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.

Buy my books here.

 

 

Proletarian: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2022

I sat at Nati’s Restaurant in Ocean Beach for a late brunch on a Sunday afternoon. It was 1986. I was on my third Negra Modelo when the waitress served up my heaping plate of Machaca con Huevos with dolloped sour cream, refried beans, Spanish rice, escabeche, pico de gallo, and a stack of corn tortillas. I had high tolerances in those days so I wasn’t even buzzed as I dripped Tapatío hot sauce on my aromatic food.

I had a few drinking routines when I was gainfully employed and living in San Diego. Weekdays after working as a typesetter I bought 16-oz cans of Schlitz malt liquor and drank in the privacy my Pacific Beach apartment. I occasionally went to shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Whether at bars like the Casbah or Spirit Club, or larger venues like the Pacific Palisades or Adams Avenue Theater, I drank my crap malt liquor before the show in my parked car. I didn’t want to be buying expensive, watered-down drinks at some punk dive bar. I’d do a little day drinking some Saturdays and Sundays starting at Nati’s before hitting the Pacific Shore Lounge, then the Beachcomber in Mission Beach and ending up at the West End or the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach at night. The idea was cheap drinks and happy hours, and if I got too wasted by the time I got round to Pacific Beach I could always park my car and walk home. Continue reading

Alternate socialism: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, July 2021

I received a letter yesterday from my leftist penpal via the Multiverse Postal Service. We’ve been discussing the origins of the Cold War in our respective parallel universes. I quote from his lengthy missive below:

We both agree that the similar contours of our side-by-side worlds were consolidated after the disastrous Afghan war. But we each have differing timelines for the historical sequence of events starting from the February 1917 Russian Revolution that produced our present realities in our alternate universes.

Continue reading

New Socialist Movement: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” April 2021

 

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
—Polish proverb

It wasn’t my scene.

I attended Stuart Shuffman’s book release party for Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco sometime in November, 2007. Stuart initially xeroxed his zine at Kinko’s and personally distributed it to stores and shops around the city. His handmade publication was about to become a conventional paperback travel guide produced by a now-defunct independent publishing company that would offer a New York City edition the next year. His Guide to Living Cheaply combined two of my favorite things—zines and cheap eats—under the imprimatur “you are young, broke and beautiful” but the raucous release event wasn’t for me. Continue reading

Israel and Palestine, confict without end: “What’s Left?” October 2014, MRR #377

The middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

I’m a middle-of-the-road moderate.

This feels like a stand up AA confession. Me, “Lefty” Hooligan, a moderate. But I’m middle-of-the-road when it comes to the whole Israel/Palestine conflict.

I grudgingly agree that Israel has the right to exist, but I vehemently oppose Israel’s military overkill, its collective punishment and massacre of Palestinians in pursuit of eradicating Hamas terrorism. I grudgingly agree that Palestinians should constitute their own nation, but I adamantly oppose Hamas terrorism, its indiscriminate targeting of Israelis and threats to wipe out the Jewish people. I think that Israel’s overwhelming military and economic superiority over the Palestinians, this massive day-to-day power imbalance, virtually guarantees the abuse of that power in the form of discrimination and slaughter, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.*

I wasn’t always such a reluctant moderate with respect to the bloody Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know the subject deeply, but narrowly, and from one side only. As an undergraduate at UCSC, I studied Jewish history in general and Zionist history in particular, with a six month stay on an Israeli kibbutz (commune) in the Jezreel Valley with my Jewish girlfriend in the summer and fall of 1974. My grasp of the Arab side of things is glancing at best. Yet, like a shard of hologram properly illuminated, a slice of history properly studied will reveal the whole. What got in the way of my extremist sentiments, and what made me a moderate was what Israelis like to call “the facts on the ground.”

I was and remain a communist. I was intrigued by Zionist socialism and I had an affinity for kibbutz-style communism, but I soon discovered how intrinsically rightwing they were. Zionist colonial society was dominated from 1920 on by the Histadrut labor federation—part trade union, part capitalist owner and employer, and part de facto state. The Histadrut ran close to 75% of the Zionist economy in pre-1948 Palestine until the newborn Israeli state nationalized half of that, and the labor federation’s social power has been on the decline ever since. The national syndicalism professed by the Histadrut and key to Labor Zionism shunned class struggle for Jewish national unity. It was a non-Marxist, even anti-Marxist socialism rooted in Romantic notions of organic nationalism and ethnic purity.

That’s where the supposed radical communism of the kibbutzim came from. Labor Zionism, often used synonymously with Zionist socialism, was first cousin to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” in promoting a “socialism for one people,” the Jewish people. And Zionist socialism transcended its nationalist socialist roots into true proletarian internationalism only in communist fractions evident within the halutzim (pioneers) of the third aliyah (settler wave). These communist fractions were tangential to the kibbutz movement led by the Hashomer Hatzair and then by the old MAPAM political party. They were central to the Gdud Ha’avoda (Labor Brigades) founded by members of the Crimean Commune who followed Joseph Trumpeldor, which were then deliberately destroyed by the Histadrut. As such, this international working class communism, which attempted to make common cause with the Arab workers in Palestine, was a minority of a minority within the Zionist colonial project. It was doomed to failure. Probably why I identify with it to this day. Ze’ev Sternhell’s book The Founding Myths of Israel makes these arguments most cogently. Israeli society has since moved inexorably ever rightward.

