Diversity of tactics: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, December 2022

It was November 8, 1960.

My parents and their friends were arrayed around our black-and-white RCA Victor TV in our tiny San Bernardino living room. It was election evening, with John F. Kennedy duking it out against Richard Nixon. My parents were lifelong Democrats but some of the friends present had voted Republican. In a testament to the times, everybody was drinking, smoking, eating European deli foods, joking, laughing, and playfully arguing. It was quite congenial, with no mention of a “second civil war.”

My parents allowed me to stay up way past my bedtime so I wandered around in the background. I carried a glass jar filled with dry soup beans and every time Walter Cronkite announced a victory for Kennedy I shook the jar and said: “Kennedy wins!”

That was my first memory of an American election. I would become a “don’t vote, it only encourages them” anarchist in 1968 and burned my draft card in 1970. When the voting age was lowered to 18 in March of 1971, I ran with a group of New American Movement-inspired youngsters for city council and school board in Ventura, California. That same year I registered with the Peace and Freedom Party. I’ve had a complicated, some might say contradictory relationship with American politics ever since.

I’ve been a registered Democrat, a member of various electoral third parties, a defender of democratic unionism and political reformism, a promoter of the primacy of local politics, and a champion of initiative, recall and referendum processes. I’ve also actively participated in civic resistance, civil disobedience, direct action, extra-parliamentary opposition, autonomist workerism, and revolutionist street politics. As I’ve often quipped, I vote and I riot. My seemingly contradictory politics have been serial, sequential, parallel or simultaneous. I took my cue early on from Roel van Duijn, cofounder of the Dutch Provos and Kabouters, who came “up with a theory […]: the two-hand doctrine. That meant working in the system with one hand and stirring up trouble via extra-parliamentary movements with the other.”

This embrace of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary tactics parallels Malcolm X’s inclusion of nonviolence and armed self-defense in a common Black revolutionary strategy when he said: “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. […] We are fighting for recognition as free humans in this society.” A “diversity of tactics” is the basis for much social change. Indeed, the Long 1960s were an affirmation of a “diversity of tactics”—riots, strikes, popular uprisings, insurrectionary movements, social revolutions—well before the term was coined defensively and negatively in the lead-up to the Seattle 1999 WTO shutdown. The broad protest coalition responsible for the N30 “Battle for Seattle” failed to agree upon strict nonviolence and thus could not arrive on a unified, targeted political strategy. So this was a “diversity of tactics” by inaction, by a failure to act.

Despite this default “diversity of tactics,” the WTO shutdown has become one of the defining triumphs of the twenty-first century Left. Alexander Cockburn wrote that “you can take the state by surprise only once or twice in a generation” and likened the Battle for Seattle to May/June 1968 in Paris. Now consider the “once or twice in a century” surprise of the February 1917 Russian Revolution and the protean tactics of Lenin in building his vanguard party and the Bolshevik seizure of state power in terms of this discussion of “diversity of tactics.”

The February Revolution that overthrew the Tsarist regime was truly a broad, popular, chaotic uprising of mass strikes, bread riots, armed mutinies, and soviet takeovers that embodied Lenin’s sentiment that: “[t]here are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” It was a period that epitomized a “diversity of tactics.” Lenin would critique both the timid parliamentarianism of social democrats like the Mensheviks and the uncompromising abstentionist revolutionism of “infantile” left communists, preferring a tactical flexibility suited to time, place and social conditions. His arsenal of tactics and strategies (industrial working class organizing, agitation and action; popular protests and street fighting; armed insurrection; even bank expropriations) included participation in or boycotts of parliamentary elections depending on the situation. Lenin’s support for a Bolshevik boycott of the first Duma elections was reversed in subsequent Duma votes as a way to “count their forces” and strengthen their influence among workers. He contended that the 1917 workers soviets were the true Russian working class government, more democratic than the Duma, the Russian Provisional Government or any Western-style parliament. But Lenin went on to argue for a clear Bolshevik candidate list to be elected to win the 1917 Constituent Assembly instead of dismissing the Assembly as less democratic than the system of workers soviets, thereby sidestepping calls for a boycott. The Bolsheviks won only twenty-four percent of the overall vote in the Constituent Assembly, which was subsequently dissolved by the Bolshevik/left Social Revolutionary-led Soviet government.

All tactics, all strategies put forward by Lenin were in service of and intended to advance the Bolsheviks as a vanguard party ultimately through the October Revolution seizure of state power. This was not a “diversity of tactics” either spontaneous, conscious, or by default. Lenin’s vanguard party employed a variety of tactics, but in acting as a revolutionary vanguard it significantly narrowed the tactical field of the revolution. The Bolshevik fraction became the ruling Communist Party which governed the country through the workers soviets. The Party made decisions on state policy, with the soviets acting to implement public approval for the Party’s program. The Soviet constitution recognized the Party’s leading role in politics, completing the substitution of the vanguard party for the working class in power. It would take Stalin to further substitute the leader for the party and finish the consolidation of power into the hands of one individual in the name of socialism.

