Of Trotskyists & stockbrokers: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” May 2021

Is this just ultra-revolutionary high-voltage subjectivism of a petty-bourgeois gone wild—or what?
—Otto Wille Kuusinen, on Trotsky at Comintern’s Sixth Congress

Anyone who has been through the Trotskyist movement, for example, as I have, knows that in respect to decent personal behavior, truthfulness, and respect for dissident opinion, the ‘comrades’ are generally much inferior to the average stockbroker.
—Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man

“Lenin and Trotsky were sympathetic to the Bolshevik left before 1921,” the man insisted. “Really they were.”

He was in his late thirties, clean cut and wore a working class wool flat cap I’d come to associate with Bolshevik wannabes. I kept arguing with him in front of his literature table in San Diego’s Balboa Park at an anti-Soviet Afghanistan invasion rally circa 1980. The table belonged to some Trotskyist group. It wasn’t the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—the main Trotskyist party that claimed to be Communist and was the vanguardist “loyal opposition” to the Communist Party-USA during the 1930s through the 1970s. (The SWP has since renounced their Trotskyism for Castroism in 1983, formally broke with the Fourth International in 1990 and sold their headquarters in 2003. Yet they will always and forever sell their newspaper, The Militant.) Rather, it was some sect—Spartacist League, Bolshevik Tendency, Socialist Alternative, Freedom Socialist Party, Revolutionary Socialist League, ad nauseam—that was one of a myriad of splinters among an ever expanding array of Trotskyist factions active in American politics at the time.

The Left expanded in the 1960s/70s, with Maoist New Communist Movement and Trotskyist groupuscules proliferating wildly. But whereas Maoism was on the wane by the 1980s, Trotskyism continued ostensibly to grow, not by prospering but by multiplying through division which reflects Trotskyism’s signature sectarian style of forever splitting over the slightest ideological difference. Among a list of scathing criticisms of Trotskyism, Dennis Tourish accused it of putting a “premium on doctrinal orthodoxy rather than critical reflection and innovative political thought” which promoted not expansion but fragmentation and ultimately led to a “sectarian, ultimatist and frequently manipulative attitude to the rest of the left, and the labour movement.”

I’d dropped out of graduate school at UCSD and was deliberately not seeking employment, preferring to hang out on campus, write, do politics and drink all day long. I was getting into punk but I still had my long hippie hair. By contrast, my debating adversary looked upstanding, high-and-tight if you like, following the example of the SWP’s “turn to industry” which mandated its members seek factory employment, cut their hair, dress conservatively and not do drugs to get in good with the working class. Of course, most young workers in those days were growing their hair out, dressing flash, smoking dope, and fucking shit up on the job. But that’s a different story.

I was a revolutionary left anarchist just starting to transition into left communism back then. And as I recall, the Trotskyist I was disagreeing with hoped to have his cake and eat it too. He extolled not just Trotsky but Luxemburg and Bukharin, and disingenuously praised various Left factions in the Bolshevik party to include Shliapnikov’s Workers Opposition, Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. I argued that the Bolshevik left had rightfully attempted to reform the party from within to make it more open and democratic and he argued that they were necessarily disciplined in 1921 after first the Party’s Tenth Congress and then the Comintern’s Third International Congress. At issue was Trotsky’s proposal that the Russian trade unions be made instruments of the Bolshevik party and Soviet state. This was opposed by groups like the Workers Opposition which proposed giving trade unions autonomy in directing the economy. In other words, the stakes were workers’ control of industry.

“But Lenin and Trotsky also denounced trade union anarcho-syndicalist deviationism,” he said with emphasis. “Both Party and Comintern majorities opposed the Bolshevik left on this count and voted to censure them. And both Lenin and Trotsky reluctantly submitted to democratic centralism and voted with the majority to criticize, discipline and ultimately ban all leftist dissent in the party in order for the new Soviet state to survive and be strengthened as the bastion of the future world revolution.”

“Like Trotsky and Lenin ‘reluctantly’ massacred Makhno’s Ukrainian partisans and the Kronstadt Soviet’s uprising,” I shot back. “Trotsky, the bloody butcher of Kronstadt. Turnabout was fair play when Trotsky lead the Left Opposition within the Bolshevik party against Stalin in 1923 and was forced into exile, then assassinated with a Stalinist ice pick.”

“Go fuck yourself!” he suddenly snarled. “You petty bourgeois snot!”

Now, I may have been a facile, undisciplined dilettante back in the day, but I was also pretty aggro and downright nasty. I loved being called names.

I consider myself a Marxist, although that’s not entirely accurate. I value much of what Karl Marx promulgated but I don’t consider it gospel. I reject Marx’s belief in progress as when he argued that British imperialism in India was ultimately a good thing because it would modernize Indian society. And I consider Marx’s historical materialist schema of the stages of economic development (ancient, feudal, capitalist, socialist modes of production) as descriptive rather than prescriptive. In turn, I readily accept additions to my Marxism when I consider them appropriate, like Rosa Luxemburg’s emphasis on working class spontaneity in social revolutions. I’m also interested in world-systems theory, the methodologies of which often arise from a Marxist analysis but are not limited by it.

I maintain parallel interests in other forms of theory like left anarchism and Buddhist economics that I consider to have radical potential. I find that exploring various diverse, often contradictory modes of thought stimulating and fruitful in challenging preconceived thinking and creating new ideas out of a clash of old concepts. Finally, I believe Marx himself acknowledged that there was much he didn’t understand—from the so-called “Asiatic mode of production” to “post-capitalist” societies—that forces me to be humble about claiming that my own thinking is complete and correct. It helps me to avoid the mistakes and dogmas of the various political systems to which I subscribe.

