Revolutionary v reactionary decentralism: “What’s Left?” October 2020

I was seven when I lived in San Bernardino in 1959. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Dictator Juan Batista fled Cuba as revolutionary hero Fidel Castro entered Havana. China suppressed an uprising in Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to escape to India. Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. San Bernardino was suburban, often hot, and almost always smoggy. Only when Santa Ana winds scoured the basin of smog blown in from Los Angeles did I clearly see the surrounding, magnificent mountain ranges. There were more and more days growing up when I couldn’t see the mountains at all from my neighborhood, which was home to the first MacDonald’s in the nation.

I watched Disney’s 1959 series The Swamp Fox on our family’s tiny black and white TV.  Filmed in color, the series depicted the exploits of Francis Marion as played by a young Leslie Nielsen. A commissioned officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, Marion ably led the irregular militiamen of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment as they ruthlessly terrorized fellow American Loyalists and engaged in asymmetric warfare against British Army regulars known as Redcoats. He avoided direct frontal assaults against larger bodies of troops, instead confusing his enemies in the field with swift surprise attacks and equally sudden withdrawals. Considered one of the fathers of modern guerrilla warfare, Marion successfully used irregular methods and maneuver tactics to outwit his opponents. He has been credited in the birth of the US Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets.

Proclaimed a Revolutionary War hero, Marion was a leader in the profoundly conservative American Revolution. The soldiers under his command, known as Marion’s Men, weren’t impoverished, oppressed peasants but were mostly independent freeholder farmers who served without pay, and supplied their own horses, weapons and often their own food. Britain’s relatively autonomous American colonies were permitted to rule themselves with minimal royal and parliamentary interference for decades, an unofficial policy called “salutary neglect.” Under British mercantilism, the colonies supplied raw materials for English manufacture while acting as markets for those finished goods. Benign neglect allowed the colonies to develop structures and traditions of self-government under this arrangement. When Britain instituted the restrictive Navigation Acts in 1651 to consolidate a coherent imperial policy, an end to salutary neglect didn’t happen immediately. But when Britain clamped down in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, tightening the reigns of political control by imposing tax and trade regulations, tensions mounted until the established, affluent, independent American colonies rose up in reluctant revolution.

I cheered for Disney’s version of Francis Marion, but I was too young to understand the contradiction of such a military hero being simultaneously revolutionary and conservative. The American Revolution has been described as one of the first modern revolutions based on Enlightenment ideas generally, and classical liberalism in particular. That the American Revolution and representative figures like Marion can be simultaneously conservative, liberal and revolutionary is actually not unusual in the annals of American history. Antifascist researchers Spencer Sunshine and Matthew Lyons both suggest there’s an American fascist exceptionalism when it comes to the far right’s embrace of decentralization, in contrast to traditional Fascist totalitarian centralism.

“The struggle between centralization and decentralization is at the core of American history,” academic historian Anthony Gregory wrote.  Whether considering Louis Beam’s overarching “leaderless resistance;” the specifics of Christian Reconstructionism; Posse Commitatus,  the Patriot Movement and White Nationalism; the Tea Party; or the terrorist extremism of Atomwaffen Division and the boogaloo bois—rightwing decentralism seems genuine enough. It’s matched by leftwing decentralism starting with the importance of anarchism to revolutionary working class struggles prior to the 1919-20 Palmer Raids. The grassroots nonviolent resistance of the Civil Rights movement and the participatory democracy of early SDS; the adoption of the affinity group model in the revival of American anarchism (through groups as diverse as Black Mask/UAW-MF, the Clamshell Alliance and the anti-globalization movement); Occupy Wall Street; and present day antifa and Black Lives Matter organizing efforts continue this development of Left decentralism. There are still plenty of centralized authoritarian organizations around, from the American Nazi Party and National Alliance on the fascist far right to Marxist-Leninist vanguard formations like the Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation on the Left. But is it too soon to declare political decentralism as a unique and defining feature of American politics generally?

