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

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

graffito, Paris, 1968

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

I’m an ultraleftist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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”)

Of countercultures and temper tantrums: “What’s Left?” August 2015, MRR #387

Mildred: Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?

Marlon Brando and Peggy Maley, “The Wild One”

They had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.

John Lichfield (writing of the 60s generation)
“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968”
The Independent, 9/23/08

If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: “Libertarianism now, fascism later.”

J.P. Nash

She was a child of Beatniks who came of age in the mid-1960s and lived in San Francisco. There, she was a part of the hippie counterculture, danced with Sufi Sam’s dervish troupe in Precita Park, attended the 1967 Human Be-In/Gathering of the Tribes in Golden Gate Park, and belonged to the Diggers. After the “Death of Hippie” event in the Haight-Ashbury, as well as a series of high-profile drug busts, she moved to a commune in Olema in 1969.

He was a red diaper baby born of Communist Party members and lived in Berkeley. There, he participated in the burgeoning New Left, attended UC Berkeley on a Vietnam War student deferment, helped organize the takeover of Provo Park, and was a member of Students for a Democratic Society. After the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, and the “Bloody Thursday” riot in Berkeley’s Peoples Park, he joined the Weatherman faction in 1969.

They met, fell in love, and married sometime at the end of 1970, beginning of 1971. Maybe it was at Vortex I, or during the Chicano Moratorium, or doing gestalt therapy at Esalen. Or perhaps it was at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire, or during the trial of the Chicago 8, or sitting in on classes at Black Mountain College. The exact date and place were never clear as she was hitchhiking around the country and he had gone underground after the Greenwich Village townhouse debacle. Besides, it was the 60s, or the second half of that decade anyway. If you remembered the 60s, you weren’t there. They stayed together a couple of years, even had a couple of kids. But they couldn’t make it work. She was indelibly eccentric and individualistic, New Agey spiritual and profoundly anti-political. He was rabidly political and atheistic, consensus-prone and surprisingly conventional. They got together on and off over the next decade or two, had a couple more kids, but finally decided to call it quits and finalize their divorce at the end of the twentieth century. True to form, they couldn’t agree when to do that, she insisting that it be at the end of 1999 and he at the end of 2000.

As the 1970s dragged into the 1980s, and then the 1990s, they lived their separate lives. She watched as most of what she believed in during her counterculture days entered the mainstream. Not only had sex, drugs, and rocknroll become commonplace, but so had a quirky entrepreneurial individualism and appreciation for alternative lifestyles. She eventually moved to Portland as an apprentice pastry chef, where she now owns a regional mini-chain of successful artisanal bio-organic paleo-grained brick oven bakeries, writes a popular food blog, and lives comfortably in the Pearl District. He watched as the Left he fought for retreated from the streets, ultimately to retrench in its final academic bastion. Not only had revolutionary politics and Marxism given way to identity politics and French postmodernism, but the Left’s scant successes had quickly dead-ended in political correctness. He eventually resurfaced with a teaching career in New York City, where he is now a tenured Sociology professor at NYU, lectures and writes on social movements, and lives comfortably in Park Slope.

And here’s where I walk away from my all-to-obvious analogy. My initial point is that pundits who proclaim that those who fomented the 1960s “lost politically, but won culturally” commit the most basic error of constructing a straw man out of the notion that there was one, unitary “60s generation.” There were two main currents to the 60s—the hippie counterculture and the Left/social movements—that share the coincidence of their proximate births and participant demographics, but little else. These two currents frequently interacted and occasionally merged, but ultimately they remained discrete, and experienced different fates. The hippies won culturally, and the New Leftists lost politically.

The conflation of different aspects of the 1960s is often not just an error of punditry, its a tactic of conservative Kulturkampf. Conservatives have long attempted to fabricate an imaginary, monolithic enemy-from-within, responsible for the decline of America and the corruption of its moral fiber since the 60s. The hedonistic hippie counterculture was in complete cahoots with a New Left become New Communist Movement, which was secretly in league with the Great Society welfare state, Democratic Party permissive liberalism, a mainstream media monopoly, corrupt socialistic unions, ad nauseam; thus inventing one sweeping, victorious anti-American juggernaut that every right-minded, freedom-loving, patriotic citizen needed to oppose by any means necessary. Culture wars have been the party line ever since the Reagan presidency. During that time conservatives moved American politics steadily, inexorably, to the right under an ideological variation known as neoliberalism, itself a supposed revival of 19th century classical Manchester liberalism. Because let’s make no mistake here, whether the counterculture won and the Left lost in the short run, capitalism wins out in the long run. The individualistic “do your own thing” hippies fit in perfectly with America’s self-reliant pioneer individualism and besides, everybody wanted to make money after the 60s.

