Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

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The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

Background of hammer and sickle on old wooden floor

The libertarian fantasy: “What’s Left?” January 2020 (MRR #440)

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

John Rogers
Kung Fu Monkey — Ephemera, blog post, 3-19-09

The idea of expanding the traditional one-dimensional Left-Right political spectrum into a two-dimensional political map is an old one. Beginning in the 1950s, several double-axis models were proposed: Authoritarian-Democratic/Radical-Conservative (Eysenck), Left-Right/Ideological Rigidity (Greenberg & Jonas), Traditionalist-Secular/Self Expressionist-Survivalist (Inglehart), Liberty-Control/Irrationalism-Rationalism (Pournelle), and Kratos-Akrateia/Archy-Anarchy (Mitchell). The American libertarian David Nolan proposed his two axis diamond-shaped Nolan Chart in 1969 based on economic freedom and political freedom, which everybody knows about but nobody uses outside of libertarian circles. Which brings is to the problem of libertarianism.

A basic two-axis political model was promulgated concurrently by Bryson and McDill (Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought, 1968), and Meltzer and Christie (The Floodgates of Anarchy, 1970); an economic Left-Right/political Authoritarian-Libertarian foursquare arrangement that has since become a boilerplate for the political compass used by the website of the same name. In turn, the political compass format has become a widespread internet meme. The top left square represents the authoritarian left, the top right square the authoritarian right, the bottom left square the libertarian left and the bottom right square the libertarian right. Each square embraces numerous political thinkers, leaders, organizations, and parties, but only three of these squares actually represent real existing political systems. There have been authoritarian left societies like Communist China, authoritarian right societies like Franco’s Spain, and for brief periods of time various libertarian left anarchist and socialist societies. But there have never been any libertarian right societies. No real existing hidden Rocky Mountain Mulligan’s Valley redoubts. Ever.

This lack of a “Galt’s Gulch” in a Colorado mountain valley somewhere, past or present, is the necessary starting point for critiquing the absurdity that is libertarianism. For the moment, forget that a right wing politics obsessed with property rights has unashamedly stolen the terms “libertarianism” and “anarchism” from the Left to use in defining themselves. Right libertarianism is all theory and no practice, with no “in real life” to get in the way of its bullshit abstractions. It’s no accident that Milton Friedman’s Chicago School monetarist economics was first implemented in Chile by the fascist Pinochet government. Right libertarian economics are not anchored to any corresponding social reality, never have been and never will be. It exists only as pure fiction, in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and nowhere else.

This lack of social grounding to the economic theories of right wing libertarianism, and in particular anarchist capitalism, accounts for assholes like Murray Rothbard and his loathsome politics. Rothbard disagreed with Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, just about anybody who claimed a similar laissez-faire economics because, when there’s no social reality to back up your economic theories, every faux detail of your pretend system becomes crucial to defend. It’s like Medieval Scholasticism arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Rothbard quickly abandoned any pretense of defending liberty (and “libertarianism”) in calling himself an anarchist capitalist, and more specifically a property rights anarchist as private property was the only right he assiduously defended. Along the way, he made it clear he despised women, people of color, and LGBQTI+ people in particular and any form of civil rights in general. He criticized “the cult of science” and defended holocaust denialism, sought to gut civil liberties and proposed a retributive “eye for an eye” criminal justice system, justified the torture of criminal suspects and railed against free market open borders, ad nauseam. His consistent antiwar stance and his nominal defense of children’s rights notwithstanding, Rothbard’s politics were so thoroughly reactionary that it’s little wonder there’s a hazy continuum, no, a slippery slope between right wing libertarianism and far right fascist politics.

Matt Lewis described this as “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” in The Daily Beast when he wrote:
A friend of mine who is libertarian suggests that other libertarians never liked [Christopher] Cantwell, and that he was simply using libertarianism “as a shield for expressing a lot of disturbing viewpoints.” Despite the negative stereotypes, casting yourself as libertarian still has some cache[sic]. Celebrities like Bill Maher and Vince Vaughn have identified with the label—which seems to be a way of expressing some conservative viewpoints while still supporting the decriminalization of marijuana and distancing yourself from social conservatism. Libertarians won’t continue to enjoy this status if the alt-right is allowed to tarnish their philosophy, too.
And conservative pundit Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review in defending his fellow conservatives by claiming:
If libertarians have a pipeline for kooks, it is probably because they have some non-mainstream views. But if you have perfectly acceptable views, you probably have a pipeline for grifters. Conservatives have a mix of mainstream views and non- mainstream views. Consequently we are always fending off kooks on one side while being preyed upon by grifters on the other.
My explanation is far simpler. If you’re not grounded in social reality, if you have no “real existing” social system upon which to base your theories, you have nothing to prevent yourself from drifting into reactionary absurdity, if not outright genocidal fascism.

(Mainstream conservatives have long decried libertarianism [meaning the Libertarian Party] as “unwitting enablers of socialism,” defenders of “open borders” against sensible immigration policies, supporters of “unpleasant, unaffordable housing,” and opponents of “vital enabling infrastructure.” [Edward Ring, American Greatness, 10–2-19] Their argument is that the Libertarian Party unwittingly tilts “the political balance in favor of the progressive agenda across a host of important national issues.” It’s far better to realize that libertarian economics are a joke because they don’t work without the backing of statist politics.)

I won’t regale you with my sad slapstick attempt as an anarchist to work with libertarians over forty years ago. I’d rather approach the utter lack of social reality behind right wing libertarianism from a different angle, that being the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. As a dyed-in-the-wool Leftist, I’ve long espoused the ideal of a stateless, classless, global human community based on to each according to need, from each according to ability. Formulated by Karl Marx, the Leninist version of this ideal realized Marx’s “lower stage of communism” as a one party totalitarian state socialism of breadlines, secret police and gulags. The anarchist version, as realized in the anarchist regions of Spain during the 1936-39 civil war, witnessed the burning of monasteries and nunneries, pistolero justice, and the CNT/FAI eventually joining the Republican government according to Paul Preston. Kenan Malik well illustrated the discrepancy between the ideal and the real in the Kurdish libertarian socialist experiment in Rojava when he wrote:
Influenced by the American environmentalist and libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, [Abdullah Öcalan] has rejected the idea of a separate Kurdish nation state, arguing instead for “direct democracy without a state” and for the centrality of women’s rights in any social change. […] There is a danger of romanticising the Rojava revolution. There have been credible allegations of ethnic cleansing and of the silencing of dissent. A report from Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank, suggests that, for all the talk of decentralisation, the PYD still ensures it retains access to power. [Guardian Weekly, 10-27-19]

Mussolini said of Fascism: “The keystone of the Fascist doctrine is its conception of the State, of its essence, its functions, and its aims. For Fascism the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative.” But in the case of both Italian Fascism and Nazi Germany, the centralizing and totalitarian drives of Fascism were never actually fully realized. In both regimes, for instance, the church as a social institution was never completely subordinated to the state. Lastly, one can only wonder with horror about the society that would emerge from an economic theory that promotes the complete privatization of all social and governmental services (licensing, standards, police, courts, money coinage, etc) and the conversion of all social relationships into property relationships. However, I think a terrifying inkling can be gleaned from an Ann Coulter MSNBC commentary when she said: “My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that’s because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism.”

Libertarian—laissez-faire—free market economics have long been a tool used by governments of various stripes: conservative, fascist, liberal, even socialist. But a fully realized libertarian society—a stateless society based on “pure” capitalism—has never existed and never will. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about something really crucial; whether or not to support Aragorn II, son of Arathorn II and Gilraen, King of Gondor, for the throne.

SOURCES:
Know Your Enemy:
Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative and It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand by Jerome Tuccille
Critiques:
Capital: A Critique of Political Economy and Grundrisse by Karl Marx
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump by Corey Robin
“The Question Libertarians Just Can’t Answer” and “Why Libertarians Apologize For Autocracy” by Michael Lind
“Critiques of Libertarianism” by Mike Huben
“Libertarianism, Capitalism and Socialism” by Richard D. Wolff, Economic Update (12-12-19)

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Last column I described an informal left-wing “third something” I hoped was developing between anarchism and Marxism IRL with the EZLN in Chiapas and the SDF/YPG in Kurdish Rojava. Now, let’s consider a formal right-wing “third something” that disingenuously claims to be “neither Left nor Right.” In other words, Fascism. Fascist ideology was, according to Ze’ev Sternhill, “[A] variety of socialism which, while rejecting Marxism, remained revolutionary. This form of socialism was also, by definition, anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois, and its opposition to historical materialism made it the natural ally of radical nationalism.” (Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France) An Israeli, Sternhell was critical of Zionism as a member of the Peace Now movement. Sternhell’s thesis that Fascism arose in France out of the revolutionary syndicalism of Georges Sorel—which had gained popularity among the working classes in part because of their sociological composition—was criticized for underemphasizing the traditional conservative nature of the French Right and overemphasizing that Fascism was born of a single ideology.

You might say Fascism is revolutionary in form, but reactionary in content. Certainly, much Fascism has emphasized some variation of Sternhell’s argument that it is neither Right nor Left, capitalist nor socialist, pro-American nor pro-Communist, etc. Fascism is notoriously syncretic, polymorphous and hard to pin down, ranging from Traditionalism to fundamentalism, corporatism and Nazism, all held together by a virulent ultra-nationalism. It has nothing to do with the Third Way centrism of the likes of Tony Blair’s social democrats and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats however. It is instead an extremist third way often labeled Third Positionism, with historical roots in Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and other red-brown alliances brought up-to-date with the likes of the Nouvelle Droite, national-anarchism, and various currents in the American alt-right. To understand how slippery and dangerous Third Positionism is, consider the example of Perónismo.

Juan Perón rose to power as part of a military coup d’état against a conservative civilian president in 1943. A colonel serving in a military government with a portfolio in the Department of Labor, Perón promoted a wide range of labor reforms for unionized workers—wage increases, collective bargaining and arbitration, social insurance, social welfare benefits—which made him wildly popular among Argentina’s working classes. With Perón’s other government positions, this support allowed him to win and hold the presidency from 1946 to 1952. So great was Perón’s hold on Argentine politics he served as president intermittently thereafter, from 1952 to 1956 and 1973 to 1974. He carefully crafted a cult of personality in office and in exile which has severely skewed those politics ever since.

Perón epitomized the sort of strong man politics known in Latin America as caudillismo which was imported from Europe and fits nicely within a broader context of military rule defined by coup and junta. With a populist twist. As the strong man leading a strong state, the caudillo acts to rescue capitalism from crisis, bail out and discipline the comprador bourgeoisie, and brutally suppress the rebellious working classes.

In Perón’s case, he instead championed Argentina’s descamisados, the “shirtless ones,” the working classes which he bought off with money and social reforms like a Workers’ Bill of Rights, all while promoting economic industrialization and nationalization. Perón came to exercise increasing control over the leadership and direction of the assorted trade unions, as he did over universities and newspapers. Socialist and communist resistance to Perónismo was smashed. The state became the foremost arbiter of Argentine life and Perón became the personal arbiter of the Argentine state. This was justicialismo which Perón considered a “third ideological position aimed to liberate us from [individualist] capitalism without making us fall into the oppressing claws of [communist] collectivism.” He also encouraged Argentina’s economic and political independence from the United States and challenged America’s hemispheric domination under the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, Perón attempted from 1944 onward to steer a neutral international course between what the French fascist Robert Brasillach called the two poetries of the twentieth century—Communism and Fascism—as well as between the Cold War’s “Free World” and Soviet bloc.

This is the bare essentials of what Perón called justicialismo domestically and the Third Position internationally, twin aspects of Perónismo. But it was clear from the start which side of the Left/Right divide Perón favored. While the Soviet Union sent aid and advisors to Cuba in the 1960s, Perón’s Argentina protected Nazi war criminals. To be fair, Perón granted immediate full diplomatic recognition to Castro’s Cuba and never fomented anti-semitism or attacked Argentina’s large Jewish community. Perónismo became an ideology unto itself well before Perón died and Evita was overthrown in a military coup backed by elements of the Argentine bourgeoisie and the CIA.

The military junta that took over in 1976 as the National Reorganization Process was anti-Perónist, instigating a vicious “dirty war” from 1974 to 1983 in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, murdered and “disappeared” students, trade unionists, artists, writers, journalists, militants, left-wing activists and guerrillas numbering some 30,000. The guerrilla component was comprised not only of Marxist-Leninist groups like the People’s Revolutionary Army/ERP and the Liberation Armed Forces/FAL, but also a highly splintered Perónist guerrilla insurgency ranging from Leninist/Perónist hybrids like the Revolutionary Armed Forces/FAR, through left-wing groups like the Perónist Armed Forces/FAP and the Catholic Perónist Montonero Movement/MPM (Montoneros), to the outright antisemitic, fascist Tacuara Nationalist Movement/MNT modeled after the Spanish Falange. (As the MRNT under Joe Baxter, Tacuara renounced anti-semitism and became progressively Marxist.) Most presidents since the military junta relinquished power have been Perónist, including Menem and Kirchner.

Perón said “[o]ur Third Position is not a central position. It is an ideological position which is in the center, on the right, or on the left, according to specific circumstances.” In exile eventually in Franco’s Spain, Perón met secretly with various leftists in Madrid like Salvador Allende and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Of Che, Perón said: “an immature utopian—but one of us—I am happy for it to be so because he is giving the yankees a real headache.” Yet, in his final days in power in Argentina, Perón also cordially met and negotiated with Pinochet. Perón’s red-brown alliances of convenience internationally and his domestic worker-oriented populism caused headaches for the Left both in Latin America and worldwide. It still does as an exemplar of generic Third Positionism, what with the global upsurge of the alt-right and its claims to go “beyond Left and Right.”

It might be argued that Perónismo is socialism with Argentine characteristics—Perón being a precursor to left-wing military rule like Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement or Portugal’s Carnation Revolution—and that the Argentine military junta were the real fascists. But it was clearly charismatic national fascism versus faceless client-state fascism. When faced with two bad fascist choices, choose actual socialism.

The once and future Left: “What’s Left?” June 2019 (MRR #433)

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

We love them from a distance, even going so far as to make movies about them. From Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s tortuous on-again off-again love affair that fans believed underlaid the ferocious film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to punk rock’s murder/suicide darlings Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen who were the subject of the eponymous biopic Sid and Nancy, we’re fascinated by such emotional human train wrecks. Richard Kruspe of the sketchy brutalist band Rammstein commented that being in a band is “like a relationship. It’s a marriage without sex.” Vin Diesel’s movie xXx featured a clip of Rammstein playing “Feuer frei!” Dysfunctional musicians in dysfunctional bands is a tired old trope.

