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?”


Right-of-center sellouts: “What’s Left?” October 2011, MRR #341

Needless to say, politics suck.

Yet, in the wake of the recent debt ceiling Congressional debacle, nearly all of my liberal friends, and even some of my radical comrades, are making excuses. Obama made strategic blunders in negotiating with the GOP. Or, the president is congenitally weak due to his innate desire for consensus and compromise. Or, the office Obama occupies is constitutionally powerless, toothless, incapable of standing up to Congress in the debt ceiling negotiations.


I agree with Glenn Greenwald who, on 8-1-11 on Salon (, commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that Obama has long wanted exactly what he got: these severe domestic budget cuts and even ones well beyond these, including Social Security and Medicare, which he is likely to get with the Super-Committee created by this bill.” Obama isn’t a progressive. He isn’t a liberal. He isn’t even a moderate. Obama is a right-of-center asswipe bent on destroying this country’s working classes, poor, and people of color. Drew Westen only scratched the surface when he took Obama to task in his article “What Happened to Obama?” in the 8-6-11 issue of the New York Times for abandoning the Democratic Party’s tradition of reform as advanced by Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

People forget history. They also forget some basic truths about American politics. The Democrats and Republicans are the two faces of a single ruling class. Each party acts when the other cannot. The party in power initiates the action that the party in opposition finds politically inexpedient. The Democrats were labeled soft on Communism, so the Republican Nixon opened relations with Red China. The Republicans were considered hostile to the poor, so the Democrat Clinton gutted federal welfare programs. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and Obama should be understood in this context.

The anti-political opposition to this status quo fares little better.
The tactical and strategic depth of the present day antiauthoritarian milieu is nonexistent. As a recent joke has it, two anarchists are hiding behind a dumpster, manufacturing Molotov cocktails. One anarchist turns to the other and says: “What exactly are we going to target with these Mollies?” The second anarchist retorts: “What are you, some kind of intellectual?”

Then there’s the recent crop of insurrectionists, a motley mix of anti-statist communists and insurrectionary anarchists who take their lead from the Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, and who throw around slogans like “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” and “We Are The Crisis.” When radical autonomist feminist Marxist Silvia Federici was asked about the role of feminism in recent insurrectionary and occupationist actions, she commented: “The problem, I believe, is when these actions become an end in themselves, carried out, as ‘We are the crisis’ states, ‘for no reason.’ For in this case, in the absence of any articulated objective, what comes to the foreground tends to be the glorification of risk-taking.”

Loren Goldner, in describing why 60s radicals rarely returned to their Leninist, Maoist and Guevaraist origins once they got a taste of ultraleft politics, quipped: “Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.” If American politics amounts to a game of checkers then, by analogy, today’s anarchists and communists haven’t even mastered tic tac toe.

History and Empire: “What’s Left?” August 2007, MRR #291

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

-George Santayana

Let’s hope that nobody actually believes that if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it.

First off, and by definition, history is the chronicling of that which is unique. The battle of Hastings, in 1066, is a unique event, signifying the Norman conquest of England, another unique event. Analogies can be drawn, comparisons can be made, patterns can be discerned, but in the final analysis, the battle of Hastings in 1066 is a unique historical event.

Saying that historical events are unique does not make them discrete. Of course cause-and-effect, developmental trends, even evolving patterns can be found in the historical record. Seeing connection and meaning in historical events should be a descriptive rather than a prescriptive exercise, however. Not every revolution becomes a tyranny, and not every democracy becomes a dictatorship. And while it is possible to learn from history, both the lessons and their application are far subtler than Santayana’s aphorism would indicate. Indeed, it is often an obsessive effort to learn from the past that hamstrings those who would make history in the present.

There is the old adage that the American military is always fighting the last war this time around. Thus, the Pentagon was attempting to wage a conventional, WWII-type or Korean-style war in Vietnam, against an enemy who relied heavily on unconventional guerrilla methods. The inability of the US to come to terms in a timely manner with the new type of warfare that Vietnam represented is credited with helping to defeat America’s military intervention in Southeast Asia.