I decided not to get cute and extend my original analogy to follow the children of my fantasy hippie/New Left couple by describing which one became a Wall Street broker versus which one became a punk rocker and so on. Most who went through the 60s as active participants, as well as their offspring, got jobs and became productive members of society, so what I’m interested in are those who rebelled against all that, even against the 60s, even for rebellion’s sake, oftentimes forming their own countercultures in the process. Rarely did such counter countercultural rebellions lump both “parents” into a single target however. Heavy Metal as a counterculture maintains a direct line of descent from the 60s counterculture, which makes its rebelliousness all rather conventional, even traditional. Punk rock rebellion was against “all that hippie shit” and created its own counterculture based on “do it yourself” and “fuck shit up.” But because punk was basically apolitical, it was easily swayed by politics, left or right, ultimately to descend into peace punks vs skinheads by the 80s.

There were those who had nothing against sex, drugs, and rocknroll, but who thought all that hippie “peace and love” was naïve bullshit. What chafed them unduly were the demands for political correctness which originated in academia, echoed around government and the media, and were blithely parroted by Gen X kids. These young white dudes, and they were mostly young white males, were angry about the influence of the PC Left in America. Inspired by the zine Answer Me! produced by Jim and Debbie Goad from 1991 to 1994, they created a rabid if limited anti-PC counterculture which, according to Spin Magazine, quickly transcended pissed off, working class whiteboy Jim Goad and his “fuck you and your feelings too” zine. There was the Unpop art movement, various publishing companies like Feral House, even an Angry White Male tour which featured Jim Goad, Mike Diana, Shane Bugbee, the Boone Bros., Skitzo, and King Velveeda. Lots of young angry white boys were plenty pissed that they now had to consider the perspectives of women, blacks, gays, and other minorities, and they believed their misogynist, racist, homophobic, frequently humorous invective was not “punching down” but rather “punching up” because, you know, liberalism and the Left were really in control.

Aside from Goad, the usual suspects in this post-60s contrarian counterculture included Boyd Rice, Brian Clark, Shaun Partridge, Adam Parfrey, Lorin Partridge, Nick Bougas/A. Wyatt Mann, Michael Moynihan, Larry Wessel, et al. As is invariably the case, antagonisms and rifts eventually split up these anti-PC counter countercultural bad boys, since they had really little in common other than their hatred of the Left, liberalism, and PC politics. Some drifted off into business-as-usual conservatism, others became neofascists, but most just wanted to make a buck. Their immediate heir was Vice Media, which at its inception as a magazine combined muckraking journalism with frat boy humor and soft porn skin mag aesthetics. What Lizzie Widdicombe described in “The Bad-Boy Brand” for the New Yorker as Vice’s early combination of “investigative reporting with a sensibility that is adolescent, male, and proudly boorish” has since been moderated for the sake of maximizing profit and moving into the mainstream. That leaves folks like Gavin McInnes—big Goad fan and ex-Vice cofounder fired for being unwilling to go along with the program—to continue the good fight ranting against the Left, liberals, and political correctness today.

One thing I find interesting is that right-wing libertarianism seems to be the default politics for those individuals intent on winning the culture wars while still snorting coke and watching porn. Goad might best be described as paleo-libertarian, while both Vice and McInnes are self-proclaimed libertarian. I think that claiming an absolute right to freedom of expression, aside from triggering such knee-jerk libertarianism, is invariably used as an excuse for their juvenile, rude, malicious, thuggish behavior. Once past hating on the Left, without their libertarian label of convenience, and no longer young, these angry white male morons would just be your run-of-the-mill GOP conservative good ol’ boys, maybe with a smidgen of neo-Nazi wingnut thrown in to keep things interesting. Said another way, scratch a Vice-like libertarian and you might just uncover a fascist.

