Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports existing “socialist” states like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.

Sectarianism or The Truth Will Set You Free: “What’s Left?” May 2017, MRR #408


It’s a classic picture; an iconic, grainy, black-and-white photo of Fidel Castro addressing an unseen crowd, flanked by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Three handsome Latin men in the ultimate romantic revolutionary photo op. Within ten months of the Cuban revolution’s triumph in January, 1959, Cienfuegos died under somewhat mysterious circumstances amid rumors that Castro had him eliminated because he was too popular. And nearly nine years later, Che was hunted down and killed in the jungles of Bolivia under CIA direction, having been reluctant to return to Cuba after Castro made public Guevara’s secret “farewell letter” surrounded by rumors of a falling out between the two.

With Fidel’s death in November of last year, the top three leaders of the Cuban Revolution are now all dead. Fidel continued to smoke Cuban cigars and drink Cuban rum until a few months before his demise at 90 years of age. Supporters of the Cuban revolution considered this symbolic of the resiliency of the socialist project while its enemies of its doddering senility. But this isn’t yet another case of Schrödinger’s cats and quantum simultaneity. Marxism and the Left are definitely on the ropes. This month I’ll discuss the first of a handful of principal issues troubling the Left, without much hope of transcending any of them.

SECTARIANISM
OR THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE

Sectarianism figures as the most overt and persistent problem on the Left. The term originally refers to religious conflicts where it was important to establish that you had a direct line to the almighty, and therefore a need to refute, persecute, or even kill anyone who disputed your claim. The idea here is that you and your group of fellow believers have the truth and those who disagree should be subject to everything from scorn and contempt to terror and death because they’re wrong. The claim to religious truth covers not just major differences like the nature of god (one indivisible vs three-in-one vs multiple, transcendent vs imminent) but also to minor matters like whether to make the sign of the cross with two vs three fingers or to baptize by dunking an individual’s head first vs feet first.

But religion certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on claims to the truth. Politics rivals religion in the acrimony it often generates, and ranks with money and sex as one of the top four topics that shouldn’t be discussed in polite company. Political sectarians certainly parallel their religious counterparts in emphasizing the absolute truth of their principles over all others, making every minor disagreement into the basis for fundamental differences, seeing the deadliest of enemies in their closest rivals, putting purity of dogma over tactical advantage, refusing to compromise or alter their aims, and proclaiming their pride at being against the stream. To be fair, real differences do exist between groups and within organizations. Anarchists and Marxists differ fundamentally on the nature and use of state power (dominant autonomous institution to be smashed vs instrumentality of class rule to be seized). Social democrats and Leninists disagree essentially on the organization and role of the political party (mass democratic party vs vanguard party). Given such fundamental differences, political conflicts and opposition are bound to occur when a common action or program is undertaken. But it’s important to define those differences that actually make a difference instead of always seeing fundamental differences where none exist.

On the Left, Marxism exacerbates the problem of sectarianism because of what Frederich Engels called the “theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific Socialism.” It is unclear whether Karl Marx himself had such a rigid understanding of his doctrine. While he concurred with Engels in differentiating his socialism from the utopianism of prior socialist thinkers, Marx was by no means as crude or mechanistic in its application to the world of his day. What’s more, Marx valued the correctness of his doctrine’s methodology far more than he did the correctness of its conclusions. Science is based on statements of fact like “1 + 1 = 2,” and so to claim that “1 + 1 = 3” for instance is not just wrong, it’s unscientific. If socialism is a scientific doctrine, then statements by Marxist organization A that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively anti-imperialist” are considered scientific fact. But what if Marxist organization B proclaims that “the Assad regime in Syria is objectively counterrevolutionary?” Just as 1 + 1 cannot be simultaneously 2 and 3, Assad’s regime in Syria cannot be simultaneously objectively anti-imperialist and counterrevolutionary. Since both Marxist organizations A and B each claim to rely on scientific socialism to arrive at their contradictory conclusions, at least one of these statements must be objectively false.

Aside from the quantum physics fringe, science just doesn’t work that way. Neither political formulation may be right, but someone certainly must be wrong; a sentiment that fuels the sectarian urge.

For Engels, the term scientific essentially meant dialectic. There is much debate about whether Marx subscribed wholeheartedly to Hegelian dialectics, or if his methodology was more complex. Whatever the case, subsequent Marxists like Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao considered Marxism to be fundamentally dialectical. And Mao entertained an open notion of dialectics where contradictions endlessly self-generated until certain contradictions were considered eternal. “Does ‘one divide into two’ or ‘two fuse into one?’ This question is a subject of debate in China and now here. This debate is a struggle between two conceptions of the world. One believes in struggle, the other in unity. The two sides have drawn a clear line between them and their arguments are diametrically opposed. Thus, you can see why one divides into two.” (Free translation from the Red Flag, Peking, September 21, 1964) This is also a conception of the world as endless split and schism, of sectarianism run amok. Little wonder that the Maoist New Communist Movement in the United States at its height in the 1970s rivaled Trotskyism for ever-proliferating, constantly infighting groupuscules. It’s no coincidence that Monty Python’s film “Life of Brian,” with its clever skit of the People’s Front of Judea vs the Judean People’s Front, came out in 1979.

