Town v. country: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, February 2023

I’m a city boy. I call myself a flâneur, an individual who strolls city streets for personal freedom, independence, and enjoyment. I’ve lived in cities pretty much all my life and the very brief periods I resided in the countryside drove me bats.

It was love at first sight when I visited New York City in autumn, 1988. People I befriended living in San Diego invited me to holiday in the City and I returned nearly every year thereafter for a decade. That initial trip I was a total tourist. I got a crick in my neck the first day from walking around, looking up and marveling at all the tall buildings. I’d leave the collective household’s Park Slope brownstone where I was staying, maybe stop by the nearby Food Coop for some breakfast, then catch early morning subway rides into Manhattan neighborhoods. Graffiti was everywhere, and the subway cars were rolling works of underground art. I hit the main sightseeing spots.[A] I spent afternoons in St. Mark’s Comics and the Strand just browsing. Missing Foundation’s overturned martini glass tag was ubiquitous on the Lower East Side. Because I was a drunk, a 16-oz can of cheap malt liquor and a couple of hot dogs or slices of pizza from street food stands were all I needed.[1]

Most of my friends had day jobs—bike messengers, temps, low-level secretarial or warehouse grunts—as well as office workers, librarians and academics. I’d arrange to meet them after work at the Cube at St. Marks Place where we regrouped for more food, drinks, and partying. We’d go out for inexpensive ethnic dinners where it was always BYO. And we’d end most evenings talking politics, either socially over more food and drinks or at meetings of Neither East Nor West, Anarchist Black Cross or the Libertarian Book Club.  Several of my friends had “red-eye” radio shows on WBAI, so we would sometimes stumble home at 2-3-4 in the morning. The sidewalks were crowded curb-to-wall with people, pedestrians on the streets all hours of the day and night. There was always something happening. Anything you wanted to do or transact, legal or illegal, was available if you only looked hard enough or had enough money.

I also experienced New York during the late Koch, Dinkins and early Giuliani years when city cops were fat, and stop-and-frisk, “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing were at their height. Enforcing “quality of life” violations meant racial profiling, rousting the homeless, and harassing nonconformists. Punk was raging as was hip-hop. The Tompkins Square Park riots of unruly countercultural teens and the homeless occurred in the summer of 1988, resulting in 35 injured and 9 arrested, with over 100 complaints lodged against the police. The New York Times called it a “police riot.”

New York had a reputation for filth, vermin, noise, crime, corruption, homelessness, disorder, brutal cops and racial antagonisms. But it was also known as the capital of the world, the city that never sleeps, and the city of dreams. Some 80+ ethnicities spoke over 200 languages, serving up 35 different global cuisines, worshipping in 150 different religious denominations, residing and conducting business in 278 neighborhoods in 5 boroughs. As the line goes, “there are 8 million stories in the Naked City,” only it’s closer to nine million now. I admired the direct, no nonsense, practical attitude of New Yorkers, their irritated impatience embodied in the term “New York minute,” their borough-distinctive street accents, their raised middle finger stance toward the world. I always returned from my NYC vacations reinvigorated and renewed. Yet I could see how living permanently there and experiencing the City’s monumental indifference and relentless grind could wear on a person’s body, mind, and spirit.

Karl Hess once argued that Ireland had an anarchist society for centuries, how its cities of tens of thousands of people operated without a government and avoided crime without a police force, and how the English took hundreds of years to conquer the Irish because they had no national government to surrender for them. When I remember back to my New York City experiences I sometimes think it’s just the opposite, that it’s a city with lots of police and government but which is fundamentally ungovernable. I’ve lived in West Coast cities[B] and visited various world-class cities[C] sometimes for extended periods. Nothing, no city can compare with New York. But maybe it’s useful to find alternatives to city life. Perhaps socialism can provide different options to the typical urban experience.

