Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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A critique of Fourth Worldism

No more Negative Ned. Instead of critiquing Leftist practice and politics as I often do, I’m writing about something positive and hopeful this essay. To develop some PMA. I wrote a stupider version of this critique many years ago, from which I split off my July 17, 2017, piece called “San Cristobal and Zomia, an exercise in fantasy.” And like that essay, this commentary is not an official MRR column. It’s not Hooligan canon, but apocrypha.

***

Lenin formulated his theory of imperialism in 1900 which differentiates the world capitalist economy into the capitalist national centers of European empire and their exploited colonial periphery. In a Marxist anti-imperialist context, French social scientist Alfred Sauvy coined the term Third World in 1952 as an analog to the Third Estate of the French Revolution. Also jumping off from Leninist anti-imperialism, Mao propounded his Three Worlds Theory by 1974 in which the First World is the developed capitalist nations, the Second World is the socialist nations posing as an international alternative, and the Third World is the orthodox category of undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing  nations. Starting in 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein charted the differentiation of the present world capitalist economy via the consolidation of nation-states and national economies into the fully developed core region, an undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing exploited periphery, and a semi-peripheral region in between. These tripartite schemas imply a fourth geographic tier, a Fourth World in Maoism and an outer periphery in the case of Wallerstein encompassing the marginal territories and peoples incapable of consolidating viable nation-states and national economies.

The left communist critique of Third World national liberation struggles—socialist or not—is that they substitute group identity for class struggle, to the benefit of entrenched local elites. The unity and emancipation of the national, racial, or ethnic group in question is elevated above the unity and emancipation of the international working class, to the advantage of that group’s ruling class and the preservation of capital. State power replaces workers power, national self-determination replaces class self-emancipation, and anti-imperialism replaces anti-capitalism.

I grew familiar with this International Communist Current-based critique during the Vietnam War. While I was impressed with the argument’s uncompromising purity I was also troubled by its lack of nuance and flexibility. Yes, the Vietnamese Communist Party was relentlessly centralizing, eventually purging and absorbing the broader, more populist Viet Cong. In the name of national unity, Communist Vietnam regularly suppressed and liquidated political dissidents (Trotskyists, anarchists), ethnic minorities (Hmong, Montagnards), and religious groups (Catholics, Buddhists). And both the NLF and NVA thought nothing of sacrificing vast numbers of Vietnamese civilians to achieve their military goals. But this was in the face of the United States, the world’s greatest military and economic superpower, which was more than willing to bomb Vietnam back to the stone age, slaughter millions of Vietnamese, pave the country over and convert it into a parking lot for capital, all in the name of “liberal democracy.” Some respect was due the Vietnamese people for their audacity and courage.

The Leninist Third World and Maoist Three Worlds of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has since transmogrified into a neo-Marxist dependency analysis of Global North versus Global South. From Old Left to New Left, and particularly through the anti-Vietnam War movements and the New Communist Movement, support for national self-determination became a movement unto itself called Third Worldism. Comprised of developing nations emerging from the decolonization wave after the second World War, Third Worldism sought independence from and neutrality between the US/USSR superpower rivalry, a Nonaligned Movement intent not just on international political unity but also a vanguard role for autonomous socialism. In turn, the overlapping politics of Leninist Third World, Maoist Three Worlds, and non-aligned Third Worldism entered American anarchism after 1968, so much so that by the founding of Love and Rage circa 1989, national liberation struggles were critically embraced by a growing number of left anarchists. By 1996 and L&R’s demise, they had pioneered an uncritical acceptance of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and what would become the next wave of Third World national liberation struggles.

Alternately, embracing a schematic “quadrium quid” (fourth something) has given rise to a socialism that seeks to defend “indigenous peoples, stateless ethnicities and localist/autonomist political models—the ‘Fourth World’” against the ravages of capitalism and the nation-state. [Bill Weinberg, CounterVortex] This category includes hunter-gatherer, nomadic, pastoral, and certain subsistence farming peoples living outside the modern industrial system, various sub-populations excluded socially from the present international order, and minority populations residing in First World countries with Third World living standards. Socialist Fourth Worldism champions “secular, progressive anti-imperialist forces” around the globe and therefore supports libertarian socialist national liberation struggles, indigenous secessionist movements, and non-state resistance movements for local autonomy all fighting against the current world order.

