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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Anti-imperialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2021

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an “anti-imperialist,” since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.
—Gilles Dauvé

Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist, a member of the American Anti-Imperialist League (1898-1920) which opposed US annexation of the Philippines. For the League, just republican government was based on the principle of the “consent of the governed” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, Washington’s Farewell Address, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The imperialism of US territorial expansion thus violated the classical liberal precepts of self-government and non-intervention as put forward by British writers like John A. Hobson. Twain’s dark sarcasm and claims of America’s liberatory intent notwithstanding, he was neither so generous nor as damning regarding the US continental expansion of Manifest Destiny that expropriated the native peoples. The raison d’être of this type of anti-imperialism was simple; empire was bad and needed to be morally opposed.

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Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

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A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.

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Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies. Continue reading

Against But Not Anti: “What’s Left?” December 2017, MRR #415

I fancy myself a “citizen of the world,” but I’m merely a denizen of these United States of America. As such I feel obliged to oppose US imperialism and seek to dismantle the American empire. But that doesn’t make me an “anti-imperialist.” To quote Gilles Dauvé: “I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.”

For me then, part of not being a dyed-in-the-wool vulgar Leninist anti-imperialist and opposing imperialism “objectively” everywhere is focusing primarily on my country’s imperialist exploitation and appropriation around the world. I really don’t spend much time and energy railing against, for instance, either Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism.

Russia is a US rival and sometime enemy that has imperialized Georgia, Chechnya, Ukraine, etc., while Israel is a US ally and client state that has imperialized the West Bank and parts of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Those military and economic encroachments are only secondarily my concern as I am currently focused on US saber rattling in East Asia (Korea) and South America (Venezuela).

There can be extenuating circumstances of course. I am Polish by family origin so when Russia recently threatened Poland over the removal of WWII Soviet era statues I took notice. My wife is a Jewish “red diaper baby” and she has a consistent anti-Zionist take on Israel. But we don’t spend every minute of every hour of every day denouncing respectively Russian or Israeli imperialism.

What’s more, I suspect that my fellow American netizens who spend all their time and energy condemning Russian imperialism or Israeli imperialism have ulterior motives. In the case of Russia it’s Cold War anti-communism and in the case of Israel it’s old fashioned anti-semitism. Long associated with rightwing politics, anti-communism and anti-semitism are more and more products of the Left.

Anti-imperialism is one of those unifying principles common to Leftist organizations and movements. From the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program to more generic points of unity, an ideological laundry list is de rigueur for the Left. Classical anarchism remained largely aloof from this requirement until the rise of the New Left in the 1960s. The practice of formulating points of unity as a programmatic norm and organizing method eventually became part-and-parcel of anarchist organizations and movements generally as they incorporated elements of New Left and old Left politics, an argument post-left anarchists are fond of making. As for the ultraleft, we’ve tended to make each point in any list of basic positions a thorough treatise worthy of its own volume of Capital. Antifascism is yet another unifying Leftist principle.

We’d planned to go to Crissy Field to confront the Patriot Prayer fascists on August 26 when the whole Bay Area was mobilizing despite cancelled bus lines, locked down militarized neighborhoods, unnerving uncertainties, and real physical dangers. There was a lot of political pressure for the National Parks Department to cancel the permit, which didn’t happen, even as other similar provocations around the country were shut down. The overwhelming media coverage of the proposed event guaranteed that the Bay Area Left showed up in force on Saturday.

Other protest events had been planned nearby, such as the SF LovedUp Mobile Dance Counter-Rally just down the bay at Marina Green Park. And lots of folks thought the best strategy was to avoid Crissy Field altogether for symbolic anti-fash events elsewhere. Me, I think it’s always necessary to confront fascism directly. So when Patriot Prayer cancelled their rally the night before and it was clear Joey Gibson had flown the coop the morning of, I was relieved and elated, but also disappointed. Things had changed from directly confronting real live fascists to symbolically protesting the rise of fascism, and I’d done enough symbolic protesting during my last half century of leftist politics thank you. So while I was glad, I only briefly attended the largely celebratory demonstrations at Alamo Square and then the Castro, and I didn’t care to march down Market Street yet one more time. Truth be told, while I was happy San Francisco had repelled the fascists through our mobilization, the symbolic mass demonstrations that followed were a bit of a letdown.

