Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports 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 Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. 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.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.

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WWTYD? Memory & History: “What’s Left?” March 2017, MRR #406

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WWTYD?

An MRR alumnus lettered this acronym on a black button over a copy of Tim Yo’s old column header; a skinny menacing Yohannan brandishing a rolling pin and spatula beneath the name “Tim Yo Mama.” What Would Tim Yo Do? The button was an instant success on FB, with commenters waxing nostalgic about Tim, sharing stories about the old days, recalling his meticulous if quirky attention to detail, remembering what outstanding things he said and how he belly laughed. It was a fun thread about a joke button, until I googled and posted another reference to “What Would Tim Yo Do,” this one from an online pop rock radio show called “All Kindsa Girls.”
When it comes to unyielding doctrine the MRR crowd give religious fundamentalists a run for their money.  I have no doubt that on a daily basis young punks around the world were asking themselves- WWTYD (What Would Tim Yo Do).  And not just regarding music- it was politics, clothes, consumer products- you name it, Tim and his people had a strong opinion about it.  And God help you if your favorite band got signed or even got a distribution deal with a major label  because then you could expect a sh*tstorm of hate to rain down on them in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll.  The Clash were on a freaking major label for God’s sake! [#150, 6-16-16]
Needless to say I was harshing everybody’s mellow, so it was taken down soon after I posted it.

This is a grim portrayal of Tim Yo and the MRR gang which likened us to a humorless fundamentalist religious sect bent on denouncing anyone or anything we deemed not punk enough. Yes, Tim and the rest of us volunteering at the magazine were certainly extremely opinionated and more than willing to use the pages of MRR to promote those opinions as the truth, especially when it came to what we thought was or was not punk. There was a fair amount of consensus, but there was never a party line about what constituted punk rock, major label involvement, appropriate scene activity, and what not. Tim had a great sense of humor and working with my fellow shitworkers at MRR HQ was nothing if not memorable. Then why are there two so widely differing descriptions of the same experience?

These are personal memories which are subjective by definition and therefore not accurate. Amassing numerous individual memories into a collective memory doesn’t necessarily improve their accuracy. Collective German memory of the second World War differed markedly depending on whether the Germans in question were Christian or Jewish, and was demonstrably inaccurate even concerning fundamental facts of record within and between these two groups. Whether individual or collective, memory must first be documented, then combined with primary and secondary sources in prescribed ways to constitute evidence for the events of history. Historical evidence is more accurate because of this process, but such evidence is not fact, and certainly not truth. Consider the interminable debates still raging around the Nazi Holocaust as to who and how many were killed, by what means where, even whether it happened at all, to determine the veracity of recorded history and its methods.

But first, when I use the word history I mean written history, not some Marxist abstraction with agency. We can argue endlessly about whether or not history demonstrates causality, pattern, or meaning; what it isn’t is capital “H” History with a life of its own. People make their own history, to paraphrase Marx, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. This brings me to my second point. History is clearly distinct from the current post-fact/post-truth thinking that says simply believing in something makes it so. Simply believing that crime in the US is exploding or that all Muslims are out to kill us or that America actually won the Vietnam war or that climate change is a hoax doesn’t make them facts, or true. And jumping off the top of a skyscraper while thinking you can fly doesn’t negate the reality of gravity. Finally, history is not some vast conspiracy where everything and everyone is connected and some cabal runs the show from behind the scenes. According to obsessed conspiracy theorists, history is governed more by design and the will of secret elites than it is by causality, pattern, and meaning. While history records many conspiracies as determined by the evidence, history doesn’t equal conspiracy.

So, what will history make of, and blame for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat? Bernie Sanders and angry BernieBros, Jill Stein’s third-party swing-state votes, the Clinton email Russian/Wikileaks hack, FBI Comey’s interference, last minute GOP-instigated voter restrictions, persistent sexism and the rising alt.right’s racism, the fake news smokescreen? The reasons are myriad, yet ultimately secondary. Clinton’s overconfident, complacent, and strategically bumbling campaign combined with the Democratic Party’s arrogant, top-down, corporate campaign management guaranteed her electoral defeat. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million even as she lost the electoral college vote. But it’s bullshit to claim “he’s not my president” or “I want my country back.” That’s how the game of electoral politics is played in the United States, for better or worse. Instead of being sore losers, we need to transition from discussing the elections to where to go from here. Or “what is to be done,” to use a tired old leftist trope, since part of what we need to do is reevaluate the Left and leftist politics.

