Joseph Trumpeldor: the man and his legacy

This article is a follow-up to my Maximum Rocknroll column on Jewish socialism vs Jewish nationalism and should be considered a non-canonical column.

UTOPIA ATTEMPTED

I call them “horseshoe heroes.”

I consider the assertions of horseshoe theorists—that far left and far right closely resemble each other like the ends of a horseshoe—to be utterly bogus. Yet I acknowledge that a select few individuals have become icons simultaneously for both the Left and the Right. I’m not talking here about Keith Preston’s pan-secessionist idiocy which likes to claim that everyone from Mikhail Bakunin to Julius Evola are default “horseshoe heroes” and therefore “go beyond Left and Right.”  I’m instead pointing to the vagaries of Third Positionist figures like Juan Perón who managed to be embraced by the political Left and Right through their actions and ideas.

One such individual was the early socialist Zionist Joseph Trumpeldor who achieved the status of “horseshoe hero” long before Third Positionism was a thing. In the process, Trumpeldor’s death-in-action became the inspiration for elements of Labor Zionism to transcend their Jewish-based ethnic socialism into true international socialism. Finally, Joseph Trumpeldor and his legacy gave rise to the utopian myth that a true social Zionism might have transcended the political Zionism that prevailed. If political Zionism meant the colonization of Palestine by any means necessary to establish a Jewish State—Israel—social Zionism intended the communal settlement of Palestine/Israel as a non-state binational commonwealth, with autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities residing side by side.

When I studied the history of Zionism as an undergraduate at UCSC, I sponsored a student-organized and lead class on the subject of socialist Zionism with two other students. My fellow student teachers were both left of the Left Jews who identified with the Chutzpah Collective in the United States and sympathized with Matzpen in Israel. For them Joseph Trumpeldor was the exemplar of just such a social Zionism.

JOSEPH TRUMPELDOR: SOCIALIST ZIONIST

Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, in 1880. His father served as a cantonist during the Caucasian War and was designated a “useful Jew” who was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Joseph was proudly Jewish, but his upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. The years leading up to 1905 proved crucial to his development. He was a patriotic Russian who volunteered for military service in 1902, served during the Russo-Japanese War, and fought in the siege of Port Arthur. He lost his left arm to shrapnel, was briefly a Japanese POW, and returned the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army, becoming the first Jew in the army to receive an officer’s commission in 1906.

The wave of revolutionary socialist militancy around the failed 1905 Russian workers soviet revolution overlapped with one of the bloodiest waves of Russian antisemitic pogroms from 1903 to 1906, introducing Joseph to both socialist and Zionist agitation. He professed sympathies for anarchist syndicalism and admired Peter Kropotkin, promoting Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid and eventually declaring himself an anarchist communist. And he gathered with fellow youthful Zionists in St. Petersburg by 1909 to study Ber Borochov, Nachman Syrkin and A.D. Gordon, and to advocate for Jewish self-defense.

Affiliated with the Poale Zion tendency within Labor Zionism, Trumpeldor emigrated—made aliyah—to Ottoman Palestine in 1911 where he did farm work, most famously at Degania, often considered the first kibbutz and the “mother of all kibbutzim.” When the first World War started, he was declared an enemy national by the Ottomans and went to Egypt where he met fellow Russian army veteran Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It’s unclear how far along Jabotinsky was in his slide right toward Hebrew fascism, but this may have been the first historical example of a red-brown alliance on the level of personal friendship. Apparently, they bonded over not just the need for Jewish self-defense, but the notion that the “new Jew” needed to be an armed Jew.

They approached the British about organizing an armed force of Jewish volunteers to fight against the Ottoman Empire and seize Palestine for the British Empire. Instead the British agreed to sponsor an auxiliary volunteer transport mule corps, an idea which Jabotinsky rejected outright but Trumpeldor enthusiastically accepted. The Zion Mule Corps was born. The Mule Corps participated in the fierce fighting on the Gallipoli Front as the Zionist volunteers Trumpeldor recruited acquitted themselves with bravery. Joseph refused to leave the battlefield despite being shot through the shoulder and Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson reported that “Captain Trumpeldor actually revelled in it, and the hotter it became the more he liked it…” After the dissolution of the Zion Mule Corps, Trumpeldor, Jabotinsky, and one hundred twenty Mule Corps veterans served together in the 16th Platoon of the London Regiment’s 20th Battalion. Their initiative for a Jewish armed force was ultimately accepted and expanded by the British military into five battalions of international Jewish volunteers, the 38th to 42nd Service Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, raised in the British Army, and were referred to as the Jewish Legion. The 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions saw combat in Palestine against the Ottomans. The Zion Mule Corps and Jewish Legion were deemed the first formal, all-Jewish military units organized in nearly two thousand years. Officially, the fighting Jew had been reborn.

