Defending the left of the Left: “What’s Left?” June 2018, MRR #421

Dans une société qui a aboli toute aventure, la seule aventure qui reste est celle d’abolir la société.

graffito, Paris, 1968

By the time I turned sixteen, I knew. But I’d suspected it all my life. I won’t claim I was “born this way,” although I’ve had overwhelming urges as long as I can remember. At the time, in 1968, the status quo was being challenged everywhere. So better blatant than latent I always said.

I’m an ultraleftist.

I had a bad attitude toward authority long before I declared myself a radical at sixteen in 1968, when the whole world was exploding politically, culturally, and socially. I’ve told the story of finding my politics, and of evolving from anarchism through left communism to my current left of the Left agnosticism, way too often. In addition to my visceral anti-authoritarianism, I was sympathetic to the underdog, empathetic toward the oppressed, angry over injustice, and always itching for a fight. I identified with the Left, but I felt the conventional Left was insufficiently aggressive and too ready to compromise. I can’t count the times I’ve been called too radical, far Left, hard Left, infantile Left, or ultraleft, and seriously advised to tone down or back off my politics. I’ve had liberal Democrats wave Orwell’s Animal Farm and Trotskyists brandish Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, all the while screaming insults at me. I’ve been called a communist by the liberals and, most telling, an adventurist and objective counterrevolutionary by the Trots.

Lenin’s polemic is occasionally translated as Ultraleftism: An Infantile Disease, hence the common epithet. His vitriol in 1920 was reserved for the Dutch and German Left (the Council Communists) and the Italian Left (followers of Bordiga) for rejecting any participation in reformist working class politics. To the claim by ultras that the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets had made parliamentarianism obsolete, Lenin wrote that parliament can still “be used as a platform for revolutionary socialist propaganda.” To the call by ultras to abandon reformist trade unionism for immaculate revolutionary unions, Lenin argued that revolutionaries should remain in the unions to expose the opportunism and social chauvinism of their leaders while converting their reformist fellow workers to revolutionary politics. To the demand by ultras for “no compromise” in theory and practice, Lenin insisted that revolutionaries needed to know “how to retreat properly” and therefore how to effectively compromise in order to survive. These “mistakes” by ultraleftism invariably lead to adventurism according to Lenin, producing reckless or impetuous actions, methods, or policies, especially in political or international undertakings.

Yet what makes parliamentarianism obsolete, what exposes trade unionism as reformist, and what reveals itself as uncompromising is the revolutionary situation itself. The revolutionary moment—from mass uprising to social revolution—is in practice ultraleft. It is invariably spontaneous, politically variegated and broad-based; frequently expressed through similar organizational forms like autonomous collectives, councils and communes; and everywhere surprising and outflanking the powers-that-be and the vanguard parties that hoped to suppress or control it. The historical high points to this ultraleftism are numerous, if often brief—the Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02. From Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions to Mattick’s Anti-Bolshevik Communism and Dauvé’s Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, this revolutionary situation, this ultraleftism in practice has been exalted as the sine qua non of socialism. Equally obvious is that historically, the nemesis of this ultraleftism has been the Leninist vanguard party.

The Collected Works of V.I. Lenin runs to fifty-four volumes and roughly thirty-five thousand pages of political writings, studies, polemics, notes, and letters in the original Russian. Yet, with the exception of his explicitly philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin wrote almost exclusively about Bolshevik party politics and practice. From One Step Forward, Two Steps Back where he outlined the circumstances which resulted in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s split between a Bolshevik (“majority”) faction led by himself and a Menshevik (“minority”) faction led by Martov, to The State and Revolution, his greatest contribution to political theory which arose from arguments with fellow Bolshevik Bukharin, Lenin related everything he wrote back to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was obsessed with defining the vanguard party’s “scientifically correct” theory and practice, strategy and tactics, even process and procedure. For Lenin, the Bolshevik party was “the way and the truth and the life,” and no one came to The Socialist Revolution except through the Bolshevik party.

I’ve talked about Leninism’s delusion of “scientific socialism” as well as its quasi-religious illusions in a previous column on sectarianism (MRR #408). Now I’d like to point out a simple fact, so simple that it should be couched as an aphorism: “One person’s moderate is another person’s ultraleftist.” Liberals consider socialists too far to the left while socialists label communists hard Left. As mentioned above, Lenin himself coined the slur infantile Leftist for Bordiga and the Councilists he considered left-wing communists. In turn, Stalinists disparage both Trotskyists and Maoists as ultraleft, while Trotskyists and Maoists trade this insult between and among themselves. And everybody denounces anarchists as too far left.

