The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

Of cults and sects: “What’s Left?” November 2014, MRR #378

Does “one divide into two” or “two fuse into one?” This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.

Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964
as quoted in Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives

One man’s cult is another man’s PTA.

Okay, so the aphorism needs a little work. What I often call “The Left” is littered with examples of cults, beginning with Lyndon LaRouche’s Trotskyist National Caucus of Labor Committees in the 1960s and 70s which went on a rampage, called “Operation Mop-Up,” of physically attacking fellow left individuals and organizations after the NCLC itself was attacked by Mark Rudd’s and Bernadine Dohrn’s Revolutionary Youth Movement. LaRouche would quickly veer right into Fascism, and then into a lunacy of conspiracy theories involving the Rockefellers, London bankers, the queen of England, the ADL, the KGB, and the Heritage Foundation. Then there is the Provisional Communist Party, or CPUSA (Provisional Wing), a super-secret organization founded by Gino Perente with a cell structure and even a “Military Fraction” that made the news for hoarding a stockpile of weapons in its Brooklyn headquarters. Its clandestine operations have eased only slightly with the ascendancy of Margaret Ribar to chairmanship, because the Provisional Communist Party operates primarily through front organizations—like the Physicians Organizing Committee, California Homemakers Association and the National Labor Federation—which never acknowledge the existence, let alone the leadership of the CPUSA (Provisional Wing).

Finally, we come to the Revolutionary Communist Party. A Maoist relic of the battles both ideological and physical of the 1970s New Communist Movement, the RCP is proud of its personality cult around heir apparent to Mao and self-exiled chairman Bob Avakian, but not so open about its violent anti-homosexual history. Until 1988, the RCP defined homosexuality as counterrevolutionary, bourgeois and a product of capitalist decadence, after which date being gay was simply considered oppressive to women and narcissistic. Homosexuality was regarded by the RCP as acceptable only after 2001/02. Boastful of its participation in the 1992 LA Rodney King riots, the RCP runs the minuscule Revolution Books chain and wields control behind a series of front groups, from the now defunct punk-oriented No Business As Usual to Refuse and Resist, the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation, La Résistencia, Not in Our Name, and the World Can’t Wait. Its youth wing, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, is no more, replaced by youth-oriented Revolution Clubs.

Prior to 1975 and the RCP’s founding, when it was known as the Bay Area Revolutionary Union headquartered in Berkeley, these folks would beat down local Trotskyists with their steel-toed boots while loudly denouncing their victims as degenerates and fascists. With their youth auxiliary of the day, the Revolutionary Student Brigade, the RU initiated a campaign beginning in 1971 to take over several targeted mass organizations on the Left, the most notable being one I was involved in, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War/Winter Soldiers Organization (VVAW/WSO). The RU first initiated a joint study group with the National Office of the VVAW/WSO and then infiltrated RU/RSB cadre into the steering committee and VVAW/WSO chapters. VVAW/WSO had a healthy mix of liberals, socialists, Marxists, Leninists and anarchists at the time. My chapter in Santa Cruz actually had a preponderance of anarchists by the time of the organization’s annual convention in 1975. At the general plenary meeting, RU/RSB delegates denounced their opponents as “Trotskyite fascist scum” and “cocksucking faggot scum,” initiated fistfights before, during and after the convention, and took over the organization by force and rigged election. The RU declared itself the Revolutionary Communist Party in September of 1975 with the endorsement of the decimated remnants of the VVAW, along with other supporting organizations such as the RSB, Unemployed Workers Organizing Committee, National United Workers Organization and Wei Min She. VVAW eventually legally won back its name and organization, and the RCP formed VVAW/Anti-Imperialist.

These efforts to form a so-called mass-based revolutionary vanguard party, far from producing the desired effect, actually brought about a narrowing of the RU/RCP’s base and membership. A sizable minority faction calling itself the Revolutionary Workers Headquarters split off in opposition to the RCP’s support for the Gang of Four in China by 1977. After years of aging and attrition within the RCP, and despite its recommitment to militant activism, another more informal split occurred in 2008 critical of Bob Avakian’s overt cult of personality. A thinning of its ranks no doubt was interpreted as a “purification” of the RCP’s ideology, even as it marked a waning of this Maoist organization’s influence.

