I have big problems with the black bloc but this reminds me why I grew to admire the anarchist movement for its refusal to fall into the “Marxist” geopolitical chess game mode of thinking.
I have big problems with the black bloc but this reminds me why I grew to admire the anarchist movement for its refusal to fall into the “Marxist” geopolitical chess game mode of thinking.
Encounters with David Graeber, George Ciccariello-Maher, and Shon Meckfessel on social media reminded me that the black bloc does have its fans in the academy. As might be expected, the three professors are anarchists. Over the past five years I have developed a deep respect for anarchism’s refusal to line up with the “anti-imperialist” pro-Assad mindset of so many Marxists and especially for the late Omar Aziz, who Leila al-Shami, the co-author of “Burning Country”, commemorated on Tahrir-ICN:
Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus. The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.
Al-Shami followed these words that ones that relate more directly to the problems I have with the infantile ultraleftism that has cropped up since January 20th and expressed particularly by the viral Youtube clip of Richard Spencer getting punched and the misadventure in front of the Berkeley Student Union.
In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs. He was not obsessed with giving interviews to the press …[Yet] at a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the “hijacking” of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.”
In a 2002 NLR article, Graeber made the case for what he called “The New Anarchists”:
The effort to destroy existing paradigms is usually quite self-conscious. Where once it seemed that the only alternatives to marching along with signs were either Gandhian non-violent civil disobedience or outright insurrection, groups like the Direct Action Network, Reclaim the Streets, Black Blocs or Tute Bianche have all, in their own ways, been trying to map out a completely new territory in between.
Odd that within Graeber’s definition of the arsenal of tactics that can be used against the state, mass action of the sort that was mobilized to end the war in Vietnam gets reduced to “marching along with signs”. Menu alternatives are limited to three choices: civil disobedience, outright insurrection or anarchist affinity groups. It is the third that Graeber opts for, a “completely new territory” that is actually not very new since it became pretty old when I was an activist in the late 60s.
On his death at the age of 90 in early January, John Berger’s 1968 article “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations” was circulated by Marxists. Written during the period when millions were “marching along with signs” everywhere against the war, Berger made some essential points about their value:
A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work – even when strike action is involved – or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.
In 1968, SDS leaders grew frustrated by the seeming inability of mass actions to end the war in Vietnam so they chose another course of action, one in which the protests were much smaller but far more violent. This culminated in the infamous “Days of Rage” in October 1969 that an anarchist author connects directly to the black bloc tactic:
The Black Bloc can trace its historical roots all the way back to when- and wherever people comprising an oppressed class or group militantly rose up against their oppressors. Elements of the particular tactics of the Bloc were previously utilized by the Weather faction of Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in North America during the “Days of Rage” in 1969.
For Graeber, groups like the black bloc (yes, I know, it is only supposed to be a tactic but it is a loosely organized group that carries it out on a consistent basis) are a form of horizontalist direct democracy that are based on consensus rather than majority vote. Yeah, who needs a cumbersome and verticalist procedure such as voting that would only get in the way of a determined horizontalist bunch of people wearing bandannas over their faces intent on raising cain. If a black bloc spokesperson with a bullhorn had asked the 1500 or so Berkeley students in front of the Student Union protesting Milo Yiannopoulos to raise their hands if they favored busting windows and shooting skyrockets into the lobby of the building, they might have had the gumption to reject such tactics. We can’t abide such laggards getting in the way of bold actions, can we?
Essentially, the black bloc is as elitist and verticalist in its own way as the self-declared vanguard groups of the Leninist left that aspire to control mass organizations. Groups like the American SWP that I belonged to for 11 years used to caucus before a meeting to make sure that the membership followed a predetermined line before a critical vote even if in the course of discussion they decided that the SWP was wrong. Meanwhile, the black bloc does not bother with votes at all. This is a Hobson’s Choice, if there ever was one.
I had never paid much attention to George Ciccariello-Maher prior to his being the target of the alt-right over his “White genocide” tweet. All I knew about him was that he wrote about Venezuela and was something of an ultraleft based on his social media posts that were rather intellectually vacuous and often fixated on violent confrontations of one sort or another. Since academics tend to use social media as a form of “slumming”, I never paid much attention to them.
But after he began posting about the Berkeley adventure in a way that suggested his approval of the black bloc, I concluded that these were his politics. After unfriending him (and a bunch of other pro-black bloc types) with a post alluding to his support for the hijacking of the Berkeley protest, he lashed back at me as I expected. If anything, Ciccariello-Maher is nearly as hotheaded as me. What I didn’t get was his claim that it was only his FB friends that supported the black bloc and that my problem was with them.
That does not square with the arguments he made in 2011 against Chris Hedges, who had blasted the black bloc’s role in the Occupy movement and likened it to a cancerous tumor. Joining with Graeber, who had debated Hedges in an article titled “The Violent Peace-Police”, George wrote his own article making essentially the same arguments. Titled “Counterinsurgency and the Occupy Movement”, it goes the extra mile against Hedges:
Many, notably anarchist theorist David Graeber, have rightly attacked not only the misrepresentations in Hedges’ argument, but crucially its implications: by singling out and denouncing a sector of the movement, by dividing ‘good’ protesters from ‘bad,’ this purportedly nonviolent writer was in fact encouraging police violence himself (after all, surgical removal of a tumor is nothing if not violent). Less noted, however, is the degree to which Hedges’ discourse literally does the work of the police by contributing to actual policing strategies as they have developed in recent decades. By grasping the development of these strategies, we will be in a better position to avoid the pitfalls of the hysterical liberalism espoused by Hedges and others, and by understanding our enemies, we will be better prepared to confront them.
Unlike Graeber, Ciccariello-Maher is less concerned about whether black bloc tactics work or not. The brunt of his article is designed to conflate peaceful protesters and the black-clad vanguard. If you denounce them as a cancer, you are siding with the cops: “Much has been said about the violence-versus-nonviolence debate within and prior to Occupy, and it is true that we need to defend the violent as well as the nonviolent and accept not only a diversity of tactics but also a diversity of strategies for building the new world.” This diversity of tactics argument of course is associated with the NGO’s that tolerated the black bloc at each and every protest against the WTO. Like Graeber and Ciccariello-Maher, their emphasis was less on building a mass working-class based movement and more on making a “statement”.
