Proletarian: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2022

I sat at Nati’s Restaurant in Ocean Beach for a late brunch on a Sunday afternoon. It was 1986. I was on my third Negra Modelo when the waitress served up my heaping plate of Machaca con Huevos with dolloped sour cream, refried beans, Spanish rice, escabeche, pico de gallo, and a stack of corn tortillas. I had high tolerances in those days so I wasn’t even buzzed as I dripped Tapatío hot sauce on my aromatic food.

I had a few drinking routines when I was gainfully employed and living in San Diego. Weekdays after working as a typesetter I bought 16-oz cans of Schlitz malt liquor and drank in the privacy my Pacific Beach apartment. I occasionally went to shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Whether at bars like the Casbah or Spirit Club, or larger venues like the Pacific Palisades or Adams Avenue Theater, I drank my crap malt liquor before the show in my parked car. I didn’t want to be buying expensive, watered-down drinks at some punk dive bar. I’d do a little day drinking some Saturdays and Sundays starting at Nati’s before hitting the Pacific Shore Lounge, then the Beachcomber in Mission Beach and ending up at the West End or the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach at night. The idea was cheap drinks and happy hours, and if I got too wasted by the time I got round to Pacific Beach I could always park my car and walk home.

As usual Nati’s was full, with a line out the door. I’d just started eating when the deuce next to me opened up and Mark Johnson sat down. Mark was 40, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party who ran the RCP’s youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCYB). Mark and the RCYB were hoping to recruit “rebellious youth” into the party’s ranks, with the RCYB recently targeting punks. I was a punk and a left anarchist transitioning into Marxism at the time, known for my broadside Point-Blank and regularly publishing the monthly punk zine San Diego’s Daily Impulse. But I was older than the average punk, though not as old as Mark. We’d run into each other at various local punk shows and political events, among them the RCP’s brief-lived No Business As Usual front organization. And he’d tabled at my 1984 Balboa Park Anarchy Picnic and my 1985 Mariner’s Point Hardcore Picnic. Ours was not a friendly rivalry but an open political antagonism. When the Hardcore Picnic turned into a full-blown riot provoked by the SDPD Mark at first said I was responsible for the mayhem, then proceeded to fundraise on behalf of those arrested. Since I’d sponsored the picnic, I got the lawyer and organized the successful legal defense. So when I hit him up for that money to help with our expenses he handed it over, minus a not insignificant “service charge.”

“No surprise finding your petty bourgeois utopian anarchist ass here in OB’s remnant hippie-dippie countercultural enclave,” he said after ordering.

“This from the man whose shitty vanguard party had its vulgar Leninist origins in the ‘60s Bay Area,” I replied between mouthfuls. “And I’m working class. A prole. A bonafide wage slave. I own nothing but my labor.”

“It takes more than exchanging your labor power for wages to call yourself working class.” Mark switched into pure Maoist mode. “Or claiming you own no other means of production. You gotta have the correct class background, correct class aspirations, and correct class stance to qualify as a proletarian.”

I knew the basics of Marxist class analysis though not its nuances, so I kept quiet. I paid for my meal as Mark’s Carne Asada con Huevos arrived and I left without another word. I’d been bested by a Mao cultist so the exchange stayed with me.

According to Marx, class is a social relationship between the workers and those who own the means of production and extract surplus value from their labor, the bourgeoisie. Also called the capitalist class, it rules society but it’s a small social group compared to the much larger working class. Anyone who sells their labor for wages is a worker, but in Marx’s day there were other social classes in the mix. There were vestigial classes from the waning feudal social order—various formations of aristocracy and peasantry. And in the newly emerging capitalist social order there was the small-holding petit bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat criminal underclass. Finally, there were déclassé elements like the intelligentsia.  But for Marx two trends in this schema were considered paramount; that the ever-expanding working class was transforming into an ever more powerful industrial proletariat thanks to economic industrialization, and that eventually all of society would polarize into just two contending social classes—the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie—that would engage in open class warfare.

Now I’ve always worked, exchanging my labor for wages, when I wasn’t actively avoiding work. The abolition of work has always been a focus of mine. Thanks in part to a family inheritance, I’m now comfortably retired from wage labor.

My mother was from a Polish middle class family and my father from minor Polish aristocracy. They raised me middle class in a bourgeois European cultural sense. As a refugee from the second World War, dad joined the US Army. He became a US citizen, qualified for GI benefits, got a college degree, and bought a house. He moved from blue collar to white collar, ultimately becoming an upper management Federal government civil servant and elevating his family into the middle class.

I have always stood with the working class and its revolutionary aspirations, but now like any respectable Marxist I’m for the proletariat abolishing itself as a class through its self-emancipation. Whether I’m truly working class is complicated.