Trumpeldor returned briefly to revolutionary Petrograd in 1918, organized Jews to defend themselves, and established the HeHalutz youth movement that prepared immigrants making aliyah for agricultural settlement in Palestine. HeHalutz eventually became an umbrella organization for various Zionist pioneer youth movements. As Britain and France carved up the Middle East, Joseph returned to what would become British Mandated Palestine where he was posted to Kibbutz Kfar Giladi by the unofficial Zionist militia Hashomer (successor to the Poale Zion controlled militia Bar-Giora) to organize defense for the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee. By then Theodor Herzl’s slogan about Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land” was proving the lie as Palestinian Arabs agitated against both Zionist colonizers and Western imperialism. The British had encouraged Arab nationalist rebellion against the Ottomans starting in 1916. Called the Arab Revolt, it lasted through 1920 and the Nebi Musa/Jerusalem riots.

The intent of the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence—in which the British government agreed to recognize Arab national independence after the war in exchange for the Sharif of Mecca sparking the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire—was betrayed first by the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, then the 1917 Balfour Declaration, and finally the 1919 Versailles Treaty. Western imperialist designs on the Middle East were clear, and when a territorial adjustment between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Lebanon lead to the administrative transfer of the northernmost part of the Upper Galilee from the former to the latter in 1919, the Arabs in the region grew alarmed. The Zionist settlements in the area preferred to remain under British rule and so the Hashomer militia tasked with defending Jewish colonization in Palestine was put on high alert. When Lebanese Shi’ite Arabs attempted to search the settlement of Tel Hai due to their suspicions of French espionage, a major firefight ensued with Hashomer in which five Arabs and eight Jews were killed, among them Joseph Trumpeldor who was wounded in the hand and stomach before dying while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi in March, 1920.

Trumpeldor’s supposed final words: “Never mind, it is good to die for our country” modeled on a famous Horace quote, may have been a sincere dying sentiment, an ironic Russian deathbed curse, or a dubious apocryphal allusion now contested for decades. In any case, Trumpeldor became a symbol for Jewish self-defense and a national hero for Zionists on the Right and Left. Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionist Movement named its youth movement Betar, an acronym for “Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor.” Labor Zionism honored him as the defender of the kibbutzim movement with several memorials, including one for the eight who died at Tel Hai. The settlement of Kiryat Shmona is named after that attack. In August, 1920, the Joseph Trumpeldor Labor and Defense Battalion (Gdud HaAvoda) was founded in Palestine.

LABOR BATTALION: LIBERTARIAN COMMUNISM

Gdud HaAvoda was established with the help of Trumpeldor’s third aliyah followers in Hashomer Hatzair who emigrated from Crimea. Based on principles of communal labor, settlement and defense, all income was pooled. They paved roads, drained swamps, worked in construction and agriculture, and established several kibbutzim, including Ein Harod, Ramat Rachel and Tel Yosef. After learning their skills in the battalion, many former members left to join the Solel Boneh construction company. When Gdud demanded a unified organization for all Jewish workers, the Histadrut (General Organization of Workers in Israel) was founded in Haifa in December, 1920, and grew rapidly. David Ben-Gurion, head of the Ahdut Haavoda political party, was elected its General Secretary in 1921. As a powerful, fully independent entity, it operated without any interference from the British colonial government.

The Histadrut attempted not only to unionize all Jewish workers in British Mandated Palestine but to own as much of the business and industry in the Jewish Yishuv as possible with a lock on the economic activities of its member communal and cooperative farms through the establishment of the Nir company, an aggressively centralizing syndicalist strategy. This accorded well with Ben-Gurion’s nationalist plans to make the Histadrut into a Jewish “state in the making.” The Histadrut also offered social and cultural services and health care (through Kupat Cholim). Its function was not to socialize the means of production it held but to strengthen its role as a “national enterprise.” Workers were wage labor hierarchically organized and centrally controlled, albeit cooperatively structured. According to Ze’ev Sternhell: “The Histadrut was interested in accumulating wealth and gaining political power, not in creating a socialist utopia.” This ran afoul of Gdud’s social strategy to “build up the land through the creation of a general commune of Jewish workers” rooted in a Palestine-wide cooperative system of equality and democratic self-management. The battalion wanted to establish larger agricultural settlements skilled at including agriculture and industry combined into a single institution, paving the way for a true socialist commonwealth based on “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Already the largest workers’ commune in Palestine, Gdud considered itself the direct progenitor of the Histadrut, while the Histadrut considered the battalion a direct threat—an economic competitor and political rival. Gdud wanted to “democratize” the Histadrut while the Histadrut wanted to take over, or better yet dissolve Gdud altogether.

