Political upsurge vs ideological decay: “What’s Left?” August 2018, MRR #423

Metaphors are powerful. Metaphors are poetry disguised as prose. People who use metaphors claim they’re a shortcut to truth and meaning.

Last month I used the biological metaphor of species complex to tease out additional structure and definition of the usual Left/Right political compass. In the process I promised to cover various social contexts in given historical periods that illustrate increased Left/Right political conversions and crossovers but instead managed to drop yet another metaphor by using Mao’s metaphor with politics and war. From the 1960s war on poverty and the 1970s war on drugs to the 21st century wars on terrorism and the truth, the metaphor of war has been much used and abused. Instead, I’ll use another metaphor from Mao to “put politics in command” in coming to terms with political change, conversion, and crossover socially and historically. In the process, I will renege on my previous promise by severely limiting the scope of this inquiry to the rise of and interplay between the New Left and the New Right.

Karl Marx wrote “[c]onstant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” in arguing that the French 1789 Revolution was the first bourgeois revolution of the capitalist era. The notion that capitalism was born of revolution and continues through constant revolution—economically, politically, and socially—has been challenged by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Robert Brenner who trace its origins back to the “peaceful” agriculture revolution of England in the 1700s. Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, in turn, trace the kernel of capitalism all the way back to 1250 and the Mediterranean Venetian/Genoese commercial empires. But while capitalism’s genesis and initial features are in dispute, the constantly replicating, ever expanding, relentlessly revolutionizing reality of capitalism—from its embryonic beginnings to the present world capitalist system—is not.

Today, we live in an all-encompassing capitalist world. But socialism in one form or another arose to oppose capitalism roughly from 1820 onwards, with the concerted Communist challenge lasting from 1917 to 1991. The division of the world into two contending camps—capitalist vs socialist—was problematic all along. The left of the Left argued that social democracy was only state liberalism, that Leninism was merely state capitalism, and that both were not actual alternatives to capitalism. Further, a non-aligned movement of countries arose after the second World War to challenge the notion of a bipolar either/or world based on two competing power blocs. By the 1960s the rise of the New Left joined divisions on the Left, splits within socialism, and non-capitalist/non-Marxist options vying for recognition.

The seemingly intractable Cold War standoff between “the Free World” (which wasn’t free) and “the Communist Bloc” (which wasn’t communist) allowed a New Left to effloresce worldwide. In the United States, white college students of liberal, radical, and sometimes Marxist political bent formed organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The New Left was directly powered by the motors of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and ran in dual-engine-mode alongside the hippie youth counterculture throughout the 1960s. It had no unified intent—whether criticizing orthodox Marxist and labor union movements, furthering and revitalizing the Left’s historic goals, or creating an entirely novel, unique Left—but its vitality and energy generated a plethora of corollary social movements, from the Black, women’s and gay movements to various Third World solidarity movements and the ecology movement. Anarchism revived from the dead, Trotskyism came in from the fringes, and Maoism found prominence via the New Communist Movement. 

Forming, changing, revising, or reversing one’s politics in those heady days when political boundaries were rapidly expanding and highly fluid—or non-existent—was common, and often meant rapid-fire crossovers or conversions. Last column I mentioned Murray Bookchin who started out as a Stalinist, became a Trotskyist, and ended up an influential anarchist communist. More telling was the political journey of Karl Hess. As Barry Goldwater’s speech writer in 1964, he was widely credited for the famous Goldwater line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Eventually he became a left anarchist, joined SDS and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), championed back-to-the-land and intentional urban communities, and promoted appropriate technologies and left-right libertarian unity.

The New Left reached its pinnacle in 1968, which Mark Kurlansky rightly called “the year that rocked the world.” “To some, 1968 was the year of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Yet it was also the year of the Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; Prague Spring; the antiwar movement and the Tet Offensive; Black Power; the generation gap; avant-garde theater; the upsurge of the women’s movement; and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.” To this add the student/worker uprising in Paris of May/June, 1968. But 1968 simultaneously witnessed the failure of the New Left, starting with the collapse of SDS itself. For all the hype that Paris 1968 was a near-revolution inspired by the Situationists, Mouvement Communiste points out that for the most part French workers passed on the rioting to sit passively watching their TVs in a vindication of the persuasive Madison Avenue power of the Spectacle.

The recuperative powers of capitalism proved far greater. The cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s were often profoundly individualistic, even libertine, something that capitalism easily coopted. This was something more than that 1968’s rebellious youth “had lost politically but they had won culturally and maybe even spiritually.” (John Lichfield; “Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité!: Paris, May 1968,” The Independent, 9/23/08) “[S]ince 1968, the West had grown not only more prosperous but more sybaritic and self-absorbed” as a consequence of the New Left’s cultural successes. “The ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed is good ethos and our materialistic individualism might just have had their roots 40 years back.” (Geoffrey Wheatcroft; “It was fun, but 1968’s legacy was mixed,” Guardian Weekly, 9/5/08) The year 1968 may have changed the world, but after “the revolution that wasn’t,” most everybody went back to their normal lives and conventional jobs.

