Antiwar: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, May 2022

“Peace is not simply the absence of violence or war”—a truism I grew up with in the 1960s. When I first got politics in 1968 I called myself an anarchist-pacifist and affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee, War Resisters League, and similar organizations which promoted the concept that in order to achieve a social order based on peace, one had to use nonviolent methods. I flirted with the eastern religious concept of ahimsa and the western religious notion of turning the other cheek, as well as more formalized nonviolent practices like Gandhi’s satyagraha.  But soon the contradictions of pacifism, specifically the argument that nonviolence doesn’t save lives or guarantee peace in the short or long run, dissuaded me from remaining a pacifist. Besides, I didn’t have the integrity or discipline to practice any form of nonviolence. And while I rejected the pacifist notion that nonviolent ends require nonviolent means, I incorporated the whole “means-and-ends” argument into my anti-authoritarian politics at the time.

So I opposed the Vietnam War, not so much out of principle but out of self interest. I was subject to the draft and I didn’t want to be conscripted and shipped off to die in a rice paddy in Southeast Asia. Thus I wasn’t part of the peace movement so much as I participated in the antiwar movement. I’ll briefly discuss one small aspect of the anti-Vietnam War movement’s wide and convoluted history—the attempt to build and sustain a single, overarching antiwar organization in the US. The broadest umbrella coalition of people, organizations and issues seeking to end America’s intervention in Southeast Asia was the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the Mobe).

Formed in 1966 when the movement was largely anti-conscription, civil disobedience and pacifist oriented, the Mobe lasted until 1969 when it was succeeded by the short-lived New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (New Mobe) which faded away after acrimonious splits in 1970. The Mobe was dominated by the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party early on, which set the coalition’s demands (“immediate, unconditional withdrawal” as opposed to “negotiated peace”) and its strategy (ever larger mass demonstrations versus lobbying or confrontation). Acting as the Soviet-centric Communist bloc’s “loyal opposition,” the SWP claimed to be a Communist party critiquing the bloc’s “degenerated/deformed workers’ states.” Bridling against the SWP’s influence over the Mobes, and fighting the Mobe’s hostility to the tactic of civil disobedience, several new organizations sought to affect the antiwar movement in alternate ways—from the multi-issue, multi-strategy People’s Coalition of Peace and Justice that split from New Mobe in 1970 and organized around the “People’s Peace Treaty” to the direct action-oriented MayDay Tribe which attempted to shut down Washington DC through mass civil disobedience in 1971.

Labeling claims of undue SWP sway over the antiwar movement as redbaiting the SWP contended they had nothing to apologize for. The rancorous split in the anti-Vietnam War movement—between a controlling, hardline Marxist-Leninist organization and a more diffuse, broader based progressive antiwar movement—did weaken the movement and cause a lull in protests and demonstrations. The SWP-dominated National Peace Action Coalition which replaced the Mobes, like the MayDay Tribe and the People’s Coalition, were mired in Cold War politics. Under the rubric of imperialism versus socialism, the nature of America’s global role and the character of the expanding Communist bloc ruled debates well beyond the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 and the dwindling of the antiwar movement.

From 1975 to 1985 grassroots mass organizations like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War declined in size or disappeared altogether. The ML vanguard party Left fragmented into Trotskyist sects and Maoist New Communist Movement groupuscules. A promising US labor militancy collapsed as union membership fell by 5 million, unionized labor dropped below 25%, and industrial unions were decimated. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan witnessed a minor resurgence in the antiwar movement when President Carter reinstated draft registration, but SWP influence continued to wane in organizations like the Committee Against Registration and the Draft. When President Reagan armed the Afghan mujahideen, to stick the Soviet Union with its own Vietnam-style quagmire, the Soviet-Afghan war served as an important factor contributing to the 1989-1991 collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.