The “one divide into two” quote came from a pamphlet called “The Anti-Mass: Methods of Organization for Collectives” which first appeared in 1970-71. It was called a “moldy soup of McLuhanism, anarchism, William Burroughs, Maoism, and ‘situationism’.” The real Situationists of “Contradiction” called out the fake “situationists” of “Anti-Mass” for taking “a firm, principled position within the spectacle, titillating jaded movement post-graduates with neo-Maoist homilies and Madison Avenue salesmanship.”

And so it went. Trotskyism, Maoism, and Situationism were perhaps the most sectarian tendencies on the Left, but Leftist sectarianism was by no means confined to them. With the defeat of the labor movement and the collapse of Leninist regimes in the twentieth century, we’ve come to a crisis of Marxism specifically and of the Left in general.

Increasingly marginalized revolutionaries sought to break with the senescent Left after 1991 and proffered innovations to its theory and politics in order to salvage what they could of Marxism. In the twenty-first century, this has amounted to rearguard discussions of insurrectionism, communization, Agamben, and social war. To quote Benjamin Noys, the “mixing-up of insurrectionist anarchism, the communist ultra-left, post-autonomists, anti-political currents, groups like the Invisible Committee, as well as more explicitly ‘communizing’ currents, such as Théorie Communiste” is what can be called today’s Social War tendency. In retreat and lacking agency, visions narrow. Revolution becomes insurrection. Communism becomes communizing. The amorphous eclecticism of the Social War tendency offers not “a fresh new perspective for Marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication” according to Donald Parkinson. In other words, more bad politics. And part of that bad politics is sectarianism. Witness the incessant political bickering between Tiqqun, Gilles Dauvé, and Théorie Communiste for starters, which no doubt sounds much more elegant in French.

Doris Lessing wrote in her introduction to “The Golden Notebook”: “I think it is possible that Marxism was the first attempt, for our time, outside the formal religions, at a world-mind, a world ethic. It went wrong, could not prevent itself from dividing and sub-dividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds. But it was an attempt.” Perhaps sectarianism on the Left is inevitable as Lessing suggests. It can be contained and controlled however, something that is necessary to promote solidarity.

As a postscript, it is claimed that opportunism is the opposite of sectarianism because opportunists readily adapt their principles to circumstances, minimize the significance of internal disputes, consider even enemies as “the lesser evil,” place tactical advantage over adherence to principles, willingly compromise, and gladly follow the mainstream. Whereas sectarians adamantly insist on their uniqueness, purity, and autonomy, opportunists willingly give up all three. Sectarianism insists on an uncompromising identity while opportunism readily dissolves itself into the greater movement. So while sectarians remain a constant pain-in-the-ass as long as they exist, opportunists happily sell out and fade away. Thus the problem of sectarianism persists while the problem of opportunism takes care of itself by simply evaporating.

The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

Belated Schrödingerized Election Analysis: “What’s Left?” February 2017, MRR #405

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[I finish a column by the 5th of the first month. My column is laid out in InDesign and sent off to the printer digitally at the end of that first month. The print issue of the magazine is delivered to MRR HQ by the first week of the second month in this process, with a date of the third month on the cover. At a minimum, there’s a month and half delay between when I finish my column and when the issue in question hits the newsstands at the beginning of the third month.]

I started my self-publishing career writing, typing, and mimeographing an underground newspaper with a group of friends during my high school senior year—spring of 1970. We were a ragtag handful of students, more New Left than counterculture, with sympathies for anarchism, Third Worldism, Maoism, and guerrillaism. About the only thing we agreed on was our admiration for and desire to join Students for a Democratic Society, which was ironic because SDS had already crashed-and-burned due to sectarian infighting.

John McConnell, the principal, was a John Bircher who took the opportunity of our first issue to convene an evening presentation in the HS auditorium open to the public on “The Dangers of Communism in Our Schools,” and he used SDS and our newspaper as clear-and-present examples. Of course we were flattered, so we did an adulatory, pro-SDS article in our next issue superimposed on a raised fist graphic, which promptly got us busted not because we published it but because we distributed it on campus. McConnell called me and my parents into his school office where he proceeded to lecture my somewhat bewildered mom and dad about how I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, consorting with seditious characters, and flirting with the red menace. Both my parents, Polish refugees who’d experienced the horrors of the second World War first hand, told him that they had left Europe to get away from people like him and then walked out of the meeting.

Of course, mom and dad argued with me all the way home and through the night against my infantile leftism, naive utopianism, and abstract idealism that the USA to which we’d immigrated was a pretty sweet place to live. In particular I remember from that back-and-forth my dad pointing out that despite all my radical ideas from books and revolutionary examples from history about helping to liberate humanity, I didn’t really do much on a daily basis to make many other individual human lives much better. I remember my parents preparing thoughtful, compact “care packages” to be mailed to our relatives in Poland “behind the Iron Curtain.” Care, Inc, as a refugee relief agency started from the humanitarian disaster that was Europe after the second World War. I still lived at home, so my dad garnished a portion of my spending money for the next year to contribute to Care for African Famine Relief.

It was to teach me a lesson, that an abstract love of humanity should not come detached from loving real live human beings.

I spent the column before last (MRR #402) detailing how various pendulum swings into oppressive conservatism under the GOP resulted in increased misery but not overt fascism as a way of saying that if and when Trump wins it’s not the end of the world. No doubt we’re in for some heavy-duty repression. But Jon Stewart recently quipped regarding Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as White House strategist: “You know, somebody was saying, ‘There might be an anti-Semite that is working in the White House.’ I was like, have you listened to the Nixon tapes? Like, forget about advising the president – the president. Like, have you read LBJ? Do you know our history?” What I learned from such previous political hard times is that it helps to do what you love to do, plus do a little bit of good in this world, in order to keep your sanity during the present shitstorm. My writing always comforts me, and while charity, mutual aid, or solidarity won’t save the world, it can help individuals—including myself—feel better and maybe even survive. I’m currently looking for somewhere to volunteer, but in the meantime let’s talk about how it all went south.

