Reform or revolution, pt. 1: “What’s Left?” June 2020 (MRR #445)

Legislative reform and revolution are not different methods of historic development that can be picked out at the pleasure from the counter of history, just as one chooses hot or cold sausages. Legislative reform and revolution are different factors in the development of class society. They condition and complement each other, and are at the same time reciprocally exclusive, as are the north and south poles, the bourgeoisie and proletariat.

—Rosa Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution

 

I talk a good game.

Popularize and politicize social discontent. Encourage bottom up insurrection. Communize everything.

I’m switching out my usual Marxist jargon for the postmodern lingo the kids these days are into. But you get my drift. Communism now, communism tomorrow, communism forever.

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m OK with anybody but Trump. Even a candidate offering the most incremental ruling class difference will do. Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Biden. I’m nothing if not pragmatic so I’ll even settle for Joe Biden.

But maybe I’m not being practical, just a pushover. This is little more than the classic either/or contradiction between reform versus revolution posed by Rosa Luxemburg and so often debated in Leftist circles. Let me state my case for why radical social change (aka revolution) is a good thing.

Capitalism is a killer. It’s an economic system that is in endless crisis and that fosters deadly social crises. Capitalism generates vast inequalities of wealth and power that, in turn, foments antagonistic social divisions. It is a system that undermines democracy, freedom and autonomy through exploitation, imperialism and oppression. Based on maximizing profits and economic growth above all else, capitalism fosters alienation, perpetuates violence and destroys the planet. We need to destroy capitalism in order for us, our communities, our world to survive.

Postmodernism is the “incredulity towards metanarratives” that proposes a piecemeal “resistance of everyday life.” Meanwhile, capitalism is an actually totalizing system that permeates to the furthest corners of the globe and the deepest reaches of the human psyche. The Vietnamese defeat of the powerful US military in asymmetrical “David vs Goliath” warfare belies that the VietCong were backed by the North Vietnamese Army and a highly centralized Communist Party. A totalizing capitalism needs to be overthrown by a total social revolution.

The genius of capitalism as a totalizing system based on human labor power and the sale of that labor power is to convince us that the basis for that system is as universal and natural as the air we breath, and thus invisible. That our working class agency doesn’t exist and that our true identities reside in anything but our class, in a multitude of postmodern cultural identities reduced to impotence by that very same capitalism. Our task once again is to reconstitute our agency by transforming our “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”

At best, voting is harm reduction. At worst, it obfuscates where our real power comes from. Our power doesn’t come from electoral politics, but from the self-activity and self-organization of working people. Our power doesn’t end with nor is it contained by our class. Nor is our power limited to collectively withholding our labor. From daily collective resistance through disrupting business-as-usual to creating alternative networks of dual power; our options are myriad. Ours is not state power, but a true social power that arises from class self-emancipation.

Maoists were fond of opining “dare to struggle, dare to win.” But to Mao’s “if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall,” libertarian socialists counter “if it doesn’t fall, you didn’t hit it hard enough.” It goes without saying that you can’t win if you don’t play the game. We must build workers’ movements with teeth, those with the power to force the hands of those in power. The odds are stacked heavily against us, and our timeframe must be measured in generations, if not centuries. Our choice remains a Luxemburgian one between socialism or barbarism, even if our chances for socialism are slim.

This strident screed is almost pure left communism. But the older I get the less I feel the need for any kind of purity—theoretical, practical or otherwise. I’ll be the first to admit that my default “class über alles” politics doesn’t work well dealing with those ur-divisions—sex and race—that preceded the rise of capitalism by millennia. I don’t propound the thesis that “race/sex is a social construct” so much as I ignore contradictions based on race and sex altogether. The Old Left and the New Left did a far better job grappling with and integrating a class-based analysis with concerns over racism and sexism. And that’s not my only political contradiction.

I’ve downplayed my involvement in electoral politics by contending that voting minimizes harm. US politics has allowed me, as a California resident, to claim that I voted for “far left” Bernie Sanders while conveniently ignoring that the Democratic party candidate is likely to be “reactionary scum” Joe Biden. Thus I can claim the moral high ground by saying I voted my conscience while sidestepping the fact that my vote was essentially wasted. Which is just one step shy of arguing that all voting is a waste, bringing us back to the reform versus revolution debate.