The history of larger human institutions is equally fraught with social dysfunction. “If measured by the number of lives it destroyed,” wrote author Elizabeth Gilbert, “Then you can’t find a worse alliance than the marriage between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, sealed with the Reichskonkordat treaty in 1933. Like many abused wives, the Church initially thought it would be protected by its powerful husband (from Communism, in this case), but instead became complicit in unthinkable psychopathy.” Today, the European Union is often criticized as a marriage of convenience that has since gone awry. “This one has sabotaged the siesta, those gorgeous lire, French-baked baguettes,” author Stacy Schiff comments. “Down this road lies a Starbucks on every Slovenian corner.” The battle over Brexit continues to remind both Britain and the continent of how unsatisfactory the European Union has become.

But the dysfunctional relationship I’m most intrigued with and continue to be involved in is that of the Left. The Left emerged during the French Revolution and experienced its first major defeat during the European-wide uprisings of 1848. In response to the failed revolutions of 1848, various tendencies of the European Left organized the International Workingmen’s Association (First International, or IWA) in 1864, intended to unite the proletariat and its class struggle through a representative body of diverse left-wing socialist, communist, syndicalist and anarchist organizations, political parties, and labor unions. The IWA quickly polarized between the followers of Karl Marx with his parliamentary focus and those of Michael Bakunin who promoted “direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation.” Despite their increasing antagonism the experience of the insurrectionary 1871 Paris Commune tended to bring the Left’s various factions together. But Marx declared the Commune “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” while Bakunin considered it “a bold and outspoken negation of the State.” These fundamental differences eventually split the IWA’s contentious 8-year gig into two competing organizations by 1872: the Marxist red First International (which disbanded in 1876), and the anarchist black First International which continues to this day. Bismarck remarked of this ur-Left that “[c]rowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

The next time Black and Red united in the streets was during the Russian Revolution, a touchstone for the Left to this day. But the Russian Revolution was actually two revolutionary events. The inchoate, anarchic mass uprising of March 8, 1917 (February Revolution) toppled the feudal Czarist ancien regime while the disciplined, thoroughly planned insurrection of November 8, 1917 (October Revolution) overthrew the liberal bourgeois Kerensky government, with 245 days in between. The broad February Revolution is embraced by all manner of Leftists, from anarchists to Stalinists, whereas the narrow October Revolution is praised mostly by Leninist party types or Bolshevik wannabes. Instead of contending that February was one step away from anarchy while October was all putsch and coup d’etat, a more judicious evaluation was offered by Rosa Luxemburg, who acknowledged the revolution’s myriad problems while writing: “In Russia, the problem [of the realization of socialism] could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”

It’s no secret I think anarchism suffers from initial problems that produce related problems down the road. The anarchist misunderstanding of power generally and of state power in particular means that, while spontaneous popular uprisings can and do occur to topple rulers and regimes, anarchism has never been able to consolidate a liberatory society out of those moments. The 1936-39 Spanish civil war proved to be anarchism’s greatest failure, a debacle that liquidated anarchism in Spain and marginalized it internationally, stunting its revolutionary capacity for decades and haunting it to the present. Anarchistic societies exist by default, as in the case of the anthropological category of Zomia where highland peoples and cultures manage to hold onto a de facto anarchy through geographic isolation. I consider anarchism’s glorious string of revolutionary defeats a “beautiful loser” syndrome where anarchists insist time and again on proudly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In turn, Leninism’s historic string of successes reinforces the same issue in mirror form. Lenin’s formulation of the need for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to “make the revolution” has resulted in substitutionism in which the Leninist party substitutes for the working class in power, the party’s central committee substitutes for the party, and eventually the all-powerful party chairman substitutes for the central committee. There’s a direct line from Marx through Lenin to Stalin; not the only line that has been or can be drawn from Marx, but certainly one of the most prominent. Equally, the Leninist vanguard party has never been able to consolidate a truly socialist society out of decades of one-party rule, in which the self-activity and self-organization of the working class as a class fails to materialize. The succession of Leninism by Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Hoxhaism, et al has gotten us no closer to the classless, stateless society originally envisioned by Marx.

During revolutionary situations anarchists refuse to take power expecting the people to spontaneously rise up while Leninists seize power in the name of the people. Each hope to usher in a liberated socialist society but never succeed. What is unique in the political conflicts between anarchism versus Leninism is belied by the common dynamic that both socialist tendencies share, namely the complex relationship between cadre organization and mass organization, or between revolutionary organization and mass social movement underlying the problem of realizing socialism. In Marxism and the Russian Anarchists and other analyses, Anthony D’Agostino acknowledges not only the centrality of the dynamic to both anarchism and Leninism but contends that these two divergent socialist tendencies developed analogous political solutions. Despite their differing class compositions, Lenin’s faction of the RSDLP and Bakunin’s International Brotherhood/Alliance of Social Democracy had a strikingly similar relationship to mass working class organizing, and notable parallels can be drawn between the role of the Bolshevik vanguard party within the Russian workers’ movement and that of the Spanish FAI within the mass syndicalist CNT. “There will always be enragés and then again Jacobins,” yet the dialectical problem of cadre vs mass organization within the problem of realizing socialism resulted in one-party dictatorship when given a Bolshevik tweak and in revolutionary failure when given an anarchist tweak.

After three quarters of a century Leninism went down for a substantial defeat with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact by 1991, whereas anarchism has experienced resurrection and resurgence since the 60s yet still has never triumphed. What this means is there are various new opportunities to get the band (e.g. the ur-Left First International) back together and reformulate anarchism anew with Marxism. Starting with pioneers like ex-FAIista and Spanish Civil War veteran Abraham Guillén who called himself an anarchist-Marxist in fashioning his urban guerrilla strategy we have the usual suspects (council communism, left communism, Situationism, and autonomism) hoping to square the Leftist circle. Following the collapse of Love & Rage, the now-defunct Bring The Ruckus project explicitly called for combining cadre and mass organizations as “neither the vanguard nor the network” in a clear New Abolitionism. Insurrectionary communization has advanced through Tiqqun, Endnotes, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Comuniste as neo-anarchist and neo-Leninist experiments—like hypothetical quantum particles—keep popping in and out of existence. Finally, old-school Marxist-Leninist parties have taken new directions; from the Mexican Guevaraist FLN adopting indigenismo and “mandar obedeciendo” to emerge as the EZLN, to the Kurdish PKK embracing Murray Bookchin’s municipalist confederalism to sponsor the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s YPG/SDF.

I often write about the Left’s glaring problems like sectarianism or dogmatism. Those issues notwithstanding, the Left needs a proper dynamic between cadre and mass, revolutionary organization and social movement, in order to advance toward common ground and a socialist society. Whether the right dynamic can be achieved theoretically, and whether any of the current contenders can achieve it, remains to be seen.

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket.

The relatively lean, muscular structure of the American state prior to 1929 permitted the nation to create an empire—by conquering the native populations, expanding its rule from coast to coast under Manifest Destiny, and asserting its power across the western hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in confronting the challenges first of the Great Depression and then the second World War, radically transformed American government in riding a wave of socialist/communist militancy. FDR crafted the modern warfare/welfare/corporatist state that attempted to democratically sidestep the excesses of Soviet Communism and European Fascism while outflanking the Old Left’s upsurge domestically. Considered the height of American Liberalism, the New Deal has been disingenuously celebrated by that same Old Left even after a smooth political transition to the rabid anti-communism of the Eisenhower era. The guns-and-butter Kennedy/Johnson years continued the anti-communist military intervention and domestic social welfare expansion permitted by First World economic affluence, as New Left* activism and organizing surged. It must be remembered that Nixon arguably was the last liberal president.

These two prolonged separate Leftist periods were when progressive coalitions mobilized to move the Democratic party and American politics dramatically to the left. Four briefer, distinct occasions when ultra-conservative coalitions mobilized to purposefully move the Republican party and American politics profoundly to the right need also be noted: McCarthyism and the era of “Father Knows Best” morality; the prefiguring Goldwater presidential campaign; the rise of the New Right presaging Reagan’s presidential bid in a new age of austerity; and the Tea Party movement that anticipated the rise of Donald Trump and independent Trumpism. Yet Democratic party governance after 1975 was not a reversal or even a holding pattern so much as a more gradual rightward descent: Carter with economic deregulation and Cold War escalation; Clinton in slashing welfare and promoting free trade; and Obama as the drone-bombing-deporter-in-chief and TPP champion.

I’ve summarized this country’s inexorable political slide to the right over the last half century. The changeover from Keynesian affluence to neoliberal austerity however hints at something more fundamental underlying American politics whether you see those politics as a swinging pendulum or, like me, as a steady flush down the porcelain highway. American capitalism made the switch from making profits out of industrial productivity to financial speculation somewhere around 1975, accounting for both the decline of the 60s New Leftist surge and the defeat of the 70s labor upsurge. In commercial capitalism profit is extracted almost exclusively from circulation, from trade, from the buying and selling of commodities. Under industrial capitalism profit is extracted not just from circulation but also from the labor process in which factory workers are paid less than the value they produce from their labor—from surplus value. Surplus value is then used to construct more factories and to hire more workers for wages in an ever-expanding cycle of profit-making.

But capitalism suffers from a tendency for the rate of profit to fall (in the interpretation of Marx I favor), which not only results in the boom-and-bust economic cycle we’re all familiar with but also in an increasing inability to sustain industrial production. In my lifetime we’ve seen industrial production become so unprofitable that US industrial labor has been outsourced and factories moved to the Third World, resulting in America’s overall deindustrialization and conversion to a service economy. More and more, capitalism in the US is based on extracting profit from financial transactions and speculation, a far less profitable form of capitalism then even the trade in commodities of commercial capitalism. Capitalism worldwide also suffers from the same declining rate of profit, meaning that in China, Vietnam, and other Third World nations industrial production is contracting, meaning that industrial capitalism is slumping internationally and being replaced by finance capitalism. Finance capitalism is not merely a capitalism in decline, it is capitalism heading for the mother of all crises.

Some students of the 1929 Great Depression have contended that, in liberal democracies, deep economic depressions as suffered by the interwar US are conducive to the growth of socialist movements whereas runaway inflations as experienced by Weimar Germany are favorable to the rise of fascist movements. During depressions, people who have no money or work are screwed but for those who do, money has value, work has meaning, and society has integrity, giving the edge to socialism which values labor. During inflations, it doesn’t matter whether people have money or work because money has no value, work has no meaning, and society is crumbling, giving the advantage to fascism which values power.

A similar dynamic can be seen in the transition from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism in liberal democracies. In industrial capitalist societies, work and capital are intrinsically productive and so leftist movements and ideologies are widespread. Government spending and services grow, welfare programs and economic regulation expand, and the public realm and labor unions are endorsed. In finance capitalist societies, work and capital are mostly unproductive and so rightist movements and ideologies are prevalent. The economy is deregulated and financialized, the welfare state is rolled back, labor unions are crushed, the public realm is privatized, and government spending and services are cut back. About all they have in common is an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. Marxists consider industrial capitalism in terms of constant vs variable capital while consigning finance capitalism to the category of fictitious capital.

Whether Keynesian or neoliberal, democratic or authoritarian, the state serves as the monopoly of legitimate violence, the bulwark for the existing social order, and the lynchpin for the nation and economy. The state functions the same whether under affluent industrial capitalism or austere finance capitalism, so why does society exhibit leftist unrest in the former and rightist agitation in the latter? A staid principle developed in the 1950s was that of the revolution of rising expectations in which “rising expectations embodied the twentieth century’s ‘real’ revolution insofar as it represented for the vast majority of the world’s population a break from centuries of stagnation, fatalism, and exploitation.” The growing affluence from 1945 to 1975 caused expectations to rise in the population at large all over the world, which in turn lead to civil unrest, insurgencies, and revolutions according to the theory. But did persistent austerity after 1975 cause the opposite: widespread social reaction, stagnation, and obedience? The results are dubious either way the theory cuts. The inconclusive empirical evidence, methodological constraints, and conceptual criticisms of the whole revolution of rising expectations thesis makes it useless.

I’m of the Marxist mindset that the social superstructure follows the economic base much as form follows function in the principle enunciated by modernist architecture and industrial design. It also means, in a Gramscian sense, that social superstructure can gain autonomy to act back on the economic base, but the starting point is crucial. We make our own history, but we don’t make it as we please; we don’t make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

I just snuck in another Marx quote.

*New Left in this case does not refer to the politics that grew up around organizations like Students for a Democratic Society but to Leftist organizing and movements that flourished from the Civil Rights movement beginning in 1955 to the collapse of the anti-Vietnam war movement in 1975.

SIGNIFICANT DATE RANGES: Old Left: 1930-50; New Left: 1955-75; Keynesian industrial affluence: 1945-75; neoliberal finance austerity: 1975 onward; McCarthyism/Eisenhower era: 1950-1960; Goldwater campaign: 1963-64; New Right: 1980-88; Tea Party/independent Trumpism: 2009 onward.

Coded conspiracism: “What’s Left?” November 2018, MRR #426


I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation.

George Carlin, “Euphemisms”

Sometimes a globalist is just a globalist.

paraphrase of fake Sigmund Freud quote

I grew up in the 1950s, in a “more innocent time.” It was a time when people didn’t curse, not openly that is. When I hit my thumb with a hammer in shop class, instead of shouting “Jesus Fucking Christ!,” I was told to say “Jiminy Cricket!” I envied my Polish-born dad who could let loose a string of Polish expletives whenever he injured himself.

It was actually a more euphemistic time, when great pains were taken to soften and hide reality in the name of politeness and gentility. As the rest of the Carlin routine sadly if humorously illustrates, the WWI term “shell shock” had been transformed into the WWII term “battle fatigue” and was in the process of becoming “operational exhaustion” during the Korean War. I would witness its transmutation yet again into “post-traumatic stress disorder” during the Vietnam War.

Euphemisms substitute mild, indirect, or deliberately vague words for ones considered offensive, harsh, or too blunt for the listener’s own good and the audience’s sensibilities. We use plenty of them today, from passed away or departed for died, and correctional facility instead of jail, to differently-abled or handicapped instead of disabled, and ethnic cleansing for genocide. They’re not to be confused with code words, where a word or phrase has a very specific meaning to a very specific audience, while remaining innocuous to the uninitiated. Code words are used a lot in dog-whistle politics, a relatively new term where words and phrases that are intended to mean one thing to the general population are deliberately used to convey different, additional, or more specific meanings for targeted specific demographics. Terms like “family values” and “pro-family” are intended to be innocuous to the public while conveying homophobic and misogynistic meanings to those in the know. Code words also conceal reality.