Murray Bookchin gained notice for his 1969 pamphlet Listen, Marxist! which presented a left-anarchist critique of Marxism using orthodox Marxist categories (means of production vs relations of production, proletariat vs bourgeoisie, objective vs subjective forces, etc.) Bookchin was a Trotskyist whose acquired anarchism retained a flavor of vulgar Marxism thanks to that stodgy vocabulary. He would eventually develop politically beyond these origins in the 1980s and 1990s but his 1971 book, a collection of essays entitled Post-Scarcity Anarchism (P-SA), still had that crude feel. P-SA proposed a utopia of small decentralized communities founded on communal property that integrated town and country, industry and agriculture, manual and intellectual labor, individualism and collectivism, etc.[2] Federations of such integral communes constituted an idealized stateless, anarchist-communist society of abundance where all social, economic and political contradictions would be resolved.

P-SA created a stir among anarchists in the 1970s and not merely because it repurposed Marxist ideas and terminology to defend left-anarchism. Anarchist study groups based on the book emerged, while criticisms arose from classical anarchists of various stripes. P-SA’s pro-technology bent, in particular, elicited negative reactions in Luddite and primitivist circles. As a left-anarchist I realized Bookchin’s integral commune sounded a lot like the Israeli kibbutz I lived in for six months in 1974.

I consider Israel a settler-colonial apartheid state that failed primarily because Labor Zionism practiced an exclusionary “socialism for one people,” placing ethnic identity over class identity. At the same time I consider the Jewish socialism that established Israel to be one of the more autonomous, communitarian, emancipatory forms of socialism I’ve experienced. I consider both true.

Kibbutz Mizra was established by the Hashomer Hatzair socialist-Zionist youth movement in the Jezreel Valley under the slogan “from commune to communism.” The commune members practiced “from each according to ability, to each according to need” where, for their community labor, they received free housing, food, clothing, education, entertainment, even a monthly stipend to purchase luxuries at the general store. Property was held in common and children were raised collectively. Mizra was a small town communal farm on 1915 acres of land purchased from an absentee Arab feudal landowner whose Arab peasant tenants had been evicted by the Jewish National Fund. Located between the Arab cities of Nazareth and Afula, it had maybe a thousand adults and children and a mixed economy of agriculture (crops, orchards, eggs, chickens, dairy) and industry (meat processing plant, hydraulics machinery factory). Kibbutzim were in the vanguard of the Zionist colonization and economic development of Palestine (Hebrew land, labor, products). They were also on the frontlines of defending the Jewish Yishuv via the Hagana and Palmach (Hebrew defense).

To say life on the kibbutz was bucolic was an understatement. I worked, ate, read, hung out and slept. There was occasional communal TV or a movie available, and we took weekend trips to tourist destinations[D]. But otherwise my stay was uneventful to say the least. Commune life was excruciatingly boring. I started down my long, sordid years of alcoholism living at Mizra because I had to stop smoking marijuana when I arrived and so I purchased bottled wine from the kibbutz store to get high every day.

Jewish socialism shared the idyll of creating the “New Man” with the broader socialist/communist movements of its day. It’s the notion that, come the revolution, the free association of producers would construct a global society without a state, social classes, hierarchies or private ownership of the means of production through a fully developed communism to produce a new humanity. In P-SA Bookchin used the terms “the rounded man, the total man.” This utopian individual is described as cooperative, selfless, virtuous, hard working and comradely. Hardly a portrayal of your average New Yorker, let alone your typical Israeli kibbutznik.

The concept that the new socialist individual is the product of the new socialist society is standard-operating-procedure. Leftists contend that human nature changes depending on lifestyle (hunter-gatherer nomadism, agricultural sedentism, urban civilization) or stages of production (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism). I consider humans to be social beings by nature, but the broader nature-versus-nurture debate over humanity’s essence remains unresolved in my mind.

