Revolutionary v reactionary decentralism: “What’s Left?” October 2020

I was seven when I lived in San Bernardino in 1959. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Dictator Juan Batista fled Cuba as revolutionary hero Fidel Castro entered Havana. China suppressed an uprising in Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to escape to India. Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. San Bernardino was suburban, often hot, and almost always smoggy. Only when Santa Ana winds scoured the basin of smog blown in from Los Angeles did I clearly see the surrounding, magnificent mountain ranges. There were more and more days growing up when I couldn’t see the mountains at all from my neighborhood, which was home to the first MacDonald’s in the nation.

I watched Disney’s 1959 series The Swamp Fox on our family’s tiny black and white TV.  Filmed in color, the series depicted the exploits of Francis Marion as played by a young Leslie Nielsen. A commissioned officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, Marion ably led the irregular militiamen of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment as they ruthlessly terrorized fellow American Loyalists and engaged in asymmetric warfare against British Army regulars known as Redcoats. He avoided direct frontal assaults against larger bodies of troops, instead confusing his enemies in the field with swift surprise attacks and equally sudden withdrawals. Considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare, Marion successfully used irregular methods and maneuver tactics to outwit his opponents. He has been credited in the birth of the US Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets.

Proclaimed a Revolutionary War hero, Marion was a leader in the profoundly conservative American Revolution. The soldiers under his command, known as Marion’s Men, weren’t impoverished, oppressed peasants but were mostly independent freeholder farmers who served without pay, and supplied their own horses, weapons and often their own food. Britain’s relatively autonomous American colonies were permitted to rule themselves with minimal royal and parliamentary interference for decades, an unofficial policy called “salutary neglect.” Under British mercantilism, the colonies supplied raw materials for English manufacture while acting as markets for those finished goods. Benign neglect allowed the colonies to develop structures and traditions of self-government under this arrangement. When Britain instituted the restrictive Navigation Acts in 1651 to consolidate a coherent imperial policy, an end to salutary neglect didn’t happen immediately. But when Britain clamped down in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, tightening the reigns of political control by imposing tax and trade regulations, tensions mounted until the established, affluent, independent American colonies rose up in reluctant revolution.

I cheered for Disney’s version of Francis Marion, but I was too young to understand the contradiction of such a military hero being simultaneously revolutionary and conservative. The American Revolution has been described as one of the first modern revolutions based on Enlightenment ideas generally, and classical liberalism in particular. That the American Revolution and representative figures like Marion can be simultaneously conservative, liberal and revolutionary is actually not unusual in the annals of American history. Antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine and Matthew Lyons both suggest there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism.

“The struggle between centralization and decentralization is at the core of American history,” academic historian Anthony Gregory wrote.  Whether considering Louis Beam’s overarching “leaderless resistance;” the specifics of Christian Reconstructionism; Posse Commitatus,  the Patriot Movement and White Nationalism; the Tea Party; or the terrorist extremism of Atomwaffen Division and the boogaloo bois—rightwing decentralism seems genuine enough. It’s matched by leftwing decentralism starting with the importance of anarchism to revolutionary working class struggles prior to the 1919-20 Palmer Raids. The grassroots nonviolent resistance of the Civil Rights movement and the participatory democracy of early SDS; the adoption of the affinity group model in the revival of American anarchism (through groups as diverse as Black Mask/UAW-MF, the Clamshell Alliance and the anti-globalization movement); Occupy Wall Street; and present day antifa and Black Lives Matter organizing efforts continue this development of Left decentralism. There are still plenty of centralized authoritarian organizations around, from the American Nazi Party and National Alliance on the fascist far right to Marxist-Leninist vanguard formations like the Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation on the Left. But is it too soon to declare political decentralism as a unique and defining feature of American politics generally?

Let’s step back from the particulars here and widen this political discussion to an examination of tactics and strategy more broadly.

