The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

Breathing Together: “What’s Left?” November 2015, MRR #390

With the outbreak of isms, like socialism, anarchism, imperialism or communism, sunspots start to multiply on the face of the golden orb. God refuses to enlighten the Reds! Scientists forecast an increase in sunspots due to the arrival of the beatniks and pacifists from certain countries such as Italy, France and Scandinavia!

Police Chief [played by Pierre Dux]
Z, directed by Costa-Gavras

I was into the Thor Heyerdahl/Kon-Tiki saga when I was as a kid in the 1950s and early 1960s. For those interested, Heyerdahl was a Norwegian adventurer with an Indiana Jones flair who, as a sailor, fought the Nazi occupation of Norway during the second World War. After the war, with a background in science—ethnography, biology, and geography—and as a proponent of cultural diffusionism to account for the spread of human civilizations, Heyerdahl famously built a large raft out of balsa reeds from Peru’s Lake Titicaca and sailed it from the western coast of South America to the French Polynesian island atoll of Raroia in 1947. His idea behind the Kon-Tiki raft and expedition was to demonstrate that ancient peoples could have made long, arduous sea voyages, using the primitive technologies of their day and creating contacts between diverse, widely separated cultures. The subject of a number of documentary books and films as well as re-creations, not to mention a variety of fictionalized depictions, Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki experiment did demonstrate one thing quite clearly:

Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it was done.

There is little support in the scientific community for Heyerdahl’s theory that cultural ideas let alone trade goods, let alone people, made the journey from pre-Columbian South America to Polynesia. Anthropologists in particular are dubious about the notion that ancestors of the Incas colonized the Polynesian islands. His various projects were exciting, spectacular, and attention-grabbing, which tended to confuse the issue between what could have happened, and what did happen. It’s a variant of the false scenario fallacy, and its common.

Right-wing videographer and “journalist” James O’Keefe made a name for himself by selectively editing videos he secretly filmed in order to supposedly demonstrate that certain public individuals and organizations were knowingly promoting falsehoods, if not engaged in out-and-out fraud and crime. More recently, O’Keefe is involved in a cottage industry that tries to prove that various bad things can happen, without demonstrating that said bad things actually did happen. So, he demonstrates that voter fraud is quite easy to commit, or that someone dressed as Osama bin Laden can easily sneak across the US/Mexico border, without actually proving that rampant voter fraud or al-Qaeda infiltration have ever occurred. Critics of left-wing film maker Michael Moore have accused him of doing much the same thing with films like Fahrenheit 9/11, in which selective editing, humorous juxtaposition, and bald inference are used to suggest that the Bush Jr administration knew more than they were letting on about the lead-up, commission, and aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Tower terrorist attacks.

Showing that something can be done, without proving that it was actually done, is the stock-in-trade of conspiracy theorists everywhere. Take the Apollo moon landings. It’s quite easy to lay out how such lunar expeditions and landings could have been faked, without really confirming that the landings were actually falsified. Again, harking back to my youth in the 1960s, I spent way too much time worrying about who assassinated JFK—all the theories from the KGB and the Cubans to the Mafia and the CIA—without coming to any sound conclusions as to who actually did the deed. I’m certain that there’s more to the Kennedy assassination then what has been revealed, although I’m also certain I’ll never ever know the whole truth. There are left-wing and right-wing conspiracy theories, but by and large conspiracy theories transcend left-right political categories in pursuing their flights of paranoia. In addition, conspiracy theories often prove interchangeable with regard to their underlying structure and raison d’être, with that infamous international conspiracy for world domination trope easily substituting any number of key conspirators, from the Jews to the Freemasons, the Illuminati, Bolshevik communism, international bankers, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the international bourgeoisie, alien reptilian overlords, etc, etc, etc.