Such cultish behavior aside, the Left has always suffered from infighting and sectarianism, beginning with the battle between Marx and Bakunin over the First International Workingman’s Association and reaching a peak during the Spanish 1936-39 civil war. Liberals, socialists, Communists and anarchists allied together under the Spanish Republican government, only to suffer from mutual mistrust and recrimination, backstabbing and civil war within the civil war, all of which resulted in Franco’s defeat of the Republic. Marxism-Leninism under Stalin denounced Trotskyist Marxism-Leninism as “social fascism,” the Soviet Union repudiated Tito’s version of Communism in Yugoslavia, and Mao’s version of Marxism-Leninism excoriated the Soviet Union as revisionist and “social imperialist” while the Soviet Union accused Mao of being “a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist.” Trotskyists are known to split at the drop of a hat, attacking each other more vociferously then they do other, non-Trotskyist Leninists, whose regimes they charitably call “deformed workers states.”

The Situationist International in western Europe from 1957 to 1972 was known for many things, most notoriously their ultra-sectarianism. The SI split and split again, its members having broken with each other repeatedly until only two individuals remained in the SI by 1972. This divisive practice reached its absurd extreme in the “chain break,” in which Situationists denounced anyone who didn’t join them in denouncing their enemies. Thus they inverted Mao’s famous axiom into: “To be my friend, you must be an enemy of my enemy.”

This tendency to hate the people you’re closest to, that you share the most similarities with, is frequently the rule. Witness a history of world religions where the term sectarian originated. A much less prominent tendency is to unite divergent groups under a wider front alliance, if not a “big tent” organization. The Marxist-Leninist left has witnessed attempts at socialist regroupment (as when various Trotskyist groups such as Solidarity, Fourth Internationalist Tendency and Activists for Independent Socialist Politics fused, but then failed at broader unity attempts) or left refoundation (as when the post-Maoist Freedom Road Socialist Organization negotiated with and subsumed Fire By Night Organizing Committee, a split from the defunct Love and Rage Anarchist Federation). Left communists and anarchists cross-pollinated and contended by turns, ever since the POUM and the CNT/FAI joined forces for the 1937 Barcelona May Days uprising. Most recently, small circles of neo-Leninists, para-anarchists and post left communists are discussing and debating how to move past the wreckage that the Left has become by 1990.

In the late 1980s/early 1990s a number of continental anarchist gatherings were held around North America (Chicago 1986, Minneapolis 1987, Toronto 1988). I attended the Without Borders gathering in 1989 in San Francisco, where the whole panoply of anarchist groups, tendencies, currents and schools convened. The attitude here was not simply “can’t we all just get along,” but a quite aggressive, all-inclusive, catch-all, free-wheeling invocation. In addition to the classic anarchism of European origin (collectivism, mutualism, communism, syndicalism, individualism), there was green, primitivist, nihilist, pacifist, feminist, queer, and post-left anarchism, even Hakim Bey’s blend of mysticism, man-boy love, and temporary autonomous zones. Especially Hakim Bey’s loopy anarchy in 1989. The Black Bloc was a year or two from being introduced onto the American scene, so insurrectionary anarchism was still a ways away, but otherwise, the whole zoo was present and celebrated at these gatherings. I ran into a couple of actual anarchist capitalists at the Without Borders gathering, but no one explicitly distributed literature, put up a table, did a workshop, or presented a speaker advocating capitalism. Nothing was forbidden and all was permitted in this modern American anarchist milieu, except for explicit endorsement of capitalism.

Twenty-five years later, the anarchist milieu is much the same, if the Annual San Francisco Anarchist Book Fair is any indication. Anarchist capitalism still isn’t welcome. Despite the entrepreneurial nature of the event, free market anarchists have no license to set up shop there. And when members of the Bay Area National Anarchists showed up in 2009, they kept a low profile, for fear of being attacked. National anarchist groups have been openly refused access by anarchist bookfairs in other cities, and national anarchism has been roundly castigated by much of anarchism as crypto-fascist. In 2007, the one-day Saturday SF bookfair expanded to an entire weekend, and was promptly criticized for not being flexible in accommodating the concurrent 8-day BASTARD conference in East Bay. Push came to shove, and the BASTARD folks started sponsoring their own book fair in the Berkeley/Oakland area. There are two anarchist book fairs in the San Francisco Bay Area every year, camaraderie be damned. The reason that in 2014 the SF Anarchist Book Fair and the East Bay BASTARD conference were reduced to a day each and no longer overlapped had little to do with rapprochement so much as it did with their respective lack of time, energy and resources to carry out fuller agendas. To make my point, a series of confrontations between leftist, identity/decolonize anarchists and post-left anarchists occurred between the end of 2013 and April, 2014. These incidents culminated when members of the Qilombo Social Center surrounded, harassed and ultimately drove out members of Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed from the March 22, 2014 SF Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair. The purge of post-left AJODA members by decolonize QSC members was an internet controversy for a bit longer than its allotted 15-minutes-of-shame. No doubt, the split in anarchist ranks that this idiocy highlights is forever.

Thus, we can see why one divides into two.

