Tankies, but no Tankies: “What’s Left?” June 2017, MRR #409


My friend’s a tankie.

A tankie is someone who supported the old Soviet Union when it was around, and still supports existing “socialist” states like China and Vietnam, their client states like Nepal and North Korea, or their affiliate states like Serbia and Syria. Tankies are usually Communist Party Stalinist hardliners, apologists, fellow travelers, or sympathizers. They back the military interventions of Soviet-style states, defend such regimes from charges of human rights violations, and desire to create similar political systems in countries like Britain and the United States.

It’s more accurate to say an acquaintance I knew from way back when wants to “friend” me on FB, and I’m not sure I want to accept the request because he’s a tankie.

My friend Garrett was originally a fellow New Leftie when we met at Ventura Community College in 1970. He was a member of New American Movement, an organization founded to succeed Students for a Democratic Society. NAM was structurally decentralized, politically quasi-Leninist, equal parts democratic socialist and socialist feminist, with a special interest in Antonio Gramsci. Garrett was an assistant professor who, when the voting age was reduced to 18, organized a bunch of us under-21 antiwar youngsters to run for Ventura city council and school board.

When I went off to UCSC as an undergraduate junior transfer in 1972, Garrett got a teaching gig at UCB. I visited him a few times in Berkeley while he was an associate professor. It was the height of ideological battles and street fights between Revolutionary Union Maoists, Draperite Trotskyists, Black Panther Party cadre, et al, in Berkeley from 1972 to 1975. Ostensibly, Garrett taught courses on neo-Marxism—covering thinkers like Lukács, Marcuse, Gorz, and Kołakowski—but he was a hardcore Trotskyist by then. I didn’t know which of the 57 varieties of Trot he subscribed to by the time I moved with my girlfriend down to San Diego to attend graduate school at UCSD in 1976. But when I visited Berkeley in 1979 after that girlfriend and I broke up Garrett had gone off the deep end. He’d been relieved of his professorship under mysterious circumstances, lived in a loose Psychic Institute house in south Berkeley, avidly followed Lyndon LaRouche’s US Labor Party, and was obsessed with Joseph Newman’s perpetual motion machines. I was told a particularly bad acid trip accounted for the changes. Garrett sent me a copy of the headline from the Spartacist League’s party paper in the summer of 1980, soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which read: “Hail Red Army!”

I had almost no contact with Garrett for the next thirty-seven years. I moved to the Bay Area in 1991 and briefly glimpsed a bedraggled Garrett walking along the sidewalk while I drank coffee at the old Cody’s Bookstore glassed-in cafe sometime around 1993. I asked after him whenever I came across Trotskyists—SWP, ISO, BT—tabling at events, but most had no idea who I was talking about and those who did avoided my eyes. One day in early 2002 I ran into a familiar face from Ventura’s anti-war movement, a woman named Carlin, who said Garrett had moved to Chicago, where he was now a day trader. And that’s how matters stood until I got Garrett’s friend request on my FB profile fifteen years later.

I could only suss out so much from Garrett’s FB wall without actually confirming his friend request. His profile picture was conservative enough—his bearded visage in a suit and tie—but his cover photo was of a pro-Russian poster from East Ukraine done in a Soviet socialist realist style with armed partisan soldiers circa 1918, 1941, and 2014 captioned in cyrillic which translated into “The fate of the Russian people, to repeat the feats of fathers: defend their native land.” There was a pro-China post calling the Dalai Lama a CIA agent, and a pro-Russian post supporting Assad as Syria’s only chance for peace. A meme proclaimed “Hands Off North Korea” with a smiling, waving image of Kim Jong Un, while another meme featured a slideshow of neoconservative talking heads under the banner “Children of Satan.” There was a link to a video decrying Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians, and another to a weird video featuring Putin and Trump dancing to The Beatles “Back in the USSR.” His FB info confirmed that he resided in Chicago and dabbled in stock market trading, and when I googled him I learned that Garrett had once been arrested and spent time in prison. But I learned nothing about the charges, the sentence, or the time served, only that he had made several failed attempts to void the conviction through habeas corpus filings.

His criminal past was no problem. His tankie tendencies were.

