Time: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, April 2023

“We will sell no wine before its time,” Orson Welles proclaimed in sonorous tones in his famous Paul Masson California wine commercials from 1978 to 1981. The motto and those ads became an oft-parodied media trope in the late twentieth century, a meme before memes were invented, when bootleg outtakes of an apparently drunk Welles circulated widely, gaining a second comedic life for the advertising campaign.

Historians sometimes have difficulty in determining how to categorize and periodize historical events. The mere chronicling of short-term, discreet historical events known as evental history—histoire événementielle in the French Annales School—needs to be superseded by the study of long-term historical trends, structures, and collectivities (the longue durée), the broad evolution of economies, societies and civilizations. Once established, the historical long haul—the histoire totale—can then be subdivided into convenient medium-length combinations of events; decades and centuries when more thoroughgoing socio-economic-cultural changes can be studied. Thus the much-vaunted or maligned 1960s becomes the “long 1960s” (1955-1975) as the significant history before and after the actual chronological decade of the 1960s are incorporated. The “long 1940s” spans roughly from 1933 to 1955, and the “long 1970s” overlaps with the “long 1960s” from 1965 to 1981. Periodizing such “long” decades are above all flexible and frequently conjoined, with historians often debating when to start and end a particular period, and what to include in or exclude from their study.

As the Orson Welles/Paul Masson slogan implies, the proper demarcation of time for an historical study is crucial, with the discipline of history preferring more natural historical periods to the simplistic use of standard calendar definitions. The “long eighteenth century” thus spans from the English Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815), with some historians extending the period to 1660-1830 in order to encompass broader socio-economic trends. The “long nineteenth century” begins with the French Revolution in 1789 and ends with the start of the first World War in 1914. But the “short twentieth century” starts in 1914 with the first World War and ends in 1991 with the dissolution of the old Soviet Union, and might be subtitled “the rise and fall of Soviet Communism.” Here again natural historical periodicity is key, even as historians argue over the specific dates in question.

Take for example the Italian Years of Lead from 1968 to 1988, a 20-year period of political and social unrest highlighted by the birth and reign of terror, respectively, of the far left Red Brigades and the far right Armed Revolutionary Nuclei. This was in the context of popular workerist/autonomist organizations and movements to the left of the Italian Communist Party and much smaller neo-fascist groupuscules to the right of the Italian Social Movement party. Within the context of the “short twentieth century” and Soviet Communism’s beginnings and demise was the era of Joseph Stalin’s rule from 1922 to 1952. Of all the Communist dictators—Mao, Tito, Castro, Sung, etc—Stalin was easily the most brutal and bloody, presiding over millions of corpses created by forced agricultural collectivization and economic industrialization, a Ukrainian famine, several mass political purges, and numerous political show trials and executions.

[As for the historian-explicated “long decades” and “long centuries” cited above, the self-defined, self-perpetuating dynasties of West and East have them beat. China was ruled by the Shang (16th-11th century bce), Zhou (1046-221 bce), Han (202 bce-220 ce), Song (960-1279 ce) and Ming (1368-1644 ce) dynasties. Europe had the Houses of Romanov (1613-1917), Oldenburg (1101-1917), and Habsburg (1020-1918), not to mention the British (1066-present) and Dutch (13th century-present) monarchies. These capitalist “long duration” periods and, less so, the feudal dynastic spans are the meat and potatoes of my history-based nonfiction inquiries as well as some of my fiction work.]

I write nonfiction essays and fiction books, specifically speculative, near-future, and science fiction. But I’m seventy years old. I have a limited time left on this planet and, in a way, my life is my own personal periodization. I anticipate having only one more novel in me to write.