I was thrilled to learn about Italian Autonomy in 1984. My politics were evolving from left anarchism to left communism as I studied more Marx. I devoured Autonomedia’s Semiotext(e) volume Autonomia and enshrined Sylvère Lotringer’s formulation of “Autonomy at the base” who wrote: “[p]olitical autonomy is the desire to allow differences to deepen at the base without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress similar attitudes without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to co-exist side by side, in their singularity.I considered this an intriguing method to bridge the divide between anarchism and Marxism, a brilliant way to move forward politically, and a powerful tool for getting things done. Little did I know at the time that most Marxists, including many Autonomists, considered such a strategy not Autonomy’s singular strength but its profound weakness.

I’ve since realized that such a strategy rarely results in bridging ideological divides, moving forward politically, or successfully working together to accomplish things. As an anarchist-Marxist I thought it possible to synthesize differences from below and to develop a “general line” through shared direct action. Perhaps at the height of some revolutionary situation, but as a rule synthesis and unity are the exception when it comes to finding common theoretical ground through common political activity.

Autonomy’s flaccid approach conveniently evades the almost laughably Aristotelian logic of Luxemburgian “reform or revolution” while simultaneously threatening to devolve into grouplet politics. “Grouplet politics is not an embryo of revolutionary politics,” wrote Goren Therborn. “It is a substitute for it.” Paul Costello describes the history of the US Left over the past several decades—and my own “pure” politics by implication—as the epitome of “grouplet politics.” He cedes that capitalism “has once again proven its great stability, resilience and flexibility” and argues that “we can no longer afford the luxury of small sect politics, with the delusion that it is revolutionary politics in embryo.” Costello insists that we shift the “terrain out of the left ghetto and into the mainstream” and recommends the more nuanced, integrative Hegelian/Marxist dialectical logic of Antonio Gramsci. [Theoretical Review #31, 1983]

A Leninist, Gramsci was intent on forging the working class into a counter hegemony capable of revolutionary “wars of position” that simultaneously entailed a long march through the institutions of capital’s hegemonic apparatus. “[W]hile remaining faithful to the value of total transformation beyond capitalism,” Walter L. Adamson argues. “Gramscian revolution also offered a gradualist approach consistent with the cultural and political complexity of the West and devoid of the means-ends paradoxes which plagued classical Leninism.” [Theory and Society, v6 n3] Gramsci’s subtle Marxism, in particular his targeting of the cultural superstructure of Western capitalist societies, has lead him to be appropriated by both Eurocommunism and the neo-Fascist Nouvelle Droite. Philosopher André Gorz, a neo-Marxist schooled in Gramsci, developed the strategy of non-reformist reformism to bridge the divide between reform and revolution in Strategy for Labor:
[A] struggle for non-reformist reforms—for anti-capitalist reforms—is one which does not base its validity and its right to exist on capitalist needs, criteria, and rationales. A non-reformist reform is determined not in terms of what can be, but what should be. And finally, it bases the possibility of attaining its objective on the implementation of fundamental political and economic changes. The changes can be sudden, just as they can be gradual. But in any case they assume a modification of the relations of power; they assume that the workers will take over powers or assert a force (that is to say, a non-institutionalized force) strong enough to establish, maintain, and expand those tendencies within the system which serve to weaken capitalism and to shake its joints. They assume structural reforms.

I’ll revisit this soon. Next column: Traditionalism.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Social Reform or Revolution by Rosa Luxemburg
Autonomia: Post-Political Politics ed. by Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi
“Antonio Gramsci and the Recasting of Marxist Strategy” by Paul Costello
“Beyond ‘Reform or Revolution:’ Notes on Political Education in Gramsci, Habermas and Arendt” by Walter L. Adamson
Gramsci and Marxist Theory ed. by Mouffe
Where Have all the Fascists Gone? By Tamir Bar-on
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Reform and Revolution” by André Gorz
See also Nicos Poulantzas on Gramsci, revolution and structural reformism

Buy my near-future science fiction novel 1% Free here.