The “Free World” heralded the demise of the Soviet Bloc as the victory of capitalism over socialism. The bipolar Cold War world gave way to a supposedly unipolar world theoretically dominated by America. When the US-led coalition of 35 nations intervened militarily in Iraq in 1991 to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the extent of America’s lack of world leadership in the ruins of the international order became clear. Not only did the US coalition fail to remove Hussein from power, it did not take advantage of the Kurdish nationalist insurrection in Iraq’s north and the Shia Arabic councilist (shura) revolution in Iraq’s south. The mutinies and mass desertion of Iraqi soldiers were quickly countered by a Loyalist retrenchment that brutally suppressed the northern and southern uprisings. Unencumbered by the old Cold War strictures and a diminished ML vanguardism, the global antiwar response was widespread but inchoate. Marches, demonstrations, strikes, sabotage, base blockades, street action, desertion, refusals to fight, and other forms of resistance involved many millions of people around the world but remained diffuse. While this popular response inspired the libertarian Left a tankie/campist[1][2] reaction in the orthodox Left followed, speaking to a nostalgia for the “good old days” of Soviet-style socialism and Cold War confrontation.

The September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks in the US provided the excuse for America to invade Iraq again and occupy Afghanistan for over twenty years. It also revived the antiwar movement with a popular mass upsurge of protest and resistance that was often spontaneous and out-of-control. There was also the founding of the explicitly anti-imperialist Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition with pretensions to lead that antiwar movement. Initiated ostensibly by the International Action Center, the organizing force behind ANSWER proved to be the Marcyist[3] Workers World Party (WWP). Unlike the more narrowly focused SWP-dominated Mobes in the 1960s, the ANSWER Coalition propounded a list of demands reflective of the vanguard party behind the coalition. But ANSWER replicated the Mobes’ one-note strategy of organizing ever larger mass antiwar demonstrations.

The tight-fisted control of ANSWER and its demonstrations by the WWP, as well as its pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist focus, in turn prompted the formation of the alternate United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) antiwar coalition with over a thousand member organizations. With an emphasis on seven campaigns (Iraq, counter-military recruitment, global justice, nuclear disarmament, Palestine–Israel, civil liberties–immigrant rights, faith-based organizing) the UFPJ also organized large-scale protests and demonstrations, often in cosponsorship with ANSWER. But ANSWER’s controlling tactics at demonstrations, its sectarian approach to joint antiwar work, and the subsequent confusion caused when the Marcyist Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) split from the WWP in 2004 pushed UFPJ to stop coordinating its antiwar work with ANSWER on the national level by December, 2005. UFPJ specifically cited ANSWER’s failure to honor time limits for a September 24, 2005, Washington, DC march and rally, delaying the start of the demonstration, and not providing enough volunteers for the event. ANSWER called UFPJ’s reasons petty, ugly and an attempt to split the antiwar movement, further criticizing UFPJ of moderation and collaboration with imperialist politicians. ANSWER left open the possibility of reconstituting a “united front” with UFPJ to “try to overcome the forces of division so as to march shoulder to shoulder against the real enemy,” but by 2006 ANSWER  was firmly controlled by the PSL.

The antiwar movement’s split between a hardline vanguard party and a broader progressive coalition within a mass grassroots movement persisted through opposition to US involvement in the Syrian civil war and the Ukrainian-Russian war, both heavily laced with tankie/campist stupidity. Ukrainian historian and activist Taras Bilous wrote an excellent “Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” in which he detailed this phenomenon:

British-Syrian author and activist Leila Al-Shami gave it a stronger name: the “anti-imperialism of idiots”. […] I will repeat only the main thesis here: the activity of a large part of the Western ‘antiwar’ Left over the war in Syria had nothing to do with stopping the war. It only opposed Western interference, while ignoring, or even supporting, the engagement of Russia and Iran, to say nothing of their attitude to the ‘legitimately elected’ Assad regime in Syria. “A number of antiwar organisations have justified their silence on Russian and Iranian interventions by arguing that ‘the main enemy is at home,’” Al-Shami wrote. “This excuses them from undertaking any serious power analysis to determine who the main actors driving the war actually are.”

