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


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

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

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piling up the corpses: “What’s Left?” July 2015, MRR #386

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember [that] which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid [wait] for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Samuel 15: 2-3 (King James Version)

Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

attributed to Josef Stalin

Last column, I took anarchism to task and concluded that it is ineffectual in practice. Hell, I called anarchism a joke. But what about anarchism’s chief rival on the Left? Time was, Marxist-Leninist one-party totalitarian regimes ruled over a fifth of the world’s land surface, governing around a third of humanity. Communism has fallen on hard times since those dizzying heights in 1985, yet there are still those who would revive Leninism’s lost fortunes, with many more nostalgic for the “good old days” of Stalinist dictatorships. So, let’s delve into one of the more prominent aspects of the Marxist-Leninist Left, that being mass murder.

Talking about mass murder is a tricky business. After all, who’s hands aren’t steeped in blood. Several years ago, France and Turkey exchanged words in a diplomatic row in which the French insisted that Turkey take responsibility for the slaughter of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, with the Turks responding that France had butchered perhaps 1.5 Algerians during the Algerian colonial war from 1954 to 1962. Claims and counterclaims flew back and forth as to who did what, when, and how, and as to whether one incident of mass murder could be compared to the other. What I’m prepared to do is far more foolish, but potentially more interesting, in that I plan to set up a ranking for mass murder, starting with Leninism’s crimes.

A note first on terminology. Mass murder and mass killing are the general words for a host of terms with more specific meanings. Genocide means the elimination of a race, ethnocide of an ethnic group, and classicide of a social class. Democide means the intentional killing of large numbers of unarmed people, and politicide the extermination of people based on their political beliefs or the deliberate destruction of a political movement. Femicide or gynocide refers to the massacre of women, and fratricide of family members killing each other, which is often used as a synonym for civil war. Finally, ecocide refers to the wanton destruction of an ecology or natural environment. All are perpetrated primarily, but not exclusively, by governments. Humans have become so expert at slaughter that there is a need to specify the kind of slaughter.

Now, let’s consider history’s real mass murderers, a variety of totalitarian regimes all from the 20th century. For sources, I will be using Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder by R.J. Rummel, 1992, and The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Laffont, Courtois, Werth, Panné, Paczkowski, Bartosek, Margolin, 1999. And, to further the thesis I’m arguing, I will consistently cite mortality figures in the mid range.

I’ll begin with worldwide Marxist-Leninist communism. Through “bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal gulags and forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and show trials, and genocide,” all Marxist-Leninist regimes since 1917 have butchered around 110 million people. This breaks down for the major players to 62 million for the old USSR, 40 million for China, 2 million for Cambodia, 1.6 million apiece for North Korea and Vietnam, and 1 million for the former Yugoslavia, covering in total eastern Europe and most of the Asian land mass, as well as significant portions of Africa. Count in another 30 million for aggressive wars, civil and guerrilla wars, insurrections and uprisings, and the dimensions of this “red holocaust” are complete.

But wait, this is superseded by the “brown holocaust” perpetrated by Nazi Germany, which murdered outright roughly 20,946,000 people from 1933 to 1945. That includes some 5,291,000 Jews, 258,000 Gypsies, 10,547,000 Slavs, 220,000 homosexuals, 173,500 handicapped Germans, and assorted millions of French, Dutch, Serbs, Slovenes, Czechs, and other European nationals. This was accomplished “[b]y genocide, the murder of hostages, reprisal raids, forced labor, ‘euthanasia,’ starvation, exposure, medical experiments, and terror bombing, and in the concentration and death camps.” Add that to the approximately 20 to 30,000,000 slaughtered by the Nazi’s militarily, and that’s a figure of over 40-50 million human beings obliterated in something like 12 years across continental Europe (this excludes all other fascist regimes; Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Hirohito’s Japan, etc.).

To emphasize how the Nazi “brown holocaust” qualitatively surpassed the Communist “red holocaust,” another quote from R.J. Rummel is in order. With respect to mass murder alone: [a]nnually […] the Nazis killed six to seven people out of every hundred in occupied Europe. The odds of a European dying under Nazi occupation were about one in fifteen. […] Moreover, even though the Nazis hardly matched the democide of the Soviets and Communist Chinese […] they proportionally killed more. […] The annual odds of being killed by the Nazis during their occupation were almost two-and-a-half times that of Soviet citizens being slain by their government since 1917; over nine times that for Chinese living in Communist China after 1949. In competition for who can murder proportionally the most human beings, the Japanese militarists come closest. The annual odds of being killed by the Japanese during their occupation of China, Korea, Indonesia, Burma, Indochina, and elsewhere in Asia was one in 101. Given the years and population available to this gang of megamurderers, the Nazis have been the most lethal murderers; and Japanese militarists next deadliest.