Finally comes the power of out-and-out reaction, starting with Nixon and culminating with the neoliberalism of Reagan and Thatcher. It’s not by coincidence that the neofascist Ordre Noveau and the New Right Groupement de recherche et d’études pour la civilisation européenne (GRECE) emerged in France in 1968. The latter, founded by Alain de Benoist, demonstrated what Kevin Coogan wrote in Dreamer of the Day that: “periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the ‘Red-Brown alliance’ in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of ‘left’ and ‘right’.” And make no mistake, the 1970s and 1980s were a period of profound ideological decay.

The Right retrenched and regrouped after 1968, not only halting the surge of the Left—both Old and New—but eventually gaining unquestioned ascendence while presiding over the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the dispersal of the political Left, and the contraction of the labor movement. The European New Right (nouvelle droite/ENR) was minuscule compared to the rest of the Right however, and it certainly was microscopic compared to the New Left to which de Benoist grandiosely juxtoposed his efforts. While the 1960s were a worldwide political and cultural phenomenon, de Benoist fantasized about the “metapolitics” of “culture wars” and “right-wing Gramscianism.” To Fascism’s organic hierarchies, militarism, anti-egalitarianism, and elitism, de Benoist tacked on a faux revolutionary élan, “the right to difference,” and a Europe of a hundred ethnic flags, then called it all groundbreaking. It was his claim to a sui generis fascism-by-euphemism in the ENR that succeeded in seducing the by-then jaded American New Left academic journal Telos.

Telos started publishing in May, 1968, and was committed to non-conformist critical political theory, analyzing all manner of neo-Marxist, anarchist, New Left, and Frankfurt School debates. But by the early 1990s, with the sorry state of “real existing socialism” and the disappointments engendered by its failures—or worse—its successes, coupled to the Left’s need for intellectual schema plus its desire for the “next big thing” in the form of new political paradigms, the disillusioned neo-Marxists and anarchists of Telos jumped at the chance of engaging with the ENR in debating de Benoist’s bright shiny bullshit. The discussion was initiated enthusiastically by the ENR and fueled by an American anti-intellectual populism, resulting in an ENR-Telos rapprochement by 1999. Telos became the most prominent crossover to the dark side, switching from once vigorous New Left to ever necrotic New Right.

In times of radical social change, political change is vibrant and vital. In times of reactionary social decay, political change is deformed and grotesque.

[This analysis of the ENR-Telos political dance owes much to Tamir Bar-on’s Where have all the fascists gone?]

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No apology necessary (or offered): “What’s Left?” December 2014, MRR #379

THE LEFT BEHIND LEFT

We have met the enemy and he is us.

Pogo (Walt Kelly), comic strip

We called it “The System” back in the day. After I got politics in 1968, I considered capitalism and the State equally destructive of human individuality and community, and that working people would be able to overthrow both to bring about socialism. My world view didn’t change much as I evolved from anarchism to left communism over the decades that followed. I identified the working class as the social class with the revolutionary agency to overthrow capitalism and the State and realize communism, a bit more nuanced than the political debates of the 60s where Marxists argued that capitalism was the principle enemy while anarchists argued that it was the State.

Things got a whole lot more complicated in the 70s, 80s, and beyond. The New Left splintered into the New Communist Movement, various nationalist movements, the women’s movement, the gay movement, et al, even as we pretended that a bunch of ineffective little groupings amounted to one big ineffectual Movement. Alternative analyses arose where patriarchy was the enemy and women the revolutionary agent, or white supremacy was the enemy and people of color the revolutionary agent, and so on. Eventually, it became necessary to define The System, after bell hooks, as the “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” enemy; a rather clunky accumulation of oppressions that did little to advance any kind of radical struggle other than to appease various and sundry wannabe revolutionaries.

I will take on the issue of revolutionary agency, as well as of the realistic capacities of any such agency, in a future column. For now, it should be clear that the implied parity between forms of oppression entailed by the phrase The “white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, capitalist, imperialist, statist” System is bullshit. Every group in radical circles singles out one form of oppression as primary, with all others consigned to secondary status. Radical people of color and their allies see white supremacy as THE enemy. Radical feminists and their allies contend that patriarchy is THE enemy. And so it goes. Such was the case when Marxists argued that capitalism was THE enemy, or when anarchists proclaimed that the State was THE enemy.

