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

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

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

Formed in 1966 when the movement was largely anti-conscription, civil disobedience and pacifist oriented, the Mobe lasted until 1969 when it was succeeded by the short-lived New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) which faded away after acrimonious splits in 1970. The Mobe was dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party early on, which set the coalition’s demands (“immediate, unconditional withdrawal” as opposed to “negotiated peace”) and its strategy (ever larger mass demonstrations versus lobbying or confrontation). Acting as the Soviet-centric Communist bloc’s “loyal opposition,” the SWP claimed to be a Communist party critiquing the bloc’s “degenerated/deformed workers’ states.” Bridling against the SWP’s influence over the Mobes, and fighting the Mobe’s hostility to the tactic of civil disobedience, several new organizations sought to affect the antiwar movement in alternate ways—from the multi-issue, multi-strategy People’s Coalition of Peace and Justice that split from New Mobe in 1970 and organized around the “People’s Peace Treaty” to the direct action-oriented MayDay Tribe which attempted to shut down Washington DC through mass civil disobedience in 1971.

Labeling claims of undue SWP sway over the antiwar movement as redbaiting the SWP contended they had nothing to apologize for. The rancorous split in the anti-Vietnam War movement—between a controlling, hardline Marxist-Leninist organization and a more diffuse, broader based progressive antiwar movement—did weaken the movement and cause a lull in protests and demonstrations. The SWP-dominated National Peace Action Coalition which replaced the Mobes, like the MayDay Tribe and the People’s Coalition, were mired in Cold War politics. Under the rubric of imperialism versus socialism, the nature of America’s global role and the character of the expanding Communist bloc ruled debates well beyond the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the dwindling of the antiwar movement.

From 1975 to 1985 grassroots mass organizations like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War declined in size or disappeared altogether. The ML vanguard party Left fragmented into Trotskyist sects and Maoist New Communist Movement groupuscules. A promising US labor militancy collapsed as union membership fell by 5 million, unionized labor dropped below 25%, and industrial unions were decimated. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan witnessed a minor resurgence in the antiwar movement when President Carter reinstated draft registration, but SWP influence continued to wane in organizations like the Committee Against Registration and the Draft. When President Reagan armed the Afghan mujahideen, to stick the Soviet Union with its own Vietnam-style quagmire, the Soviet-Afghan war served as an important factor contributing to the 1989-1991 collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

The “Free World” heralded the demise of the Soviet Bloc as the victory of capitalism over socialism. The bipolar Cold War world gave way to a supposedly unipolar world theoretically dominated by America. When the US-led coalition of 35 nations intervened militarily in Iraq in 1991 to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the extent of America’s lack of world leadership in the ruins of the international order became clear. Not only did the US coalition fail to remove Hussein from power, it did not take advantage of the Kurdish nationalist insurrection in Iraq’s north and the Shia Arabic councilist (shura) revolution in Iraq’s south. The mutinies and mass desertion of Iraqi soldiers were quickly countered by a Loyalist retrenchment that brutally suppressed the northern and southern uprisings. Unencumbered by the old Cold War strictures and a diminished ML vanguardism, the global antiwar response was widespread but inchoate. Marches, demonstrations, strikes, sabotage, base blockades, street action, desertion, refusals to fight, and other forms of resistance involved many millions of people around the world but remained diffuse. While this popular response inspired the libertarian Left a tankie/campist[1][2] reaction in the orthodox Left followed, speaking to a nostalgia for the “good old days” of Soviet-style socialism and Cold War confrontation.

The September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks in the US provided the excuse for America to invade Iraq again and occupy Afghanistan for over twenty years. It also revived the antiwar movement with a popular mass upsurge of protest and resistance that was often spontaneous and out-of-control. There was also the founding of the explicitly anti-imperialist Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition with pretensions to lead that antiwar movement. Initiated ostensibly by the International Action Center, the organizing force behind ANSWER proved to be the Marcyist[3] Workers World Party (WWP). Unlike the more narrowly focused SWP-dominated Mobes in the 1960s, the ANSWER Coalition propounded a list of demands reflective of the vanguard party behind the coalition. But ANSWER replicated the Mobes’ one-note strategy of organizing ever larger mass antiwar demonstrations.