Fourth Worldism has its problems, like Third Worldism, starting with its uncomfortable proximity to Fascism. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy proclaimed solidarity with “proletarian nations” against “bourgeois nations,” post war neo-fascism defended a “third way” beyond capitalism and Marxism, and Keith Preston’s white nationalist fascism calls itself pan-secessionism. The negative territory where Third World and Fourth World overlap brings to mind Robert Kaplan’s dystopian realpolitik in his essay The Coming Anarchy, which he subtitled ““how scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet” and which augers the rapid disintegration of existing nation-states. Gone are dreams of world revolution and socialist internationalism, replaced by the nightmare of ever-increasing fragmentation and powerlessness in the face of world capitalism. Or as Nicole Aschoff paraphrased in Jacobin #19 when critiquing “the small-scale, community-based models pushed by many international NGOs, who increasingly work hand-in-glove with multinational corporations and project the interests of Northern governments,” small is not necessarily beautiful.

Third World national liberation struggles also have fraught relationships with imperialism. Returning to Vietnam, the country was a client state of the Soviet Union, practices an Indochinese-wide imperialism, and often views its highland Fourth World peoples as threats. And Fourth World struggles have sometimes been allied with imperialism in response to repressive national liberation struggles—Montagnards in Vietnam, Hmong in Laos, Miskito in Nicaragua, ronda compesina in Peru, etc. Even contradictions between the EZLN and the Lacandons in Chiapas represent this conflict.

I’m dubious that a Maoist Third World will eventually rise up, surround, and overwhelm the capitalist First World in a town vs country struggle analogy, much less the possibility of some decentralized people’s war of global liberation against what Subcomandante Marcos (Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente/Subcomandante Galeano) called neoliberalism’s and globalization’s Fourth World War: It is not only in the mountains of southeastern Mexico that neoliberalism is being resisted. In other regions of Mexico, in Latin America, in the United States and in Canada, in the Europe of the Maastricht Treaty, in Africa, in Asia, and in Oceania, pockets of resistance are multiplying. Each has its own history, its specificities, its similarities, its demands, its struggles, its successes. If humanity wants to survive and improve, its only hope resides in these pockets made up of the excluded, the left-for-dead, the ‘disposable.’ But there is a positive territory where Third and Fourth Worlds overlap. Marcos comes out of the Latin American politics of indigenismo with an indigenous Marxism—an indigenous politics of the poor and working class—although he himself realizes that any Fourth World liberation will be piecemeal, if it happens at all. In my estimation such a liberation movement is, at best, a desperate rear-guard action hoping for mere survival in a world where capitalism threatens extinction and the nation-state portends annihilation. The EZLN’s practice of horizontal autonomy, mutual aid, indigenous Mayan leadership, women’s independence, and mandar obedeciendo in Chiapas are exemplary and inspirational, but remain largely curtailed.

The EZLN originated from the Ejército Insurgente Mexicano (Mexican Insurgent Army) and César Germán Yáñez Muñoz’s Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (Forces of National Liberation) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both the EIM and the FLN were orthodox Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces of a decidedly Guevaraist bent that experienced ideological and organizational changes as they skirmished unsuccessfully against the Mexican state. The EZLN’s theory and practice evolved from decades of struggle—both social and armed—with Marcos being the Zapatista’s most prominent but by no means its sole leader. The situation of Kurdish Rojava is related but different, starting with Abdullah Öcalan’s Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK was rabidly Marxist-Leninist to the point of Stalinism/Maoism, with Öcalan creating a cult of personality around himself that would have made Stalin envious. Indeed, Stalin and Öcalan both favored the adoring nickname “uncle.” Öcalan and the PKK have been accused of engaging in intense ideological conflict, and at times open warfare against Kurdish tribal, right-wing, moderate, and Marxist elements. In becoming a paramilitary group, the PKK not only spearheaded integrating women into its guerrilla forces, it pioneered the use of female suicide bombers. As a founding member of the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM) the PKK advocated for a scorched earth “people’s war” strategy that rivaled Peru’s Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso in its violence.