In Ventura in the 1960s I knew the town character, a slightly lopsided silver-haired old man named Quince. Quince liked to attend civic events and city functions dressed in what appeared to be a WWII uniform, although upon closer examination he’d incorporated elements of WWI, Civil War, and even Revolutionary War uniforms into the mix. On Saturdays he hung out on the sidewalk in front of the post office with a card table of mostly John Birch Society literature. He was big into the perils of the International Communist Conspiracy, but among the literature was a booklet entitled “Banking and Currency and The Money Trust” by Charles A. Lindbergh.

I knew that Lindbergh had been the first to fly solo across the Atlantic in a single engine monoplane called The Spirit of St. Louis and was nicknamed Lucky Lindy. When Quince saw me thumbing through the small volume he sidled up to me and spoke in a low voice.

“Congressman Lindbergh was one of the first to warn against the cabal of international bankers such as Morgan, Rockefeller, and Rothschild who instituted the Federal Reserve System in 1913 giving them control of interest rates, the stock market, and the capacity to create money out of thin air. He called those international bankers the ‘Money Trust’ and denounced the Federal Reserve Bank’s control over the American republic’s economy, causing inflation, the continuous decline of the dollar, and skyrocketing national debt ever since.”

“Didn’t Congress and President Wilson create the Federal Reserve?” I asked, having been a precocious history buff in my adolescence.

“There were sinister powers behind the Federal Reserve Act.” Quince talked as if he were revealing a dangerous secret. “Lucky Lindy was a great American hero, but even he had to be circumspect about revealing the true evil force behind the greedy power grab by those international bankers.”

Quince glanced about, reached into his coat, and surreptitiously pulled out a plain covered pamphlet that read “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” by Henry Ford.

That was my first experience of a euphemism colliding with a code word. The modern conspiracy theory about who REALLY rules the world was ancient even back then, with the Illuminati, Freemasons, international bankers, New World Order, and alien shapeshifting lizards now prominent among the covert cliques identified as secretly running the world from behind the scenes. But conspiracy wingnuts purporting to expose those truly responsible for the clandestine system of global domination almost invariably circle back to their OG suspects, “the Jews.”


The promising anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and early 2000s was susceptible to rightwing antisemitic tendencies from its inception which then developed into “soft” antisemitic organizations like AdBusters. AdBusters went on to initiate the Occupy Wall Street movement which, while largely leftwing, attracted rightwing elements that blamed the Federal Reserve, international “banksters,” and the Jews for all that was wrong with the world. On the Right, the terms “international bankers” and “Zionists” have frequently gone beyond euphemism to become code words for Jews. The current use by Trump nationalists and their supporters of “globalists” and “cosmopolitan elites” to characterize their opponents employs code words that imply that the Jews are behind it all. Those on the Right who now rail against “cultural Marxism” never mention that their original Nazi trope blamed the Jews for being behind the evils of both Communism and capitalism. Again, the current meme of “cultural Marxism” goes beyond euphemism and even code words into “snarl words” that tar anyone with progressive politics as a secret Communist while implying that the Jews are covertly responsible for all the world’s ills.

Euphemisms are intended to soften the impact of difficult ideas. Code words disguise the meaning of those same problematic ideas for the general public while specifically targeting a select audience for incitement. Snarl words are derogatory terms that always attack and can never be used in neutral or positive ways. But what about words that hide something that is always kept in plain sight? Words that simultaneously conceal and reinforce concepts with which we are all too familiar?

“Capitalism” and “capitalist” are just such words. Nobody denies that capitalism and capitalists rule the world. There is no conspiracy, no clandestine cabal, no secret government bent on world domination. Capitalism is as natural as the air we breathe, according to capitalists, because humans are individualistic, selfish, and greedy by nature. Their “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” is also part of human nature and gives rise to capitalism naturally. The ascendance of a powerful stratum of capitalists is also natural. If capitalism is the natural order of things, then capitalists gain power and rule naturally, rightfully due to merit and not by force or conspiracy.

Capitalists comprise a social class and constitute a ruling elite however, according to Marx. And capitalists go about their activities mostly in the open. They form associations openly, from the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers to the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. They make their plans openly—in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times—with no conspiracy necessary. And they carry out their plans, create their organizations, and govern openly with the consent of the people who freely exercise their right to vote as citizens of a democracy. Conspiracies do occur. The secret US war in Laos and Cambodia, the Watergate break-in, and the Arthur Andersen-associated scandals in the 1970s were all conspiracies. But by and large, capitalism and capitalists operate in the open.

This is all to disguise that there is a capitalist ruling class; that capitalism functions through exploitation, appropriation, and outright violence; that in a democracy politicians are bought and paid for by the capitalist ruling class; that the state is the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence; and that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Capitalists are the original globalists. The current talk about “nationalists” vs “globalists” is actually about the power struggle between two factions of capitalists for control within the international bourgeoisie. It’s all about misdirection, so I call such words sleight-of-hand words.

Capitalism as an economic system has been around for a little over 750 years and did not achieve global dominance until 1989-91. Hominids have been around for about six millions years, modern humans for around 300,000 years, human behavioral modernity for around 50,000 years, and human civilization for about 6,000 years. Most human societies prior to capitalism were communal, hunter/gatherer, and tribal. That’s another reason why capitalism is neither natural nor a product of human nature.

Godless recovery: “What’s Left?” October 2018, MRR #425


The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.

Søren Kierkegaard

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void – it is shining.

John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I stopped drinking on January 1, 2010. I did so under the guidance of Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. Right off, I went to meetings—physiology of addiction classes, AA meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, and appointments with counselors, therapists, doctors, and psychiatrists. But once my body started to detox after 30 days, I got depressed. Real depressed. Clinically depressed. I did cognitive behavioral therapy for another eight months until I felt comfortable enough to call myself sober.

I was an atheist when I was a drunk, and I remain an atheist now that I’m sober. I crafted my sobriety out of various elements from the above list of recovery programs, not out of convenience but from what felt true. And the idea of a “higher power” never felt true. I could admit I had no power over my drinking, and I could surrender to my powerlessness. Just not TO anything or anyone. I was able to surrender to an impersonal universe, to my situation, to existence itself. I was able to say “I give up.” And that worked, without having to invoke a deity or “higher power” or any object/subject to which to surrender.

Actually, the act of surrendering works, with or without a “higher power.” The psychology behind this was clearly described by Gregory Bateson in his essay “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism.” Our Enlightenment definition of “self” equates to the conscious mind, which we believe controls us, our body, through our will power. But it is absurd to argue that consciousness—a part of the mind that functions through ten percent of the brain, generously speaking—can possibly comprehend let alone control the remaining ninety percent of the mind/brain, not to mention the rest of the human body, and thus constitutes the true “self” capable of controlling the whole individual.

Little wonder then that the fictitious Cartesian duality of mind versus matter causes problems. In the case of alcoholics the disastrous assertion that “I can resist drinking and stay sober through sheer will power” can generate a dangerous alcoholic pride that in turn engenders suicidal risk taking. To repeat myself, it is ludicrous to argue that consciousness, which comprises considerably less than one percent of the individual, can control to any significant degree the rest of the individual. The act of surrender then is more than an acknowledgment of this lack of self-control and will power. “Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender,” Bateson wrote. “It is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.”

Giving up the illusion of will power and self-control allows the individual to begin the process of recovery. That means embracing the act of surrender, of no longer resisting, of giving up. It doesn’t mean believing in god, or a “higher power,” or some external authority. The Black Panther Party pioneered a type of drug rehabilitation in which the heroin addict would “exchange the needle for the gun,” thereby substituting the revolution for god. Unfortunately, when the guns fail or the revolution is inevitably delayed, relapse is more than likely. Surrendering to something external means there’s still something out there to rebel against. Just to surrender however—to give up the “self”—is to start finding yourself.

In rejecting this dichotomy between mind and matter, Gregory Bateson had a simple definition of what constitutes a single unit of mind based on the biology of the human brain. (1) A brain cell, a single neuron, is autonomous, capable of processing blood sugars into the energy needed to sustain itself and electrically fire. (2) The neuron operates on the basis of difference, the fundamental difference being firing or not firing, on or off, yes or no. (3) The neuron is connected via synapses with other neurons into circular or more complex firing patterns to form neural circuitry. Voila, mind! We have thought at its most elemental. From there we can take thought to the biological level (the body with its myriad cells), the social level (comparing how neurons operate in the brain to how humans operate in a social network), and the level of human consciousness (where neural circuitry evolves feedback loops to monitor other neural circuitry).

This model of human consciousness—of a limited self-awareness feedback loop monitoring the vast and immensely complex circuitry of the human brain and body—means that we are aware of only a very small part of our mental and biological totality. “From an evolutionary perspective, consciousness may have evolved as a sort of gate-keeper/librarian/manager/search-engine metaprogram to help organize and harness our vast mental capacity,” according to author J.D. Moyer. “If there’s a lot more ‘in there’ than we’re capable of perceiving/utilizing with our tiny spotlight of consciousness, how do we get at the rest of it? How do we ‘unlock’ the ideas, solutions, connections, emotional strength, and otherwise untapped capacity of our subconscious (or superconscious) minds? […] How do we communicate with our own brains, thereby become a bit more conscious and a bit more free?”


Queue up a couple of mental practices that I’m loathe to call spiritual. Zen is as close to atheism as a religion gets and from my limited experience sitting zazen I’ve benefitted from simple mindfulness, dhyāna (observing the breath), and shikantaza (observing the mind) meditation. I’ve mentioned I’m a recovering Catholic so part of what I’ve tried to recover is what good can be found in my upbringing. Marx called religion not just “the opiate of the masses” but also “the heart of a heartless world.” There’s something to be said for stripping god from prayer and making prayer into a deep form of talking to yourself. Paying attention to your mind and engaging in a conversation with it are the essence of a greater self-awareness.

Meditation, especially of the Soto Zen variety, is well understood. The same can’t be said of atheist prayer. How can something like prayer, which purports to be a form of communication, work when what is being communicated with (e.g. god) doesn’t exist? Against the original Cartesian fallacy—Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”—Bateson disciple Anthony Wilden proposed we use “We communicate, therefore we are” to account for both human individuality and sociality. If our individual and social identity is the product of communicating with others, then the “other” is crucial to that process. According to Lev Vygotsky, talking with our parents becomes talking with the “other,” which becomes “self-talk” and eventually “inner speech.” And while inner speech no longer resembles spoken language, it means that human thought evolves socially. Inner speech is learned through communication with others. What starts out as a communal conversation between people remains a social experience even internally because of our tendency to externalize our internal realities as a constructed “other.” As a constructed externality, a fictive “other,” it is intended to recreate our primal communal conversations so essential to our identity. We use this illusion of the “other” to talk to ourselves, for our conscious mind to interact with the non-conscious mind, for “me” to converse with “all-that-is-not-me” through prayer.

Prayer facilitated through a constructed “other”—whether a personal yet parental “god” or a more democratic pantheistic spirituality or even an impersonal, aloof universe—lets us feel less isolated, alone, and lonely. Prayer allows the conscious mind to query the non-conscious mind for guidance, inspiration, forgiveness, solutions to problems, improvements to life, and the fulfillment of emotional needs. Prayer permits us to express thanks and experience gratitude, letting us feel greater personal well being while sometimes “having our prayers answered” by the non-conscious mind in the form of innovative ideas and remedies, emotional fortitude and resiliency, and greater individual and social connectedness. Prayer without a god, without any spirituality is not an oxymoron.

The symmetry of denying the existence of a god while constructing an externalized “other” doesn’t mean slipping into a Cartesian solipsism, into denying the existence of the real world. Me, I surrender without a god to maintain my sobriety. But I also forego the need for constructed externalities. I frequently talk out loud, talk to myself, ask myself how I might help, how I might do better, or be better. According to Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I have no doubt that reality exists, albeit without a god or a spiritual dimension.

A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.

***

Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies.

The left communist critique of Third World national liberation struggles—socialist or not—is that they substitute group identity for class struggle, to the benefit of entrenched local elites. The unity and emancipation of the national, racial, or ethnic group in question is elevated above the unity and emancipation of the international working class, to the advantage of that group’s ruling class and the preservation of capital. State power replaces workers power, national self-determination replaces class self-emancipation, and anti-imperialism replaces anti-capitalism.

I grew familiar with this International Communist Current-based critique during the Vietnam War. While I was impressed with the argument’s uncompromising purity I was also troubled by its lack of nuance and flexibility. Yes, the Vietnamese Communist Party was relentlessly centralizing, eventually purging and absorbing the broader, more populist Viet Cong. In the name of national unity, Communist Vietnam regularly suppressed and liquidated political dissidents (Trotskyists, anarchists), ethnic minorities (Hmong, Montagnards), and religious groups (Catholics, Buddhists). And both the NLF and NVA thought nothing of sacrificing vast numbers of Vietnamese civilians to achieve their military goals. But this was in the face of the United States, the world’s greatest military and economic superpower, which was more than willing to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age, slaughter millions of Vietnamese, pave the country over and convert it into a parking lot for capital, all in the name of “liberal democracy.” Some respect was due the Vietnamese people for their audacity and courage.

The Leninist Third World and Maoist Three Worlds of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has since transmogrified into a neo-Marxist dependency analysis of Global North versus Global South. From Old Left to New Left, and particularly through the anti-Vietnam War movements and the New Communist Movement, support for national self-determination became a movement unto itself called Third Worldism. Comprised of developing nations emerging from the decolonization wave after the second World War, Third Worldism sought independence from and neutrality between the US/USSR superpower rivalry, a Nonaligned Movement intent not just on international political unity but also a vanguard role for autonomous socialism. In turn, the overlapping politics of Leninist Third World, Maoist Three Worlds, and non-aligned Third Worldism entered American anarchism after 1968, so much so that by the founding of Love and Rage circa 1989, national liberation struggles were critically embraced by a growing number of left anarchists. By 1996 and L&R’s demise, they had pioneered an uncritical acceptance of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and what would become the next wave of Third World national liberation struggles.

Alternately, embracing a schematic “quadrium quid” (fourth something) has given rise to a socialism that seeks to defend “indigenous peoples, stateless ethnicities and localist/autonomist political models—the ‘Fourth World’” against the ravages of capitalism and the nation-state. [Bill Weinberg, CounterVortex] This category includes hunter-gatherer, nomadic, pastoral, and certain subsistence farming peoples living outside the modern industrial system, various sub-populations excluded socially from the present international order, and minority populations residing in First World countries with Third World living standards. Socialist Fourth Worldism champions “secular, progressive anti-imperialist forces” around the globe and therefore supports libertarian socialist national liberation struggles, indigenous secessionist movements, and non-state resistance movements for local autonomy all fighting against the current world order.

