Rojava and the ghost of Kropotkin: “What’s Left?” April 2019, MRR #431

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852

There’s no Left left.
riffing on Gertrude Stein

 

Does history repeat? Are we living through a rerun of the interwar period (1918-1939) with a repeat of the wealth-crazed Roaring Twenties, the dark rise of Fascism, the growing international crisis, and the imminent threat to progressive politics if not all of civilization as we know it? Karl Marx was using the debacle of Louis Bonaparte rhetorically to elicit historical comparisons, bitterly mocking the political situation of his time after the dismal defeat of the 1848 revolutionary wave. Dialectics kept him from falling into the aphoristic thinking of liberal historiography a la Santayana. In reviewing the current state of affairs, I’m tempted to sidestep Marx’s biting humor to acknowledge that history often happens first as tragedy and second as even greater tragedy.

“There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today.” So wrote anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber in a 10-8-14 Guardian opinion piece in fleshing out the general parallels so far sited between the two time periods. Besides noting the striking similarities between libertarian socialist politics in liberated territories then and now and alluding to the resemblance between the International Brigades of 1936 and the International Freedom Battalion today, Graeber concludes: “If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis?” In further praising the “remarkable democratic experiment” being conducted by the Kurds in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, otherwise known as Rojava, he reformulates the fascist enemy in a 2-23-18 Guardian opinion piece:

Today, this democratic experiment is the object of an entirely unprovoked attack by Islamist militias including Isis and al-Qaida veterans, and members of Turkish death squads such as the notorious Grey Wolves, backed by the Turkish army’s tanks, F16 fighters, and helicopter gunships. […] The religious extremists who surround the current Turkish government know perfectly well that Rojava doesn’t threaten them militarily. It threatens them by providing an alternative vision of what life in the region could be like.

I’ll discuss the parallels and distinctions between libertarian socialist politics then and now in a future column. The international situation and disposition of forces today are radically different from what they were in 1936. Liberal parliamentary democracy seemed to be on the ropes back in the interwar period, steadily losing ground to Fascism on the Right and Communism on the Left. Modern decolonization movements in the form of socialist struggles for national liberation hadn’t yet begun. The Soviet Union was touted as a revolutionary socialist society positioning itself as humanity’s bright utopian future around which progressives, social democrats and even anarchists rallied, confirming a world in which “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism” according to Rosa Luxemburg. Today there is no “socialist world” and “real existing socialism” is confined to a handful of Soviet-style relic states. A decolonized Third World continues to fragment. Social democracy and progressive politics generally are losing ground to rightwing populism in liberal parliamentary democracies, part of the rightward trend worldwide toward conservatism, traditionalism, authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, neo-nazi totalitarianism, etc. There is no “transition to Socialism,” merely the threat from various forms of Barbarism.

The centuries-long legacy of European imperialism and subsequent Third World decolonization left the Kurds and their national aspirations stateless, divided between four artificially constructed Middle Eastern nation-states and among a dozen surrounding ethnic/religious communities. With the Cold War overlay and global contention between the Soviet bloc and the “Free World,” the Kurds had a brief few decades when they sought to choose between socialism or barbarism instead of competing imperialisms. Virtually every Kurdish political formation claimed to be socialist at minimum or Marxist-Leninist in full, with several dozen conflicting Kurdish political parties divided territorially, ideologically, and by tribe/clan, thus generating a highly fractious nationalist politics. I don’t have the space to discuss this complexity other than to note that when Soviet-style Communism collapsed internationally between 1989 and 1991, the US was left the victor and sole superpower. The Kurds reoriented themselves to seeking alliances with and aid from the US, which has repeatedly proven to be a mistake.