Which is how anti-fascist protests and violence are deemed by most on the Left today. Black bloc tactics and antifa strategies in particular have become the subject of scorn and condemnation by the usual suspects; Adam Proctor of Dead Pundits Society and Democratic Socialists of America, Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin, Sherry Wolf and Derek Wright of the International Socialist Organization, and Left academics from Freddie deBoer to Noam Chomsky. Whether rehashing Lenin’s tired old insults or bemoaning how black bloc tactics and antifa strategies hurt the Left, embolden the Right, and give the state an excuse to suppress political activity, this is clearly a battle to be fought in the streets as well as in academia and on social media. This piling on of the Left onto the left of the Left, in turn, has permitted a bizarre entryism into leftwing politics for former Leftists who have secretly become right wingers.

In “Invasion of the Entryists,” George Monbiot describes one such clandestine shift from Left to Right in excruciating detail. The ultra-sectarian British Trotskyist splinter groupuscule, the Revolutionary Communist Party, went from physically attacking competing oppositionist groups and movements in order to destroy them to founding a journal, Living Marxism, that covertly embraced pro-corporate libertarian rightwing politics. LM eventually became Sp!ked, which still retains its crypto-Libertarianism under the guise of so-called libertarian Marxism. The Sp!ked cadre (Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, Patrick West, Frank Furedi, et al), their fronts (among them the Institute of Ideas think tank), and their fellow travelers (Lee Fang of The Intercept, pop journalist Angela Nagle) continue to infiltrate rightwing politics into the Left with constant warnings against the ultraleft, without much opposition or even awareness.

My solution to sorting out who’s ultraleft is to promote a diversity of tactics on the Left and let the success of their respective practices be our guide. Beginning with Malcolm X (“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common goal.”) and concluding with Howard Zinn (“Each situation in the world is unique and requires unique combinations of tactics. I insist only that the question is so open, so complex, that it would be foolish to rule out at the start, for all times and conditions, all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence.”) a diversity of tactics is essential. The mass insurrections and social revolutions extolled above are historical examples of a diversity of tactics in practice, as are the suffragist, labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. Arguments over diversity of tactics, begun in 1999 during the anti-WTO battle of Seattle and continuing through Occupy Wall Street, need to transcend the Leftist debating society and take matters into the streets.

Or as we say in punk rock, see you in the pit!


Neither Anarchistan nor Anarchyland: “What’s Left?” June 2015, MRR #385

In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.

Loren Goldner, “Didn’t See The Same Movie”

Hooligan Rule #3: The purer the anarchism in theory, the less effective in practice.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I tend to regularly take the piss out of anarchism when I write about it. I spent one column making fun of anarchist goofiness in being simultaneously uncritically inclusive and hypercritically sectarian. Then, after taking on and failing at the Sisyphean task of defining the locus of historical agency, I concluded by proclaiming anarchism a historical failure utterly lacking in agency. And just last column, I made snide comments about the anarcho/ultra milieu’s tendency to push purity over pragmatism with regard to current events in Greece and Kurdistan. Far as I’m concerned, most anarchists are still playing tiddlywinks.

It’s too easy to make fun of anarchism. And while I’m not about to stop, I do want to develop a useful metric for the effectiveness of anarchism. Hence, the above rule of thumb. Here, it’s worth requoting the relevant passages by Max Boot from his book 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?”)

To the utter defeat of anarchism in Ukraine (1918-21) and Spain (1936-39) must be added the failure of anarchism in the Mexican revolution (1910-20). Of these three major revolutions explicitly inspired by anarchism, or having substantial anarchist participation, none went beyond the stage of anarchist revolution into creating a long term anarchist society. All three were defeated militarily during the civil wars that followed the start of each revolution, with Ukraine’s Makhnovshchina liquidated by the Bolsheviks, Spanish anarchism undermined by Leninists, socialists and liberals before being eliminated by Franco’s fascists, and Mexico’s original Zapatistas crushed by the socialist/corporatist precursors to the PRI. That’s 0 for 3, out of the three most heavyweight revolutions of the twentieth century. But we’re not keeping sports scores here. We’re talking about history and tens of thousands of lives lost and societies dramatically altered. Again, it’s absurd to prevaricate by contending that anarchism is only a failure to date. That anarchism’s time is still to come. If anarchism cannot manage to establish itself despite having the solid majority of the working classes as well as a popular revolutionary upsurge behind it, it’s time to admit the most severe conclusion of my rule of thumb. Anarchism in its purest, most historically pertinent form has been a complete washout.