The tight-fisted control of ANSWER and its demonstrations by the WWP, as well as its pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist focus, in turn prompted the formation of the alternate United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) antiwar coalition with over a thousand member organizations. With an emphasis on seven campaigns (Iraq, counter-military recruitment, global justice, nuclear disarmament, Palestine–Israel, civil liberties–immigrant rights, faith-based organizing) the UFPJ also organized large-scale protests and demonstrations, often in cosponsorship with ANSWER. But ANSWER’s controlling tactics at demonstrations, its sectarian approach to joint antiwar work, and the subsequent confusion caused when the Marcyist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) split from the WWP in 2004 pushed UFPJ to stop coordinating its antiwar work with ANSWER on the national level by December, 2005. UFPJ specifically cited ANSWER’s failure to honor time limits for a September 24, 2005, Washington, DC march and rally, delaying the start of the demonstration, and not providing enough volunteers for the event. ANSWER called UFPJ’s reasons petty, ugly and an attempt to split the antiwar movement, further criticizing UFPJ of moderation and collaboration with imperialist politicians. ANSWER left open the possibility of reconstituting a “united front” with UFPJ to “try to overcome the forces of division so as to march shoulder to shoulder against the real enemy,” but by 2006 ANSWER  was firmly controlled by the PSL.

The antiwar movement’s split between a hardline vanguard party and a broader progressive coalition within a mass grassroots movement persisted through opposition to US involvement in the Syrian civil war and the Ukrainian-Russian war, both heavily laced with tankie/campist stupidity. Ukrainian historian and activist Taras Bilous wrote an excellent “Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” in which he detailed this phenomenon:

British-Syrian author and activist Leila Al-Shami gave it a stronger name: the “anti-imperialism of idiots”. […] I will repeat only the main thesis here: the activity of a large part of the Western ‘antiwar’ Left over the war in Syria had nothing to do with stopping the war. It only opposed Western interference, while ignoring, or even supporting, the engagement of Russia and Iran, to say nothing of their attitude to the ‘legitimately elected’ Assad regime in Syria. “A number of antiwar organisations have justified their silence on Russian and Iranian interventions by arguing that ‘the main enemy is at home,’” Al-Shami wrote. “This excuses them from undertaking any serious power analysis to determine who the main actors driving the war actually are.”

A nasty addendum to this is the growing crossover red/brown politics infecting the Left. Leninists, socialists, social democrats, even anarchists are increasingly making common cause with fascists and neo-Nazis in support of Putin and Russian imperialism. Thus the old antisemitic “socialism of fools” dovetails cruelly with the new “anti-imperialism of idiots.” Leninists in the 1960s at least were rooted in Cold War realities. Today’s Leninists are delusional in longing for a socialist camp not likely to ever return.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead
Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement by Gerald Nicosia
“The ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots” by Leila Al-Shami (4-14-2018, Leila’s Blog)
“Against Campism, for International Working-Class Solidarity” by Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz (Winter 2020, Socialist Forum)
“A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” by Taras Bilous (2-25-2022, Commons)

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Tankies are Leftists who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still support “real existing socialist states” like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Stalinist, Maoist, or Third Worldist Communist Party hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers who champion a hardcore anti-imperialism. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States. And they support as “objectively anti-imperialist” such reactionary dictators as Lukashenko and al-Bashir and such authoritarian regimes as Iran and Myanmar. They get their epithet for applauding when Stalinist tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Tiananmen Square in 1989.

[2] As for “campism” Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz wrote the following summing up: Campism is a longstanding tendency in the international and U.S. left. It approaches world politics from the standpoint that the main axis of conflict is between two hostile geopolitical camps: the “imperialist camp,” today made up of the United States, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (or some such combination) on one hand and the “anti-imperialist camp” of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other less-industrialized nations on the other. The anti-imperialist camp is generally defined as all formerly colonized nations and especially all avowedly anti-imperialist governments in the Global South. This ideology has been a hallmark of political currents defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist, though others who don’t identify with that term also embrace it. Campism, somewhat surprisingly, considering the organization’s political lineage, now exists even within parts of DSA. We hope that our brief account and critique of campism will convince those in DSA who are attracted to it to reject it, for it distorts the very meaning of democratic socialism and leads socialists away from “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “workers of the world unite!” to the inverted nationalism of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In this framework, the division of the world between rival geopolitical blocs overrides other questions and provides the dominant political explanation for world events. It seldom addresses the internal class character of the nations of the “anti-imperialist camp,” and, regardless of the nature of their governments and economies, attribute to those nations a progressive character. It almost never criticizes the “anti-imperialist nations” and tends to ignore, denigrate, or outright oppose movements for democracy or economic and social justice that arise among the working classes of such states.