Fourth Worldism has its problems, like Third Worldism, starting with its uncomfortable proximity to Fascism. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy proclaimed solidarity with “proletarian nations” against “bourgeois nations,” post war neo-fascism defended a “third way” beyond capitalism and Marxism, and Keith Preston’s white nationalist fascism calls itself pan-secessionism. The negative territory where Third World and Fourth World overlap brings to mind Robert Kaplan’s dystopian realpolitik in his essay The Coming Anarchy, which he subtitled ““how scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet” and which augers the rapid disintegration of existing nation-states. Gone are dreams of world revolution and socialist internationalism, replaced by the nightmare of ever-increasing fragmentation and powerlessness in the face of world capitalism. Or as Nicole Aschoff paraphrased in Jacobin #19 when critiquing “the small-scale, community-based models pushed by many international NGOs, who increasingly work hand-in-glove with multinational corporations and project the interests of Northern governments,” small is not necessarily beautiful.

Third World national liberation struggles also have fraught relationships with imperialism. Returning to Vietnam, the country was a client state of the Soviet Union, practices an Indochinese-wide imperialism, and often views its highland Fourth World peoples as threats. And Fourth World struggles have sometimes been allied with imperialism in response to repressive national liberation struggles—Montagnards in Vietnam, Hmong in Laos, Miskito in Nicaragua, ronda compesina in Peru, etc. Even contradictions between the EZLN and the Lacandons in Chiapas represent this conflict.

I’m dubious that a Maoist Third World will eventually rise up, surround, and overwhelm the capitalist First World in a town vs country struggle analogy, much less the possibility of some decentralized people’s war of global liberation against what Subcomandante Marcos (Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente/Subcomandante Galeano) called neoliberalism’s and globalization’s Fourth World War: It is not only in the mountains of southeastern Mexico that neoliberalism is being resisted. In other regions of Mexico, in Latin America, in the United States and in Canada, in the Europe of the Maastricht Treaty, in Africa, in Asia, and in Oceania, pockets of resistance are multiplying. Each has its own history, its specificities, its similarities, its demands, its struggles, its successes. If humanity wants to survive and improve, its only hope resides in these pockets made up of the excluded, the left-for-dead, the ‘disposable.’ But there is a positive territory where Third and Fourth Worlds overlap. Marcos comes out of the Latin American politics of indigenismo with an indigenous Marxism—an indigenous politics of the poor and working class—although he himself realizes that any Fourth World liberation will be piecemeal, if it happens at all. In my estimation such a liberation movement is, at best, a desperate rear-guard action hoping for mere survival in a world where capitalism threatens extinction and the nation-state portends annihilation. The EZLN’s practice of horizontal autonomy, mutual aid, indigenous Mayan leadership, women’s independence, and mandar obedeciendo in Chiapas are exemplary and inspirational, but remain largely curtailed.

The EZLN originated from the Ejército Insurgente Mexicano (Mexican Insurgent Army) and César Germán Yáñez Muñoz’s Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (Forces of National Liberation) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the EIM and the FLN were orthodox Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces of a decidedly Guevaraist bent that experienced ideological and organizational changes as they skirmished unsuccessfully against the Mexican state. The EZLN’s theory and practice evolved from decades of struggle—both social and armed—with Marcos being the Zapatista’s most prominent but by no means its sole leader. The situation of Kurdish Rojava is related but different, starting with Abdullah Öcalan’s Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK was rabidly Marxist-Leninist to the point of Stalinism/Maoism, with Öcalan creating a cult of personality around himself that would have made Stalin envious. Indeed, Stalin and Öcalan both favored the adoring nickname “uncle.” Öcalan and the PKK have been accused of engaging in intense ideological conflict, and at times open warfare against Kurdish tribal, right-wing, moderate, and Marxist elements. In becoming a paramilitary group, the PKK not only spearheaded integrating women into its guerrilla forces, it pioneered the use of female suicide bombers. As a founding member of the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) the PKK advocated for a scorched earth “people’s war” strategy that rivaled Peru’s Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso in its violence.

The de facto autonomous region of Rojava in northern Syria is comprised of three self-governing Kurdish cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanî); defended in large part by the PKK-affiliated People’s Defense Units (YPG/J); and conferred by fiat with democratic confederalist politics by Chairman Öcalan. Democratic confederalism is the contrasting paradigm of the oppressed people. Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organizational blueprint of a democratic nation. Democratic confederalism is based on grassroots participation. Its decision making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. Originally derived from Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, democratic confederalism may have been bestowed upon Rojava by democratic centralist diktat. But Rojava and the YPG/J remain intimately entwined with the political fights between a myriad Kurdish parties, not to mention the overall nationalist struggle for a greater Kurdistan.

Both the ostensibly libertarian socialist political systems of Chiapas and Rojava champion women’s liberation, bottom-up autonomy, and assembly-style popular democracy. The EZLN’s socialism developed organically and gradually while the YPG/J’s was imposed almost overnight by decree. And whereas the EZLN/Chiapas struggle remains localized and contained, thus tending toward anarchism, the YPG/Rojava struggle continues to extend regionally and nationally, thus tending toward the nation-state. Both the EZLN and currently the PKK/YPG unequivocally reject Leninism, though neither are explicitly anarchist. The putative synthesis of Third World with Fourth World, of anarchism with libertarian Marxism being pioneered in Chiapas and Rojava are admirable and potentially far reaching. Whether they are capable of winning remains to be seen.

Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

Enemy Of My Enemy: “What’s Left?” March 2018, MRR #418

Comrade.

The word conjures up images of Lenin and Stalin in heroic poses, May Day parades and the Red Army marching, red stars and red flags on proud display, the usual Cold War Soviet iconography. But the original word in Russian—tovarisch—simply means “friend.” A century of anti-Communist hysteria has turned it into an ironic epithet, an evocation of Satan, and a “tell” for fellow travelers. A mirror process among Leftists has turned it into a term of endearment, a signifier of solidarity, and a way to differentiate regular friends from people who have one’s back.

So, who do I consider my comrades?

I have a half dozen close personal friends, my wife included, who I would qualify with the term comrade. Most of them share my generally Leftist politics, and beyond these individuals I reserve the term for political people, groups, organizations, and tendencies on the left of the Left. In this category is much of the anarchist/ultraleft anti-authoritarian milieu that I regularly take to task in this column. I consider these comments comradely criticisms, for the most part, focused on problematic Leftist practice like sectarianism, looking for the next big thing, viewing the enemy of one’s enemy as one’s friends, etc. Embedded in these critiques of practice however have been criticisms of equally troublesome Leftist political theory. Two abiding, yet equally thorny Leftist political stances I dealt with in MRR #415 were anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, which have been “standard issue” on the orthodox Left since the 1930s but which have become part of the warp and woof of that anti-authoritarian milieu only since the 1960s.

Ideally then, I should offer comradely criticism to the anarchist/ultraleft while much more harshly critiquing the mainstream Left. As I consider politics further to the right—from progressives and liberals to moderates and conservatives, and ultimately to reactionaries and fascists—I should move away from criticism altogether into an unapologetic attack mode. Unfortunately, it’s frequently the case that I’ve reserved my greatest vitriol for the people I’m closest to politically. I’ve defined individuals and groups as my enemy with barely one degree of separation between their politics and mine, and I’ve sadly embraced the ancient proverb of statecraft that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” a time or two myself.

Perhaps the most famous example of considering the enemy of one’s enemy as one’s friend was the Sino-Soviet Split circa 1960. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slavishly followed the Soviet Union’s lead from its founding in 1921 through the beginning of civil war with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang party (KMT) in 1927 to Mao’s rise to leadership of the CCP during the Long March from 1934-35. After Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, Mao increasingly disobeyed Stalin’s instructions regarding the tactics and strategy the Soviet Union insisted the CCP follow during the second World War. Stalin wanted Mao to engage in more conventional military campaigns in the field while fighting against the occupying Japanese or engaging the KMT in civil war, even going so far as to advise that Mao form a joint anti-Japanese “united front” with Chiang. Mao did neither, instead continuing his guerrilla war on all fronts while remaining holed up in liberated, “sovietized” Yunnan province.

After WWII and the CCP’s seizure of power, Mao heeded the ideological line of his Soviet patrons and followed the Soviet model of centralized economic development, which emphasized building heavy industry while deferring consumer goods production. But Mao was already skeptical of Marxist-Leninist ideology where factory workers were exalted and peasants were denounced as reactionary. Mao eventually argued that traditional Leninism was rooted in industrialized European society and so could not be applied to Asian peasant societies, requiring instead the forging of a unique Chinese road to socialism, a socialism with Chinese characteristics adapted to Chinese conditions. Stalin’s Soviet Union was thus hell-bent on creating an industrial working class on a mountain of Russian corpses whereas Mao’s PRC extolled the peasantry on a comparable mountain of Chinese corpses.

Stalin pushed forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture and heavy industrialization of the economy, developed a cult of personality, and insisted on international Communist unity ideologically, politically, economically, and militarily in a direct confrontation against the capitalist West. When he died in 1953 (as what Mao characterized as “the only leader of our party”), Sino-Soviet relations enjoyed a brief “golden age” of increased political and economic cooperation and international collaboration until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956. In that speech Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and excessive state terror in a bid to de-Stalinize the Communist Party and Soviet society. In the process he announced a new policy of “peaceful co-existence” with the capitalist West. The suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising made clear how the USSR under Khrushchev intended to deal with any deviation from the new Soviet line.

Mao’s immediate response to the Soviet Union’s new direction under Khrushchev was to launch The Great Leap Forward in 1958. Small agricultural collectives were merged into huge People’s Communes which practiced Lysenko-inspired farming techniques, undertook massive infrastructure projects, and attempted decentralized backyard iron smelting and steel production. The results were disastrous. The Chinese economy was reduced to shambles and a massive famine killed between 20 and 45 million Chinese in four years. Mao was temporarily eclipsed in the CCP’s leadership, but his growing animosity toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and its peaceful coexistence stance became the party line.

The PRC denounced the USSR as “traitorous revisionists,” “social-imperialists,” and “capitalist roaders” and was in turn called “ultraleft adventurists,” “crypto-Trotskyites,” “nationalists,” and “anti-Marxist deviationists.’ By the time of the Rumanian Communist Party Congress of 1960, only the Albanian CP sided with China while most other CPs remained loyal to the Soviet Union. The PRC and the USSR then formally broke relations in 1962, took opposing sides on a variety of international issues (Vietnam, India, Indonesia, the Cultural Revolution, Taiwan, the Cuban missile crisis, Cambodia, nuclear disarmament, etc.), and fought a brief border war in 1968-69. As national liberation struggles raged around the globe, they all too frequently became civil wars with the PRC and the USSR supporting rival factions. This was exemplified when, in Angola, the Soviets backed the Leninist MPLA while China backed the pro-American reactionary UNITA. But the crowning example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” remains the PRC’s rapprochement with the United States between 1971-72, culminating in Nixon shaking hands with Mao in Beijing in 1972.

I’ve related the story of Tim Yohannan’s December 1993 Great Purge of Jeff Bale specifically and Maximum Rocknroll generally several times before, most recently in issue #299 and #375. Consider it now in light of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” No need to repeat myself here other than to say I deliberately exposed Larry Livermore’s bogus pretensions to democratic socialism and provoked him into becoming my enemy. As Larry publicly ruminated in the pages of MRR about whether to quit as a columnist over Tim’s firing of Jeff I wrote Larry a letter calling him a weak, waffling liberal whose absence from the magazine would not be missed and please not to let the punk rock door hit his sorry ass on the way out. Larry compared me to his oft-used literary device, Spike Anarky, to argue that I represented the worst of the hardcore Left while he tendered his resignation to MRR. From that day on I used my column to belittle, criticize, attack, and denounce him and his politics every chance I got. I even wrote a fake MRR Larry Livermore column about him meeting Spike Anarky who, like him, had sold out his punk rock soul.

I didn’t stop there however. I looked for allies—potential friends that were the enemy of my enemy—to wreak some havoc, everything from encouraging the acrimony between Larry Livermore and David Hayes to fantasizing about coaxing a few crusties I knew to fuck Larry’s shit up; all to no avail. Definitely mean-spirited and perhaps a bit obsessive, I have neither excuse nor guilt. I still think Larry is a dick and a sellout, but I stopped wasting time and energy on the asswipe decades ago. It took me awhile longer to curtail my knee jerk reactions and realize that the enemy of my enemy is often equally as fucked up. Next time, I’ll detail a more elaborate example of the proverb as I illustrate yet one more problem of questionable Leftist behavior.

Crisis on the Right: “What’s Left?” August 2017, MRR #411

This is my overlong analysis of the crisis of the Left and the crisis on the Right . I owe the tripartite analysis of the modern American Right to Political Research Associates, which does excellent work dissecting the Right through investigative reports, articles, and activist resource kits.

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Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of “left” and “right.”

Kevin Coogan, Dreamer of the Day

I’m ass deep into analyzing the crisis of the Left. There are three components to this crisis, beginning with the defeat of organized labor by ascendant neoliberalism in the industrialized west (Reagan busting the PATCO unions in 1981, Thatcher defeating striking coal miners in 1984-85). Next came the collapse of real existing socialist regimes with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91. These two events mark the decline of Marxism broadly and Leninism more narrowly as the third component of this ongoing crisis. The present growth of anarchism and left communism and the breeding of “strange new variants” like insurrectionism and communization I consider a mixed blessing because this actually demonstrates the Left’s weakness. The relationship between the resurgence of the anti-authoritarian Left and the decline of the rest of the Left, in turn, reflects a broader relationship between the politics of Left and Right, with the “ideological decay” of the Right hinting at something broader.

If the crisis of the Left is also a crisis on the Right, perhaps I need to use the word interregnum. The sentiment of the Yeats poem, borne by the mystic, cryptofascist Irish nationalist in his reactionary politics, conveys the sense of a violent interruption between old and new orders. An old order loses its grip, but before a new order manages to establish itself there is a period of social chaos and disintegration when things “do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” An interregnum, by definition, is a big deal.

The Latin term interregnum originated with the English civil war to designate the period from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Cromwell’s dictatorship is sometimes considered a prequel to the bourgeois revolutions that ushered in the modern world. Most of the history I tend to fixate on—the French 1789 Revolution, the Russian 1917 Revolution, the German 1918-19 workers’ revolt ushering in the Weimar Republic, the Spanish 1936-39 civil war, etc.—also indicate relatively short-lived, national interregnums. But interregnums can also be long and slow moving, involving a much wider geographic scope.