The kibbutz movement, like the hippie back-to-the-land movement, was a conscious rejection of urban life. But there’s truth to the WWI song lyric that “how ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” I experienced a triumphant yet tedious rural socialism in Kibbutz Mizra, then a chaotic yet dynamic urban capitalism in New York City. Much as I favored enlightened communalism theoretically, in practice I enjoyed privatized decadence more.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections

FOOTNOTES:
[1] “The liver is a muscle! It must be exercised!” (b)ob McGlynn
[2] “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” (Communist Manifesto, 1848) “The first great division of labour in society is the separation of town and country.” (Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring, 1877) “Also characteristic of civilization is the establishment of a permanent opposition between town and country as basis of the whole social division of labour.” (Friedrich Engels,The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884)

THE LISTS:
[A] Museums galore, Times Square, Central Park, Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central Station, New York Public Library, etc.
[B] Ventura, San Bernardino, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco
[C] Jerusalem, Athens, Vienna, Warsaw, Kraków, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Bristol
[D] Jerusalem, Haifa, Baha’i Gardens Nazareth, Akko, Sachne pools, Eilat, Lake Kinnereth, Beit She’an, Dead Sea, the Sinai, Mar Saba Monastery, etc.

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Left of the Left: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2022

I sometimes view humanity’s sordid past as one long, interminable tale chronicling organized bands of murderous thugs trying to exterminate each other. Much as I admire the sentiment of pacifism and humanism, I’m neither a pacifist nor a humanist. Homicide seems to be part of our species, with genocide often its inevitable conclusion.

I’ve been on the left of the Left for most of my life; from being a left anarchist in my youth to a half-assed libertarian Marxist today. That means embracing a vision of stateless, classless global communism even as I abhor the terrors perpetrated by Leninist movements and regimes. I consider all forms of Fascism an abomination, and I dismiss the red-brown sophistry of Third Positionism as fascist sleight-of-hand. In the wake of the precipitous 1989-91 collapse of the Communist bloc, there’s been an upsurge of tankyism/campism on the Left that sees world conflict in terms of US-led imperialism versus any and all opposition to imperialism. That anti-imperialist “camp” is considered socialist by default, even when it’s in defense of patently capitalist, authoritarian, totalitarian, even outright fascist regimes. Then there’s the steady rehabilitation of overtly Fascist/Nazi politics. Last column I commented that, when I was growing up I only saw Nazis as fictional TV characters. Now I see them unashamedly flaunting their fascism in the Republican Party and in demonstrations I’ve recently organized against.

So why do I identify with the Left, despise the Right, and consistently choose socialism over barbarism every time? Continue reading

The terror of history: “What’s Left?” November 2020

About paranoia […] There is nothing remarkable […] it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected […] If there is something comforting – religious, if you want – about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

I graduated with a BA in history from UCSC in 1974. That summer I went off for a 6-month program sponsored by the university to live on Kibbutz Mizra in Israel with my Jewish girlfriend. We packed a large duffel bag full of paperback books in preparation for our excursion, one of them being Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Continue reading

Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984 Continue reading

Long live war?: “What’s Left?” November 2009, MRR #318

I have a section in my library consisting of books like The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller, War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, and the Reinvention of Primitive Society by Adam Kuper. I used to think of it as my anti-primitivist section, works by reputable anthropologists and archeologists rebutting John Zerzan’s wet dream that our Paleolithic ancestors were ecological, peaceful, goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherers uncorrupted by civilization and science; a simplistic reprise of Romantic era fantasies of the primitive paradise and the noble savage. Then, I realized that these books also refute at least one important tenet of Marxism.

Refute is perhaps too strong a word. These works don’t contradict Marx’s own assertion that Paleolithic humans existed in a state of “primitive communism,” a relatively classless, communalist social order. Nor do they negate the thesis propounded by Marshall Sahlins that such a social order was the original affluent society, in which people worked as little as ten to twenty hours a week in order to survive. However, this academic research does call into question the Marxist idea that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that it is shaped by the mode of economic production of any given society.

Marx himself believed in a basic human nature, which he called species being, and which was predicated upon humans being social animals. Yet his contention that economic forces molded much of the rest of human nature engendered the notion in the old, Soviet-dominated socialist bloc that it was possible to create, in the words of Che Guevara, a “new socialist man.” This collectivist human being would be motivated by altruism and cooperation, in contrast to the individualistic, selfish and competitive person common to capitalist society.