A nasty addendum to this is the growing crossover red/brown politics infecting the Left. Leninists, socialists, social democrats, even anarchists are increasingly making common cause with fascists and neo-Nazis in support of Putin and Russian imperialism. Thus the old antisemitic “socialism of fools” dovetails cruelly with the new “anti-imperialism of idiots.” Leninists in the 1960s at least were rooted in Cold War realities. Today’s Leninists are delusional in longing for a socialist camp not likely to ever return.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War by Fred Halstead
Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement by Gerald Nicosia
“The ‘anti-imperialism’ of idiots” by Leila Al-Shami (4-14-2018, Leila’s Blog)
“Against Campism, for International Working-Class Solidarity” by Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz (Winter 2020, Socialist Forum)
“A Letter to the Western Left from Kyiv” by Taras Bilous (2-25-2022, Commons)

FOOTNOTES:
[1] Tankies are Leftists who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still support “real existing socialist states” like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Stalinist, Maoist, or Third Worldist Communist Party hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers who champion a hardcore anti-imperialism. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States. And they support as “objectively anti-imperialist” such reactionary dictators as Lukashenko and al-Bashir and such authoritarian regimes as Iran and Myanmar. They get their epithet for applauding when Stalinist tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, and Tiananmen Square in 1989.

[2] As for “campism” Jason Schulman and Dan La Botz wrote the following summing up: Campism is a longstanding tendency in the international and U.S. left. It approaches world politics from the standpoint that the main axis of conflict is between two hostile geopolitical camps: the “imperialist camp,” today made up of the United States, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (or some such combination) on one hand and the “anti-imperialist camp” of Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other less-industrialized nations on the other. The anti-imperialist camp is generally defined as all formerly colonized nations and especially all avowedly anti-imperialist governments in the Global South. This ideology has been a hallmark of political currents defining themselves as Marxist-Leninist, though others who don’t identify with that term also embrace it. Campism, somewhat surprisingly, considering the organization’s political lineage, now exists even within parts of DSA. We hope that our brief account and critique of campism will convince those in DSA who are attracted to it to reject it, for it distorts the very meaning of democratic socialism and leads socialists away from “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “workers of the world unite!” to the inverted nationalism of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In this framework, the division of the world between rival geopolitical blocs overrides other questions and provides the dominant political explanation for world events. It seldom addresses the internal class character of the nations of the “anti-imperialist camp,” and, regardless of the nature of their governments and economies, attribute to those nations a progressive character. It almost never criticizes the “anti-imperialist nations” and tends to ignore, denigrate, or outright oppose movements for democracy or economic and social justice that arise among the working classes of such states.

Contemporary campism, as described above, runs counter to the Marxist and broader democratic socialist tradition insofar as it stresses solidarity with states rather than international working-class solidarity. This tendency generally supports clearly capitalist states (such as Iran and Syria) or states that claim to be socialist (like China or North Korea), which have authoritarian or totalitarian governments. In the past, socialists from Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from Rosa Luxemburg to C.L.R. James, always emphasized that workers in each country should support those in another in their struggles for democracy and social justice. But when it comes to states in geopolitical conflict with the U.S., campism often opposes support for democratic movements, even ones clearly led by the working class, on the grounds that such movements jeopardize ostensibly progressive governments, and that supporting them would thus make U.S. socialists allies of our own ruling class. For example, this typically entails support for the Chinese state and the ruling Communist Party, even though it promotes a highly repressive form of capitalism and opposes workers’ self-organization and workers’ power. This viewpoint distorts the Marxist political tradition with its roots in humanism, the Enlightenment, and the nineteenth century workers’ movement, and which is first and foremost about the fight for working-class political power.

