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

Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Corporatist realities and conservative fantasies: “What’s Left?” February 2009, MRR #309

The debate on the Left, in the days when the Soviet Union still existed, frequently boiled down to those who championed socialism in the abstract versus those who defended “real existing socialism.” Abstract socialism refers to any type of socialism that, with brief revolutionary exceptions, hasn’t actually been tried out in the real world. Anarchism, left communism, syndicalism, council communism, De Leonism, autonomism, democratic socialism, utopian socialism, communalism, libertarian socialism—plus the scores of variations within each category—comprise the broad, inchoate field of socialism in the abstract. Real existing socialism is much simpler, consisting of a few shopworn social democratic and a half dozen Leninist regimes, some of which continue to function to this day.

A similar distinction can be drawn between political systems in the abstract and real existing political systems. Political science, as it is taught in most universities, is an example of politics in the abstract, and academe is the perfect setting within which to discuss democracy, libertarianism, capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, anarchism; all sorts of abstract political systems that have rarely, if ever, existed. In reality, all present-day political systems are but variations on a single theme, that theme being the corporate state.

This is an incidental insight that can be gleaned from a reading of The Contours of American History by William Appleman Williams. An inspiration for the New Left in the 1960s, Williams was a “hard revisionist” who argued that expansion and empire were essential to the American economy, and that the US was primarily responsible for the Cold War. He wasn’t so much a Marxist as he was an anti-imperialist populist, along the lines of Mark Twain, who found common cause with old school, isolationist conservatives like Herbert Hoover, and who valued American regionalism and small community.

In Contours, Williams contended that the worldwide crisis that began with the first world war, and culminated in the second, gave rise to a near universal form of governance that can be called the corporate state. Strictly speaking, the corporate state is a creature of Italian fascism, of Ugo Spirito, Sergio Panunzio and Giovanni Gentile, who posited that an authoritarian ruling party could use the state to mediate between various powerful social interests, most notably the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, by incorporating them into social governance. The triumph of Bolshevism in Russia after 1917 produced a corporate state skewed to the left, with the working class allied with, and disciplined by a totalitarian Soviet state. Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922 established a corporate state tilted to the right, with the capitalist class allied with, and disciplined by an authoritarian Fascist state.

Bolshevism and fascism vied for influence in the United States after 1929, when social conditions during the Great Depression proved ripe for radical organizing. The labor movement in general, and the Communist Party in particular, were gaining strength and social revolution, not to mention socialism, was a distinct possibility. Roosevelt’s response, in the form of the New Deal, created a corporate state in which a democratic state regulated capital, the full partner, and labor, the junior partner, in what amounted to a tripartite governance of American society. Very little effort is required to fit most countries today into one or another corporatist model.

The clear relevance of the corporate state idea in explaining much of current nationalist politics comes at a time when theories of corporatism have lost favor among academics. The multiplication of powers and interests in a society that makes it unmanageable by any corporate state; the explosion of racial, ethnic, even regional forms of tribalism; the spread of neo-liberal, free trade economics around the world through rampant globalization; the weakening of the nation-state as a viable unit in the world capitalist economy; these have all been cited to mitigate the importance of the corporate state as a way to understand how much of the world is run on the level of nation-states. The political realities of the corporate state, however, have not evaporated simply because political science professors are no longer interested in talking about them.

Take the 11/27/08 column, “Socialist Republic,” by paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan. After noting that both George Bush and Barack Obama have learned the same interventionist lessons from studying the Great Depression, Buchanan sarcastically comments that “We are all Keynesians now.”

Consider what we are about to do. Bush in 2008 spent 21 percent of GDP. States, counties and cities spent another 12 percent. Thus, one third of GDP is spent by government at all levels. Obama and Co. propose to raise that by another 10 percent of GDP. We may soon be north of 40 percent of gross domestic product controlled and spent by government.

That is Eurosocialism.

Actually, it’s good, old American corporatism.

Another paleoconservative, Paul Edward Gottfried, points out in his book, Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right, that American conservatives have failed to tackle, let alone defeat the behemoth of the modern administrative state. That’s because conservative Republicans, no less than their liberal Democratic counterparts, accept as given the corporatist fundamentals of the New Deal (Social Security, unemployment insurance, government intervention in the economy) as well as certain additions made to it by Johnson’s Great Society (Medicare, food stamps, civil rights legislation). Not even the doyen of small-government conservative Republicanism, Ronald Reagan, managed to dent America’s administrative state. Indeed, the Federal government and the deficits accrued by it grew precipitously during the Reagan years.

The corporate state is real existing politics, whereas paleoconservatism is politics in the abstract. We’re likely to witness intense internecine conflict on the Right in the next few years as conservatives try to figure out “what went wrong” in 2008. Few will defend the real existing big government conservatism of George Bush as they fight over the mantle of small-government Goldwater/Reagan conservatism in the abstract. Yet, much as anarchism went down to defeat time and again against Leninist communism in the real world, I suspect that, in practice, small government paleoconservatism will be routed by big government conservatism every time. Well, perhaps not in the platform of the Republican party, but certainly in actual governance.

The administrative state, the corporate state, is inescapable. Nor would the capitalist class wish to get rid of it, even if they could. I once joked that, if the Libertarian party’s dream was realized tomorrow, and the state was abolished in order to achieve a pure laissez-faire capitalism, the corporations would purchase and install a new government the day after. Capitalists realize the need for a strong, regulatory state, if for no other reason than to bail them out when they fuck up. Then there’s the military, handy for enforcing capital’s interests overseas, and the police, equally useful in quelling riot, rebellion and revolution at home. Labor’s participation in the corporate state, as well as the social programs engendered by that participation, might be up for question or attack. America’s corporate state is not.

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