The de facto autonomous region of Rojava in northern Syria is comprised of three self-governing Kurdish cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanî); defended in large part by the PKK-affiliated People’s Defense Units (YPG/J); and conferred by fiat with democratic confederalist politics by Chairman Öcalan. Democratic confederalism is the contrasting paradigm of the oppressed people. Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organizational blueprint of a democratic nation. Democratic confederalism is based on grassroots participation. Its decision making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. Originally derived from Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, democratic confederalism may have been bestowed upon Rojava by democratic centralist diktat. But Rojava and the YPG/J remain intimately entwined with the political fights between a myriad Kurdish parties, not to mention the overall nationalist struggle for a greater Kurdistan.

Both the ostensibly libertarian socialist political systems of Chiapas and Rojava champion women’s liberation, bottom-up autonomy, and assembly-style popular democracy. The EZLN’s socialism developed organically and gradually while the YPG/J’s was imposed almost overnight by decree. And whereas the EZLN/Chiapas struggle remains localized and contained, thus tending toward anarchism, the YPG/Rojava struggle continues to extend regionally and nationally, thus tending toward the nation-state. Both the EZLN and currently the PKK/YPG unequivocally reject Leninism, though neither are explicitly anarchist. The putative synthesis of Third World with Fourth World, of anarchism with libertarian Marxism being pioneered in Chiapas and Rojava are admirable and potentially far reaching. Whether they are capable of winning remains to be seen.

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?”

Rojava and Syriza: “What’s Left?” April 2015, MRR #383

April Fools Column Header

Maximum Rocknroll April Fools Column Header


The disadvantage of having “been there, done that” in politics for almost fifty years now is that nothing ever really surprises me anymore. I’ve gone from left anarchism to anti-state communism, with stops along the way in the Industrial Workers of the World and Anti-Racist Action. After organizing scores of ad hoc anti-authoritarian groups and producing hundreds of flyers, posters, zines, publications and like propaganda over that span of time, I’ve gotten a bit jaded. The last thing that truly surprised me in a good way was the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999. Since then, I’ve been only mildly surprised with some aspects of the Arab Spring, the European anti-austerity protests, popular autonomous movements in Mexico, and the Occupy Movement. So, let’s consider a couple of things that are kind of cool and interesting in politics these days.

First, let’s be clear that I no longer claim any type of politics to the left of the Left. I still have sympathies and solidarities, but no overt affiliations. Which means I tend to be less concerned with purity and much more pragmatically inclined. Which, in turn, means I’m not into the game of “more anarchist/communist than thou” as I analyze existing politics and evaluate current events. So, let’s consider two subjects that seem to have anti-authoritarian knickers in a twist.

Begin with the plight of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have asserted a common ethnic identity through shared language and culture for over nine hundred years, ever since the high Middle Ages of the 11th or 12th centuries. Modern Kurdish nationalism arose after 1880, and if anything gives anti-authoritarians the screaming heebie-jeebies, it’s nationalism. Patriotism, the nation-state, national liberation struggles; nationalism in all its variations and permutations is anathema certainly for anarchists and also for most left communists.

The Kurds struggled for national self-determination for a greater Kurdistan against the Ottoman empire until British/French imperialism divided up the Middle East after the first World War. Most of the Kurdish population found itself in southern and eastern Turkey, with sizable minorities residing in northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. This arbitrary division of the region into artificial nation-states fractured the Kurdish national movement into separate nationalist struggles; the PKK in Turkey, the KDP and then the PUK in Iraq, and the KDP-I and PJAK in Iran. All of these Kurdish political entities claimed to be, to varying degrees, political parties/guerrilla armies fighting for national liberation against their respective non-Kurdish regimes.