The Papal Schism that split the western church between three contending popes from 1378 to 1417 damaged the Catholic church’s reputation and authority. Along with issues of priestly celibacy, the marketing of relics, and most importantly the selling of indulgences, the Protestant Reformation was all but inevitable. From Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517 through the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe experienced scores of religious wars predicated on dynastic conflicts and as many as 20 million deaths due to religious violence, not to mention a continental reshaping of European social, political, and economic realities that eventually gave rise to the modern nation-state system. That’s over a century-long, diffuse, continental interregnum. Alternately, the series of national interregnums from the beginning of the first World War in 1914 to the end of the second World War in 1945 might be threaded together into a single, grand, worldwide interregnum. A global interregnum

I’m paleo when it comes to my Marxism. Interregnums fit nicely into a history propelled by class struggle and revolution. As for modes of production and stages of history, I’m both less and more orthodox. Less because I don’t think historical modes of production prior to capitalism were comprehensive, and more because once the capitalist mode of production arose it eventually became socially and globally all-embracing. And I’m definitely old school in contending that the French revolutionary interregnum of 1789 ushered in the modern world, starting with the riotous sans culotte and culminating in Napoleon’s more disciplined conscripts sweeping across continental Europe.

The first bourgeois revolution in France coincided with a wide variety of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena—from the Enlightenment and scientific revolution to modern warfare and the rise of industrial capitalism—to mark the watershed between pre-modern and modern eras. It also introduced our modern-day distinctions between Left and Right through the representative seating at the 1789 National Assembly. Here’s a standard high school PolySci description: “In a narrow sense, the political spectrum summarizes different attitudes towards the economy and the role of the state: left-wing views support intervention and collectivism; and right-wing ones favor the market and individualism. However, this distinction supposedly reflects deeper, if imperfectly defined, ideological or value differences. Ideas such as freedom, equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform and internationalism are generally seen to have a left-wing character, while notions such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction and nationalism are generally seen as having a right-wing character.” [Andrew Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics and International Relations] The Left’s stress on reason and program in accepting modernity makes for greater structure and coherence compared to the eclectic, muddy stance of the non-rational, instinctual Right in the rejection of modernity. But it all does come down to an embrace of, versus a revolt against, the modern world.

And here we encounter a contradiction central to the Right. For in order to revolt against the modern world, the Right must simultaneously embrace it. Moderate conservatives like Edmund Burke who were terrified by the French Revolution were dragged kicking and screaming into modernity, accepting the economics of Adam Smith and the private property of Locke while demanding that tradition put the breaks on changes wrought by capitalism. Reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre advocated for “throne and altar” in a restored ancien regime—a Counter Enlightenment counterrevolutionary—yet he still admired Napoleon. The Left went full-bore into mass politics, vanguard parties, technological innovation, and heavy industrialization with the Bolshevik turn after 1917, yet another national interregnum. From Mussolini’s 1922 March on Rome through Hitler’s 1933 acceptance of the German chancellorship, the extreme Fascist right responded by producing an anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-capitalist, anti-Marxist revolutionary mass politics to reindustrialize central Europe around a vanguardist, ultranationalist, palingenetic core. The Right has always been in reaction to the Left because of this central contradiction, and there are scholars of Fascist Studies who claim that Fascism was actually a synthesis of revolutionary Left and Right.

Lacking a feudal past, a universal church, and monarchist and aristocratic traditions, the Right in the United States remained confined to moderate conservative factions in the prominent pre-civil war electoral parties—Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, Whigs, and Jacksonian Democrats. It’s been argued that the American Right actually started as a form of European liberalism. At its most immoderate, early American conservatism demonstrated strong nativist and isolationist tendencies, as with the American “Know Nothing” Party. The country’s Protestant citizenry was subject to populist Great Awakenings, rightwing fundamentalist movements, and heretical cults like Mormonism. And, of course, the prevailing assumption across the board was that the United States was a white man’s nation, owned and run by white people. Southern slave society came closest to offering a European-style Right based on aristocracy and tradition. The struggle over slavery that lead to the civil war also drove conservative elements of the southern Democratic Party into the extremism of the Ku Klux Klan’s white supremacist militia terrorism after the civil war, while much of the GOP drifted into an isolationist, laissez-faire Old Right.

Along with a revival in rightwing religious movements like Christian evangelicalism and pentecostalism, the United States witnessed its own fascist movement paralleling European Fascism between the world wars. Based on a reborn, white supremacist, mass KKK that was also anti-Catholic, antisemitic, and populist, it included the antisemitic ravings of Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh’s America First movement and sympathies for Nazi Germany, Pelley’s Silver Shirts and Christian Party, even the more demagogic leftist populism of Huey Long. The threat of an American Fascism was very real in the 1920s and 30s.

With the defeat of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the end of the global interregnum, in large part thanks to the Soviet Red Army, it was assumed that Fascism had been liquidated once and for all. The United States assumed for itself the sole superpower and the center of empire, capable of imposing a Pax Americana over the world, except for an obstreperous Soviet Union. Some form of Cold War anti-communism became a mainstay of mainstream American politics. It should be remembered that Joseph McCarthy started out a Democrat and ended up a Republican. McCarthyism, the John Birch Society, and Barry Goldwater’s faction of the Republican Party were all radically anti-communist.

But the Right in the United States remained fractious. It included the antisemitic white supremacism of the Klan, George Wallace and the Dixiecrat revolt, the beginnings of the patriot/militia movement in DePugh’s Minutemen and Beach’s Posse Comitatus, the paleoconservatism of Russell Kirk and Paul Gottfried, embryonic conspiracy theorizing a la Bircher anti-fluoridation paranoia, Ayn Rand’s atheist Objectivism, the first inklings of Murray Rothbard’s AnCap libertarianism, and the like. In contrast to the rightwing alliance between Christian evangelicals and Catholic bishops on everything from school prayer to abortion, serious theological divisions emerged in Reconstructionism, Dominionism, and Christian Nationalism alongside religious cults like Children of God, Unification Church, Fundamentalist LDS, Church Universal and Triumphant, etc. As the Right so often mirrors the Left, American conservatism tried to force a contrapuntal unity against the perceived “international communist conspiracy for world domination.”

William F. Buckley founded the National Review Magazine in 1955 in an explicit effort to demarcate a proper American conservatism and to keep it properly policed through vicious polemics and purges of racists, antisemites, and conspiracy wingnuts. He wanted an official American conservative movement that overlapped with the Republican Party, a pro-business/anti-union conservative movement dedicated to a disciplined, uncompromising, good-vs-evil crusade against communism. Buckley thought of this as standing athwart history, yelling stop, in his version of revolting against modernity, but he discovered that policing the Right was like herding cats. It’s been argued that Buckley’s National Review conservative movement was a facade; that the Right didn’t grow less diverse or more unified under Buckley’s shepherding. Yet what ultimately vanquished Buckley and the conservative movement was the crisis of the Left that bubbled up during the 1980s, culminating in the Soviet bloc’s sudden collapse from 1989 to 1991. The United States won the Cold War and truly became the sole superpower and center of empire. Yet things fell apart and the center could not hold as another global interregnum took shape.

I argue that the crisis of the Left produced a corresponding crisis on the Right, a proliferation of “strange new variants” on the Right. The Reagan/Thatcher neoliberal rebranding of official conservatism primed the crisis, alongside the direct mail Viguerie New Right and imported rightwing countercultural currents like Skinheads. All sectors of the Right subsequently proliferated, from the Secular Right (Libertarianism, Neoconservatism) through the Religious Right (soft and hard Dominionism) to the Xenophobic Right. The latter witnessed the most explosive growth through populist movements (armed citizen militias, Sovereign Citizens, patriot groups) and white nationalist ultraright movements (Christian Identity, Creativity Movement, National Socialist Movement, National Alliance).

The most visible aspects of the growing Right—the Tea Party Movement and now the Alt.Right—are just the tip of the rightwing iceberg. Whereas the Secular Right remains committed to a pluralist civil society, the Xenophobic Right is hardline anti-democratic, with the dividing line between conservative and hard Right falling somewhere in the Religious Right. The confusing variety on the Right can barely be contained by this conceptual triad, unlike the Left’s greater structure and coherence which falls easily into antiauthoritarian, democratic/parliamentary, and Leninist categories.

The changes to global capitalism that underpinned the rise of this current global interregnum must wait until a future column. I’ll conclude by quoting Tom Robinson: “If Left is Right, then Right is Wrong. You better decide which side you’re on.”

San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy

This is a non-canonical “Lefty” Hooligan column not available in Maximum Rocknroll.

I fly into Yupanqui International on an early Friday morning in late summer. The sleek, three-kilometer-high airport is on the outskirts of San Cristóbal’s mountainous capital city Túpac Amaru. Two signs greet those exiting the main terminal, crisp black and white banners on Avenida Revolución that read: “¡Tierra, Trabajo y Libertad! Por Eso Luchamos” and “Señores Capitalistas y Imperialistas ¡No Les Tenemos Absolutamente Ningun Miedo!”

The city itself is remarkably free of revolutionary sloganeering and iconography. My rucksack, bedroll, and tent attract no interest as I wander the busy streets thronged with people, bicycles and electric vehicles. Members of the Workers Militia lounge in their camouflage uniforms outside an ice cream shop enjoying sugar cones. Children play and young parents stroll with babies in carriages as the elderly enjoy board games and lawn sports in a fragrant queñua-lined park. Patrons wait for matinee movies in the multiplex’s cafe across from an already crowded farmers market sharing the fountain plaza with cueca dancers practicing their moves and painters hoping to catch the morning light beneath the orange and purple façade of a high-rise nuevo pueblo.

The nuevo pueblos, longhouses and kanchas lining Boulevard Rafael Guillén are boldly colored and decorated with vivid murals, a lively mix of work and residence. Bien comunal warehouses, the community’s shared cornucopia, are painted harlequin green. The city streets are an enterprising assortment of small stores and businesses, gardens and orchards, schools and libraries, workshops and factories run by individuals, families, coops, collectives, syndicates, councils and communes, all of which ply their trade, craft and wares with pleasantly low key advertising. Necessities are free and plentiful, everything else is priced by a mutualist market. I buy a couple of fried bean-and-cheese papusas from a street vendor and fish out my cellphone. The capital has robust communal wifi, letting me plan my next steps online as I snack.

I need permits and visas for a trip into neighboring Zomia, or so I think, and I visit the US Embassy first. More specifically, the US Interests Section at the Spanish Embassy, since America has never officially recognized San Cristóbal. San Cristóbal maintains a Swiss-like neutrality, an aversion to foreign entanglements despite its role in mediating the international cordon sanitaire around Zomia. I spend the better part of the morning paying fees, filling out Section paperwork and talking to government clerks just to get permission to leave the civilized sector. And not so much permission as a waiver of liability.

There’s no direct way to travel into Zomia. A combination of no-fly zone, naval blockade and international economic embargo discourages airplanes, ships, trains and buses from traversing the territory. Visitors must first travel to an adjacent country, then physically cross the border into Zomia, usually on foot. Private cars are discouraged although not prohibited, while coop jitneys can be rented into the interior. Because I’m traveling in a nation not recognized diplomatically by the US and making application for unauthorized travel into outlaw tribal areas, the US Interests Section issues a red exit stamp for my American passport that denies any government culpability for my travel plans.

Just covering their asses.

The clerk at San Cristóbal’s Interior Ministry three blocks away gives my passport a dismissive glance, but I insist she ink it with the country’s routine exit stamp. Now I’m covering my ass.

Back on the street, I drink a café con crema at a sidewalk bar while a small troupe of theatrical performers entertain passers-by. A flock of green parakeets spins overhead. I notice a bookstore on the corner, Librería José Martí, with a helpful city map taped to the front window. A tile, stone and glass mosaic above the front door lintel features a pointillist portrait of the shop’s namesake flanked by those of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. New, used and antiquarian books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, pamphlets, posters, leaflets and vinyl records in Spanish; there’s also a tourist area next to an English-language section near the front. Free books are piled in a large wooden bin by the door and a shelf offers sundry stationary items; mostly pens, paper and postcards. A squat, monkish old man sits behind the counter engrossed in a leather bound book.

“Buenos dias,” I say. “Habla inglés?”

“I attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate,” the man smiles. “Go Bears.”

“Do you have any maps of Zomia?”

“All the outland maps, what I have, are on the bottom rack.”

He returns to his reading as I browse. I’d researched maps of Zomia while still in the States, but hadn’t found anything useful or portable. Google Maps on my cellphone is less than useless, with large areas around San Cristóbal left blank or only rudimentarily labeled. I find nothing apart from an accordian map of this part of the continent, also empty of details when it comes to Zomia. Instead, I buy a well-worn Modern Library paperback compilation of B. Traven’s novels in English, a current issue of the Weekly Guardian, and a half dozen postcards depicting the life, architecture and scenery of San Cristóbal.

There’s an express coop bus at the downtown station that takes me to Béjar, a popular eco-sustainable ski resort on the border. I eat an early supper of hunter’s stew and hearty bread in the collective-run Cienfuegos chalet lodge high above the frontier village of El Dorado, in the snowy borderlands past the Almagro Pass, at the juncture of various gerrymandered national boundaries. The panoramic dining room view is spectacular; the sun brilliant, the deep blue sky laced with thin clouds, the broken mountains limned with snow and ice. Lichen-lined petroglyphs and shadowed cliff-dwelling ruins cascade down the opposite canyon walls. I dash off the six postcards, then savor the last bite of a cuchuflí dipped in chocolate before heading to the Bar del Papa. Papa’s Bar. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway stayed at the lodge while hunting big game and drinking everybody under the table at the bar. Over a decade later, Neruda is said to have passed through during his first exile, around the same time that two young Argentinian medical students downed a few cervezas, their 1939 Norton motorcycle parked at the lodge.

Émigrés haunt the bar’s lounge, like the dissolute aristo from next door Punklandia holding court at a table in a dark corner and lamenting the demise of his country’s ancien régime. A morose exile from “punker than thou” purges in his native land, he has rows of hair implants along his scalp like a doll’s head. In turn, the sexagenarian is surrounded by a small fawning entourage of twenty-somethings who call him crown prince and dauphin, and talk endlessly of helping him regain his rightful patrimony and restoring past titles and glories. The one with the hair transplants keeps fiddling with himself beneath the table, so I avoid shaking his hand when introduced to him in passing.