Then as now, I’m an anti-statist. I don’t like to see the building and proliferating of nation-states. I don’t like people aspiring to create them, and I certainly don’t like people butchering each other with them. Arthur Waskow once spun out a lovely libertarian utopia for the area of Israel/Palestine that entailed decentralized federations of autonomous Jewish and Arab cantons residing side by side in a fully binational society. Sure, and if the cat laid eggs, so goes a yiddish saying, it would be a chicken. I don’t think I was ever that naive to imagine anarchism taking root in the area anytime in the foreseeable future. I was disabused of such fantasies by having experienced reality in Israel. Part of that reality is the current demographics of the region. There are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

These facts beg for a creative reconsideration of the “one state solution” put forward by the old pre-Oslo Palestine Liberation Organization for a democratic, secular nation-state in the region of Palestine. Not quite as elegant was the call for a binational state in Israel/Palestine by Zionist socialism’s left wing, the aforementioned Hashomer Hatzair and MAPAM, that evaporated with the formation of Israel’s Labor Party in 1968. The chances for either a democratic secular state or a binational state in Israel/Palestine however are slim to none, not without a lot of violence and social disruption. Far more blood and chaos will accompany the least favorable but far more likely solution, the “two state solution” that creates a Palestinian nation-state in the Occupied Territories alongside a mostly intact state of Israel. Not only is the two-state solution the highly probable outcome of decades of suffering and war, but it is likely to reproduce the same power imbalance, a militarily and economically hegemonic Israel running roughshod over a string of poverty-stricken Palestinian Bantustans.

Which is a tragedy considering that, at least on the Jewish side of things, there have been imaginative ways for a people to live and thrive without the need for a nation-state. At the beginning of the 20th century, as youthful European Jews took to socialist ideas and movements of various stripes, Zionist socialism predominated in a nationalist Zionist movement that promoted the colonization of Palestine under the patently false slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Diametrically opposed to all forms of Zionism were the Jews who committed themselves to Marxist social democracy, specifically to the internationalist socialism embodied by the Bolsheviks and their Third International, which called for world proletarian revolution to bring about a classless stateless society. The Jewish Labor Bund positioned itself between these two poles to develop a hybrid socialism unique to the social situation of the Jewish people.

The Bund operated in eastern Europe, in the territorial ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement to which the Jewish people were confined and in which the Jews often comprised a sizable minority of the population. The socialism advocated by the Bund aligned with the international working class movement while defending the national characteristics of the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of the Pale lived separately (in urban ghettos and Jewish villages called shtetls), had their own language (yiddish), religion, customs and culture, and shared various autonomous social institutions (schools, community councils, and mutual aid societies). From these facts the Bund derived a form of Jewish nationalism that downplayed any united sovereign Jewish territory for one based on Jewish community control of local schools, police and government. As such, the Jewish Labor Bund’s program prefigured the program of the Black Panther Party in the United States.

The Third Reich’s “Final Solution” put an end to the aspirations of the Jewish Labor Bund by liquidating the Jewish people in eastern Europe. I got to know some Bundists who had immigrated to New York City after the second World War. When they didn’t entirely assimilate, they became either ardent Communists or soft Zionists. Few remained affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, which like yiddish has recently experienced a revival in interest.

The spectrum of Zionist socialism/ Jewish Labor Bund socialism/ international socialism parallels a broader spectrum within the Jewish people at large, generated by the question over the nature of the Jewish people. There are those who would argue that the Jews aren’t a people at all, among them outspoken jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, and academic Shlomo Sand whose book The Invention of the Jewish People summarizes this position clearly. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum like the Jewish Defense League who believe that the Jewish people are a nation, even a race, chosen by God and given the land of Israel as their inalienable birth right. Most who weigh in on the subject, including most Jews, hold a middle position, that the Jewish people are some amalgam of race, nation, ethnicity, tribe, culture or religion which cannot be clearly fixed. The point is moot however, given that Jews consider themselves Jews, and define themselves as Jews no matter the argument or the circumstance.

The Jews have existed as a self-identified, dispersed people at least since the Babylonian destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Thus, the Jewish people have survived partly or entirely without a nation-state for over 2,500 years. The Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 CE forced the Jews to adapt with the development of the synagogue as a temple in absentia. Yet whether this Jewish dispersal is termed exile or diaspora, it took more than the institution of the synagogue to hold it together. Vibrant centers of Jewish culture and learning overlapped concentrations of Jewish population first in ancient Babylonia, then in Moorish Spain, and finally in Medieval Poland.

These dynamic social/cultural/religious centers provided guidance and cohesion to the Jewish people as a whole, throughout the eastern hemisphere and eventually the world, and were crucial to Jewish survival. It can be argued that this core/periphery structure of Jewish existence was in crisis by 1850, with the rise of the modern nation-state. But what can’t be substantiated is the Zionist assertion that without a Jewish nation-state, the Jewish people will always be threatened by discrimination, harassment, murder, pogrom and holocaust. One of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to reside today is in Israel. All it would take is for Israel to lose just one war in order to raise the very real specter of Jewish genocide once again.

Between the wholly inadequate two-state solution and Waskow’s anarchist idyll, there are a number of quite possible, favorable resolutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ve highlighted as viable examples leftwing Zionist socialism’s binational state, the one-state solution of the PLO’s secular democratic Palestinian state, the Jewish Labor Bund’s socialist program for Jewish territorial autonomy, and the non-state core/periphery structure so critical to Jewish survival as a people over the millennia. This middle ground is quite broad, providing a wide political middle-of-the-road from which true moderation can arise. And a moderate, just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would be wonderful. In this instance, I would dearly love to refute Barry Goldwater when he said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

*I rely on Max Boot’s exhaustive study Invisible Armies for the distinction between formal military action and terrorism.