Sectarianism, nationalism, and imperialism have continued to keep Kurdish struggles fragmented, among the most intransigent being the Kurdish PKK’s incessant “peoples war” against the Turkish state. Even Kurdish successes have been piecemeal as a consequence. This is illustrated by decades of conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in aborted revolution, back-and-forth war, and state instigated genocide, finally mitigated only by the happenstance of American imperialism. When the US military enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurdish peshmerga consolidated autonomous power in the three northernmost Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaimanya) and surrounding territories, even as various Kurdish political factions fought a civil war for control of what would be called by 1998 the Kurdish Federation. This territory has been governed as a state-within-a-state by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the US/Iraq war of 2003, a pro-Western, pro-Turkish sovereign Kurdish state in all but name and UN recognition with pretensions to being the first puzzle piece fit into a greater Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the most staid, orthodox expression of Kurdish nationalism imaginable, however. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK now in a Turkish prison for terrorism, recently rescinded the organization’s staunch Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with a libertarian communalism that has strong anarchist overtones. Traditional Leninist democratic centralism has been replaced with the democratic confederalism of Kurdistan, which:
[I]s not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state. With the women and youth at the forefront, it is a system in which all sectors of society will develop their own democratic organisations. It is a politics exercised by free and equal confederal citizens by electing their own free regional representatives. It is based on the principle of its own strength and expertise. It derives its power from the people and in all areas including its economy it will seek self-sufficiency. [“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan]
Ostensibly influenced by libertarian socialism, Öcalan and the PKK have given a particular shout-out to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism for their ideological turnaround.

The Kurds have now seized the opportunity offered by Syria’s disintegration into civil war, and the threat posed by the resurgent Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State, to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. The PYD party, which fields the YPG/J guerrilla army, has close ties to the PKK and governs Rojava with the pro-Iraqi KNC through a Kurdish Supreme Committee. The PKK’s communalism and democratic confederalism pervades Rojava. The territory is organized into cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani), governed by councils and communes, all defended by armed militias. The peshmerga have even joined the YPG/J in defending Kobani against the IS. So, here is the conundrum for anti-authoritarians. Is Rojava a genuine libertarian revolution of the Kurdish people, or is it window dressing for the post-Leninist Öcalan and his crypto-authoritarian, unapologetically nationalist PKK?

When the EZLN broke onto the international political stage in 1994, the Zapatistas were mum about their origins in Mexico’s 1968 student Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics, as well as coy about their own political ideology. Nevertheless, anarchists and left communists embraced the EZLN wholeheartedly, without reservation, and events in Chiapas were defended as both revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. Not so Rojava. The anarcho/ultra milieu is being asked either to show unconditional solidarity for the revolution in Rojava or to summarily denounce Rojava as a Trojan horse for autocratic Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, no nuance is permitted.

Let’s now switch to another of the anti-authoritarian Left’s abominations—party politics. Political parties are universally vilified by anarchists, and less consistently condemned by left communists, whether liberal democratic, Marxist, fascist, what-have-you, and whether in the context of parliamentary democracies or one-party totalitarian states. No surprise then that the anarcho/ultra milieu views with intense suspicion the rise of Syriza in Greek politics.

The 2008 international economic collapse forced the European Union to the brink of default, and the Greek economy into bankruptcy. The Greek government economic crisis distilled down the general European economic crisis into a painful Greek depression in which Greek debt soared, GDP growth went negative, and a third of the population became unemployed. Numerous factors were blamed for this—unrestrained government spending, unsecured lending by rapacious creditors, corruption and tax evasion in society, etc. But the consequence was economic default, downgrading Greece’s credit rating, and two Economic Adjustment Programs (EAPs) of debt restructuring, severe austerity, and public sector privatization forced on Greece by the Troika of Eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. More to the point, social misery and unrest followed, with demonstrations, labor unrest, strikes, and riots becoming a daily occurrence.