[3] Redditor VanguardPartyAnimal does a succinct, mean-spirited, and humorous job of defining Marcyism as follows: It’s a Trotskyite tendency formed around Sam Marcy of the WWP(?). It of course features the Trotskyite mainstays of permanent revolution and the notion of the deformed/degenerated/whatever workers’ state, but then takes off in the opposite direction from “traditional” Trots. For Marcy, socialist states are necessarily “deformed” because socialism simply cannot exist on the same planet as capitalism, and his “global class war” posits that class struggle on a global scale can ultimately be reduced to team socialism vs. team imperialism. The imperialists are the usual suspects and a socialist is anybody who for whatever reason finds themselves in opposition to the imperialists. In practice, this manifests in a sort of unprincipled “reverse Trotskyism” and unconditional support for any perceived enemy of the US to predictably incoherent and sometimes hilariously awkward effect, exemplified in the fact that a bunch of Trots are now condemning Mao’s decision to split with the USSR over Khrushchev’s revisionism in denouncing Stalin.

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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. Continue reading

Potentia Habet Terminos Non: “What’s Left?” November 2016, MRR #402

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I don’t recollect the TV commercial in question, but everything is available via YouTube nowadays. I do remember the controversy surrounding it. A cute, freckled, blonde-haired little girl is in a field of flowers picking the petals off a daisy, counting them out as she goes. When she picks the last petal, a countdown begins, she looks up, and the camera dives deep into her eye. A thermonuclear explosion goes off against the black background as a snippet of Barry Goldwater’s speech plays laying out his perceived choice before god between love and annihilation. Then the final verbal message, the stakes are too high, plays over a title card plea to elect Lyndon Johnson president in 1964. It was the first time I was aware of someone warning against potential Republican fascism, and that only obliquely in a vague, entirely faux “liberty or death” sort of way.

The whole world was exploding in 1968, or so it seemed. Paris, France and Prague, Czechoslovakia experienced a short-lived revolutionary spring; the guerrilla Tet Offensive raged throughout South Vietnam; the Mexican army brutally massacred students in Mexico City; Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and riots erupted across the US; Robert Kennedy was also gunned down; a police riot at the Democratic National Convention brought Richard Nixon to power—these were but a few of the events that politicized me. I became an anarchist and went from a pious pacifism to wanting to join a rapidly radicalizing SDS, which by that time was tearing itself apart thanks to New Left sectarianism. My precipitous political development had me believing that Nixon—the law-and-order candidate—would round up all the hippies into labor camps, shoot black people on sight, and usher in a red-white-and-blue fascism. With the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, I immediately registered to vote Peace and Freedom Party. In 1972, I voted for the People’s Party’s presidential candidate Benjamin Spock in the primaries and George McGovern in the national election.

Living in San Diego by 1980, I was a full-on lefty anarcho making a transition to commie ultraleftism. Ronald Reagan was running for president. As California’s governor, Reagan had said in reference to quelling riotous student protesters: “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” No wonder me and my fellow lefties, and many liberals to boot, thought that Reagan would call “action” on a Hollywood version of fascism for the country when he got elected. Reagan liked to start and finish his various political campaigns in San Diego for superstitious good luck, so I was part of the protest at the Chargers/Padres sports stadium that hoped to “welcome” the newly elected President Reagan into office. My girlfriend got into a scuffle with a cop and I spent the rest of the evening bailing her out of jail. In hindsight, Hinkley did a far better job in welcoming Reagan to the presidency, but the left of the Left was fully prepared for some Weimar-style street fighting. It was bullets, not ballots, or so we thought.

These Republican campaigns helped move American politics inexorably to the right, but they did not bring about a homegrown fascism. Indeed, the Democratic campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and even Barack Obama also contributed in their own ways to the rightwing drift of US politics without actually inaugurating fascism proper. So now we’re being told by various liberals and progressives that Donald Trump represents more than your ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill rightwing, authoritarian, racist, nationalist politics; that he actually steps over the line into fascism proper, capital “F” Fascism if you will; and that we have no choice but to do everything in our power to elect Hillary Clinton, up to and including what Bill Maher recently suggested by warning: “Every cause has to take a back seat to defeating Trump. He’s like an infection, you don’t fool around with it. […] There’s no room for boutique issues in an armageddon election.”

Bullshit!