Ultimately, I find Marxist theory valuable not as economics or politics or philosophy but as critique. Marx rejected both dogma and utopian thinking for “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

Many orthodox Marxists might still consider my politics facile, undisciplined and dilettantish and me a petty bourgeois snot. I usually reply in kind. My criticism of Trotskyism threatens to become endless, covering at minimum the Johnson-Forrest Tendency (News & Letters), Marcyism (Workers World Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation), Third Camp Schachtmanism (Hal Draper, International Socialist Organization on the left; Social Democrats-USA on the right), and over a dozen Trotskyist Internationals (FI, CMI, CWI, COFI, CRFI, IBT, ICFI, ILCWI, IST, ITC, ICU, LFI, USFI). I have some sympathy for neo-Leninism—Leninism that rejects a vanguard party strategy—like the early New American Movement or current anti-state communist organizations like Unity and Struggle. But I have critiques of all 57 varieties of Marxism-Leninism as well as neo-Marxism, neo-Leninism, social democracy, anarchism, syndicalism, de Leonism, even my own fractious left communism.

Trotskyism’s sorry legacy was recently underscored by the Trotskyist political party Socialist Alternative (SAlt) directing its members to join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in a reprehensible example of entryism. DSA has flourished over the last four years by campaigning “to elect democratic socialists to office, using the Democratic Party ballot line.” And DSA’s constitution makes clear that “[m]embers can be expelled […] if they are under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization.” SAlt disingenuously claims that DSA’s “national ‘ban’ on members of democratic centralist organizations joining” is a “Cold War holdover […] originally created to prevent Marxists from joining DSA,” all the while overtly opposing DSA’s electoral party strategy with SAlt’s work to form their own “social democratic” (read Leninist vanguard) party.

Never mind that DSA was founded by Marxists or that many of DSA’s non-SAlt members are Marxist. The rule warning members of expulsion for being “under the discipline of any self-defined democratic-centralist organization” does not “specify a political belief or even membership in an organization, instead targeting those who aim to form a ‘party within a party’.” The threat of forming a “party within a party” transcends Trotskyism to implicate Leninism as a whole. I was a member of the Santa Cruz chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldier Organization in 1974/75. I witnessed the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Youth Brigade quite openly direct its cadre to join our organization in blatant entryism, taking over VVAW/WSO and gutting it in preparation for the founding of Bob Avakian’s scumbag Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). I don’t need to be reminded of how Leninists splinter the Left and destroy halfway decent socialist organizations.

POSTSCRIPT: Socialist Alternative and its spokesperson Grace Fors are exceedingly careful with the words they use in order to sidestep the main issues around SAlt’s blatant entryism. This obfuscates the debate surrounding Leninism’s tactic of forming a “party within a party” to infiltrate, disrupt and take over targeted political organizations and parties. Fors has stated “we are not conducting any ‘secret entryism.’ Socialist Alternative members will be joining DSA openly and honestly, stating clearly their dual membership and their political positions in a comradely way.” The point has never been that SAlt’s entryism is secret. As Barclay, Casey, Clark, et al point out in their article, historical examples of entryism (Trotsky’s orders to his followers to “ally” with the French Socialist Party, Cannon’s US Workers Party entry into the Socialist Party of America, and PLP’s entry into SDS) were rarely clandestine. And as I point out in my example of the RU/RYB’s takeover of the VVAW/WSO,  their entryism was overt and known to all. Openly proclaiming one’s intent to mug one’s victims doesn’t make the act of mugging them any less despicable.

It can be argued that DSA itself practices a kind of half-assed entryism in that it encourages its members to work within the capitalist Democratic Party while maintaining itself as a separate reformist organization. What happens then if such entryism is supercharged with vanguardism?“[W]e see Trotskyism as the historical continuation of Marxism,” Fors states. “Maintaining our independent organization plainly reflects our belief that a tight-knit Marxist party working in conjunction with a broad multi-tendency Left has the best chance to succeed.” This is a roundabout way of saying that SAlt is a Marxist-Leninist-Trotyskist vanguard party whose cadre organization and democratic centralist practice has no problem in setting itself up as a “party within a party” when it suits. To decry “[s]ectarian mudslinging” while practicing sectarianism is typical of how Leninism operates. Or as Victor Serge once implied of Trotsky as Stalin’s “loyal opposition”: “He who does not cry out the truth when he knows the truth becomes the accomplice of the liars and falsifiers.”

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
History of the Russian Revolution (3 volumes) by Leon Trotsky
From Lenin to Stalin by Victor Serge
The Prophet Armed, Unarmed, Outcast (3 volumes) by Isaac Deutscher
The Root is Man by Dwight MacDonald
“Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism and Cultism”, including introduction, by Dennis Tourish (What Next? #27, 2003)
The Dangers of Factionalism in DSA” by Barclay, Casey, Clark, Healey, Meier, Phillips, Riddiough and Schwartz (In These Times, 3-30-2021)
“What Some in DSA Get Wrong About Socialist Alternative” by Grace Fors (In These Times, 4-15-2021)

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Revenge!: “What’s Left?” December 2020

Anytime somebody bullies you, you should thank them every day. Right now, this bully is the only person in your life who’s giving you an actual challenge. Everybody else is anesthetizing you; hugging the power out of you; making you weak. You think the struggle of living in the world gets easier? People stop giving you a hard time? Learn to stand up for yourself now and give it right back to them. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

—“D” (“Darius Pringle”), character, TV show Chance

Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge.