It felt like a Schrödinger’s cat election from the get go. For you quantum geeks, that’s when it’s yes or no or yes and no at the same time. Take the notion that the United States is a democracy. Out of the total population of the country as of 2016, approximately 28.6% were ineligible to vote due to age, court order, or felony record, and 29.9% of the remaining population simply didn’t vote. That means only 41.5% of the population actually voted, a clear case of minority rule. If we then realize that 19.8% voted for Clinton, 19.5% voted for Trump, and 2.2% voted for third party candidates, that means less than one fifth of the total population decided who would be president this last election. So, is the US a democracy? Yes, no, or maybe yes and no at the same time. Throw in the decidedly undemocratic results of the electoral college and we have to ask if Trump actually won the election? Yes according to the electoral college tally which Trump won by 74 votes and no according to the popular vote which Clinton won by some 2 million votes, further Schrödingerizing the elections.

Michael Moore warned early on that unless the Democrats paid attention to the blue collar, rust belt, American white working class savaged by neoliberalism and deindustrialization, Trump would win them and the election. Nate Silver remained the most conservative pollster throughout the run up to the election, predicting at one point that Clinton had a 60% chance of winning when other polls gave her a 90+% of winning, but also warning that Clinton’s lead remained within 3 percentage points of Trump in his polling algorithms which was well within his “margin of error.” I myself predicted that Clinton’s victory over Trump would be uncomfortably narrow. But then I read that Nate Silver gave both the Cubs and Trump one in four odds of winning, so when the Cubs won the World Series I feared we were in for an upset. For the most part, Trump duplicated Romney’s 2012 election results numerically and demographically, with Romney’s hold on 27 million white male voters shifting from more educated to less educated when it came to Trump in 2016. By contrast, Clinton couldn’t maintain the numbers or the demographics of the Obama coalition’s electoral victories. Her campaign saw a decline of some four million Democratic voters, and lost support among women and minorities and Democratic firewall states, especially the Big Blue Wall rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It was Clinton’s election to lose, and she did just that.

Yet she also won the popular vote by 2 million votes, which is why I consider this electoral prediction of mine a Schrödinger one.

It was Clinton’s overconfidence that did her in. She was already an unpopular candidate and her hubris generated a corresponding complacency among her followers. She even repeated the same mistake she made in her 2008 run against Obama by not vigorously campaigning in the rust belt states she needed to win to maintain the Democratic Party’s Big Blue Wall in 2016. (Sanders also campaigned energetically in the rust belt states while Clinton kept flying out to California to sequester herself in the private homes of ultra-wealthy donors.) The canard perpetuated by her campaign—that Trump exploited the racism and sexism of the old white male working class to win—was particularly heinous. Trump’s most vociferous supporters were indeed older, white, and male, but they were predominantly small business owners and professionals, not the working class still loyal to a Democratic Party committed to free trade and stripping the country of its industrial base at the expense of American workers. Of the dwindling white working class, poorer rural white workers swung toward Trump while solidly blue collar urban white workers actually swung toward Clinton. Thus the American white working class continued to vote for Clinton and the Democrats, when they bothered to vote at all, despite being betrayed by the anti-worker policies of the Democratic Party. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but she played a lousy strategic game and lost the electoral college. The Republicans continue to control both the US Senate (51/48) and US House of Representatives (240/194). Combine this with Republican control over 33 State governorships and 32 State legislatures (up from 21 governors and 23 legislatures in 2009), and Trump’s promise to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices—what we have is a Republican clean sweep.

Of course, it’s never so monolithic or cut-and-dried. Because of the winner-take-all nature of US electoral politics, the appearance of overwhelming GOP control is belied by Republican fractiousness, and a persistent factionalism only increased by Trump’s own surprising victory. Combine this with the lack of governing experience in Trump’s transition team and I predict that, by the time Trump gets the hang of how to run things in Washington, the 2018 midterm elections will hand the US Senate back to the Democrats. Given the Democrats’ dismal performance to date, I’m tempted to say “Fuck the Democratic Party!” But I’m not at all sure whether the Democratic Party should be abolished, ignored, embraced, reformed, or rebuilt from the bottom up. Nor do I have my old ultraleft confidence that bourgeois political parties or even revolutionary parties have no role to play in bringing about social change, let alone social revolution. The whole issue of electoral politics is highly problematic from a number of perspectives, so I think it best to put aside the Democratic Party in discussing what is to be done in the wake of Trump’s win and the Republican Party’s victories.

What I am certain about is that an active and engaged mass social base is needed in order to take the next step, whether that is forming a progressive, labor, or revolutionary party; building an extra-parliamentary opposition; or attempting radical reforms or even social revolution. The two necessary components to an effective, vibrant mass social base are lively autonomous social movements and independent street politics based on direct action. And crucial to any mass social base with agency in my estimation will be an organized and organizing working class committed to direct action in the streets. Combine these two components, and true social power begins. I can endlessly debate the need for extra-parliamentary politics; what is absolutely necessary are broad, non-parliamentary social movements in the streets.