Leave it to Berkeley to set the standard for directly confronting the fash, when a demonstration of 7,000 anti-fascist protesters marched on MLK/Civic Center Park, with 500 embedded black clad antifa overwhelming the police and taking over the park on Sunday, August 27.

I’d intended to demonstrate in San Francisco as an unaffiliated leftist against fascism, not as antifa. For one thing I’m 65 years old, take blood thinners, and have bad knees. I’d stopped the blood thinners days before in case I got hit upside the head by a rogue nazi. But I was there to demonstrate against, not to fight the fash, so I wasn’t going to be on the front lines. I admire antifa and their stated strategy to confront fascism everywhere with direct action. I post a lot of pro-antifa stuff on my facebook profile. But I also hold to a diversity of strategies (per Doug Henwood of The Nation), where “some of us are fighters, some of us organizers—and some of us like to write about history, theory, and the current conjuncture.” I was never good at the “boring hard slog of organizing” and I’m too old for “street-based politics.” So now I kibbitz from the sidelines and go to demonstrations and protest against fascism.

Notice I didn’t say I was antifascist. I have Gilles Dauvé’s reservations of liberal antifascism: “I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.” Antifa suffers from a similar political monomania, tempered only by it’s emphasis on direct action and it’s de facto anarchism.

And I have criticisms of antifa’s direct action and default anarchism as well. Militarily speaking the decentralized black bloc tactic might work well as cat-and-mouse with the cops, but it’s more like brutal gang warfare against alt.right paramilitary formations. It lacks the capacity to scale up to higher levels of organization, logistics, and mobility, so I think antifa needs to investigate other historic antifascist modes of self-defense such as militias and commando operations.

I have the usual ultraleft critique of anarchism, but for now I think that antifa’s implied goal of anarchism is so far removed from its tactics and strategy as to be useless. To understand my point, consider the goal of democratic socialism held by orthodox social democracy. To achieve that goal social democrats usually put forward parallel political party and labor union mass strategies out of which spring a myriad of tactics—education and propaganda, electioneering and organizing, shadow governments and mass strikes, etc. Rules of engagement are derived from one’s strategies and measures of success from the outcome of one’s tactics. By contrast, antifa has a single strategy—stop the fash—which produces limited tactics—education, doxxing, direct action. Strategy and tactics are so immediate and narrow as to have virtually no direct connection to any stated or implied goal of anarchism. Frankly, I don’t see how one leads to the other except for the usual @ cliché that antifa’s means and ends are identical.

I’m critical of anti-imperialism even while I’m against imperialism. I have criticisms of antifascism and antifa even while I’m against fascism. Similarly, I have problems with most anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist stances even while I’m against capitalism and colonialism. I like to think my political critiques are well-reasoned and not simply a product of my characteristic devil’s advocacy, my knee-jerk contrarianism expressed by Groucho Marx and the Ramones when they sang: “I’m against it!”

De-Identity Theft: “What’s Left?” January 2017, MRR #404

header
When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. When tired, sleep.

― Attributed variously to Baizhang (720-814), Tanxia Tianran (736-824), Huihai (788), Linji (867), or Bankei (1622-1693)

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.

I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

—Gilles Dauvé

I’m going to start a new philosophical movement while I wait to learn whether this country elected the corporatist-globalist-multiculturalist or the nativist-isolationist-populist to be president. It’s like waiting to hear whether the terminal diagnosis is heart failure or cancer. Or the COD is death by firing squad or death by lethal injection. Either way, it’s not good. As for my philosophical movement, I think I’ll call it de-identity.

The germ for my de-identity philosophy started when I took a writing workshop from Cary Tennis who used the Amherst Writers & Artists method developed by Pat Schneider. The AWA appropriated writer William Stafford’s aphorism—“A writer is someone who writes”—and built it into a writing methodology that emphasizes spontaneous writing techniques employed in a group process unencumbered by criticism or deadlines. The whole experience was a little too hippie-dippy-new-agey for my tastes and not at all conducive to honing the craft of writing. So I was glad when Cary developed the idea of the Finishing School, which helped me finish rewriting my second novel.