—Scott Adams

I was a Sunday school Catholic. My parents were Catholic enough that they wanted me to get all the pre-majority sacraments—baptism, penance, holy communion, and confirmation. But they weren’t Catholic enough to send me to parochial school. So I went to public school and learned what rigamarole I needed to acquire those sacraments by attending Sunday school. Of those first four, penance and communion were a most peculiar combination. Once it was explained to me that we confessed our sins secretly to god via a priest and were absolved by saying x amount of Hail Mary’s and eating a wafer, I realized how rife for corruption that arrangement was. Penance, followed by communion, meant that any sin could be conveniently pardoned. Or as Grigory Rasputin played it—the greater the sin, the greater the repentance, the greater the spiritual salvation.

Rituals of forgiveness are part of various religious traditions. Christians are told to consider “what would Jesus do?” and then follow his teachings to “turn the other cheek.” Nelson Mandela is thus exalted as Christ-like for forgiving the apartheid criminals who held him in prison for 27 years. Quasi-religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous insist on “making amends”—per AA’s Steps Eight and Nine—in order to make a full recovery from drug addiction. I didn’t buy into AA to get sober, and I gave up Catholicism for Lent long ago. So I’m leery of the white bread Christian advice for victims to “forgive and forget.”  I’m more favorable toward Jewish customs of forgiveness, typified by Yom Kippur, because Judaism puts the onus to forgive and forget onto the perpetrator rather than the victim. The point is not “WWJD?” but “doing the right thing.” First, unlike the private and personal aspects of forgiveness in Christianity, forgiveness in Judaism is a communitarian affair, practiced publicly as well as privately in front of the whole congregation. The perpetrator is obligated to do everything in their power to make a sincere effort at repentance (teshuvah, or “return”) in order to earn forgiveness, apologizing not to god but directly to the people they have harmed. The perpetrator is commanded to ask for forgiveness three times and enjoined never to forget the wrong they have done. Only then is the victim required by Jewish law (halakhah) to forgive.

Finally, certain crimes like the Nazi Holocaust cannot be forgiven. According to Yerachmiel Gorelik no individual Nazi has ever demonstrated the level of “remorse, contrition and superhuman determination to make amends” worthy of forgiveness. So to forgive the Nazis for their crimes would be to dishonor their victims and debase our own sense of right and wrong. Compare this to the Catholic attitude that all “sins”—including murder—are forgivable through the sacraments, provided that the perpetrator sincerely repents and promises not to do it again. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Yet one more reason why I’m no longer Catholic.

I rarely forgive and I never forget. This has nothing to do with morality or ethics. I just think that forgiveness is overrated. I don’t buy the crap that forgiveness is needed in order for a victim to heal, move on or get closure. Forgiveness is not divine.

I don’t accept the psychology behind the notion that forgiveness is a good thing. The process of forgiveness requires the mutual acknowledgement that an offense has been committed and that the perpetrator is wrong while the victim is right. But the perpetrator and their victim never really see the crime in question the same way. The perpetrator often doesn’t see what they did as wrong, or as really wrong. They may even feel justified in doing what they did, and they may not be as grateful for the victim’s forgiveness as does the victim. And although elated at being right and thus holding the moral high ground, the victim often doesn’t see their own forgiveness quite as thoroughgoing as the victim would want. This leads to unconscious resentments that manifest as frustration, irritation, impatience, aloofness or unwillingness to assist. Given the impossibility of ever truly forgetting the offense, the victim may harbor an unrequited desire for revenge. None of this is healthy, conducive to moving on, or amenable to closure.

If it’s impossible to forgive and forget, then are there alternatives?

The first option is to understand the perpetrator without forgiving them. However, knowing one’s enemy is important, but not very satisfying. Paul Jacobs, co-founder of Mother Jones, soundly dismissed the notion that communication and reaching out to talk to one’s foes are any kind of panacea. “Whenever I ‘communicate’ with my enemies I realize they’re the sons-of-bitches I knew they were from the start.” Understanding the enemy is good for planning an attack, or in this case revenge.

Revenge is actually a quite satisfying solution. One that I’ve had lots of experience dispensing. As a late hippie I used to say “I’ll be mellow when I’m dead.” And as an early punk I identified with the Johnny Rotten/PiL lyric “anger is an energy.” I’ve always had a strong aggro streak. Combine that with rarely letting doubts get in the way of taking direct action, and revenge has been my preferred response. Anger isn’t necessarily bad so long as it has an outlet and isn’t allowed to fester. Gandhi may or may not have said “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” but I’ve tried to be a little more creative with my revenge than straight up tit-for-tat retaliation. I’ve been known to counterattack in the heat of the moment but I’m also a big fan of the sentiment that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

But in taking stock of the trail of mayhem I’ve left in my life I’ve concluded that revenge is not the best response. So let’s explore two more choices, given that forgetting is never an option and forgiving may or may not have anything to do with healing, moving on, or finding closure.  Feeling hurt, betrayed or abused for myself or others engenders a sense of loss and grief that needs to be dealt with in its own right.

One possibility is traditional ritual which has been updated with the concept of process. Returning to Judaism, there is a well-defined ritual of mourning, from aninut and sitting shiva to reciting the Kaddish and observing Yom Kippur. Rituals of bereavement have been secularized and modernized with the “five stages of grief” model first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. When my parents died I lit candles, joined a grief support group for almost a year and wrote a novel. Both ritual and process involve time, which validates one more old maxim: “time heals all wounds.” I don’t forgive in lieu of a sincere apology, but time does soften the outrage I feel for the harm and injury I can never forget. Over time, as acceptance replaces forgiveness, the desire for revenge lessens.