In order to challenge, combat, and eventually overthrow our society’s reactionary, autarchic government, we need to cultivate an independent, autonomous, rebellious social base. Maximize the potential for self-activity and self-organization at the base and you maximize the possibility for self-emancipatory politics to arise. In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs argued that action precedes consciousness. Or to flip Funkadelic’s famous album title: “Move your ass and your mind will follow.”

Piling up the corpses: “What’s Left?” July 2015, MRR #386

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember [that] which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid [wait] for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Samuel 15: 2-3 (King James Version)

Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?

Adolf Hitler

The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.

attributed to Josef Stalin

Last column, I took anarchism to task and concluded that it is ineffectual in practice. Hell, I called anarchism a joke. But what about anarchism’s chief rival on the Left? Time was, Marxist-Leninist one-party totalitarian regimes ruled over a fifth of the world’s land surface, governing around a third of humanity. Communism has fallen on hard times since those dizzying heights in 1985, yet there are still those who would revive Leninism’s lost fortunes, with many more nostalgic for the “good old days” of Stalinist dictatorships. So, let’s delve into one of the more prominent aspects of the Marxist-Leninist Left, that being mass murder.

Talking about mass murder is a tricky business. After all, who’s hands aren’t steeped in blood. Several years ago, France and Turkey exchanged words in a diplomatic row in which the French insisted that Turkey take responsibility for the slaughter of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, with the Turks responding that France had butchered perhaps 1.5 Algerians during the Algerian colonial war from 1954 to 1962. Claims and counterclaims flew back and forth as to who did what, when, and how, and as to whether one incident of mass murder could be compared to the other. What I’m prepared to do is far more foolish, but potentially more interesting, in that I plan to set up a ranking for mass murder, starting with Leninism’s crimes.

A note first on terminology. Mass murder and mass killing are the general words for a host of terms with more specific meanings. Genocide means the elimination of a race, ethnocide of an ethnic group, and classicide of a social class. Democide means the intentional killing of large numbers of unarmed people, and politicide the extermination of people based on their political beliefs or the deliberate destruction of a political movement. Femicide or gynocide refers to the massacre of women, and fratricide of family members killing each other, which is often used as a synonym for civil war. Finally, ecocide refers to the wanton destruction of an ecology or natural environment. All are perpetrated primarily, but not exclusively, by governments. Humans have become so expert at slaughter that there is a need to specify the kind of slaughter.

Now, let’s consider history’s real mass murderers, a variety of totalitarian regimes all from the 20th century. For sources, I will be using Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder by R.J. Rummel, 1992, and The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Laffont, Courtois, Werth, Panné, Paczkowski, Bartosek, Margolin, 1999. And, to further the thesis I’m arguing, I will consistently cite mortality figures in the mid range.

I’ll begin with worldwide Marxist-Leninist communism. Through “bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal gulags and forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and show trials, and genocide,” all Marxist-Leninist regimes since 1917 have butchered around 110 million people. This breaks down for the major players to 62 million for the old USSR, 40 million for China, 2 million for Cambodia, 1.6 million apiece for North Korea and Vietnam, and 1 million for the former Yugoslavia, covering in total eastern Europe and most of the Asian land mass, as well as significant portions of Africa. Count in another 30 million for aggressive wars, civil and guerrilla wars, insurrections and uprisings, and the dimensions of this “red holocaust” are complete.

But wait, this is superseded by the “brown holocaust” perpetrated by Nazi Germany, which murdered outright roughly 20,946,000 people from 1933 to 1945. That includes some 5,291,000 Jews, 258,000 Gypsies, 10,547,000 Slavs, 220,000 homosexuals, 173,500 handicapped Germans, and assorted millions of French, Dutch, Serbs, Slovenes, Czechs, and other European nationals. This was accomplished “[b]y genocide, the murder of hostages, reprisal raids, forced labor, ‘euthanasia,’ starvation, exposure, medical experiments, and terror bombing, and in the concentration and death camps.” Add that to the approximately 20 to 30,000,000 slaughtered by the Nazi’s militarily, and that’s a figure of over 40-50 million human beings obliterated in something like 12 years across continental Europe (this excludes all other fascist regimes; Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Hirohito’s Japan, etc.).

To emphasize how the Nazi “brown holocaust” qualitatively surpassed the Communist “red holocaust,” another quote from R.J. Rummel is in order. With respect to mass murder alone: [a]nnually […] the Nazis killed six to seven people out of every hundred in occupied Europe. The odds of a European dying under Nazi occupation were about one in fifteen. […] Moreover, even though the Nazis hardly matched the democide of the Soviets and Communist Chinese […] they proportionally killed more. […] The annual odds of being killed by the Nazis during their occupation were almost two-and-a-half times that of Soviet citizens being slain by their government since 1917; over nine times that for Chinese living in Communist China after 1949. In competition for who can murder proportionally the most human beings, the Japanese militarists come closest. The annual odds of being killed by the Japanese during their occupation of China, Korea, Indonesia, Burma, Indochina, and elsewhere in Asia was one in 101. Given the years and population available to this gang of megamurderers, the Nazis have been the most lethal murderers; and Japanese militarists next deadliest.

Much the same point is made by Paul Preston in his massive tome The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2011). Without discounting, downplaying, or apologizing for either the calculated CP-instigated Red Terror or the more spontaneous anarchist-inspired massacres of capitalists and clergy in the Republican zone, Preston contends that around 50,000 Spaniards were slaughtered by Republican forces, as compared to 150,000 Spaniards massacred by Franco’s rebel forces throughout Spain. This lead Preston to conclude that Franco’s atrocities during and after the Civil War amounted to nothing less than a holocaust, “a carefully planned operation to eliminate … ‘those who do not think as we do’,” a mass murder of Spaniards unprecedented in Spanish history.