Ethan A. Russell wrote: “In retrospect people often seem embarrassed by that time—the late sixties into the seventies—as if suddenly confronted with some lunatic member of your family, once revered, now disgraced.” (Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade: Our Time and Rock and Roll) Having experienced much of the 60s as a late hippie and New Leftist, I’m neither embarrassed by my life then nor do I revere that complicated decade now. I do think that efforts to frame things in terms of a singular “60s generation” are misinformed and flawed at best, and at worst help to construct a demonic hollow man out of the 60s as a conservative culture wars ploy. The Angry White Male shtick—with Goad for real and with McInnes as pose—will be around as long as political correctness persists. But that’s so, so boring.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

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?”

Real existing socialism: “What’s Left?” April 2010, MRR #323

Real existing socialism.

This phrase, popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, was a bit of a misnomer. It was employed primarily by Marxist-Leninists and their fellow travelers to refer to those regimes that called themselves “people’s republics” or “people’s democracies,” two more horrible misnomers. For these true believers in, sycophants of, and apologists for what was once called the Communist Bloc, the term “real existing socialism” was a sly, propagandistic way of simultaneously asserting that this collection of totalitarian, state socialist countries was truly socialist while defending them from the often scathing criticisms of traditional socialists, ultraleftists and idealistic progressives.

“Our critics on the Left can argue endlessly about what socialism should be like; this is real, actual socialism in practice.”

The patent absurdity of this argument was illustrated well by the many conflicts within “real existing socialism” as to who was really, truly socialist—ranging from Yugoslavian Titoism versus Soviet-style socialism to Soviet revision opposing Chinese radicalism. This game of more-socialist-than-thou peaked when Enver Hoxha denounced the rest of the Communist world as revisionist and declared Albania’s Marxism-Leninism-Hoxhaism to be the only true, authentic form of socialism. A long list of incidents in which one type of socialism militarily suppressed another type of socialism in the name of “true socialism” also comes to mind. It begins with Lenin and Trotsky crushing Ukrainian anarchism and the Kronstadt sailors, and culminates with Soviet tanks smashing Hungarian workers councils and Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face.” The Chinese PLA’s demolition of the Shanghai Commune is the bloody postscript. And need I point out that the number of real existing socialist regimes of this type has drastically declined since 1989?

Instead of arguing that Marxist-Leninist systems aren’t really, truly socialist however, let’s see what happens when we try to be more inclusive. What happens when we consider staunch social democratic countries like Sweden to be authentically socialist? What happens when even the sometimes extensive networks of producer and service collectives and cooperatives within capitalist societies are classified as valid forms of real existing socialism (from here on out referred to as RES)?

This expanded definition of RES does not cover all forms of socialist organization, and leaves out most political groups and parties, social/cultural associations, and militant unions. The somewhat fuzzy boundary crops up where union workers actually run their enterprises, political organizations provide services such as workers schools, and social/cultural groups delve into things like mutual aid societies. Still, this more inclusive notion of RES does have one particularly important ramification.

Marxism-Leninism, social democracy, and utopian socialism are all well represented in this larger RES. The representation of anarchism and left communism is practically nil. Of course, there is the occasional workers cooperative, collective or commune based explicitly on anti-state, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics, but as viable movements and social orders, anarchism and left communism are non-existent within RES.

As a former anarchist who retains some identification with left communism, I wish this weren’t so. But it is. Anarchism and left communism both champion a number of historically brief revolutionary moments (Russia 1905 & 1917, Germany 1918-21, Spain 1936-39, Hungary 1956, France 1968, etc.) that, while exemplary, were fleeting, and failed to produce lasting, libertarian socialist societies. For anarchists and left communists, RES is not true socialism when compared to these ephemeral revolutionary examples. Yet no anti-state, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian RES exists as an alternative.

The reasons why anarchism and left communism have failed to produce lasting revolutionary options are myriad, and vary from the historically specific to rather universal problems. The important fact here is that, without exception, they have failed. At this point, we have three choices available to deal with this fact. We can go along with a seemingly eternal anti-authoritarian optimism to proclaim that, despite this dismal record, the next revolutionary uprising will somehow overcome all odds and be victorious. Second, we can argue that, with a little tinkering and some key changes, we can increase anarchism and left communism’s probabilities for future success. Or finally, we can declare anarchists and left communists perennial “beautiful losers” and pronounce their politics bankrupt.