I’m a recovering Catholic who admires the Jewish approach to forgiveness and grief. I’m also an atheist who takes a lot from Buddhism. The Buddhist approach to grief is to accept it as a terrible gift that, if denied, “rob[s] ourselves of the heavy stones that will eventually be the ballast for the two great accumulations of wisdom and compassion” according to Joan Halifax. Detached compassion is recommended instead of forgiveness in a parable cited by spiritual leader Ravi Shankar. A businessman abused Gautama for leading the man’s children astray. When the businessman subsequently asked to be forgiven, Buddha said ‘No! I cannot excuse you! Why should I forgive you when you have done nothing wrong!” Gautama suggested that the person the businessman abused “is not here now.” To say “I forgive you” is to trade on the perpetrator’s guilt, while compassion means ignoring the issue of guilt altogether. Finally, Ken McLeod writes in “Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” that the “meaning of forgiveness is grounded in the language of debt” and self-interest. “[B]y importing the foreign (to Buddhism) notion of forgiveness, contemporary Buddhists are unwittingly importing a very different system of thought and practice and undermining the powerful mystical practices in Buddhism that may have inspired them in the first place.” Instead of forgiveness, McLeod recommends a proper understanding of how karma works, and practices of unceasing spiritual purification.

Grief work and detached compassion reframe the issue of forgiveness. I’ll conclude with another “Darius Pringle” quote: “Life gives us choices, defines us by the ones we make. And yet we make them all in complete uncertainty.”

 

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Chance
, TV series by Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham
“Exploring the complexities of forgiveness” by Yerachmiel Gorelik
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Erica Manfred
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Hannah Braime
“Why Forgiveness is Overrated” by Tim Hoffman
“When Buddha Refused To Forgive” by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
“Forgiveness Is Not Buddhist” by Ken McLeod

 

 

 

 

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The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

I devoured Pynchon’s 760-page epic and absorbed his dichotomy between paranoia and anti-paranoia. Paranoia is the sense that everything is connected, has meaning, and is part of some larger pattern. Anti-paranoia is the sense that nothing is connected to anything, has no meaning, and is patternless. That basic duality has informed everything from my psychedelic drug experiences to my study of everything—history, politics, economics, society, spirituality.

As a lover of history who fancies myself an amateur historian, I consider history the best tool to study those other subjects. History is not just the linear chronicling of unique events and facts (histoire événementielle). There is some level of pattern to be found in history. Civilizations, empires and nations rise and fall. War is a persistent pastime for humans. “Who benefits?” (cui bono) is always a good question to ask of any set of historical evidence or events. But to argue that “history repeats itself,” or that history demonstrates an ever-ascending line of progress, or that it’s possible to draw “universal truths” from comparing similar historical events that occurred at different times, in different places, under different socio-economic circumstances, to different groups of people, is fallacious.

Then there are the long-term, nearly permanent or slowly evolving historical structures mapped out by Karl Marx as modes of production and by Fernand Braudel as the longue durée. I tend to view these analyses as descriptive rather than prescriptive; as describing what happened rather than what must happen. One of these structures is the nation-state. In The State, Franz Oppenheimer argued that the modern nation-state is a historical structure of relatively recent origins, a product of conquest. The feudal state based on landed territorial empires was politically amalgamated with the maritime state based on coastal commercial city-states.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory describes a more complex development for the nation-state. As integrated territories and homogenous populations were achieved over centuries independent states and economies were consolidated. Centralized governments with extensive bureaucracies and large mercenary armies were attained by ruling elites—the local bourgeoisie. These nation-states regulated the domestic economy and controlled international commerce in order to extract surpluses, eventually industrializing their economies and democratizing their societies.

The Left has targeted the nation-state for complete destruction since the First International, with the anarchist project to abolish the state and the Marxist project to abolish the nation. Lenin put up obstacles to abolishing the nation-state by championing the right of oppressed peoples to national self-determination and insisting that the communist withering away of the state be preceded by a strengthening of state power under socialism. Marxism-Leninism has subsequently devolved into the dictatorship of the vanguard party and socialist struggles for national liberation, completely reversing the First International’s liberatory intent.

Given this betrayal, my propensity is always to look for Leftist non-state and non-national alternatives. Hence me calling myself an anti-state communist, and my interest in the EZLN in Chiapas and the YPG/SDF in Rojava. And it’s why I’ve studied how dispersed peoples like the Jews have managed to survive for millennia partially or entirely without a national state. The Jewish diaspora has existed since the Babylonian Exile in 597 bce and was complemented by influential cultural centers in Babylon, Palestine, Spain and Poland. This core/periphery historical dynamic was not merely central to Jewish survival but it’s also partly why Marxist-Leninist types have denied the Jewish people the right to the national self-determination they insist on for other marginalized peoples.

But history is not the only way to organize time. Traditional pre-modern societies have frequently used repeating cycles of ages and concepts like the eternal return to structure temporal reality.

The four ages cycle of decay and rebirth in Hinduism is the best known, comprised of the Satya, Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yugas. Comparable to the four ages in Greek/Roman mythology (Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron), cyclical time is what Frederich Nietzsche called the “eternal recurrence.” “Everything has returned. […] [A]ll things will return. […] [F]or mankind this is always the hour of Noon.” This radical reactionary’s promotion of what he considered simultaneously to be humanity’s heaviest burden and a love of one’s own fate (amor fati) illustrates a key distinction between antiquity and modernity, what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the concept of the “eternal return.” The desire and capacity to return to a mythical golden age is the theme of his flawed, simplistic study The Myth of the Eternal Return. Eliade covered not just cyclical time but the power of origins, the distinction between the sacred and profane and the importance of sacred time, the use of myth and ritual to become contemporaneous with a past golden age, and the terror of history. While in his 20’s, Mircea Eliade was sympathetic with, though not a member of, Corneliu Codreanu’s fascist Christian Legion of the Archangel Michael—the bloody, brutal Romanian Iron Guard that the Nazis considered too extreme. He distanced himself from overt rightwing involvements even as he maintained close friendships with parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola who advocated for similar notions of cyclical time and the eternal return.