Which is too bad because the daily practice, organizational forms, and valiant struggles displayed in explicit anarchist revolutions have been truly inspiring. What’s more, most of the pivotal revolutionary moments in history have been, at the very least, implicitly anarchist and, together with their explicit siblings, constitute the category of social revolution. Such revolutionary uprisings are broad based, popular, spontaneous, organized from the bottom up, intent on overthrowing existing class and power relations, but invariably short-lived. Social revolutions have been myriad, some flash-in-the-pan and others persistent, but only an abbreviated list can be provided here. (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.) Let’s spend a bit more time further delineating types of revolutions.

The initial February 1917 revolution was nothing less than a spontaneous mass uprising of the majority of workers and peasants across the Russian empire which overthrew the Czarist ancien regime. Inspired by Western European liberalism, the February revolution was not of any single political persuasion. Popular self-activity and self-organization from the base up characterized Russian revolutionary society at that time. This was not just a matter of dual power—where the formal liberal Kerensky government paralleled an antagonistic, informal socialist government of the soviets—but one of a multi-valent revolutionary situation where power resided on numerous levels—like the factory committees—and eventually in various regions—like the Makhnovist controlled Ukraine and the SR-dominated Tambov region. When the Bolshevik organized Red Guard overthrew Kerensky’s government and disbanded the multi-party Constituent Assembly in what has been termed the October Revolution, Russia’s social revolution waned and the civil war began in earnest.

Many considered this vanguard political revolution a Bolshevik coup de etat. The Bolsheviks called it a socialist revolution. And make no mistake, socialist revolutions leading to Leninist states have been rather successful as revolutions go, far more successful than social revolutions. Explicitly anarchist social revolutions have never succeeded, as I keep repeating. Implicitly anarchist social revolutions have enjoyed a little more success as they are several degrees removed from libertarian purity. The German 1918-19 revolution and civil war brought about the liberal democratic Weimar Republic by default. France May-June 1968 changed an entire generation, especially in Europe, leading to political defeat but cultural victory. And the social unrest in Poland from 1980 through 1989 spearheaded by the Solidarity trade union movement arguably helped bring down the Warsaw Pact and paved the way for Western-style liberal democracy in Communist Poland, even as Solidarity itself was sidelined.

Now consider a couple of variations on my Hooligan rule.

What about a practice that tends toward the anarchistic, promulgated from a decidedly Marxist-Leninist theory? Last column I discussed the situation of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan now, and of Chiapas in Mexico for the past twenty years. In the former, the stridently Leninist PKK/HPG-PYG/YPG have adopted anarchistic communalism and democratic confederalism around which to organize Kurdistan society in liberated territories. In the latter, the post-Maoist EZLN has translated Mayan democratic traditions into “mandar obedeciendo,” the notion of commanding by obeying, which conflates nicely with Mao’s own dictum to “go to the people, learn from the people.” The EZLN further praises Mayan communalism and mutual aid, yet it also fetishizes indigenismo while ignoring capitalist property and social relations and remaining a full-blown, hierarchically organized army. Despite such profound contradictions the EZLN was touted as anti-authoritarian and libertarian by anarchists and left communists the world over when they first emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994. Rojava received a far more critical reception from the left of the Left when it emerged out of the Syrian civil war in 2014. That’s because of the PKK et al’s tortuous authoritarian history and orthodox Leninist party/military structure, which puts the accent on nationalism in national liberation struggles and in no way challenges capitalism, even as it pays lip service to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and calls for the decentralized cantonization of any future Kurdistan. Further, the EZLN’s Chiapas is far more media savvy and social democratic, even liberal, as compared to the PKK’s Rojava. Rather than a variation on my rule then, this is the case of a strict Leninist core practice and rigorous hierarchical political/military command structures allowing for some libertarian wiggle room in the greater society in question.

But what about the idea that aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies, if not tacitly anarchist, were plainly anarchic? “According to this myth, prior to the advent of civilization no one ever had to work, people just plucked their food from the trees and popped it into their mouths and spent the rest of their time playing ring-around-the-rosie with the flower children. Men and women were equal, there was no disease, no competition, no racism, sexism or homophobia, people lived in harmony with the animals and all was love, sharing and cooperation.” So writes the so-called unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his essay “The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism.” Kaczynski then cogently demolishes this myth point by point using anarcho-primitivist and classical anthropological sources. Primitive societies were not examples of anarchism so much as they were of anarchy. The radical decentralization and technological simplicity of aboriginal societies allowed the evils of hierarchy, warfare, competition—if and when they arose—to be contained by scaling them down until they did minimal damage. A primitive tribe might very well be peaceful, communal, and egalitarian, but if not, the fact that a warlike, competitive, hierarchical aboriginal tribe was relatively small and confined to a compact territory meant that any harm done by them would be severely limited. The anarchy of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies was not conscious anarchism by any stretch of the imagination. As such, something as simple as the proliferation of agriculture which ushered in the neolithic age rapidly subverted paleolithic anarchy by allowing agricultural surpluses to accumulate, upon which state structures and class societies were then eventually organized.