We acquire our friends throughout our life, from where we live and work to begin with, but then from communities of shared interest and activity. The former are friends by circumstance, and the latter friends by choice, or so we tell ourselves. The fact is it’s far more complicated. For much of my life I made friends at work, school, or where I lived, allowing the context of my life at the moment to determine who my friends were. As a consequence I made friends who were frequently racist, sexist, homophobic, or completely lacking in political sensibilities, if not outright conservative. But when I consciously engaged in political association and activity, I also let the circumstance of my politics determine who I befriended. So while I made much of belonging to anarchist affinity groups where I shared political theory and practice with people I considered friends, ultimately my political engagements determined who I associated with and befriended. Such people might share my politics, and might not be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, or what have you, but they were often cruel or stupid or angry or lacking in empathy. Indeed, given that the political fringes are overwhelmingly populated by individuals who are socially lacking and psychologically damaged, my pool of potential friends had serious problems from the beginning.

Because of our propensity to make friends based on the context we find ourselves in, that old aphorism about “choosing one’s friends wisely” seldom applies, especially when we realize that we rarely know anybody very well and that people are constantly changing. I might not consciously decide to befriend the rabid Maoist whose bloodthirsty calls to “liquidate the bourgeoisie” or “eliminate the Zionist entity” irk me no end, but I might also start to admire and have affinity for him as we work together politically. And stories of political adversaries who become fast friends despite, or perhaps because of their battles with each other are legion. The mechanisms of how we become friends might be somewhat capricious, but surely we can decide whether to remain friends once we’ve become buddy-buddy?

Let’s take an extreme example to make the resulting conflicts obvious.

I once had a passing acquaintance with crypto-fascist Boyd Rice. My loose affinity group of anarchist friends in San Diego put out four issues of a single sheet broadside style 11×17 @ zine called “yada, yada, yada” circa 1979. One of the issues was called the “dada yada” because its theme was surrealism and dadaism, and it involved one of our group, Sven, collaborating with Boyd Rice and Steve Hitchcock to produce. The rest of our affinity didn’t contribute to or much approve of the project, although I did meet Boyd and attended a performance of an early version of his band NON with him playing rotoguitar. I was disturbed by the fascist imagery and symbolism so prominent in the industrial subculture of the day, in which Boyd seemed to revel. But when I argued with Sven against his association with Boyd, he argued back that you should never end a friendship simply over political differences. This was before Boyd Rice augmented his fascist flirtations with a virulently racist social Darwinism and an involvement in Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan. Whenever people ask me whether Boyd and I were ever friends, I assure them I wasn’t.

I should have realized that the position that one’s personal affection for an individual trumps whatever political conflicts exist is just a roundabout way of saying “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” And when we fail to point out the sin to the sinner, we are in danger of becoming complicit in defending the sinner’s sin by being silent about it. Few of us are brave or honest enough to tell our friends exactly what we think of them, often because we don’t want to lose their friendship, go out on an emotional limb, or do something personally uncomfortable. So we do a disservice to those victims of racism or fascism when we make excuses for our friends, when we treat their racism or fascism as merely “points of view” rather than aspects of their behavior with real consequences for real people.

But aren’t we all human beings? None of us are wholly good or purely evil. Individual humans are multifaceted and complex, with good and bad qualities which are frequently combined so deeply together that it’s almost impossible to characterize any one individual as just one thing. Therefore we should give people, especially our racist or fascist friends, the benefit of the doubt because “they are human and have feelings too” and none of them are “bad people.” Actually, we should be glad they’re human because we want them to suffer when we take away their power to act on their racism and fascism. We want them to suffer because change means suffering. But if we’re not willing to confront our racist and fascist friends, if we’re unwilling to challenge the power behind their racist or fascist behavior no matter how casual or flip, perhaps it’s time to stop being their friends.

I was familiar with anarchist/libertarian crossover politics, but the Boyd Rice incident was the first time I encountered Left/Right crossover politics as part of punk, itself rife with “transgressive” countercultural crossovers. I hadn’t been aware of the original dada/surrealist crossover, with Evola and Dali trending ultraright and Buñuel and Breton trending ultraleft. Left/Right crossover politics seem to be the idiocy de jour however, with everything from National Anarchism to Steve Bannon calling himself a Leninist. I’m afraid that Garrett’s pro-Assad, pro-Kim Jong Un, pro-Putin tankie politics have much the same flavor, an implicit Red/Brown crossover with allusions to LaRouche and blood libel.

I think I’ll pass on Garrett’s friend request.