“In our day, when historical pressure no longer allows any escape, how can man tolerate the catastrophes and horrors of history—from collective deportations and massacres to atomic bombings—if beyond them he can glimpse no sign, no transhistorical meaning; if they are only the blind play of economic, social, or political forces, or, even worse, only the result of the ‘liberties’ that a minority takes and exercises directly on the stage of universal history?” Mircea Eliade wrote in The Myth of the Eternal Return of the terror of history. “We know how, in the past, humanity has been able to endure the sufferings we have enumerated: they were regarded as a punishment inflicted by God, the syndrome of the decline of the ‘age,’ and so on. And it was possible to accept them precisely because they had a metahistorical meaning […] Every hero repeated the archetypal gesture, every war rehearsed the struggle between good and evil, every fresh social injustice was identified with the sufferings of the Saviour (or, for example, in the pre-Christian world, with the passion of a divine messenger or vegetation god), each new massacre repeated the glorious end of the martyrs. […] By virtue of this view, tens of millions of men were able, for century after century, to endure great historical pressures without despairing, without committing suicide or falling into that spiritual aridity that always brings with it a relativistic or nihilistic view of history.”

Nietzsche may have coined the expression “historical sickness” (historische Krankheit) in critiquing the study of history, preferring the idea of genealogy to express the power of origins and relations. To be fair, an acceptance of cyclical time is not always an embrace. Buddhism expresses a terror of the eternal return in seeking to end the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation, which is the cyclical time of ages writ personal. The Sacred cannot exist within time according to Buddhism which seeks a transcendence of both the ego and the cosmic. And even within the profane time understood as history—that supposedly linear march of facts and events devoid of any inherent meaning or sacrality—there is the tendency to see cycles. Certain schools of Marxism contend that the ultimate goal of a stateless, nationless, classless communism is humanity’s original primitive communism taken to a higher level, implying that history is not cyclical so much as an upward spiral.

Braudel and the Annales School to which he belonged actually divided historical time into individual time, social time and geographical time. Individual time is the courte durée history of “individuals with names,” the superficial linear histoire événementielle chronicling of events, facts, politics and people that is without deep significance, pattern or meaning. Social time is the longue durée of gradually developing social, economic and cultural patterns and structures. Geographical time is the imperceptibly evolving repetitive cycles of the natural environment. These three types of historical time are to be contrasted with the cyclical time of traditional societies and rightwing politics which is rigidly patterned, drenched in fixed meaning, and eternally repeating. In Pynchon’s dichotomy, individual time is anti-paranoia whereas cyclical time is paranoia. Everything in between is history proper.

And the abolition of the nation-state remains on the agenda.

SOURCES:
Notes on the Eternal Recurrence by Frederich Nietzsche
Capital by Karl Marx
The State by Franz Oppenheimer
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel
The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade
The Modern World-System by Immanuel Wallerstein
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

 

 

 

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A commie punk walks into a bar…: “What’s Left?” September 2015, MRR #388

I first visited New York City in the fall of 1988. I walked all day, everywhere, for weeks straight until I had blisters on my feet and I’d developed a crick in my neck from looking up at all the tall buildings. It was glorious.

The anarcho/ultra milieu was jumping at the time. Folks from WBAI, many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, the Libertarian Book Club, Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, Neither East Nor West, and that was just the politics. Probably the least interesting encounter I had was with Hakim Bey aka Peter Lamborn Wilson, while the most impressive was with Joey Homicides aka Bob McGlynn. Libertarian things were popping all over because the Warsaw Pact had just crumbled, and the old Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.

Then there was all the touristy stuff I wanted to do, first time in The City. I spent a whole day at the Museum of Modern Art, making a beeline for Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” then walking around the rest of the building in utter rapture. I turned a corner, aimlessly, only to stumble upon Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” I was floored. The oversized painting had its own room, and it wasn’t in the best of shape. Cracked, peeling, warped, the somber black and white canvas made the hairs stand up on the back of my head.

Picasso is one of those people who elicits wide, often violent opinions. If you look at his drawings and paintings from before he went Cubist, during his Blue Period for instance, you can well understand why he was considered a brilliant artist. His politics were a bit more dodgy. Apparently, Picasso had entrusted “Guernica” to the MoMA after his death to keep until such time that the return of democracy to Spain allowed for the painting’s return. As I stood in the MoMA gazing at what I thought was an anti-fascist icon, a deal had been cut with the museum to return the original “Guernica” in 1981, despite the fact that Spain was a constitutional monarchy and not a democracy. I realized many years later that what I had seen in 1988 was not “Guernica” but the related masterpiece “The Charnel House,” so similar in style and power. Picasso was a member of the Communist Party, which meant he was an apologist for Stalin and his crimes, including the crimes committed by the Spanish CP during the Spanish Civil War. And he was a complete asshole, personally, when it came to women. Of his wives, lovers, and mistresses, two killed themselves and two went mad associating with a man who said: “For me there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.”

“Loyal, generous and affectionate when it suited him, Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers,” wrote Mark Hudson. Lots of artist types turn out to be brilliant at their art, and thus publicly praised, while their private lives often reveal profound personal and moral failings. Of course, this disassociation between the public and the private goes both ways, with a common if mundane observation being that Hitler, arguably the world’s most brutal dictator, loved dogs and children and was loyal to Eva Braun. It’s easy to come up with a list of 15 or 20 great artists who were nasty people, but not so easy to name even 5 people generally considered evil who have also done demonstrable good. The idea of the brilliant genius artist who is simultaneously a monumental jerk is so frequent as to have become a trope. And when genius and asshole reside in the same individual, dispassionately evaluating famous people and their contributions can be tricky.