In contrast, let’s try and calculate this country’s genocidal/democidal burden, an extremely difficult task for several reasons. First, the native Americans. It’s impossible to know how many Indians lived in what would become the territorial US of A prior to colonization, and thus it becomes just as impossible to come up with a number for those outright murdered by colonial and national Americans. Even if we take the maximum figure of 112 million natives residing across both North and South America prior to 1492, only some 6 million remained alive in the western hemisphere by 1650. Upwards of 90% of the native population on this continent died of European diseases introduced unintentionally after 1492, well before the first English colonists set foot in what would become the United States. And this does not account for native Americans killed in military action or massacred by white American settlers. The black population can be calculated with greater precision: about 645,000 Africans were imported as slaves to America, and that population had grown to 4 million by 1860. But figuring how many black American slaves died from outright murder or were worked to an early grave through forced labor, again, is impossible to accomplish with any accuracy. For the sake of argument, I propose using a figure of 1.5 million, which is incredibly high.

Now, let’s assume that every war Americans ever fought, as colonials and nationals, was imperialist in nature. That amounts to some 26 more or less official wars, and well over 200 unofficial interventions, in which around 1,340,000 Americans died, including the 625,000 who perished during the US Civil War. We didn’t get going with our military killing machine until we started targeting Asians (WW2—2 million Japanese; Korea—1 million North Koreans, 500,000 Chinese; Vietnam—1 million Vietnamese). Combining these numbers with other enemy casualties, we come up with around 8 million dead due to American military imperialism. Now, consider the costs of American capitalism, in workplace casualties, workers killed by Pinkertons and police, industrial accidents, overwork, etc., and put that figure at another 1.5 millions, again super inflated. Let’s put America’s overall genocide/democide of 11 million killed over some 400 years across the territorial United States, western Europe, and select regions of the Third World. This is an insanely hyperbolic description of American mass murder. To make the point this column is striving for, let’s double the figures for people of color killed and death by capitalism to 3 million each as a kind of “liberal white male guilt” gratuity, and round the total American genocide figure to an even 15 million slaughtered over 4 centuries over the same area described above. As a budding leftist in the 1960s, I believed that a wildly exaggerated number like 15 million was quite reasonable.

I’m sure I’ve opened myself up to criticism from those pomo Leftists (the anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, anti-classist, anti-ageist, anti-ableist bastard children of the New Left and French philosophy) who would contend that, because I’m white, male, well-educated, and middle class, I passed—I avoided experiencing America’s full genocidal/gynocidal wrath. But when compared to the blood-soaked history of Nazi Germany or Leninist communism, America’s crimes, no matter how much I intentionally exaggerate them, simply cannot compare.

To conclude, Nazi Germany ranks at the top of the list for murdering people, followed closely by the rest of fascism. Leninism worldwide is actually only middling with respect to massacre. And the USA is in a paltry third place.

There are advantages to living in a liberal Western democracy.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)

Rojava and Syriza: “What’s Left?” April 2015, MRR #383

April Fools Column Header

Maximum Rocknroll April Fools Column Header


The disadvantage of having “been there, done that” in politics for almost fifty years now is that nothing ever really surprises me anymore. I’ve gone from left anarchism to anti-state communism, with stops along the way in the Industrial Workers of the World and Anti-Racist Action. After organizing scores of ad hoc anti-authoritarian groups and producing hundreds of flyers, posters, zines, publications and like propaganda over that span of time, I’ve gotten a bit jaded. The last thing that truly surprised me in a good way was the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999. Since then, I’ve been only mildly surprised with some aspects of the Arab Spring, the European anti-austerity protests, popular autonomous movements in Mexico, and the Occupy Movement. So, let’s consider a couple of things that are kind of cool and interesting in politics these days.

First, let’s be clear that I no longer claim any type of politics to the left of the Left. I still have sympathies and solidarities, but no overt affiliations. Which means I tend to be less concerned with purity and much more pragmatically inclined. Which, in turn, means I’m not into the game of “more anarchist/communist than thou” as I analyze existing politics and evaluate current events. So, let’s consider two subjects that seem to have anti-authoritarian knickers in a twist.

Begin with the plight of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have asserted a common ethnic identity through shared language and culture for over nine hundred years, ever since the high Middle Ages of the 11th or 12th centuries. Modern Kurdish nationalism arose after 1880, and if anything gives anti-authoritarians the screaming heebie-jeebies, it’s nationalism. Patriotism, the nation-state, national liberation struggles; nationalism in all its variations and permutations is anathema certainly for anarchists and also for most left communists.

The Kurds struggled for national self-determination for a greater Kurdistan against the Ottoman empire until British/French imperialism divided up the Middle East after the first World War. Most of the Kurdish population found itself in southern and eastern Turkey, with sizable minorities residing in northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. This arbitrary division of the region into artificial nation-states fractured the Kurdish national movement into separate nationalist struggles; the PKK in Turkey, the KDP and then the PUK in Iraq, and the KDP-I and PJAK in Iran. All of these Kurdish political entities claimed to be, to varying degrees, political parties/guerrilla armies fighting for national liberation against their respective non-Kurdish regimes.