Conflict arose between Gdud and Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda and then the Histadrut from the start. Gdud wanted to be an independent contractor bidding for public works jobs directly from the British Mandatory government’s Department of Public Works, whereas the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda demanded exclusive control. Ahdut Haavoda’s Agricultural Workers’ Federation and the Histadrut’s Bureau of Public Works only reluctantly allowed Gdud to participate in the settlement of the Jezreel Valley in 1920-22. These conflicts came to a head in 1922-23 over the issue of common treasury. For Gdud, common treasury meant that losses would be compensated with gains socially, thus maintaining an overall positive balance sheet over time. For Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut, each specific loss needed to be balanced out by a corresponding gain, an item-for-item accounting in a general treasury. When Kibbutz Ein Harod, which belonged to Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut Haavoda party, demanded that Gdud repay its debts to the kibbutz, the Histadrut backed the kibbutz and accused the battalion of misappropriating funds. It was implied that if the battalion could not honor its obligations, Gdud should be merged with Ahdut Haavoda. Gdud eventually did repay its debts while criticizing both the Histadrut and Ahdut Haavoda as not sufficiently socialist. But in doing so it gave the Histadrut the upper hand, and tacitly acknowledged that national goals were to be given priority over social values. Already disappointed that the Histadrut lacked centrality and a capacity to seize control of its related labor organs, Ben-Gurion used the Gdud Executive Committee’s leadership crisis in 1926 to force the eventual liquidation of the battalion by 1929.

The 1922-23 crisis over finances prompted Gdud to split between a pioneering rightwing and an overtly socialist leftwing that championed a genuine social Zionism. The battalion’s Left continued to demand a general commune in a socialist Palestine and made common cause with Hashomer Hatzair over creating a binational Arab/Jewish state in Palestine/Israel. To Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Labor Zionism shift “from class to nation” as the culmination of political Zionism, communist elements organized within Gdud to work to transform Jewish ethnic nationalism into international working class consciousness. The Gdud Executive Committee split politically over this and subsequently expelled a communist fraction in 1926, leading to the battalion ceasing work in 1927 prior to its complete dissolution in 1929. The Histadrut’s main rival had been gutted, its leadership decimated. Some members of Gdud’s communist fraction returned to Russia, where they formed a commune named Vojo Nova (Esperanto for “A New Way”), which was later liquidated during the Stalinist purges.

UTOPIA BETRAYED

Gdud HaAvoda and its communist splinter represented the Left’s most advanced position both within socialist Zionism and socialism in Jewish Palestine, striving to pose a social strategy based on class as opposed to a national strategy based on ethnicity. In the final analysis, the battalion could not overcome socialist Zionism’s primary contradiction of being a settler-colonial “socialism for one people.” Yet Gdud was a credit to the political legacy of Joseph Trumpeldor as well as the inspiration for a social Zionism that produced its own negation in the communist splinter expelled by Gdud. In the end, a communally based binational commonwealth of contiguous autonomous federations of Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine/Israel proved utopian, and the international communist alternative it engendered insignificant. Yet the myths surrounding Joseph Trumpeldor remain potent. Unfortunately, Trumpeldor’s legacy is marred and that mythos muddied by his appropriation as a nationalist hero by Revisionist Zionism’s Hebrew fascism. As a result of some questionable ideas and actions, his varied associations, a love of war and adventure, Joseph Trumpeldor also qualifies as a “horseshoe hero” combining diverse aspects of the Zionist Left and Right prior to his death.

It’s no accident that the period roughly between the fin de siècle and the second World War saw a myriad of larger-than-life “men of action” arise who subsequently differentiated themselves between Left and Right—André Malraux and T.E. Lawrence, George Orwell and Joseph Conrad, Joseph Trumpeldor and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The latter pair, as participants in Zionism, moved respectively left and right as their movement grew and diversified, much as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí claimed different politics as Surrealism developed. It was a crucible time, a condition of severe trial brought on by world events in which different elements violently interacted, melted, were reduced to their essences, and occasionally synthesized into something new. In such crucible times it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ideological decay and revitalization, between cultural decadence and renaissance, between social decline and progress. Whether we live in similar times remains to be seen.

 

SOURCES:
(1) The Israelis: Founders and Sons by Amos Elon
(2) The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism by Arie Bober
(3) The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State by Ze’ev Sternhell
(4) The Zionist Legacy: Water and Agriculture Management in Israel by Legrenzi, Trentin, et al

pt. 3: Jewish socialism vs Jewish nationalism: “What’s Left?” November 2019 (MRR #438)

LA’s Exposition Park, the northeastern meadows across from USC, were jammed with anti-Vietnam war protestors. The police estimated our numbers at between eight and ten thousand. The rally organizers said we had over twenty-five thousand in attendance.