The first is not so much an option as it is a description of insanity, of doing the same damned thing over and over while expecting radically different results. The second choice appears to be more tempered and realistic. Yet it is largely ineffectual due to what I call the Baskin-Robbins syndrome. Hang on, this is going to require an extended frozen desserts metaphor.

After the second World War, when geopolitics polarized between East and West, between the Communist Bloc and the Free World, there were several attempts to create a neo-anarchist/left communist politics that could function as a tertium quid. Paris in the 1960s produced a French ice cream called Situationism that became all the rage for decades to come. With its mixture of left Marxist analysis and anarchist spirit, along with a heavy dollop of subjectivism, Situationism was more than just one of thirty-one flavors, more like a basic, ubiquitous vanilla. To boldly mix my metaphors, a friend once described the Situationists as a motley theatre troupe that managed one mediocre performance in Paris 1968, and hasn’t done much since. They were no Cirque du Soleil, to be sure.

Returning to ice cream as politics, tastes changed and by the mid-to-late 1970s, Italian autonomist gelato became popular, followed in the late 1980s/early 1990s by the spumoni of Italian anarchism and “action without mediation.” Various flavors of anti-globalization dominated the late 1990s/early 2000s, and most recently we’ve seen a revival of French crème glacée. The Invisible Committee’s blend of insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism in “The Call” and “The Coming Insurrection” is covered with nihilist hot fudge, and topped with Theorie Communiste sprinkles, Michel Foucault jimmies and Giorgio Agamben crumbles. Study groups of youthful radicals can’t seem to get enough of this riotous confection.

[The post-left, anti-politics, anarchy crowd is all over this like flies on shit. Hell, even Diamond Dave Whitaker is doing a TCI study group. Talk about April fools! What more do you need to know that this stuff is doomed?!]

Invariably, these neo-anarchist/left communist concoctions are tried and found wanting. But that’s not why I predict that the current French mélange will soon fall out of favor. There’s a fickle Baskin-Robbins “flavor of the month” attitude to all of this that belies serious politics. Young revolutionaries flit from one faddish political fashion to another as they might flick between MP3s on their iPods. Needless to say, this is no way to make revolution. Further, it’s a guarantee that anarchism and left communism will find no place in RES.

At the risk of coming off as a naïve American pragmatist, I insist that a central criterion of any politics must be that they work. It does little good that insurrectionary anarchism and anti-state communism are now trendy, if they do nothing to advance successful revolution. It means even less if those who advocate such politics are willing to change them at the drop of a hat, just to be au courant, whether or not those politics can overthrow state and capital, let alone create and sustain a socialist society.

Which leaves us with our third choice, the bankruptcy of anti-authoritarian politics. I’m loath to consider this option, even as reality backs me into this corner. Maurice Merleau-Ponty contended, in Humanism and Terror, that all of Stalin’s crimes—his terror and purges, his forced collectivization and calculated famines, his show trials and gulags—could be forgiven if only the Soviet Union had achieved a truly liberated, humanistic socialism. Flipping this, can the emancipatory ideas of anarchism and left communism be countenanced in light of their shoddy, lackluster performance in the real world? I doubt it, given the paucity of a real existing anti-authoritarian socialism.

What we are left with are beautiful dreams that fail to become anything more than reverie, and dreamers who continually romanticize their own failures. That’s not enough.

Nostalgia for the 60s: “What’s Left?” September 2008, MRR #304

I was having flashbacks.

I laid out the columns for MRR #302 at the end of May. As I sat in front of a computer in the Mother Ship—MRR HQ—the soundtrack playing was ‘60s rock’n’roll, protopunk, garage, psychedelia, whatever you want to call it. The Seeds, 13th Floor Elevators, Them, on vinyl of course. Yet, other than myself, no one listening had been born when that music was first produced.

Intellectually, I understand the impact that Sky Saxon, Roky Erickson, Van Morrison and their break-out bands had on the music that followed, up to the present day. Emotionally, however, I was asking myself, why the hell does anybody listen to this crap? That’s because the music threatened to invoke nostalgia. I’m no fan of nostalgia, even on the best of days.