An article in The Economist entitled “Past and future Trumps” (7-16-16) argues that Republican Trump fits the strongman type, much like the dictatorial caudillos of Latin America, but with an Anglo American emphasis on nativism, isolationism, and populism. This election pits him against Democrat Clinton who is a corporatist, globalist, and multiculturalist, and it behooves us to remember that the Democrats and Republicans are two sides of the same coin. Or as Gore Vidal once quipped: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” There actually might be more than a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and Republicans this election, to paraphrase George Wallace, but both are rightwing parties bent on taking the US further to the right, one in a free-trade globalist direction and the other in a protectionist nationalist way.

So, which is it? Are the Democrats and Republicans fundamentally the same? Or are there differences that make a difference between the two parties? Is Trump your usual rightwing Republican asshole? Or is he a fascist-in-the-making, a crypto-fascist, an ordinary fascist, or a formal Fascist? Perhaps I should make up my mind.

In keeping with the Wayback Machine theme this column started with, we of the 60s persuasion tended to call anything even remotely rightwing, authoritarian, racist, or nationalist “fascist” all the time. Our rather indiscriminate use of the epithet to broadly tar our political opponents tended to degrade the English language, not to mention any political discourse so that the term eventually became meaningless. It also obscured some real important political distinctions. Take black men for instance. Compared to white men, their unemployment rates are over twice as high, their incomes are less than one sixth, and their incarceration rates are nearly six and a half times as much. Could they justifiably claim they already live under some form of fascism, whether capital “F” or not, especially when compared to their white counterparts?

Some differentiation is thus in order, and we’ll start by defining fascism. Fascism began coalescing as a distinct rightwing politics during the first World War, gained ground in various European political movements in the interwar years before taking power in Italy and Germany, cohered like-minded regimes and political movements around a political/military alliance, finally to fight and lose the second World War. Not only do I consider fascism as encompassing both Italian Fascism and German Nazism, I think its military defeat in 1945 means that what we’re dealing with today is a neo-Fascist/neo-Nazi movement substantially changed by that defeat and by fascism’s propensity for political synchronicity, yet one still committed to a fascist minimum, a generic fascist core ideology. In the bewildering academic tangle that is Fascist Studies, I side with Roger Griffin who argues that:
[F]ascism is best defined as a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

So while Trump’s alt.right fanboys definitely are fascists, as are many of his good-ol-boy back slapping paleoconservative followers, Trump himself is not a fascist. And no quantity of “Make America Great” made-in-China red baseball caps can make his clownish, blowhard politics into some kind of revolutionary palingenetic nationalism. He’s a demagogic schoolyard bully along the lines of Huey Long, but a more up-to-date comparison might be to Silvio Berlusconi. That’s not to say his campaign does not give aid-and-comfort to American fascists, or reinforce some of the more reactionary aspects of US politics, and therefore should be defeated. Yet the liberal/progressive scare mongering that we are on the eve of goose stepping into a Donald Trump presidency is way overblown.

Ah, but wasn’t Juan Perón one of those Latin American caudillos who promulgated a variation of fascism and aligned himself with the Axis powers during the second World War? And didn’t Gilles Dauvé argue, writing as Jean Barrot in “Fascism/Anti-Fascism,” that “Fascism was a particular episode in the evolution of Capital towards totalitarianism, an evolution in which democracy has played and still plays a role as counter-revolutionary as that of fascism,” and thus that fascism and democracy are but two faces of the capitalist state? Couldn’t US democracy turn on a dime and become fascism?

Yes, and no. Dauvé’s overly simplistic and somewhat dogmatic analysis posits a unitary capitalist state run by a unified capitalist ruling class where fascism is one of that state’s and class’s unified responses to a capitalism in crisis when democracy no longer works. (Another implication of Dauvé’s opposition to antifascism—that we don’t need to combat fascism—is belied by a like-minded ultraleft that never held back from fighting fascists.) This vulgar, mechanistic, ultraleft interpretation of Marx’s famous quote that “[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” does Marxism no favors.