That being said, the professor does appear to have a fetish for violence. In a Salon article titled “Riots Work”, he is ready to condemn mass protests against racial oppression that do not produce results according to some timetable. Like the Weathermen judging the antiwar movement as a milquetoast affair, Ciccariello-Maher seeks something much more dramatic:
Some insist that riots only provide a ready-made image to the media that emphasizes the “negative” over the “positive” (meaning the “violent” over the “peaceful”). But this view has little to say about whether so-called “peaceful” protests are effective in bringing attention to police murder, offering instead a moral imperative: the media should cover peaceful marches, the system should respond. But they don’t, and it doesn’t, and if so-called peaceful tactics don’t bring change, then they lose their status as a “positive” alternative, and even become complicit in continued systemic violence.
Well, I don’t know. It was peaceful protests, those people “marching along with signs”, in New York that were largely responsible for the stop and frisk laws being abolished. I was at one of them in 2012, the Silent March that was among the most impressive I have seen in the past decade.
Would a riot have ended the stop and frisk laws? I tend to doubt it, even if that risks being seen as pro-police in Ciccariello-Maher’s eyes. For him, there’s not much difference between a riot and the national liberation movement in Algeria that involved millions in a protracted war against the French imperialist army:
Frantz Fanon insisted that to break the smooth surface of white supremacy requires something more than peaceful protest. It requires the explosive self-assertion of the oppressed, through which the oppressed themselves can come to understand their own power.
If we were only so fortunate to see the Black liberation struggle in the USA beginning to take on the dimensions of the FLN. There was one attempt made by Malcolm X to build such a movement and he was killed for his efforts. For what it is worth, Malcolm tried to build a powerful organization instead of preaching about the need for disorganized riots.
Ciccariello-Maher has a new book out titled “Decolonizing Dialectics” that is based on the ideas of Fanon, a Latin American philosopher named Enrique Dussel, and Georges Sorel. I know Dussel only by name but wonder if he has overdosed on Georges Sorel. In an article titled “To Lose Oneself in the Absolute: Revolutionary Subjectivity in Sorel and Fanon” that likely formed the basis for the new book, he sees Sorel’s fetishization of violence in pretty much the same way as he sees Fanon—as a kind of mixture of existential revolt evoking Camus and his own peculiar interpretation of Marxism:
When united with proletarian violence, on the other hand, the myth becomes essentially a mechanism for the consolidation of revolutionary identity. In Sorel’s context, this takes the form of a working-class separatism embodied in and established through the proletarian general strike—the unity of liberatory violence with the absolutism of mythical identity—in which a strike against the bosses is transformed into a “Napoleonic” battle and “the practice of strikes engenders the notion of a catastrophic revolution”.
Sorel is problematic to say the least. After becoming dissatisfied with the CGT, France’s major trade union, in the same way that the Weathermen became impatient with peaceful protests, Sorel hooked up with an outfit called Action Française that was led by Charles Maurras. During WWII, AF supported the Vichy government and Maurras spent seven years in prison for his collaboration with the Nazis.
After he became a partisan of the Bolshevik revolution, the Italian fascist movement still revered Sorel no matter his heterodox Marxism. It seems that the feelings were mutual. In a 1921 letter to Benedetto Croce, an admirer of Mussolini who would eventually break with Il Duce, Sorel wrote: “The adventures of fascism are, perhaps, at present, the most original social phenomenon in Italy; they seem to me to surpass by far the combinations of the politicians.” In a letter to Jean Variot, a close ally of Sorel, he wrote:
It is possible, it is even probable that Benito Mussolini has read me. But, attention! Mussolini is a man no less extraordinary than Lenin. He, too, is a political genius, of a greater reach than all the statesmen of the day, with the only exception of Lenin. . .. He is not a Socialist a la sauce bourgeoise; he has never believed in parliamentary socialism; he has an amazing insight into the nature of the Italian masses, and he has invented something not to be found in my books: the union of the national and the social-something I have studied without ever developing the idea.
Well, that’s for damned sure. Mussolini never did believe in parliamentary socialism.
While I have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through Ciccariello-Maher’s new book, something tells me that his distinctly odd infatuation with Georges Sorel is consistent with his immature posting of violent confrontations on social media. It is rather sad to see a tenured professor acting so foolishly.
Let me conclude with a look at Shon Meckfessel’s new book titled “Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used To Be” that is based on his doctoral dissertation and that reminds me a bit of Regis Debray’s “Revolution in the Revolution”. Where Debray fetishized rural guerrilla warfare, Meckfessel fetishizes the black bloc. At least Debray can be forgiven for basing his book on a success—the Cuban revolution. Meckfessel inexplicably elevates a movement that has achieved nothing except getting its adventures written up in the bourgeois press.
Although it is highly possible that there are some discrepancies between the new book and dissertation, I am taking the chance that they are relatively small and will refer to the dissertation in the following remarks.
Since chapter three is titled “The Eloquence of Targeted Property Destruction in the Occupy Movement” and chapter four is titled “The Eloquence of Police Clashes in the Occupy Movement”, there is little doubt that what you will be getting is a sophisticated defense of the indefensible.
There’s not much to distinguish Shon from Ciccariello-Maher as this passage from chapter three would indicate. Although some might think that plagiarism was afoot, I think that both of the professors are simply reflecting the zeitgeist of the widespread ultraleft milieu that would naturally lead them to admire Fanon and Sorel uncritically:
If targeted property destruction works to assert comparisons within and across categories of violence in the hopes of destabilizing ideological chains of equivalence and triggering a revaluation, its affective reconfigurations in the discursive field of subjectivity are equally eloquent in its rhetorical strategy. In his classic “Reflections on Violence,” Georges Sorel put forward his notion of the General Strike as a myth which condensed all of the desired political values of proletarian struggle; violence, in his formation, “is assigned the important function of ‘constituting’ an actor.” (Seferiades & Johnston 6). Similarly, Fanon put forth the celebrated formulation in The Wretched of the Earth (1968) that decolonization requires a violence to be done to the colonizer’s body in order to disarticulate its sacred inviolability, and thus constitute the post-colonial subject through the act of violation. Contemporary practices of public noninjurious violence, such as targeted property destruction, can be seen to enact analogous discursive actions of subjectification while avoiding the dehumanizing effects of bodily harm, as can be heard in the words of Cindy, one observer of the Seattle May Day 2012 riots:
I think that property destruction has a good effect on those who carry it out… I think most people need to unlearn submission and show themselves that they have the 165 capacity to act for their own liberation. I think that when people burn cop cars, break bank windows, or blockade a road (thwarting the transfer of goods and or law enforcement) they are also demonstrating to themselves some of the magnitude of their ability to resist. (Cindy interview)
In the next chapter, Shon refers to the “eloquence” of fighting the cops with a reference to Judith Butler:
As with the uneasy boundary between the materiality and discursivity of bodies examined in Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter (1993), the materiality of individuals enacting oppressive behavior is not simple to divorce from the discursivity of their role.