Writing and self-isolating in a time of plague: “What’s Left?” May 2020 (MRR #444)

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.
—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always made sure to stay employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns I managed to double that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the nature of a writer to self-isolate. I tended to spend days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a modified Mac Plus in 1985. After the laptop was invented I would of course take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace and quiet. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me.

Of course that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems as a consequence. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have started patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the polio virus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined as a consequence of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both require comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living, hosted occasional tribal gatherings, and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I did volunteer work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect the “sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito
The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely
Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons

The take off that didn’t: non-canonical codicil to MRR #443

I’m a proponent of world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (Wallerstein, Amin, Arrighi, Frank et al). This theory is based on the analysis of longue durée commercial/industrial/financial “secular cycles” by Fernand Braudel who posited interlinked Venetian/Genoese (1250-1627), Dutch (1500-1733), British (1733-1896), and American (1850-present) cycles in the rise of the modern world capitalist economy. The so-called first Industrial Revolution (1750-1914) can be positioned firmly within the context of these cycles as a period of dynamic, sustained economic growth that Walt Rostow characterized as the “take-off” stage of world capitalism. Rostow’s analysis of the Industrial Revolution’s origins, in turn, reads remarkably similar to economic developments associated with the ebullient High Middle Ages (HMA; 1000-1300) when “urban life reemerged, long-distance commerce revived, business and manufacturing innovated, manorial agriculture matured, and population burgeoned, doubling or tripling” according to David Routt. So why didn’t European protocapitalism “take off” in a prequel economic explosion during the HMA?

One reason, of course, was the Great Famine (1315-17) and the magna pestilencia of the Black Death (1347-53) which together wiped out between one quarter and three quarters of Europe’s population. But I would argue that the worsening relationship between Christian Europe and the Jewish diaspora dating from the collapse of the western Roman Empire (300-476) through the Late Middle Ages (LMA; 1300-1500) was also a factor.

The Early Middle Ages (EMA; 500-1000) is sometimes called the Dark Ages. The EMA witnessed Europe slowly, painfully emerge after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and various Germanic barbarian invasions due to a consolidation of the Catholic Church with Charlemagne’s conquests that formed the Holy Roman Empire (HRE). Neither holy, Roman, nor an empire (per Voltaire), the feudal HRE did try to reconcile Christianity and Judaism through various papal/imperial sicut Judaeis policies of religious toleration in western and central Europe. This resulted in installing the ethnic Jewish diaspora in its midst as a “middleman minority” to serve as an engine for protocapitalist development. The economic success of this “middleman minority” strategy in turn fostered resentment and reaction among Christian Europeans. The HRE’s costly Crusades (1095-1270) to recapture the “Holy Land” (the Levant) from Islam resulted in 50,000 Jews being slaughtered in the First Crusade’s (1095-99) Rhineland and Danube massacres and the siege of Jerusalem. The First Crusade is often considered a turning point in European Christian/Jewish relations.

Thus began an inchoate effort starting in the HMA to fully Christianize Europe’s feudal economy and its protocapitalist component by liquidating the Jewish “middleman minority.” This diffuse movement was associated often with growing if embroyonic national identities and sometimes with efforts at state formation. Jewish occupations were severely restricted, Jewish livelihood was marginalized, and the Jews themselves were massacred, then had their property confiscated through exorbitant taxation before being expelled from various feudal territories in western and central Europe. (Crimea, 1016, 1350; Silesia, 1159, 1494; England/Wales, 1290; France, 1306, 1322, 1394; Germany, 1348; Hungary, 1349, 1367; Austria, 1421; Cologne, 1426; Provence, 1430; Lithuania, 1445, 1495; Bavaria, 1450; Spain/Sardinia/Sicily, 1492; Portugal, 1497.) Marxists might notice the parallels of this with a process called primitive accumulation which preceded the formation of nation-states and national capitalist economies in Europe.