Historian David Hackett Wallace once identified an informal historical fallacy he called the furtive fallacy, which “is the erroneous idea that facts of special significance are dark and dirty things and that history itself is a story of causes mostly insidious and results mostly invidious. It begins with the premise the reality is a sordid, secret thing; and that history happens on the back stairs a little after midnight, or else in a smoke-filled room, or a perfumed boudoir, or an executive penthouse or somewhere in the inner sanctum of the Vatican, or the Kremlin, or the Reich Chancellery, or the Pentagon. […] In an extreme form, the furtive fallacy is not merely an intellectual error but a mental illness which is commonly called paranoia.” (Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought) The idea that certain historical events or facts are necessarily sinister, and part of some secret conspiracy, is contested by former MRR columnist and ex-shitworker Jeff Bale who argued that historians frequently underestimate the influence in politics of secret societies, vanguard parties, intelligence agencies, underground cabals, etc. due to the very nature and organizational methods of such clandestine groupings. Thus, groups like the P-2 Masonic Lodge and al-Qaeda on the right and Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and the guerrilla VietMinh on the left actually did engage in conspiracies to one degree or another.

In the realm of conspiracy, resolving the distinction between what can be done and what was done often muddles matters. (A related topic, the often violent rupture between how conspiracy theorists view reality, and reality itself, is beyond the scope of this column.) In particular, determining the perimeters of what was done is a sometimes a daunting task. Consider the Bolsheviks once again. The Bolshevik Party was a straight-up, clandestine vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, and so conspiracy was part of its MO. The Bolsheviks participated in the 1905 as well as the February 1917 Russian Revolutions, and actively, secretly organized the armed Red Guard putsch central to the October 1917 Revolution. It is even well documented that a member of the Bolshevik central committee, a number of high-ranking party members, and a fair percentage of the rank-and-file membership had been secretly agents of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police, in a conspiracy within a conspiracy. But I am not convinced, from the historical evidence, that the Bolsheviks were inadvertent double agents of Czarism, or that they engineered the Russian Revolution from the get-go, or that they were pulling the strings to an international Communist conspiracy as far back as 1789. And to argue that the Bolsheviks were part of some worldwide Jewish conspiracy masterminded by the Elders of Zion is sheer lunacy.

Me, I tend to fall on the anti-conspiracy side of things whenever analyzing history or current events. Back in the day, when my friends and I were 60s New Leftie wannabe revolutionaries trying to figure out our politics but still barely scraping together the change for our next lid of bad weed, we joked that our checks from Moscow seemed interminably delayed in the mail. Indeed, the international Communist conspiracy has been a central hysterical trope on the right in one form or another, serviceable in all sorts of situations, gradations and permutations. Decades later, when I got to know some ex-Maoist types who’d been around the fractious New Communist Movement in the 70s, I learned that the joke for them was their checks from Beijing never seemed to arrive. Nowadays, the rightwing canard is that progressives and Leftists in this country are being funded, and hence controlled, by George Soros.

That’s Central Committee General Secretary Comrade Soros to you.

In a less flippant take, a common lefty conspiracy theory has it that the CIA imported heroin in the 1970s and that the FBI manufactured crack in the 1980s in order to specifically crush the Black Power/Black Liberation movements and to more generally suppress Black people in America. I don’t doubt that the proliferation of heroin and crack did, in fact, accomplish these things, but more as an afterthought rather than as a purposeful conspiracy. I think that the international drug trade is powered by a number of players with a variety of motives; everything from the good old-fashioned profit motive to drugs-for-arms type geopolitics, with plenty of opportunity and opportunism to go around.

And yes, there are conspiracies all the time in capitalism, everything from knowingly manufacturing and selling dangerous products to lobbyists secretly buying the votes of politicians. But by and large capitalists are pretty up-front about what they intend to do with their wealth and power. They organize quite openly in business associations and political parties, proudly found schools of economics and think tanks, and put forth their plans for running state and economy freely in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. When neoliberalism came to power in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the elections of Thatcher in England and Reagan in the United States were preceded by a neoliberal onslaught of propaganda and activism openly calling for, among other things, deregulating and financializing the economy, rolling back the welfare state, crushing organized labor, and privatizing the public realm. Neoliberalism proceeded to do just that with the election of the Republican president Reagan, coming to fruition under the Democratic president Clinton with the ratification of NAFTA and the abolition of welfare. There has been little hidden, or clandestine, or conspiratorial about the capitalist ruling class’s open class warfare against the rest of society carried out under neoliberalism.

Acknowledging the existence of a social class with common interests based on ownership of the economic means of production, even recognizing that the social class in question attempts to run things through owning most of society’s wealth and property, is not the same as tossing around dubious conspiracy theories. But I’ll leave the basic Marxism 101 for a future column. I’ll conclude with a quote from Zbigniew Brzeziński, that: “History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.”

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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.

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