Contemporary campism, as described above, runs counter to the Marxist and broader democratic socialist tradition insofar as it stresses solidarity with states rather than international working-class solidarity. This tendency generally supports clearly capitalist states (such as Iran and Syria) or states that claim to be socialist (like China or North Korea), which have authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In the past, socialists from Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from Rosa Luxemburg to C.L.R. James, always emphasized that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. But when it comes to states in geopolitical conflict with the U.S., campism often opposes support for democratic movements, even ones clearly led by the working class, on the grounds that such movements jeopardize ostensibly progressive governments, and that supporting them would thus make U.S. socialists allies of our own ruling class. For example, this typically entails support for the Chinese state and the ruling Communist Party, even though it promotes a highly repressive form of capitalism and opposes workers’ self-organization and workers’ power. This viewpoint distorts the Marxist political tradition with its roots in humanism, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century workers’ movement, and which is first and foremost about the fight for working-class political power.

[3] Redditor VanguardPartyAnimal does a succinct, mean-spirited, and humorous job of defining Marcyism as follows: It’s a Trotskyite tendency formed around Sam Marcy of the WWP(?). It of course features the Trotskyite mainstays of permanent revolution and the notion of the deformed/degenerated/whatever workers’ state, but then takes off in the opposite direction from “traditional” Trots. For Marcy, socialist states are necessarily “deformed” because socialism simply cannot exist on the same planet as capitalism, and his “global class war” posits that class struggle on a global scale can ultimately be reduced to team socialism vs. team imperialism. The imperialists are the usual suspects and a socialist is anybody who for whatever reason finds themselves in opposition to the imperialists. In practice, this manifests in a sort of unprincipled “reverse Trotskyism” and unconditional support for any perceived enemy of the US to predictably incoherent and sometimes hilariously awkward effect, exemplified in the fact that a bunch of Trots are now condemning Mao’s decision to split with the USSR over Khrushchev’s revisionism in denouncing Stalin.

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Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

Continue reading

Boutique capitalism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, June 2021

I’d gotten high on marijuana, hashish, LSD, MDA, cocaine, amphetamine, barbiturates, heroin, jimson weed, nitrous oxide, peyote, mescaline and psilocybin by 1972 living in Ventura, California. But I still hadn’t gotten drunk. I didn’t start drinking alcohol with any frequency until late 1974, over a year after I turned 21 and had already moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC. But in the spring of 1972 I didn’t like booze. I didn’t like people who drank instead of getting stoned, and I hated loud bar scenes. So I was jealous and miffed when a friend regaled me with the news that “Hey, I was drinking at John’s At The Beach and John Lennon just showed up, jumped on stage and played ‘Norwegian Wood’.” And I was seriously annoyed to learn that Lennon returned two days later to play another brief set, this time backed by a few local musicians. Continue reading

New Socialist Movement: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” April 2021

 

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
—Polish proverb

It wasn’t my scene.

I attended Stuart Shuffman’s book release party for Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco sometime in November, 2007. Stuart initially xeroxed his zine at Kinko’s and personally distributed it to stores and shops around the city. His handmade publication was about to become a conventional paperback travel guide produced by a now-defunct independent publishing company that would offer a New York City edition the next year. His Guide to Living Cheaply combined two of my favorite things—zines and cheap eats—under the imprimatur “you are young, broke and beautiful” but the raucous release event wasn’t for me. Continue reading

Trump’s workers’ party debunked: “What’s Left?” January 2021

It pisses me off.

In 2015 Breitbart ran a story by Lisa De Pasquale entitled “Political Punks” that détourned the famous 1976 Ramones record cover by superimposing the heads of rightwingers Greg Gutfeld, Clint Eastwood, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes over the four original band members.

Blasphemy! Continue reading

Hope is the mother of fools: “What’s Left?” August 2020

Train Tracks

Hope is the mother of fools.
—Polish proverb

Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers.
—Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen Continue reading

The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged. Continue reading

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Continue reading

The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

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  • "I had a good run." —"Lefty" Hooligan, "What's Left?"

  • CALENDAR

    May 2022
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    3031  
  • META