Sectarianism, nationalism, and imperialism have continued to keep Kurdish struggles fragmented, among the most intransigent being the Kurdish PKK’s incessant “peoples war” against the Turkish state. Even Kurdish successes have been piecemeal as a consequence. This is illustrated by decades of conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in aborted revolution, back-and-forth war, and state instigated genocide, finally mitigated only by the happenstance of American imperialism. When the US military enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurdish peshmerga consolidated autonomous power in the three northernmost Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaimanya) and surrounding territories, even as various Kurdish political factions fought a civil war for control of what would be called by 1998 the Kurdish Federation. This territory has been governed as a state-within-a-state by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the US/Iraq war of 2003, a pro-Western, pro-Turkish sovereign Kurdish state in all but name and UN recognition with pretensions to being the first puzzle piece fit into a greater Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the most staid, orthodox expression of Kurdish nationalism imaginable, however. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK now in a Turkish prison for terrorism, recently rescinded the organization’s staunch Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with a libertarian communalism that has strong anarchist overtones. Traditional Leninist democratic centralism has been replaced with the democratic confederalism of Kurdistan, which:
[I]s not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state. With the women and youth at the forefront, it is a system in which all sectors of society will develop their own democratic organisations. It is a politics exercised by free and equal confederal citizens by electing their own free regional representatives. It is based on the principle of its own strength and expertise. It derives its power from the people and in all areas including its economy it will seek self-sufficiency. [“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan]
Ostensibly influenced by libertarian socialism, Öcalan and the PKK have given a particular shout-out to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism for their ideological turnaround.

The Kurds have now seized the opportunity offered by Syria’s disintegration into civil war, and the threat posed by the resurgent Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State, to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. The PYD party, which fields the YPG/J guerrilla army, has close ties to the PKK and governs Rojava with the pro-Iraqi KNC through a Kurdish Supreme Committee. The PKK’s communalism and democratic confederalism pervades Rojava. The territory is organized into cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani), governed by councils and communes, all defended by armed militias. The peshmerga have even joined the YPG/J in defending Kobani against the IS. So, here is the conundrum for anti-authoritarians. Is Rojava a genuine libertarian revolution of the Kurdish people, or is it window dressing for the post-Leninist Öcalan and his crypto-authoritarian, unapologetically nationalist PKK?

When the EZLN broke onto the international political stage in 1994, the Zapatistas were mum about their origins in Mexico’s 1968 student Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics, as well as coy about their own political ideology. Nevertheless, anarchists and left communists embraced the EZLN wholeheartedly, without reservation, and events in Chiapas were defended as both revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. Not so Rojava. The anarcho/ultra milieu is being asked either to show unconditional solidarity for the revolution in Rojava or to summarily denounce Rojava as a Trojan horse for autocratic Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, no nuance is permitted.

Let’s now switch to another of the anti-authoritarian Left’s abominations—party politics. Political parties are universally vilified by anarchists, and less consistently condemned by left communists, whether liberal democratic, Marxist, fascist, what-have-you, and whether in the context of parliamentary democracies or one-party totalitarian states. No surprise then that the anarcho/ultra milieu views with intense suspicion the rise of Syriza in Greek politics.

The 2008 international economic collapse forced the European Union to the brink of default, and the Greek economy into bankruptcy. The Greek government economic crisis distilled down the general European economic crisis into a painful Greek depression in which Greek debt soared, GDP growth went negative, and a third of the population became unemployed. Numerous factors were blamed for this—unrestrained government spending, unsecured lending by rapacious creditors, corruption and tax evasion in society, etc. But the consequence was economic default, downgrading Greece’s credit rating, and two Economic Adjustment Programs (EAPs) of debt restructuring, severe austerity, and public sector privatization forced on Greece by the Troika of Eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. More to the point, social misery and unrest followed, with demonstrations, labor unrest, strikes, and riots becoming a daily occurrence.

The Greek government, comprised of the socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy parties, accepted the bailout constraints, disciplined their respective memberships, and implemented the austerity, restructuring and privatization measures of the EAPs. Meanwhile, social suffering and rebellion escalated. One result was the resurgence of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, fascist right in the Golden Dawn party, but another more important upshot was the formation of Syriza as an anti-austerity, EU-critical, opposition political party. Syriza itself is a unitary party forged from a diverse coalition of much smaller constituent parties claiming liberalism, social democracy, revolutionary socialism, communism, ultraleftism, eco-socialism, environmentalism, green politics, and feminism. The dominant, democratic socialist, euro-communist, feminist Synaspismós party is in Syriza side-by-side with the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist KOE, the ultraleft ROZA, the green AKOA, and a dozen more fractious political parties.

Talk about herding cats!

The thought of Trotskyists and Maoists working together is mind-boggling in itself, and speaks simultaneously to the incredible fragility and astounding audacity of Syriza as a unified party project. Syriza got 36% of the popular vote in the 2015 Greek elections, enough to form a government in parliamentary alliance with one other, very minor Greek party. That this was with the right-wing, national-conservative, Euroskeptic party called Independent Greeks (with 4.7% of the vote) instead of the old-school KKE Communist party (5.4% of the vote) was also quite interesting, allowing Syriza flexibility on its left flank. Syriza’s stated goal is to force the Troika to renegotiate the EAPs in order to end economic austerity and privatization for Greece.