That such a creature failed to emerge en masse in the “real existing socialist societies” of the day did not discourage these regimes from applying, to an absurd degree, the axiom that environmental forces predominated over biological forces. In a phrase, nurture superceded nature. Both the Soviet Union, and Maoist China, fell hook, line and sinker for the faux Lamarckianism of that scientific quack Trofim Lysenko who argued that characteristics acquired by exposure to environmental conditions could then be inherited. A wheat crop that unexpectedly produced record yields in the face of harsh climatic conditions was then expected to pass on this capacity through its seed. Such a delusion resulted in wholesale famine at different times in the Soviet Union and China, when many millions starved.

Human nature appears to be more fundamental, complex and immutable than Marxists and anarchists would presume.

I started out as a pacifist when I became political in 1968. At the time, I was Vietnam War draft bait, and bucking for CO status. But I also fervently believed that war in particular, and violence in general, were not innate to human nature. I was fond of citing societies, from the Hopi to the Mennonites, which were socially structured around nonviolent principles. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve had over forty years to experience the world, and to read up on humanity’s sordid history. It seems that, past and present, nonviolent societies have been the exception rather than the rule. And, when Germaine Greer opined that human males had a predilection for rapine and slaughter, she was only incorrect in confining this tendency to one gender. This penchant for homicide, while evident in both sexes, is by no means equal between the sexes.

From the Spartan mother’s exhortation to her son to come home “with his shield, or on it,” to the prominence of women as guerrillas in various socialist struggles for national liberation, there is no lack of female complicity in human blood lust. Recent news reports have claimed that women are now in top leadership positions of both the Basque terrorist organization ETA and the Sicilian Mafia. Whether it is enthusiastic participation in sundry right wing and fascist movements (as documented in Right Wing Women; ed. Bacchetta and Power), or as willing suicide bombers in Islamic jihadist organizations, women are still playing catch up in an arena dominated by men. The girls got a way to go.

A recent, influential addition to my library has been Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger’s precisely rendered experiences as a German soldier during the first World War intimated that war is among humanity’s noblest endeavors, a crucible that brings out the best and worst in people, and a forge for individual struggle and overcoming. Then, we have James Palmer’s depiction in The Bloody White Baron of the mad, murderous Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a “white general” during the Russian civil war, as “a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter.” These days, this describes the great preponderance of armed resistance movements in the region from Rabat to Jakarta.

I’ve already mentioned Keeley’s War Before Civilization, which is one of a spate of books (The Origins of War by Guilaine and Zammit, How War Began by Otterbein, Constant Battles by Le Blanc and Register, etc.), that document the human propensity for collective homicide long before said humans could write history. Forgive me then if I’ve come to the conclusion that the predilection for one individual to bash another individual over the head with murderous intent is something more than personal passion or social conditioning.

War is as intrinsic to the human experience as is music, intoxication, pornography and transcendence.

Yet, I’m reluctant to attribute homicide and war to that ultimate black box and deus ex machina, human nature, precisely because of the Hopi and the Mennonites. There have been whole human societies, modestly successful and around to this day, organized to minimize human violence. This actually says a lot about the relationship between human society and human biology, complicating the concept of human nature significantly. Gene Sharp’s comprehensive three-volume reference The Politics of Nonviolent Action, covering a theory of power, a history of nonviolence, an exhaustive list of nonviolent methods, and a sagacious discussion of nonviolent strategy, continues to have an important place in my library.

I’ll conclude this selective survey of my book collection with a story that’s somewhat apropos of this column’s subject. Between 1989 and 1991, when I lived in San Diego, I was involved in setting up a chapter of Anti-Racist Action. Among many things, we did punk rock benefit shows to raise money for local progressive organizations. One such show, held at the Peace Resource Center, featured a banner hung along the building in the backyard, painted with the MDC lyric NO WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA! Among those attending the show were San Diego’s own Boot Boys. At the time, this skinhead crew claimed to be antiracist, and indeed, I detected a couple of Latino and at least one Asian Boot Boy skin. At some point during the evening, the Boot Boys vandalized the banner by tearing off the first NO. It subsequently read WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!

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