Let’s step back from the particulars here and widen this political discussion to an examination of tactics and strategy more broadly.

Examine two organizing models: the decentralized network of autonomous cells versus the centralized, hierarchical pyramid. The horizontal network is easy to organize and difficult to completely stamp out. So long as one autonomous cell persists there is the potential for the whole network to regenerate. But the network also has difficulty in effectively mobilizing bodies and resources, so it’s not surprising there are no historical examples of decentralized networks of autonomous cells succeeding unaided in overthrowing a government or seizing state power. The pyramid is more difficult to organize but comparatively easy to destroy. Decapitating the organization’s head is often sufficient. And the centralized, hierarchical pyramid is very efficient in mobilizing both bodies and resources, which is why it’s the organizational model of choice throughout history and across the globe.

The discussion of network versus pyramid is related to the one about cadre versus mass that I’ve touched on in previous columns regarding revolutionary organizing. As with the latter dichotomy, the polarity between network and pyramid gives rise to proposals on the Left to combine the best of both forms into some type of hybrid structure. The Uruguayan Tupamaros—under the guidance of anarchist-Marxist Abraham Guillén—organized its clandestine guerrilla cells into autonomous, parallel, hierarchical columns each of which could replicate the whole organization. The more cultish Ruckus Society claimed to be neither vanguard nor network. The EZLN in Chiapas proposed “mandar obedeciendo,” while the YPG/SDF in Rojava claimed that democratic confederalism could bridge the divide between network and pyramid structures. I’m not familiar with whether the Right is experimenting with similar hybrid efforts. But given how easily the FBI has taken down Rise Above, Atomwaffen and boogaloo cells, decimating their respective umbrella movements in the process, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There are historical instances where the success of horizontal cellular networks cause governmental power to disintegrate to the point where the state collapses as a consequence of society becoming unmanageable, a default overthrow or seizure of power. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya is arguably such an example in which the initial civil war merged with a second civil war to create generalized social chaos that continues to this day. Such a situation might theoretically arise in this country if leftwing and rightwing decentralized social movements become strong enough simultaneously to make society ungovernable at the base. An equally ridiculous wet dream has been nurtured by Keith Preston who proposes that Left and Right unite in a common pan secessionist movement. But when J.P. Nash responded to Jim Goad’s book Shit Magnet by proclaiming his political philosophy to be: “‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later,” he expressed a sentiment all too common on the Right. The libertarian Left is much more committed to decentralism, but historical circumstances can betray practice as when the Bolsheviks and the Spanish Communist Party smashed their respective anarchist revolutions.

John Steinbeck’s famous quote (“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”) was plainly intended to refer to Communist Party organizers in the 1930s and not to their working class subjects. But as Meagan Day points out in a Jacobin Magazine article: “There’s a grain of truth in this [quote]. Americans have more faith in upward economic mobility than nearly anyone. We have a special — which isn’t to say totalizing — attachment to the idea that class origin is not destiny, and that anyone who works hard and is smart enough has a shot at a high standard of living. This meritocratic conviction sometimes shades into a belief that rich people’s wealth is deserved while poor people are lazy and unintelligent.” Thus we have the oft repeated argument that poor and working class Americans frequently vote against their class interests “with objections to increased social spending or defenses of tax cuts for the mega-rich.” Day argues that Americans are far more class conscious and “genuinely aspire to redistribute our nation’s wealth and build an economy that serves the working class” than is generally assumed.