The bar itself is mobbed with rowdy drunks from neighboring Anarchistan. At first I take them for carousing workers, but soon enough determine from their shenanigans that they’re partying, upper-middle-class college kids. They’re mostly posturing hipsters; “beautiful losers” looking for “the next big thing” but morbidly incapable of enjoying themselves while having a good time. Anarchistan is infamous for its back biting, infighting, and outright sectarianism. A turf war between post-left and identity factions erupts at a local potlatch festival. A hyper-PC vigilante carrying out the unwritten tribal law that “snitches get stitches” punches the guest of a minor post-left @ chieftain, causing an equally minor scandal. Anarchistan militias thwart infiltration and subversion attempts from bordering national-anarchist fortress kingdom Illios. An antifa faction calls out a post-left faction for not being sufficiently, correctly anti-fascist. A post-left @ egoist happily collaborates with a neofascist publisher in neighboring neo-nazi Kekistan, causing a minor furor. Or so I hear, Anarchistan not being my preferred destination to visit.

My goal remains Zomia, and I have five hours of useful daylight left. I finish my last Xingu non-alcoholic beer and climb down to the collection of wooden buildings clustered about the brick-and-mortar jitney station and El Dorado canton courthouse on the snow-clad plateau; a border village with no real border to control. Passports and customs are handled by the same clerk who sells jitney tickets, porters the luggage and runs the outpost mail room. I hand him the postcards, and he rifles through my other papers and paperwork, clearly perplexed.

“You want to purchase a ticket for Zomia?” he says. “To travel to Zomia? But that’s impossible. Zomia doesn’t exist!”

And that’s where I’ll leave it. Zomia doesn’t exist.

Punk rock and the left of the Left, these are self-identified, self-activated and self-organized milieus. Zomia is by contrast a name for an entirely invented concept, an analytical category that is a product of imaginative history and anthropology. Willem van Schendel, a historian at the University of Amsterdam, coined the term Zomia in 2002 to refer to the southeast Asian massif, a mountainous region covering the Indochinese Peninsula well into southwestern China. He proposed a socio-cultural distinction based not on nationality or national boundaries, race or ethnicity, religion or politics, but on geography where the main difference is between fiercely independent tribal and often minority ethnic peoples in sparsely populated upland regions spread out over several nations versus dominant, densely populated lowland regions firmly in control of their respective national states. The word zomi means highlander in Burmese, and the highlands is where Zomia theoretically exists, where small autonomous groups of people can maintain ethnic and tribal identities and cultures distinct for centuries and generations from the surrounding dominant national societies.

The name Zomia has gained currency over the past fifteen years, and the geographic reach of the concept has expanded to include the Himalayan and Hindu-Kush massifs. From the Hmong hill people of mountainous China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, this idea of a greater Zomia is enthusiastically embraced by academics, and even considered applicable to all highland regions everywhere like some international Appalachia archetype. There are glaring contradictions to the much broadened model however. The principle inconsistency is in the centralized, theocratic kingdoms (Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan) in control of the Himalayan highlands, often for centuries. Strong expansionist imperial states are not incompatible with the independent mountainous tribal highlands that are central to the concept of Zomia, as the pre-Spanish Andean Inka splendidly illustrated.

Which brings me to James C. Scott’s 2009 work in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Zomia is made a metaphor for the struggle of all subaltern peoples for their autonomy and identity against the dominant societies in which they reside:
All identities, without exception, have been socially constructed: the Han, the Burman, the American, the Danish, all of them. […] To the degree that the identity is stigmatized by the larger state or society, it is likely to become for many a resistant and defiant identity. Here invented identities combine with self-making of a heroic kind, in which such identifications become a badge of honor.
For Scott, this is a conscious process not only of resistance but of an affirmation of the primitive and the local over the modern and the national. Scott posits a counter-narrative against ethnic assimilation into modern society in which such subordinated people become conscious refugees against modernity itself:
[Mountain tribes] seen from the valley kingdoms as ‘our living ancestors,’ ‘what we were like before we discovered wet-rice cultivation, Buddhism, and civilization’ [are by contrast] best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys — slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare.
Scott makes absolutely clear that: [l]acking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy. (Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, 2012)

What Scott is arguing is that Zomia is not a conscious example of anarchism in action but rather of a variegated, anarchic social and historical experience involving peoples who have not been completely absorbed by overarching nation-states, even while that experience is coming to an end. Anarchy by geographic default, not anarchism by political design, as I’ve argued in other contexts, and a default anarchy that is quickly disappearing. The anarchy of the Zomia metaphor is upbeat but doomed.

San Cristóbal is a fictive country from my first novel End Time. Not so fictive are Anarchistan, Illios, Kekistan, and Punklandia, and my crude analogies should not be lost on the readers. The fiction of San Cristóbal and its environs is neither more nor less fanciful than the academic invention of Zomia, a name which works pretty well on its own.

Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408


It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

Going “Full Lenin” on Free Speech: “What’s Left?” August 2016, MRR #399

Full Lenin

Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico

America’s founding myth is that we rose up against tyranny and oppression, fought a justified revolution for our freedoms, built a vibrant entrepreneurial economy, and established a democratic republic based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to become a light unto humanity, a beacon of hope for the world. To use the crude vernacular, “we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” But that’s not such a grand accomplishment in the 18th century, what with muzzle-loading flintlock musket technologies on a continent isolated by nearly four thousand miles of ocean and up to three months of travel from far more powerful nations in Europe. When the historical facts about the origins of the United States are transformed into ahistorical truisms, we have a problem.

The idea that marginal English colonists—in a hemisphere substantially depopulated of natives by disease, on the periphery of a mercantilist empire transitioning from absolutism to parliamentarianism, subject to benign neglect for decades—would succeed in forming a frontier republic based on a footnote to British liberal Enlightenment politics is not surprising. What is surprising is that such a one-off political experiment could be replicated anywhere else in the world. And, in fact, it hasn’t. Even when the Allies defeated the Axis powers, reduced Germany, Japan and Italy to rubble, and forcefully remolded those nations into Western liberal democracies, they remained substantially different from the American ideal—still very traditional with far fewer freedoms and far more governmental regulation. So if the US experience cannot be repeated within the rubric of Western liberalism, what makes anybody think it can be reproduced outside that context?

Various neocon war criminals for one, but more generally the American political punditry. All of these “talking heads” believed that a country like Iraq for instance could pull itself up by its bootstraps to emulate Western liberal democracies steeped in Enlightenment values after decades of war and civil war, scores of despotic tyranny, and centuries of colonial imperialism. A quixotic pipe dream at best, and cynical bullshit at worst. The measures taken by the US—no-fly-zones, blockades, embargoes—to affect regime change against Saddam Hussein and bring about some sort of military coup or “peoples power” uprising ultimately failed, requiring the American military invasion the consequences of which we are still living with today. We’re well aware how the Iraqi effort to pull itself up by its bootstraps worked out, aren’t we. Can you say Islamic State? I knew you could.

Historically, similar sanctions regimes have rarely, if ever, succeeded in democratizing or Americanizing their intended targets. As one recent NYT headline puts it, Venezuela would rather experience “hunger, blackouts and government shutdowns” than kowtow to Yanqui imperialism. Iran remained defiant against US/UN sanctions for over 35 years until sanctions relief in 2016. Cuba held out for over 50 years against the US economic embargo before the Obama administration began normalizing diplomatic relations with the island nation. Sanctions put in place by the Nixon administration against Allende’s Chile succeeded not in democratizing that country but in fomenting a fascist coup under Pinochet. By themselves, sanctions have failed time and again to achieve their stated goals of democratic regime change, leaving intact their implied goals of disrupting, destabilizing and destroying their targets however.

Go back to the OG sanctions regime, the French cordon sanitaire. Lieutenant Commander Stanley F. Gilchrist wrote in his essay “The Cordon Sanitaire—Is It Useful? Is It Practical?”: As early as the 17th century, the French term, cordon sanitaire (sanitary zone), was used to describe the establishment of a perimeter around an area infected with contagious disease to effect a quarantine. Gradually its usage spread to connote military perimeters enclosing safe areas. Later, the system of alliances instituted by France in post-World War I Europe that stretched from Finland to the Balkans was also referred to as a cordon sanitaire. It completely ringed Germany and sealed off Russia from Western Europe, thereby isolating the two politically “diseased” nations of Europe. Germany saw the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, initiating the second World War in Europe despite the cordon sanitaire. And Russia remained Bolshevik for nearly 75 years, expanding into an international Communist bloc that ruled 1/5 of the world’s land surface and 1/3 of the world’s population despite various sanctions regimes to contain it.

Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps doesn’t work, but sanctions that force one to Westernize don’t really work either. Something more subtle is required to turn recalcitrant nations onto the correct, American-approved path. Perhaps a little backroom US political or economic pressure, or maybe the market exigencies of the world capitalist economy, can “persuade” the country in question to become more open to American guidance and Western influence. Brazil’s left-wing government is in the midst of a right-wing, legalistic coup in all but name. The right has won election outright in Argentina hoping to regain access to international capital markets, appease foreign creditors, and solve the country’s debt default. Under American pressure, Japan is moving to the right as Prime Minister Abe reforms the country’s defense policy to allow greater Japanese military action abroad, even the acquisition of nuclear weapons, while engaging in historical revisionism regarding Japan’s role during the second World War. Even in Venezuela under American sanctions, where the Left still controls the presidency but has lost control of parliament, the US continues to encourage a deliberate, massive disruption of the economy by domestic right-wing forces.

So what’s a decent sovereign country supposed to do—“so far from God, so close to the United States?” Aside from greeting their American liberators with “sweets and flowers” that is. Most of those nations wishing to remain independent of the US and the West tend to be leftist in political orientation, although theocratic Iran and fascist Myanmar run counter to this.

Ian Welsh has written a provocative essay on his blog with the self-explanatory title “Seven Rules for Running a Real Left-Wing Government,” lessons that are applicable across the political spectrum. His section headers are equally clear and incendiary, and I’ve made notes in parentheses where appropriate. “It’s not you, it’s […] the world system.” “Don’t run your economy on resources.” “Your first act must be a media law” (to control the media). “Take control of the banking sector.” “Who is your administrative class” (and is it reliable)? “Take control of distribution and utilities.” “Reduce your vulnerability to the world trade system.” “Be satisfied with what you can grow and make.” “Obey the laws of purges” (as Machiavelli first described).

“Break your enemy’s power,” Welsh concludes. “If you’re any sort of left-winger worth your salt, you ethically do not believe in huge concentrations of power and money in the hands of a few people anyway. Act on your beliefs. And if they’ve committed a pile of crimes (and they almost always have), use those crimes against them. Then remember the world system is set up expressly to stop what you are doing. You’re tackling the dragon, and most people who do that get eaten. We tell the stories of the dragonslayers because they are so few. So, know the odds are against you, and be willing to do what is required to improve them. If you aren’t, stay home.”

The horror! The denial of free expression! The violation of human rights! The suppression of private property and profit!

When I first called myself an anarchist some forty-eight years ago, I believed that free expression was an absolute that could be scrupulously maintained while carrying out a spontaneous revolution for individual human liberation against the power of private property and profit. Nowadays, I think that the power of private property and profit needs to be severely curtailed if not communized, that the goal is social revolution based on organized social power, and that there’s no such things as absolute freedom of expression. Recently, a chuckle-headed free speech absolutist I sometimes ridicule in this column agreed with this in a back-handed way. He has cried censorship in the denial of free speech by government, corporate, social, even market forces, yet he himself draws the line on HIS facebook page where he reserves the right to censor free speech. As if declaring your power to censor your personal digital squat at the sufferance of Zuckerberg’s whims, FB’s changing rules and corporate ownership, and government oversight means shit. But by drawing even such a puny reverse line-in-the-sand he acknowledges that there are lines to be drawn and defended. And that freedom of speech is not absolute.

Free speech doesn’t really exist when you’re willing to engage in civilized debate with fascists, only to be stomped in an alley afterwards by the boneheads. And freedom of speech can’t really exist for right-wing opposition in leftist societies when the US Sixth Fleet is anchored offshore. I find no shame in defending yourself, your community, even your country from fascists, be they actual nazi skinheads or Yanqui imperialists. You know my opinions on fighting fascists. Don’t assume I’m going all Third World national liberation struggle on you now. I have no love for the nation-state, even in its revolutionary/leftist guise. But I no longer blithely repeat ultraleft platitudes about “no war but the class war” and the need for “world revolution” to dismiss the problematics of nationalism and uneven development. I take cautious inspiration from indications that the Left’s long deadlock and current crisis might be transcended. Independent political currents are emerging that are fostering a dialogue between anarchism and Marxism. Hybrid social experiments are coming to the fore in Chiapas and Rojava, with bright promise and deep imperfections. And efforts to constitute genuine social power are being attempted by partial, flawed insurrectionary and communizing tendencies.

I’m pessimistically optimistic about the future of the Left.

Western Civilization and Its Discontents: “What’s Left?” December 2015, MRR #391


Mistah Kurtz—he dead…

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of Saints, 1972

I’ll put it bluntly: Nothing you love will survive without white people.

Jared Taylor, “An Open Letter to Cuckservatives,” American Renaissance, July 2015

Let’s take two people: Bill Maher and Gavin McInnes. Both are writers, actors, political commentators, media personalities, and comedians of a sort. That’s what they do for a living however, and there the similarities end. These two individuals couldn’t be more different when it comes to what they believe.

Bill Maher calls himself a liberal, albeit one with a libertarian streak, an advocate of decriminalizing if not legalizing most “soft” drugs and prostitution, a pro-choice, pro-feminist, gay-friendly atheist who is anti-racist and against US military interventionism abroad. Gavin McInnes considers himself a conservative with libertarian tendencies, an opponent of legalizing “adult vices” like drugs and prostitution, a pro-life, anti-feminist Catholic with assorted issues about the usual suspects—gays, trans-folk, blacks, illegal immigrants—who likes his wars necessary and just. Funny thing is, despite these obvious political disagreements, Maher and McInnes both agree on a political tenet so fundamental as to constitute a common worldview, the need to defend Western civilization.

Catch Maher’s tirades on Real Time with Bill Maher, or McInnes’s rants on Red Eye and TheRebelMedia, and they sound remarkably alike. Muslims suck. Liberals are brain-dead or self-hating idiots and need to wake up. The West is ashamed or oblivious and needs to cultivate some brass. We’re at war. We need to defend Western civilization, the West, our way of life from those goddamned Mooslims!