Now, a note on left communism. Left communism can be viewed as political accretion based on a progressive sloughing off from the Leninist Left. First there was the contentious political relationship between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, followed by the disaffection of Trotsky and Bukharin on the left in the Bolshevik party. Various Left fractions in the Bolshevik party attempted reform from within, most significantly Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. Finally, leftist tendencies congealed against the Bolsheviks in the Third International, on the one hand the council communism of the Dutch and German Left as represented by Pannekoek, Ruhle, and Gorter and on the other hand Bordiga’s ultra-party communism on the Italian Left. Social revolutions are sine qua non for left communists, which laud them in principle while often being highly critical of specific instances. The need to shorten, if not entirely eliminate the transition to true communism, is the objective of much of left communism.

Between the first and second World Wars, mass movements of workers and peasants were dominated primarily by Marxism and Leninism, and secondarily by various types of anarchism. Left communism ran a distant third, without much of a mass base to speak of. Yet anarchists and left communists frequently found themselves allied against social democrats and Leninists, and for unfettered social revolution. The POUM’s alliance on the barricades with the CNT/FAI during the 1937 Barcelona May Days during the Spanish civil war, as well as the anarchist/left communist blend exemplified by the Friends of Durruti, clearly made them political bedfellows. This affiliation continued with the roller coaster fall-and-rise of anarchist and left communist political fortunes from 1945 on, and today I talk about the anarcho/ultra anti-authoritarian milieu as an overarching category. Of course, there are differences. We’ll leave a discussion of that for a future column.

As for Hooligan Rules #1 and #2? Those too require more space than I have at the moment. Did you hear the one about the anarchist, the Marxist, and the rabbi who walk into a bar? The bartender says: “What is this, a joke?”

Excuses all the way down: “What’s Left?” April 2012, MRR #347

An apocryphal story has it that Bertrand Russell was giving a public lecture on astronomy in which he described how the earth revolved around the sun and how in turn the sun revolved around the center of a collection of stars known as the Milky Way galaxy. Concluding his talk, Russell asked the audience if there were any questions. An old woman at the back of the auditorium raised her hand, stood and spoke. “You know, young man, what you have told us is utter rubbish. The earth is actually a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle.”

Russell was startled by her remarks, but he recovered quickly and replied, “Well, madam, and what does the turtle stand on?”

“You think you’re so clever, young man, so very clever indeed,” she responded. “But its turtles all the way down.”

Stephen Hawking told a version of this tale in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. I believe Hawking used the story to illustrate the problems of infinite regress and unmoved mover in the realm of cosmology. I understand the story to be one of how a belief system, any belief system, always has an explanation handy in case its followers are boxed into a corner, logically speaking. Religions are the most common example of this phenomenon, with perhaps the most aggravating instance being the Republican primaries in which Newt Gingrich, a serial adulterer, was able to successfully if only momentarily appeal to fundamentalist Christians in the party. All men are sinners, the Bible reminds these believers, and so all Newt had to do was claim that he had confessed his sins and thrown himself upon the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ seeking absolution in order to convince the Republican evangelical base to forgive him, and more importantly, to vote for him. The notion that all manner of horror in the world can be justified by three simple words—“It’s God’s Will”—is another such escape hatch for faithful Christians; a vindication of blind faith that has converted more than a few believers to atheism once they realized what an utter sadistic bastard God must be in order to “will” the wholesale maiming and murder of innocents.

Science, too, falls into this category of a belief system in need of explanatory escape hatches. Science owes its strength to its predictive powers, and contends that if a scientific observer knows everything about a particular physical process, the individual scientist can then make accurate predictions about that process. If the predictions fail, or are inaccurate? Well, that must mean that not everything was known about the phenomenon in question. Some knowledge was missing. Never mind that science has, time and again, demonstrated that complete knowledge is an impossibility. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle states that there are limits to what can be known about related pairs of physical properties of a subatomic particle; that to accurately know the position of a particle one cannot simultaneously know its momentum and vice versa. Using mathematics, the language of science, Godel formulated his famous incompleteness theorem, which demonstrated that, in any closed mathematical system, there are an infinite number of true theorems which, though contained in the original system, can not be deduced from it. Such qualifiers notwithstanding, most scientists are downright uncomfortable with the idea that their knowledge, of necessity, must be incomplete.

