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

Let’s talk about dysfunctional relationships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

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