For me, nostalgia is pitiable emotion conjured up by less than accurate memory. I’m particularly repelled by nostalgia for the “good old days” of the 1960s because, in my opinion having lived through the decade, very little was changed by the unrest and ferment of those years. Recently, I listened to a Brecht Forum panel discussion on Obama and the Left put on by the Nation Magazine and broadcast on NPR. I couldn’t help shaking my head, and chuckling out loud. For all our pipe dreams of revolution and overthrowing the Establishment in the ‘60s, in America today the Left is a joke. I recognize that we were delusional at the time, but it still makes me sad, and not a little angry, to realize how pathetically insignificant the Left, not to mention the left of the Left, is at present. And how out-and-out reactionary this society remains.

Which is weird because conservatives in this country believe exactly the opposite, that the Left won what they call the Culture Wars of the 1960s. For them, the remnants of LBJ’s Great Society welfare state and the much curtailed countercultural hedonism of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are signs that the Antichrist triumphed some forty years ago, which conservatives have been assiduously fighting to overturn ever since. The Right has successfully used affirmative action, feminism, liberal media, abortion, gay rights, school prayer, et al, to distract people from the reality that corporate capitalism is fast reducing the United States to a Third World banana republic.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft summarized popular attitudes to that contentious decade in a Guardian Weekly opinion piece (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” 9/5/08) when he wrote:

[André Glucksmann] now sees les événements de mai as “a monument, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury,” which is one way of putting it. Another is that 40 years ago were sown the seeds of the story since, when “the right has won politically and the left has won culturally.” Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but not for long.

Wheatcroft proceeds to systematically demolish the myths of 1968, beginning by comparing Paris 1968 to Europe in 1848, using the analogy of sexual orgasm followed by post-coital depression. “Even at the time, as Paris was brought to a halt by rebellious kids, there was an awful lot of play-acting.” He quotes the French Communist Party’s analysis of those events as “street party, not revolution,” and favorably mentions AJP Taylor’s comment about 1848: “it’s a sure sign of political backwardness when any movement is led by students.”

The list of ‘60s veterans who have become part of the establishment, even right-wingers, is disheartening, and not at all “amusing, if unkind” as Wheatcroft puts it. But he is particularly cogent when he discusses the political consequences of 1968:

The copains believed they would bring down Charles de Gaulle, but they didn’t. When he did resign the next year, he was succeeded by Georges Pompidou, and the Elysée palace has been occupied by the right for 26 of the past 40 years. Likewise, British youths jeered at Harold Wilson, who was duly replaced two years later by Edward Heath, and the Tories were in power for 22 of the next 27 years.

Across the Atlantic, 1968 saw assassination, riot and antiwar protest; the year ended with Richard Nixon’s election, and Republicans have been in the White House for 28 of the 40 years since. It’s true that the US eventually left Vietnam; that country now has an explosive capitalist economy—not quite what those who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, We will fight and we will win!” had in mind.

Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the collapse of Soviet Bloc Communism heralded the political and economic victory of the Right, as foreshadowed in 1968. Yet, with respect to the cultural (“or emotional or sexual”) victory of the Left, Wheatcroft contends that “even there, the story is ambiguous.” For, as he points out, the 1960s cultural upheavals were profoundly individualistic, even libertine, and that “since 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” I consider myself a proxy soixante-huitard, yet I heartily agree with Wheatcroft’s rather bleak assessment of the legacy of 1968. I’m even inclined to second Eric Hobsbawm’s comment that “the revolution is puritan,” by which “[h]e meant that the sex-drugs-and-rock hedonism of the 1960s was not only not the same thing as changing the foundations of society, it might be actively inimical to doing so.”

Damn, I’m getting old.

This analysis doesn’t take into account that the rebellions of the 1960s had two disparate sources; the hippie counterculture and the student New Left. Hippies were often proudly anti-political, whereas New Leftists frequently dismissed the counterculture as escapist. Wheatcroft is essentially saying that while the counterculture nominally won, the New Left was resoundingly defeated. Another way to look at this period is to see both counterculture and New Left going down to defeat, with the ruling elite of the day then selectively recuperating elements from each camp in order to stave off future rebellion. Had these two aspects of the ‘60s truly triumphed to any degree, we might have seen a creative fusion that could have shaped a stunningly libertarian socialism to shame Stalin’s gulags and Mao’s reeducation camps. But this is the stuff of science fiction and alternative history, not of thoughtful analysis.