Politics is yet another domain rife with escape hatches. I’ll focus on what I know, having once been a left anarchist, and having just recently decided I’m not pure enough to consider myself a left communist any longer. Both political currents posit the notion that workers—in the case of left communism a strictly defined proletariat, and in the case of anarchism a more nebulous notion of working and oppressed people—will rise up and seize control over society. Marxists talk of the working class going from a class in itself to a class for itself, of the self-activity and self-organization of the proletariat leading to the self-emancipation of the working class as a class, of the working class consciously abolishing itself as a social class. And it is presumed that this process will be anti-capitalist, and can occur partly, or entirely without resorting to a political party or a political state. Dozens of examples are then trotted out (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.), all inspiring in their social self-government but all, without exception, short lived and unable to produce a fully realized, long lasting libertarian society.

So why did these many instances of bottom-up social revolution, of horizontal, non-representative, non-electoral decision making, of direct economic collectivization and communization fail, without exception? Enter a plethora of excuses.

Category one of excuses stresses the overwhelming power of the opposition these embryonic revolutions faced. The capitalist ruling class was too strong, its state too powerful, its police and army too brutal. The bourgeoisie resorted to fascism or merciless state terror to quell the uprising. A vicious counterrevolution and civil war obliterated the forces of revolution. However these social upheavals first succeeded, if they are unable to sustain their initial victories and successfully organize to defeat their enemies while maintaining the libertarian character of their new social order, then the revolutionary project is lost from the start. Short of social decay or political collapse, the powers-that-be undoubtedly will be stronger than the forces of revolution, all but insuring defeat.

Category two of excuses blames the revolution’s supposed allies for the revolution’s failure. The democrats, republicans, socialists, Leninists, Stalinists, nationalists, et al, that side with the revolution to begin with, or that the libertarian revolutionaries form alliances with in order to bring about or sustain the social revolution, are accused of double dealing, sabotaging, undermining, suppressing and, ultimately, betraying the true revolution and its libertarian instigators for their own interests and quest for power. This raises the question, why do anarchists and left communists never learn from history and form such dubious alliances to begin with? Or why are anarchists and left communists incapable of playing a strategic game, of using such allies to achieve their ends, then discarding them when necessary?

Excuses in the third category cite the mistakes made by the libertarian revolutionaries themselves. Bureaucratization, recreation of social hierarchy and political leadership, excessive utopianism, a willingness to join the government or recapitulate a state, an authoritarian use of violence against socially reactionary elements, the alienation of other social classes through economic expropriation; these are some of the principle mistakes detailed by critics and libertarians alike. To a failure to learn from history and an incapacity to have strategic game must be added an inability to be flexible, to realize errors immediately and to immediately correct them.

The excuses in category four refer to the failure of revolution due to undeveloped circumstances. Externally, the immature nature of historical and/or economic conditions is given for revolutionary defeat. While possibly correct, this is very difficult to prove, even in hindsight, and has the consequence of mandating forms of determinism and denying working class agency in making social revolutions. Internally, the lack of a sufficient class consciousness among workers is most often provided to explain why revolutions fail. Also hard to prove, class consciousness is a slippery concept that bears further analysis. Leninists contend that workers are only capable of trade union consciousness, and that the intervention of a party/cadre organization of professional revolutionaries is required to instill the proper revolutionary socialist consciousness within the proletariat, an inevitable recipe for substitutionism. Italian autonomous Marxism sidestepped the issue of class consciousness altogether by promoting the idea that what drives the revolutionary process forward is class composition. But working class composition has changed radically in the past four decades, what with the destruction of the industrial proletariat in the west and the rise of service workers and the so-called cognitariat, the expansion of underemployed and precarious workers, and the lumpenization of large sectors of the population. Without workplace unity and industrial discipline, is class consciousness even possible? In turn, this extreme recomposition of the working class in the west places the entire revolutionary project in jeopardy, as reflected in the Invisible Committee’s substitution of an impotent, riotous insurrection for thoroughgoing social revolution.

Not coincidentally, all four categories of excuses—the power of the police, the movement’s bureaucratization and reconstitution of secret leadership hierarchies, the manipulation of liberals, Leninists and decolonialists, ass-backwards substitutionism and insurrectionary vanguardism, insufficient working class content and consciousness—are bandied about in declaring the premature death of Occupy Oakland.

I’ve taken a different tack from making excuses. I’ve come to admit the possibility that the working class, historically in its industrial form or presently in its radically recomposed form, never possessed and does not now possess the capacity for self-emancipation as a class. I’ve added the inability of proletarian self-liberation to the non-existence of a World Turtle, of God, and of total scientific knowledge. I have closed off a slew of crucial escape hatches in the liberatory politics I once so fervently believed in by potentially denying the working class a capacity for self-emancipation. Thus I have renounced a cardinal principle of my former politics, one embodied in the Paris 1968 slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

Real existing socialism: “What’s Left?” April 2010, MRR #323

Real existing socialism.