Ever worsening antisemitism became the order of the day. Jews were ghettoized, forced to wear special humiliating clothing, and forbidden contact with Christians. By the beginning of the LMA, the German and Russian cities of the Hanseatic League (1250-1650) were judenrein even as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gave refuge to Jews through the Statute of Kalisz. “That German commerce does not need the Jews is proven by the Fuggers, the Welsers, and the Hanseatic League, none of which succumbed to Jewish influence” wrote Konstantin von Gebsattel. Fernand Braudel noted: “There was no truly international economy before the Hanseatic League,” and also wrote that: “Genoa and Venice, in a parallel way, held the Mediterranean space necessary for their grandeur by force, or through the medium of merchant colonies.” He argued that “the world victory of the Atlantic” economy accounted for “the mortal blow to the Mediterranean space which surrounded Italy,” not the erratic persecution, restriction and expulsion of Jews in the Italian territories that marked “the displacement of chains and networks of Jewish merchants. But is it not rather that the success of Amsterdam attracted the Jews to settle there?”

Along with bankrupting Holy Crusades, a decimating Great Famine and the Black Death pandemic, other factors contributed to European protocapitalism not experiencing an industrial-style take-off by the end of the HMA/beginning of the LMA. These other factors included the Mongol invasion and the Hundred Year’s War. Oh yes, and feudalism itself was a major contributor, with its woefully immature state formation even in the LMA. Both the Baltic Hanseatic League and the Venetian/Genoese Mediterranean powerhouse were comprised of politically weak federations of rival city-states. But the often violent expropriation of minority Jewish capital by majority Christian capital certainly figured into the equation.

Raul Hilberg, in his three volume opus The Destruction of the European Jews, argued that the expropriation of the Jews was a necessary, connected precursor to their destruction. Yet he also wrote: “But what began in 1941 was a process of destruction not planned in advance, not organized centrally by any agency. There was no blueprint and there was no budget for destructive measures. They were taken step by step, one step at a time. Thus came about not so much a plan being carried out, but an incredible meeting of minds, a consensus – mind reading by a far-flung bureaucracy.” The same can be said about the history of the Jews in Europe throughout the Middle Ages up until the Nazi Holocaust, albeit as an even more dispersed process.

Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg both identified the primitive accumulation needed for the development of European capitalism with the expropriation of the peasantry starting at the end of the LMA. Let’s consider the expropriation of the Jews during the HMA a kind of primeval accumulation, one that actually hindered the transformation of European protocapitalism into capitalism proper. Whereas primitive accumulation relied on nothing more complicated than the direct expropriation of peasant lands through practices like the English enclosure movements, primeval accumulation required the wide ranging yet scattershot expropriation of highly networked Jewish diasporic capital that was commercial, industrial and financial. This Christianization of Jewish diasporic capital—along with Crusades, famine, pestilence, war and feudal insufficiencies—disrupted the continental economy, destroyed the wealth of the HMA and hindered capitalism’s take-off for several centuries.

Pattern recognition and antisemitism: “What’s Left?” April 2020 (MRR #443)

Fight or flight.

This is the instinctual response our Pleistocene predecessors supposedly evolved when threatened with physical danger, attack or threats to survival while roaming the African savannas. It often involves an acute physiological reaction which Jeff Hester describes thusly: “Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic.” Hester argues that such instantaneous, visceral reactions to the possibility of being mauled by a cheetah or gored by a wildebeest are no longer necessary, even counterproductive given the not-so-mortal threats of twenty-first century life, which instead require thoughtful, measured responses. What isn’t acknowledged here is that fight or flight is sometimes pattern recognition become automatic, perhaps innate, and certainly unthinking.

I’m walking across Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park with my backpack and sleeping bag in the fall of 1990. It’s a balmy afternoon with honeyed sun and liquid blue skies. I’ve just had a slice of pizza at Two Boots and I’m headed for the 1st Avenue subway station for a ride to Brooklyn. It’s almost two years since the infamous riots and the square is crowded with punks and crusties, squatters and junkies, tourists and residents. I’ve just passed through a group of black kids playing stickball when I approach three white punks camped out under some trees. Something isn’t right. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the way the punks are giving me the side eye, deliberately not looking at me while secretly sizing up me and my belongings. Maybe it’s the foot long rebar pole one of them is clutching as they pretend to ignore me. In any case, I decide to give them a wide berth and they are obviously disappointed. I sit on a bench to rest, far enough away to be safe but within sight of the punk delinquents. As soon as I’m out of their range, they target another passerby whom they proceed to viciously mug in broad daylight.