As I write this column the San Francisco Mime Troupe begins a new season of free theater in the city’s parks. The current production, called “Red State,” has as one of its themes that the US economy is becoming so bad that the Right can no longer bamboozle the American public with social and moral issues. The sleight-of-hand trickery that stirred up people with the red flags of gay marriage, teenage abortion, reverse discrimination against whites, and welfare mothers on crack so that they voted, and acted, against their economic interests, is no longer working. Economic issues are once more coming to the fore, and overshadowing the rabidly repressive social agenda of the conservative movement. We should comprehend and encourage this potential, instead of futilely pining for the “good old days” of the ‘60s.

For the love of cities: “What’s Left?” July 2008, MRR #302

I strained my neck the first time I visited New York City. Walking around Manhattan, craning my head looking up at the surrounding skyscrapers in the mid-80s, I was properly awed by the city’s architectural display of power. And, I was reminded of John Lennon’s reply to the question of why he chose to live in New York. It’s the center of the empire.

But the empire ain’t what it used to be.

The 5-12-08 edition of Newsweek excerpted a long piece from free market fundamentalist Fareed Zakaria’s new book The Post American World in which he argues that the world “has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism” with “the rise of the rest,” meaning the growing economic prosperity of countries like Russia, China and India. This has not meant challenging the United States militarily, but rather the claim that the rest of the world has “moved on, and [is] now far more interested in other, more dynamic parts of the globe.” What Zakaria is talking about is economic, social and cultural dynamism, not military might. “America remains the global superpower today, but it is an enfeebled one.” In New York, the imperial city par excellence, this shift is perhaps best symbolized by the destruction of the World Trade Center, at one time the world’s tallest buildings. As Zakaria points out, “[t]he world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai.”

In watching The Visitor, a current movie set in Manhattan partly about the human consequences of US immigration policy, I was impressed with how damned good New York’s skyline looks without the twin towers, as seen from the Staten Island ferry. I admit to sharing the prejudice of many of my New York friends who considered the World Trade Center a blight on Manhattan. Not to say that I reveled in its destruction, nor should my anti-WTC remarks be construed as any kind of anti-urbanism. I’m a city person. I love city living, and I think that cities are potentially one of the most brilliant expressions of human activity. There is a character and life to any world-class city that is memorable. There is a grace and, dare I say, virility to the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building that was completely lacking in the twin towers. The World Trade Center was brutal and ugly. New York City looks so much better without it.

Speaking of world-class cities, lately I’ve been jonesing for Paris, more so than New York. I’ve visited New York over a half dozen times, the last trip five years ago, so the city feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. I was in Paris three years ago, and only for my second time. That city has the feel of a still mysterious lover.

City of love, city of light, Paris is hauntingly beautiful. I’m attracted to the millennia of history captured in its layered architecture, the vitality of both its public spaces (parks, concourses, squares) and its public life (open-air markets, frequent holidays, political demonstrations), the generous slice of western civilization contained within its museums, libraries and universities, and the sensuousness of daily existence—the appreciation for food, wine, leisure, beauty, sexuality—among many other things. Paris seems capable of passively defeating those who would change it for the worse, from outright enemies like the Nazis who were unwilling to burn down the city in retreat, to the French themselves like that American wannabe Sarkozy who tried to repeal the 35-hour work week and make the French work harder. The meteoric fall of Sarkozy’s popularity, along with his reform plans, is particularly gratifying.

This doesn’t mean that the “Spirit of 68” is alive and well in Paris. A 4-19-08 BBC broadcast of From Our Own Correspondent entitled “Visiting the Ghosts of Paris 1968,” has the following observation: “The students had specific grievances in 1968 as well, notably against the rigidly hierarchical way the universities were organized – but they went on to believe they could change France, if not the world. A teacher highlighted the difference for me: ‘This generation doesn’t want to change society. They just want to be able to get a job good enough to pay the rent and that’s why they’re worried about the quality of their education’.” I admit I was enamored with the city’s revolutionary mystique, fostered from 1789 through the 1871 Commune to May-June 1968. I made sure to visit the Butte-aux-Cailles district that, with the Latin Quarter, was the location of some of the fiercest fighting between students and police during 1968. It was also one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune, and I bought a commemorative t-shirt from an office/library/social center there dedicated to preserving the Commune’s memory. As of 2005, the Butte-aux-Cailles was being rapidly gentrified, with little resistance from anybody.