This next and perhaps final novel is a departure from my usual fiction efforts. I’m switching from the future to the past, specifically 1968. Nineteen sixty-eight was the year I got leftist politics and so this novel attempts to encapsulate my experiences with that year and the 1960s in general. I’ll also hope to elucidate certain “truths” of the era while keeping the process lively and entertaining. My protagonist, who I’ve made a white Western European cis male to avoid claims of cultural appropriation, has a story of political intrigue and mayhem as a National Autonomous University of Mexico student set in Mexico City prior to the 1968 Olympic Games. When the Mexican State gunned down an unknown number of protesting students in Tlatelolco Square. Prior to Mexico’s momentous student uprising, this protagonist travels the Western world to highlight other aspects of the effervescent 1960s. The plot is further drenched with action and politic, fascists and Situationists, and sex, drugs and rocknroll.

I started the book maybe ten years before, dropped it, and returned to it a year ago. I’ve been writing it ever since. I’ve never been prolific but I have been consistent. The historical research is daunting. But I intend to get a rough draft out and to various editors in three to four years. Given my mortality, it’s now a race against time. Lately, I’ve been remembering my residual  Christianity that counts us lucky at eighty years but admonishes that no one knows the hour. I’ve outlived my parents and I’ve had a few serious illnesses. I’m healthy now but I’m also in a hurry.

My rush is being impeded by several factors. I’ve already mentioned the research I’m doing for the book. I’m slowly, painfully reading through the miniature library I’ve accumulated to backdrop the story. The plot comes first, and even if the writing goes more slowly then is my usual pace the story can be altered as I dig up and apply the historical details. Currently I’m reading through Elena Poniatowska’s stunning Massacre in Mexico with its haunting oral micro-histories. More serious is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. My main character—pretty much all my characters in Mexico—speak Spanish so my lack is a definite disability. I have to do an impossible task, write an authentic story of a time and place without knowing the language that authenticates it. I am hoping to learn some basic Spanish. I constantly rewrite what I write, but since I’m not very good about editing my own writing I always need to hire an editor for beta reading, proofreading, copy editing, line editing, substantive editing, mechanical editing, and developmental editing. If and when I finish this novel I’ll need to hire an editor who speaks Spanish.

Finally, the sheer complexity of this story threatens to sink my efforts. When I first conceived the idea for this book I sketched out four plot lines: (1) the protagonist’s story prior to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in  Mexico; (2) his travels around the US and Western Europe earlier in 1968; (3) his back story growing up; and (4) a parallel plot about a UC Berkeley researcher who encounters evidence of a centuries-old entity that embodies the essence of revolution. The researcher chases down this revolutionary demiurge through photographic evidence during key historical uprisings—Paris Commune, 1871; Russian Revolution, 1917; German Spartacist uprising, 1918; Shanghai Commune, 1927; Spanish Revolution, 1936; Hungary, 1956; Cuban Revolution, 1959—to interact with the novel’s protagonist and witness Tlatelolco.

One of the plots of Paco Ignacio Taibo’s detective novel An Easy Thing is the search for Emiliano Zapata, the folk hero and a leader of the Mexican Revolution—very much alive and rumored to be hiding in a cave outside Mexico City. This element of magic realism aligns well with the science fiction/fantasy bent of the novel’s fourth plot line. But because of my desire to base the novel firmly in the history of 1968 and of the Tlatelolco massacre I abandoned the fantasy element early on.  Even without this however the story’s intricacies are discouraging. Do I switch back and forth between plot elements or do I lay out each plot discreetly from beginning to end? The former threatens to muddy the plot with convoluted flashbacks and flash forwards while the latter simplifies things to the point of trivializing the reading experience.

So what’s left is whether I have the time to finish this project. Emerson’s aphorism that it’s not the destination but the journey only goes so far in assuaging my anxieties. Running out of time is up there with losing my memory or suffering a debilitating accident or disease which prevents me from completing the book. All high level fears for me. But all I can do is write the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page until I’ve written the book. Or I have nothing left to write.

Buy my books here.

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.

Continue reading

Logic: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, September 2022

I was on a college track in high school getting mostly A’s and B’s. There wasn’t quite the feeding frenzy in 1970 to stack my academic CV and get into the very best institution of higher education I could. Besides, my parents were barely middle class and we’d agreed that, to save money I’d attend the local community college for two years before transferring to UC Santa Cruz.

