The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

Chalkboard #3: The Social


The chalkboard series is where I think out loud.

Originating with Karl Marx who developed the concept of economic reproduction into social reproduction in volume one of Capital, Italian autonomist Marxism in the 1960s extended the analysis of how capitalist social relations expand outside the sphere of production to encompass society as a whole.

‘Capitalist development is organically linked to the production of relative surplus value. And relative surplus value is organically linked to all the internal vicissitudes of the process of capitalist production, that distinct and ever more complex unity between process of labour and process of valorization, between the transformations in the conditions of labour and the exploitation of labour-power, between the technical and social process together, on the one hand, and capitalist despotism, on the other.  The more that capitalist development advances, that is, the more the production of relative surplus value penetrates and extends, the more that the circle-circuit production-distribution-exchange-consumption is necessarily closed. That is, the relation between capitalist production and bourgeois society, between factory and society, between society and State achieves, to an ever greater degree a more organic relation. At the highest level of capitalist development, the social relation is transformed into a moment of the relation of production, the whole of society is turned into an articulation of production, that is, the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society. It is upon this basis that the machinery of the political State tends to ever more identify with the figure of the collective capitalist; it is turned ever more into the property of the capitalist mode of production and, as a result, function of the capitalist. The process of the unitary composition of capitalist society, imposed by the specific development of its production, no longer tolerates that there exist a political terrain, even if this is formally independent of the web of social relations.  In a certain sense, it is true that the political functions of the State begin today to be recuperated by society, with the slight difference that this is the society of classes of the capitalist mode of production. Consider this a sectarian reaction against those who see in the modern political State the neutral terrain of the struggle between capital and labour. Heed some prophetic words from Marx that have not been superseded in the political thought of Marxism: “It is not enough that the conditions of labour present themselves as capital on one side and as men who have nothing to sell but their labour-power on the other. It is also not enough to constrain these men to sell themselves voluntarily.  To the degree that capitalist development progresses, there develops a working class that, by education, tradition and habit recognizes as obvious natural laws the demands of that mode of production. The organization of the process of production overcomes all resistances…; the silent coercion of the economic relations places the seal of the capitalist over the worker. It is true that extra economic power, immediately, continues to be used, but only exceptionally. In the normal course of things the worker can remain confident that in the natural laws of production, that is, on his dependence in relation to capital, which is born from the very conditions of production and that these guarantee and perpetuate.”’

Mario Tronti, Quaderni Rossi

The factory thus becomes the social factory. Insurrectionary and communizing anarchist and left communist tendencies in turn have followed through by taking the idea of class war as the basis for social war.

Analog radio politics: “What’s Left?” January 2015, MRR #380

I started listening to the radio to fall asleep at night when my parents moved back to southern California. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, living in Ventura, California. At first I listened to commercial AM radio; Top 40 and pop crooners. My parents’ radio stations. Then I discovered the Mighty 1090, XERB, out of Tijuana with Wolfman Jack, a growling, gravely-voiced disc jockey who specialized in “race music” that was quickly transforming into rock music. He played both black rhythm and blues and the white pop versions, Elvis-inspired rockabilly, doo wop, and the beginnings of rock’n’roll way past midnight. XERB was Mexican border blaster radio powerful enough to be heard well into Canada.

Those were the days of analog radio, when you could fine tune the dial with the slightest touch to catch radio stations that were too distant, interstitial, or so weak you could only find them late at night. FM radio was in its infancy, and often so low-powered that its line-of-sight signal meant that LA stations and their broadcasts were largely confined to that smog-choked metropolis. Early FM radio in LA was news-based or education-oriented or ghettoized into specific musical niches, like classical or jazz.

KMET started transmitting in 1968 at 94.7 as one of the first “underground” FM rock music stations, freeform, and relatively commercial free. Known as The Mighty Met, I only got its signal after 10 or so in the evening, when atmospheric conditions allowed it to bounce off the ionosphere and reach beyond the LA basin. Rock’n’roll was the soundtrack to my involvement with the New Left and hippie counterculture, and KMET allowed me to discover music that never got any airplay, commercial or otherwise. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I first heard the intro storm-and-bells to Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, which was then played over the air in full. And then there was the utter wackiness of the Dr. Demento show.