The Greek government, comprised of the socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy parties, accepted the bailout constraints, disciplined their respective memberships, and implemented the austerity, restructuring and privatization measures of the EAPs. Meanwhile, social suffering and rebellion escalated. One result was the resurgence of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, fascist right in the Golden Dawn party, but another more important upshot was the formation of Syriza as an anti-austerity, EU-critical, opposition political party. Syriza itself is a unitary party forged from a diverse coalition of much smaller constituent parties claiming liberalism, social democracy, revolutionary socialism, communism, ultraleftism, eco-socialism, environmentalism, green politics, and feminism. The dominant, democratic socialist, euro-communist, feminist Synaspismós party is in Syriza side-by-side with the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist KOE, the ultraleft ROZA, the green AKOA, and a dozen more fractious political parties.

Talk about herding cats!

The thought of Trotskyists and Maoists working together is mind-boggling in itself, and speaks simultaneously to the incredible fragility and astounding audacity of Syriza as a unified party project. Syriza got 36% of the popular vote in the 2015 Greek elections, enough to form a government in parliamentary alliance with one other, very minor Greek party. That this was with the right-wing, national-conservative, Euroskeptic party called Independent Greeks (with 4.7% of the vote) instead of the old-school KKE Communist party (5.4% of the vote) was also quite interesting, allowing Syriza flexibility on its left flank. Syriza’s stated goal is to force the Troika to renegotiate the EAPs in order to end economic austerity and privatization for Greece.

Far from hoping that Syriza is “workers’ power” in waiting, as some on the ultraleft have speculated, the general anti-authoritarian Left is adamant that nothing good can come from Syriza’s recent electoral victory. Crimethinc delivers the stock anti-party line, repeating tired old tropes from the anarcho/ultra milieu. Capitalism is in perpetual crisis and needs to be abolished. The social revolution required to abolish capitalism cannot be initiated and carried out, let alone won through political parties, electoral politics, or parliamentarianism. Syriza will succeed only in disciplining Greek social movements and social unrest to the exigencies of a capitalism in crisis, even in preparing the way for outright fascism: Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force. [“Syriza Can’t Save Greece: Why There’s No Electoral Exit From The Crisis” by Crimethinc.]

That I was mildly surprised by Syriza’s electoral showing doesn’t mean I hold illusions that Syriza will usher in social revolution, or even a “workers’ power,” for Greece. There is the very real danger that Syriza might act to effectively bridle Greek social movements and social unrest. That Syriza cannot resolve capitalism’s crisis in Greece goes without saying. But still, I want to see Syriza poke its thumb into the eye of the Troika causing Greece’s misery, if it can. I want to see Syriza cause as much trouble as possible before it is inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated. That too, goes without saying.

That’s also how I feel about Rojava. I am mildly surprised by the successes of the armed Kurdish uprising in Rojava. But Öcalan is not Durruti reincarnated, nor is Kurdistan, even the Rojava part of Kurdistan, some anarchist utopia in the making. The limitations and shortcomings of national liberation politics, even those that proclaim socialist struggles for national liberation, are historically self-evident. Any movement for a greater Kurdistan, no matter how communalist, is also up against a capitalism in crisis. But still, I want to see Rojava take things as far as the Kurds there can with respect to liberatory social organization and self-defense. I want to see the Kurds of Rojava, and of all Kurdistan, kick up as much of a ruckus as possible before they are inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated.

If Rojava or Syriza actually, fundamentally, completely wins? Well, that would be truly surprising. Finally, that goes without saying.

ACRONYMS: WTO – World Trade Organization; PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party; KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party; PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; KDP-I – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; PJAK – Party of a Free Life in Kurdistan; PYD – Democratic Union Party; KNC – Kurdish National Council; YPG/J – People’s Defense Units; EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation; SYRIZA – Coalition of the Radical Left; PASOK – Panhellenic Socialist Movement; DEA – International Workers’ Left; KOE – Communist Organization of Greece; ROZA – Radical Left Group; AKOA – Renewing Communist Ecological Left; KKE – Communist Party of Greece

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