I can’t exactly say that I understand this jargon but I do know this. Butler found nothing “eloquent” about the Berkeley Student Union misadventure. In an email cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education, she stated: “I deplore the violent tactics of yesterday and so do the overwhelming majority of students and faculty at UC Berkeley.”
I find something vaguely dispiriting about college professors in their 40s and 50s being drawn to such juvenile antics. In a strange way, they remind me of the neglected minor masterpiece “Little Children” that starred Patrick Wilson as a law student who is not sure that he is cut out for the profession. In what might be called a case of “arrested development”, he spends hours on end watching teens skateboarding at a nearby rink. They remind him of the youth he once enjoyed doing the same sort of thing. At the end of the film, they talk him into having a try on one of their skateboards that results in a nasty spill and a hospital stay. Let’s hope that the three professors’ infatuation with the “eloquence” of fighting the cops is only of a Walter Mitty sort. Cops are capable of extremely brutal behavior and the three professors all have good jobs and families and/or students who rely on them. My only other recommendation is that they read Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Russian Revolution” that is a much better guide to revolutionary change than Georges Sorel.
COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION MAY 15-17, 2015
Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.
Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.
In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.
“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.
The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.
We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.
Although marred by a clumsy script, weak character development, tone-deaf dialogue, implausible coincidences, amateurish acting, and an obtrusive film score, “No God, No Master” is one of the more important films showing in New York right now. What saves it is the theme, which is the historical background to the Palmer Raids of 1919 that led to the arrest and pending deportation of 10,000 Americans in the aftermath of an anarchist bombing campaign meant as retaliation for the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.
Among the historical figures that are depicted in the film are:
As you sit watching the film, you forgive all the miscues since it is mostly faithful to historical details except for one just barely forgivable peccadillo. Played by the incomparable David Strathairn, William J. Flynn is depicted as a free speech liberal challenging Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover on the need to deport radicals simply for their ideas. The connections to today’s world are palpable.
The film was actually made in 2009 and only found a distributor five years later. One supposes if Green made a mumblecore movie about a couple of college drop-outs who decide to become pimps, it would have been jumped on immediately. Of course, it is up to malcontents like us to patronize the Quad Cinema in New York where it opens today so that Hollywood understands that indie films about serious topics have an audience.
(Received from Paul Buhle who is indicated as PB in the interview below.)
This is an interview made in Seattle, c.2000, with a leader of the local SWP going way back (his wife left him in the 60s and formed the Freedom Socialist Party, which still exists), it was incomplete because I loaned the tape to a friend who was going to do a full transcription and… lost it.
Among subjects of interest: the anarchist and Yiddish connections in LA, the paucity of Jews among steelworkers (he claimed to be one of about 3 in the US), local Trotskyist activities, and so on
Tape 1 (Sides 1-2): Family history and Yiddish background in Los Angeles, general remarks about Jewishness and SWP
Tape 2: (Sides 3-4) Attempts by Trotskyists to put revolution on the agenda, versus the Habonim-Zionists, Communists, Social Democrats; Yipsels versus Norman Thomas and struggle within the Socialist Party. Shift to Seattle and struggles in the 1940s of the 1940s for racial equality and other issues.
Tape 3 (Sides 5-6) Backstairs struggle of union in later years and the nature of the steelmaking trade; struggle to maintain the Seattle SWP, especially leadership role of Clara, Dick Frazier and himself. Surviving McCarthyite period, door-to-door organizing activities. Attempting to recruit CP members, especially after 1956 revelations.
Tape 4 (Sides 7-8) Trotskyists and the Cuban Revolution; the degeneration of theory in the SWP, in regards the Russian situation, and the role of James Cannon in later years. Other groups including the Cochranites. Failure to recruit from and relate to the New Left.
Tape 5 (Sides 9-10) Attempts to reorganize in tune for the 1960s. Problem of Clara becoming a leader precipitating fight within branch on semi-valid grounds of Dick Frazier. Recalling the campus anti-war movement in Seattle with Frank’s son one of the leaders, and George Arthur the other leader.
Interview with Frank Krasnowsky (Yiddish folksinger and theater impresario, Seattle), with Paul Buhle May, 1996
PB: Let’s talk about your parents
FK : My mother was a Jewish and Yiddish anarchist, my father was an old Wobbly named Harry Paxton Howard. My mother was born in 1896 in Byeloruss, came to the US around 1904; my father comes from an old old American family, probably connected..Harry told her, probably connected to General Howard. He was probably from a wealthy family, but his father rebelled against his family and became a hermit–we used to look around and see if some hermit was his father–and my father was a Wobbly agitator in Chicago. I was named for Frank Little, the Wobbly lynched during World War One.
PB: Were your mother’s family political at all?
FK: Some were religious, some radical. My grandfather had a falling out with my mother when she married Harry Paxton Howard. She was already an atheist anyway. He actually disowned her for a while. But they were very fond of each other anyway.
She went to work in the garment trade at 8, she could pass for 12. The family was in a rough situation and she was the oldest daughter. He also brought his own mother with him, she lived to be 110. She died about 1945, just before he died. He still couldn’t speak English, she told people she would learn it pretty soon. Who figures at 60 and living in a Jewish community that she would have to learn a new language? But she could read and write in Yiddish, which gives the lie, as far as I’m concerned, to stories about Jewish girls not being able to read. They learned to read and write because their parents snuck it in.
One of the things I’m reading about in Yiddish is that girls used to get these novels. There’s almost no record in the middle of the nineteenth century of novels in Yiddish, they were published in just one edition. A lot of these stories were romance written by women, and just disappeared.
My mother’s parent’s came to escape the pogroms. I don’t know what her father did in Russia. Here he ran a fish store. He was lower middle class, like most of the Jewish business in Chicago. I don’t know what part of Chicago.
PB: Your father and mother met in Chicago?
