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.

The party was held at the Rickshaw Stop, a funky alternative music venue near the SF Civic Center with high ceilings, giant red drapes and an overlooking balcony. Stuart spared no expense. Live bands, DJs, alcoholic beverages and prepared foods. The shindig was actually more of a rave. Those who attended were much younger, had funny haircuts and wore bright day-glo neo-psychedelic clothing. There were light shows, dancing and glow sticks. There were tubs filled with bottled water. And there was a bowl of special punch appropriately labeled with a coded Ecstasy warning. I’d been part of two countercultures and I’d never been inadvertently dosed during my hippie days. Nor did I ever dose anyone without their consent, something that punks never much indulged in. But I stuck with bottled beer just the same.

I didn’t know more than a handful of people and didn’t care for the music. So I thanked Stuart for his zine, congratulated him on his success, then left the party early. I’d been made acutely aware by his celebration of the difference between being on the inside versus on the outside of a scene. At any hippie or punk concert I could have easily pointed out where groups following different kinds of music, bands and social milieus hung out. As a hippie at a 70s concert the psych-rock kids were here, the bikers there, and the Deadheads yonder. As a punk at an 80s concert the hardcore kids were here, the skinheads there, and the Suicidals yonder. But to anxious parents unfamiliar with either scene, everyone looked alike. The subtle clues of hair, clothing, symbols worn and music enjoyed were lost on the uninitiated. To an outsider everything looked and sounded the same.

Now consider the current debate over the “new socialist movement.”

rankandfileSometimes I consider myself a Leftist and a socialist. But sometimes I get cantankerous and call myself an “anti-state communist influenced by the left communist tradition, Italian workerism/Autonomia, insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory.” That’s part of a different dynamic of insiders deliberately rejecting their own or fellow insiders’ status for various reasons. The San Francisco Diggers didn’t identify as hippies because “flowers die too easily.” And much of hardcore punk rejected Krishna Consciousness’s crude infiltration of the hardcore scene because krishnacore was a pathetic “subculture of a subculture of a subculture.” These are insider squabbles.

Someone who is an outsider to left-of-center politics and doesn’t see the differences between the Left, socialism, communism, anarchism and the like needs to realize two things. First, there are a myriad different schools, tendencies, factions and sects that identify with the Left, broadly speaking. I often use the terms “the Left” and “socialism” as generic categories to encompass liberalism, progressivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, Marxism, Leninism, syndicalism, anarchism, left communism, et al. Second, the only common element to this bewildering variety on the Left is collective ownership of land, labor and capital (“the means of production”). Such collective ownership might be termed public ownership, state ownership, nationalization, socialization or communization depending on the degree and type of organization of the collectivization in question. So even this common factor is complex and complicated. But when I talk about the Left or socialism—the idea, the movement, the society—I’m talking at base about collective ownership of the means of production.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Who has agency, who benefits, and who rules under socialism? (Workers and the working class, peasants and the peasantry, oppressed and Third World peoples, the people or the masses, the multitude, the 99%?) How do they rule? (From below versus from above, direct decentralized democracy, democratic confederalism, federalism, democratic centralism, republicanism, class dictatorship, party dictatorship?) By what instruments do they rule? (The state, political party, trade or industrial unions, the four c’s—communes, councils, collectives, cooperatives?) How do they achieve power? (General or mass strike, spontaneous mass insurrection, social revolution, electoral party victory, vanguard party revolution, socialist revolution?) What is the scope of socialism? (Local, municipal, regional, bioregional, national, international?) What other elements are necessary for a socialist movement or society? (Extra-electoral politics, social movements, alternative institutions, mutual aid networks, radical economics?) This list of questions and multiple choice options is by no means exhaustive. So why is it when we talk about a “new socialist movement” we are focused solely on the role of the political party?

The discussion of a “new socialist movement” arose from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It has been preoccupied with how and whether to move the Democratic party to the Left versus building an independent democratic socialist or social democratic labor party. Other voices have entered the debate with calls for an orthodox vanguard party, an interventionist party, even a “party of a new type.” But the political party is not the be-all and end-all to socialism. The party may not even be necessary for socialism to advance, win, hold power or thrive.

Saying party building is “not my scene” isn’t strong enough. I prefer the Polish proverb “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I reject the emphasis on the political party because it actually hinders the cause of socialism.  I have my personal configuration for a “new socialist movement” but discussing my preferences would amount to a laundry list of wishful thinking. Instead, I’ll target two elements I think of as absolutely crucial to minimizing the role of the state and party and maximizing the social aspects of socialism. When we talk politics, we talk in terms of good or bad, useful or useless, revolutionary or reactionary. Electoral politics, by and large, are boring, ugly and nearly always business-as-usual by being tied to the corporate two-party political system. Contrast this with the unruly, disruptive extra-electoral politics of antifa, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Dreamers and other such movements that are “small-d democratic citizen activism bypassing political institutions beholden to narrow, moneyed interests” according to Tony Karon in “Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” who continues: “Those movements are based outside the Democratic party […] but through grassroots activism they have forced their issues on to the party’s agenda.”

