Diversity of tactics: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, December 2022

It was November 8, 1960.

My parents and their friends were arrayed around our black-and-white RCA Victor TV in our tiny San Bernardino living room. It was election evening, with John F. Kennedy duking it out against Richard Nixon. My parents were lifelong Democrats but some of the friends present had voted Republican. In a testament to the times, everybody was drinking, smoking, eating European deli foods, joking, laughing, and playfully arguing. It was quite congenial, with no mention of a “second civil war.”

My parents allowed me to stay up way past my bedtime so I wandered around in the background. I carried a glass jar filled with dry soup beans and every time Walter Cronkite announced a victory for Kennedy I shook the jar and said: “Kennedy wins!”

That was my first memory of an American election. I would become a “don’t vote, it only encourages them” anarchist in 1968 and burned my draft card in 1970. When the voting age was lowered to 18 in March of 1971, I ran with a group of New American Movement-inspired youngsters for city council and school board in Ventura, California. That same year I registered with the Peace and Freedom Party. I’ve had a complicated, some might say contradictory relationship with American politics ever since.

I’ve been a registered Democrat, a member of various electoral third parties, a defender of democratic unionism and political reformism, a promoter of the primacy of local politics, and a champion of initiative, recall and referendum processes. I’ve also actively participated in civic resistance, civil disobedience, direct action, extra-parliamentary opposition, autonomist workerism, and revolutionist street politics. As I’ve often quipped, I vote and I riot. My seemingly contradictory politics have been serial, sequential, parallel or simultaneous. I took my cue early on from Roel van Duijn, cofounder of the Dutch Provos and Kabouters, who came “up with a theory […]: the two-hand doctrine. That meant working in the system with one hand and stirring up trouble via extra-parliamentary movements with the other.”

This embrace of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics parallels Malcolm X’s inclusion of nonviolence and armed self-defense in a common Black revolutionary strategy when he said: “Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common goal. […] We are fighting for recognition as free humans in this society.” A “diversity of tactics” is the basis for much social change. Indeed, the Long 1960s were an affirmation of a “diversity of tactics”—riots, strikes, popular uprisings, insurrectionary movements, social revolutions—well before the term was coined defensively and negatively in the lead-up to the Seattle 1999 WTO shutdown. The broad protest coalition responsible for the N30 “Battle for Seattle” failed to agree upon strict nonviolence and thus could not arrive on a unified, targeted political strategy. So this was a “diversity of tactics” by inaction, by a failure to act.

Despite this default “diversity of tactics,” the WTO shutdown has become one of the defining triumphs of the twenty-first century Left. Alexander Cockburn wrote that “you can take the state by surprise only once or twice in a generation” and likened the Battle for Seattle to May/June 1968 in Paris. Now consider the “once or twice in a century” surprise of the February 1917 Russian Revolution and the protean tactics of Lenin in building his vanguard party and the Bolshevik seizure of state power in terms of this discussion of “diversity of tactics.”

The February Revolution that overthrew the Tsarist regime was truly a broad, popular, chaotic uprising of mass strikes, bread riots, armed mutinies, and soviet takeovers that embodied Lenin’s sentiment that: “[t]here are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” It was a period that epitomized a “diversity of tactics.” Lenin would critique both the timid parliamentarianism of social democrats like the Mensheviks and the uncompromising abstentionist revolutionism of “infantile” left communists, preferring a tactical flexibility suited to time, place and social conditions. His arsenal of tactics and strategies (industrial working class organizing, agitation and action; popular protests and street fighting; armed insurrection; even bank expropriations) included participation in or boycotts of parliamentary elections depending on the situation. Lenin’s support for a Bolshevik boycott of the first Duma elections was reversed in subsequent Duma votes as a way to “count their forces” and strengthen their influence among workers. He contended that the 1917 workers soviets were the true Russian working class government, more democratic than the Duma, the Russian Provisional Government or any Western-style parliament. But Lenin went on to argue for a clear Bolshevik candidate list to be elected to win the 1917 Constituent Assembly instead of dismissing the Assembly as less democratic than the system of workers soviets, thereby sidestepping calls for a boycott. The Bolsheviks won only twenty-four percent of the overall vote in the Constituent Assembly, which was subsequently dissolved by the Bolshevik/left Social Revolutionary-led Soviet government.