One of my English teachers my senior year was Lynn Bjorkman who instructed us on how to write a proper nonfiction essay and academic paper in preparation for our college careers. His specialty was the “science of logic,” both the formal logic of propositions, proofs and inferences and the informal logic of natural language argumentation and logical fallacies. He was a singularly unappealing individual who gave milquetoast a bad name. In the days when Star Trek’s Mr. Spock was the fascinating poster boy for logic, we would pass around notes depicting Bjorkman as an addled cube-headed robot spewing logical nonsense.

I was into pro-Summerhill/Skool Abolition/student liberation politics, so I decided to write an academic-style term paper using Marshall McLuhan’s famous catchphrase “the medium is the message.” In education that meant the message (content) of freedom and democracy was being taught in educational institutions (forms) that were profoundly authoritarian and hierarchical. So I argued that the form/medium invariably prevailed over the content/message, using plenty of quotes, footnotes and a respectable bibliography that included AS Neill’s Summerhill, Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Jerry Farber’s The Student as Nigger. I got a C- on the paper. Bjorkman commented that my writing was bright and sparkling on the surface but deeply flawed logically. He also remarked that I was actually dangerous and unfortunately would make a persuasive propagandist. But aside from noting an occasional logical fallacy in the margins, he never engaged with my argument’s logic point-by-point nor did he try to refute my conclusions.

Continue reading

Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

Continue reading

Of Trotskyists & stockbrokers: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” May 2021

Is this just ultra-revolutionary high-voltage subjectivism of a petty-bourgeois gone wild—or what?
—Otto Wille Kuusinen, on Trotsky at Comintern’s Sixth Congress

Anyone who has been through the Trotskyist movement, for example, as I have, knows that in respect to decent personal behavior, truthfulness, and respect for dissident opinion, the ‘comrades’ are generally much inferior to the average stockbroker.
—Dwight MacDonald, The Root is Man

“Lenin and Trotsky were sympathetic to the Bolshevik left before 1921,” the man insisted. “Really they were.” Continue reading

The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Party like it’s the 1960s: “What’s Left?” July 2017, MRR #410

“Welcome to our humble abode,” Jake greeted us at the front door with a bow, doffing his dented black top hat with a flourish.

I was with a gaggle of fellow peaceniks from the Action Committee for Peace and Justice in Ventura. We were visiting Jake and Connie’s home, a rented two-bedroom bungalow in Ojai. It was a balmy summer night in 1970.

I turned 18 in a month and was required to register for the draft, having graduated from high school. As a peace activist in good standing, an anarchist pacifist with plans to pursue a Conscientious Objector deferment, I was freaked out. I’d also just started smoking marijuana or, more precisely, I’d just started feeling the effects after having inhaled for several weeks before. I wanted some smoke to calm my nerves.

“Hey Jake,” I said to the tall, skinny UCSB student wearing a tie-dyed vest. “Do you know where I can score some grass?”

“Connie can give you a referral,” he laughed, then tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “She’s somewhere back there.”

The party was wall-to-wall, with people also crowded into the rambling backyard. Sixties rock music blared, at the moment “Buffalo Springfield.” Most in attendance wore some sort of head gear, as hats were one of the party’s themes. Long hair and marijuana smoke abounded, as did tobacco smoke and denim apparel. I was tempted to ask any of the individuals passing around joints to pass one my way, but I was shy. Besides, I was interested in quantity, an ounce at least, and I didn’t want to get fucked up before negotiating the purchase. I found Connie, a zaftig woman who also attended UCSB, in the tiny kitchen pouring shots of tequila and arranging them on a serving tray. She wore a colorful Spanish peasant dress and an incongruous brown fedora. I declined when she offered me a shot, as I hadn’t yet started drinking alcohol.

“Anybody you know selling any grass?” I asked.