Far from hoping that Syriza is “workers’ power” in waiting, as some on the ultraleft have speculated, the general anti-authoritarian Left is adamant that nothing good can come from Syriza’s recent electoral victory. Crimethinc delivers the stock anti-party line, repeating tired old tropes from the anarcho/ultra milieu. Capitalism is in perpetual crisis and needs to be abolished. The social revolution required to abolish capitalism cannot be initiated and carried out, let alone won through political parties, electoral politics, or parliamentarianism. Syriza will succeed only in disciplining Greek social movements and social unrest to the exigencies of a capitalism in crisis, even in preparing the way for outright fascism: Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force. [“Syriza Can’t Save Greece: Why There’s No Electoral Exit From The Crisis” by Crimethinc.]

That I was mildly surprised by Syriza’s electoral showing doesn’t mean I hold illusions that Syriza will usher in social revolution, or even a “workers’ power,” for Greece. There is the very real danger that Syriza might act to effectively bridle Greek social movements and social unrest. That Syriza cannot resolve capitalism’s crisis in Greece goes without saying. But still, I want to see Syriza poke its thumb into the eye of the Troika causing Greece’s misery, if it can. I want to see Syriza cause as much trouble as possible before it is inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated. That too, goes without saying.

That’s also how I feel about Rojava. I am mildly surprised by the successes of the armed Kurdish uprising in Rojava. But Öcalan is not Durruti reincarnated, nor is Kurdistan, even the Rojava part of Kurdistan, some anarchist utopia in the making. The limitations and shortcomings of national liberation politics, even those that proclaim socialist struggles for national liberation, are historically self-evident. Any movement for a greater Kurdistan, no matter how communalist, is also up against a capitalism in crisis. But still, I want to see Rojava take things as far as the Kurds there can with respect to liberatory social organization and self-defense. I want to see the Kurds of Rojava, and of all Kurdistan, kick up as much of a ruckus as possible before they are inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated.

If Rojava or Syriza actually, fundamentally, completely wins? Well, that would be truly surprising. Finally, that goes without saying.

ACRONYMS: WTO – World Trade Organization; PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party; KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party; PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; KDP-I – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; PJAK – Party of a Free Life in Kurdistan; PYD – Democratic Union Party; KNC – Kurdish National Council; YPG/J – People’s Defense Units; EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation; SYRIZA – Coalition of the Radical Left; PASOK – Panhellenic Socialist Movement; DEA – International Workers’ Left; KOE – Communist Organization of Greece; ROZA – Radical Left Group; AKOA – Renewing Communist Ecological Left; KKE – Communist Party of Greece

The Problem of Agency: “What’s Left?” February 2015, MRR #381

I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding,
The effort it takes just to keep on dreaming

Of better days, and better ways

Of living.

Michael Timmins, Cowboy Junkies
“Fairytale,” The Wilderness: The Nomad Series

“A new world is possible” was the slogan that emerged from the era of anti-globalization protests, which in turn evolved into an endless series of social forums that continue to this day. Airy and tentative compared to the insurrectionist communizing nihilism that followed, this sentiment is the lite version of a prefiguring politics that goes back at least as far as the 1905 Industrial Workers of the World constitution which called for “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Indeed, it can be argued that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. The tool of the revolution is utopia, and the material is the social reality on which one wants to impose a new form. And the tool must to some degree fit the substance if the results are not to become ludicrous.” So wrote the young, still Marxist Leszek Kolakowski in his essay “The Concept of the Left.” Thus, I intend to define who and what is trying to make a new world possible, and how successful such efforts have been to date.

I’ve always considered myself on the side of those who would create a new and better world. And I have more than a passing interest in the claimed existence of The Historical Agent (THA—also called the revolutionary agent/subject, or the social agent/subject), the radical social grouping with the human agency to affect revolutionary social change not just in the past but in our lifetime. Walter Benjamin proposed a similar messianic understanding of history, a sense of messianic time or a weak messianic power he associated with Marxist historical materialism and couched in cryptic, poetic terms in “The Concept of History” which ends with the statement that “[f]or every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter.” Unfortunately the four broad terms usually synonymous or often conflated with THA—The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement—each tries yet fails to be sufficiently all inclusive.*

The modern workers movement which congealed out of Medieval artisan and peasant strata can be said to have its origins in the practice of English Chartism at the beginning of the 19th century, and in Marx’s theoretical efforts to define such workers as a social class based on their relationship to the means of production. The economic labor unions and political workers parties of this emerging working class, not to mention the labor syndicates and workers councils that combined economic and political power, spread widely well into the 20th century, extending working class culture and consciousness internationally. Efforts to make The Workers Movement either less Marxist (by describing workers as simply “everyone who works for a living”) or more Marxist (through Leninist notions of the “industrial proletariat” or Maoist concepts of “proletarian consciousness”) must now give way to discussions of post industrial workers, marginal or precarious workers, or the abolition of the working class altogether.

Socialism refers to political theory and practice, as well as organizations, movements and regimes based upon social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of economy and society. Socialism as such goes back to the 18th, if not the 17th centuries, centered primarily in Europe. With roots in millenarian and utopian traditions, socialism diversified through the 19th and 20th centuries, though it can be generally categorized as either working class or non-working class based. In a 21st century rife with capitalist triumphalism, socialism has become a curse.