This phrase, popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a bit of a misnomer. It was employed primarily by Marxist-Leninists and their fellow travelers to refer to those regimes that called themselves “people’s republics” or “people’s democracies,” two more horrible misnomers. For these true believers in, sycophants of, and apologists for what was once called the Communist Bloc, the term “real existing socialism” was a sly, propagandistic way of simultaneously asserting that this collection of totalitarian, state socialist countries was truly socialist while defending them from the often scathing criticisms of traditional socialists, ultraleftists and idealistic progressives.

“Our critics on the Left can argue endlessly about what socialism should be like; this is real, actual socialism in practice.”

The patent absurdity of this argument was illustrated well by the many conflicts within “real existing socialism” as to who was really, truly socialist—ranging from Yugoslavian Titoism versus Soviet-style socialism to Soviet revision opposing Chinese radicalism. This game of more-socialist-than-thou peaked when Enver Hoxha denounced the rest of the Communist world as revisionist and declared Albania’s Marxism-Leninism-Hoxhaism to be the only true, authentic form of socialism. A long list of incidents in which one type of socialism militarily suppressed another type of socialism in the name of “true socialism” also comes to mind. It begins with Lenin and Trotsky crushing Ukrainian anarchism and the Kronstadt sailors, and culminates with Soviet tanks smashing Hungarian workers councils and Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face.” The Chinese PLA’s demolition of the Shanghai Commune is the bloody postscript. And need I point out that the number of real existing socialist regimes of this type has drastically declined since 1989?

Instead of arguing that Marxist-Leninist systems aren’t really, truly socialist however, let’s see what happens when we try to be more inclusive. What happens when we consider staunch social democratic countries like Sweden to be authentically socialist? What happens when even the sometimes extensive networks of producer and service collectives and cooperatives within capitalist societies are classified as valid forms of real existing socialism (from here on out referred to as RES)?

This expanded definition of RES does not cover all forms of socialist organization, and leaves out most political groups and parties, social/cultural associations, and militant unions. The somewhat fuzzy boundary crops up where union workers actually run their enterprises, political organizations provide services such as workers schools, and social/cultural groups delve into things like mutual aid societies. Still, this more inclusive notion of RES does have one particularly important ramification.

Marxism-Leninism, social democracy, and utopian socialism are all well represented in this larger RES. The representation of anarchism and left communism is practically nil. Of course, there is the occasional workers cooperative, collective or commune based explicitly on anti-state, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics, but as viable movements and social orders, anarchism and left communism are non-existent within RES.

As a former anarchist who retains some identification with left communism, I wish this weren’t so. But it is. Anarchism and left communism both champion a number of historically brief revolutionary moments (Russia 1905 & 1917, Germany 1918-21, Spain 1936-39, Hungary 1956, France 1968, etc.) that, while exemplary, were fleeting, and failed to produce lasting, libertarian socialist societies. For anarchists and left communists, RES is not true socialism when compared to these ephemeral revolutionary examples. Yet no anti-state, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian RES exists as an alternative.

The reasons why anarchism and left communism have failed to produce lasting revolutionary options are myriad, and vary from the historically specific to rather universal problems. The important fact here is that, without exception, they have failed. At this point, we have three choices available to deal with this fact. We can go along with a seemingly eternal anti-authoritarian optimism to proclaim that, despite this dismal record, the next revolutionary uprising will somehow overcome all odds and be victorious. Second, we can argue that, with a little tinkering and some key changes, we can increase anarchism and left communism’s probabilities for future success. Or finally, we can declare anarchists and left communists perennial “beautiful losers” and pronounce their politics bankrupt.

The first is not so much an option as it is a description of insanity, of doing the same damned thing over and over while expecting radically different results. The second choice appears to be more tempered and realistic. Yet it is largely ineffectual due to what I call the Baskin-Robbins syndrome. Hang on, this is going to require an extended frozen desserts metaphor.

After the second World War, when geopolitics polarized between East and West, between the Communist Bloc and the Free World, there were several attempts to create a neo-anarchist/left communist politics that could function as a tertium quid. Paris in the 1960s produced a French ice cream called Situationism that became all the rage for decades to come. With its mixture of left Marxist analysis and anarchist spirit, along with a heavy dollop of subjectivism, Situationism was more than just one of thirty-one flavors, more like a basic, ubiquitous vanilla. To boldly mix my metaphors, a friend once described the Situationists as a motley theatre troupe that managed one mediocre performance in Paris 1968, and hasn’t done much since. They were no Cirque du Soleil, to be sure.