I have few quibbles with the plethora of tactics and broad strategies available to the Left, considering them versatile with regard to time, place and social conditions. Whether I act in terms of nonviolence or armed self-defense, labor organizing or street politics, electoral incrementalism or revolutionary socialism depends on circumstance. Instead I take issue with who rules—the class versus the party versus the leader.

I may not have the theoretical chops a la Lenin to determine which tactics and strategies work best to advance the Left in its quest for socialism even as I critique the Bolsheviks’ anti-democratic practices in pushing their form of socialism. But I have learned some lessons in my pursuit of politics. Politics work best when there is a level of congruence, when for instance people strive for a decentralized, anti-authoritarian, peaceful society through decentralized, anti-authoritarian, peaceful methods. But when faced by an enemy bent on my extermination, I won’t hesitate to declare the necessity to destroy what seeks to destroy me. I’m not a fan of conducting politics by catchphrase: “if voting worked, it would be illegal,” “whoever they vote for, we are ungovernable,” “voting is harm reduction,” etc. Rather, I’ve been a strong proponent of “by any means necessary,” of the Left doing whatever it takes to achieve socialism. Yet I know I’m not likely to ever live to see that socialism.

We’ve just come through the US election midterms as I write this, with its surprising lack of an elected representative bump in the US House and Senate for the Republicans thanks to the GOP’s problematic association with Trump and his toxic election denialism. I’m the first to argue that there’s barely a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats in American politics. However, there’s human misery associated with even the incremental nature of US electoral politics: the woman denied an abortion, the trans person refused their identity, the black man murdered by the police, etc. The Democrats rubbing the faces of the American electorate in the GOP’s fringe extremism proved a winning strategy, a way to use the right’s fascist ugliness against itself, a political judo if you would.

On a more personal note: I’ve been involved in electoral campaigns throughout my political life, from George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign to Bob Beyerle’s 1991 Chula Vista mayoral run. Virtually all of them proved unsuccessful, often disastrously so. The one I’m least proud of was phone banking for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. The personal lesson I’ve learned from them is the need to back off. I’ve become so involved with these past electoral campaigns that I developed unhealthy levels of anxiety and sleeplessness as a consequence. In 2020 and 2022 I turned down the news from major media and the internet. Not only did I sleep better and my anxiety levels go down, the objective political consequences were marginally better. Biden won in 2020 and the Republican “red wave” failed to materialize in 2022. I’m such a political animal that these were positive if piecemeal experiences.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed
Netherlands: The Second Liberation by Roel van Duijn
“The Black Revolution,” Malcolm X Speaks by Malcolm X, George Breitman
Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond by Alexander Cockburn

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American socialism revisited: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, October 2021

Socialism for the rich; capitalism for the poor.

It’s an oft-repeated Leftist cliché that encapsulates an entire socio-political-economic analysis in a single sentence. It was first promulgated by Michael Harrington and frequently repeated by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich. The gist of this argument is that capitalist corporations receive government largess in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and favorable legislation while the general population is left to fend for itself. Big business regularly receives favorable treatment and corporate welfare from the government which allows corporations to “privatize profits and socialize losses.” The rest of us are shit-out-of-luck.(1) Continue reading

Rightward and downward: “What’s Left?” December 2018, MRR #427

My wife, my friends, everybody I know is pissed that I’m not more pissed off about that horrible, horrible man Donald Trump. That I seem pretty sanguine about the hurricane of political, social, and human destruction Trump and the GOP have wrought in such a short period of time or the damage they will continue to inflict for decades to come through, for instance, the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. So, why am I not more freaked out about Trump?

The answer is that, in my lifetime, I’ve seen this nation’s relatively liberal politics go consistently downhill and rightward to the present. I first became aware of American politics writ large when I was 8 years old, when John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. My parents had been Democrats and Adlai Stevenson supporters, so my frame of reference started from a liberal “Golden Age,” the “one brief shining moment” that was the myth of JFK and Camelot. But unlike many people who believe the fifty-eight years that followed have witnessed ups and downs, good times and bad, pendulum swings left and right, and are therefore upset, desperate, and obsessed with the rise of Trump, I see those years all of a piece, a steady right wing devolution as we go straight to hell in a handbasket. Continue reading

Analog radio politics: “What’s Left?” January 2015, MRR #380

I started listening to the radio to fall asleep at night when my parents moved back to southern California. I was a teenager in the ‘60s, living in Ventura, California. At first I listened to commercial AM radio; Top 40 and pop crooners. My parents’ radio stations. Then I discovered the Mighty 1090, XERB, out of Tijuana with Wolfman Jack, a growling, gravely-voiced disc jockey who specialized in “race music” that was quickly transforming into rock music. He played both black rhythm and blues and the white pop versions, Elvis-inspired rockabilly, doo wop, and the beginnings of rock’n’roll way past midnight. XERB was Mexican border blaster radio powerful enough to be heard well into Canada.