It was October 15, 1969, the nationwide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. I’d never seen so many people in one place for one purpose. I was elated. I’d declared myself an anarchist pacifist in 1968 under threat of eventually being drafted. That day I was a revolutionary anarchist who’d traveled with friends from Ventura to participate in the protest.

I couldn’t hear the speeches in the huge crowd. Instead, I perused the two-score-plus literature tables that bordered the rally, noting the alphabet soup of Leftist organizations present. There were political parties (SP, SLP, CP, SWP, SL, PLP), front groups (WPC, ASFC, FPCC), New Left (SDS), civil rights (SCLC, SNCC, CORE), Black Power (BPP), feminist (NOW), labor (IWW, UE, UFW), religious (AFSC, CW, UUA), countercultural (YIPpie!, HAFC) and many others. I couldn’t get along with two-thirds of them personally and disagreed politically with nine-tenths of what they stood for, but on that day I embraced them all. They were my people. They were the Left.

I participated in anti-war vigils, pickets, sit-ins, marches, rallies, demonstrations, and riots for the next five years. I was also into labor activism; solidarity with the United Farm Worker’s grape and lettuce boycotts, support for UCSC graduate student unionizing efforts, and getting my IWW red membership card while working in a coop print shop in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t a Marxist, but I wholeheartedly espoused the sentiment “workers of the world, unite!” and believed the way forward was through international workers revolution.I had a girlfriend as an undergraduate at UCSC, Leah, who was two years younger and Jewish. I was a recovering Catholic. She’d planned to spend six months on a kibbutz in Israel, so I joined her after graduating in 1974. It was my opportunity not only to fight for some hypothetical, pie-in-the-sky socialism but to experience real existing socialism by living in a real commune.

Living on Kibbutz Mizra, midway between Nazareth and Afula in the Jezreel Valley, was exciting. Established under the slogan “from commune to communism,” Mizra was part of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and affiliated with the Israeli political party MAPAM, the two comprising the far left of socialist Zionism and the Labor Zionist movement which advocated for a binational Arab/Jewish state in Palestine/Israel. (MAPAM eventually merged with the much larger MAPAI party to form the Labor Party.) The kibbutz belonged to the larger Artzi kibbutzim federation, which was part of the Histadrut, the centralized syndicalist organization that was a combination labor union and business proprietor, and which owned over seventy percent of the Jewish Yishuv’s economy before the establishment of the Israeli state. Mizra existed on land formerly owned by the Jewish National Fund, a communal land trust that held over eighty percent of the Yishuv’s land until it was nationalized by the Israeli state. And Mizra was headquarters for the Palmach, the elite ultraleft fighting force of the Hagana, the Yishuv’s underground army in British Mandatory Palestine before independence.

Leah and I were volunteer kibbutz workers and were provided free housing, food, clothing and entertainment, even a monthly stipend to purchase luxuries at the common store. Mizra was a communal farm with over a thousand members and a mixed economy of agriculture (crops, eggs, chickens) and industry (meat processing plant, hydraulics machinery factory). I worked first in the Lul (chicken coop) and then the Ta’amal (hydraulics factory) where I met and befriended several of the Christian Arabs who worked on the kibbutz. The number of Arab workers was strictly limited. They were not members of the Histadrut nor were they allowed to organize. At UCSC I’d studied the history of socialist Zionism and the role Labor Zionism played in the founding of Israel. I knew about the Labor Zionist insistence on “Hebrew land,” “Hebrew labor,” “Hebrew products,” and “Hebrew self-defense” in the Zionist immigration to and colonization of Palestine under the auspices of the Jewish Agency. All of this looked to me like “socialism for one people,” a settler colonial socialism for the Jewish people that put ethnic identity over class identity.

That suspicion was confirmed when I attended the kibbutz’s ulpan to study Hebrew, the dead Biblical tongue consciously revived as Israel’s national language. Leah was expected to learn Hebrew because our hosts wanted her to make aliyah—immigrate to “Eretz Israel.” But me? My Hebrew instructor was a septuagenarian chalutz, a wizened third aliyah pioneer settler who barely kept his eyes open during our lessons. When I startled him awake one afternoon with a question about grammar, he said gruffly: “Why are you doing this, studying Hebrew? You’re not Jewish.”

The 1789 French Revolution marks the birth of the first modern nation-state, with France the template for modern secular, multiethnic nationalism. This is Enlightenment nationalism, and the international socialism that derived from it also defined itself as secular and multiethnic, even when it degenerated into “socialism in one country.” With England and the US, Enlightenment nationalism and socialism are the core of what the Right likes to call Western civilization.