Examine two organizing models: the decentralized network of autonomous cells versus the centralized, hierarchical pyramid. The horizontal network is easy to organize and difficult to completely stamp out. So long as one autonomous cell persists there is the potential for the whole network to regenerate. But the network also has difficulty in effectively mobilizing bodies and resources, so it’s not surprising there are no historical examples of decentralized networks of autonomous cells succeeding unaided in overthrowing a government or seizing state power. The pyramid is more difficult to organize but comparatively easy to destroy. Decapitating the organization’s head is often sufficient. And the centralized, hierarchical pyramid is very efficient in mobilizing both bodies and resources, which is why it’s the organizational model of choice throughout history and across the globe.

The discussion of network versus pyramid is related to the one about cadre versus mass that I’ve touched on in previous columns regarding revolutionary organizing. As with the latter dichotomy, the polarity between network and pyramid gives rise to proposals on the Left to combine the best of both forms into some type of hybrid structure. The Uruguayan Tupamaros—under the guidance of anarchist-Marxist Abraham Guillén—organized its clandestine guerrilla cells into autonomous, parallel, hierarchical columns each of which could replicate the whole organization. The more cultish Ruckus Society claimed to be neither vanguard nor network. The EZLN in Chiapas proposed “mandar obedeciendo,” while the YPG/SDF in Rojava claimed that democratic confederalism could bridge the divide between network and pyramid structures. I’m not familiar with whether the Right is experimenting with similar hybrid efforts. But given how easily the FBI has taken down Rise Above, Atomwaffen and boogaloo cells, decimating their respective umbrella movements in the process, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There are historical instances where the success of horizontal cellular networks cause governmental power to disintegrate to the point where the state collapses as a consequence of society becoming unmanageable, a default overthrow or seizure of power. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya is arguably such an example in which the initial civil war merged with a second civil war to create generalized social chaos that continues to this day. Such a situation might theoretically arise in this country if leftwing and rightwing decentralized social movements become strong enough simultaneously to make society ungovernable at the base. An equally ridiculous wet dream has been nurtured by Keith Preston who proposes that Left and Right unite in a common pan secessionist movement. But when J.P. Nash responded to Jim Goad’s book Shit Magnet by proclaiming his political philosophy to be: “‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later,” he expressed a sentiment all too common on the Right. The libertarian Left is much more committed to decentralism, but historical circumstances can betray practice as when the Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communist Party smashed their respective anarchist revolutions.

John Steinbeck’s famous quote (“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”) was plainly intended to refer to Communist Party organizers in the 1930s and not to their working class subjects. But as Meagan Day points out in a Jacobin Magazine article: “There’s a grain of truth in this [quote]. Americans have more faith in upward economic mobility than nearly anyone. We have a special — which isn’t to say totalizing — attachment to the idea that class origin is not destiny, and that anyone who works hard and is smart enough has a shot at a high standard of living. This meritocratic conviction sometimes shades into a belief that rich people’s wealth is deserved while poor people are lazy and unintelligent.” Thus we have the oft repeated argument that poor and working class Americans frequently vote against their class interests “with objections to increased social spending or defenses of tax cuts for the mega-rich.” Day argues that Americans are far more class conscious and “genuinely aspire to redistribute our nation’s wealth and build an economy that serves the working class” than is generally assumed.

Karl Hess, Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter who transitioned from rightwing libertarianism to leftwing anarchism, argued that the generic “logic of decentralization and the impulse of people to take things onto their own hands” is capable of toppling totalitarian and corporate capitalist states alike (per James Boyd). I’m dubious. I’m also dubious that it’s advisable or possible for American rightwing and leftwing decentralist movements to work together and take down the US state. Call me Mr. Doubtful.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“A Primer on the 30’s” by John Steinbeck
“From Far Right to Far Left—and Farther—With Karl Hess” by James Boyd
The Power of Habeas Corpus in America by Anthony Gregory
“The Myth of the Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire” by Meagan Day
“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right” by Spencer Sunshine (unpublished)
“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment” by Matthew Lyons