Returning to ice cream as politics, tastes changed and by the mid-to-late 1970s, Italian autonomist gelato became popular, followed in the late 1980s/early 1990s by the spumoni of Italian anarchism and “action without mediation.” Various flavors of anti-globalization dominated the late 1990s/early 2000s, and most recently we’ve seen a revival of French crème glacée. The Invisible Committee’s blend of insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism in “The Call” and “The Coming Insurrection” is covered with nihilist hot fudge, and topped with Theorie Communiste sprinkles, Michel Foucault jimmies and Giorgio Agamben crumbles. Study groups of youthful radicals can’t seem to get enough of this riotous confection.

[The post-left, anti-politics, anarchy crowd is all over this like flies on shit. Hell, even Diamond Dave Whitaker is doing a TCI study group. Talk about April fools! What more do you need to know that this stuff is doomed?!]

Invariably, these neo-anarchist/left communist concoctions are tried and found wanting. But that’s not why I predict that the current French mélange will soon fall out of favor. There’s a fickle Baskin-Robbins “flavor of the month” attitude to all of this that belies serious politics. Young revolutionaries flit from one faddish political fashion to another as they might flick between MP3s on their iPods. Needless to say, this is no way to make revolution. Further, it’s a guarantee that anarchism and left communism will find no place in RES.

At the risk of coming off as a naïve American pragmatist, I insist that a central criterion of any politics must be that they work. It does little good that insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism are now trendy, if they do nothing to advance successful revolution. It means even less if those who advocate such politics are willing to change them at the drop of a hat, just to be au courant, whether or not those politics can overthrow state and capital, let alone create and sustain a socialist society.

Which leaves us with our third choice, the bankruptcy of anti-authoritarian politics. I’m loath to consider this option, even as reality backs me into this corner. Maurice Merleau-Ponty contended, in Humanism and Terror, that all of Stalin’s crimes—his terror and purges, his forced collectivization and calculated famines, his show trials and gulags—could be forgiven if only the Soviet Union had achieved a truly liberated, humanistic socialism. Flipping this, can the emancipatory ideas of anarchism and left communism be countenanced in light of their shoddy, lackluster performance in the real world? I doubt it, given the paucity of a real existing anti-authoritarian socialism.

What we are left with are beautiful dreams that fail to become anything more than reverie, and dreamers who continually romanticize their own failures. That’s not enough.

No Longer Ultra: “What’s Left?” December 2007, MRR #295

[W]henever a revolutionary upsurge comes along, drawing its strength from the bottom, without guidance from the top, the proletariat-or at least its most active segment-tends each time in differing ways and circumstances to spontaneously set up more or less identical democratic institutions. Councils are by no means particularly Soviet. Representatives democratically elected by the working people in a given locality or on a larger scale, and tending to take on legislative and executive powers, can be seen in the shop-steward committees in Britain, as well as in councils formed in Bavaria, Turin, Hungary, Catalonia, and elsewhere. The mere existence of councils does not automatically solve the problem of political power, of course. They can go on being “parallel” bodies right up until they are repressed. And historically, councils and committees set up spontaneously by workers seem to follow the initial burst of energy, with a subsequent rapid loss of momentum, due to lack of cohesion and an accelerated process of delegating responsibility.

Gérard Chaliand,
Revolution in the Third World

Okay, so now for the question, the answer to which you’ve all been waiting for with bated breath. Why don’t I consider myself an anarchist or left communist anymore? Here’s the short answer.

The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02.

But, you ask, aren’t these the exemplary revolutionary moments in history that both anarchism and left communism claim in their genesis and resurgence, hail as undeniably liberatory, and consequently hold up for guidance and inspiration? Yes indeed, which brings up the much longer answer as to why I no longer profess to be part of either radical current.

Of the various examples of spontaneous revolutionary upsurge cited in the above paragraph, some considered themselves anarchist, others communist, and still others socialist. (With the rather dubious exception of France, 1968, however, none were explicitly left communist, or council communist.) Many of these upsurges never called themselves anything other than revolutionary, and anybody and everybody, including diehard Leninists, have mercilessly appropriated their history. But whatever their politics, and however liberatory their practice, these revolutionary historical moments lasted no more than a few days, weeks, or months, or in some cases a few years. Neither anarchism nor left communism has managed to create a revolutionary society that has lasted for any length of time.

“Oh, but that doesn’t mean that these short-lived social revolutions collapsed because of internal problems, or social contradictions, or human nature, or anything of the sort,” is often the rejoinder. “Nor is this history of failure an indication that anarchist ideas or left communist theory has failed in some fundamental way. These revolutionary moments were either crushed by the superior power of liberals, capitalists or fascists, or else Leninists, social democrats and other sordid leftists betrayed them.”

