The Paris Commune, the Left, and the ultraleft: in the weeds #1: “What’s Left?” March 2020 (MRR #442)

“The name’s Joey Homicides,” Bob McGlynn said, shaking my hand.

That was in the fall of 1988, when I first visited New York. I have vivid memories of the city’s vibrant anarchist/ultraleft milieu, with folks from WBAI (many from the old Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade), the Libertarian Book Club (LBC), Anarchist Black Cross, THRUSH, and McGlynn’s group Neither East Nor West. I was Bob’s friend and a long-distance part of that community, returning to visit almost annually for the next 15 years. We believed capitalism was on its way out and what would replace it was up for grabs. The drab “real existing socialism” of the day—the Soviet bloc and Third World national liberation axis—versus our vital libertarian socialism of collectives and communes, workers’ councils and popular assemblies, spontaneous uprisings and international solidarity.

Libertarian activities were happening all over. The influence of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement pervaded Eastern Europe with similar actions and movements. We were mere months away from the Revolutions of 1989 that would see the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and bring the old Soviet Union to the verge of its historic collapse. Two months before, a violent NYC police riot against 700 squatters, punks, homeless and protesters—Bob included—carrying banners proclaiming “Gentrification is Class War” turned Tompkins Square Park into a “bloody war zone” with nine arrested and 38 injured. The LBC—before Objectivists and Rothbardians took it over—had put on a forum grandiosely comparing the Tompkins Square Riots to the 1871 Paris Commune the weekend I arrived for my 10-day vacation. The refusal of radical National Guard soldiers in Paris to disarm after the armistice with Prussia that transformed an insignificant French Republic administrative division equivalent to civil townships—the commune—into the Paris Commune much lauded by the Left will be discussed below.

There was a four-story brownstone in Brooklyn rented by anarchos, ultras and assorted far lefties back then. As the guest from the West, I rated a spare room for the duration of my vacation. I shared the floor with Calvin, the ultra-Maoist. Calvin had cut his teeth as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, graduated to reading MIM-notes, and was now the Maoist equivalent of an ultraleftist. He had this brightly colored, socialist realist silkscreened poster on his bedroom wall proclaiming “Long Live the May 16 Movement” with Chinese workers, peasants and students together heroically taking up arms. I quickly realized that ultraleftism was in the eye of the beholder. Calvin’s ultraleftism assumed the puritanism of his overall Maoism and couldn’t long tolerate the libertinism of our type of ultraleftism. The house’s sex, drugs, rocknroll and communal anarchy was getting to him by the time of my stay. He rarely socialized or ate dinner with the rest of the residents, and only attended house meetings when required. He threw a tantrum shortly after I left over people engaging in “overt homosexuality” in the house’s common areas, and moved out soon thereafter.

I spent every evening of my NYC stay out with McGlynn and comrades, once spotting Joey Ramone careening into St. Marks Hotel. One night I returned at 2 am to find Calvin cradling a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I asked him about the poster as I smoked prime marijuana I’d smuggled in from the West Coast.

“It refers to Mao’s 1966 May 16 Notifications that kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” Calvin slurred. “The name May 16 Movement signifies the Red Guard’s revolutionary leftwing through 1967, but it can also mean a bogus Red Guard clique, a counterrevolutionary ‘May 16’ conspiracy to bring down Zhou Enlai used by the PLA and the Jiang Qing clique to crack down on the Left.”

I was getting a headache from that brief description. Calvin never referred to himself as ultraleft. I offered him a hit and to my surprise he accepted. He gave me a pull from his bottle and I kept it to a single. Chinese politics have seemed arcane/labyrinthian/byzantine at the best of times. During the GPCR, even the most experienced China Watchers were flummoxed by what Mao did and how events unfolded—the twists and turns of the Red Guard phase, the Lin Biao/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) phase, and the final Gang of Four phase. This was made more complicated by the US-based New Communist Movement which witnessed the proliferation of sometimes short-lived Maoist, quasi-Maoist, and post-Maoist groupuscules, organizations and party formations while all the shit in China went down. Aside from seeking the China franchise, the Americans took sides. The October League/Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) for instance fully supported the Chinese government’s purge of the Gang of Four while the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party was rabidly pro-Gang of Four. Calvin was an advocate for the Red Guard ultraleft.

“Ultraleftism”—extreme or intransigent positions that fail to take into account objective conditions—and “voluntarism”—reliance on individual hyperactivism to compensate for unfavorable objective conditions—are related Leninist insults. Assuming “ultraleftism” as the general category, it would be easy to claim that specific instances of ultraleftism are examples of convergent evolution—the independent evolution of analogous structures in wildly different social situations—except that virtually all the Left shares a positive assessment of the 1871 Paris Commune as the model of “the working class in power.”