Chalk it up to neoconservative hubris as to why Junior Bush’s administration wasn’t at all concerned with learning lessons from Vietnam before they invaded Iraq. Delusions that US troops would be greeted as liberators, that regime change and free markets would be sufficient to rebuild Iraq into a shining example of freedom and democracy, and that a free, democratic Iraq would bring peace and stability to the region were the blinders that kept US policymakers from anticipating that the US invasion would eventually be met with popular resistance.

Called unconventional, guerrilla, low intensity, or asymmetrical warfare, it’s a venerable military strategy by no means limited to Vietnam. The American colonists used a version of it as part of their overall military strategy to win independence from Britain. It’s a myth that this kind of military strategy guarantees victory to those who employ it. America quelled just such a popular insurrection in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the process. The US and UK helped defeat a Communist-led, Yugoslav-supported partisan insurgency in Greece after the second World War, with a considerably smaller death toll thanks to Stalin’s failure to support the guerrillas. Military juntas in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil suppressed varying degrees of domestic resistance, rebellion, and revolution with “dirty wars” in the 1970s that disappeared, tortured, and murdered tens of thousands of their respective citizens. Had the US anticipated the possibility of guerrilla resistance, and the need for a counterinsurgency strategy from the get go, the Pentagon would not have invaded Iraq with minimum military force and minimum contingency planning.

The lack of historical depth exhibited by the neocons actually can be put at the feet of a general American historical amnesia. One would be hard pressed to find a thorough philosophy of history espoused by any of the rightist tendencies in this country, which for the most part are homegrown and quite parochial. Those folks who like to wear Nazi uniforms and give the Roman salute have an alien feel to them, their whole shtick imported from Europe. It is in Europe that we can perceive a cyclical view of history, a la Oswald Spengler, that’s embraced by the right, in which history repeats, not out of ignorance, but from design. The American Left also gets its sense of history from Europe, in particular from European Marxism with its progressive stage schema of history. Even anarchists, long on a critique of state power, derive their economics and historical philosophy largely from Karl Marx. And it was Marx, in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

The Left has a particularly slavish devotion to learning from history, to endlessly breaking down and summing up the lessons of the past. Walk into the general meeting of any ecumenical Leftist organization, say Bay Area United Against War or the Peace and Freedom Party. Find an opportunity to ask the people at the meeting what they think of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Then sit back and watch the shit fly. Or, to quote Loren Goldner:

What I really wanted to write you about is my inability, 90 years on, to shake free of the Russian Revolution. Symptoms: in Ulsan (South Korea) in December, the worker group there asked me to speak on the differences between Rosa and Lenin, which I did (not terribly well, and with a very mediocre interpreter). In no time we were deep into a two-hour discussion of what happened in Russia in the 20’s (the agrarian question). And this was not some cadaverous nostalgia piece as might be served up at a Spartacist League meeting, but with intense back-and-forth and questions and furious note-taking. The point is that no matter where you start out, somehow the question of “what went wrong in Russia” comes front and center. (“Left Communism and Trotskyism: A Roundtable,” 2007)

Goldner’s rather sad observation, that the Russian Revolution is still a pivotal question for the Left, speaks to something in the culture of the Left itself. For Maoists, who pretty much accept the Bolshevik role in the 1917 Revolution as sacrosanct, the issue shifts to debating Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. For the Bolsheviks themselves, questions about the lessons to be learned from the French 1789 Revolution, as amended by the 1871 Paris Commune, were paramount.

Trotsky’s claim that Stalin’s consolidation of power marked the Russian Revolution’s Thermidor notwithstanding, Lenin and the Bolsheviks helped insure that 1917 was not a repeat of 1789. In turn, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were two of many reasons why the Chinese revolutionary experience was not a rerun of the Russian. Thus historical debate on the Left advances, even though the Left’s obsessive historical framework is never superceded. If only this were the case when it comes to discussions about the analogy between the United States and the Roman Empire.