FK: Probably thru the IWW or the garment workers. My mother knew Emma Goldman and went to meetings of the anarchists there. They had a nice torrid little romance as most people had at a young age. They also went to the theater together. When they left the US in 1917, to help the Russian revolution, she was already 21. That’s how I wound up with my name, Krasnowsky. They wanted to travel thru Sibera at the time of Kolchok’s Army. But after they arrived in Japan, where my mother was pregnant [they couldn’t travel further]. They met hundreds of other Jews trying to get back. My father learned Russian on the trip over. They used my mother’s name because they couldn’t get in with the name Howard.
When they got to Yokohama–they stayed in Japan for 4 years, I was born there–and my father edited RUSSIA TODAY or NEW RUSSIA. He translated it from Russian to English, a straight Soviet publication.
PB: As Wobblies, they had communist leanings?
FK: This was THE revolution. It took a little while [before they become disillusioned]. Emma Goldman told Helen Richter, my mother’s friend: do what you want to do. No one was persecuting the anarchists as a whole.
PB: Your father?
FK: He soon had a deep hatred of the Communists in China. And he wrote for the PEKING REVIEW, he was politically at the left wing of the Kuomintang if anything. He would have been in China until 1939 or 1940. We were in Japan until 1922, I was born in 1921, and then he was deported, after the Japanese longshoremen’s strike. He was always convinced that the Japanese were spying on him.
Then he went to Shanghai, where he and my mother didn’t get along–he was pretty much of a snot–and my mother came back to the States. My grandfather had to put up $1000, that was 1923. About the same time as the Japanese earthquake, which is why we got in.
This a story about bureaucracies, she came in to Vancouver Island about a month early. They looked at it and said, you’re not supposed to come in, you’re on next month’s quota. So they finally made a decision to send her back to China and have her come back. She had never become a US citizen and as an anarchist was opposed. But then the earthquake hit and they had to use all the ships for that, so they put her up in a hotel for the month.
Then we came back to Chicago and stayed back with my grandfather. I remember he was very fond of me. My mother worked in the garment industry. Then she was blacklisted in about 1927, the big garment strikes. At the same time some doctor said there was something wrong with my sister’s heart. So we came to Pomona, actually Ontario, California, where there was an attempted to build an anarchist colony. There we stayed for a couple months before my mother decided it was easier working in a factory. These people had a farm and they tried to make it over, but they had no equipment, it was muddy….I remember living there and taking the bus to school. Then we came to Los Angeles and stayed with cousins. That would be 1927. We lived in Boyle Heights.
Some of our relatives were CPers, some were very religious, but my mother was a sort of a center person, people grouped around her. Her anarchism wasn’t political, my sister said, she just loved everyone. But she read every anarchist writer. She was very brilliant. Both of my mothers’ sisters, Dora and Sadie, grouped around her and took her politics, those who stayed in Chicago did not.
Los Angeles had one of the top leaders of the anarchist movement, Tom Bell, and a Yiddish anarchist group, the Kropotkin circle. These people were all in the Arbeter Ring. We always had a socialist environment, it was a family sort of thing. The split with the Communists came earlier in LA.
It was strongly social democratic but one of the strongest branches was the anarchist branch, #413. They had a camp, and I went to the camp every year. I didn’t have any money but everyone supported one another. Everyone was a parent, all the children were close.
PB: Was there Yiddish content?
FK: Always. During the year we went to Yiddish school after public school, and in the summer we had Yiddish classes.
PB: Did you ever resent having to go?
FK: I accepted it. I didn’t like the Yiddish school after school, you wanted to play, but it wasn’t really that bad. My Yiddish didn’t get too good but I could read and write Yiddish years later. And we had some very fine teachers. I guess in a sense it was a kind of babysitting for parents who worked in the garment industry.
During the thirties, they were bringing in some very fine people [new from Europe]. To get into the US you had to have a job. Most of them were socialists, and some of them were real professors.
We also put on plays, a lot of things that were really well run. I remember the “Gericht,” the court, the kids would judge whether the person was guilty. It was a case of you decide and what should the punisment be? A kid writes on the toilets, so what to do? We decided to make him wash the walls.
PB: What was political there?
FK: We had the Young Circle League, the YCL. It became the Young People’s Socialistic League in the ‘thirties. There we had had a steady education on socialism. We had read the MANIFESTO, SOCIALISM UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, these were basic for us kids in highschool. And we had an old social democrat that used to talk to us all the time.
The children were not treated like something in the way. I can remember sitting at a Mayday camp. If you had something to say, people would listen patiently, as if you were one of the adults. My mother would be very favorable if she liked it, she could also disagree. We were all involved in some kind of politics.
There were wars going on in the world, there were problems in schools like the ROTC. Our branch had an SWP [Trotskyist] entry, and Dave Weiss [later a trotskyist theoretician] was our counselor at camp. We loved him because he would always tell wonderful stories. We would lie there in bed at night hoping he would read and he wold tell us a story about his life or read from DUNT ESK, or NIZE BABY or by Abe Gross. I used one of his stories a lot later as an audition piece. He also spoke a beautiful Yiddish.
PB: How much was Yiddish used?
FK: The kids didn’t speak to each other in Yiddish but they spoke to the adults in Yiddish. We also put on plays in Yiddish. There was also a difference of about 5 years. The older group all spoke fluent Yiddish, ours was more on the zubrokene: we were the young ones, they were the old ones. They stayed in the Young Circle League til they were 23 or 24. Our whole group went into Yipsel, around 1937. And we all left with the Trotskyists.
PB: Had you been aware of another world of semi-Yiddishsts on the Left? Were they different in class or any social way.
FK: We knew the Communist world. They weren’t different at all socially. But we were not compromisers, even the social democrats in Los Angeles had a rule that you couldn’t vote for capitalist parties whereas the Communists were supporting Roosevelt and Democrats. But my mother used to speak about the “Roosevelt Anarchists.”
One of the big political influences on me was my mother, that’s probably the reason I was more tolerant than others. The CP had control of the ILGWU here, for a while, and others decided to put up a fight. We didn’t like Dave Dubinsky either, but Rose Pesotta came out to organize the anarchists against the Communists. We were sitting in the house, and there was this big discussion, against the compromise of Dubinsky and of the Communists. And after the whole discussion my mother leaned forward and said, about Dubinsky, “David means well.” She never attributed the policy to something personal. She thought the same thing about the Communists, but they were worse to us than Dubinsky.
What happened in the Soviet Union more and more bothered us. The story of the Stalin Hitler Act made us cry, even though Trotsky had predicted it. The Anarchists could say I told you so, but we were hoping that it wouldn’t happen.