We can agree that fascism is a special case of generic rightwing politics, and that American politics are of a piece left and right, without clearly grasping the relationship of one to the other. I suggest a little less Hegelian dialectics and a little more Heisenbergian simultaneity, in particular the latter’s uncertainty principle in which light is defined as simultaneously a wave and a particle. The idea that two contradictory things can also constitute a kind of unity doesn’t sit well with the more linearly-minded among us. Light is both particle and wave. A singular American party politics is both rightwing and leftwing, Republican and Democratic. Fascism is both a part of generic rightwing politics and sui generis. This duality also applies to behavior, in that we can simultaneously hold that US electoral politics are irredeemably corrupt while voting for the lesser of two evils, or realize that the capitalist ruling class has democratic and fascist faces in power while fighting that fascism in the streets. Two things can be fundamentally the same and yet crucially different.

Personally, I square this circle by not investing too much in the analysis or the actions in any particular case. Yes, US winner-take-all, ideologically narrow party politics are shit, but I don’t endorse third party nonsense or pie-in-the-sky calls for world revolution. Nor do I make a big deal of voting for the lesser of two evils, whether that’s Clinton over Trump or Sanders over Clinton. And make no mistake, Bernie is still the lesser of two evils. Yes, the bourgeoisie has democratic and fascist options when dealing with a capitalism in crisis, but I don’t deny that black people face a more fascistic existence in this country than do white people. Nor do I denigrate those who would fight fascists in the streets even though I don’t agree that the fight against fascism must be the be-all-and-end-all to our politics.

This is part of the centuries-old debate on the Left pitting reform against revolution. I never subscribed to the notion, popular in the 60s, that “the revolution” will happen sooner if we eschew liberal reforms or if reactionary politicians are elected. Nor do I buy into the myth that winning a string of incremental reforms brings us any closer to social revolution, let alone socialism, even while I acknowledge that incremental reforms do make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. The point is to be engaged in social change—whether incremental or revolutionary—without attachment, in the spirit of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” More on that next column.

FOOTNOTE:

[Fascism is] a genuinely revolutionary, trans-class form of anti-liberal, and in the last analysis, anti-conservative nationalism. As such it is an ideology deeply bound up with modernization and modernity, one which has assumed a considerable variety of external forms to adapt itself to the particular historical and national context in which it appears, and has drawn a wide range of cultural and intellectual currents, both left and right, anti-modern and pro-modern, to articulate itself as a body of ideas, slogans, and doctrine. In the inter-war period it manifested itself primarily in the form of an elite-led “armed party” which attempted, mostly unsuccessfully, to generate a populist mass movement through a liturgical style of politics and a programme of radical policies which promised to overcome a threat posed by international socialism, to end the degeneration affecting the nation under liberalism, and to bring about a radical renewal of its social, political and cultural life as part of what was widely imagined to be the new era being inaugurated in Western civilization. The core mobilizing myth of fascism which conditions its ideology, propaganda, style of politics and actions is the vision of the nation’s imminent rebirth from decadence. (Roger Griffin, “The palingenetic core of generic fascist ideology”)

Neither Anarchistan nor Anarchyland: “What’s Left?” June 2015, MRR #385

In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.

Loren Goldner, “Didn’t See The Same Movie”

Hooligan Rule #3: The purer the anarchism in theory, the less effective in practice.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I tend to regularly take the piss out of anarchism when I write about it. I spent one column making fun of anarchist goofiness in being simultaneously uncritically inclusive and hypercritically sectarian. Then, after taking on and failing at the Sisyphean task of defining the locus of historical agency, I concluded by proclaiming anarchism a historical failure utterly lacking in agency. And just last column, I made snide comments about the anarcho/ultra milieu’s tendency to push purity over pragmatism with regard to current events in Greece and Kurdistan. Far as I’m concerned, most anarchists are still playing tiddlywinks.