This umbrella sentiment—defend Western civilization—held by mainstream left-right-and-center, as well as certain elements on the fringes, relies upon volatile, highly emotional symbols. The Muslim hordes are once again at the gates of Vienna and Poitiers, symbolically speaking. And, there is a search for the next 9/11 to wake us all up. 11/M—the Madrid train bombings of 3/11/05—was the next 9/11, and 7/7—the London bombings of 7/7/05—was the next 9/11. Now, the Paris shootings of 1/8/15 (and 11/13/15) have been equated with 9/11, and the hope was that the events in Paris would act as a rallying point around which the West could marshal its resolve.

A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think about Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” So while I broach the subject in this column, I can only scratch its surface. Consider for instance just the distinctions between Maher and McInnes among the myriad “defenders of the West.” For McInnes, Islamic culture is backward, violent, inbred, not civilized, requiring a culture war or a religious war to protect “our entire civilization.” For Maher, all religion is a bad idea, but Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, necessitating a war against them by those holding liberal Western values and ideas to preserve “our way of life.” But what the hell is “Western civilization” anyway?

If we use strict political categories and define Western civilization as that aggregate of liberal democratic nation-states that purport to be based on and supportive of Western (e.g., Enlightenment) values, this is entirely ephemeral. Liberal democracies often become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes with alarming consequences (Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia in the 1940s), and those nations touted as “the Switzerland of X” (Uruguay in South America, Uganda or Rwanda in Africa, Singapore in Asia) are anything but upon closer examination. Maher and McInnes are proud citizens of liberal Western-style democracies even as they consider liberal democracy the Achilles heel of those countries. And despite their professed libertarianism, when push comes to shove, Maher and McInnes often advocate very illiberal, undemocratic means such as racial profiling to combat the perceived threat of Islamic extremism.

If we defer to what we learned in our primary and secondary education, Western civilization is based on some combination of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions. Right off the bat, atheists like Maher would take issue with any form of religion counting positively toward the heritage of the West. For the classic liberalism that Maher claims, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, science, and skepticism constitute the best of what the West has to offer. For McInnes, he accepts the whole vague social/cultural package defined as Western civilization, having converted from atheism to Catholicism and from anarchism to conservatism. Certain white power types would take offense at inclusion of the Jews in any affirmative evaluation of the West, since the Jews and Judaism are evil incarnate. This leads the ultra-right to efforts to redefine Christianity without its Judaic core, as in Christian Identity, or to abandon Christianity altogether for some amalgam of European paganism or out-and-out atheism. As for the Greco-Roman part of the equation, and again aside from the Enlightenment emphasis on these roots as the classical West’s cultural and philosophical beginnings, there are many contenders for more-European-than-thou sources. The Celts and Germanic peoples—the latter a part of some mythic Aryan race—to pan-Slavism and Eurasianism—which seeks to shift the focus of European civilization from west to east, and to a Greater Russian geopolitical dominance that rejects Western European values—are all contenders for the origins of Western Civilization.

So, which values are real, true Western values? Is Western civilization at its core pagan Celto-Germanic tribalism, or Talmudic Judaism, or Greek city-states, or Roman imperialism, or crusading Medieval Christianity, or Enlightenment modernism, or Slavic orthodoxies, or Russian Mongol corporatism? Aside from broad and banal generalizations, can anything uniquely Western be discerned in the music, literature, dance, painting, and architecture subsumed under the label Western culture? Can Western and Eastern be convincingly separated? Are the rule of law, secularism, science, and technology what distinguishes Western civilization? Can any combination of the above stand for the whole, or must we be satisfied with an undifferentiated, cumulative understanding of Western civilization? Or is Western civilization like pornography, something that cannot be clearly defined, but we know it when we see it?

If the political is ephemeral and the social/cultural is vague, the biological seems to offer certainty. Western civilization is the product of white people, and white people are the source of all that is good in the world. Hence the current popularity of DNA ancestry analysis that attempts to associate certain DNA markers with geographic locations as when, for instance, the distribution of the maternal haplogroup H is correlated overwhelmingly with the European subcontinent. From there it’s a small step to equate such analyses with a genetic causation for ersatz races and their behaviors, bringing us back to the “scientific” racism and eugenics of two centuries prior. Maher clearly detests and denounces such racialized definitions of Western civilization and resists taking this step. But McInnes shamelessly flirts with them. According to McInnes, sub-Saharan Africa had no written languages before white people arrived. Our advanced technologies were all invented by white people, and our material superiority is all due to the hard work of white people. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. […] I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” (NYT, 9/28/03) McInnes even denies that black people had much to do with creating rock and roll, he’s so dead set on affirming that “white is right.”

When he’s not playing the contrarian, McInnes is responding in part to increased anger and frustration on the ultra-right as white racists feel increasingly besieged. The issue here is power. When white people held uncontested social power, white racists gloried in being white supremacists, fully backing the superiority and domination of white people over all others. When that power was challenged in the slightest degree and Enlightenment values such as equality threatened to emerge, white racists became the voice of the “embattled white minority” and fancied themselves white nationalists seeking to secede as a separate white nation. Countering the biological explanation for Western civilization does not merely require invoking the statistical truism that correlation is not causation, that the correlation of genetic factors with geographic location is not the cause of a so-called race’s achievements and failures. What also is required is countering a logical fallacy that confuses the repeatability and predictability of hard science with the lack of either in history.

That the past 10,000 years of human history and 2 million years of human evolution have led us to a world where capitalism, the nation state, white supremacy and patriarchy reign supreme tells us only so much. We cannot repeat history over and over, like a scientific experiment, to see whether or not we get the same results. Science depends on predicting future experimental results from successful past experimental results. But despite some historians seeing patterns in history, any ability to predict the future based on a study of the past has remained elusive. A particularly virulent configuration of wealth and power won the game we call history this time around, but since we can’t ever play the game again there’s no way to know whether that win was a fluke due to luck or a certainty due to merit.

Marx committed this fallacy himself in seeking to formulate a scientific socialism based on historical materialism. But there you go, another dead white European male whose ideas and the movements he inspired are very much a part of Western civilization. Again, whatever the fuck that means. Maybe the only way to make sense of Western civilization nowadays is how Joseph Conrad did it by counterposing Europe to The Other, in his case Africa, as a “foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” as Chinua Achebe once commented.

Maher, McInnes and other defenders of the West against radical Islam consistently contend that what Islam needs today is its own Reformation or Enlightenment. Seriously? Consider that from 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation) to roughly 1650 (an arbitrary start for the Enlightenment) between 10 and 30 million people perished across Europe in various conflicts related to the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism. In less than 150 years, on a subcontinent of roughly 4 million square miles and 70-80 million people, something like 20 million people died in Reformation, Counterreformation, the Thirty Years War, indeed scores of major wars and upheavals. This doesn’t include the “New World” that Europe was exploring, conquering and colonizing at the time. The period in Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment was truly a slaughterhouse, yet a comparable social transformation is being urged onto the Islamic world as a great idea.

Or maybe, perversely, it’s already happening. Perhaps Islam is undergoing it’s equivalent of the Reformation and Enlightenment right now. But to soberly compare 16th/17th century Christian fratricide to the modern Middle East—to the sectarian, ethnic, national and class conflicts engulfing vast swaths of a region with some 7 million square miles and half a billion people for the past 2 to 3 decades—we need to realize that we’re are all in for some nasty shit. The exponential expansion in firepower from Medieval Europe to the Middle East today alone should give us pause.

Our brave defenders of Western civilization have a hard time seeing what’s under their noses, much less the future.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]

No apology necessary (or offered): “What’s Left?” December 2014, MRR #379

THE LEFT BEHIND LEFT

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo (Walt Kelly), comic strip

We called it “The System” back in the day. After I got politics in 1968, I considered capitalism and the State equally destructive of human individuality and community, and that working people would be able to overthrow both to bring about socialism. My world view didn’t change much as I evolved from anarchism to left communism over the decades that followed. I identified the working class as the social class with the revolutionary agency to overthrow capitalism and the State and realize communism, a bit more nuanced than the political debates of the 60s where Marxists argued that capitalism was the principle enemy while anarchists argued that it was the State.

Things got a whole lot more complicated in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The New Left splintered into the New Communist Movement, various nationalist movements, the women’s movement, the gay movement, et al, even as we pretended that a bunch of ineffective little groupings amounted to one big ineffectual Movement. Alternative analyses arose where patriarchy was the enemy and women the revolutionary agent, or white supremacy was the enemy and people of color the revolutionary agent, and so on. Eventually, it became necessary to define The System, after bell hooks, as the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” enemy; a rather clunky accumulation of oppressions that did little to advance any kind of radical struggle other than to appease various and sundry wannabe revolutionaries.

I will take on the issue of revolutionary agency, as well as of the realistic capacities of any such agency, in a future column. For now, it should be clear that the implied parity between forms of oppression entailed by the phrase The “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” System is bullshit. Every group in radical circles singles out one form of oppression as primary, with all others consigned to secondary status. Radical people of color and their allies see white supremacy as THE enemy. Radical feminists and their allies contend that patriarchy is THE enemy. And so it goes. Such was the case when Marxists argued that capitalism was THE enemy, or when anarchists proclaimed that the State was THE enemy.

I’m happy to discuss and debate which form of oppression is paramount, even to argue whether all are equally valid, and learn from or adjust my analysis accordingly. Unfortunately, the quality of discussion and debate in this sad excuse for a Movement is abysmal. I’m not sure whether it is merely dogmatism and sectarianism run rampant, or the consequence of postmodernism’s effects on our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue, but reason and analysis seem to be in short supply whereas rational study and articulate argument have become lost arts. I won’t go into all the gory details of my latest run-in with internecine anarchist idiocy. You can google that for yourself. For the record, I’m utterly disdainful of the thoroughly isolated, completely fragmented, pathetic joke of a so-called Movement. Nowadays, I no longer claim anything left of the Left, although my sympathies remain gauchist. Instead, lets discuss two general topics of interest.

THE MYTH OF FACT CHECKING

Memory is a motherfucker.

Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist

This is one of my favorite quotes. Ayers makes the point that many of the memories he claims are fact or true are actually not that at all, but are based on recollections fogged by time, as well as a “blurring of details” where “[m]ost names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away.” There is plenty of scientific evidence for the unreliability of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. This plus my experience with writing and reading history, where there are invariably numerous versions of the same historical narrative, has made me cynical of words like “fact” and “truth.” I won’t go so far as Nietzsche’s famous quote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but I will argue that there are no facts, only evidence for facts. The only way we can establish a fact, or for that matter a truth, is through verifiable, empirical evidence for that fact or truth.

Fact checking then is not a matter of tallying up the facts, but of compiling and weighing the evidence for the facts. In my experience, two things often stand in the way of honest fact checking when it comes to current events. First, there are plenty of people claiming that “they were there” at any given notorious incident, whether or not they actually were. And second, of those individuals who come forth and claim to be present when such incidents take place, most are decidedly less than forthcoming about the what, when, where and how of their supposed eyewitness experiences despite their willingness to loudly pass judgment on the why.

As for history, I wasn’t around for either the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war. Yet I’ve scoured all the available history and primary sources, the evidence if you will, for the facts and lessons to be drawn from these historical events. In the process, I’ve noticed that new evidence is always being discovered, and thus new facts are being determined, and new histories are being written.

DUALISM VS DIALECTIC

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him.

Shunryu Suzuki, “No Dualism,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.

Tom Waits, “Heartattack and Vine”

Finally, there is the tendency to reduce everything to a Manichean good vs evil view of the world, inherited from our Judeo-Christian society. Marx made it clear that capitalism is a system of exploitation and oppression, but also an all encompassing social relationship in which both capitalists and workers are intimately involved. Capitalist and worker are both oppressed by capitalism, although by no means equally so. Thus, Marx was against vulgar Marxists who label capitalists as purely evil and workers as entirely good. White supremacy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that white people are evil and people of color are good. Patriarchy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that men are evil and women are good.

Even the penchant for naming an enemy is problematic. To do so is to suggest an evil that must be countered by the good. I have been sitting zazen for the past three plus years, trying to wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of non duality. Non duality seems the perfect antidote to good vs evil thinking, except that it propounds paradox at every turn. Strive for non-striving, let go of letting go, achieve non-achievement; Buddhism is chock full of such paradoxes. These are consciously enigmatic contradictions akin to the famous koans of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai school, meant not to supply answers but to provoke enlightenment. Combine that with Buddhism’s own recent demonstration of good vs evil dualistic behavior, illustrated by the murderous agitation of rabidly anti-Muslim Buddhist monks like U Wirathu and Galagodaatte Gnanasara, and we’re back in the thick of this world’s shit.

WHAT’S LEFT?

Nobody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.

John Sayles, “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

In John Sayles’ piquant short story, “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” cantankerous personal squabbling and bitter political sectarianism among the scruffy convention participants are momentarily set aside when all in attendance unite against a hotel manager who tries to kick the Convention out of its rented room due to double booking. This whimsical tale ends when the convention of geriatric has-been red-flag wavers dedicated to lost causes erect a barricade, stand together, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The notion that The Movement is something we should rally around against a common enemy reeks of just such sentimentality and nostalgia. That this degenerate offspring of what was called The Left is all but worthless goes without saying.

So, call me a fascist or a racist, or label my thinking white supremacist or Eurocentric. I write my columns knowing full well that some people will dismiss what I say as defensive, abstract, condescending, or self-serving. For those of you who consider me an anachronistic, eccentric old school commie, here’s my upraised middle finger.

Of cults and sects: “What’s Left?” November 2014, MRR #378

Does “one divide into two” or “two fuse into one?” This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.

Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964
as quoted in Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives

One man’s cult is another man’s PTA.

Okay, so the aphorism needs a little work. What I often call “The Left” is littered with examples of cults, beginning with Lyndon LaRouche’s Trotskyist National Caucus of Labor Committees in the 1960s and 70s which went on a rampage, called “Operation Mop-Up,” of physically attacking fellow left individuals and organizations after the NCLC itself was attacked by Mark Rudd’s and Bernadine Dohrn’s Revolutionary Youth Movement. LaRouche would quickly veer right into Fascism, and then into a lunacy of conspiracy theories involving the Rockefellers, London bankers, the queen of England, the ADL, the KGB, and the Heritage Foundation. Then there is the Provisional Communist Party, or CPUSA (Provisional Wing), a super-secret organization founded by Gino Perente with a cell structure and even a “Military Fraction” that made the news for hoarding a stockpile of weapons in its Brooklyn headquarters. Its clandestine operations have eased only slightly with the ascendancy of Margaret Ribar to chairmanship, because the Provisional Communist Party operates primarily through front organizations—like the Physicians Organizing Committee, California Homemakers Association and the National Labor Federation—which never acknowledge the existence, let alone the leadership of the CPUSA (Provisional Wing).

