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

Dead rockers: “What’s Left?” September 2014, MRR #376

Why couldn’t it be Barry Manilow?

Detention, “Dead Rock n Rollers”

Punk’s not dead, but the Ramones are.

“Too soon?” Gilbert Gottfried might ask.

All four of the original, founding members of the Ramones are dead. Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Ross Hyman, 1951-2001) died at 49. Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Glenn Colvin, 1951-2002) died at 50. Johnny Ramone (John William Cummings, 1948-2004) died at 55. And Tommy Ramone (Thomas Erdelyi, 1949-2014) died at 65.

Quite an actuarial problem, especially for calculating the lifespan of rock’n’rollers prone to living fast and dying young. According to statistics published by The Guardian (“How rock stardom can take years off your life,” James Randerson, 9-3-07) “of the 100 performers in the sample who died early, the average age was 42 for North American stars and just 35 for those in Europe.” A more comprehensive followup study conducted by researchers at the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University and published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Open) on 12-19-12 concluded that rock stars have “a nearly one in ten chance of dying prematurely.” The study was neatly summarized by Billy Jam as follows: The study, which looked at the lives of approx 1500 UK and European, and US music stars between the years of 1956 and 2006 in pop and rock music, determined that 9.2% (137 artists) of them died prematurely. Furthermore the study determined that solo artists, compared with members of bands, had a twice as high chance of dying prematurely. The study also found that the average age for American artists to die prematurely was 45 while it was six years younger for the average British and European artist. Which means that the Ramones, all four original members, actually lived well past their prime. By these standards Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy were old farts when they kicked.

There are a slew of second string Ramones out there. Marky Ramone (Marc Steven Bell) is still alive at 58 years old, as are minor members C.J. Ramone (Christopher Joseph Ward, 48), Richie Ramone (Richard Reinhardt, 58), and Elvis Ramone (Clement Bozewski, 58). This skews even further the dead rock’n’roller actuarial tables. Then, consider the statistical impact of the so-called “fifth Ramone.” Arturo Vega (1947-2013), the artist and designer who created the Ramones logo and is often called the “fifth Ramone,” is promising because he’s dead, but not so auspicious because he was 65 when he died. Other candidates for “fifth Ramone” include the group’s longtime producer Ed Stasium, and the band’s tour manager Monte A. Melnick, both still very much alive. The Ramones may have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but they win no awards for living the rock’n’roll lifestyle into an early grave.

Christ, I’m still within the Ramone’s mortality age range. I would have been two or three years behind them in school. The first Ramones album I owned was “Rocket to Russia.” The first Ramones show I attended was at San Diego State University in 1979 or 1980. I don’t exactly remember the year, let alone the exact date, as I was drinking quite heavily. I was completely into punk, more so American than English. Sure, English punk was bigger, anti-establishment and more class conscious. The American scene was smaller, anti-social, and less political. Whereas in England, punk was more melodic and dare I say tradition based, American punk was more entertaining and experimental. Hardcore and skate punk emerged from the American scene, whereas reggae and oi! influenced English punk. The Ramones were quintessential American punk.

No doubt about it, the Ramones and the punk they helped inspire were central to my life after 1977. When I was vacationing in New York City during the late 1980s, I was walking with friends, talking about how The City was ground zero (no pun intended) for celebrity watching. At that instant, Joey Ramone walked past us into the seedy, hipster infested St. Mark’s Hotel and I was open-mouthed and overawed. Me, the rabid ultraleft “destroy what destroys you” “Lefty” Hooligan, was suitably star struck. Ah hell, I’ll admit it. I’m sad that the Ramones are all dead and that there’s no chance for any kind of reunion tour. I’m angry that punk rock ain’t what it used to be and that this magazine can barely survive. I’m annoyed to be reminded of my mortality and of the impermanence of everything I enjoy.

R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy. R.I.P. The Ramones.

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