Karl Hess, Barry Goldwater’s speechwriter who transitioned from rightwing libertarianism to leftwing anarchism, argued that the generic “logic of decentralization and the impulse of people to take things onto their own hands” is capable of toppling totalitarian and corporate capitalist states alike (per James Boyd). I’m dubious. I’m also dubious that it’s advisable or possible for American rightwing and leftwing decentralist movements to work together and take down the US state. Call me Mr. Doubtful.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“A Primer on the 30’s” by John Steinbeck
“From Far Right to Far Left—and Farther—With Karl Hess” by James Boyd
The Power of Habeas Corpus in America by Anthony Gregory
“The Myth of the Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire” by Meagan Day
“Decentralization & The U.S. Far Right” by Spencer Sunshine (unpublished)
“Some Thoughts On Fascism and The Current Moment” by Matthew Lyons

 

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Switchovers and crossovers: “What’s Left?” July 2018, MRR #422

Every elementary schoolchild knows that, after 1492, two food staples common to the “New World” were introduced into the “Old World” via the trans-Atlantic exchange inaugurated by Columbus. I’m talking about potatoes and corn, or maize. What’s not so well known is that maize was substantially undigestible, that potatoes contained low level toxins, and that native Americans processed both heavily in order to make them palatable. Plant breeding and hybridization techniques since 1492 have resulted in far more edible varieties of both maize and potatoes, at the cost of the diversity of the original plant populations.

Both maize and potatoes are considered species complex (superspecies, species aggregate) which, biologically, means a group of closely related species that are so similar in appearance to the point that the boundaries between them are frequently unclear. In fact, the original maize and potato superspecies each contained hundreds, if not thousands of related individual species that could potentially hybridize. One species of maize or potato might not be able to easily cross breed with another species of maize or potato at the far range of their respective genetic spectrums, but that spectrum did allow for gradual, continuous hybridization along the way.

Now, think of the political Left and Right as separate species complex. I’m well aware of the dangers of comparing social phenomena with biological realities. The Nazis were adept at such false comparisons, for example defining the Jews as a biological race and then attributing everything from their physical appearance to their demographic dispersal and communitarian organization to that faux race. I’m using species complex to describe politics not as an analogy but as a metaphor, even as that concept provocatively conveys the political fluidity that individuals within the Left and Right can demonstrate.

On the Left, Victor Serge started as a youngster sympathetic to socialism who became a radical left anarchist before joining the Bolshevik party after the Russian 1917 Revolution. Eventually Serge affiliated with left Trotskyism in opposition to Stalinism, but at every stage he remained highly critical of the Left to which he subscribed. More recently, ex-MMA fighter and anarcho-communist darling Jeff Monson became a Russian citizen and joined the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Moving in the other direction, there is the example of Murray Bookchin. He started out as a Stalinist by virtue of his upbringing, gravitated toward Trotskyism by joining the Socialist Workers Party, and finally developed into an ardent anarchist communist whose pamphlet “Listen, Marxist!” (part of his collection of essays Post-Scarcity Anarchism) became a rallying cry for a whole generation of post-New Left anarchists.

Because the Left is based much more on program and ideology than the Right, political movement within the Left seems more rational. No less sectarian mind you, but there’s the unifying sense that “we’re all part of the Left.” In John Sayles’ well-known short story “At The Anarchist Convention,” when the building manager threatens to call the police to evict the Convention because they refuse to move to a smaller room, “[n]obody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.” They stand together, “arms linked, the lame held up out of their wheelchairs, the deaf joining from memory […] in ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’.” However, such moments of revolutionary solidarity are short-lived, with the Bolsheviks organizing their Cheka two months after the October Revolution and the German SDP resorting to the Freikorps soon after the 1918 sailors and workers soviet revolution.

On the Right, much has been made of “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline” described by Matt Lewis in The Daily Beast. Michael Brendan Dougherty calls it “The Libertarianism-to-Fascism Pipeline” in the National Review, but the notion is similar. (This is a veritable four-lane freeway compared to the local road between alt.lite and alt.right.) Not only is libertarianism a unique gateway drug to neo-Nazism, there’s an easy exchange between the two that is belied by their seeming ideological incompatibilities. That exchange might even be considered a conscious—if secret—strategy of the Right generally, as revealed by J.P. Nash in his review of Jim Goad’s Shit Magnet: “If I had to describe my political philosophy, I would say: ‘Libertarianism now, fascism later.’ We need to preserve our civil liberties now in order to take them away from the morons later, when we create a healthy White society: an organic state with no parties, no elections, no demagoguery, and no politicians—a society where the best rule for the good of all—a society that takes eugenic measures to drain the Goad end of the gene pool forever—a society where the degrading filth of Judeo-Afro-Homo-Chomo-Pomo popular culture is rolled up by a giant dung beetle and plopped into the bottomless pit of oblivion.”