The phrase “a writer is someone who writes” remains troublesome for me however, not the least because it’s a tautology that means little and tells us less. A dancer is someone who dances. A policeman is someone who polices. A bricklayer is someone who lays bricks. These statements are not just self-evident, they are redundant. Am I a writer if all I do is write a grocery list every morning? If I write the orders for the execution of prisoners on death row? If I write nonsensical word salad screeds because I’m schizophrenic? And how long do I remain a writer once I stop writing? Five minutes? Twenty-four hours? Or once I earn the appellation, is it good for life? This all sounds rather hazy even as the phrase seems vaguely self-congratulatory.

Yes I can be harsh on the AWA’s inspiration and methodology even as I acknowledge that it works for some people to encourage them to write. I have similar reservations for the process and declarations of AA, including their signature “I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” statement, even while I grant that AA does work for some people to keep them sober. If nothing else, the placebo effect is quite real even though any “cure” remains elusive. My concern is with the identitarian claims that such statements foster and whether they hinder or help the efforts of those who make them. I think that the attempt to fix one’s identity—“I am a writer” or “I am an alcoholic”—in order to fix one’s problems—“I can’t write” or “I drink too much”—ultimately does more harm than good. Rather than face their declining writing abilities, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Certainly, creative individuals like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were tired and depressed from constantly dealing with their self-admitted addictions and may have committed suicide as a consequence. Issues of declining health and mental problems combined with issues of addiction and creative obsession complicated matters for all four of these individuals, but this but doesn’t negate the point I’m hoping to make.

In line with Gilles Dauvé’s above distinction between opposing imperialism and being an anti-imperialist, or opposing fascism and being an anti-fascist, I rarely call myself an anarchist, a left communist, or even an anti-authoritarian these days. I support most, if not all the positions associated with these political identities at the same time that I reject the inclusive wingnuttery of anarchism, the vulgar dogmatism of left communism, and the kneejerk sectarianism of both. A similar attitude informs my comments in a previous column that sometimes a vote is just a vote. I’ve voted in the Peace and Freedom Party primaries much of my adult life, which doesn’t make me a leftover 60s Leftist. I voted for Barack Obama for president both times around, which doesn’t make me a Democrat. And I voted for Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make me a democratic-socialist.

Defining a political identity based on voting, or even electoral politics, is ludicrous because that’s not all I do. To expand on a bumper sticker type of mentality, I vote but I also sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate, protest, commit civil disobedience, and riot. Pointing out the broad range of my political involvements is one way of de-indentifying with any one particular political activity, but it doesn’t actually decontextualize me and my politics. Quite the opposite. If I sum up all my individual political tactics into a personal political whole, I arrive at an overall political strategy, that being of an independent-minded, left-of-liberal kind of person. What I’m after instead is what I alluded to above in discussing writing. I’m trying to be overly literal with the phrase “a writer is someone who writes.”

I am a writer only when I write. I am a reader only when I read. I am a critic only when I criticize. I am a voter only when I vote. You get the idea.

It’s one of the flip sides of the Zen saying at the top of this column. And it has some interesting implications. A tongue-in-cheek Zen aphorisms I like is “don’t just do something, sit there” which flips a common saying. When I sit zazen, my intent is to be mindful, to be here now, to be in the moment. So if I’m doing nothing, I’m being nothing. At the moment I sit, my intention is to have no ego. My intention is to have no identity.

And I bet you thought I was going to rail against identity politics.

MY PREDICTIONS

I’m one for four on my electoral predictions, the same odds according to Nate Silver that the Cubs had of winning the World Series or that Trump had of winning the election. Or, more precisely, one for three, with one that doesn’t count. I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective primaries, but I was wrong about everything else. There were no riots at the RNC, indeed there was much more action outside on the streets and inside on the convention floor at the DNC. I certainly was wrong when I thought Clinton would squeak by Trump to win the presidency. And it really doesn’t matter how Gary Johnson did as he was incidental to November 8th’s outcome.

The big news is that Clinton might have won the popular vote, which is still to be determined, but lost to Trump in the electoral vote. I’ll wait until next column to do a more thorough analysis, but for now, a couple of points. Michael Moore early on predicted that the anger and alienation felt by America’s white working class, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, was so intense that Trump was likely to win if the Democrats didn’t take them into account and do something dramatic. And Nate Silver, whose prediction metrics based on crunching poll numbers, had Clinton leading Trump at around three points just before the elections, with the caveat that three points is well within the margin of error. So while Silver said: “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome,” he also said: “But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime.” I echo his sentiments.

Now I need to practice some of that detachment I try to cultivate sitting zazen.