PB: What was the size of the Communists compared to social democrats or anarchists?
FK: The Communists were probably 3 or 4 to one of ours. The Arbeter Ring just have had 500-800 people and the IWO might have had 2000 or more.
Every one one of the kids in the Young Circle League
were socialists of all kinds; but we did have cousins and aunts that were in the CP. They were very defensive [toward us].
PB: Let’s talk about the questions of Jewishness in later years, in the Socialist Workers Party
FK: We had to make an American party, that was one of the things that hung too heavy, that didn’t help it too much. That was involved in the actual Marxist analysis of the ethnic question, [fear of] being a middle class group. They ignored, somehow, the idea that this working class was really a proletarian group [of ethnics].
One of the things in the SWP is that they looked–there’s a statement in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that the middle class would come over the provide leadership to the working class–they looked at the Jews in that sense. Middle class Jews in the SWP were always treated like they were great intellectuals, but the working class Jews never got anywhere. Quite a few of them were in the factories. So the SWP was oriented to workers in general and not to Jewish workers, and toward blacks in a different way; but the funny thing was that so many of their members were Jewish, but that they were not oriented to the Jewish community
In Seattle we had a branch of about 30, and unlike other branches, it was not predominantly Jewish, but on the executive board 4 our of 5 people were Jews.
PB: What does that tell you?
FK: The Jews did have a big socialist background. The big Israeli attack against communists and Marx is really against the diaspora Jews, not Marxism; all these years you didn’t know you were supporting an anti-semitic? Also the vanguard, the messianic idea, was important: you grew up believing that you had to make it, to have an important career. All of that was part.
When I had occasion to speak by phone with Hari Dillon, the former director of Tecnica, on the occasion of the untimely death of Michael Urmann, the group’s founder, I mentioned the interview I had done with a Sikh activist who I had met at work. Hari reminded me of the conversations we had had long ago about the Ghadar Party that a relative of his had been a member of in California, where it was particularly strong. The Ghadar (Hindi for mutiny) group was a revolutionary nationalist formation spearheaded by Sikhs that was an alternative to Gandhi’s pacifism. After chatting with Hari, I had made a mental note to look into the Ghadars but put them on the front burner after discovering that M.N. Roy worked with them to procure weapons from the Germans during World War One to use against British colonialism.
In the same chapter in Sibnayaran Ray’s biography that described Roy’s sojourn in Mexico City that I posted last week, we discover that he had hooked up with the president of Stanford University who had hired Ghadar founder Lala Har Dayal to teach at the school. You can get a feel for how much American higher education has changed through Ray’s account:
Meantime at Stanford Dhanagopal introduced Roy to the President of the University, Dr. David Starr Jordan, who was an eminent pacifist with a democratic socialist outlook and who had earlier given Har Dayal his appointment as a professor. He not only sympathised with the Indian aspiration for independence, but was also deeply interested in the political developments in neighbouring Mexico where one of his friends, General Savador Alvarado, was at that time engaged on some kind of a socialistic experiment as Governor of the province Yucatan. He gave Roy an introduction to Alvarado and advised him see the experiment himself if he ever went to that country.
One of the best introductions to the Ghadar movement is http://www.sikh-history.com. Here’s their entry on the Ghadars:
Many Sikhs and Hindu Punjabis who tasted freeddom outside colonial India in USA started Ghadr movement to free India from British rule in early 1900’s. These Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus were sent to Canada which was under British rule for labour work. They crossed the border over to USA and settled in Western Coast of USA in cities like Portland, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles. These Punjabis created Gurdwaras [Sikh temples] and established societies. They were subject to draconian laws like “not allowed to marry to american woman” by many of these states at that time. The word Ghadr can be commonly translated as mutiny, was the name given to the newspaper edited and published for the Hindustani Association of the Pacific Coast which was founded at Portland, United States of America, in 1912. The movement this Association gave rise to for revolutionary activities in India also came to be known by the designation of Ghadr.
As I stated earlier, M.N. Roy worked assiduously to procure money and guns from Germany during WWI. Back then, when there was inter-imperialist rivalry and Britain ruled the world, it was considered a tactical question as to who you cut deals with. When WWII came along, the same outlook prevailed. Indian revolutionary nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose knocked on Nazi doors while Ho Chi Minh shook hands with the OSS. After WWII, there was no more inter-imperialist rivalry to speak of and it made perfect sense for the left and those fighting against colonialism to align with the USSR. Old habits unfortunately die hard and the pro-Baathist left continues to look at Putin and Assad as if they were Khrushchev and Castro.
Probably the best overall history of the Ghadar movement is Berkeley professor Maia Ramnath’s “Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism “, the first 90 pages of which can be read in Google Books. Most of Chapter three “Enemy of Enemies: the Nationalist Ghadar” can be read there.
I also recommend the 25 page history of the Ghadar movement that can be found on the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin website. It also details the alliance between Germany and Indian nationalists:
The German government had great sympathy with the Gadar movement because the German government and the Gadarites had the British as their common enemy. In September 1914, Indians formed Berlin Indian Committee (also known as the Indian Revolutionary Society) members of which were Har Dyal, Virendra Nath Chattopadhyay (younger brother of politician – poetess Sarojani Naidu), Maulvi Barkatullah (after his death, he was buried near Sacramento), Bhupendra Nath Datta (brother of Swami Vivekananda), Champak Raman Pillai (a young Tamilian) and Tarak Nath Das (a foundation is named after him in Columbia University, New York). The objectives of the society were to arrange financial assistance from German government for revolutionary activities and propaganda work in different countries of the world, training of volunteer force of Indian fighters and transportation of arms and ammunitions to reach the Gadarites for a revolt against the British Government in India.
The Indian Revolutionary Society in Berlin successfully arranged substantial financial aid for the Gadarites from Germany. The German Embassy in the United States engaged a German national to liaison with the Gadar leadership in San Francisco. Several ships were commissioned or chartered to carry arms and ammunitions and batches of Indian revolutionaries to India.
But what makes things even more interesting is how the anarchist movement fits into all these amazing conspiracies. This is from M.N. Roy’s memoir:
Barring Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Har Dyal was the most important member of the Berlin Committee. Intellectually, he was by far the superior, but eccentric in emotion and erratic politically. From an orthodox Hindu he became an anarchist — a close associate of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman in the United States. But anti-British nationalism was still the dominating passion.