It becomes immensely more so when passion is involved. Gregory, the youngest son of Ernest Hemingway, wrote to his father spelling out the pros and cons from his traumatized perspective: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons – Hadley, Pauline, Marty, Patrick, and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?” To someone who loves Hemingway’s writing, or who admires good literature in general, any evaluation of the worth and cost/benefit of the man and his work might be substantially different, bringing to mind Tolstoy’s famous quote that “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Evaluating merit is not much easier when we switch from the life and work of an individual, whether famous or not, to gauging the merit of our not-so-personal relationships, with the organizations and movements we belong to or support. I wrote a column some time ago about how I experimented with every drug in the book during the 1960s, and only alcohol managed to kick my ass. I was more or less a daily drinker, not heavy but strong and steady, for 30 years up until January 1, 2010. It was all just maintenance at that point. My habit was fucking with me, my relationships, my pancreas, and to my mind the costs of my regular alcohol intake far outweighed the benefits. So, I decided to quit, and I did so through the Chemical Dependency and Recovery Program at Kaiser, of which I am a member. CDRP provided me with regular professional counseling, access to a shrink who could also prescribe drugs in case my withdrawal symptoms got too heavy, classes on the science of dependency and withdrawal, and lots and lots of meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, LifeRing meetings, harm reduction meetings, I went to every meeting and every class and every counseling session for 90 days until I no longer had a problem staying sober. The scientific knowledge alone—of what your mind and body go through 30, 60, and 90 days after withdrawal—was worth the price of admission.

Of course, AA was and is ubiquitous, as the oldest and best known absolutely free recovery program around. But AA impressed me as a cult from the very first chanted call-and-response. I freely admit to having cherry-picked different principles from different programs to get the recovery that works for me—among them the notions of surrender and forgiveness from AA, the ideas of secularity and self-help from LifeRing, and the medical use of prescribed drugs when necessary to help with withdrawal from harm reduction. Still, virtually everybody around me was in AA, working an AA program, so I accepted the validity and efficacy of AA in going about not drinking. I started sitting zazen at the San Francisco Zen Center, with its meditation in recovery meetings being my anchor for five years. But over those years the focus of those meetings, equal parts Buddhism and 12-step recovery, has grown thin, not because of the zen but because of the steps.

Whether or not there is a god has absolutely nothing to do with the existence, nature, and solution to suffering. That’s basic Buddhism, whose founder cautioned: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I’ve been pretty much an atheist after giving up Catholicism for Lent at 13. Buddhism is about as non theistic, and zen as atheistic, as you can get and still call it a spiritual practice.

I never saw or felt the need for a god to help me stop drinking, and no matter how much AA papers over it, some concept of god is required for their program to work. Court-ordered AA participation is thus a direct violation of the basic Constitutional right to religious liberty, in this case the freedom to not have a religion. All that “your ‘higher power’ can be anything, even a doorknob” AA bullshit I find theologically imbecilic, spiritually vacuous, and personally insulting. Surrendering to a “higher power” isn’t necessary to experience the need to forgive and be forgiven, or to simply surrender and ask for help. Whether or not a god exists has absolutely nothing to do with stopping drinking and staying sober.

The debate over whether alcohol abuse is a disease or a choice is not resolved, although more and more scientists are supporting the disease model. Prolonged alcohol abuse chemically restructures the alcoholic’s body and brain and causes the difficulties in withdrawal, according to current scientific research, and there is much evidence that certain individuals are born with a proclivity for addiction to alcohol. AA’s main problem is that its central metaphor of “alcoholism as disease” clashes with various other aspects of AA’s program. If alcoholism is a disease, then why blame the alcoholic for the moral failure of not staying sober? If alcoholism is a disease, then why does AA resist the use of drugs like naltrexone to lessen the desire to drink? If I had a disease like cancer I would do everything in my power—prescription drugs, radiation, chemotherapy, surgery—to control or eliminate that disease. I certainly wouldn’t sit around making a “fearless moral inventory” of my personal failings, asking for forgiveness for my moral shortcomings, then seeking moral support from a god that doesn’t exist when cold, hard science is crucial to my cure. Or, as Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her recent Atlantic Monthly article “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous”: “Why do we assume they [alcoholics] failed the program, rather than that the program failed them?”

Aside from Glaser’s excellent article there is a whole website (orange-papers.org) devoted to systematically and thoroughly debunking AA—its history, program, and claims. AA is ranked 38th out of 48 common alcohol treatment methods, not very effective at all. Given that it is “anonymous,” recovery statistics for AA are hard to come by and even harder to verify. The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes puts the actual success rate for AA somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. Every disease has a spontaneous remission rate, and Harvard Medical School calculated that the annual rate of spontaneous remission in alcoholics is around 5 percent. Which means that AA’s track record is at, or at most just 3 percent higher than the spontaneous remission rate for alcoholics. Hardly worth all the hoopla surrounding AA’s supposed successes.

But even one recovered alcoholic is success enough, many in AA would argue. Combine the abysmally low rate of recovery with other problems in AA such as 13th Stepping and AA’s cons far outweigh the pros. Thirteenth Stepping is when individuals, oftentimes mandated by law to attend AA meetings, take advantage of AA’s horizontal and relatively leaderless organization in general, and its unsupervised sponsor/sponsee structure in particular, to prey upon and sexually exploit newbies, most often young naïve girls. CBS’s 60 Minutes did an entire segment, “The Sober Truth,” that, along with The 13th Step Film by Monica Richardson, exposed the underreported realities of 13th Stepping. But the rampant problem of 13th Stepping is not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by AA’s national/international organization.