The semi-periphery of Western civilization however involves a nationalism and socialism based on Romantic notions of organic unity around race, ethnicity, language, culture, customs, or religion. The 1848 revolutionary wave across Europe witnessed numerous nationalistic revolutions involving Romantic, organic, identitarian themes. The unification of Germany and Italy used Romantic nationalisms, as did Theodore Herzl’s Zionist conception of a colonial Jewish state under Western imperialist auspices. Labor and socialist Zionists, in turn, skewed their socialism toward an ethnic solidarity that often became nationalist unity, placing the national struggle over the class struggle. I called Labor Zionism leftist ethnic nationalism in my dissection of explicit Third Positionism—movements and regimes that claim to “go beyond left and right.” Both straight ahead Fascism and explicit Third Positionism are ultranationalist which makes their “socialism,” if it exists at all, a socialism of idiots. This is Western civilization’s gutter periphery, where ethnic nationalism becomes fascism.

The socialism I witnessed living on a kibbutz in Israel for six months—limited, stunted, truncated—was still exciting, inspiring and viable. Ultimately, it was also a “socialism for one people,” a Zionist settler-colonial socialism that destroyed the national aspirations of another people and imperialized the region. It was a socialism that I could never truly grasp because I wasn’t Jewish. By contrast, the 60s Left I lived through was all struggle and no unity for a socialism with great potential but excruciating failures. However it was a Left that at its best sought an inclusive socialism, one that attempted to encompass workers, women, gays, Jews, people of color—the downtrodden, downcast, and dispossessed. It was my Left for a socialism I wanted to achieve.

I left Israel at the end of 1974 after the Yom Kippur War, a war that Israel nearly lost. Labor Zionism aided the British to suppress the 1936-39 Arab Revolt, then carved out a “minimum” national territory in 1948 and became an occupying imperial power in 1968. But demographics and world events precipitated the decline of Labor Zionism and Israel’s Labor Party with a corresponding rise of right-wing Zionism.

Likud was founded by Menachem Begin in 1973, who was the leader of the Irgun Zvei Leumi, an ultraright paramilitary organization that was rival to the Hagana, before becoming Prime Minister of Israel. Known for the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, the Irgun contended that Palestine’s hostile Arab population was the primary enemy of the Zionist project and the Jewish people. It conducted terrorist operations against Palestinian Arabs, and most infamously perpetrated the massacre of the Arab village of Deir Yassin in 1948. The Irgun emerged from the Revisionist Zionist Movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, which had friendly relations and a naval training base in Mussolini’s Italy. Revisionism proclaimed: “In blood and fire Judea fell; in blood and fire Judea shall rise again.”

A second, smaller paramilitary group helped with the Deir Yassin massacre, the Lehi or Stern Gang, from which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arose. Lehi was Third Positionist in its endorsement of first left Fascism, then National Bolshevism. Seeking a Jewish state “from the Nile to the Euphrates,” Lehi was putatively anti-imperialist, a reactionary anti-imperialism that considered Britain the primary enemy of the Zionist project and the Jewish people. Besides cooperating with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and making overtures to the Soviet Union, Lehi assassinated the British Minister Resident Lord Moyne in Cairo, Egypt, in 1944 and UN mediator Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem in 1948.

With Israeli General and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who permitted the massacre of Palestinian Arabs in the Lebanese Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalange militias during the 1982 Lebanon War, Likud arguably led Israel from leftist ethnic nationalism into straight ahead Fascism. Zionist Fascism. Hebrew Fascism.

SOURCES:
(1) Personal recollections
(2) The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism by Arie Bober
(3) The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State by Zeev Sternhell

 

pt. 1: Perónismo and Third Positionism: “What’s Left?” July 2019 (MRR #434)

When faced with two bad choices, choose the third.

It’s the proverb I try to live by. Most prefer the lesser-of-two-evils approach to things. I prefer tertium quid every time.

Tertium quid started with Plato, who first used the term (triton ti) around 360 bce. In ancient Greek philosophy, it meant something that escapes classification in either of two mutually or more exclusive and theoretically exhaustive categories. What’s left after such a supposedly rigorous, exhaustive division is tertium quid. The third what. The third something.