The wide open free-wheeling nature of FM radio rapidly evaporated during the ‘70s. Commercial advertising was less prominent on the FM airwaves, corporate sponsorship of FM stations and networks was more low key, and the listener/community supported model of Pacifica and NPR was going strong. But true underground radio was essentially dead by 1975. Eventually, FM radio became more popular and commercial than AM radio, marginalizing the AM band to talk radio, news and sports broadcasting, and religious and ethnic programming. So let’s turn to one of the metaphors generated by the FM radio experience. When Pacifica-affiliated KPFA (94.1) in Berkeley or NPR-associated KQED (88.5) in San Francisco conduct pledge drives, they often allude to the fact that their call numbers are on the left-hand side of the radio dial, implying that they are politically to the left as well. This coincidence also holds for music, with both KMET and the original KSAN (94.9) in San Francisco, not to mention the many Bay Area college radio stations, residing to the left of the dial. I’m told that this is a happenstance of FCC allocation, nothing more. And I’m not interested in making the left-right nature of the radio dial into an analogy for some overly simplistic left-right political spectrum in this country. Instead, consider that the 88-108 MHz portion of the FM radio spectrum represents the full range of political discussion and debate in the United States. My subject this column is how different forces in our society fight over dialing politics either more to the right or further to the left.

FDR’s New Deal was at the center of the dial at the end of the second World War, but working people in this country had dialed politics significantly to the left by 1945, after over fifteen years of grueling class struggle waged in the midst of economic depression and then world war. Fascism had been soundly defeated and the Soviet Union was widely praised, some 35% of the American working class was unionized and more were organizing, industrial actions and nation-wide strikes were regular occurrences, and talk of socialism and calls for revolution were commonplace. The capitalist ruling class was in fear for its power and position, so a concerted effort was launched by the bourgeoisie to dial things back to the right. The Truman administration initiated a concerted anti-Soviet, anti-communist campaign that climaxed with McCarthyism’s purges during the Eisenhower era. The results were a 1950s marked by conformity and conservatism, Cold War and capitalist consumerism, as political discussion and debate shifted markedly to the right.

The decade from 1965 to 1975, known as the 60s, witnessed a political and cultural explosion that reset the dial to the left once again. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the counterculture led, while JFK’s liberalism and LBJ’s Great Society followed. However, with the demise of Nixon, America’s last liberal president, the capitalist ruling class regained the ascendency. For the past forty-odd years it’s been dialing things back to the right, dismantling the welfare state, exploiting the collapse of Soviet communism, and deconstructing liberalism into neo-liberalism. The so-called Reagan revolution went so far as to threaten to demolish the New Deal altogether. When it comes to the Democrats, Carter dialed it to the right of JFK/LBJ, Clinton dialed it to the right of Carter, and Obama dialed it to the right of Clinton. That’s where we’re at today, the 2014 election hiccup notwithstanding.

Now, personally, I think that American politics lurched a little too far to the right in 2014, and that moderation will prevail once more in 2016. But it’s important to realize that this supposed moderation is actually solidly right wing when compared to the ‘60s, let alone the ‘40s. The political discussion and debate in this country has shifted, and continues to shift, to the right, thanks to the power and influence of the bourgeoisie. Returning to the radio analogy, where we once listened to Hank Williams Sr and country western music, we’re now tuned into Brad Paisley and fatuous country rock. Where we once grooved to John Coltrane and bebop, we now enjoy Winton Marsalis and vapid cool jazz. Where we once got high on Jimi Hendrix and rock’n’roll, we’re now buzzed by Yngwie Malmsteen and heavy metal noodling. And where we once thrashed to Black Flag and hardcore punk, we now politely consume Green Day and vacuous pop punk musicals. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

Blaming government or capitalism: “What’s Left?” March 2011, MRR #334

The international economic meltdown of 2007 that resulted in the Great Recession we’re still living through has been characterized by state funded bailouts for banks and other financial institutions, and considerable hardship for most of the rest of us. When the French government recently decided to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, workers struck and youth rioted for weeks on end as French public opinion remained firmly against the government’s actions. By contrast, while the American government does next to nothing to prevent escalating home foreclosures and ongoing high unemployment, workers and youth, inner cities and campuses are utterly pacified, while the American public remains thoroughly passive.