Anarchists are often heard spouting this pitiful excuse, even going so far as to contend, all evidence to the contrary, that these stillborn experiences actually prove anarchism to be correct. Left communists are usually more nuanced, conscious of contradictions, and self-critical of internal problems. All subtlety aside, let’s take this reasoning at face value. Shouldn’t anarchists and left communists be painfully aware that social democrats and Leninists are no friends of revolution, especially of bottom-up revolution, and are perfectly willing to suppress, sabotage or seize control of them? And, if a genuine, liberatory revolution is incapable of defending itself against the forces of reaction, how will a truly revolutionary society be possible, except by sheer accident?

A social revolution has to do more than just happen. A social revolution has to be able to defend itself, not just militarily, but politically, economically, and socially. It has to be able to win out against all enemies, externally and internally, and then it has to endure. So far, nothing remotely anarchist or left communist has been able to do this.

So, let’s set aside for the moment the destruction wrought by outright enemies and false comrades of these social revolutions. That leaves us with the particular mistakes and failings of the revolutionary forces themselves in each historical instance. In the Spanish Revolution, for example, the anarchists subordinated themselves to a Republican government dominated by social democrats and Stalinists out to subvert their July 1936 revolution-on-the ground, whereas the ultraleft POUM realized, too late by May 1937, that they needed to make common cause with Spanish anarchism in order to avoid the Stalinist ice pick. We can also consider the general mistakes and failings of anarchism and left communism as such. For anarchism, this includes a consistent failure to deal with the issue of power, increasing theoretical incoherence, and a pie-in-the-sky idealism that considers anarchist ideas sufficient to inspire successful anarchist revolution. For left communism, this includes an inability to sustain mass working class movements after the 1920s, a penchant for adopting undeclared revolutionary events like Hungary 1956 as its own, and the tendency to isolate itself in a metacritique of the rest of the Left.

I think it would be a mistake to stop there, though. As Gérard Chaliand’s quote at the head of this column suggests, there might be something in the very nature of these spontaneous revolutionary upsurges “from the bottom, without guidance from the top,” that make the ultra-democratic institutions they give rise to insufficient to the tasks of carrying a revolution through to victory. At least, that’s what I’ve come to conclude after forty years divided almost equally between anarchism and left communism.

I no longer think that the workers councils, factory committees, general assemblies, partisan bands, peoples militias and guerrilla armies of such social revolutions are up to the rigors of consolidating, defending and extending a revolutionary society for any significant length of time. In the crucible of the Spanish Civil War, the Friends of Durruti decided in 1937 that things weren’t working, and that anarchists and ultraleftists had to radically change their strategy for the Spanish social revolution to have any chance of succeeding. Among other things, the Friends of Durruti proposed a revolutionary junta-comprised of themselves, the POUM, and the CNT-FAI-to take power, as well as the forging of a disciplined Red Army to fight Franco. I, too, think that things aren’t working, in that social revolutions have uniformly failed, and that anarchism and left communism need to radically change their theory and practice as a consequence. Unlike the Friends of Durruti though, I don’t have a clue as to what to recommend.

There is a rather silly notion that moments like Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 are the orgasms of history; exciting, ecstatic, but of necessity short lived. As such, the social democratic or Leninist retrenchment that follows, even the ossification and bureaucratization of the original revolution, are all but inevitable. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’ve concluded is that social revolution and the institutions it creates, by themselves, are insufficient to sustain a revolutionary society. A pretty harsh verdict, I know, but one that took me four decades to reach. That’s forty years of studying history, engaging in theory and practice, and trying to put my politics to use in the real world.

While I can’t claim to be an anarchist or left communist anymore, I haven’t decided that Leninism or social democracy or some other brand of Leftism, or perhaps even liberalism, is the way to go. My commentary and analysis as “Lefty” Hooligan is still 85% left communist and 15% anarchist, as these are the political currents to which I still feel closest. But I’m actually in a kind of limbo, no longer really a part of these political milieus, yet outside the grace of knowing what is to be done. I know what hasn’t been working, but I don’t know what will. And while I would go to the barricades for an anarchist or left communist uprising in a heartbeat, I have no faith that it would succeed. That’s the politics behind why I no longer call myself an anarchist or left communist.

If pressed, I guess I’d still call myself a communist; an unaffiliated, nondenominational, small “c” communist. After all, I haven’t pulled a David Horowitz or a Larry Livermore, where I rabidly denounce everything I formerly believed in while rushing headlong to the right. In fact, I’m proud to be a commie pinko, even though, personally, I’m not too fond of most of the folks I’ve had to associate with, politically speaking. Again, that’s the subject for a future column.


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