One thing I’m not is a Maoist who believes that “proletarian consciousness” is some kind of Leftist panacea. Somewhat akin to the class consciousness of E.P. Thompson and György Lukács—in which the subjective proletarian mindset arises out of protracted historical class struggles—proletarian consciousness is more likely to result from prolonged criticism/self-criticism party “struggle sessions.” And this bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the “conversion experience” of various religions. Acquiring proletarian consciousness is more important, and supersedes, all other markers of class—class background, class reality, class aspiration, and class stance—in the Maoist scheme of things. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, student Red Guards vied to become “more proletarian than thou,” summarily dismissing and denouncing each other, even industrial workers as not sufficiently proletarian. Pitched street battles were fought and lives lost over who did or did not have the correct proletarian consciousness.

I consider myself vaguely middle class nowadays, given how uneven my proletarian qualifications are. There’s all sorts of ways classical Marxist class analysis has been muddied by late stage capitalism. This ranges from the insignificant difference-without-a-distinction between wage labor and salaried labor to the more consequential growth of the white collar work that shades into the substantial managerial strata required by the state and corporate capitalism. Also needing a mention is the use of corporate stock ownership to differentiate between ownership versus control of the means of production. Then there’s the reality that individuals can occupy multiple social classes either serially or contiguously, personally identify with numerous classes, have family ties in different social classes, or take on momentary leadership roles that push class boundaries. Finally, there are the realities of post-Fordism; flexible production using flexible machines or systems and a flexible workforce, high-tech economies of scope, massive economic inequalities, decline of unions and collective bargaining, all within a post-welfare state and vast concentrations of speculative finance capital.

I’ve been discussing how to define the working class and what makes one proletariat as I examine my own sense of class. My intention is to eventually develop a comprehensive analysis of class along several lines of inquiry threaded through the usual, somewhat eclectic subjects I explore monthly. First, how is the concept of the working class relevant to the Left and society today and can the proletariat be the basis for constructing a genuine liberatory socialist society? Second, is it feasible for a relational class identity to be combined with the particularist/essentialist identity politics of race, ethnoculture, sex, and gender into a multifaceted socialist movement? Third, what is to be done with the concept of class under socialism, specifically with regard to notions of the nomenklatura (Michael Voslenski), the “New Class” (Milovan Đilas), and bureaucratic collectivism (Max Shachtman)? Fourth, can the concept and functionality of the working class be superseded by diffuse left-leaning populist movements (eg. Global Justice Movement, Occupy Wall Street)? Fifth, can the concept and functionality of the capitalist ruling class be replaced by notions of “globalist elites” (eg, European Union, United Nations)? Finally, is it time to question the working class as either obsolete (André Gorz) or a blind alley (Krisis Group) and how might we engage in struggle without classes?

I’m also interested in what “immaterial labor” and a “postindustrial society” mean? Is there such a thing as the precariat, a social class formed by individuals with no job security or no prospect for regular employment, and how does that differ from the lumpenproletariat? My proletarian self-education continues.

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Left of the Left: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2022

I sometimes view humanity’s sordid past as one long, interminable tale chronicling organized bands of murderous thugs trying to exterminate each other. Much as I admire the sentiment of pacifism and humanism, I’m neither a pacifist nor a humanist. Homicide seems to be part of our species, with genocide often its inevitable conclusion.

I’ve been on the left of the Left for most of my life; from being a left anarchist in my youth to a half-assed libertarian Marxist today. That means embracing a vision of stateless, classless global communism even as I abhor the terrors perpetrated by Leninist movements and regimes. I consider all forms of Fascism an abomination, and I dismiss the red-brown sophistry of Third Positionism as fascist sleight-of-hand. In the wake of the precipitous 1989-91 collapse of the Communist bloc, there’s been an upsurge of tankyism/campism on the Left that sees world conflict in terms of US-led imperialism versus any and all opposition to imperialism. That anti-imperialist “camp” is considered socialist by default, even when it’s in defense of patently capitalist, authoritarian, totalitarian, even outright fascist regimes. Then there’s the steady rehabilitation of overtly Fascist/Nazi politics. Last column I commented that, when I was growing up I only saw Nazis as fictional TV characters. Now I see them unashamedly flaunting their fascism in the Republican Party and in demonstrations I’ve recently organized against.

So why do I identify with the Left, despise the Right, and consistently choose socialism over barbarism every time? Continue reading

Anxiety: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2022

I’ve always been anxious. Fidgety, agitated, hyper; I was so talkative and disruptive during my early elementary school years my teachers isolated me to my own desk in the back of the class. I still rocked myself to sleep during my adolescence while listening to 50s pop music on AM radio, then early 60s rocknroll on the FM dial; a habit I had to break anticipating dorm life at  UCSC’s Merrill College. My politics turned left anarchist my senior year in high school, and stayed left of the Left ever since. I’ve always gravitated to the action faction of any organization or movement I belonged to, ultimately adopting the 2 June Movement’s mantra: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!”