It’s too easy to make fun of anarchism. And while I’m not about to stop, I do want to develop a useful metric for the effectiveness of anarchism. Hence, the above rule of thumb. Here, it’s worth requoting the relevant passages by Max Boot from his book Invisible Armies:

Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

To the utter defeat of anarchism in Ukraine (1918-21) and Spain (1936-39) must be added the failure of anarchism in the Mexican revolution (1910-20). Of these three major revolutions explicitly inspired by anarchism, or having substantial anarchist participation, none went beyond the stage of anarchist revolution into creating a long term anarchist society. All three were defeated militarily during the civil wars that followed the start of each revolution, with Ukraine’s Makhnovshchina liquidated by the Bolsheviks, Spanish anarchism undermined by Leninists, socialists and liberals before being eliminated by Franco’s fascists, and Mexico’s original Zapatistas crushed by the socialist/corporatist precursors to the PRI. That’s 0 for 3, out of the three most heavyweight revolutions of the twentieth century. But we’re not keeping sports scores here. We’re talking about history and tens of thousands of lives lost and societies dramatically altered. Again, it’s absurd to prevaricate by contending that anarchism is only a failure to date. That anarchism’s time is still to come. If anarchism cannot manage to establish itself despite having the solid majority of the working classes as well as a popular revolutionary upsurge behind it, it’s time to admit the most severe conclusion of my rule of thumb. Anarchism in its purest, most historically pertinent form has been a complete washout.

Which is too bad because the daily practice, organizational forms, and valiant struggles displayed in explicit anarchist revolutions have been truly inspiring. What’s more, most of the pivotal revolutionary moments in history have been, at the very least, implicitly anarchist and, together with their explicit siblings, constitute the category of social revolution. Such revolutionary uprisings are broad based, popular, spontaneous, organized from the bottom up, intent on overthrowing existing class and power relations, but invariably short-lived. Social revolutions have been myriad, some flash-in-the-pan and others persistent, but only an abbreviated list can be provided here. (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; etc.) Let’s spend a bit more time further delineating types of revolutions.

The initial February 1917 revolution was nothing less than a spontaneous mass uprising of the majority of workers and peasants across the Russian empire which overthrew the Czarist ancien regime. Inspired by Western European liberalism, the February revolution was not of any single political persuasion. Popular self-activity and self-organization from the base up characterized Russian revolutionary society at that time. This was not just a matter of dual power—where the formal liberal Kerensky government paralleled an antagonistic, informal socialist government of the soviets—but one of a multi-valent revolutionary situation where power resided on numerous levels—like the factory committees—and eventually in various regions—like the Makhnovist controlled Ukraine and the SR-dominated Tambov region. When the Bolshevik organized Red Guard overthrew Kerensky’s government and disbanded the multi-party Constituent Assembly in what has been termed the October Revolution, Russia’s social revolution waned and the civil war began in earnest.

Many considered this vanguard political revolution a Bolshevik coup de etat. The Bolsheviks called it a socialist revolution. And make no mistake, socialist revolutions leading to Leninist states have been rather successful as revolutions go, far more successful than social revolutions. Explicitly anarchist social revolutions have never succeeded, as I keep repeating. Implicitly anarchist social revolutions have enjoyed a little more success as they are several degrees removed from libertarian purity. The German 1918-19 revolution and civil war brought about the liberal democratic Weimar Republic by default. France May-June 1968 changed an entire generation, especially in Europe, leading to political defeat but cultural victory. And the social unrest in Poland from 1980 through 1989 spearheaded by the Solidarity trade union movement arguably helped bring down the Warsaw Pact and paved the way for Western-style liberal democracy in Communist Poland, even as Solidarity itself was sidelined.

Now consider a couple of variations on my Hooligan rule.