The US has blatantly used the Kurds and their nationalist ambitions for short-term American imperialist gain time and again, betraying them without a second thought whenever it was convenient. Through the CIA, the Nixon Administration fomented a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein as a favor to the shah of Iran in 1975 which Henry Kissinger then betrayed. In 1991, George H.W. Bush personally encouraged the southern Shia and northern Kurds of Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein, only to balk at militarily aiding those rebellions, leaving the Shiite and Kurdish insurgents to be brutally crushed by the Ba’athist dictatorship. Kurdish autonomy and the Kurdistan Regional Government that emerged thereafter were more honored in the breach than the observance by the US, establishing a de facto Kurdish independence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That autonomy was compromised after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 as the central Iraqi government, backed by Iran, rolled back agreements on power sharing, oil production, and territorial control with the Kurds. The 2011 collapse of Syria into civil war, and the subsequent rise of IS with its 2014 Northern Iraq offensive were followed by the battles for Kirkuk and Mosul, the consolidation of Kurdish power in northern Syria, and the Kurdish defeat of IS in both Iraq and Syria. The US aided this Kurdish military resurgence, but now Trump and the US threaten to betray America’s Kurdish allies once again by a precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria.

The Kurds see the US as the political and military guarantor of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, and now in northern Syria, where Rojava is carrying out a profound libertarian socialist experiment in self-government. But the US is a notoriously unreliable partner, first and foremost because America always pursues its own imperialist interests in the region. Second, the US consistently promotes the interests of regional client states like Israel and Egypt and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US being the principal imperialist power remaining in the world means that support for the Kurds and Rojava is a complicated affair, especially for the left of the Left.

“Syria In Brief” is an internet project [syriainbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leftist-groups-on-the-syrian-civil-war/] which summarizes the position of some fifty-four western Leftist groups, all of which “support secularism and socialism […] and oppose intervention by Western powers, but their attitudes towards the Assad regime, the Kurdish PYD/YPG-led Rojava, the vast and multi-colored opposition,” Russian intervention, “and the so-called Islamic State vary greatly.” For the anti-imperialist Leninist Left disparagingly called “Tankies,” those politics are rigid, vulgar and formulaic. Imperialism is categorically bad and US imperialism is particularly bad, so the Butcher of Damascus Assad and his Russian allies are to be supported at all costs. Thus Tankie anti-imperialism means defending the client Syrian state of the former “real existing socialist” state of Russia without fail. By contrast, virtually all of the left communist and left anarchist groups listed—as well as assorted independent Leninists, Trotskyists and Maoists—support the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria/Rojava, the PYD/YPG/SDF, and their libertarian socialist experiment on the ground. Many also critically or partially support the Free Syrian Army in particular and the Syrian opposition generally.

But how to square the circle and support the Kurds without endorsing US imperialism? The short answer is that it can’t be done. An open letter in the New York Review of Books from the Emergency Committee for Rojava on 4-23-18 called for the defense of Rojava by demanding the US government:

  • impose economic and political sanctions on Turkey’s leadership;
  • embargo sales and delivery of weapons from NATO countries to Turkey;
  • insist upon Rojava’s representation in Syrian peace negotiations;
  • continue military support for the SDF.

David Graeber signed the letter, along with Noam Chomsky, Debbie Bookchin and scores of others. Much as the anarchist Peter Kropotkin provisionally supported the Allied cause in the first World War by signing the Manifesto of the Sixteen, the left of the Left today cannot easily back the Kurds of Rojava without tacitly supporting American imperialism. But the crude support for Assad, the Syrian government, and their Russian backers by “sundry ersatz progressives” and “fatuous self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’” means supporting “the genocide and democracide now being planned over in Ankara” and complicity with “the torture, abductions, killings and ethnic cleansing of Kurds that will follow,” according to Anna-Sara Malmgren and Robert Hockett (Haaretz, 2-2-19).

Welcome to Machiavellian realpolitik.

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Neither Anarchistan nor Anarchyland: “What’s Left?” June 2015, MRR #385

In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.

Loren Goldner, “Didn’t See The Same Movie”

Hooligan Rule #3: The purer the anarchism in theory, the less effective in practice.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I tend to regularly take the piss out of anarchism when I write about it. I spent one column making fun of anarchist goofiness in being simultaneously uncritically inclusive and hypercritically sectarian. Then, after taking on and failing at the Sisyphean task of defining the locus of historical agency, I concluded by proclaiming anarchism a historical failure utterly lacking in agency. And just last column, I made snide comments about the anarcho/ultra milieu’s tendency to push purity over pragmatism with regard to current events in Greece and Kurdistan. Far as I’m concerned, most anarchists are still playing tiddlywinks.