Those were the days of analog radio, when you could fine tune the dial with the slightest touch to catch radio stations that were too distant, interstitial, or so weak you could only find them late at night. FM radio was in its infancy, and often so low-powered that its line-of-sight signal meant that LA stations and their broadcasts were largely confined to that smog-choked metropolis. Early FM radio in LA was news-based or education-oriented or ghettoized into specific musical niches, like classical or jazz.

KMET started transmitting in 1968 at 94.7 as one of the first “underground” FM rock music stations, freeform, and relatively commercial free. Known as The Mighty Met, I only got its signal after 10 or so in the evening, when atmospheric conditions allowed it to bounce off the ionosphere and reach beyond the LA basin. Rock’n’roll was the soundtrack to my involvement with the New Left and hippie counterculture, and KMET allowed me to discover music that never got any airplay, commercial or otherwise. I remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck when I first heard the intro storm-and-bells to Black Sabbath’s first album in 1970, which was then played over the air in full. And then there was the utter wackiness of the Dr. Demento show.

The wide open free-wheeling nature of FM radio rapidly evaporated during the ‘70s. Commercial advertising was less prominent on the FM airwaves, corporate sponsorship of FM stations and networks was more low key, and the listener/community supported model of Pacifica and NPR was going strong. But true underground radio was essentially dead by 1975. Eventually, FM radio became more popular and commercial than AM radio, marginalizing the AM band to talk radio, news and sports broadcasting, and religious and ethnic programming. So let’s turn to one of the metaphors generated by the FM radio experience. When Pacifica-affiliated KPFA (94.1) in Berkeley or NPR-associated KQED (88.5) in San Francisco conduct pledge drives, they often allude to the fact that their call numbers are on the left-hand side of the radio dial, implying that they are politically to the left as well. This coincidence also holds for music, with both KMET and the original KSAN (94.9) in San Francisco, not to mention the many Bay Area college radio stations, residing to the left of the dial. I’m told that this is a happenstance of FCC allocation, nothing more. And I’m not interested in making the left-right nature of the radio dial into an analogy for some overly simplistic left-right political spectrum in this country. Instead, consider that the 88-108 MHz portion of the FM radio spectrum represents the full range of political discussion and debate in the United States. My subject this column is how different forces in our society fight over dialing politics either more to the right or further to the left.

FDR’s New Deal was at the center of the dial at the end of the second World War, but working people in this country had dialed politics significantly to the left by 1945, after over fifteen years of grueling class struggle waged in the midst of economic depression and then world war. Fascism had been soundly defeated and the Soviet Union was widely praised, some 35% of the American working class was unionized and more were organizing, industrial actions and nation-wide strikes were regular occurrences, and talk of socialism and calls for revolution were commonplace. The capitalist ruling class was in fear for its power and position, so a concerted effort was launched by the bourgeoisie to dial things back to the right. The Truman administration initiated a concerted anti-Soviet, anti-communist campaign that climaxed with McCarthyism’s purges during the Eisenhower era. The results were a 1950s marked by conformity and conservatism, Cold War and capitalist consumerism, as political discussion and debate shifted markedly to the right.

The decade from 1965 to 1975, known as the 60s, witnessed a political and cultural explosion that reset the dial to the left once again. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left, and the counterculture led, while JFK’s liberalism and LBJ’s Great Society followed. However, with the demise of Nixon, America’s last liberal president, the capitalist ruling class regained the ascendency. For the past forty-odd years it’s been dialing things back to the right, dismantling the welfare state, exploiting the collapse of Soviet communism, and deconstructing liberalism into neo-liberalism. The so-called Reagan revolution went so far as to threaten to demolish the New Deal altogether. When it comes to the Democrats, Carter dialed it to the right of JFK/LBJ, Clinton dialed it to the right of Carter, and Obama dialed it to the right of Clinton. That’s where we’re at today, the 2014 election hiccup notwithstanding.

Now, personally, I think that American politics lurched a little too far to the right in 2014, and that moderation will prevail once more in 2016. But it’s important to realize that this supposed moderation is actually solidly right wing when compared to the ‘60s, let alone the ‘40s. The political discussion and debate in this country has shifted, and continues to shift, to the right, thanks to the power and influence of the bourgeoisie. Returning to the radio analogy, where we once listened to Hank Williams Sr and country western music, we’re now tuned into Brad Paisley and fatuous country rock. Where we once grooved to John Coltrane and bebop, we now enjoy Winton Marsalis and vapid cool jazz. Where we once got high on Jimi Hendrix and rock’n’roll, we’re now buzzed by Yngwie Malmsteen and heavy metal noodling. And where we once thrashed to Black Flag and hardcore punk, we now politely consume Green Day and vacuous pop punk musicals. A sad state of affairs, indeed.

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