Much the same point is made by Paul Preston in his massive tome The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2011). Without discounting, downplaying, or apologizing for either the calculated CP-instigated Red Terror or the more spontaneous anarchist-inspired massacres of capitalists and clergy in the Republican zone, Preston contends that around 50,000 Spaniards were slaughtered by Republican forces, as compared to 150,000 Spaniards massacred by Franco’s rebel forces throughout Spain. This lead Preston to conclude that Franco’s atrocities during and after the Civil War amounted to nothing less than a holocaust, “a carefully planned operation to eliminate … ‘those who do not think as we do’,” a mass murder of Spaniards unprecedented in Spanish history.

In contrast, let’s try and calculate this country’s genocidal/democidal burden, an extremely difficult task for several reasons. First, the native Americans. It’s impossible to know how many Indians lived in what would become the territorial US of A prior to colonization, and thus it becomes just as impossible to come up with a number for those outright murdered by colonial and national Americans. Even if we take the maximum figure of 112 million natives residing across both North and South America prior to 1492, only some 6 million remained alive in the western hemisphere by 1650. Upwards of 90% of the native population on this continent died of European diseases introduced unintentionally after 1492, well before the first English colonists set foot in what would become the United States. And this does not account for native Americans killed in military action or massacred by white American settlers. The black population can be calculated with greater precision: about 645,000 Africans were imported as slaves to America, and that population had grown to 4 million by 1860. But figuring how many black American slaves died from outright murder or were worked to an early grave through forced labor, again, is impossible to accomplish with any accuracy. For the sake of argument, I propose using a figure of 1.5 million, which is incredibly high.

Now, let’s assume that every war Americans ever fought, as colonials and nationals, was imperialist in nature. That amounts to some 26 more or less official wars, and well over 200 unofficial interventions, in which around 1,340,000 Americans died, including the 625,000 who perished during the US Civil War. We didn’t get going with our military killing machine until we started targeting Asians (WW2—2 million Japanese; Korea—1 million North Koreans, 500,000 Chinese; Vietnam—1 million Vietnamese). Combining these numbers with other enemy casualties, we come up with around 8 million dead due to American military imperialism. Now, consider the costs of American capitalism, in workplace casualties, workers killed by Pinkertons and police, industrial accidents, overwork, etc., and put that figure at another 1.5 millions, again super inflated. Let’s put America’s overall genocide/democide of 11 million killed over some 400 years across the territorial United States, western Europe, and select regions of the Third World. This is an insanely hyperbolic description of American mass murder. To make the point this column is striving for, let’s double the figures for people of color killed and death by capitalism to 3 million each as a kind of “liberal white male guilt” gratuity, and round the total American genocide figure to an even 15 million slaughtered over 4 centuries over the same area described above. As a budding leftist in the 1960s, I believed that a wildly exaggerated number like 15 million was quite reasonable.

I’m sure I’ve opened myself up to criticism from those pomo Leftists (the anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-classist, anti-ageist, anti-ableist bastard children of the New Left and French philosophy) who would contend that, because I’m white, male, well-educated, and middle class, I passed—I avoided experiencing America’s full genocidal/gynocidal wrath. But when compared to the blood-soaked history of Nazi Germany or Leninist communism, America’s crimes, no matter how much I intentionally exaggerate them, simply cannot compare.

To conclude, Nazi Germany ranks at the top of the list for murdering people, followed closely by the rest of fascism. Leninism worldwide is actually only middling with respect to massacre. And the USA is in a paltry third place.

There are advantages to living in a liberal Western democracy.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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

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

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

One man’s cult is another man’s PTA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, we can see why one divides into two.