“Nigel’s got weed, acid, mescaline, coke, crosses, reds, anything you want.” She smiled and downed some tequila. “He’s around somewhere. Black bowler hat.”

Just then, a pair of scruffy males in their thirties I knew all too well from various anti-war meetings barged into the kitchen, arguing and exchanging insults. One wore a teal Mao cap with a Peoples Liberation Army star, the other a dark gray Bolshevik cap a la Lenin with a Red Army star. As they upped the volume of their row, Connie rolled her eyes at me, and hastily exited the kitchen carrying the tray of tequila glasses.

“You’re a fucking moron, Roger,” the Bolshie cap bellowed. “The NLF is the legitimate armed guerrilla force of the Vietnamese people in the south. I’m no fan of people waving the VietCong flag at demonstrations, but that’s the proper flag for Vietnam’s revolution.”

“That’s a nationalist rag, not a righteous working class banner, numbnuts,” the Mao cap retorted in kind. “I’m surprised, truly shocked in fact Bill, that you can renege on your professed proletarian internationalist principles so easily and surrender to bourgeois nationalism.”

Roger followed the Progressive Labor Party line on Vietnam, and Bill the Socialist Workers Party line. They had been good friends in 1965 when they’d both been affiliated with the US-Soviet Friendship Committee. Roger had been married to Susan, a social democrat, and Susan had an affair with Bill before coming out as lesbian. A fistfight followed, and acrimony persisted. Roger drifted into Maoism, Bill into Trotskyism. They were now bitter enemies, always attacking each other at meetings, denouncing each other to acquaintances, each fantasizing how to get even with the other. As I eased out the kitchen door before the shouting match came to blows, I realized I was learning a valuable political lesson:

THE PERSONAL IS ALWAYS POLITICAL

The first outstanding example of personal enmity becoming political antagonism, indeed the archetype for this aphorism, was Trotsky versus Stalin. Both members of Lenin’s Bolshevik party, they had an abiding personal dislike for each other, apparently due to personality differences. Trotsky considered Stalin lugubrious, provincial, crude, and plodding, while Stalin thought Trotsky arrogant, Westernized, bohemian, and elitist. With the death of Lenin, a power struggle erupted between the two within the party which took on ideological overtones. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet state, promoted permanent revolution, and insisted on the rapid, forced industrialization of the country while Stalin was a master of bureaucratic manipulation, defended socialism in one country, and stood behind Lenin’s mixed economic NEP program. Stalin outmaneuvered Trotsky for control of the party, expelled him from Russia, and eventually had Trotsky assassinated in Mexico.

On rarer occasions, honest political differences breed personal hostilities. We come to profound political conflicts often assuming that our opponents are detestable human beings when they’re not much different from ourselves.

I threaded through the boisterous crowd in the combined dining and living rooms as Pete Seeger boomed over the stereo system. No bowler hat in sight, but I did notice a couple of sexagenarians I knew sharing beers on a couch nearby. Frank, an Industrial Workers of the World member from the 1920s, wore a blue striped railroad engineer’s cap, and Farley, in the Socialist Labor Party since the 1930s, had on a modest tan cowboy hat. I heard snippets of their conversation—the Palmer Raids, the split between the IWW and the WIIU, the death of Haywood and De Leon—but I didn’t stop to chat. Both organizations had been moribund by 1960, but were experiencing a revitalization thanks to the 60s youthful counterculture/New Left. I even had a little red IWW membership book at the time, more out of nostalgia then anything else. The IWW continued to experience membership and organizing ups and downs, whereas for the SLP the spike in activity was only temporary before it finally became a shell of its former self, bringing me to my second political metaphor of the evening:

THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

The Left is littered with zombie organizations which refuse to die. Occasionally, groups merge, and even more rarely, cease to exist altogether. But defunct political organizations, like the defunct political ideas that spawned them, tend to persist. Just as De Leonism and syndicalism can still be found somewhere, if only on life support, so can the various iterations of Trotskyism and Schactmanism, the numerous Maoist strains of the New Communist Movement, classical anarchism and left communism, ad nauseam. Well, many of them anyway. I mean, there are still beatniks, hippies, and goths around for fucks sake. It seems that once something arises, it keeps on trucking along until a wooden stake is forcefully driven through its heart to kill it off, and then not even.