Regrettably, circumstances prevent me from vacationing in either New York or Paris any time soon, so I’m enjoying my own world-class city, San Francisco. Often referred to as “the Paris of the West,” San Francisco does have a certain charm, with its Victorian and Edwardian architecture. Parts of it have the appearance of a lazy Mediterranean town, delicate whitewashed residences interspersed with trees covering the city’s famous hills. Yet I thought my hometown looked shoddy and rundown both times I returned from Paris. There’s an elegance and cosmopolitanism to Paris that makes San Francisco seem downright parochial, an impression accentuated by the city’s relatively low urban density when compared to Paris, and especially to New York. I’ve had visitors from New York tell me that San Francisco isn’t really a city, but more like an urban town. They walked among the modest skyscrapers of the downtown financial district, sniffed condescendingly, and explained that San Francisco couldn’t possibly be serious about the business of being a big city without more tall buildings.

Unfortunately, that’s going to change, and soon.

The current 550-foot height limit in the city was a reaction to the building boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that saw the rise of the 779-foot Bank of America Building, and the iconic Transamerica Pyramid at 853 feet. In particular, the controversy surrounding the construction of the Pyramid produced a proposition to limit buildings to six stories in 1971 that was defeated, and a “compromise” 1972 urban design plan that capped downtown building heights at 700 feet. The subsequent rise of the financial district further fueled anti-height sentiment that culminated in the mid-80s with the success of Proposition K (1984), which prohibited towers from casting new shadows on existing city parks; another “compromise” urban design plan (1985), which capped downtown building heights at 550 feet but raised previously low heights south of Market; and voter approval of Proposition M (1986); which restricted new office buildings for ten years.

These modest successes signaled the eventual demise of organized popular opposition to downtown development forces. As is frequently the case with grassroots social movements, widespread interest and support could not be sustained, the ordinary people who participated went back to their very busy lives, and organizational and institutional gains languished in the wake of relatively incremental victories. What’s more, capitalists are often capable of long range strategic planning and great patience, despite their impatience for immediate profits. In the case of San Francisco, downtown interests also waited out their progressive opposition.

The waters were tested in 2003 when the Planning Department rezoned Rincon Hill to allow almost a dozen towers to be built over 35 stories to increase downtown residential density. The 641-foot One Rincon building is scheduled to open this year, with two more on the way. City officials approved a redevelopment district around the Transbay Terminal in 2005 that permitted six residential towers of 35 to 55 stories on land once covered by freeway ramps. These towers will rise from public land sold to raise money for rebuilding the terminal. “The notion of extra-tall towers also is the culmination of efforts since the 1980s to shift the focus of downtown development – taking growth pressure off neighborhoods such as Chinatown and North Beach and steering it south of Market Street.” This, according to a 4-27-08 article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Reaching for the sky South of Market.” In 2006, Planning Director Dean Macris came out in favor of extremely tall towers in the Transbay Terminal area. A year later, the winner of the Planning Department’s proposal competition for the Transbay site, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and the Hines development firm, recommended a 1,200-foot tower. And in May of this year, the Planning Department proposed new zoning in the terminal area that would once and for all overturn the 550-foot building limit.

One Rincon Tower did generate a measure of concern and complaint, but nothing compared to the opposition provoked by the Transamerica Pyramid. “The anti-height fervor downtown quieted in the 1990s,” the Chronicle article states. “[A]nd there’s been little controversy about the towers erected during the past decade along Mission Street.” This is due, not merely to the ability of capitalists to wait out their opponents, or the inability of those opponents to build a lasting resistance movement, but also to the changing demographics of San Francisco in the intervening years. Much like Manhattan, San Francisco has become home to the well-to-do and rich, with poor folk shunted to the margins, and middle class families no longer able to afford to live in the city. A demographic with little interest—class interest, that is—in fighting the Manhattanization of San Francisco.

Me, I’d like to see San Francisco shed its roll up the sidewalks at 11 pm provincialism. But I would rather see the city emulate Paris than New York. For one, this is earthquake country, with a big shaker due any time now. Do you want to be a thousand feet in the air when the ground starts to really rock and roll? For another, the proposed skyline, particularly with the Transit District towers (see sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/planning/City_Design_Group/CDG_transit_center.htm) looks more like Blade Runner than Manhattan. They make the old World Trade Center look positively enchanting.

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