I’m happy to discuss and debate which form of oppression is paramount, even to argue whether all are equally valid, and learn from or adjust my analysis accordingly. Unfortunately, the quality of discussion and debate in this sad excuse for a Movement is abysmal. I’m not sure whether it is merely dogmatism and sectarianism run rampant, or the consequence of postmodernism’s effects on our capacity for critical thinking and dialogue, but reason and analysis seem to be in short supply whereas rational study and articulate argument have become lost arts. I won’t go into all the gory details of my latest run-in with internecine anarchist idiocy. You can google that for yourself. For the record, I’m utterly disdainful of the thoroughly isolated, completely fragmented, pathetic joke of a so-called Movement. Nowadays, I no longer claim anything left of the Left, although my sympathies remain gauchist. Instead, lets discuss two general topics of interest.

THE MYTH OF FACT CHECKING

Memory is a motherfucker.

Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist

This is one of my favorite quotes. Ayers makes the point that many of the memories he claims are fact or true are actually not that at all, but are based on recollections fogged by time, as well as a “blurring of details” where “[m]ost names and places have been changed, many identities altered, and the fingerprints wiped away.” There is plenty of scientific evidence for the unreliability of personal memory and eyewitness testimony. This plus my experience with writing and reading history, where there are invariably numerous versions of the same historical narrative, has made me cynical of words like “fact” and “truth.” I won’t go so far as Nietzsche’s famous quote that “there are no facts, only interpretations,” but I will argue that there are no facts, only evidence for facts. The only way we can establish a fact, or for that matter a truth, is through verifiable, empirical evidence for that fact or truth.

Fact checking then is not a matter of tallying up the facts, but of compiling and weighing the evidence for the facts. In my experience, two things often stand in the way of honest fact checking when it comes to current events. First, there are plenty of people claiming that “they were there” at any given notorious incident, whether or not they actually were. And second, of those individuals who come forth and claim to be present when such incidents take place, most are decidedly less than forthcoming about the what, when, where and how of their supposed eyewitness experiences despite their willingness to loudly pass judgment on the why.

As for history, I wasn’t around for either the Russian revolution or the Spanish civil war. Yet I’ve scoured all the available history and primary sources, the evidence if you will, for the facts and lessons to be drawn from these historical events. In the process, I’ve noticed that new evidence is always being discovered, and thus new facts are being determined, and new histories are being written.

DUALISM VS DIALECTIC

When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him.

Shunryu Suzuki, “No Dualism,” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.

Tom Waits, “Heartattack and Vine”

Finally, there is the tendency to reduce everything to a Manichean good vs evil view of the world, inherited from our Judeo-Christian society. Marx made it clear that capitalism is a system of exploitation and oppression, but also an all encompassing social relationship in which both capitalists and workers are intimately involved. Capitalist and worker are both oppressed by capitalism, although by no means equally so. Thus, Marx was against vulgar Marxists who label capitalists as purely evil and workers as entirely good. White supremacy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that white people are evil and people of color are good. Patriarchy is a form of oppression, which does not mean that men are evil and women are good.

Even the penchant for naming an enemy is problematic. To do so is to suggest an evil that must be countered by the good. I have been sitting zazen for the past three plus years, trying to wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of non duality. Non duality seems the perfect antidote to good vs evil thinking, except that it propounds paradox at every turn. Strive for non-striving, let go of letting go, achieve non-achievement; Buddhism is chock full of such paradoxes. These are consciously enigmatic contradictions akin to the famous koans of Zen Buddhism’s Rinzai school, meant not to supply answers but to provoke enlightenment. Combine that with Buddhism’s own recent demonstration of good vs evil dualistic behavior, illustrated by the murderous agitation of rabidly anti-Muslim Buddhist monks like U Wirathu and Galagodaatte Gnanasara, and we’re back in the thick of this world’s shit.

WHAT’S LEFT?

Nobody bickers, nobody stalls or debates or splinters.

John Sayles, “At the Anarchists’ Convention”

In John Sayles’ piquant short story, “At the Anarchists’ Convention,” cantankerous personal squabbling and bitter political sectarianism among the scruffy convention participants are momentarily set aside when all in attendance unite against a hotel manager who tries to kick the Convention out of its rented room due to double booking. This whimsical tale ends when the convention of geriatric has-been red-flag wavers dedicated to lost causes erect a barricade, stand together, link arms, and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

The notion that The Movement is something we should rally around against a common enemy reeks of just such sentimentality and nostalgia. That this degenerate offspring of what was called The Left is all but worthless goes without saying.

So, call me a fascist or a racist, or label my thinking white supremacist or Eurocentric. I write my columns knowing full well that some people will dismiss what I say as defensive, abstract, condescending, or self-serving. For those of you who consider me an anachronistic, eccentric old school commie, here’s my upraised middle finger.

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