As for Frank and Farley, while I subscribed to the New Age platitude that the elderly needed to be valued and their wisdom cherished, to be honest I had little time for historical sentimentality. I was part of the New Left, with an emphasis on the new. The future of politics belonged to us, the youth of 1970, and I certainly didn’t anticipate getting old before we made The Revolution. So I averted my gaze and skirted their conversation, looking for my man.

I looked out over the backyard as people awkwardly tried to dance to Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.” Jake and Connie had arranged lit tiki torches around the yard’s perimeter, so the grotesque shadows of partygoers contorted across the unkempt lawn. A gibbous moon silvered the night air. I returned to searching for my dealer, just not in the hosts’ bedroom which had been commandeered by three couples intent on an impromptu free love orgy. The other bedroom had been converted into a combination trips/meditation/sewing room/office, which is where I finally found the man with the bowler hat holding court. With his English accent, coal-black eye shadow, and silver nobbed cane, Nigel anticipated the droogies of “Clockwork Orange” by a scant year.

“Spectacle, spectacle, all is spectacle,” he patronizingly addressed my friend Thomas, a fellow anarchist who wore a dark gray whoopee cap like the cartoon character Jughead.

“Is smashing the state mere spectacle?” Thomas asked. “Is a spontaneous peoples revolution against the government so easily dismissed?

“Your sad sub-anarchism suffers from the mystics of nonorganization,” Nigel said with a condescending smirk. “It’s spontaneism denies the power of the revolutionary proletariat and plays into capitalism’s rigged game. What is needed are moments of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events. What is needed is the revolution of everyday life.”

Nigel talked a good Situationist game. With two slim, styling Carnaby Street girls fawning over him, I admitted he impressed me. Associated with King Mob and the Angry Brigade in England, he was an ambassador’s son with diplomatic immunity, which was how he kept himself and his drug dealing business from getting busted. The raw noise of the MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” blasted through the party as I shopped in Nigel’s briefcase drugstore emporium, sampled some seed-heavy Columbian Gold, purchased an ounce, and rolled a couple of joints to share around. As I and everybody in the room got high, or higher, I still hadn’t learned the lesson of:

LOOKING FOR THE NEXT BIG THING

The Situationists were revolutionary raconteurs and carny hustlers, a theater troupe that held one successful Paris performance in May-June of 1968 but hadn’t been active since. To me however, they were the next big thing. They certainly wowed impressionable young Leftists, anarchists in particular, with their panache and pizzazz. Situationist and post-Situ wannabes continue to proliferate to this day, but the real legacy of the Situationist International was a virulent sectarianism. Split after split reduced the SI to two remaining members by 1972, when the organization dissolved itself. I was impressed by the Situ-inspired Dutch Provos, but my real inspirations back in the day were the more wide-ranging, broadbased San Francisco Diggers and Dutch Kabouters. The search for the next big thing on the Left continues to the present, with insurrectionary anarchists and communizing ultraleftists still playing that game.

I was tripping when my Ventura friends collected me for the ride home. An owl swooped down silently to snag a mouse in the front yard as we climbed into a brightly painted VW minibus, it’s owner and driver none to sober herself. Me, I wore a soft gray British flat workers cloth cap, a newsboy cap with a snap button brim. As we meandered along Highway 33—soon to be immortalized in the godawful song “Ventura Highway” by the schlocky soft rock band America—I dreamed about becoming a political columnist for a famous future rocknroll magazine in an as yet unborn youth counterculture. Naw, that can’t happen I thought, and fell asleep.

DISCLAIMER:
This is a piece of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.