Born from an accident of seating arrangements in the National Constituent Assembly after the 1789 French Revolution, The Left means the politics and activity that arose from 1848 onward. Centered in Europe, it comprised Marxism (and eventually Leninism), anarchism, syndicalism, unaffiliated socialisms, even types of political democracy and liberalism. The Left’s configuration dramatically changed after 1945. First, there was massive proliferation as Leninism of Stalinism, Maoism and Third Worldism. Second, there was the consolidation and attenuation of Marxist social democracy. Third, there was the virtual extinction of anarchism/ultraleftism before its youthful resurgence. Fourth, there was the purposeful non-alignment of other forms of socialism. And fifth, there was the rise and fall of democratic liberalism. With the exception of anarchism/ultraleftism, these political forms experienced a contraction and retrenchment on or before the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Finally, The Movement covers Leftist politics and practice, as well as organizations and movements within the United States from the mid-1960s on. This was when the Marxist-Leninist old Left was superseded by a New Left rapidly differentiating into New Communist Movement and other kinds of Third World politics, an evanescent anarchism/ultraleftism also quickly diversifying, proliferating forms of non-affiliated socialism and liberalism, and a plethora of social movements such as Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation, Black (brown/red/yellow) Liberation, etc. In turn, the “crisis of socialism” that has riven The Movement since 1991 has produced a near universal turn toward identity politics and postmodern Leftism.

It’s not enough to consider whether THA is an adequate analytical category, a viable classification comprised of the intersection between The Workers Movement, Socialism, The Left, and The Movement. “The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer,” Walter Benjamin said, “he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.” Four overlapping Venn Diagram shapes cannot magically yield a clearly defined collective human entity with historical agency within the convergence of these four nebulous social movements. There is still no precise historical delineation of who or what is responsible for the meager successes and overwhelming failures that I identify with as a socialist, a Leftist, a member of the working class, or a part of The Movement.

Until the 1917 Russian Revolution, history was one of three painful steps forward and two excruciating steps back. The period of world wide social upheaval bracketed by the first and second World Wars produced a sudden revolutionary surge from 1945 through 1985. “Real existing Socialism” (Soviet and Chinese style Communism, the so-called Second World) dominated a fifth of the earth’s land surface and a third of the world’s human population. Social democracy and social movements contested ground in the First World. And socialist struggles for national liberation and socialist national non-alignment proliferated in the Third World.

There were indications that all was not well however, especially in the West. I have argued for Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the 1968 Generation’s impact (“It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) in a previous column. In covering much the same ground (“Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08), John Lichfield reposted the overly simplistic formulation that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” Timothy Brennan spends many an essay in his book Wars of Position contending that the poststructural, postmodern Left, especially in Western universities, had embarked by 1975 on a “war against left Hegelian thought” that successfully buried Marxism, its “dialectical thinking and the political energies—including the anti-colonial energies—that grew out of it” by the mid ‘80s.

These setbacks were minor however compared to the watershed collapse of “real existing Socialism” between 1989 and 1991. Kenan Malik summarized the consequences that followed this turning point in his 1998 essay “Race, Pluralism and the Meaning of Difference”:
The social changes that have swept the world over the past decade have intensified this sense of pessimism. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the left, the fragmentation of the postwar order, the defeat of most liberation movements in the third world and the demise of social movements in the West, have all transformed political consciousness. In particular, they have thrown into question the possibility of social transformation.
The Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the power of the organized working class dramatically declined, all fronts from anti-colonial to social justice struggles experienced profound retreat, labor and social democratic parties and regimes were neoliberalized. Any one of these historical events is immensely complicated and deserving of deep historical analysis. Yet, collectively, they have been naively hailed by Establishment pundits as the results of the world wide triumph of capitalism, an end to the bipolar world order under neoliberalism’s Pax Americana, even “the end of history.”

I don’t have the space to disabuse my readers of this jejune myth of capitalism’s unequivocal victory and socialism’s undeniable defeat. But I do have the time to shatter the delusion, promulgated principally by anarchists, that with the near universal decline and defeat of the “authoritarian Left” their time has come, and that the future is anti-authoritarian. Clearly, forms of anarchism, neo-anarchism, libertarian Marxism and even leaderless Leninism are some of the fastest growing political tendencies on the Left over the last two or so decades. Yet those who wish to understand how things change, historically and socially, need to heed the conclusions arrived at by Max Boot in his comprehensive historical overview of guerrilla warfare entitled Invisible Armies:
Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

It should be obvious with the end of the Cold War that matters are far more complicated than a superficial battle between, and facile triumph of, good over evil. Equally obvious is that the concept of THA remains a slippery one, resonant with messianic intent, and hence one not easily pinned down by its successes or failures. Finally, I hope I’ve made it obvious that anarchism’s history is one of unmitigated defeat, and that anarchism by itself lacks the historical agency to do jack shit.

*[A discussion of agency is a consideration of human subjectivity. In contrast, emphasizing the objective to the point of denying the subject has a long tradition in Marxism, beginning with vulgar Marxism which contended that inevitable economic crises caused by predetermined historical circumstances would bring about the certain downfall of capitalism, whether or not humans had anything to do with it. Louis Althusser formulated a Marxist Structuralism in which ideological and material structures define the human subject out of existence. Thus, history becomes “a process without a subject” according to Althusser. Finally, the current Marxist school broadly subsumed under the rubric Krisis, or the Critique of Value, argues that capitalism is a single interconnected system of capital and labor components bound together by the valorization of capital, which transforms into the valorization of value and which will inevitably collapse due to crisis. Labor has no historical agency, but is merely an abstract historical category. History might harbor many revolutionary subjects, but the working class as a class cannot be one. Workers cannot constitute a revolutionary social class.]