I recognized some dangerous pattern, if only intuitively, and I reacted to protect myself. Instinctive fight or flight responses too often become unthinking emotional reactions that amount to little more than bigotry, prejudice or superstition. Why then did I feel no fear among the black kids wildly playing stickball yet felt growing anxiety approaching the three seemingly cool punkers resting among the trees? Let me use some history to illustrate the difference between unthinking reaction and reasonable pattern recognition.

The Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious promulgated the Statute of Kalisz in 1264. This was the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland granting Jews personal freedoms, legal and communitarian autonomy, independent courts for criminal matters, and safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. Modeled after similar edicts for religious toleration enacted across Europe during the Early Middle Ages (EMA), it was ratified by the aristocratic Sejm and subsequent Polish kings even as Jews experienced massacres in and mass expulsions from England, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain during the High Middle Ages (HMA). By the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1773 to 1795, some 70-80% of world Jewry resided in Poland. Much of Polish Jewry wound up incorporated into Russia’s regional ghetto—the Pale of Settlement—after 1791, subject to escalating antisemitic discrimination, repression and violence that culminated in a series of genocidal pogroms. Ukraine alone witnessed 1,326 programs with up to 250,000 Jewish deaths and a half million left homeless from 1881 to 1920. This savage bloodshed ended only after Hitler’s Final Solution.

The Statute of Kalisz was to preserve the “pure” feudal nature of Polish society while promoting protocapitalist development. Jews were invited guests intended to be a middle stratum between an intact Polish peasantry/serfdom and aristocracy. Unable to own land, Jews were expected to take on shopkeeper, artisan, professional, trader/merchant, rent or tax collector, and moneylender roles prohibited these native Polish social classes by feudal custom and tradition. All this while the rest of Christian Europe during the HMA was increasingly restricting the occupations permitted the Jews and marginalizing their economic status. After the Babylonian Exile and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, autonomous ethnic Jewish communities with self-governing communal (kehillah) and mutual aid (landsmanshaft) institutions spread across the Middle East, northern Africa, Europe and beyond in an ever widening diaspora. Hubert Blalock and Edna Bonacich called this an example of an ethnic/racial “middleman minority” and noted that the minority’s financial aptitude, economic success, clannishness, and international networks combined with political restrictions, religious prohibitions and social prejudices to cause growing resentment and reaction in a host country’s native population. These popular resentments in turn were exploited and manipulated by respective ruling classes and their allied elites.

The acrimony and violence directed against the far-flung communities of this Jewish diaspora wasn’t fueled merely by antisemitism engendered by their status as a “middleman minority” however. Imperial machinations, uprisings and war, even tribal/national revolts figured into this barbarism as when a Cossack rebellion—the Khmelnytsky Uprising—slaughtered up to 100,000 Jews and Poles in its bid to form a Cossack Hetmanate in what is now central Ukraine in 1648-57. My parents regularly used “Cossack” as a curse.

By the time I visited my Polish relatives at the end of 1974, there were virtually no Jews in Poland. Yet racist antisemitism was rampant in the general Polish population—my relatives included—who were steeped in every antisemitic canard imaginable. Here I make no distinction between Catholic religious anti-Judaism and fully racialized Nazi antisemitism. A reworking of Sartre’s contention that Jewish identity is brought about and maintained by the force of antisemitism has become relevant once again, although not in the way thinkers like Georges Friedmann originally considered when his work The End of the Jewish People? posited an eventual disappearance of the Jews through assimilation and hyperspecific Israeli national identity. The fear, hostility and hatred of Jews that is conventional antisemitism is now an antisemitism without Jews in Poland.