 

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The once and future Left: “What’s Left?” June 2019 (MRR #433)

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

We love them from a distance, even going so far as to make movies about them. From Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s tortuous on-again off-again love affair that fans believed underlaid the ferocious film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to punk rock’s murder/suicide darlings Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen who were the subject of the eponymous biopic Sid and Nancy, we’re fascinated by such emotional human train wrecks. Richard Kruspe of the sketchy brutalist band Rammstein commented that being in a band is “like a relationship. It’s a marriage without sex.” Vin Diesel’s movie xXx featured a clip of Rammstein playing “Feuer frei!” Dysfunctional musicians in dysfunctional bands is a tired old trope.

The history of larger human institutions is equally fraught with social dysfunction. “If measured by the number of lives it destroyed,” wrote author Elizabeth Gilbert, “Then you can’t find a worse alliance than the marriage between the Nazi Party and the Catholic Church, sealed with the Reichskonkordat treaty in 1933. Like many abused wives, the Church initially thought it would be protected by its powerful husband (from Communism, in this case), but instead became complicit in unthinkable psychopathy.” Today, the European Union is often criticized as a marriage of convenience that has since gone awry. “This one has sabotaged the siesta, those gorgeous lire, French-baked baguettes,” author Stacy Schiff comments. “Down this road lies a Starbucks on every Slovenian corner.” The battle over Brexit continues to remind both Britain and the continent of how unsatisfactory the European Union has become.

But the dysfunctional relationship I’m most intrigued with and continue to be involved in is that of the Left. The Left emerged during the French Revolution and experienced its first major defeat during the European-wide uprisings of 1848. In response to the failed revolutions of 1848, various tendencies of the European Left organized the International Workingmen’s Association (First International, or IWA) in 1864, intended to unite the proletariat and its class struggle through a representative body of diverse left-wing socialist, communist, syndicalist and anarchist organizations, political parties, and labor unions. The IWA quickly polarized between the followers of Karl Marx with his parliamentary focus and those of Michael Bakunin who promoted “direct economical struggle against capitalism, without interfering in the political parliamentary agitation.” Despite their increasing antagonism the experience of the insurrectionary 1871 Paris Commune tended to bring the Left’s various factions together. But Marx declared the Commune “essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor” while Bakunin considered it “a bold and outspoken negation of the State.” These fundamental differences eventually split the IWA’s contentious 8-year gig into two competing organizations by 1872: the Marxist red First International (which disbanded in 1876), and the anarchist black First International which continues to this day. Bismarck remarked of this ur-Left that “[c]rowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!”

The next time Black and Red united in the streets was during the Russian Revolution, a touchstone for the Left to this day. But the Russian Revolution was actually two revolutionary events. The inchoate, anarchic mass uprising of March 8, 1917 (February Revolution) toppled the feudal Czarist ancien regime while the disciplined, thoroughly planned insurrection of November 8, 1917 (October Revolution) overthrew the liberal bourgeois Kerensky government, with 245 days in between. The broad February Revolution is embraced by all manner of Leftists, from anarchists to Stalinists, whereas the narrow October Revolution is praised mostly by Leninist party types or Bolshevik wannabes. Instead of contending that February was one step away from anarchy while October was all putsch and coup d’etat, a more judicious evaluation was offered by Rosa Luxemburg, who acknowledged the revolution’s myriad problems while writing: “In Russia, the problem [of the realization of socialism] could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”

It’s no secret I think anarchism suffers from initial problems that produce related problems down the road. The anarchist misunderstanding of power generally and of state power in particular means that, while spontaneous popular uprisings can and do occur to topple rulers and regimes, anarchism has never been able to consolidate a liberatory society out of those moments. The 1936-39 Spanish civil war proved to be anarchism’s greatest failure, a debacle that liquidated anarchism in Spain and marginalized it internationally, stunting its revolutionary capacity for decades and haunting it to the present. Anarchistic societies exist by default, as in the case of the anthropological category of Zomia where highland peoples and cultures manage to hold onto a de facto anarchy through geographic isolation. I consider anarchism’s glorious string of revolutionary defeats a “beautiful loser” syndrome where anarchists insist time and again on proudly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