When I was running around NYC back in 1988, I hung around a crew of friends and comrades, many of whom were heavy drinkers. And since it was a vacation for me, I was drinking more than my usual. One of my companions at the time wisecracked: “The liver is a muscle that must be exercised.” Well, the brain is also a muscle, and our capacity for analysis and coming to reasoned conclusions needs to be exercised as well. My judgment is still out on whether Picasso’s or Hemingway’s art was worth the human damage those artists inflicted. Not so with AA, where its paltry success rate is not offset by it problems, everything from its moralizing guilt tripping to 13th Stepping. There are lots of evidence-based non 12-step recovery and support programs out there, including a promising Buddhist-based one pioneered by Noah Levine called Refuge Recovery. As for AA?

Don’t believe the hype!

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Evidence-based Recovery and Support Groups

Secular
SMART: Self Management And Recovery Training
Women for Sobriety
Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves/SOS
LifeRing Secular Recovery/LSR
Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support/HAMS
Moderation Management
Rational Recovery
Naltrexone/Sinclair Method

Buddhist
Refuge Recovery

No apology necessary (or offered): “What’s Left?” December 2014, MRR #379

THE LEFT BEHIND LEFT

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo (Walt Kelly), comic strip

We called it “The System” back in the day. After I got politics in 1968, I considered capitalism and the State equally destructive of human individuality and community, and that working people would be able to overthrow both to bring about socialism. My world view didn’t change much as I evolved from anarchism to left communism over the decades that followed. I identified the working class as the social class with the revolutionary agency to overthrow capitalism and the State and realize communism, a bit more nuanced than the political debates of the 60s where Marxists argued that capitalism was the principle enemy while anarchists argued that it was the State.

Things got a whole lot more complicated in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The New Left splintered into the New Communist Movement, various nationalist movements, the women’s movement, the gay movement, et al, even as we pretended that a bunch of ineffective little groupings amounted to one big ineffectual Movement. Alternative analyses arose where patriarchy was the enemy and women the revolutionary agent, or white supremacy was the enemy and people of color the revolutionary agent, and so on. Eventually, it became necessary to define The System, after bell hooks, as the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” enemy; a rather clunky accumulation of oppressions that did little to advance any kind of radical struggle other than to appease various and sundry wannabe revolutionaries.

I will take on the issue of revolutionary agency, as well as of the realistic capacities of any such agency, in a future column. For now, it should be clear that the implied parity between forms of oppression entailed by the phrase The “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” System is bullshit. Every group in radical circles singles out one form of oppression as primary, with all others consigned to secondary status. Radical people of color and their allies see white supremacy as THE enemy. Radical feminists and their allies contend that patriarchy is THE enemy. And so it goes. Such was the case when Marxists argued that capitalism was THE enemy, or when anarchists proclaimed that the State was THE enemy.

I’m happy to discuss and debate which form of oppression is paramount, even to argue whether all are equally valid, and learn from or adjust my analysis accordingly. Unfortunately, the quality of discussion and debate in this sad excuse for a Movement is abysmal. I’m not sure whether it is merely dogmatism and sectarianism run rampant, or the consequence of postmodernism’s effects on our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue, but reason and analysis seem to be in short supply whereas rational study and articulate argument have become lost arts. I won’t go into all the gory details of my latest run-in with internecine anarchist idiocy. You can google that for yourself. For the record, I’m utterly disdainful of the thoroughly isolated, completely fragmented, pathetic joke of a so-called Movement. Nowadays, I no longer claim anything left of the Left, although my sympathies remain gauchist. Instead, lets discuss two general topics of interest.

THE MYTH OF FACT CHECKING

Memory is a motherfucker.

Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist

This is one of my favorite quotes. Ayers makes the point that many of the memories he claims are fact or true are actually not that at all, but are based on recollections fogged by time, as well as a “blurring of details” where “[m]ost names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away.” There is plenty of scientific evidence for the unreliability of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. This plus my experience with writing and reading history, where there are invariably numerous versions of the same historical narrative, has made me cynical of words like “fact” and “truth.” I won’t go so far as Nietzsche’s famous quote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but I will argue that there are no facts, only evidence for facts. The only way we can establish a fact, or for that matter a truth, is through verifiable, empirical evidence for that fact or truth.

Fact checking then is not a matter of tallying up the facts, but of compiling and weighing the evidence for the facts. In my experience, two things often stand in the way of honest fact checking when it comes to current events. First, there are plenty of people claiming that “they were there” at any given notorious incident, whether or not they actually were. And second, of those individuals who come forth and claim to be present when such incidents take place, most are decidedly less than forthcoming about the what, when, where and how of their supposed eyewitness experiences despite their willingness to loudly pass judgment on the why.

As for history, I wasn’t around for either the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war. Yet I’ve scoured all the available history and primary sources, the evidence if you will, for the facts and lessons to be drawn from these historical events. In the process, I’ve noticed that new evidence is always being discovered, and thus new facts are being determined, and new histories are being written.

DUALISM VS DIALECTIC

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him.

Shunryu Suzuki, “No Dualism,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.

Tom Waits, “Heartattack and Vine”

Finally, there is the tendency to reduce everything to a Manichean good vs evil view of the world, inherited from our Judeo-Christian society. Marx made it clear that capitalism is a system of exploitation and oppression, but also an all encompassing social relationship in which both capitalists and workers are intimately involved. Capitalist and worker are both oppressed by capitalism, although by no means equally so. Thus, Marx was against vulgar Marxists who label capitalists as purely evil and workers as entirely good. White supremacy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that white people are evil and people of color are good. Patriarchy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that men are evil and women are good.