It’s too easy to make fun of anarchism. And while I’m not about to stop, I do want to develop a useful metric for the effectiveness of anarchism. Hence, the above rule of thumb. Here, it’s worth requoting the relevant passages by Max Boot from his book Invisible Armies:

Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

To the utter defeat of anarchism in Ukraine (1918-21) and Spain (1936-39) must be added the failure of anarchism in the Mexican revolution (1910-20). Of these three major revolutions explicitly inspired by anarchism, or having substantial anarchist participation, none went beyond the stage of anarchist revolution into creating a long term anarchist society. All three were defeated militarily during the civil wars that followed the start of each revolution, with Ukraine’s Makhnovshchina liquidated by the Bolsheviks, Spanish anarchism undermined by Leninists, socialists and liberals before being eliminated by Franco’s fascists, and Mexico’s original Zapatistas crushed by the socialist/corporatist precursors to the PRI. That’s 0 for 3, out of the three most heavyweight revolutions of the twentieth century. But we’re not keeping sports scores here. We’re talking about history and tens of thousands of lives lost and societies dramatically altered. Again, it’s absurd to prevaricate by contending that anarchism is only a failure to date. That anarchism’s time is still to come. If anarchism cannot manage to establish itself despite having the solid majority of the working classes as well as a popular revolutionary upsurge behind it, it’s time to admit the most severe conclusion of my rule of thumb. Anarchism in its purest, most historically pertinent form has been a complete washout.

Which is too bad because the daily practice, organizational forms, and valiant struggles displayed in explicit anarchist revolutions have been truly inspiring. What’s more, most of the pivotal revolutionary moments in history have been, at the very least, implicitly anarchist and, together with their explicit siblings, constitute the category of social revolution. Such revolutionary uprisings are broad based, popular, spontaneous, organized from the bottom up, intent on overthrowing existing class and power relations, but invariably short-lived. Social revolutions have been myriad, some flash-in-the-pan and others persistent, but only an abbreviated list can be provided here. (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.) Let’s spend a bit more time further delineating types of revolutions.

The initial February 1917 revolution was nothing less than a spontaneous mass uprising of the majority of workers and peasants across the Russian empire which overthrew the Czarist ancien regime. Inspired by Western European liberalism, the February revolution was not of any single political persuasion. Popular self-activity and self-organization from the base up characterized Russian revolutionary society at that time. This was not just a matter of dual power—where the formal liberal Kerensky government paralleled an antagonistic, informal socialist government of the soviets—but one of a multi-valent revolutionary situation where power resided on numerous levels—like the factory committees—and eventually in various regions—like the Makhnovist controlled Ukraine and the SR-dominated Tambov region. When the Bolshevik organized Red Guard overthrew Kerensky’s government and disbanded the multi-party Constituent Assembly in what has been termed the October Revolution, Russia’s social revolution waned and the civil war began in earnest.

Many considered this vanguard political revolution a Bolshevik coup de etat. The Bolsheviks called it a socialist revolution. And make no mistake, socialist revolutions leading to Leninist states have been rather successful as revolutions go, far more successful than social revolutions. Explicitly anarchist social revolutions have never succeeded, as I keep repeating. Implicitly anarchist social revolutions have enjoyed a little more success as they are several degrees removed from libertarian purity. The German 1918-19 revolution and civil war brought about the liberal democratic Weimar Republic by default. France May-June 1968 changed an entire generation, especially in Europe, leading to political defeat but cultural victory. And the social unrest in Poland from 1980 through 1989 spearheaded by the Solidarity trade union movement arguably helped bring down the Warsaw Pact and paved the way for Western-style liberal democracy in Communist Poland, even as Solidarity itself was sidelined.

Now consider a couple of variations on my Hooligan rule.