After having spent 14 years in prison for a failed assassination attempt against Henry Frick, the steel baron who drowned the Homestead strikers in blood, Berkman once again showed his willingness to put his beliefs on the line as the N.Y. Times of February 24, 1918 made clear. I especially love how Har Dyal was using an assumed name of Israel Aaronson. A novelist could not come up with something more mind-boggling.
Chumbawamba Drip, Drip, Drip Lyrics
Songwriters: HUNTER, NIGEL/BRUCE, DUNCAN/NUTTER, ALICE/WATTS, LOUISE
Eat, sleep and crap, for to prey on your needs
Down a dark street in backwater Leeds
I seen you’re comin’ “come in, lads!”
You seen the ad? Too bad, bad, bad
What you get is what you see
It’s a trickledown theory and it’s coming to me
Life’s a whip-round and I’ve got the whip
It’s a sinking ship, drip, drip, drip
Drip, drip, drip goes the water…Drip, drip, drip goes the water…
Drip, drip, drip goes the water…Drip, drip, drip goes the water…
Take me in, throw me out, put me up, let me down
Dark, satanic, run-of-the-mill, sing us a song, and I’ll send you the bill
My nicotine grip, my smokin’ gun
It’s how I get my fun, better run, run, run
Your olfactory nerves, all up the spout
You can’t smell a rat when your nose is out
Rent-to-kill by any other name, kiss an old flame, shame shame shame
Drip, drip, drip goes the water…Drip, drip, drip goes the water…
Drip, drip, drip goes the water…Drip, drip, drip goes the water…
Take me in, throw me out, put me up, let me down
[people speaking gibberish]
Drip, drip, drip…Drip, drip, drip…Drip, drip, drip…Drip, drip, drip…
(Drip, drip, drip) Take me in (Drip, drip, drip) Throw me out
(Drip, drip, drip) Put me up (Drip, drip, drip) Let me down
(Drip, drip, drip) Take me in (Drip, drip, drip) Throw me out
(Drip, drip, drip) Put me up (Drip, drip, drip) Let me down
(“This guy on the right. Hey hey! Excuse me. Could you move, please? Whoever you are. She’s wearing a tie, she doesn’t mean to say it very important.”)
Last night I went out to Brooklyn to hear 3 Greek activists who are on tour in the USA talking about the resistance to Golden Dawn. I was anxious to hear what they had to say even if the email I got from the group hosting the meeting struck me as a bit dubious:
Again, how to articulate an anti-capitalist and anti-state politics as not just abstract ideology but material reality, how to promote new forms of life between us, to create new spaces and territories which can demonstrate a social force, which reveal a collective strength, to overcome all those counterrevolutionary tendencies working against us. Or, how to live communism, while spreading anarchy.
I should start off by saying that I am by no means opposed to anarchists and even hailed their audacity in the Occupy Movement as crucial to its success, even if I found the black bloc wing of the movement toxic.
Vangelis Nanos, the first speaker, gave a very interesting overview on the Greek ultraright going back to the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship from 1936-1941. He made the case that Golden Dawn’s roots are in the original fascist movement that continues to exercise behind the scenes power whether there is formal democracy or not. I made a mental note to look for a history of modern Greece written from a Marxist or radical perspective.
After tracing the history of the ultraright through 1981, he switched gears and began talking about the contemporary situation. I had hoped that he would elaborate on the tactics being used by anarchists, including the use of motorcycle brigades numbering hundreds of machines, but mostly he was content to just allude to various confrontations such as breaking up Golden Dawn rallies, etc.
His main emphasis was instead on the need to build up “horizontalist“ alternatives to capitalism such as recovered factories, fairs, squats, neighborhood markets, clinics, etc. He claimed that the movement to build such institutions was undermined by the 2012 elections in which the masses’ attention was diverted to discussions about the IMF, the Euro versus the Drachma, etc.
Sofia Papagiannaki, the next speaker, was heard on video since she had to return to Greece for her job. Her talk focused on the failure of the Greek left to root out the “deep state” institutions that Nanos identified but was not exactly clear on what that entailed.
Thanasis Xirotsopanos, the final speaker, took up where Nanos left off and went on at length about the “horizontal and solidarity economy” that the new Greece would be based on. He described the trade union movement as worse than useless and called for the need to break with “hedonistic growth”. All in all, I could not escape the feeling that such a message would be lost on most working class Greeks.
But what really made me sit up and take notice was Xirotsopanos’s statement that social democracy was dead. I imagined that this was probably a more acceptable formulation than “socialism was dead” even though I am sure he would have defended that as well. I honestly did not come out to Brooklyn for a confrontation so I did not challenge him in a polemical fashion during the Q&A.
I did, however, raise the question of SYRIZA and whether their objection to it was tactical—in the sense that its participation in the election undermined their horizontal kitchens, etc.—or whether it was based on principle, namely that state power was always corrupting.
They answered that nothing would have been gained by SYRIZA winning the election and pointed to PASOK’s electoral victories that accomplished nothing even though there were high hopes at the time. Back in 1977 there were different expectations, as this New Left Review article by Nicos Mouzelis would indicate:
The Greek general election of November 1977 has not only brought profound changes in the political map of Greece, it has also resulted in a configuration of political forces which is unique in the context of European politics. For Greece itself, the exceptional significance of the elections lies in the fact that the ‘liberal versus conservative’ cleavage within the bourgeoisie, which has dominated most of the country’s parliamentary history, has finally given way to a more profound class polarization. For the first time since the Civil War, one can now speak of class divisions having a real reflection in the composition of parliamentary blocs. For Andreas Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), the major victor (in relative terms), has by its partial mobilization of the rural population and the urban petty bourgeoisie seriously challenged the traditional political formations of the Greek ruling class with their inter-class support.
Indeed, during its earlier phases running the government, PASOK carried out some reforms that were nothing to be sneered at, including some that addressed the “deep state” concerns raised by the speakers. From Wikipedia:
In 1986, the PA.SO.K. government amended the Greek constitution to remove most powers from the President and give wider authority to the Prime Minister and the Executive Government. Civil marriages, not consecrated by religious ceremony, were recognized as equally valid with religious weddings. The left-wing Resistance movement against the Axis in World War II was recognized after, and leftist resistance fighters were given state pensions, while political refugees of the Greek Civil War were finally given permission to return to Greece. The National Health System was created and various repressive laws of the anti-communist postwar establishment were abolished, wages were boosted, an independent and multidimensional foreign policy was pursued, many reforms in Family Law to strengthened the rights of women and the Greek Gendarmerie was abolished in 1984.