In turn, Leninism’s historic string of successes reinforces the same issue in mirror form. Lenin’s formulation of the need for a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries to “make the revolution” has resulted in substitutionism in which the Leninist party substitutes for the working class in power, the party’s central committee substitutes for the party, and eventually the all-powerful party chairman substitutes for the central committee. There’s a direct line from Marx through Lenin to Stalin; not the only line that has been or can be drawn from Marx, but certainly one of the most prominent. Equally, the Leninist vanguard party has never been able to consolidate a truly socialist society out of decades of one-party rule, in which the self-activity and self-organization of the working class as a class fails to materialize. The succession of Leninism by Trotskyism, Stalinism, Maoism, Hoxhaism, et al has gotten us no closer to the classless, stateless society originally envisioned by Marx.

During revolutionary situations anarchists refuse to take power expecting the people to spontaneously rise up while Leninists seize power in the name of the people. Each hope to usher in a liberated socialist society but never succeed. What is unique in the political conflicts between anarchism versus Leninism is belied by the common dynamic that both socialist tendencies share, namely the complex relationship between cadre organization and mass organization, or between revolutionary organization and mass social movement underlying the problem of realizing socialism. In Marxism and the Russian Anarchists and other analyses, Anthony D’Agostino acknowledges not only the centrality of the dynamic to both anarchism and Leninism but contends that these two divergent socialist tendencies developed analogous political solutions. Despite their differing class compositions, Lenin’s faction of the RSDLP and Bakunin’s International Brotherhood/Alliance of Social Democracy had a strikingly similar relationship to mass working class organizing, and notable parallels can be drawn between the role of the Bolshevik vanguard party within the Russian workers’ movement and that of the Spanish FAI within the mass syndicalist CNT. “There will always be enragés and then again Jacobins,” yet the dialectical problem of cadre vs mass organization within the problem of realizing socialism resulted in one-party dictatorship when given a Bolshevik tweak and in revolutionary failure when given an anarchist tweak.

After three quarters of a century Leninism went down for a substantial defeat with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact by 1991, whereas anarchism has experienced resurrection and resurgence since the 60s yet still has never triumphed. What this means is there are various new opportunities to get the band (e.g. the ur-Left First International) back together and reformulate anarchism anew with Marxism. Starting with pioneers like ex-FAIista and Spanish Civil War veteran Abraham Guillén who called himself an anarchist-Marxist in fashioning his urban guerrilla strategy we have the usual suspects (council communism, left communism, Situationism, and autonomism) hoping to square the Leftist circle. Following the collapse of Love & Rage, the now-defunct Bring The Ruckus project explicitly called for combining cadre and mass organizations as “neither the vanguard nor the network” in a clear New Abolitionism. Insurrectionary communization has advanced through Tiqqun, Endnotes, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Comuniste as neo-anarchist and neo-Leninist experiments—like hypothetical quantum particles—keep popping in and out of existence. Finally, old-school Marxist-Leninist parties have taken new directions; from the Mexican Guevaraist FLN adopting indigenismo and “mandar obedeciendo” to emerge as the EZLN, to the Kurdish PKK embracing Murray Bookchin’s municipalist confederalism to sponsor the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s YPG/SDF.

I often write about the Left’s glaring problems like sectarianism or dogmatism. Those issues notwithstanding, the Left needs a proper dynamic between cadre and mass, revolutionary organization and social movement, in order to advance toward common ground and a socialist society. Whether the right dynamic can be achieved theoretically, and whether any of the current contenders can achieve it, remains to be seen.

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