What about a practice that tends toward the anarchistic, promulgated from a decidedly Marxist-Leninist theory? Last column I discussed the situation of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan now, and of Chiapas in Mexico for the past twenty years. In the former, the stridently Leninist PKK/HPG-PYG/YPG have adopted anarchistic communalism and democratic confederalism around which to organize Kurdistan society in liberated territories. In the latter, the post-Maoist EZLN has translated Mayan democratic traditions into “mandar obedeciendo,” the notion of commanding by obeying, which conflates nicely with Mao’s own dictum to “go to the people, learn from the people.” The EZLN further praises Mayan communalism and mutual aid, yet it also fetishizes indigenismo while ignoring capitalist property and social relations and remaining a full-blown, hierarchically organized army. Despite such profound contradictions the EZLN was touted as anti-authoritarian and libertarian by anarchists and left communists the world over when they first emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994. Rojava received a far more critical reception from the left of the Left when it emerged out of the Syrian civil war in 2014. That’s because of the PKK et al’s tortuous authoritarian history and orthodox Leninist party/military structure, which puts the accent on nationalism in national liberation struggles and in no way challenges capitalism, even as it pays lip service to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and calls for the decentralized cantonization of any future Kurdistan. Further, the EZLN’s Chiapas is far more media savvy and social democratic, even liberal, as compared to the PKK’s Rojava. Rather than a variation on my rule then, this is the case of a strict Leninist core practice and rigorous hierarchical political/military command structures allowing for some libertarian wiggle room in the greater society in question.

But what about the idea that aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies, if not tacitly anarchist, were plainly anarchic? “According to this myth, prior to the advent of civilization no one ever had to work, people just plucked their food from the trees and popped it into their mouths and spent the rest of their time playing ring-around-the-rosie with the flower children. Men and women were equal, there was no disease, no competition, no racism, sexism or homophobia, people lived in harmony with the animals and all was love, sharing and cooperation.” So writes the so-called unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his essay “The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism.” Kaczynski then cogently demolishes this myth point by point using anarcho-primitivist and classical anthropological sources. Primitive societies were not examples of anarchism so much as they were of anarchy. The radical decentralization and technological simplicity of aboriginal societies allowed the evils of hierarchy, warfare, competition—if and when they arose—to be contained by scaling them down until they did minimal damage. A primitive tribe might very well be peaceful, communal, and egalitarian, but if not, the fact that a warlike, competitive, hierarchical aboriginal tribe was relatively small and confined to a compact territory meant that any harm done by them would be severely limited. The anarchy of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies was not conscious anarchism by any stretch of the imagination. As such, something as simple as the proliferation of agriculture which ushered in the neolithic age rapidly subverted paleolithic anarchy by allowing agricultural surpluses to accumulate, upon which state structures and class societies were then eventually organized.

Now, a note on left communism. Left communism can be viewed as political accretion based on a progressive sloughing off from the Leninist Left. First there was the contentious political relationship between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, followed by the disaffection of Trotsky and Bukharin on the left in the Bolshevik party. Various Left fractions in the Bolshevik party attempted reform from within, most significantly Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. Finally, leftist tendencies congealed against the Bolsheviks in the Third International, on the one hand the council communism of the Dutch and German Left as represented by Pannekoek, Ruhle, and Gorter and on the other hand Bordiga’s ultra-party communism on the Italian Left. Social revolutions are sine qua non for left communists, which laud them in principle while often being highly critical of specific instances. The need to shorten, if not entirely eliminate the transition to true communism, is the objective of much of left communism.

Between the first and second World Wars, mass movements of workers and peasants were dominated primarily by Marxism and Leninism, and secondarily by various types of anarchism. Left communism ran a distant third, without much of a mass base to speak of. Yet anarchists and left communists frequently found themselves allied against social democrats and Leninists, and for unfettered social revolution. The POUM’s alliance on the barricades with the CNT/FAI during the 1937 Barcelona May Days during the Spanish civil war, as well as the anarchist/left communist blend exemplified by the Friends of Durruti, clearly made them political bedfellows. This affiliation continued with the roller coaster fall-and-rise of anarchist and left communist political fortunes from 1945 on, and today I talk about the anarcho/ultra anti-authoritarian milieu as an overarching category. Of course, there are differences. We’ll leave a discussion of that for a future column.

As for Hooligan Rules #1 and #2? Those too require more space than I have at the moment. Did you hear the one about the anarchist, the Marxist, and the rabbi who walk into a bar? The bartender says: “What is this, a joke?”

Voting and rioting: “What’s Left?” May 2015, MRR #384

Was it a millionaire who said “Imagine no possessions?”

Elvis Costello, “The Other Side Of Summer”

I vote.