In the 1990s PASOK took a “modernization” turn in keeping with what Tony Blair was up to in Britain, which led to working class discontent and the victory of New Democracy, a Tory-like party that won a narrow victory over SYRIZA in the last election.
I have noticed since the SYRIZA’s leaders tour to the USA a few months ago that sections of the left have escalated their attacks on the Eurocommunist formation. It does not seem important to them that SYRIZA maintains a big tent structure that allows the far left to make contact with the masses in a way that a small propaganda group cannot. Nor do they see the importance of regroupment process through SYRIZA that might eventually encourage Maoist and Trotskyist groups to think past their own limitations. One such malcontent posted this peevish comment on my blog around the time that the SYRIZA leaders were speaking at Bard College’s Jerome Levy Institute:
This is Lenin Reloaded from Greece. I was wondering, given your support for SYRIZA, what your feelings are about the fact that SYRIZA advertises Bard College as an emblem of progressive political thought, is promoting it through its party newspaper, reflects the rhetoric of the Levy Institute to the last detail, is promoted by Dimitris Papademitriou politically, and will be visiting the Institute in a couple of days officially to crown the partnership.
The following post is in Greek (as most of them are in my blog), but it links to several of your articles on Bard College’s relations to big corporate capital, right-wing Zionism, the persecution of academic freedom, anti-labor practices, and its attacks on the Occupy Movement, which SYRIZA was supposed to be supportive of.
Here’s the link: http://leninreloaded.blogspot.com/2013/01/blog-post_21.html
After reading this once more, I wonder if I am now required to divorce my wife who has been invited to participate in a conference on Hyman Minsky hosted by the Jerome Levy Institute this summer. Maybe I should also denounce myself publicly since I looked forward to going up to Bard with her to hang out with my friend John Halle who teaches at my alma mater.
In some ways, the Levy Institute is the perfect place for SYRIZA to visit since think tank has employed Anwar Shaikh in the past, arguably one of the preeminent Marxist economists in the world. Michael Hudson, the author of “Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire” is another Levy Scholar as well as a frequent contributor to Counterpunch.
Whether or not the leaders of SYRIZA are to the right of Shaikh and Hudson does not matter that much to me. My take on SYRIZA is quite a bit different than most people on the left.
To reprise my views, I see SYRIZA as a throwback to the parties of the Second International in which left and right wings vied with each other. That includes the Russian Social Democratic Party that was home to a Bolshevik and Menshevik faction. It was a huge mistake for the Comintern to create a new kind of party that was purged of the reformist elements since the net result was division in the working class. Marxist parties have to engage with different levels of consciousness in the working class. When you amputate your right arm because it offends you, you lose contact with the masses who have not reached revolutionary conclusions. I should add that in Russia that condition was not met until the summer of 1917.
It was to be expected that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt would eventually weigh in on the protests sweeping the world, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Their Declaration can be read on http://www.scribd.com/doc/93152857/Hardt-Negri-Declaration-2012 and is well worth the trouble. (I found it impossible to print but that might have just been a problem on my own computer.) Even if you disagree with much of it (as I do), it is necessary reading because of their influence. Furthermore, I detect a positive evolution in their thinking—especially a willingness to reconsider the merits of state power, albeit in a highly qualified manner. Like someone saying that though broccoli tastes like shit, it might be good for you.
Published in 2000, their “Empire” was widely seen as a generalized expression of the nascent anti-globalization movement that had a preponderantly anarchist leadership (an oxymoron?) Although Hardt and Negri come out of the autonomist tradition, there is enough of an affinity between the two movements that it was possible for them to serve as spokesmen. Now, just over a decade later, the anarchist movement has new winds blowing in its sails. While David Graeber is rightfully seen as a kind of patron saint to the Occupy movement, I am sure—well, mostly sure–that he would not resent Hardt and Negri playing the role of elder statesmen. (Did I say statesmen? No insult intended…)
To start off, I was very pleased to see that Hardt and Negri take note of the particular dynamics of debt today, something that I have written about recently. In my view, debt tends to isolate us and make struggle more difficult. Instead of confronting a boss as a unified group of employees, such as sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan in 1938, the battle is between the individual and the bank or collection agency. (In their words, “No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker in order to generate a profit.”)
Turning to chapter one, I found these words particularly illuminating:
Whereas the work ethic is born within the subject, debt begins as an external constraint but soon worms its way inside. Debt wields a moral power whose primary’ weapons are responsibility and guilt, which can quickly become objects of obsession. You are responsible for your debts and guilty for the difficulties they create in your life. The indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.
Another feature of life today that Hardt and Negri get right is how much it is defined through security, such as cameras, cops and prisons:
You are not only the object of security but also the subject. You answer the call to be vigilant, constantly on watch for suspicious activity on the subway, devious designs of your seatmate on the airplane, malicious motives of your neighbors. Fear justifies volunteering your pair of eyes and your alert attention to a seemingly universal security machine.
The sections on debt and what they call “the securitized” are much better than the one that follows, titled “The Represented”. Like Zizek, another celebrity, they are utterly disdainful of bourgeois democracy:
So many of the movements of 2011 direct their critiques against political structures and forms of representation, then, because they recognize clearly that representation, even when it is effective, blocks democracy rather than fosters it. Where, they ask, has the project for democracy gone?
They hail the Spanish protestors for not getting involved in electoral politics:
The indignados did not participate in the 2011 elections, then, in part because they refused to reward a socialist party that had continued neoliberal policies and betrayed them during its years in office, but also and more importantly because they now have larger battles to fight, in particular one aimed at the structures of representation and the constitutional order itself—a fight whose Spanish roots reach back to the tradition of antifascist struggles and throw a new and critical light on the so-called transition to democracy that followed the end of the Franco regime. The indignados think of this as a destituent rather than a constituent process, a kind of exodus from the existing political structures, but it is necessary’ to prepare the basis for a new constituent power.
One is not sure why participating in the 2011 elections was identical to supporting the Social Democrats. While I am no expert in Spanish politics, it would seem to me that there is some use in challenging the ideological status quo through the kinds of campaigns that Syriza ran since 2004. Who knows? Such a party might be capable of getting elected if the people get “indignado” enough.