Post Plato, what was considered tertium quid might be residue, sui generis, ambiguous, composite or transcendent depending on one’s philosophical inclinations. I encountered the concept indirectly via hoary Catholic theology when I briefly met a young heretical Catholic Worker named Alvin in 1969. Inspired by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Alvin was a voluntary celibate who wanted to start a Catholic Worker commune in the Ventura County area. Which was why he was camped out in his VW microbus in the Ventura Unitarian Church’s foothill parking lot, where everything progressive and left-wing eventually wound up in those days. But Alvin was a little too radical even for the Catholic Worker. He was a fan of Paolo Freire and Latin American liberation theology, and he wanted to return to what he saw as the gospel of the early Christian church, with its emphasis on voluntary poverty, communalism, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed. The latter required solidarity with armed struggles for socialist national liberation according to Alvin. But he was also knee-deep in the Church’s anachronistic fourth century Christological debates, specifically his championing of Apollinarism over Arianism. Both were discredited heretical doctrines, with Apollinaris of Laodicea speaking of Jesus as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two natures, and therefore a “third something.” It was the first time I heard the term tertium quid. Not surprisingly, Alvin grew more personally frustrated being celibate in a time of aggressive hippie “free love,” until one day he suddenly disappeared. A quarter century later I visited San Francisco and ran into him in the Castro wearing the habit of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

Last column I described an informal left-wing “third something” I hoped was developing between anarchism and Marxism IRL with the EZLN in Chiapas and the SDF/YPG in Kurdish Rojava. Now, let’s consider a formal right-wing “third something” that disingenuously claims to be “neither Left nor Right.” In other words, Fascism. Fascist ideology was, according to Ze’ev Sternhill, “[A] variety of socialism which, while rejecting Marxism, remained revolutionary. This form of socialism was also, by definition, anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois, and its opposition to historical materialism made it the natural ally of radical nationalism.” (Neither Right Nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France) An Israeli, Sternhell was critical of Zionism as a member of the Peace Now movement. Sternhell’s thesis that Fascism arose in France out of the revolutionary syndicalism of Georges Sorel—which had gained popularity among the working classes in part because of their sociological composition—was criticized for underemphasizing the traditional conservative nature of the French Right and overemphasizing that Fascism was born of a single ideology.

You might say Fascism is revolutionary in form, but reactionary in content. Certainly, much Fascism has emphasized some variation of Sternhell’s argument that it is neither Right nor Left, capitalist nor socialist, pro-American nor pro-Communist, etc. Fascism is notoriously syncretic, polymorphous and hard to pin down, ranging from Traditionalism to fundamentalism, corporatism and Nazism, all held together by a virulent ultra-nationalism. It has nothing to do with the Third Way centrism of the likes of Tony Blair’s social democrats and Bill Clinton’s New Democrats however. It is instead an extremist third way often labeled Third Positionism, with historical roots in Strasserism, National Bolshevism, and other red-brown alliances brought up-to-date with the likes of the Nouvelle Droite, national-anarchism, and various currents in the American alt-right. To understand how slippery and dangerous Third Positionism is, consider the example of Perónismo.

Juan Perón rose to power as part of a military coup d’état against a conservative civilian president in 1943. A colonel serving in a military government with a portfolio in the Department of Labor, Perón promoted a wide range of labor reforms for unionized workers—wage increases, collective bargaining and arbitration, social insurance, social welfare benefits—which made him wildly popular among Argentina’s working classes. With Perón’s other government positions, this support allowed him to win and hold the presidency from 1946 to 1952. So great was Perón’s hold on Argentine politics he served as president intermittently thereafter, from 1952 to 1956 and 1973 to 1974. He carefully crafted a cult of personality in office and in exile which has severely skewed those politics ever since.

Perón epitomized the sort of strong man politics known in Latin America as caudillismo which was imported from Europe and fits nicely within a broader context of military rule defined by coup and junta. With a populist twist. As the strong man leading a strong state, the caudillo acts to rescue capitalism from crisis, bail out and discipline the comprador bourgeoisie, and brutally suppress the rebellious working classes.

In Perón’s case, he instead championed Argentina’s descamisados, the “shirtless ones,” the working classes which he bought off with money and social reforms like a Workers’ Bill of Rights, all while promoting economic industrialization and nationalization. Perón came to exercise increasing control over the leadership and direction of the assorted trade unions, as he did over universities and newspapers. Socialist and communist resistance to Perónismo was smashed. The state became the foremost arbiter of Argentine life and Perón became the personal arbiter of the Argentine state. This was justicialismo which Perón considered a “third ideological position aimed to liberate us from [individualist] capitalism without making us fall into the oppressing claws of [communist] collectivism.” He also encouraged Argentina’s economic and political independence from the United States and challenged America’s hemispheric domination under the Monroe Doctrine. Finally, Perón attempted from 1944 onward to steer a neutral international course between what the French fascist Robert Brasillach called the two poetries of the twentieth century—Communism and Fascism—as well as between the Cold War’s “Free World” and Soviet bloc.

This is the bare essentials of what Perón called justicialismo domestically and the Third Position internationally, twin aspects of Perónismo. But it was clear from the start which side of the Left/Right divide Perón favored. While the Soviet Union sent aid and advisors to Cuba in the 1960s, Perón’s Argentina protected Nazi war criminals. To be fair, Perón granted immediate full diplomatic recognition to Castro’s Cuba and never fomented anti-semitism or attacked Argentina’s large Jewish community. Perónismo became an ideology unto itself well before Perón died and Evita was overthrown in a military coup backed by elements of the Argentine bourgeoisie and the CIA.