According to Poles, Jews were guilty of killing Jesus, desecrating the host, engaging in ritual murder and blood libel, poisoning wells and spreading plague, having sex with animals, and being Satanic. The Jews controlled the media and the world banking system, practiced malefic profiteering and sinful usury, were complicit in conspiracies to spread both capitalism and communism, and plotted world domination. When I confronted my relatives and their idiotic antisemitic beliefs that Jews were plotting conspiracies against Poland and stealing the wealth of the Polish people with the fact that there were no Jews left in Poland— thinking that maybe they suffered from some weird sociological phantom limb syndrome—they countered with crap about the Soviets having deliberately installed Jewish commissars throughout the Warsaw Pact.

These blatant often millennia-old antisemitic tropes are refashioned, frequently with only minor variations, when other “middleman minorities” like the Armenians or the “overseas” Chinese are considered. Such minorities are part of larger ethnic diasporas that occupy key roles in indigenous capitalist economies to promote prosperity, engender economic benefit, and create new business and industry for the communities and nations in which they reside. Yet they invariably suffer discrimination, repression, hatred, violence, and genocide as a consequence of their intermediate position in society. The Jewish 1939-45 Holocaust and Armenian 1914-23 Genocide are well known. Less well known are the mass slaughter of Chinese in Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937-38 and the mass killings of Chinese in Indonesia, Papua/New Guinea and East Timor by Suharto and his military in 1965-66 under the auspices of virulent anti-communist campaigns, not to mention numerous localized anti-Chinese pogroms throughout Southeast Asia. Similar historical patterns and prejudices can be observed with the Muslims in India and the Indians in Africa.

The positive social and economic arrangements of ethnic “middleman minorities” as well as the negative racist, bigoted, violent and genocidal responses experienced by those minorities are real historical patterns to be reckoned with. The reactionary claims by racists and antisemites against those minorities are sheer horseshit to be summarily dismissed. The latter in no way absolves the former though. The Biblical Hebrews annihilated the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 21:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) much as the Israelis practice national genocide against the Palestinian people today. The Chinese have been slaughtering minority peoples from the Wu Hu and the Jie in 300 ce to the present day cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Uighurs. And the Armenians have been trading massacres with their Azerbaijani neighbors since the EMA all the way through the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994. I’m tempted to argue that we humans have a propensity for genocide ever since our Cro-Magnon ancestors potentially caused the extinction of our Neanderthal comrades between 40 and 35,000 years ago. Maybe next column.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
A History of the Jewish People ed. by H.H Ben-Sasson
The End of the Jewish People? by Georges Friedmann
Jews in Poland: A Documentary History by Iwo Pogonowski
Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations by Hubert Blalock
“A Theory of Middleman Minorities” by Edna Bonacich
The Stages of Economic Growth by W.W. Rostow
“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” by David Routt
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel
The Modern World-System v. 1-4 by Immanuel Wallerstein

Me and my columns

My next column is actually two columns. My regular MRR one is about pattern recognition and antisemitism while my non-canonical one is why proto-capitalism in the Middle Ages didn’t “take off” as European Jewish communities were being attacked and expropriated. What links the two pieces, besides a survey of Jewish history, is the bibliography. Lately I’ve been including lists of sources at the end of my columns to provide more extensive, related materials expanding on the subject matter of the column in question. The bibliography is at the end of my regular MRR column, but it overlaps with my non-canonical one.

I write every day. Finishing a particular piece of writing is another matter however. I recently started a column about the self-isolating process of writing itself and what it feels like to write in a time of plague. I had already finished my two current columns (now scheduled to post on April 1) and I’d hoped to finish this new one in time to switch it for the completed ones. The new one is more timely than the two slightly older ones. The writing is taking a lot longer than I anticipated and while I fully expect to complete it in due course, I haven’t managed that yet. I never suffer from writers block, but I do experience distractions and delays in my writing process. I’m never too anxious about it. My only deadline is for my MRR columns which are posted the first of the month, and I keep a cache of completed columns on abiding topics in reserve just in case something like this happens. I’m usually a nervous, antsy person but I’ve learned to “chill” and “go with the flow” when it comes to my writing.