Anarchist purges anarchist, no news at 11: “What’s Left?” August 2014, MRR #375

It’s an infamous MRR cover. Number 130, March 1994. Tim Yo designed it, although I don’t remember who put it together. A slew of Marvel Comic style action figure characters surround the headline “Superheroes of the Underground??” A bald buff super skinhead labeled Hawdkaw Man, further marked with A.F. for Agnostic Front, growls: “I stomp da pussies wit an attitude as big as my 20 eyelet Docs!!” Str8 Edge Man, a caped Superman clone with Shelter on his chest, proclaims: “I convert the hostile flocks with a 1-2 punch of Religion & Republicanism!” Pop Man, aka Green Day, reveals: “I lull my opponents into complacency with dippy love songs!” And the snark continues with snide remarks from Metal Man (The Melvins), Emo Man (Still Life), Vegan Man (Profane Existence), Grunge Man (Nirvana), and Arty Farty Man (sporting an Alternative Tentacles logo).

Tim put this cover together for the issue in which he announced MRR’s Great Purge, in which Tim proclaimed that nothing but the most primitive, the most basic, the most raw rock and roll would be deemed punk. That’s how punk rock began in the mid-to-late 70s; two or at most three chords, distorted and undifferentiated, loud and fast. Ignoring the debate over whether punk first began in the UK or USA, and disregarding whether it was the Ramones or the Sex Pistols that started punk, punk did not remain primal or simple or crude for long. Musicians brought their histories and influences to the music, the music cross-pollinated and hybridized with other music, and both the music and the musicians got more sophisticated with time. By 1993, punk was a welter of styles, categories and scenes. And by the end of 1993, Tim had decided to purge punk rock down to its roots and to restrict the magazine he ran, MRR, to this limited musical content.

I’ve described when Tim Yo announced the firing of Jeff Bale at a year end General Meeting in December of 1993. I’ve called that the Great Purge when, in fact, the most contentious agenda item at that meeting for most of the shitworkers present was Tim’s decision to severely curtail the kind of music MRR considered reviewable as punk. And Tim’s Great Purge was indeed two-fold—firing Jeff Bale and purging punk music. Tim was by no means a raving Maoist when he ran MRR, but he’d had his political upbringing in the New Communist Movement of the 1970s. I remember Tim discussing afterwards his strategy going into the December 1993 meeting, and I’ll liberally paraphrase it from a previous column: “I combined an attack on the right with an attack on the left. I cut down the stuff we would review as punk, knowing that Jeff would be one hundred percent behind my decision. At the same meeting I took out Jeff. I played the right and the left against each other, just like Stalin did.”

That Tim Yo might have been involved with the RCP at one time, or admired Stalin, or even sometimes ran MRR as Mao might are such a small part of what the man was or what he did. But it does help me to segue into my broader subject. While it is hard to apologize for Tim’s overtly authoritarian tendencies, it isn’t hard to admire his appreciation for punk rock’s musical purity. The urge to purify, the impetus to purge an individual, organization, art form, culture, politics, or society of incorrectness, error, impurity, deviance, corruption, decadence, or evil; that’s what I’m talking about here. For a recent and particularly insidious example of this, lets turn to anarchist politics in the San Francisco Bay Area and the efforts of identity anarchists to purge post-left anarchists.

I have little sympathy for either of the two tendencies acting out this sordid drama. Post-left anarchism categorically rejects the Left, from the social democracy and Marxism-Leninism of the Old Left to the Maoism and Third Worldism of the New Communist Movement that devolved from the New Left, as well as any anarchism that is in the least bit influenced by the Left. This is not merely a refusal of the Left’s ideological content, but of its organizational forms as well, from meetings run by Robert’s Rules of Order to various kinds of party-building. But nothing unites post-left anarchism beyond this negation, leaving a disparate gaggle of personalities in Hakim Bey (ontological anarchy/TAZ), Bob Black (abolition of work), John Zerzan (primitivism), Wolfi Landstreicher (Stirnerite egoism), et al, to frivolously romp through post-left anarchism’s vacuous playground. In contrast, identity anarchism is all about a positive if problematic relationship with the Left, from its ideological borrowings from Marxism-Leninism (imperialism, colonialism, etc.) to its lineage on the Left (via the quasi-Maoist Black Panther Party). The lame debates within the heavily Maoist New Communist Movement regarding the staid National Question contributed to the formulation of a “white skin privilege” theory (by way of Sojourner Truth/Noel Ignatiev) which, when suitably tweaked by proponents of “male privilege,” conjugated a critique of patriarchal white supremacy fully embraced by identity anarchism. Thus, identity anarchism’s embrace of Panther anarchism (of Alston, Ervin, Balagoon, Barrow, Jackson, N’Zinga, White, Sostre, following the BPP’s demise) seems almost an afterthought, offering no serious counterweight to the Marxism, Leninism, Maoism and Third Worldism it enthusiastically embraces.