Ah, but before we can go forward, we need to sum up where we’ve been, or so the mainstream Marxist Left would have it. Summing up? The Left is endlessly summing up everything from the Russian Revolution onward and coming to fractious, diametrically opposed positions. Such summing up often paralyzes people into ceaseless rumination, keeping them stuck in thinking rather than in having them act. It would be far better to take people where they’re at, with whatever backgrounds and beliefs they have at that moment, and start them acting together. There’s much Marxist thinking (György Lukács, Martin Glaberman, Antonio Gramsci, et al) that “action precedes consciousness.”

As I write, mobilizations are under way for “no peaceful transition” to “stand up to Trump” and “make it ungovernable” on January 20, Inauguration Day. It would be nice if such protests could shut down Washington DC as was done in Seattle, 1999, around the WTO. I’ll be sure to cover events of that day next column. Just for comparison, in May of 1971, the May Day Tribe organized three days of mass protests and civil disobedience in the capitol against the Vietnam War intended to shut down the US government. Over 35,000 protesters participated, facing off against 10,000 federal troops, 5,100 Metropolitan Police, 2,000 DC National Guard and President Nixon’s internal security forces implementing combined civil disorder emergency measures. The protesters engaged in a variety of creative tactics (such as launching tethered helium-filled balloons to ward off low-flying helicopters), but the use of mass civil disobedience was stymied when troops secured major intersections and bridges ahead of time while the police roamed through the city firing tear gas and making mass arrests. In response to the police sweeps, protesters resorted to hit-and-run tactics throughout the city, disrupting traffic and causing chaos in the streets. Politicians were harassed and federal workers, who were not given the day off, had to maneuver through police lines and protest roadblocks. In all 12,614 people were arrested, including construction workers who came out to support Nixon, making it the largest mass arrest in U.S. history. Neither Washington DC nor the US government were shut down.

A friend who participated in the 1971 May Days was tear gassed, almost run down by a motorcycle cop while walking on the sidewalk, and ultimately arrested for civil disobedience. The DC jails were filled to overflowing, so he was housed in a fenced-in emergency detention center next to the DC Stadium (now RFK Stadium) and denied food, water, and toilets while in custody. He eventually had all his charges dropped as did all but 79 of his fellow arrestees. Thousands of protesters pursued a class action suit through the ACLU. In the end, the US Congress admitted the arrests were grossly illegal and agreed to pay financial compensation to those arrested as part of a settlement that set an historic precedent by acknowledging US citizens’ constitutional right of free assembly were violated by the government. My friend received a small check for his troubles over a decade and a half later.

Unlike May, 1971, when protesters had only DC residents and workers to contend with, Inauguration Day 2017 is anticipated to have 2 to 3 million people in attendance. The government’s police and military powers have been greatly expanded since Nixon’s day, as have urban disorder contingency measures, and the forces of law and order will be under Obama’s control until Trump takes the oath of office. I have no doubt that a willingness to protest Trump can fill the streets of DC, but not if those protests are dispersed and divided. So I predict that the protests will be contained, Trump will be inaugurated without incident, and the US government will not be shut down. I don’t think it’s likely that the independent @/ultraleft actions in Mcpherson Square Park, Workers World Party protest in Union Station, and ANSWER Coalition demonstration in Freedom Plaza will get out of control, let alone merge their separate events and run amok through the city, reprise Seattle 1999 in the nation’s capitol, or declare a Columbia Commune. If protests intended to go beyond run-of-the-mill 60s mass marches and demonstrations into mass nonviolent disruption couldn’t break the government in 1971, it’s unlikely that protest-as-usual and limited, targeted civil disobedience or even some streetfighting can do so now.

We’ll talk about how to go beyond ineffective protest into effective direct action, but I’ll first evaluate the present-day American Left in the next column or two.