Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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For Communism: “What’s Left?” January 2008, MRR #296

I still call myself a communist, because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it. But if by some freak of history communism had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail.

-Pete Seeger

I’ve been in a confessional mode for these past few columns. I owned up to being middle class in the November issue, and talked about how that’s not a sure bet for economic security anymore. This is part of a larger issue I’ve been grappling with lately, that being the role of the working class in revolutionary social change. In December, I admitted that I no longer considered myself an anarchist or left communist because I didn’t think that social revolution was sufficient to realize a revolutionary society. That’s part of a larger realization that what seems to be possible is not communist, and what is communist doesn’t seem possible.

Right off, I’d like to anticipate some of my critics, who would seek to use my own Marxism against me. Given that I’ve confessed to being middle-class, perhaps I’m following my own economic interests in disassociating myself from these potentially revolutionary traditions. No longer working class, no longer radical, so the argument goes.

The current state of the world, if anything, has strengthened my analysis that thoroughgoing social revolution is absolutely necessary if we are to avoid a barbarism that’ll make the Dark Ages look like a Grateful Dead concert. Ecological collapse, social disintegration, war without end, mountains of corpses; it’s not a pretty picture unless there are some radical changes, and soon. Which makes it all the more difficult to admit that the ways I’ve pursued revolutionary social change for the past forty years haven’t been up to snuff. Or, that I really don’t know where to go from here.

I was in a similar indeterminate state in the mid-1980s, when I found the theory and practice of anarchism less and less tenable. I started reading Marx then, and gradually made the transition to left communism. I plan to do a lot of reading in my current state of limbo, maybe join a study group to talk out some ideas. Normally, I would also channel my political energy into projects that harbor a post-anarchist/post-left communist potential, while remaining on the lookout for ways to go beyond anarchism and left communism in whatever political work I’m doing. I haven’t been doing a whole lot of politics lately, however.

You see, I’ve become all too familiar with both the local anarchist and left communist milieus in the fifteen years I’ve lived in the Bay Area. And, you know what they say familiarity breeds. I’ve met some intelligent, committed, well-intentioned individuals. But, for the most part, I’ve encountered self-righteous, intolerant bastards, neo-anarchist trustafarian college kids, preening, solipsistic egomaniacs, subcultural, drug-addled crusty punks, belligerent, sectarian wingnuts; the list of dysfunctional types to the left of the Left is long. I don’t trust most of the people I’ve met and worked with to properly wipe their own asses, let alone do what it takes to win a social revolution and maintain a liberatory society.

That aside, there’s a more-revolutionary-than-thou attitude endemic in anarchist and left communist circles that I now find tedious. I have little use for the purity so often espoused by such folks. Myself, I’m a communist, but I’m riddled with contradictions. My crimes are many. I shower daily, I eat meat, I like dining in decent restaurants, I have a middle-class existence, I hold a union card, I vote, just to name a few. If, by some historical fluke, anarchism or left communism took hold in this country, bringing one or another gaggle of assholes to power, I’d be one of the first tossed into an anti-authoritarian reeducation camp.

I recognize that I’ve become a bit of a curmudgeon over the years. Yet the thought of going to a meeting and finding any number of local characters-A-squared, bolo’bolo Boy, C-squared, Puffy Amiyumi, K-squared, et al-in attendance, gives me the creeps. I’ve chosen discretion, and nicknames, as the better part of valor here. Life is too short to waste dealing with such idiots. And I’m also looking for a better way to do politics altogether.

Speaking of life being too short, Lance Hahn died on October 21, as I was beginning this column. I first met Lance in San Diego during the late 80s, when Cringer played several times at Bob Barley’s Vinyl Communications sound studio. They even did a benefit for projects I was doing through my ‘zine, San Diego’s Daily Impulse. I wasn’t a big fan of his next musical incarnation-J Church-because it was just too pop punk for my tastes. Plus, I didn’t care for their pro-situ, postmodern bent. But they were always a fun band to watch perform live. While in San Francisco, and besides the band, Lance had his record label, volunteered for Maximum Rocknroll, Gilman Street, and Epicenter Zone, worked a regular, paying job, and always had a half dozen other projects in the mix. He was musically prolific, multi-talented, and an all-round nice guy.

Lance died of complications from kidney failure. His last years were spent in DIY dialysis because he didn’t have health insurance. He had to ask the punk scene to help defray his medical expenses. (Those medical expenses are still formidable, and folks can contribute at vulcanvideo.com.) Lance was only forty years old when he died. Perhaps he had so much going on because, on some level, he sensed he didn’t have all that much time on the planet.

Forty years is about as long as I’ve been involved in politics, mostly spinning my wheels as it turns out. I have no desire to squander any more time and effort on fools, nor do I want to pursue political dead ends and pretend I’m accomplishing something. I certainly don’t want to exploit the memory of an exemplary punk rocker and a fine individual. Rest in peace, Lance Hahn.

2008 PREDICTIONS

I may have done one or two of these in the many years I’ve written a column for Maximum Rocknroll. I know it’s kind of cheesy, but I feel compelled to make a couple of predictions for the year, seeing as how this is the January issue.

US Bombs Iran in the spring. I really do think Bush thinks he’s on a mission from God to battle the evildoers, plus he wants to have as part of his legacy that he “took care of Iran.” Of course, he will leave the Middle East, and the world economy, in shambles. Spring, because that’s the best weather for a comprehensive military attack.

President Giuliani. It’ll be Clinton and Giuliani neck and neck, and Giuliani by a nose. Pack your bags for Canada, Manhattan’s Mussolini is headed for the White House.

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