The military junta that took over in 1976 as the National Reorganization Process was anti-Perónist, instigating a vicious “dirty war” from 1974 to 1983 in which the military, security forces, and right-wing death squads kidnapped, tortured, murdered and “disappeared” students, trade unionists, artists, writers, journalists, militants, left-wing activists and guerrillas numbering some 30,000. The guerrilla component was comprised not only of Marxist-Leninist groups like the People’s Revolutionary Army/ERP and the Liberation Armed Forces/FAL, but also a highly splintered Perónist guerrilla insurgency ranging from Leninist/Perónist hybrids like the Revolutionary Armed Forces/FAR, through left-wing groups like the Perónist Armed Forces/FAP and the Catholic Perónist Montonero Movement/MPM (Montoneros), to the outright antisemitic, fascist Tacuara Nationalist Movement/MNT modeled after the Spanish Falange. (As the MRNT under Joe Baxter, Tacuara renounced anti-semitism and became progressively Marxist.) Most presidents since the military junta relinquished power have been Perónist, including Menem and Kirchner.

Perón said “[o]ur Third Position is not a central position. It is an ideological position which is in the center, on the right, or on the left, according to specific circumstances.” In exile eventually in Franco’s Spain, Perón met secretly with various leftists in Madrid like Salvador Allende and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Of Che, Perón said: “an immature utopian—but one of us—I am happy for it to be so because he is giving the yankees a real headache.” Yet, in his final days in power in Argentina, Perón also cordially met and negotiated with Pinochet. Perón’s red-brown alliances of convenience internationally and his domestic worker-oriented populism caused headaches for the Left both in Latin America and worldwide. It still does as an exemplar of generic Third Positionism, what with the global upsurge of the alt-right and its claims to go “beyond Left and Right.”

It might be argued that Perónismo is socialism with Argentine characteristics—Perón being a precursor to left-wing military rule like Bolivia’s National Revolutionary Movement or Portugal’s Carnation Revolution—and that the Argentine military junta were the real fascists. But it was clearly charismatic national fascism versus faceless client-state fascism. When faced with two bad fascist choices, choose actual socialism.

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

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

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

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

Defending the left of the Left: “What’s Left?” June 2018, MRR #421

Dans une société qui a aboli toute aventure, la seule aventure qui reste est celle d’abolir la société.

graffito, Paris, 1968

By the time I turned sixteen, I knew. But I’d suspected it all my life. I won’t claim I was “born this way,” although I’ve had overwhelming urges as long as I can remember. At the time, in 1968, the status quo was being challenged everywhere. So better blatant than latent I always said.

I’m an ultraleftist.

I had a bad attitude toward authority long before I declared myself a radical at sixteen in 1968, when the whole world was exploding politically, culturally, and socially. I’ve told the story of finding my politics, and of evolving from anarchism through left communism to my current left of the Left agnosticism, way too often. In addition to my visceral anti-authoritarianism, I was sympathetic to the underdog, empathetic toward the oppressed, angry over injustice, and always itching for a fight. I identified with the Left, but I felt the conventional Left was insufficiently aggressive and too ready to compromise. I can’t count the times I’ve been called too radical, far Left, hard Left, infantile Left, or ultraleft, and seriously advised to tone down or back off my politics. I’ve had liberal Democrats wave Orwell’s Animal Farm and Trotskyists brandish Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, all the while screaming insults at me. I’ve been called a communist by the liberals and, most telling, an adventurist and objective counterrevolutionary by the Trots.

Lenin’s polemic is occasionally translated as Ultraleftism: An Infantile Disease, hence the common epithet. His vitriol in 1920 was reserved for the Dutch and German Left (the Council Communists) and the Italian Left (followers of Bordiga) for rejecting any participation in reformist working class politics. To the claim by ultras that the uprising of workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets had made parliamentarianism obsolete, Lenin wrote that parliament can still “be used as a platform for revolutionary socialist propaganda.” To the call by ultras to abandon reformist trade unionism for immaculate revolutionary unions, Lenin argued that revolutionaries should remain in the unions to expose the opportunism and social chauvinism of their leaders while converting their reformist fellow workers to revolutionary politics. To the demand by ultras for “no compromise” in theory and practice, Lenin insisted that revolutionaries needed to know “how to retreat properly” and therefore how to effectively compromise in order to survive. These “mistakes” by ultraleftism invariably lead to adventurism according to Lenin, producing reckless or impetuous actions, methods, or policies, especially in political or international undertakings.