Treme: “What’s Left?” September 2011, MRR #340

My wife often finds it difficult to follow a speech or conversation, on TV or in a movie, if there is a strong accent or dialect involved. I, on the other hand, can usually catch the gist of what’s being said and roll with it. When we saw Harry Brown in a theatre, or rented Alfie and Flawless on Netflix, she felt that subtitles would have been appropriate, given the overpowering cockney of Michael Caine’s British accent. The same with David Simon’s HBO series The Wire. She complained that Baltimore’s black street vernacular needed captions. In all these cases, I got the general idea of what people were saying, even though I never got all of the words.

Currently, we’re fans of another David Simon TV series, Treme, now having finished its second season. Co-created with Eric Overmyer and set in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, Treme features plenty of local language, culture, locations, and flavor. It’s also wall-to-wall music, frequently jazz of one stripe or another, but often so varied that it’s a delight to watch the show to try and identify what’s being played. In episode 19, entitled “What is New Orleans?,” David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not In It” shared the soundtrack with Dr. John performing “Hu Ta Nay” and Allen Toussaint’s “Tipitina and Me.”

Treme is also riddled with Famous People, musicians like Ron Carter and Kermit Ruffins, but also writers like Roy Blount Jr., chefs like Tom Colicchio, and politicians like James Carville. Elvis Costello did a cameo at the beginning of season two, and Peter “Spider” Stacy of The Pogues played his tin-whistle, busking the streets of New Orleans with American musician Steve Earle, in a recent episode. To add to this chaos and complexity, the show’s plot is multi-layered, multi-charactered, and multi-cultural in the best sense of that word. Sometimes didactic and heavy handed, particularly when castigating those responsible for fucking over New Orleans before, during and after Katrina, Treme is nevertheless incredibly rich, lush in details, and profligate with the truth. Gumbo would be an inadequate metaphor for the intricacy and density offered up by this tasty show.

There are still times when the dialogue in Treme is difficult to follow. When the city’s Vietnamese community, or its Mardi Gras Indians, or the bounce music subculture, or white rural Cajuns are featured, both my wife and I could have done with some translation. An excellent source to help fans decipher the show can be found at http://www.nola.com/treme-hbo/. I suggest renting the first two seasons, then watching the third when it returns to HBO.

When the mode of the music changes: “What’s Left?” August 2011, MRR #339

I learned about the death of Gil Scott-Heron the same day I went to a sold-out Tony Bennett concert at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. After listening to Tony do standards like “Smile,” “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” and “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” I listened to Gil doing “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Whitey On The Moon,” and “We Almost Lost Detroit” thanks to YouTube. Whereas Tony was a spry, animated, and healthy 84, Gil died at 62 gaunt, HIV positive, and fighting a long crack cocaine addiction. I admire the former as a unique interpreter of the great American songbook, but I revere the latter as a revolutionary black poet, a powerful voice of the ‘60s, and a seminal influence on modern rap and hip hop.

In the HBO TV drama Treme, the character Delmond Lambreaux, a New Orleans modern jazz musician transplanted to New York, listens to traditional New Orleans jazz, Jelly Roll Morton to be exact, on vinyl in his apartment with his girlfriend, Jill. When Jill complains that the music sounds so old-fashioned, Delmond protests that classical music can be over 300 years old and still considered relevant, yet jazz that’s barely 40 years old is dismissed as out of date. The character is clearly frustrated as to why it’s not possible to appreciate both styles of jazz on their own merits.

I’m not trying to judge what type of music is going to stand the test of time. Nor am I arguing that musical genius requires immense suffering and a short lifespan, or even any particular originality. What I am saying is that music which is meaningful in any way must move us, must in some way inspire us, must raise the hair on the back of our necks. The music of the above mentioned performers did just that for me. So did my exposure to the Ramone’s first album, Gang of Four’s Entertainment, Stiff Little Finger’s Inflammable Material, and the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bullocks. Classical music (Beethoven, Bartok, Shostakovitch), bebop (Parker, Gillespie, Coltraine), acid rock (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service), and country (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Dale Gilmore) also do it for me. In fact, there are only a few categories of music (soft rock, smooth jazz, disco) that I can’t really listen to.

Plato contended, in book four of the Republic, that: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake” (as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg). Certainly, music has been used historically, by religion and politics, to strip people of their individuality, create ecstatic experiences, and help to forge powerful social movements. And folks in the ‘60s viewed rock music as a revolutionary weapon. My point is much more mundane. Music should feed our souls, uplift us, make us whole. It shouldn’t be used to divide, to make us feel superior to others. I don’t give a shit if you have the same taste in music that I do. Just enjoy yourself, for fuck’s sake.

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