Extra-electoral politics dovetail nicely into the importance of social movements in building popular power generally. Social movements reside both inside and outside electoral politics but represent efforts at affecting social change from below. They are multi-issue, often cross-class and frequently polycentric organizational strategies and movements that attempt to build social power in oppressed populations to take on the powers-that-be through mass mobilizations. The Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano, Women’s, and Gay Liberation movements—along with scores of other social movements from the 60s onward—built power from the base of society. I consider one of the most important social movements to encompass is the labor movement. And by the labor movement, I don’t mean only the official labor movement of organized unions, federations and internationals, but also wildcat labor, undocumented labor, precarious labor, the whole gamut of working class strategies and movements that strive toward self-activity and self-organization. Karl Marx argued that the working class must move from a “class in itself” as defined by its relation to the means of the production in order to become a “class for itself” and constitute the proletariat actively organized in pursuit of its own interests. As such, workers have the capacity to seize power and realize socialism, or alternatively, to be a decisive element in a self-managed, self-emancipated socialist society even without a political party.

Fixating on the self-perpetuating political party is what’s problematic here. At the risk of being accused of the “false and misleading counter-positioning of mass politics and movement work,” I see a contradiction between emphasizing “the importance of our party as a base of militant organizing within the class” and the claim that “electoral work must be subordinated to, and flow from, that organizing” of mass politics and movement work (“A Party of Our Own” by Turl and Sepehri). Wishing party work to be subordinate to socialist organizing doesn’t make it so, especially given the party-über-alles stance of most of those engaged in the “new socialist movement” debate. That’s like hoping your square parents understand the weird music you listen to when all they know is easy listening. They just don’t get it.

SOURCES
Personal recollections
The Poverty of Philosophy by Karl Marx
Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan
Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply by Stuart Shuffman
Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb
“Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” by Tony Karon, The Guardian (4-18-16)
“A Party of Our Own” by Adam Turl and Saman Sepehri, Red Wedge (4-14-20)

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Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente!: “What’s Left?” May 2019, MRR #432

[E]verything that was in opposition was good…
Michael Baumann, How It All Began, 1975

No one who likes swing can become a Nazi.
Arvid (Frank Whaley), Swing Kids, 1993

It was Movie Night at Maximum Rocknroll at the old Clipper Street headquarters circa 1994. The featured movie was Thomas Carter’s 1993 film Swing Kids. It was Tim and me and maybe one other person. I think Tim actually made Jiffy Pop popcorn and I had my ubiquitous six pack. The plot was simple; as the Nazi Party rises to power in pre-WWII Germany a tight countercultural scene of young kids grow their hair long, wear British fashion and use Harlem slang as they listen to banned American swing music, hold underground dances and street fight the Hitler Youth. Two rebellious young men take different paths—one into the Hitler Youth, the other into the Swing Kids and eventually jail.

The parallels to the mid-1990s were clear, with the rise of the Right politically and the explosion of punk’s second hardcore wave in the streets. After the closing credits rolled and Tim popped out the VHS tape he made the connections explicit. “Punk is like swing was in Nazi Germany. It’s the core of a revolutionary youth culture with rebellious kids resisting fascism in the streets.”

Tim loved punk, no doubt about it, but he was also on a mission. He not only wanted to cover the scene and its music, he wanted to push the politics of punk to the fore. And that link between punk music, the scene, its politics, and the fight against the Right is crucial to understanding both Tim Yo and his project, MRR. Tim considered MRR a lynchpin between punk music and the punk scene on the one hand and the Left’s fight against reactionary politics on the other hand.

Tim was a friend. We both loved punk rock but whereas I had eclectic tastes ranging from pop to noise Tim insisted on only the rawest, most aggressive three chord rock’n’roll. We didn’t hang out together at shows although we were sometimes at the same shows. We were both politically on the Left although he was a mellowing Marxist-Leninist and I was an aspiring libertarian Marxist. Tim had a loud raucous belly laugh, could hit a fly ball over the fence, and was dedicated to the punk scene like nobody’s business. But he was also rigid, authoritarian, and sometimes an unmitigated asshole. In fact, when Tim was dying of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and preparing MRR’s transition team to take over, he advised us never to shy away from being an asshole when it was warranted. Meaning, we needed to stand firm about making the tough decisions—firing idiot shitworkers, refusing connections with sketchy bands and labels, cutting out cancerous corporate influences—whenever necessary. Tim and I were friends, but we weren’t ever “besties.” And I was never part of the coterie of friends who played Risk at the MRR house. Tim had modified the rules to make the game more ruthless, and there was no better metaphor than that long-running Risk game for Tim’s aspirations to punk rock world domination.