Yet what makes parliamentarianism obsolete, what exposes trade unionism as reformist, and what reveals itself as uncompromising is the revolutionary situation itself. The revolutionary moment—from mass uprising to social revolution—is in practice ultraleft. It is invariably spontaneous, politically variegated and broad-based; frequently expressed through similar organizational forms like autonomous collectives, councils and communes; and everywhere surprising and outflanking the powers-that-be and the vanguard parties that hoped to suppress or control it. The historical high points to this ultraleftism are numerous, if often brief—the Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02. From Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions to Mattick’s Anti-Bolshevik Communism and Dauvé’s Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement, this revolutionary situation, this ultraleftism in practice has been exalted as the sine qua non of socialism. Equally obvious is that historically, the nemesis of this ultraleftism has been the Leninist vanguard party.


[source: Margarita @Allriot.com]

The Collected Works of V.I. Lenin runs to fifty-four volumes and roughly thirty-five thousand pages of political writings, studies, polemics, notes, and letters in the original Russian. Yet, with the exception of his explicitly philosophical work Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Lenin wrote almost exclusively about Bolshevik party politics and practice. From One Step Forward, Two Steps Back where he outlined the circumstances which resulted in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party’s split between a Bolshevik (“majority”) faction led by himself and a Menshevik (“minority”) faction led by Martov, to The State and Revolution, his greatest contribution to political theory which arose from arguments with fellow Bolshevik Bukharin, Lenin related everything he wrote back to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was obsessed with defining the vanguard party’s “scientifically correct” theory and practice, strategy and tactics, even process and procedure. For Lenin, the Bolshevik party was “the way and the truth and the life,” and no one came to The Socialist Revolution except through the Bolshevik party.

I’ve talked about Leninism’s delusion of “scientific socialism” as well as its quasi-religious illusions in a previous column on sectarianism (MRR #408). Now I’d like to point out a simple fact, so simple that it should be couched as an aphorism: “One person’s moderate is another person’s ultraleftist.” Liberals consider socialists too far to the left while socialists label communists hard Left. As mentioned above, Lenin himself coined the slur infantile Leftist for Bordiga and the Councilists he considered left-wing communists. In turn, Stalinists disparage both Trotskyists and Maoists as ultraleft, while Trotskyists and Maoists trade this insult between and among themselves. And everybody denounces anarchists as too far left.

Which is how anti-fascist protests and violence are deemed by most on the Left today. Black bloc tactics and antifa strategies in particular have become the subject of scorn and condemnation by the usual suspects; Adam Proctor of Dead Pundits Society and Democratic Socialists of America, Connor Kilpatrick of Jacobin, Sherry Wolf and Derek Wright of the International Socialist Organization, and Left academics from Freddie deBoer to Noam Chomsky. Whether rehashing Lenin’s tired old insults or bemoaning how black bloc tactics and antifa strategies hurt the Left, embolden the Right, and give the state an excuse to suppress political activity, this is clearly a battle to be fought in the streets as well as in academia and on social media. This piling on of the Left onto the left of the Left, in turn, has permitted a bizarre entryism into leftwing politics for former Leftists who have secretly become right wingers.

In “Invasion of the Entryists,” George Monbiot describes one such clandestine shift from Left to Right in excruciating detail. The ultra-sectarian British Trotskyist splinter groupuscule, the Revolutionary Communist Party, went from physically attacking competing oppositionist groups and movements in order to destroy them to founding a journal, Living Marxism, that covertly embraced pro-corporate libertarian rightwing politics. LM eventually became Sp!ked, which still retains its crypto-Libertarianism under the guise of so-called libertarian Marxism. The Sp!ked cadre (Brendan O’Neill, James Heartfield, Michael Fitzpatrick, Patrick West, Frank Furedi, et al), their fronts (among them the Institute of Ideas think tank), and their fellow travelers (Lee Fang of The Intercept, pop journalist Angela Nagle) continue to infiltrate rightwing politics into the Left with constant warnings against the ultraleft, without much opposition or even awareness.

My solution to sorting out who’s ultraleft is to promote a diversity of tactics on the Left and let the success of their respective practices be our guide. Beginning with Malcolm X (“Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods or tactics or strategy to reach a common goal.”) and concluding with Howard Zinn (“Each situation in the world is unique and requires unique combinations of tactics. I insist only that the question is so open, so complex, that it would be foolish to rule out at the start, for all times and conditions, all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence.”) a diversity of tactics is essential. The mass insurrections and social revolutions extolled above are historical examples of a diversity of tactics in practice, as are the suffragist, labor, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam war movements. Arguments over diversity of tactics, begun in 1999 during the anti-WTO battle of Seattle and continuing through Occupy Wall Street, need to transcend the Leftist debating society and take matters into the streets.

Or as we say in punk rock, see you in the pit!

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