What about a practice that tends toward the anarchistic, promulgated from a decidedly Marxist-Leninist theory? Last column I discussed the situation of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan now, and of Chiapas in Mexico for the past twenty years. In the former, the stridently Leninist PKK/HPG-PYG/YPG have adopted anarchistic communalism and democratic confederalism around which to organize Kurdistan society in liberated territories. In the latter, the post-Maoist EZLN has translated Mayan democratic traditions into “mandar obedeciendo,” the notion of commanding by obeying, which conflates nicely with Mao’s own dictum to “go to the people, learn from the people.” The EZLN further praises Mayan communalism and mutual aid, yet it also fetishizes indigenismo while ignoring capitalist property and social relations and remaining a full-blown, hierarchically organized army. Despite such profound contradictions the EZLN was touted as anti-authoritarian and libertarian by anarchists and left communists the world over when they first emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994. Rojava received a far more critical reception from the left of the Left when it emerged out of the Syrian civil war in 2014. That’s because of the PKK et al’s tortuous authoritarian history and orthodox Leninist party/military structure, which puts the accent on nationalism in national liberation struggles and in no way challenges capitalism, even as it pays lip service to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and calls for the decentralized cantonization of any future Kurdistan. Further, the EZLN’s Chiapas is far more media savvy and social democratic, even liberal, as compared to the PKK’s Rojava. Rather than a variation on my rule then, this is the case of a strict Leninist core practice and rigorous hierarchical political/military command structures allowing for some libertarian wiggle room in the greater society in question.

But what about the idea that aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies, if not tacitly anarchist, were plainly anarchic? “According to this myth, prior to the advent of civilization no one ever had to work, people just plucked their food from the trees and popped it into their mouths and spent the rest of their time playing ring-around-the-rosie with the flower children. Men and women were equal, there was no disease, no competition, no racism, sexism or homophobia, people lived in harmony with the animals and all was love, sharing and cooperation.” So writes the so-called unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his essay “The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism.” Kaczynski then cogently demolishes this myth point by point using anarcho-primitivist and classical anthropological sources. Primitive societies were not examples of anarchism so much as they were of anarchy. The radical decentralization and technological simplicity of aboriginal societies allowed the evils of hierarchy, warfare, competition—if and when they arose—to be contained by scaling them down until they did minimal damage. A primitive tribe might very well be peaceful, communal, and egalitarian, but if not, the fact that a warlike, competitive, hierarchical aboriginal tribe was relatively small and confined to a compact territory meant that any harm done by them would be severely limited. The anarchy of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies was not conscious anarchism by any stretch of the imagination. As such, something as simple as the proliferation of agriculture which ushered in the neolithic age rapidly subverted paleolithic anarchy by allowing agricultural surpluses to accumulate, upon which state structures and class societies were then eventually organized.

Now, a note on left communism. Left communism can be viewed as political accretion based on a progressive sloughing off from the Leninist Left. First there was the contentious political relationship between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, followed by the disaffection of Trotsky and Bukharin on the left in the Bolshevik party. Various Left fractions in the Bolshevik party attempted reform from within, most significantly Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. Finally, leftist tendencies congealed against the Bolsheviks in the Third International, on the one hand the council communism of the Dutch and German Left as represented by Pannekoek, Ruhle, and Gorter and on the other hand Bordiga’s ultra-party communism on the Italian Left. Social revolutions are sine qua non for left communists, which laud them in principle while often being highly critical of specific instances. The need to shorten, if not entirely eliminate the transition to true communism, is the objective of much of left communism.

Between the first and second World Wars, mass movements of workers and peasants were dominated primarily by Marxism and Leninism, and secondarily by various types of anarchism. Left communism ran a distant third, without much of a mass base to speak of. Yet anarchists and left communists frequently found themselves allied against social democrats and Leninists, and for unfettered social revolution. The POUM’s alliance on the barricades with the CNT/FAI during the 1937 Barcelona May Days during the Spanish civil war, as well as the anarchist/left communist blend exemplified by the Friends of Durruti, clearly made them political bedfellows. This affiliation continued with the roller coaster fall-and-rise of anarchist and left communist political fortunes from 1945 on, and today I talk about the anarcho/ultra anti-authoritarian milieu as an overarching category. Of course, there are differences. We’ll leave a discussion of that for a future column.

As for Hooligan Rules #1 and #2? Those too require more space than I have at the moment. Did you hear the one about the anarchist, the Marxist, and the rabbi who walk into a bar? The bartender says: “What is this, a joke?”