In admitting this, I always feel like someone undead confessing my vampiric tendencies, only to be met by torch-wielding mobs waving silver crucifixes, er, circle a’s, hoping to ward off evil, um, political incorrectness. That’s how many in the anarcho/ultra milieu view any admission of electoral participation, as if merely by punching a ballot for five minutes I actively affirm the entire bourgeois edifice of capitalism and the state and all that is heinous about our society today. Those who employ this reductio ad absurdum argument would brand me a class traitor for simply casting a vote every two years.

As a détourned bumper sticker I once saw expressed it, I riot and I vote. I do less and less rioting the older I get, but that’s a different matter. More precisely I organize, I protest, I act, I demonstrate, I resist, I give money, I rebel, I back unions, I riot, and I vote. Way too long for your average bumper sticker message. I engage in, support, and appreciate a wide variety of political activity in the course of any given day. I don’t consider all political activity equal, either in commission or experience. I rank direct action above voting as I would favor social revolution over streetfighting. But I prefer doing something over doing nothing.

Last column, I made the case for critical support for the military advances of Rojava in western Kurdistan and for the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece. Last June, I talked about stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embracing the idea of “see something, leak something.” All of these issues are decidedly reformist, but I haven’t suddenly forsaken revolution for reformism. “Can we counterpose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms?” Rosa Luxemburg once famously asked in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution. “Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class struggle and working in the direction of the final goal—the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. For Socialist Democracy, there is an indissoluble tie between social reforms and revolution. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its goal.”

I offer up Luxemburg’s quote to short-circuit the usual bullshit political runaround about the relationship between reform and revolution. We’re told either to accept the “lesser of two evils” or to demand “all or nothing at all.” We’re told either to be reasonable in our demands, or to demand nothing and seize everything. The full social dialectic between reform and revolution is belittled by such simplicities. A few days before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X visited Selma, Alabama, and spoke in secret with Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job more difficult,” Malcolm is supposed to have said to Coretta about Martin. “But I thought that if the White people understood what the alternative was that they would be more inclined to listen to your husband. And so that’s why I came.” The dynamic relationship between reform and revolution cuts both ways.

This discussion of reform and revolution flows easily into the related discussion of tactics and strategy. Occupy Wall Street introduced issues that Occupy Oakland brought to a crescendo with respect to the debate between nonviolence and what has been called a “diversity of tactics.” Unlike the tactical rigidity of traditional nonviolence however, the anarcho/ultra milieu’s effusive embrace of a “diversity of tactics” is not for tactical flexibility, but rather a glorification of tactics without strategy, a justification of fucking shit up for the sake of fucking shit up. Again, I don’t fuck shit up nearly as much as I used to, but that’s not the point. The absolutism embedded in the latter’s insurrectionism and communization, no less than the moralism inherent in the former’s pacifism, are inimical to forging winning strategies for social change. And frankly, I find it as tiresome arguing in the abstract against the supposed counterrevolutionary reformism of electoral participation or union involvement as I do in countering the histrionic, emotional outrage over the wrongs and evils of coercive violence. I mean, isn’t it middle-class, suburban white kids with everything who are always talking about “Demand nothing?”

People forget that the point is to win. Not by any means necessary, but by means sufficient to achieve victory and by means commensurate with the ends desired. No more “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” as is ubiquitous in the anarcho/ultra milieu, and no more “destroying the village in order to save the village” as is the practice of the authoritarian Leninist Left. No more beautiful losers, and no more one-party totalitarian states disingenuously called socialism. As much as I want principles to align with pragmatism, I’d rather be pragmatic over being principled, if I had to choose.

Plus, I like focusing on the practical every now and again as a welcome addition to my usual mashup of theory, history, news, reviews, commentary, and tirade. After twenty-four years and some two hundred and fifty odd columns, I frequently repeat myself. Too often, I struggle to say the same old shit in slightly different ways. I still manage to raise some controversy and an occasional stink. Unfortunately, it’s rarely in the letters-to-the-editor pages of this magazine, and almost entirely on the intrawebz.

This month, another old-time columnist bites the dust. I’m the only OG columnist left who got my benediction direct from Tim Yo himself. Without going into details (and since no one asked my opinion) all I’ll say is that there’s a difference between being an asshole punk rocker and being an asshole to your fellow punk rockers. I’ll leave it at that.

Next column, fifty shades of anarchy.

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