I will use post-left anarchism and identity anarchism in the remainder of this column as convenient shorthand for generic categories, which means I will also overly simplify who belongs to what camp.

Post-left anarchism has a decent presence in the East Bay through Anarchy, a Journal of Desire Armed, the annual BASTARD conference, and the Anarchist Study Group. The Study Group has been meeting weekly at the Long Haul in Berkeley for over a decade. It is structured through reading and discussing agreed-upon texts, publicly advertises locally and online, and is open to anyone to attend. At the beginning of 2013, the Study Group embarked on several months of investigation into Maoism, focusing on the New Communist Movement, reading primary documents related to the RCP, MIM, the BPP, STORM, and a plethora of alphabet soup Maoist organizations. Needless to say, these post-left anarchists were highly critical of the NCM and Maoism. Aragorn! went so far as to publish a lengthy criticism on his self-titled blog based on their studies in mid-March.

A group of identity anarchists “intervened” during a regular Tuesday night Long Haul Anarchist Study Group meeting sometime after that blog post. Hannibal Shakur, an activist in Occupy Oakland’s Decolonization tendency who is fighting vandalism charges after participation in the Trayvon Martin riots, was prominent in the newly organized Qilombo Social Center in Oakland. He and his crew attended the Study Group meeting, it seems not merely to dispute their post-left anarchist critique of Maoism, the NCM and the BPP, but also to challenge their right to pursue such independent study at all. The identity anarchists harassed and harangued the post-left anarchists, and in the heat of the argument between the two sides, post-left anarchist Lawrence Jarach made a categorical statement so typical of orthodox anarchism. To paraphrase, Jarach contended that: “All churches must be burned to the ground.” An identity anarchist demanded: “But what about the black churches?” To which Jarach responded: “The black churches must be burned … all churches must be burned.” The disagreements only got nastier from there, with open acrimony escalating into implied threat.

At some point, passionate ideological disagreement turned into calculated sectarian purge. The annual San Francisco Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair set up operations at the Crucible in Oakland on May 22, 2014. The one-day bookfair gathered a multitude of anarchist tendencies, among them the AJODA/CAL Press vendor table and the Qilombo Center table. An “attack initiated by three people (and about ten supporters) from Qilombo began around 3:40pm when I was cornered near the restroom,” reported Lawrence Jarach, “and continued after I walked back to the CAL Press/Anarchy magazine vendor table, ending at around 4 when we decided to leave.” AJODA has since issued an Open Letter to Bay Area Anarchists protesting the Qilombo assault as well as the general anarchist apathy toward this successful purge. Those associated with the attack on Jarach in turn have communicated the following: “Qilombo was not involved in the altercation you mention that took place at the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, and the space has no comment on the matter. Lawrence Jarach came by the Qilombo table and antagonized a few of our volunteers, so those volunteers took it upon themselves as autonomous individuals to call him out for something that occurred at an another venue, at another point in time, and requested that he leave the bookfair. If you would like more details, you will need to reach out to the actual parties involved.”

Tim Yo would have called this final evasion candy-assed.

Last column, I mentioned the feminist “intervention” at the May 9-11, 2014 Portland, Oregon Law & Disorder Conference and the increasingly acrimonious debate between Kristian Williams and the organizers of the event Patriarchy and the Movement, over the tactics of individuals and groups professing identity politics within larger leftist political circles. That the victims of patriarchal sexism and violence and their defenders are so outspoken in speech and print about the need to purge the perpetrators from The Movement only underscores the clarity of their actions. I suspect that, amongst themselves, Shakur and his identity anarchist/Qilombo brigade have summarily convicted Jarach of racism, exercising his white skin privilege, and supporting white supremacy in insisting purely on principle that all churches need to be burned down, even the black ones. Yet they won’t publicly cop to running him out of the anarchist bookfair for such reasons. That they haven’t openly taken responsibility for their thuggish behavior to, in effect, purge Jarach and AJODA from the Movement is low, even for Maoism masquerading as anarchism.