This tribute to Tim is also about the print edition of MRR. But MRR, which began publishing as a zine in 1982, started much earlier as a radio show in 1973. Both the early years of the radio show and the beginnings of the magazine involved a quadrumvirate of pioneering punkers—Tim Yo, Ruth Schwartz, Jeff Bale, and Jello Biafra—who changed punk rock in the Bay Area and internationally. Never the sharpest shōnen knife in the punk rock drawer, Jello fully deserved losing the Dead Kennedys back catalog for ripping off his band. Now a para-alt-rightwinger, Jeff Bale dropped racial epithets when his vintage sports car was vandalized by black kids. A millionaire hipster capitalist, Ruth Schwartz abandoned her faux conscious capitalist ethics when confronted with unionizing efforts by workers at Mordam Records. Having known and worked with them all, the only one I truly trusted was Tim Yo who, despite his personal flaws and political problems, was forthright, genuine, and completely dedicated to the scene. Tim helped me get the job at Mordam and in turn I fed him inside information about the distributor. When Tim moved to drop Mordam as MRR’s distributor, I gave Tim detailed backroom distribution and sales information ahead of the move, and provided him with lists of the distributors and sub-distributors Mordam dealt with. My punk loyalty was to Tim and MRR, first and foremost.

Tim’s influence on punk rock was epic and wide ranging. Tim and MRR arguably coined the term DIY—do it yourself—as well as defined the anti-corporate, bottom-up, decentralized nature of punk rock with regular scene reports and calls to “support your local scene,” two crucial characteristics of punk. Punk projects that Tim initiated—from the radio show to Gilman Street—are still going strong today. He made “no major labels” the magazine’s rallying cry. And Tim was an adamant anti-fascist, insisting that the magazine and affiliated projects have absolutely no truck with Nazis. He routinely confronted Nazis when the entire Gilman Street community shut down punk shows in response to Nazi skins in the pit. The vagaries of print media notwithstanding, MRR kept publishing for 16 years under Tim’s direction and 20 years after his death, quite a feat for an all-volunteer not-for-profit punk zine. Tim’s insistence that punk rock get back to basics with his 1994 purge of MRR’s record collection and music coverage forced punk to return to three chords and the truth, the basis for the music’s original greatness that fostered a revival of the genre.

Ultimately, the connections Tim fostered through MRR between punk music, the youthful punk scene, its leftist politics, and the fight against the Right and fascism influenced me the most. It’s facile to argue that because the young are rebellious by nature there can be no particular political philosophy innate to any form of rock’n’roll. The young are considered rebels without a cause and therefore without a clue. “Just don’t fucking tell me what to do!” is supposedly their mantra. But while the young are often individually rebellious for the sheer sake of rebelliousness, with all opposition considered good, there were definite political trends brought about by concrete material circumstances. As social phenomena, the rebellious hippie counterculture of the 1960s and the defiant punk subculture beginning in the 1970s were viscerally anti-authoritarian, which stimulated interest in and a revival of anarchism each time. No similar interest in conservative politics emerged, putting the lie to the claim that “conservatives are the new punk.” Fascism remained anathema irrespective of these youthful rebellions.

It’s equally facile to contend that because Tim witnessed the ’60s radical youth counterculture firsthand and was rumored to have been in the Revolutionary Communist Party in the ’70s he intended MRR to be a punk rock Bolshevik Party. As I pointed out above regarding MRR’s origins, Tim worked with a collection of fellow punks who differed wildly from him politically. MRR was frequently criticized as narrow-minded, politically correct, and elitist, but it never attempted to be a political vanguard for punk. The magazine’s shitworkers and columnists were diverse and their politics, while generally left wing, were eclectic. Tim had strong opinions and politics, but he was never a punk rock Stalin.

I was making links between punk and politics before I moved to the Bay Area. Joining MRR and working with Tim not only deepened those links, it changed my life. Not miraculously, but nevertheless significantly. My musical experience broadened dramatically as a result of hanging out at the MRR house. The anti-statist and anti-authoritarian components to my left libertarian politics grew more sophisticated, thanks in large part to Tim making me a columnist. I was always a writer, but I became a published author with a literary and internet presence during my tenure as “Lefty” Hooligan. I’ll continue writing and probably do some version of my monthly “What’s Left?” column online until they pry my cold dead hands from my keyboard. As of this writing, the future of MRR as a punk project remains to be determined. It began as a radio show, so it looks to continue as a radio show for the foreseeable future. The record reviews and other punk related reviews should be going up online shortly. And slowly, painfully, the full archive of MRR’s print era, the magazine in all its glory, will eventually be posted online. “Long live Maximum Rocknroll” is a reality, and the project will go mostly digital to survive.

There’s a long tradition on the Latin American Left of using the word ¡Presente! (Here! Present!) to invoke the memory of those comrades who died in the struggle for a better world. So this is only fitting:

Tim Yohannan. ¡Presente!