“President and emperor, America and Rome: the matchup is by now so familiar, so natural, that you just can’t help yourself.” So says Cullen Murphy in an excerpt from his recent book in Vanity Fair. (“The Sack of Washington,” June 2007). He goes on to contend that some parallels between America and Rome do hold up, “though maybe not the ones that have been most in the public eye. Think less about decadence, less about military might-and think more about the parochial way these two societies view the outside world, and more about the slow decay of homegrown institutions. Think less about threats from unwelcome barbarians, and more about the powerful dynamics of a multi-ethnic society. Think less about the ability of a superpower to influence everything on earth, and more about how everything on earth affects a superpower. One core similarity is almost always overlooked-it has to do with ‘privatization,’ which sometimes means ‘corruption,’ though it’s actually a far broader phenomenon.”

Murphy’s nuanced comments do not directly address the question haunting many who compare America to Rome. Has America stopped being a republic and instead become a full-blown empire? Between the polar opposite positions of America as a reluctant defender of freedom and democracy worldwide, and America as an imperial enterprise from its colonial origins, arguments have been advanced that the US became an empire when it assumed Manifest Destiny, asserted the Monroe Doctrine, won the Spanish-American War, entered the first World War, or emerged from the second World War. This is similar to the argument on the Left as to when the Russian Revolution went bad. It’s also a misguided concern based on a false distinction.

America’s founding Federalist fathers were also obsessed with the example of Rome, of a freedom-loving republic degenerating into an autocratic empire. As they saw things, a central dilemma was the one posed by Montesquieu, an Enlightenment political philosopher who claimed that “it is natural to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist.” The greater the territory governed, the less republican the government, with empire being the logical outcome of government over a wide territory. Two consequences followed if Montesquieu’s principle was rigorously adhered to, according to the Federalists. First, the new nation of the United States would have to break up into much smaller units in order to preserve their republican form of government, resulting in “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing tumultuous commonwealths” according to Alexander Hamilton. Second, each of these tiny, relatively homogeneous republics would be dominated by one or two factions, read special interests, whose particular interests were not necessarily the same as the interests of the community as a whole.

In Federalist Paper number ten, an essay that should be familiar to anyone who has studied US history in high school, James Madison advanced a novel solution to this dilemma. He astutely argued that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” Conflict between factions was the most important threat to liberty, property, and stability in a republic, for which the cure was not direct democracy. Direct democracy would simply result in a dictatorship by the majority in which, to paraphrase the old John Birch Society, 51% of the people could vote to take away the toothbrushes of the other 49%.

Madison advanced the idea of a republican government of elected representatives that would eventually involve a constitutional system of separated powers, guaranteed rights, and checks-and-balances. His point in paper number ten however is that a representative republic will be able to cover a much larger territory and still remain a republic. More territory means more people, and thus a greater quantity and variety of factions under a single government. He assumed that the competition between a large number of factions with disparate interests would prevent any one faction from attaining a majority and ruling unilaterally. He also assumed that the future United States would continue to expand to the west.

Federalist Paper number ten makes the question of whether America has transitioned from a republic to an empire a la Rome entirely superfluous. Madison and other Federalists intended all along to create a hybrid, a republican empire. What we have in the United States, from the beginning then, is the fusion of a republic (representative democracy, constitutionally backed rule of law and guaranteed rights) with an empire (a penchant for territorial expansion, and for projecting power beyond its borders). No doubt the Federalists saw their solution to Montesquieu’s problem as offering the best of both worlds, republican government with expansive ambitions. Today, we can see that this sewing together of republic and empire in the United States has produced a Frankenstein monster, a monstrous hybrid that seeks nothing less than the end of history, as when Francis Fukuyama wrote:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. (Summer 1989, The National Interest)


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