These concerted efforts to purge people from The Movement based on their ideology, or their behavior, are the self-righteous acts of those who would be judge, jury, and executioner. When Tim Yo made his futile attempt in MRR to purge punk rock back to its basics, the results were predictable. The magazines Punk Planet, Heart attaCk and Shredding Paper started publishing circa 1994 to challenge MRR’s definition of punk and hegemony over the scene, followed shortly thereafter by Hit List. However, I doubt that Qilombo’s attempt to purge Lawrence Jarach and fellow AJODA members will have similarly salutary effects.

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.”

Western Civilization in Recline: “What’s Left?” November 2011, MRR #342

The jukebox was playing rock—music for civilizations to decline by, man.

Ross Macdonald, The Ferguson Affair (1960)

Steve Allen used to do this bit on his show in the early ‘60s where he would recite the lyrics to rock’n’roll songs as if they were serious poetry. Just imagine The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” treated thusly to realize how vapid the words to most rock music are. Allen was the liberal side of the attack on rock music in those days. He personally despised rock’n’roll, considered it juvenile and untalented, and thought it beneath contempt as music. Rock wasn’t art, nor would it endure the test of time. Yet this was a far cry from the conservative perspective that saw rock’n’roll as immoral, evil, and a threat to the fabric of society. Rock’s overt association with sex and drugs were a particular anathema; an explicit attack on American civilization born of the devil.

Today, of course, rock blares from fundamentalist Christian churches, and family values politicians illegally appropriate rock songs for their electoral campaigns, until sued by the musicians who created them. Roberto “Tax” Farano, guitarist for Negazione, wrote music for the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, and The Clash’s “London Calling” is now the official jingle for the 2012 London Olympics. Not only is rock no longer a threat to the social fabric, punk rock has become, not representative of “the decline and fall of western civilization,” but a stellar example of its commercial success.

Me, I used to take pride in being a “barbarian at the gates” in the days of sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and anarchy in the streets. I would have seconded John Sinclair’s contention that rock was the weapon of a thoroughgoing cultural revolution, if only to throw the fear of god-knows-what into my elders. Emotionally, I resonated with nihilism, which proclaimed the need to “annihilate the idea of God, or there can be no freedom; annihilate the idea of right, which is only might; annihilate civilization, property, marriage, morality, and justice; let your own happiness be your only law.”

I’ve grown up a bit since then, and I’ve come to appreciate many things about the American society I call home, as well as to respect much bestowed upon the world by the Dead White European Males held responsible for Western Civilization. Yes, I understand the sentiment of Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about western civilization, answered: “I think it would be a good idea.” After all western civilization is based upon rape, plunder, devastation and genocide. Show me a civilization that isn’t. But as for Buenaventura Durruti’s famous quote:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a while. For you must not forget that we can also build. It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute.
I have come to take his nonchalant attitude toward such wholesale destruction with several grains of salt.

I have no interest in seeing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Rodin’s The Kiss, or Joyce’s Ulysses, or Welles’ Citizen Kane, or the Chrysler Building obliterated, even if their destruction would herald the arrival of a stateless, classless, communist paradise. Images of Mao’s Red Guards rampaging during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, gleefully smashing the precious artifacts of China’s past, now sicken me no less than news footage of Afghanistan’s Taliban solemnly dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas. That existence is emptiness means that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent. That life is meaningless demands that we create its meaning. Death and destruction are incredibly easy. Anything else is painful and hard.

An SF movie that I like is Cuarón’s Children of Men, based on the P.D. James novel of the same name. It’s 2027, and no children have been born anywhere for almost two decades. In the face of humanity’s impending extinction, the world is fast collapsing into riot, terrorism, and environmental catastrophe. Britain alone survives, a bastion of stability, but at the cost of having become a police state that rounds up and imprisons immigrants seeking asylum. Nigel, the cousin of the film’s protagonist, Theo Faron, is a minister in the British government who is obsessed with collecting as many of humanity’s great artworks as possible, despite the fact that in less than a century, no one will be around to enjoy them. Michelangelo’s David stands in his foyer, with one leg shattered and splinted because Nigel was unable to snatch it before rioters attacked it. Nigel and Theo dine beneath Picasso’s Guernica. And out a window, amidst a landscape of industrial smokestacks, floats one of Pink Floyd’s inflatable flying pink pigs.

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)