That is, unless one counts the growing Tea Party movement. Explicitly anti-big government, the Tea Party folks would give corporate capitalism free reign with tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization. So, what’s up with this country that, just as capitalism is proving itself bankrupt, the only apparent form of popular resistance turns out to be pro-capitalist? That the Tea Party movement had such a major impact on the recent midterm elections doesn’t speak well of the American electorate’s intelligence.

(I’m reminded of a couple of editorial cartoons, the first one by Joel Pett from the Lexington Herald-Leader in which the character is subject to ongoing capitalist abuse. A corporation lays him off, a corporation takes his home, corporate cash corrupts democracy, a corporation denies his medical claims, and corporations track his every move via surveillance, wiretaps, internet monitoring, and urine drug testing. In the last panel, he exclaims: “I hate the #@!% government!” Another political cartoon, by David Horsey from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, contrasts European and American reactions to government austerity measures. In the first panel, rioting French students battle the gendarmerie. For protesting government austerity in America, the illustration is of a Goldman-Sachs executive grabbing another man by his tie and yelling: “Save my tax cut, Senator! I don’t want to give up any of my million dollar bonus!”)

Why there’s such a dearth of class consciousness and class conflict in the United States at present, despite the ample material conditions that should generate the contrary, we’ll get to in a moment. That a spontaneous uprising of the working class, or the masses, or the people, or the multitude, or whatever, isn’t in the cards any time soon should be obvious in any case. The pious faiths of anarchism and left communism are less than useless when dealing with this unerring propensity of ordinary Americans today to act against their economic interests and class loyalties. The “American way of life” remains the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the survival of the planet with, perhaps, with the exception of a billion and half Chinese trying to emulate America. But at least the class war is alive and well in China, as sites like http://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/ amply demonstrate.

Lately, I’ve wondered what it would take to bring a little class war back to the American scene. Perhaps a charismatic, Huey Long type demagogue could stir up a populist, quasi-socialist, share-the-wealth movement among the American people. Then at the right moment this demagogue would be assassinated—an event that, instead of suppressing the movement led by him, would instigate a mass uprising that begins a resurgence of American socialism.

This scenario is a far cry from what is required to transform the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself, let alone a successful revolution that brings about the self-emancipation of the working class. Am I going so far as to deny the self-activity and self-organization of working people? No, but lately, I’ve come to understand how such sentiments for class autonomy come about. You see, for the longest time, I assumed that such impulses were innate to workers by virtue of them being a social class. That, up until the 1950s, the US labor movement was often the most violent and energetic in the world according to folks as diverse as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Jeremy Brecher, I attributed to the advanced nature of the American working class. Thus, I ignored that socialism never really took root in this country in any substantive way, that a labor party never emerged to challenge the two-party electoral system, and that factors like the western frontier, race and affluence easily deflected class struggle despite its supposed intensity.

When I did pay attention to such constraints on the class war in the United States, I thought that a little more historical development would be required to overcome any such limitations and obstacles. After all, weren’t immigrants invariably at the forefront of America’s class struggles, immigrants from places around the world with greater historical depth? Then I realized that the planet is not likely to survive the five hundred or so years of war, invasion, conquest, economic and social upheaval, etc., etc. that will be required to give this country the historical perspective for a halfway decent class war. Which then leaves me with John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up.” Published in 1972 when the United States represented approximately 6% of the world’s population consuming over 50% of the world’s resources, Brunner’s science fiction novel describes a planet on the brink of ecological collapse in which the only solution offered to humanity is the total destruction of America. The book concludes with this country descending into civil war.

Quite a grim little mood I’m in.

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