New series: in the weeds

in the weeds

Prepositional phrase
in the weeds

1    (idiomatic) Immersed or entangled in details or complexities.
2    (idiomatic, restaurant slang, of a cook or server) Overwhelmed with diners’ orders.
Synonyms
• (overwhelmed): in over one’s head

wiktionary

I’m starting a new series called “in the weeds.” My columns often discuss complex issues, but occasionally I’m in danger of getting mired in the details. The designation “in the weeds” warns the reader that potentially convoluted subject matter lies ahead.

The populist myth: “What’s Left?” February 2020 (MRR #441)

When the axe entered the forest, the trees said: “The handle is one of us.”

—Turkish proverb

I remember a brief carefree idyll when I was fourteen. I lived with my family in Ventura, California, went to Balboa Junior High, and had teenager jobs the occasional evening, weekend or summer. But I spent all my spare time at the beach swimming, surfing and skateboarding. When I enrolled in Buena High School the head gym teacher, Mason Parrish, put all the incoming sophomores through a battery of athletic tests to determine in which sports we might excel. Parrish coached the football team, and was in the process of building Buena’s swim and water polo teams to win multiple national awards, compete in the 1968-72 Olympic trials, and field numerous Junior Olympic Champions. I was a natural in the water, so Coach Parrish recruited me immediately for swimming and water polo.

Parrish was an old school, conservative high school gym coach who began and ended every game with a Christian prayer. He required loyalty from his athletes in school and expected us to practice routines, lift weights, and train regularly outside of class on our own time. All I wanted was to have fun, swim, and go to the beach. Parrish started me in a few swimming competitions and played me in a couple of water polo games. But when he realized I lacked the dedication and drive to give him the full commitment he demanded, he benched me for the duration of the semester. Parrish was openly disappointed, my gung-ho teammates disdained me, and I still had to show up for team practice and events. I was developing, maturing and acquiring new, formative interests in my adolescent life. But my love for swimming was irreparably damaged.

I kept to an honors academic track and joined the chess and science clubs. My passion for writing became all-consuming as I got involved with creative writing classes and the literary magazine. And my extracurricular interests in the 1960s hippie and New Left youth rebellions blossomed. I grew my hair long, started listening to rocknroll and going to concerts, declared myself a pacifist anarchist, tried to join a moribund SDS, organized an insignificant student walkout for the national anti-Vietnam war Moratorium, and published three issues of an underground newspaper. I went from being a jock to a hippie who still hadn’t smoked marijuana and a burgeoning Leftist moving rapidly further left. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a letter jacket at the Buena High School graduation ceremony thanks to my initial involvement in sports. A fellow swimmer approached me afterwards, pointed to the jacket, and said with a sneer: “You don’t deserve that.”

I too thought I hadn’t deserved my letterman jacket and felt I’d acquired my high school letter by mistake. So let’s talk about populism and how it doesn’t deserve to be considered revolutionary. That, in fact, populism is a misleading, dangerous concept. By the simplest definition, populism is about being for the people and against society’s elites. John B. Judis correctly divides populism into the straightforward leftwing dyadic populism of “the people vs the elite” and the triadic rightwing populism that champions “the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” (The Populist Explosion) What Judis doesn’t consider is that populism is also divided into “populism from below” (social movements and popular uprisings) versus “populism from above” (elitist demagoguery). This produces a foursquare political compass with examples of a demagogic populist Left (Huey Long), a demagogic populist Right (Donald Trump), a democratic populist Left (Occupy Wall Street) and a democratic populist Right (Tea Party). Elitist demagoguery of populist movements and rebellions is a clear danger in any form of populism. But also, because populist movements and rebellions are often ideologically and socially undifferentiated, it’s easy for populism to move back and forth from political Left to Right, even to attempt to combine elements of both Left and Right into a single “of the people, by the people, for the people” movement.

My critiques of the alt-right, neo-fascism, neo-nazism, and Third Positionism are by default criticisms of rightwing populism because of their lack of ideological coherence and tendency to scapegoat innocent social groups like Jews or black people. I won’t address Judis’s discussion that populism is “fascism lite” or an early warning sign of capitalism in crisis. To make my Leftist disagreements with populism clear, I’ll instead focus on leftwing populism.