Belated Schrödingerized Election Analysis: “What’s Left?” February 2017, MRR #405

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[I finish a column by the 5th of the first month. My column is laid out in InDesign and sent off to the printer digitally at the end of that first month. The print issue of the magazine is delivered to MRR HQ by the first week of the second month in this process, with a date of the third month on the cover. At a minimum, there’s a month and half delay between when I finish my column and when the issue in question hits the newsstands at the beginning of the third month.]

I started my self-publishing career writing, typing, and mimeographing an underground newspaper with a group of friends during my high school senior year—spring of 1970. We were a ragtag handful of students, more New Left than counterculture, with sympathies for anarchism, Third Worldism, Maoism, and guerrillaism. About the only thing we agreed on was our admiration for and desire to join Students for a Democratic Society, which was ironic because SDS had already crashed-and-burned due to sectarian infighting.

John McConnell, the principal, was a John Bircher who took the opportunity of our first issue to convene an evening presentation in the HS auditorium open to the public on “The Dangers of Communism in Our Schools,” and he used SDS and our newspaper as clear-and-present examples. Of course we were flattered, so we did an adulatory, pro-SDS article in our next issue superimposed on a raised fist graphic, which promptly got us busted not because we published it but because we distributed it on campus. McConnell called me and my parents into his school office where he proceeded to lecture my somewhat bewildered mom and dad about how I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, consorting with seditious characters, and flirting with the red menace. Both my parents, Polish refugees who’d experienced the horrors of the second World War first hand, told him that they had left Europe to get away from people like him and then walked out of the meeting.

Of course, mom and dad argued with me all the way home and through the night against my infantile leftism, naive utopianism, and abstract idealism that the USA to which we’d immigrated was a pretty sweet place to live. In particular I remember from that back-and-forth my dad pointing out that despite all my radical ideas from books and revolutionary examples from history about helping to liberate humanity, I didn’t really do much on a daily basis to make many other individual human lives much better. I remember my parents preparing thoughtful, compact “care packages” to be mailed to our relatives in Poland “behind the Iron Curtain.” Care, Inc, as a refugee relief agency started from the humanitarian disaster that was Europe after the second World War. I still lived at home, so my dad garnished a portion of my spending money for the next year to contribute to Care for African Famine Relief.

It was to teach me a lesson, that an abstract love of humanity should not come detached from loving real live human beings.

I spent the column before last (MRR #402) detailing how various pendulum swings into oppressive conservatism under the GOP resulted in increased misery but not overt fascism as a way of saying that if and when Trump wins it’s not the end of the world. No doubt we’re in for some heavy-duty repression. But Jon Stewart recently quipped regarding Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon as White House strategist: “You know, somebody was saying, ‘There might be an anti-Semite that is working in the White House.’ I was like, have you listened to the Nixon tapes? Like, forget about advising the president – the president. Like, have you read LBJ? Do you know our history?” What I learned from such previous political hard times is that it helps to do what you love to do, plus do a little bit of good in this world, in order to keep your sanity during the present shitstorm. My writing always comforts me, and while charity, mutual aid, or solidarity won’t save the world, it can help individuals—including myself—feel better and maybe even survive. I’m currently looking for somewhere to volunteer, but in the meantime let’s talk about how it all went south.

It felt like a Schrödinger’s cat election from the get go. For you quantum geeks, that’s when it’s yes or no or yes and no at the same time. Take the notion that the United States is a democracy. Out of the total population of the country as of 2016, approximately 28.6% were ineligible to vote due to age, court order, or felony record, and 29.9% of the remaining population simply didn’t vote. That means only 41.5% of the population actually voted, a clear case of minority rule. If we then realize that 19.8% voted for Clinton, 19.5% voted for Trump, and 2.2% voted for third party candidates, that means less than one fifth of the total population decided who would be president this last election. So, is the US a democracy? Yes, no, or maybe yes and no at the same time. Throw in the decidedly undemocratic results of the electoral college and we have to ask if Trump actually won the election? Yes according to the electoral college tally which Trump won by 74 votes and no according to the popular vote which Clinton won by some 2 million votes, further Schrödingerizing the elections.