Finally, we come to the Revolutionary Communist Party. A Maoist relic of the battles both ideological and physical of the 1970s New Communist Movement, the RCP is proud of its personality cult around heir apparent to Mao and self-exiled chairman Bob Avakian, but not so open about its violent anti-homosexual history. Until 1988, the RCP defined homosexuality as counterrevolutionary, bourgeois and a product of capitalist decadence, after which date being gay was simply considered oppressive to women and narcissistic. Homosexuality was regarded by the RCP as acceptable only after 2001/02. Boastful of its participation in the 1992 LA Rodney King riots, the RCP runs the minuscule Revolution Books chain and wields control behind a series of front groups, from the now defunct punk-oriented No Business As Usual to Refuse and Resist, the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation, La Résistencia, Not in Our Name, and the World Can’t Wait. Its youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, is no more, replaced by youth-oriented Revolution Clubs.

Prior to 1975 and the RCP’s founding, when it was known as the Bay Area Revolutionary Union headquartered in Berkeley, these folks would beat down local Trotskyists with their steel-toed boots while loudly denouncing their victims as degenerates and fascists. With their youth auxiliary of the day, the Revolutionary Student Brigade, the RU initiated a campaign beginning in 1971 to take over several targeted mass organizations on the Left, the most notable being one I was involved in, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldiers Organization (VVAW/WSO). The RU first initiated a joint study group with the National Office of the VVAW/WSO and then infiltrated RU/RSB cadre into the steering committee and VVAW/WSO chapters. VVAW/WSO had a healthy mix of liberals, socialists, Marxists, Leninists and anarchists at the time. My chapter in Santa Cruz actually had a preponderance of anarchists by the time of the organization’s annual convention in 1975. At the general plenary meeting, RU/RSB delegates denounced their opponents as “Trotskyite fascist scum” and “cocksucking faggot scum,” initiated fistfights before, during and after the convention, and took over the organization by force and rigged election. The RU declared itself the Revolutionary Communist Party in September of 1975 with the endorsement of the decimated remnants of the VVAW, along with other supporting organizations such as the RSB, Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee, National United Workers Organization and Wei Min She. VVAW eventually legally won back its name and organization, and the RCP formed VVAW/Anti-Imperialist.

These efforts to form a so-called mass-based revolutionary vanguard party, far from producing the desired effect, actually brought about a narrowing of the RU/RCP’s base and membership. A sizable minority faction calling itself the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters split off in opposition to the RCP’s support for the Gang of Four in China by 1977. After years of aging and attrition within the RCP, and despite its recommitment to militant activism, another more informal split occurred in 2008 critical of Bob Avakian’s overt cult of personality. A thinning of its ranks no doubt was interpreted as a “purification” of the RCP’s ideology, even as it marked a waning of this Maoist organization’s influence.

Such cultish behavior aside, the Left has always suffered from infighting and sectarianism, beginning with the battle between Marx and Bakunin over the First International Workingman’s Association and reaching a peak during the Spanish 1936-39 civil war. Liberals, socialists, Communists and anarchists allied together under the Spanish Republican government, only to suffer from mutual mistrust and recrimination, backstabbing and civil war within the civil war, all of which resulted in Franco’s defeat of the Republic. Marxism-Leninism under Stalin denounced Trotskyist Marxism-Leninism as “social fascism,” the Soviet Union repudiated Tito’s version of Communism in Yugoslavia, and Mao’s version of Marxism-Leninism excoriated the Soviet Union as revisionist and “social imperialist” while the Soviet Union accused Mao of being “a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist.” Trotskyists are known to split at the drop of a hat, attacking each other more vociferously then they do other, non-Trotskyist Leninists, whose regimes they charitably call “deformed workers states.”

The Situationist International in western Europe from 1957 to 1972 was known for many things, most notoriously their ultra-sectarianism. The SI split and split again, its members having broken with each other repeatedly until only two individuals remained in the SI by 1972. This divisive practice reached its absurd extreme in the “chain break,” in which Situationists denounced anyone who didn’t join them in denouncing their enemies. Thus they inverted Mao’s famous axiom into: “To be my friend, you must be an enemy of my enemy.”

This tendency to hate the people you’re closest to, that you share the most similarities with, is frequently the rule. Witness a history of world religions where the term sectarian originated. A much less prominent tendency is to unite divergent groups under a wider front alliance, if not a “big tent” organization. The Marxist-Leninist left has witnessed attempts at socialist regroupment (as when various Trotskyist groups such as Solidarity, Fourth Internationalist Tendency and Activists for Independent Socialist Politics fused, but then failed at broader unity attempts) or left refoundation (as when the post-Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization negotiated with and subsumed Fire By Night Organizing Committee, a split from the defunct Love and Rage Anarchist Federation). Left communists and anarchists cross-pollinated and contended by turns, ever since the POUM and the CNT/FAI joined forces for the 1937 Barcelona May Days uprising. Most recently, small circles of neo-Leninists, para-anarchists and post left communists are discussing and debating how to move past the wreckage that the Left has become by 1990.

In the late 1980s/early 1990s a number of continental anarchist gatherings were held around North America (Chicago 1986, Minneapolis 1987, Toronto 1988). I attended the Without Borders gathering in 1989 in San Francisco, where the whole panoply of anarchist groups, tendencies, currents and schools convened. The attitude here was not simply “can’t we all just get along,” but a quite aggressive, all-inclusive, catch-all, free-wheeling invocation. In addition to the classic anarchism of European origin (collectivism, mutualism, communism, syndicalism, individualism), there was green, primitivist, nihilist, pacifist, feminist, queer, and post-left anarchism, even Hakim Bey’s blend of mysticism, man-boy love, and temporary autonomous zones. Especially Hakim Bey’s loopy anarchy in 1989. The Black Bloc was a year or two from being introduced onto the American scene, so insurrectionary anarchism was still a ways away, but otherwise, the whole zoo was present and celebrated at these gatherings. I ran into a couple of actual anarchist capitalists at the Without Borders gathering, but no one explicitly distributed literature, put up a table, did a workshop, or presented a speaker advocating capitalism. Nothing was forbidden and all was permitted in this modern American anarchist milieu, except for explicit endorsement of capitalism.

Twenty-five years later, the anarchist milieu is much the same, if the Annual San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair is any indication. Anarchist capitalism still isn’t welcome. Despite the entrepreneurial nature of the event, free market anarchists have no license to set up shop there. And when members of the Bay Area National Anarchists showed up in 2009, they kept a low profile, for fear of being attacked. National anarchist groups have been openly refused access by anarchist bookfairs in other cities, and national anarchism has been roundly castigated by much of anarchism as crypto-fascist. In 2007, the one-day Saturday SF bookfair expanded to an entire weekend, and was promptly criticized for not being flexible in accommodating the concurrent 8-day BASTARD conference in East Bay. Push came to shove, and the BASTARD folks started sponsoring their own book fair in the Berkeley/Oakland area. There are two anarchist book fairs in the San Francisco Bay Area every year, camaraderie be damned. The reason that in 2014 the SF Anarchist Book Fair and the East Bay BASTARD conference were reduced to a day each and no longer overlapped had little to do with rapprochement so much as it did with their respective lack of time, energy and resources to carry out fuller agendas. To make my point, a series of confrontations between leftist, identity/decolonize anarchists and post-left anarchists occurred between the end of 2013 and April, 2014. These incidents culminated when members of the Qilombo Social Center surrounded, harassed and ultimately drove out members of Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed from the March 22, 2014 SF Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. The purge of post-left AJODA members by decolonize QSC members was an internet controversy for a bit longer than its allotted 15-minutes-of-shame. No doubt, the split in anarchist ranks that this idiocy highlights is forever.

Thus, we can see why one divides into two.

Anarchism by Fools: “What’s Left?” February 2014, MRR #369

Part Two: Anarchism of-by-for Fools

I think it was Bill Clinton that once said that if you thought the ’50s were great, you’re probably a Republican, and if you thought the ’60s were great, you’re probably a Democrat.

Bill Maher, “Bill Maher Isn’t Sorry,” Politico (11-21-13)

And if you thought the ‘70s were great, you’re probably a libertarian. Libertarianism is just anarchy for rich people. Libertarians are big business fucks who don’t want to smash the state, but instead lobby the government for more tax cuts.

The number of prominent entrepreneurs, politicians and entertainers who openly declare themselves to be libertarian is legion. Mark Ames has done an excellent exposé regarding how libertarianism became the house philosophy for capitalism [“When Congress Busted Milton Friedman (And Libertarianism was Created by Big Business Lobbyists),” NSFWCORP, 11-16-12], and Bruce Gibney has revealed how libertarianism has infested the tech industry (“Silicon Valley’s Libertarian Problem,” Inc., 8-13-12). Science fiction has long speculated about the consequences of a free market capitalism run amok, from the cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to mainstream SF like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and oddities like Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

Flipping from science fiction to history, it needs to be made clear that the use, or rather abuse of the term libertarianism in America has almost nothing to do with the use of the term libertarianism historically. Of European political origin, and synonymous with social anarchism, historic libertarianism belonged to the broad category of socialism, and for the most part was leftist in orientation. It was extremely hostile to and ardently opposed to the classical liberalism of the Manchester School of Economics. Classical liberalism propounded a limited state assigned the narrow task of strictly protecting life, liberty and property while a laissez-faire capitalist economy was allowed unfettered activity, regulated only by the invisible hand of the market. Social anarchism in the European context was the majoritarian collectivist, mutualist, syndicalist and communist anarchism advocated by Bakunin, Proudhon, Rocker and Kropotkin in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. It was challenged by the minority individualist anarchism of Mackay and Stirner. Yet even then this minority tendency was highly critical of capitalism and bourgeois individualism. Nevertheless, noted anarcho-communist Albert Meltzer raised objection that “Individualism (applying to the capitalist and not the worker) has become a right-wing doctrine […] the ‘Individualist Anarchist’ approach that differs radically from revolutionary anarchism in the first line of descent. It is sometimes too readily conceded that ‘this is, after all, anarchism’.”

The rugged individualism and self-reliant frontier ethic of American society proved inimical to social anarchism and nurturing to individualist anarchism. The waves of revolutionary anarchist immigrants to this country, while responsible for extensive labor unrest and the founding of May 1st as International Workers Day, tended to de-radicalize and assimilate quickly. The anarchist individualism of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner fit right into and bolstered the American conservative mainstream, even as it remained critical of the capitalism of its day. Yet it took American conservatism’s confrontation with the ebullient, if somewhat crazed politics and counterculture of the 1960s, to separate out the individualist, pro-capitalist and limited government strains of the conservative movement proper into a bona fide anti-statist, radically individualistic quasi-anarchist capitalist movement by 1969. Anarchist capitalists like Murray Rothbard, and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess (before he moved to the anarchist left), actually attempted to forge alliances with compatible New Left individuals and organizations between 1965 and 1968. Jerome Tuccille’s pair of books, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, detail this history for anyone interested.

Bona fide means genuine, but the existence of American capitalist libertarianism doesn’t absolve it from being full of shit, despite having multiplied and broadened in the last fifty odd years. Today, the American libertarian spectrum includes those with libertarian tendencies like quirky liberal Bill Maher and eccentric conservative Clint Eastwood, the mainstream of corporate libertarianism described above and the Libertarian Party proper, and the pure libertarianism of anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard and free market anarchist, 3D gun printer Cody Wilson. To quote an old saying, “the dose makes the poison” (or as Tom Waits sings: “She always had that little drop of poison.”) There is plenty of evidence that toxins like arsenic or radioactive iodine, in tiny amounts, are not just harmless, but might actually be healthy (See Henry I. Miller’s “Can Tiny Amounts of Poison Actually Be Good For You?”, Forbes, 12-20-11). In science, its called hormesis. Just so with capitalist libertarianism. A little bit, in the form of Bill Maher, can be bracing, invigorating and healthy. Too much, as with corporate libertarianism, can be sickening, and the pure libertarianism of anarchist capitalism are out-and-out deadly.

The reason I extended Bill Maher’s quote above is because the 1950s didn’t actually end until 1965, and the 60s in truth spanned from roughly 1965 to 1975. Similarly, the 70s actually covered from 1975 until 1985. I attempted, with a couple of left anarchist friends, to explore some form of left-right association with an equally small group of anarchist capitalists around 1975, a story I’ve told many times before. Big mistake. Aside from constantly babbling about their secret stashes of gold and silver bullion, those free market anarchists were all talk and no action. All they pontificated about were the blessings of capitalism without a state, until I shot back that, if the US government was overthrown today, US corporations would buy and install another government tomorrow, because American capitalism needs a state to protect it, regulate it, keep it safe and healthy. Free market capitalism is a myth, because capitalism requires government. Unfortunately, corporate capitalism in this country has already bought off the government lock, stock and barrel, even as a strand of corporate capitalism advocates a privatizing, deregulatory, anti-tax libertarianism that is fundamentally unhealthy for our body politic, what Rothbard in 1994 called “Big Government libertarianism.”

The 70s were also formative to the rise of capitalist libertarianism, in part because of the anti-Keynesian turn to the right produced by the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. This quasi-libertarian variant came to be known as neoliberalism, which combined domestic privatization, deregulation, financialization, rolling back organized labor, and dismantling the welfare state with an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. In its neoconservative permutation, it preached a democratic imperialism spread internationally by military power. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has distinguished itself from both establishment Republicans and orthodox conservatives with a virulent strain of libertarianism. While libertarian-like tendencies seem to be proliferating like a plague, attempts to build alliances between rightwing libertarians and congruent left libertarians have never amounted to shit. From the demise of the Radical Libertarian Alliance to the recent hard times experienced by Lou Rockwell’s Antiwar.com, time and again the idea of libertarian left and right working together have amounted to delusion and derangement.

As you might have noticed, this discussion of American style capitalist libertarianism has veered toward ill health and affliction, from the explicit analogy with poison to the implicit comparison with pathology. Well, let’s take the metaphor a step further. Matt Taibbi, in his Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine” (7-9-9) described the role of Goldman Sachs in crashing the economy and bringing about the Great Recession. “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Classical liberalism, capitalist libertarianism, corporate libertarianism, anarchist capitalism, neoliberalism, Tea Party libertarianism; they are all structural capitalist modifications encompassed by this vampiric theme, first explored by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital:
As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labor. Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Time for a wooden stake, beheading, and fiery cremation.

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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