“Action for action’s sake” became a political panacea, it’s own anodyne, a knee-jerk reflex that superseded critical thinking. It was an easy way for me not to challenge my ultra-gauche political analysis and avoid self-criticism. When in doubt, act. Somewhere in this political process I started self-medicating—first with marijuana, then alcohol—trying but never succeeding in slowing down, blunting that relentless “on edge” sense to my life. I was, and am still dealing with emotional pain, though I’m not quite sure the cause of it. Both my Polish parents survived forced labor camps during the second World War and my father was a falling down alcoholic. There’s a basis in family trauma for my interminable anxieties. Continue reading

Antiwar: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, May 2022

“Peace is not simply the absence of violence or war”—a truism I grew up with in the 1960s. When I first got politics in 1968 I called myself an anarchist-pacifist and affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, War Resisters League, and similar organizations which promoted the concept that in order to achieve a social order based on peace, one had to use nonviolent methods. I flirted with the eastern religious concept of ahimsa and the western religious notion of turning the other cheek, as well as more formalized nonviolent practices like Gandhi’s satyagraha.  But soon the contradictions of pacifism, specifically the argument that nonviolence doesn’t save lives or guarantee peace in the short or long run, dissuaded me from remaining a pacifist. Besides, I didn’t have the integrity or discipline to practice any form of nonviolence. And while I rejected the pacifist notion that nonviolent ends require nonviolent means, I incorporated the whole “means-and-ends” argument into my anti-authoritarian politics at the time.

So I opposed the Vietnam War, not so much out of principle but out of self interest. I was subject to the draft and I didn’t want to be conscripted and shipped off to die in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia. Thus I wasn’t part of the peace movement so much as I participated in the antiwar movement. I’ll briefly discuss one small aspect of the anti-Vietnam War movement’s wide and convoluted history—the attempt to build and sustain a single, overarching antiwar organization in the US. The broadest umbrella coalition of people, organizations and issues seeking to end America’s intervention in Southeast Asia was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe). Continue reading

Party of one: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2022

Four independent workers’ soviets operated concurrently in Moscow during the Russian 1905 Revolution. Proud Soviet historians were always quick to point out that the one aligned with the Bolsheviks operated a bomb-making operation out of Maxim Gorky’s apartment. Meanwhile, the more famous 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet, precursor to the 1917 Petrograd soviet, had puzzling gaps in its official Soviet history until the anarchist historian Voline published The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921 in 1947. In it he revealed that the soviet met in his St. Petersburg apartment.

Aside from the usual disputes over primary and secondary evidence or what constitutes historical fact, and before any arguments over what a particular history signifies, there are always the missing parts of history. What I mean is the things that happened and affected the course of history but that never got recorded in the historical record and thus were subsequently forgotten. The 1905 St. Petersburg workers’ and soldiers’ soviet met in Voline’s apartment and contributed to the development of soviet power whether or not that fact was entered into the historical record prior to 1947. So yes, if a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound. Continue reading

Addiction: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, March 2022

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.
W.H. Auden

I got nasty habits / I take tea at three / Yes, and the meat I eat for dinner / It must be hung up for a week
Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, “Live with Me,” Let It Bleed

I was newly sober thanks to Kaiser’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program. It was 2012 and I wasn’t doing Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead I was sitting zazen at the Page Street Zen Center every Monday night for the Meditation in Recovery meeting which melded soto zen with AA. I’d started putting out cushions for that meeting on a regular basis, but suddenly it was determined I needed to be vetted for such an innocuous volunteer task. So I went out for a cup of coffee with Tom to discuss the state of my recovery. He prefaced our talk by saying that, while the AA 12-steps fit hand-in-glove with Buddhist meditation, AA is absolutely necessary whereas Zen is not. Then he proceeded to quiz me about whether I’ve committed to a higher power yet and how far I’d gotten in my fourth step to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. Continue reading

Alien life: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, December 2021

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L
—The Drake Equation

I was a Trekkie from day one. Lost In Space had debuted the year before, and even at 13 I realized how silly it was. Star Trek, on the other hand, was real science fiction for true nerds. It became my obsession for years to come. William Shatner’s voice over phrase from the title sequence, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” inspired me more than I care to admit.

Continue reading

American socialism revisited: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2021

Socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor.

It’s an oft-repeated Leftist cliché that encapsulates an entire socio-political-economic analysis in a single sentence. It was first promulgated by Michael Harrington and frequently repeated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. The gist of this argument is that capitalist corporations receive government largess in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and favorable legislation while the general population is left to fend for itself. Big business regularly receives favorable treatment and corporate welfare from the government which allows corporations to “privatize profits and socialize losses.” The rest of us are shit-out-of-luck.(1) Continue reading

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