All tactics, all strategies put forward by Lenin were in service of and intended to advance the Bolsheviks as a vanguard party ultimately through the October Revolution seizure of state power. This was not a “diversity of tactics” either spontaneous, conscious, or by default. Lenin’s vanguard party employed a variety of tactics, but in acting as a revolutionary vanguard it significantly narrowed the tactical field of the revolution. The Bolshevik fraction became the ruling Communist Party which governed the country through the workers soviets. The Party made decisions on state policy, with the soviets acting to implement public approval for the Party’s program. The Soviet constitution recognized the Party’s leading role in politics, completing the substitution of the vanguard party for the working class in power. It would take Stalin to further substitute the leader for the party and finish the consolidation of power into the hands of one individual in the name of socialism.

I have few quibbles with the plethora of tactics and broad strategies available to the Left, considering them versatile with regard to time, place and social conditions. Whether I act in terms of nonviolence or armed self-defense, labor organizing or street politics, electoral incrementalism or revolutionary socialism depends on circumstance. Instead I take issue with who rules—the class versus the party versus the leader.

I may not have the theoretical chops a la Lenin to determine which tactics and strategies work best to advance the Left in its quest for socialism even as I critique the Bolsheviks’ anti-democratic practices in pushing their form of socialism. But I have learned some lessons in my pursuit of politics. Politics work best when there is a level of congruence, when for instance people strive for a decentralized, anti-authoritarian, peaceful society through decentralized, anti-authoritarian, peaceful methods. But when faced by an enemy bent on my extermination, I won’t hesitate to declare the necessity to destroy what seeks to destroy me. I’m not a fan of conducting politics by catchphrase: “if voting worked, it would be illegal,” “whoever they vote for, we are ungovernable,” “voting is harm reduction,” etc. Rather, I’ve been a strong proponent of “by any means necessary,” of the Left doing whatever it takes to achieve socialism. Yet I know I’m not likely to ever live to see that socialism.

We’ve just come through the US election midterms as I write this, with its surprising lack of an elected representative bump in the US House and Senate for the Republicans thanks to the GOP’s problematic association with Trump and his toxic election denialism. I’m the first to argue that there’s barely a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats in American politics. However, there’s human misery associated with even the incremental nature of US electoral politics: the woman denied an abortion, the trans person refused their identity, the black man murdered by the police, etc. The Democrats rubbing the faces of the American electorate in the GOP’s fringe extremism proved a winning strategy, a way to use the right’s fascist ugliness against itself, a political judo if you would.

On a more personal note: I’ve been involved in electoral campaigns throughout my political life, from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign to Bob Beyerle’s 1991 Chula Vista mayoral run. Virtually all of them proved unsuccessful, often disastrously so. The one I’m least proud of was phone banking for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. The personal lesson I’ve learned from them is the need to back off. I’ve become so involved with these past electoral campaigns that I developed unhealthy levels of anxiety and sleeplessness as a consequence. In 2020 and 2022 I turned down the news from major media and the internet. Not only did I sleep better and my anxiety levels go down, the objective political consequences were marginally better. Biden won in 2020 and the Republican “red wave” failed to materialize in 2022. I’m such a political animal that these were positive if piecemeal experiences.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed
Netherlands: The Second Liberation by Roel van Duijn
“The Black Revolution,” Malcolm X Speaks by Malcolm X, George Breitman
Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond by Alexander Cockburn

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Class power: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, November 2021

Two blasts of the two-tone metal whistle sounded most early afternoons in the 1960s, announcing the Helms Bakery man’s arrival in our San Bernardino neighborhood. He drove a bright yellow and blue Chevy panel truck emblazoned with the company logo and slogan “Daily to your Door.” The kids and housewives swarmed the truck on hearing the whistle and the driver stopped to open the double back doors to reveal long wooden and glass-fronted drawers redolent with the smells of yeast, flour, and sugar. Those drawers were stocked with freshly baked cookies, glazed and jelly donuts, cream puffs and pastries, while the center section carried dozens of loaves of bread and assorted cakes. Many were still warm from the oven. Continue reading

New Socialist Movement: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” April 2021

 

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
—Polish proverb

It wasn’t my scene.

I attended Stuart Shuffman’s book release party for Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco sometime in November, 2007. Stuart initially xeroxed his zine at Kinko’s and personally distributed it to stores and shops around the city. His handmade publication was about to become a conventional paperback travel guide produced by a now-defunct independent publishing company that would offer a New York City edition the next year. His Guide to Living Cheaply combined two of my favorite things—zines and cheap eats—under the imprimatur “you are young, broke and beautiful” but the raucous release event wasn’t for me. Continue reading

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.