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.

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Long live war?: “What’s Left?” November 2009, MRR #318

I have a section in my library consisting of books like The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller, War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, and the Reinvention of Primitive Society by Adam Kuper. I used to think of it as my anti-primitivist section, works by reputable anthropologists and archeologists rebutting John Zerzan’s wet dream that our Paleolithic ancestors were ecological, peaceful, goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherers uncorrupted by civilization and science; a simplistic reprise of Romantic era fantasies of the primitive paradise and the noble savage. Then, I realized that these books also refute at least one important tenet of Marxism.

Refute is perhaps too strong a word. These works don’t contradict Marx’s own assertion that Paleolithic humans existed in a state of “primitive communism,” a relatively classless, communalist social order. Nor do they negate the thesis propounded by Marshall Sahlins that such a social order was the original affluent society, in which people worked as little as ten to twenty hours a week in order to survive. However, this academic research does call into question the Marxist idea that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that it is shaped by the mode of economic production of any given society.

Marx himself believed in a basic human nature, which he called species being, and which was predicated upon humans being social animals. Yet his contention that economic forces molded much of the rest of human nature engendered the notion in the old, Soviet-dominated socialist bloc that it was possible to create, in the words of Che Guevara, a “new socialist man.” This collectivist human being would be motivated by altruism and cooperation, in contrast to the individualistic, selfish and competitive person common to capitalist society.

That such a creature failed to emerge en masse in the “real existing socialist societies” of the day did not discourage these regimes from applying, to an absurd degree, the axiom that environmental forces predominated over biological forces. In a phrase, nurture superceded nature. Both the Soviet Union, and Maoist China, fell hook, line and sinker for the faux Lamarckianism of that scientific quack Trofim Lysenko who argued that characteristics acquired by exposure to environmental conditions could then be inherited. A wheat crop that unexpectedly produced record yields in the face of harsh climatic conditions was then expected to pass on this capacity through its seed. Such a delusion resulted in wholesale famine at different times in the Soviet Union and China, when many millions starved.

Human nature appears to be more fundamental, complex and immutable than Marxists and anarchists would presume.

I started out as a pacifist when I became political in 1968. At the time, I was Vietnam War draft bait, and bucking for CO status. But I also fervently believed that war in particular, and violence in general, were not innate to human nature. I was fond of citing societies, from the Hopi to the Mennonites, which were socially structured around nonviolent principles. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve had over forty years to experience the world, and to read up on humanity’s sordid history. It seems that, past and present, nonviolent societies have been the exception rather than the rule. And, when Germaine Greer opined that human males had a predilection for rapine and slaughter, she was only incorrect in confining this tendency to one gender. This penchant for homicide, while evident in both sexes, is by no means equal between the sexes.

From the Spartan mother’s exhortation to her son to come home “with his shield, or on it,” to the prominence of women as guerrillas in various socialist struggles for national liberation, there is no lack of female complicity in human blood lust. Recent news reports have claimed that women are now in top leadership positions of both the Basque terrorist organization ETA and the Sicilian Mafia. Whether it is enthusiastic participation in sundry right wing and fascist movements (as documented in Right Wing Women; ed. Bacchetta and Power), or as willing suicide bombers in Islamic jihadist organizations, women are still playing catch up in an arena dominated by men. The girls got a way to go.

A recent, influential addition to my library has been Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger’s precisely rendered experiences as a German soldier during the first World War intimated that war is among humanity’s noblest endeavors, a crucible that brings out the best and worst in people, and a forge for individual struggle and overcoming. Then, we have James Palmer’s depiction in The Bloody White Baron of the mad, murderous Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a “white general” during the Russian civil war, as “a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter.” These days, this describes the great preponderance of armed resistance movements in the region from Rabat to Jakarta.

I’ve already mentioned Keeley’s War Before Civilization, which is one of a spate of books (The Origins of War by Guilaine and Zammit, How War Began by Otterbein, Constant Battles by Le Blanc and Register, etc.), that document the human propensity for collective homicide long before said humans could write history. Forgive me then if I’ve come to the conclusion that the predilection for one individual to bash another individual over the head with murderous intent is something more than personal passion or social conditioning.

War is as intrinsic to the human experience as is music, intoxication, pornography and transcendence.

Yet, I’m reluctant to attribute homicide and war to that ultimate black box and deus ex machina, human nature, precisely because of the Hopi and the Mennonites. There have been whole human societies, modestly successful and around to this day, organized to minimize human violence. This actually says a lot about the relationship between human society and human biology, complicating the concept of human nature significantly. Gene Sharp’s comprehensive three-volume reference The Politics of Nonviolent Action, covering a theory of power, a history of nonviolence, an exhaustive list of nonviolent methods, and a sagacious discussion of nonviolent strategy, continues to have an important place in my library.

I’ll conclude this selective survey of my book collection with a story that’s somewhat apropos of this column’s subject. Between 1989 and 1991, when I lived in San Diego, I was involved in setting up a chapter of Anti-Racist Action. Among many things, we did punk rock benefit shows to raise money for local progressive organizations. One such show, held at the Peace Resource Center, featured a banner hung along the building in the backyard, painted with the MDC lyric NO WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA! Among those attending the show were San Diego’s own Boot Boys. At the time, this skinhead crew claimed to be antiracist, and indeed, I detected a couple of Latino and at least one Asian Boot Boy skin. At some point during the evening, the Boot Boys vandalized the banner by tearing off the first NO. It subsequently read WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!

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