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.

The party was held at the Rickshaw Stop, a funky alternative music venue near the SF Civic Center with high ceilings, giant red drapes and an overlooking balcony. Stuart spared no expense. Live bands, DJs, alcoholic beverages and prepared foods. The shindig was actually more of a rave. Those who attended were much younger, had funny haircuts and wore bright day-glo neo-psychedelic clothing. There were light shows, dancing and glow sticks. There were tubs filled with bottled water. And there was a bowl of special punch appropriately labeled with a coded Ecstasy warning. I’d been part of two countercultures and I’d never been inadvertently dosed during my hippie days. Nor did I ever dose anyone without their consent, something that punks never much indulged in. But I stuck with bottled beer just the same.

I didn’t know more than a handful of people and didn’t care for the music. So I thanked Stuart for his zine, congratulated him on his success, then left the party early. I’d been made acutely aware by his celebration of the difference between being on the inside versus on the outside of a scene. At any hippie or punk concert I could have easily pointed out where groups following different kinds of music, bands and social milieus hung out. As a hippie at a 70s concert the psych-rock kids were here, the bikers there, and the Deadheads yonder. As a punk at an 80s concert the hardcore kids were here, the skinheads there, and the Suicidals yonder. But to anxious parents unfamiliar with either scene, everyone looked alike. The subtle clues of hair, clothing, symbols worn and music enjoyed were lost on the uninitiated. To an outsider everything looked and sounded the same.

Now consider the current debate over the “new socialist movement.”

rankandfileSometimes I consider myself a Leftist and a socialist. But sometimes I get cantankerous and call myself an “anti-state communist influenced by the left communist tradition, Italian workerism/Autonomia, insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory.” That’s part of a different dynamic of insiders deliberately rejecting their own or fellow insiders’ status for various reasons. The San Francisco Diggers didn’t identify as hippies because “flowers die too easily.” And much of hardcore punk rejected Krishna Consciousness’s crude infiltration of the hardcore scene because krishnacore was a pathetic “subculture of a subculture of a subculture.” These are insider squabbles.

Someone who is an outsider to left-of-center politics and doesn’t see the differences between the Left, socialism, communism, anarchism and the like needs to realize two things. First, there are a myriad different schools, tendencies, factions and sects that identify with the Left, broadly speaking. I often use the terms “the Left” and “socialism” as generic categories to encompass liberalism, progressivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, Marxism, Leninism, syndicalism, anarchism, left communism, et al. Second, the only common element to this bewildering variety on the Left is collective ownership of land, labor and capital (“the means of production”). Such collective ownership might be termed public ownership, state ownership, nationalization, socialization or communization depending on the degree and type of organization of the collectivization in question. So even this common factor is complex and complicated. But when I talk about the Left or socialism—the idea, the movement, the society—I’m talking at base about collective ownership of the means of production.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Who has agency, who benefits, and who rules under socialism? (Workers and the working class, peasants and the peasantry, oppressed and Third World peoples, the people or the masses, the multitude, the 99%?) How do they rule? (From below versus from above, direct decentralized democracy, democratic confederalism, federalism, democratic centralism, republicanism, class dictatorship, party dictatorship?) By what instruments do they rule? (The state, political party, trade or industrial unions, the four c’s—communes, councils, collectives, cooperatives?) How do they achieve power? (General or mass strike, spontaneous mass insurrection, social revolution, electoral party victory, vanguard party revolution, socialist revolution?) What is the scope of socialism? (Local, municipal, regional, bioregional, national, international?) What other elements are necessary for a socialist movement or society? (Extra-electoral politics, social movements, alternative institutions, mutual aid networks, radical economics?) This list of questions and multiple choice options is by no means exhaustive. So why is it when we talk about a “new socialist movement” we are focused solely on the role of the political party?

The discussion of a “new socialist movement” arose from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It has been preoccupied with how and whether to move the Democratic party to the Left versus building an independent democratic socialist or social democratic labor party. Other voices have entered the debate with calls for an orthodox vanguard party, an interventionist party, even a “party of a new type.” But the political party is not the be-all and end-all to socialism. The party may not even be necessary for socialism to advance, win, hold power or thrive.

Saying party building is “not my scene” isn’t strong enough. I prefer the Polish proverb “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I reject the emphasis on the political party because it actually hinders the cause of socialism.  I have my personal configuration for a “new socialist movement” but discussing my preferences would amount to a laundry list of wishful thinking. Instead, I’ll target two elements I think of as absolutely crucial to minimizing the role of the state and party and maximizing the social aspects of socialism. When we talk politics, we talk in terms of good or bad, useful or useless, revolutionary or reactionary. Electoral politics, by and large, are boring, ugly and nearly always business-as-usual by being tied to the corporate two-party political system. Contrast this with the unruly, disruptive extra-electoral politics of antifa, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Dreamers and other such movements that are “small-d democratic citizen activism bypassing political institutions beholden to narrow, moneyed interests” according to Tony Karon in “Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” who continues: “Those movements are based outside the Democratic party […] but through grassroots activism they have forced their issues on to the party’s agenda.”

Extra-electoral politics dovetail nicely into the importance of social movements in building popular power generally. Social movements reside both inside and outside electoral politics but represent efforts at affecting social change from below. They are multi-issue, often cross-class and frequently polycentric organizational strategies and movements that attempt to build social power in oppressed populations to take on the powers-that-be through mass mobilizations. The Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano, Women’s, and Gay Liberation movements—along with scores of other social movements from the 60s onward—built power from the base of society. I consider one of the most important social movements to encompass is the labor movement. And by the labor movement, I don’t mean only the official labor movement of organized unions, federations and internationals, but also wildcat labor, undocumented labor, precarious labor, the whole gamut of working class strategies and movements that strive toward self-activity and self-organization. Karl Marx argued that the working class must move from a “class in itself” as defined by its relation to the means of the production in order to become a “class for itself” and constitute the proletariat actively organized in pursuit of its own interests. As such, workers have the capacity to seize power and realize socialism, or alternatively, to be a decisive element in a self-managed, self-emancipated socialist society even without a political party.

Fixating on the self-perpetuating political party is what’s problematic here. At the risk of being accused of the “false and misleading counter-positioning of mass politics and movement work,” I see a contradiction between emphasizing “the importance of our party as a base of militant organizing within the class” and the claim that “electoral work must be subordinated to, and flow from, that organizing” of mass politics and movement work (“A Party of Our Own” by Turl and Sepehri). Wishing party work to be subordinate to socialist organizing doesn’t make it so, especially given the party-über-alles stance of most of those engaged in the “new socialist movement” debate. That’s like hoping your square parents understand the weird music you listen to when all they know is easy listening. They just don’t get it.

SOURCES
Personal recollections
The Poverty of Philosophy by Karl Marx
Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan
Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply by Stuart Shuffman
Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb
“Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” by Tony Karon, The Guardian (4-18-16)
“A Party of Our Own” by Adam Turl and Saman Sepehri, Red Wedge (4-14-20)

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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.

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  • "I had a good run." —"Lefty" Hooligan, "What's Left?"

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