “What’s Left?” February 2012, MRR #345

I’m not too proud to admit that I fucked up last column in my across the board criticism of Occupy Wall Street. My wife rightly took me and my column to task and pointed out that the Occupy movement has raised some important issues—wealth inequality, corporate greed, political corruption—into the realm of public debate, and therefore doesn’t deserve my inordinately pessimistic take on the movement as a whole. The fact that various folks my age and older who haven’t been to a demonstration in the past couple of decades are suddenly dropping by their local Occupy encampment to participate has given credence to her argument.

I ended my last column just as Occupy Oakland was taken down for the first time. The orgy of police violence, and in particular the injury of Iraqi war veteran Scott Olsen, triggered a massive burst of organizing energy that saw the reoccupation of the plaza in front of Oakland city hall, and the call for a general strike in the city of Oakland on November 2.

No, of course, it was not an actual general strike, for a number of reasons. For one, only a small fraction of Oakland’s workforce left their workplaces without permission. The bulk of Oakland’s businesses apart from the downtown area remained open and the city was not shut down. Union members, such as the California Nurses Association, used sick days to participate, while the Oakland City government gave their workers permission to join in. Even the supremely militant longshoreman’s union, the ILWU, required protestors to block port gates before official mediators would approve the cancellation of a port workers’ shift. An earlier shift of ILWU workers went to work during the day of the general strike. Finally, of the 50,000 plus demonstrators who did march to block the gates and shut down the Port of Oakland, many were not city residents or working class. To argue that the composition of the working class in 2011 is different from that of 1946, or that this was actually a social strike because the social relations in downtown Oakland were entirely altered on that day is simply to play semantic games.

Still, 50,000 plus demonstrators did turn out on that gloriously sunny day, a powerful turnout, and a stupendous culmination to Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike. The boisterous, festive atmosphere of the crowds blocking the port gates, the interaction between the crowds and the troqueros, the independent truckers, detained by those crowds, and ultimately the decision by the health and safety arbitrator that dockworkers didn’t have to cross an unsafe picket line; the triumph of the port march foreshadowed one of the turns the Occupy movement has made of late, towards an engagement with organized labor. In no way could this mass protest replace or “substitute” for mass working class action, yet it was impressive in its own right. To make these points, and to put this protest in perspective, remember that between 150,000, and 200,000 demonstrators turned out on February 16, 2003 in San Francisco to protest America’s invasion of Iraq, disrupting the financial district’s “business as usual” and the city’s “social relations as usual” in a far more dramatic fashion.

The second important highlight of November 2 was the black bloc’s action. Not the midday smashy smashy of bank windows, the spray paint attack on Whole Foods, or the schoolyard skirmishing between black masked anarchos and the peace police. All that was silly bullshit. Even though the Oakland PD had purposefully kept its distance during the daytime’s various activities, including the black bloc rampage, the black bloc’s tactics were tired and entirely predictable. If every time you play a game of chess you make the same moves, eventually your opponent is going to realize this vulnerability and wipe you off the board. Ironically, the OPD did just that when the anarchos attempted their most daring, and provocative, stunt—the one deed worth admiration and praise—the takeover of the former Travelers Aid Society building.

An abandoned and foreclosed structure, the TAS building was occupied that evening by the black bloc and a healthy mix of Oakland youth, who ostensibly wanted to communalize it and turn it into a community center. To be part shelter for youth and the homeless, learning center, workspace, and library, these plans were dashed by a mammoth police assault completely unanticipated by the occupiers. The black bloc built a pair of barricades, a pathetic defense even under the best of circumstances, but made particularly ludicrous given that the OPD is better armed than many Third World countries. Wave after wave of riot police came in, swinging batons, firing tear gas canisters, tossing flashbang grenades, and shooting rubber bullets, to completely rout the building occupation and arrest many of its participants. But despite this defeat, the actual building occupation presaged another turn that the Occupy movement has recently made in its solidarity with various anti-foreclosure movements around the country. It also heralded a resurgence of squatting activism in Oakland and beyond. In this sense, the black bloc action was avant garde in the best sense of that word, and provided the most effective argument against charges of anti-democratic substitutionalism leveled against this powerful deed.

To conclude, my column header is an homage to “ancient” history, the now defunct anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001. Launched with the brilliant shutdown of the WTO in the 1999 battle for Seattle, the movement eventually devolved into chic protest tourism that gave us horrendous riots in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Genoa, Italy, before being strangled by the international security clampdown promulgated after September 11, 2001. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its tent/park occupation phase, hasn’t lasted three months, nor could it last two years, in part because of the intense militarization of local police forces as a consequence of 9/11. Even the movement’s initiator, Adbusters, has suggested that it is time for Occupy Wall Street to move on and find other directions.

Occupy’s engagement with organized labor and anti-foreclosure activities is thus a positive development, denunciations of “union pie cards” or “middle class property owners” to the contrary. The diffuse “Occupy Our Homes” campaign from Brooklyn to Oakland was matched by the only partly successful west coast port shutdown actions of December 12. Oakland was completely closed, and partial disruptions were effected in Portland, Oregon and Longview, Washington. But Seattle and San Diego experienced severe police repression, and the region’s largest ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles, were almost entirely unaffected by the protest. Couple these spotty results with mixed support from the ILWU rank-and-file, and independent truckers, and it is clear that the Occupy movement has a long way to go in achieving a working solidarity with organized labor.