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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Crossing the line: “What’s Left?” March 2019, MRR #430

[The Motherfuckers are] a street gang with analysis.
—Osha Neumann

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

Conservatives are the new punk.
—alt-right-lite catchphrase

When I read Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s political memoir Wie Alles Anfing/How It All Began in 1979, about his experiences as a West German urban guerrilla, I took to heart his slogan: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!” The feeling behind his words resonated with the aggressive, direct action-oriented anarchism I’d developed since 1968, but by the late ‘80s I’d abbreviated those sentiments into the phrase “fuck shit up.” Fuck shit up was a hardcore punk war cry. Bands from Useless Pieces of Shit to Blatz wrote songs with the saying in the title and the lyrics. There’s no more punk an expression than “fuck shit up,” which is abbreviated FSU in graffiti. Continue reading

Thinking about death: “What’s Left?” September 2018, MRR #424

I light candles for the people in my life who’ve died. It comes from my Catholic upbringing, and any opportunity I get to visit a church with a votive stand—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or even Buddhist—I light candles. But it doesn’t have any spiritual meaning beyond ritual. There’s no “I’m spiritual but not religious” bullshit for me. I’m a recovering Catholic striving for atheism on a good day. On a bad day I’m a feeble agnostic.

My parents were never really churchgoing. When my sister and I were up for the childhood sacraments of penance, communion, and confirmation we had to go to Sunday School, learn the catechism, and attend mass. But after receiving them my parents no longer required church participation of us. When my mom got small cell lung cancer, my dad started attending mass again, praying for a miracle. After a course of chemo, one night my mom got into the family car, drove to an unknown house, knocked on the door, asked if my father was there, then drove home when she learned he wasn’t. A month and a half after she died of the cancer, my dad died of a heart attack. Despite my irreligion, I’m haunted by John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. […] I go to prepare a place for you.” Continue reading

Voting and rioting: “What’s Left?” May 2015, MRR #384

Was it a millionaire who said “Imagine no possessions?”

Elvis Costello, “The Other Side Of Summer”

I vote.

In admitting this, I always feel like someone undead confessing my vampiric tendencies, only to be met by torch-wielding mobs waving silver crucifixes, er, circle a’s, hoping to ward off evil, um, political incorrectness. That’s how many in the anarcho/ultra milieu view any admission of electoral participation, as if merely by punching a ballot for five minutes I actively affirm the entire bourgeois edifice of capitalism and the state and all that is heinous about our society today. Those who employ this reductio ad absurdum argument would brand me a class traitor for simply casting a vote every two years.

As a détourned bumper sticker I once saw expressed it, I riot and I vote. I do less and less rioting the older I get, but that’s a different matter. More precisely I organize, I protest, I act, I demonstrate, I resist, I give money, I rebel, I back unions, I riot, and I vote. Way too long for your average bumper sticker message. I engage in, support, and appreciate a wide variety of political activity in the course of any given day. I don’t consider all political activity equal, either in commission or experience. I rank direct action above voting as I would favor social revolution over streetfighting. But I prefer doing something over doing nothing.

Last column, I made the case for critical support for the military advances of Rojava in western Kurdistan and for the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece. Last June, I talked about stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embracing the idea of “see something, leak something.” All of these issues are decidedly reformist, but I haven’t suddenly forsaken revolution for reformism. “Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms?” Rosa Luxemburg once famously asked in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution. “Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.”

I offer up Luxemburg’s quote to short-circuit the usual bullshit political runaround about the relationship between reform and revolution. We’re told either to accept the “lesser of two evils” or to demand “all or nothing at all.” We’re told either to be reasonable in our demands, or to demand nothing and seize everything. The full social dialectic between reform and revolution is belittled by such simplicities. A few days before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Alabama, and spoke in secret with Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job more difficult,” Malcolm is supposed to have said to Coretta about Martin. “But I thought that if the White people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.” The dynamic relationship between reform and revolution cuts both ways.

This discussion of reform and revolution flows easily into the related discussion of tactics and strategy. Occupy Wall Street introduced issues that Occupy Oakland brought to a crescendo with respect to the debate between nonviolence and what has been called a “diversity of tactics.” Unlike the tactical rigidity of traditional nonviolence however, the anarcho/ultra milieu’s effusive embrace of a “diversity of tactics” is not for tactical flexibility, but rather a glorification of tactics without strategy, a justification of fucking shit up for the sake of fucking shit up. Again, I don’t fuck shit up nearly as much as I used to, but that’s not the point. The absolutism embedded in the latter’s insurrectionism and communization, no less than the moralism inherent in the former’s pacifism, are inimical to forging winning strategies for social change. And frankly, I find it as tiresome arguing in the abstract against the supposed counterrevolutionary reformism of electoral participation or union involvement as I do in countering the histrionic, emotional outrage over the wrongs and evils of coercive violence. I mean, isn’t it middle-class, suburban white kids with everything who are always talking about “Demand nothing?”

People forget that the point is to win. Not by any means necessary, but by means sufficient to achieve victory and by means commensurate with the ends desired. No more “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” as is ubiquitous in the anarcho/ultra milieu, and no more “destroying the village in order to save the village” as is the practice of the authoritarian Leninist Left. No more beautiful losers, and no more one-party totalitarian states disingenuously called socialism. As much as I want principles to align with pragmatism, I’d rather be pragmatic over being principled, if I had to choose.

Plus, I like focusing on the practical every now and again as a welcome addition to my usual mashup of theory, history, news, reviews, commentary, and tirade. After twenty-four years and some two hundred and fifty odd columns, I frequently repeat myself. Too often, I struggle to say the same old shit in slightly different ways. I still manage to raise some controversy and an occasional stink. Unfortunately, it’s rarely in the letters-to-the-editor pages of this magazine, and almost entirely on the intrawebz.

This month, another old-time columnist bites the dust. I’m the only OG columnist left who got my benediction direct from Tim Yo himself. Without going into details (and since no one asked my opinion) all I’ll say is that there’s a difference between being an asshole punk rocker and being an asshole to your fellow punk rockers. I’ll leave it at that.

Next column, fifty shades of anarchy.

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