For Hardt and Negri, just as was the case in 2000 when they wrote “Empire”, politics is only effective when it is local, in a kind of post-Marxist tip of the hat to the late ward-heeling Congressman Tip O’Neill. And no other group exemplifies this purer approach to social change than the EZLN in Chiapas:
The clearest contemporary example of the communicative capacity of an encampment is perhaps the decades-long experiment of the Zapatista self-rule in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN was renowned early in its existence for its novel use of the media, including electronic communiques and Internet postings from the Lacandon jungle. Even more important and innovative, though, are the communicative networks and political truths created in the Zapatista community practices of collective self-government.
The allure of Zapatismo, at least for me, wore off quite time ago. While the struggle was instrumental in helping the anti-globalization movement to get off the ground, it has failed to materially change the conditions of life for the poor in Chiapas. As I stated in a critique of John Holloway’s “How to Change the World without Taking Power”:
In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.
By contrast, Cuba’s medical system allowed its people to live longer than other Spanish-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Puerto Rico. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.
Back in 2000, Hardt and Negri were so deep into their anti-statism that they would have seen no benefit from Hugo Chavez or any other state leader attempting to devote the nation’s resources to the benefit of the people. The “national liberation” project was dead from the start:
The perils of national liberation are even clear when viewed externally, in terms of the world economic system in which the ‘liberated’ nation finds itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, really ends up being a perverse trick…The very concept of a liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe.
I was pleased to see that they now see some benefits in what they call progressive governments in Latin America. From the section titled “Progressive governments and social movements in Latin America” in chapter 3:
From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty’, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism. When these governments are in power, however, and particularly when they repeat the practices of the old regimes, the social movements continue the struggle, now directed against the governments that claim to represent them.
So the basic approach outlined here amounts to critical support. In Bolivia, for example, one assumes that Hardt and Negri would find some merit in the election of Evo Morales while identifying with the protestors who “continue the struggle”. The only question, of course, is whether it makes sense for Bolivians to follow the example of the EZLN and Spain’s indignados, who tend to abstain from electoral politics.
These questions take on some urgency in light of the recent election results in Greece that prompted many leading Spanish leftists to write an open letter to Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras:
We want you, the members of your organization and the Greek citizens who, as political activists, trade unionists or participants in broad social movements, share the project of creating a common life truly based on freedom and solidarity, to know the hope with which we throughout Europe anticipate the possibility that, soon, a new Greek government of popular unity will confront the dictatorship of the financiers and bureaucrats who have hijacked Europe.
We see the current conjuncture in Greece as a turning point which could lead to a radical transformation of the European political and economic order. We need a new Europe, a Europe of and for its citizens and all its inhabitants, free of the brutal austerity policies that prioritize the payment of an odious, illegal and illegitimate debt, which prevents the human development of our communities. This is the call heard today throughout the squares of Europe, from Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Syntagma Square in Athens, squares scattered all over the European geography, liberated places that are the seeds and the constituent basis of the real democracy that women and men in Europe want to build together.
Would it make sense for the Greek left to hold Syriza at arm’s length? I think not. No matter the weakness of the leadership on one point or another, the election of Syriza holds out the promise that the Greek people will finally begin to turn back the monstrous austerity drive being imposed on it by Germany and its international allies in the big bourgeoisie. Class society will not be abolished in the ballot box, but we should never stand on the sidelines when issues of whether or not pensions should be slashed in half are at stake.
If Hardt and Negri remain hostile to what they call “socialist governments”, they do—for the first time, I believe—hold out hope for what Marx (and Lenin) described as the building blocks of true democracy, the Paris Commune or Soviet type formation:
Several twentieth-century’ socialist initiatives, for example, sought to spread power in a federalist manner by putting power in the hands of workers and constructing the means for workers to make political decisions themselves. Workers’ councils constituted the central proposition of all streams of socialism that, contrary to the authoritarian currents, consider the primary’ objective of revolution to be democracy, that is, the rule of all by all. At least since the Paris Commune, the workers’ council in its many variants, such as the German rat or the Russian soviet, has been imagined as the basis for a federalist legislative power. Such councils and the forms of delegation they institute serve not so much to represent workers but instead to allow workers directly to participate in political decision making. In many historical instances, of course, these councils functioned in a constituent way only for a brief period.
Of course, the Paris Commune is the gold standard for practically everybody on the hard left, from Marxists to autonomists to anarchists. Like the classless society, how can anybody object to it? The big difference appears to be over transitional formations like the “progressive governments” in Latin America or the USSR, even before Stalin’s rise.
There are also differences over coordinated political action through the medium of a revolutionary organization. Since Leninism has become so compromised, there is a tendency for some on the left to make a principle out of “localism” or what has been called “horizontalism”.
In a politically backward country like the USA, it matters little if you are a “horizontalist” or a dyed-in-the-wool Leninist. We are not in the ninth month of a pregnancy so your ideological affinities with Bakunin or Marx could matter less. What matters most is being effective and on this score the anarchists were a credible force early on.
However, in Greece such questions have a bit more urgency whether or not the country is in the fifth month or the ninth. By the time you get to the fifth month of a pregnancy, you have to be damned careful or else you will end up with a de facto abortion if you don’t take care of yourself.
Politics, especially electoral politics, does matter in such conditions. It matters that the KKE has taken such a suicidally sectarian position. It is, with all proportions guarded, akin to the position that the German CP took during the rise of Hitler, when it opposed the social democracy as “social fascist”. Leftists in Greece have an obligation to counter the bourgeoisie on all fronts, including the electoral front.
On May 13, the NY Times wrote about the support that Greeks gave Syriza. For some, the election was a chance to put a “progressive government” in power of the kind that Hardt and Negri gave critical support to:
But it is Europe, fearful of encouraging more policy slippage by Greece, that has been pushing the austerity line. And the danger of such an approach is growing by the day, he said.
“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”
For the moment, it seems unlikely that Greece will get the chance to see if Mr. Tsipras — with his talk of repudiating the country’s debt and opposing privatization — will become as radicalized as Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan leader.
But his message that Greece can stay in the euro and reject Europe’s budget-cutting terms has struck a chord, however contradictory that may seem.
While everybody can understand the need for the revolutionary movement in Greece to apply pressure to a Syriza government from the left, in accord with the formulations in the Hardt-Negri article, it should be obvious to all that such an outcome hinges on Syriza taking power. In revolutionary politics, the final outcome—communism—rests on the outcome of many, many skirmishes and battles along the road to the final conflict. As such, keeping an open mind about electoral politics and every other medium of struggle is imperative.
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