As a revolt against modernity and thus in continuous reaction to the Left, the Right is fundamentally non-rational in its blind appeal to authority, whether that be tradition, belief, divinity, scripture, law, the state, leadership, or charisma. Whether or not the Right’s authoritarian and libertarian wings are in collusion, the Right’s appeal to authority is what Richard Wolin calls the seduction of unreason that disguises its schismatic nature, producing a sectarianism that often puts the Left to shame. For instance, when Martin Luther replaced the centralized authority of the papacy with the decentralizing authority of scripture, what followed was Reformation, Counterreformation, some ten million dead, and eventually almost 50,000 Protestant denominations. And the Right is by no means united in what constitutes proper authority.

But what about individuals who seem to jump between far Left and far Right? Returning to the original biological metaphor, what about movement not within (intra) species no matter how broadly defined, but between (inter) species? Isn’t the latter much more dramatic than the former?

In my classical anarchist days, as a member of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, I was appalled by the story of “Red” Warthan who became an anarchist in response to Federal gun restrictions but turned Nazi skinhead when he was attacked and beaten up by a crowd of black kids. Perry Warthan is now in prison convicted of murdering a fellow skinhead in his gang for being a suspected police informant. Many a New Leftist turned conservative, among them David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh. A canard of the neoconservative movement is that most started as Trotskyists like Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Not true, although many like Daniel Moynihan and William Bennett began politics as liberals. Today, Andrew Anglin has a similar political arc, going from being an antiracist vegan Leftist to a Holocaust-embracing, neo-Nazi alt.rightist who is currently underground evading subpoenas in a civil suit caused by his vicious trolling. Jason Kessler, one of the organizers behind the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” riot, also began political life as a Democratic supporter of Obama and a participant in Occupy Wall Street. But supposedly such is the “natural” progression of things, in a more extreme form, from the quote attributed variously to Churchill, Clemenceau, or Lloyd George that: “Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head.”

There are numerous individuals who’ve made a similar if opposite journey from Right to Left, from fascism to liberalism or the Left. Ex-skinheads Timothy Zaal, Christian Picciolini, and T.J. Leyden have told stories of leaving violently racist skinhead gangs to become more tolerant, accepting, liberal, even Leftist. Much less dramatically, GOP stalwarts like Kevin Phillips, David Brock, Michael Lind, and Bruce Bartlett have proclaimed they can no longer support their former conservative agendas and have become moderate, even liberal Democrats. Karl Hess, Joan Didion, Garry Wills, and Elizabeth Warren also come to mind. All this flipping from Left to Right and visa versa can produce a kind of political whiplash that is disconcerting and can make anyone doubt the genuineness of such conversions.

Certainly such inter-political switchovers are sensational, far more dramatic than the slower intra-political evolution we’re usually familiar with. But politics is not biology, and our metaphor is just that, a metaphor. Left and Right are not separate species incapable of cross breeding, even as individuals are perfectly capable of politically crossing over and as movements are capable of cross-pollinating. And of sometimes creating monsters.

In a way it’s misdirected to focus on individuals and their personal reasons for changing politics. A similar caution can be made of political movements. There are social contexts and “the times” when such political conversions occur with greater frequency, specifically during spontaneous grassroots political upheavals and more calculated instances of ideological battle. The Right likes to call those latter moments “culture wars” or even more disingenuously, “metapolitics.” Mao put the lie to this succinctly when he said “politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”

I’ll conclude this discussion of Left/Right political conversions—whether intra or inter—next column by detailing various illustrative social contexts that enhance or inhibit such political crossovers.

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