Even the penchant for naming an enemy is problematic. To do so is to suggest an evil that must be countered by the good. I have been sitting zazen for the past three plus years, trying to wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of non duality. Non duality seems the perfect antidote to good vs evil thinking, except that it propounds paradox at every turn. Strive for non-striving, let go of letting go, achieve non-achievement; Buddhism is chock full of such paradoxes. These are consciously enigmatic contradictions akin to the famous koans of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai school, meant not to supply answers but to provoke enlightenment. Combine that with Buddhism’s own recent demonstration of good vs evil dualistic behavior, illustrated by the murderous agitation of rabidly anti-Muslim Buddhist monks like U Wirathu and Galagodaatte Gnanasara, and we’re back in the thick of this world’s shit.

WHAT’S LEFT?

Nobody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.

John Sayles, “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

In John Sayles’ piquant short story, “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” cantankerous personal squabbling and bitter political sectarianism among the scruffy convention participants are momentarily set aside when all in attendance unite against a hotel manager who tries to kick the Convention out of its rented room due to double booking. This whimsical tale ends when the convention of geriatric has-been red-flag wavers dedicated to lost causes erect a barricade, stand together, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The notion that The Movement is something we should rally around against a common enemy reeks of just such sentimentality and nostalgia. That this degenerate offspring of what was called The Left is all but worthless goes without saying.

So, call me a fascist or a racist, or label my thinking white supremacist or Eurocentric. I write my columns knowing full well that some people will dismiss what I say as defensive, abstract, condescending, or self-serving. For those of you who consider me an anachronistic, eccentric old school commie, here’s my upraised middle finger.

Attached to non attachment: “What’s Left?” July 2009, MRR #314

Ask yourself why you practice zazen? If it is to reach some specific goal, or to create some special state of mind, then you are heading in the opposite direction from zazen. You create a separation from reality. Please, trust zazen as it is, surrender to reality here and now, forget body and mind, and do not DO zazen, do not DO anything, don’t be mindful, don’t be anything – just let zazen be and follow along.

Muho Noelke

Of all the whacky religions people believe in, I’m kind of fond of Zen Buddhism.

Maybe it was because of my proximity to the Beats when I lived in San Francisco between three and six years of age. Or because of my dad’s interest in all things Beatnik during my adolescence.

Or maybe it’s because Zen reminds me of Unitarianism. The local Unitarian church offered draft counseling when I lived in Ventura and was facing conscription for the Vietnam War, keeping me sane if not saving my ass as I confronted the US government during the ‘60s. Unitarianism, like Zen, doesn’t demand that its adherents believe in anything really, not even god.

Perfect for an agnostic like me. Except that I’ve always lacked the personal discipline to pursue any type of spiritual practice, even the bare bones, anti-formalist, anti-scriptural, purely experiential immediatism of Zen. I mean, I can’t even fucking sit and meditate for fifteen minutes a day when I have no job and all the time in the world. And Zen requires a lot of self-discipline, contrary to popular belief.

It’s one of these popular misconceptions that I want to take on at the moment. The common perception of Zen is of a rarified, somewhat cerebral, comfortably pacifist, tolerant religion of robed, head shaven monks who spend all their time ensconced in monasteries engaged in quiet contemplation. This image has been fostered by western appropriation of certain Zen concepts, principle among them the notion of mindfulness. Popularized by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, among others, mindfulness has spread from the realm of New Age spirituality and entered the mainstream medical and psychiatric communities. The practice of mindfulness is now touted as being able to alleviate depression, anxiety and stress, reduce pain and suffering, and help people to be happy.

All well and good, except that this medical extraction of mindfulness out of the general framework of Zen Buddhism, much like the pharmaceutical purification of a particular chemical from a complex herb, tends to make mindfulness into a kind of drug. Instead of understanding mindfulness as a means of awareness sufficient unto itself, it becomes a cure for various ailments, something to be used to achieve an end. In the process, this reinforces the passive, peaceful stereotype of Zen Buddhism, when nothing about Zen could be further from the truth.

Kaiten Nukariya’s aptly titled 1913 work Religion of the Samurai first advanced the understanding of Zen as a warrior religion, something that para-fascist Julius Evola reiterated in his 1981 monograph Lo Zen. It was Evola’s controversial contention that all Buddhism, at its base and when not bastardized by popularization, is a warrior religion, given that Gautama Buddha was by birth a member of India’s Kashatriya caste. Brian Daizen Victoria wrote his book Zen at War in 1998, which claimed that Zen was instrumental to the rise of Japanese militarism from the Meiji Restoration to the Second World War. Victoria’s thesis is not without its critics, but the links between Zen Buddhism and military practice are hard to discount. Nor are they difficult to appreciate.

Zen mental training has a number of direct applications to warrior preparation, beginning with intense concentration that allows for the perfection of fighting skills. The powerful moment-to-moment awareness cultivated by Zen is an ideal state of mind for the warrior, permitting appropriate action to arise spontaneously, which is crucial to anyone in the heat of battle. And the settling, or clearing, of the mind, the standing apart from thought employed by Zen certainly facilitates the standing back from any moral qualms that might arise from fighting and killing. No doubt, western practitioners of mindfulness as a form of therapy would be appalled to learn of the easy application of this technique to the art of war. Yet its historical reality is incontrovertible.

The singular western focus on mindfulness also tends to limit the qualities of mindfulness itself. Or, as Muho Noelke, abbot of Antaiji Monastery, once said:
We should always try to be active coming out of samadhi. For this, we have to forget things like “I should be mindful of this or that.” If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation (“I – am – mindful – of -…”). Don’t be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk (Dogen Zenji says: “When we open our mouths, it is filled with Dharma”). Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let sleep sleep.

Easier said than done.

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