The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407


The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.


Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

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.