Michael Moore warned early on that unless the Democrats paid attention to the blue collar, rust belt, American white working class savaged by neoliberalism and deindustrialization, Trump would win them and the election. Nate Silver remained the most conservative pollster throughout the run up to the election, predicting at one point that Clinton had a 60% chance of winning when other polls gave her a 90+% of winning, but also warning that Clinton’s lead remained within 3 percentage points of Trump in his polling algorithms which was well within his “margin of error.” I myself predicted that Clinton’s victory over Trump would be uncomfortably narrow. But then I read that Nate Silver gave both the Cubs and Trump one in four odds of winning, so when the Cubs won the World Series I feared we were in for an upset. For the most part, Trump duplicated Romney’s 2012 election results numerically and demographically, with Romney’s hold on 27 million white male voters shifting from more educated to less educated when it came to Trump in 2016. By contrast, Clinton couldn’t maintain the numbers or the demographics of the Obama coalition’s electoral victories. Her campaign saw a decline of some four million Democratic voters, and lost support among women and minorities and Democratic firewall states, especially the Big Blue Wall rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. It was Clinton’s election to lose, and she did just that.

Yet she also won the popular vote by 2 million votes, which is why I consider this electoral prediction of mine a Schrödinger one.

It was Clinton’s overconfidence that did her in. She was already an unpopular candidate and her hubris generated a corresponding complacency among her followers. She even repeated the same mistake she made in her 2008 run against Obama by not vigorously campaigning in the rust belt states she needed to win to maintain the Democratic Party’s Big Blue Wall in 2016. (Sanders also campaigned energetically in the rust belt states while Clinton kept flying out to California to sequester herself in the private homes of ultra-wealthy donors.) The canard perpetuated by her campaign—that Trump exploited the racism and sexism of the old white male working class to win—was particularly heinous. Trump’s most vociferous supporters were indeed older, white, and male, but they were predominantly small business owners and professionals, not the working class still loyal to a Democratic Party committed to free trade and stripping the country of its industrial base at the expense of American workers. Of the dwindling white working class, poorer rural white workers swung toward Trump while solidly blue collar urban white workers actually swung toward Clinton. Thus the American white working class continued to vote for Clinton and the Democrats, when they bothered to vote at all, despite being betrayed by the anti-worker policies of the Democratic Party. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but she played a lousy strategic game and lost the electoral college. The Republicans continue to control both the US Senate (51/48) and US House of Representatives (240/194). Combine this with Republican control over 33 State governorships and 32 State legislatures (up from 21 governors and 23 legislatures in 2009), and Trump’s promise to nominate conservative Supreme Court justices—what we have is a Republican clean sweep.

Of course, it’s never so monolithic or cut-and-dried. Because of the winner-take-all nature of US electoral politics, the appearance of overwhelming GOP control is belied by Republican fractiousness, and a persistent factionalism only increased by Trump’s own surprising victory. Combine this with the lack of governing experience in Trump’s transition team and I predict that, by the time Trump gets the hang of how to run things in Washington, the 2018 midterm elections will hand the US Senate back to the Democrats. Given the Democrats’ dismal performance to date, I’m tempted to say “Fuck the Democratic Party!” But I’m not at all sure whether the Democratic Party should be abolished, ignored, embraced, reformed, or rebuilt from the bottom up. Nor do I have my old ultraleft confidence that bourgeois political parties or even revolutionary parties have no role to play in bringing about social change, let alone social revolution. The whole issue of electoral politics is highly problematic from a number of perspectives, so I think it best to put aside the Democratic Party in discussing what is to be done in the wake of Trump’s win and the Republican Party’s victories.

What I am certain about is that an active and engaged mass social base is needed in order to take the next step, whether that is forming a progressive, labor, or revolutionary party; building an extra-parliamentary opposition; or attempting radical reforms or even social revolution. The two necessary components to an effective, vibrant mass social base are lively autonomous social movements and independent street politics based on direct action. And crucial to any mass social base with agency in my estimation will be an organized and organizing working class committed to direct action in the streets. Combine these two components, and true social power begins. I can endlessly debate the need for extra-parliamentary politics; what is absolutely necessary are broad, non-parliamentary social movements in the streets.

In order to challenge, combat, and eventually overthrow our society’s reactionary, autarchic government, we need to cultivate an independent, autonomous, rebellious social base. Maximize the potential for self-activity and self-organization at the base and you maximize the possibility for self-emancipatory politics to arise. In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs argued that action precedes consciousness. Or to flip Funkadelic’s famous album title: “Move your ass and your mind will follow.”

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