“Leftwing populism is historically different from socialist or social democratic movements,” Judis writes. “It is not a politics of class conflict, and it doesn’t necessarily seek the abolition of capitalism. It is also different from a progressive or liberal politics that seek to reconcile the interests of opposing classes and groups. It assumes a basic antagonism between the people and an elite at the heart of its politics.”

The key concept here is social class. What defines a social class according to Marx is its relationship to the means of production. The capitalist class owns the means of production and purchases the labor power of others while workers own only their labor power which they sell for wages to the capitalist class. The working class thus starts out as a “class in itself” but becomes a “class for itself” through self-activity and self-organization to achieve its self-emancipation. Ultimately, the working class seeks to abolish itself as a class by abolishing all of class society.

Marxists have formulated two distinct concepts of how the working class might move from being a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”—class consciousness versus class composition. I’ll spend an entire future column on the differences between them. Suffice to say that without notions of social class, class struggle or the working class becoming a “class for itself”—that is without a class analysis—all that remains is leftwing populism. Working class organizers often practice a multi-class coalition politics to win power. That’s far different from leftwing populism that lacks class analysis and class politics. Leftwing populism is like a body without a spine, or a ship without a rudder—a decidedly less than useful politics often fraught not just with demagoguery but conspiracy thinking. Leftwing populism and revolutionary working class movements can both arise spontaneously from society’s base and overthrow society’s ruling elites through broad popular uprisings, much as did the Spanish 1936 anarchist revolution and the Philippine 1986 Peoples Power Revolution. Both can give rise to similar forms of self-organization (popular assemblies) and an extra-parliamentary opposition that quickly becomes parliamentary rule. But whereas revolutionary proletarian movements seek to overthrow capitalism and build a new society, leftwing populism is satisfied with merely overturning the current government and calling that a revolution. Leftwing populism is thus a revolution of half measures and incomplete reforms.

Judis argues that “[p]opulism is an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe.” But he spends too much time pointing to the American winner-take-all political system and various triggering economic downturns as causes for why American populism is rarely working class oriented. The reasons the United States never took to socialism have been frequently debated and sometimes contested. With the decline of the revolutionary workers movement internationally over the past five decades however, leftwing populism has taken its place or been supplanted by a rightwing populism that flirts with fascism.

Both the populist anti-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements were majority leftwing with small but troubling conspiracy-prone rightwing minorities. The former produced a genuinely revolutionary moment in the 1999 Seattle insurrection while the latter manufactured the ludicrous 2011 two month slumber party in Zuccotti Square. Populism can also consciously mix leftwing and rightwing elements, as with Beppe Grillo’s Italian Five Star Movement which combined calls for direct democracy with expelling all illegal immigrants. But more often it’s simply impossible to determine where the balance of forces lie in any given populist uprising. The French yellow vests/gilets jaunes movement has been judged majority rightwing/minority leftwing whereas the Hong Kong protest movement is considered overwhelmingly liberal and pro-Western. Yet it’s not hard to find ardent Trotskyist socialists who defend the gilets jaunes and fervent Crimethinc anarchists who extoll successors to the Umbrella Revolution. Finally, it’s one thing to proclaim a given populist movement or uprising leftwing or rightwing from afar; entirely another thing to throw one’s lot as a leftwing populist (or a working class radical) in with an otherwise rightwing populist uprising. It’s probably little different from a working class recomposing itself to survive in an overwhelmingly decomposing global capitalism.

Marxists associated with the Krisis Group consider the workers movement so deeply embedded and compromised with capitalism as to be unsalvageable. They propose political struggle without classes, a populism with class analysis, a leftwing populism by default. That still leaves a leftwing populism subject to demagoguery, conspiracism, and half-assed revolutionism. In other words, a piss poor Leftist politics by any measure.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John B. Judis
Class Consciousness or Class Composition? by Salar Mohandesi
Marxism and the Critique of Value ed. by Larsen, Nilges, Robinson, and Brown

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