“The struggle for the Commune was also a struggle over its meaning,” writes Jodi Dean in “Commune, Party, State” for Viewpoint Magazine. But the Left has no common analysis of the Paris Commune. Anarchists insisted that the Commune was a federalist form of decentralized popular self-government sufficient unto itself, a negation simultaneously of the State and of revolutionary dictatorship. Marx contended that the Commune had smashed the old state machinery to create the prototype for the future revolutionary socialist government, a living example of the thoroughly democratic “dictatorship of the proletariat” requiring just a bit more dictatorship. Lenin argued that the “Commune State” was a workers’ state in need of a more rigorous, unified Marxist politics and a more ruthless, centralized military approach to dealing with its enemies, both internal and external. The 1905 and 1917 soviets claimed to be the legitimate heir of the 1871 Paris Commune and thus underpinned both the Bolshevik state and Marxist left communism—what Lenin denounced as ultraleftism, an infantile disorder. Also called Council Communism, this OG ultraleft defined the Commune as “the working class”— not “the people”—organized to exercise state power. This current emphasized the Commune’s formal characteristics (such as abolition of the bureaucracy, voters’ right to recall delegates). And Council Communism amalgamated the Commune’s state functions with the soviet’s additional operations as an organ for temporarily directing the revolutionary struggle and representing the proletariat’s class interests to emphasize the continuity between workers’ councils and the Paris Commune. Today’s non-party anti-state communism is heir to this current.

Calvin and I discussed his politics well into the morning. The people’s communes implemented in 1958 during Mao’s Great Leap Forward as an administrative division were analogous to the French communes. Calvin distinguished them from the project to emulate the Paris Commune which Mao Zedong first promoted. Calvin waxed poetic over the “January Storm” that established the Shanghai People’s Commune, overthrew the “red bourgeoisie” and appropriated their assets “into the hands of the people.” He was also an avid proponent of the Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, whose Shengwulian “manifesto” decried the “red capitalist class” and “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” and promoted the goal of a “People’s Commune of China.” Shengwulian denounced Mao’s revolutionary committees which “will inevitably be a type of regime for the bourgeoisie to usurp power, in which the army and the local bureaucrats would play a leading role.” Like Shengwulian, Calvin considered Mao “the great teacher of the proletariat,” but both were clearly uncomfortable with Mao’s support for the revolutionary committees, contending that “the revolutionary people find it hard to understand” why the Great Helmsman suddenly came out against the Shanghai Commune. And turn against the Shanghai People’s Commune and Shengwulian Mao did, with a vengeance. With events like the Wuhan Incident portending civil war Mao argued they were “going too far.” Mao labeled them ultraleft, and used the PLA to crush the Red Guards completely when he discarded the Paris Commune model for PLA-led revolutionary committees during the GPCR. Calvin echoed the Chinese ultraleft’s sycophantic worship of Mao, which in China went so far as to ask permission from Mao to “seize power.” This clearly distinguishes their ultraleftism from the politics of Bob McGlynn in an evolution neither convergent nor parallel but disparate.

A bike messenger, poet, writer, troublemaker and consummate organizer, Bob was a proud infantile Leftist. As for “Joey Homicides,” I’ve never coveted a pseudonym more. When Bob dropped out of political activism due to health problems, I periodically but obliquely inquired as to its availability for my own, alternative nom de guerre. Bob died of a heart attack on August 23, 2016, at 61—way too young. The alias now goes with him to the grave.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
“Bob McGlynn, linked Tompkins protests and glasnost” by Bill Weinberg (The Villager, 9-8-16)
“Bob McGlynn Dies at 60” by Bill Weinberg (Fifth Estate #397)
“Bob McGlynn: New York Anarchist” (Kate Sharpley Library)
“Commune, Party, State” by Jodi Dean (Viewpoint Magazine, 9-9-14)
The Soviets by Oskar Anweiler
“A People’s History of the Cultural Revolution” by Bill Crane (That Faint Light, 7-14-12)
Mao’s Last Revolution by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals
Mao’s China and After by Maurice Meisner
Turbulent Decade by Jiaqi and Gao

#assassinatetrump: “What’s Left?” January 2018, MRR #416

Assassinate the President!

GG Allin, crooner

It was spring, 1980. We were organizing a Students for Peace benefit at the Spirit Club. The Spirit Club was a dive bar’s dive bar in San Diego. SfP started at UCSD soon after Jimmy Carter reinstated draft registration in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

We booked the club for an evening early in the week and agreed to pay the bar’s minimum for the night. As I recall, we had four bands play and barely broke even. A competent ska/2-tone quartet named Fire opened with danceable beats and solid political lyrics. We’d heard they were affiliated with the ultra-Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, more specifically its youth auxiliary, the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. The RCP had a long history of—and an interest in—youth organizing, and they used the RCYB to cultivate young recruits as well as a street presence. It was early in the evening, the attendance was sparse, so we had time to chat with the band.

Except for the drummer, they were all working musicians with experience and again, except for the drummer, they all seemed a little too old to be called “youth.” Originally called Prairie Fire, they had played aggressive punk rock up until becoming a ska band. It was clear that both the name change and change in musical style were not due solely to personal tastes or wanting to be more commercial. Their political milieu had dictated it. Someone in SfP who had heard them before asked about a song, “Overthrow The Government,” they did in their punk incarnation. The band demurred, said they no longer played the song, and inferred that it was not in their repertoire because it was not politically correct per the RCP. We kept pestering them, shouting requests for the song between numbers, demanding they play it. After some hesitation, they relented and played a hardcore “Overthrow The Government.”

The First Amendment to the Constitution prevents government from passing laws that prohibit free speech, but no such prohibition applies to a private club, service organization, capitalist business, Leninist vanguard party, what have you. Clearly, the “right” to free speech can be limited or curtailed by the vanguard party you belong to, but no more so than if you work for your typical capitalist corporation in these United States. I remember telling an old school San Diego Leftie that our mutual friend—a member of the Maoist Communist Party, M-L, formerly called the October League—had been reassigned to a party cadre on the east coast. His take was that our mutual friend displayed party discipline and a commitment to both party building and mass organizing in making the move. I considered that our mutual friend was involved in a job relocation, an employee transfer between branch offices of a corporation, and was making a lateral career move.

And corporations can legally deny you your “right” to free speech with impunity. They can fire your ass for what you say on or off the job, make you sign non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality contracts, and codes of conduct in order to keep your ass employed, and regulate the content, manner, and timing of your speech while your ass is on the job. According to court judgments regarding labor laws, employees can legally discuss wages, hours, and working conditions, but not much else. Private workplaces are miniature totalitarian states, and the situation is little better for public employees working for the government. When speaking as private citizens, government workers may be protected so long as they are speaking out about a public concern, and speaking out doesn’t interfere with doing their job. Otherwise, no “right” to free speech. But what if the public employee is also an elected public official, or is a public employee by virtue of being elected to public office?

I hope Trump is assassinated.

Maria Chappelle-Nadal, politician

Maria Chappelle-Nadal was heavily criticized for her remarks on her Facebook post. The Secret Service investigated the Missouri Democratic State Senator, and demands were raised that she resign. The Democratic senator apologized but remained adamant and refused to resign, so the Republican-controlled Missouri Senate censured her. The vote was just shy of the two-thirds needed to remove the senator from office. Compare this to what happened to Michigan truck driver James Anthony Jackson when he said of Trump: “I am going to blow white brains out the fuck out his motherfucking head.” He was investigated by the Secret Service, who then arrested and charged Jackson for threatening to assassinate the president of the United States, which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Congress may be prohibited from making any law abridging freedom of speech, but the government can certainly define what “freedom of speech” legally means. Credible threats are not considered freedom of speech, with federal, state, and local governments universally defining the use of threats of violence as the assault part of “assault and battery” laws. Similarly disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and breach of public order are all considered crimes, not free speech. So government does have the legal right to prohibit the content of speech if it is deemed threatening and the manner of speech if it is deemed disruptive.

Even with genuine free speech, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that local, state, and federal governments can reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of individual expression. Time, place, and manner restrictions “accommodate public convenience and promote order by regulating traffic flow, preserving property interests, conserving the environment, and protecting the administration of justice,” [West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, 2nd ed.] and therefore are not considered an abridgment of freedom of speech.

#assassinatetrump

hashtag

In a time of social media and instant global digital communication however—when alt.right idiots threaten anti-fascists with “helicopter rides” and conspiracy wingnuts threaten victims of mass shootings with mayhem, rape, and murder for being “false flag” crisis actors—all of this seems moot. In fact, the “right” to free speech is not guaranteed by god, natural law, the constitution, legislation, custom, morality, or our sense of fairness. That right, any right, is guaranteed solely by our individual and collective power to deny or enforce it. Even then, the “right” to free speech doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it, or shield you from criticism or consequences, or prevent you from being boycotted, your events cancelled, or banned from some internet community (to quote a popular XKCD comic). This has little to do with Karl Popper’s so-called “tolerance paradox.” The “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple.

So, consider the hashtag #assassinatetrump. Social media forces its users to participate in a bit of compulsory free speech through the system of hashtags to flag posts and tweets as part of a single meta-conversation. By using #assassinatetrump, people for or against the assassination of Trump, or people just making a point or a joke, are engaged in a de facto free speech fight. No doubt the FBI has ‘bots applying internet algorithms to search out the content behind any and all #assassinatetrump hashtags to determine whether or not they pose a threat. And be prepared for when the Secret Service breaks down the door of someone using the hashtag to actually threaten to assassinate Trump, violating all sorts of other rights and freedoms in the process. But the hashtag #assassinatetrump is a statement all by itself, simultaneously an assertion of free speech and a battle over it.

Use #assassinatetrump at your own risk.

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