Archive for the ‘Anarchism’ Category

Edward Abbey

June 3, 2013


The latest issue of CounterPunch contains an article by Jeffrey St. Clair, in which he expresses his deep indignation that some people have actually dared to criticize something that appeared on his poorly edited and politically confused website. The article is mostly not very interesting, but my curiosity was piqued by the following passage in which St. Clair recounts a conversation he allegedly had with Joshua Frank:

    “Right, right. Are we Trots?”
    “Not that I know of.”
    “Doug Henwood just wrote that we were Edward Abbeyists.”
    “Sounds good to me.”
    “He didn’t mean it as a compliment.”
    “What does he know? He hasn’t left his apartment in the last 12 years.”

I have never met Doug Henwood, but I feel reasonably certain that he does leave his apartment sometimes, if only to buy groceries at the very least. That’s not what concerns me here, however. What interests me is that St. Clair and Frank apparently see themselves as “Edward Abbeyists”. (The correct term is “Abbeyists”. I know, I’m nitpicking.)

Edward Abbey was an American writer and environmentalist. I remember that his writings were very popular during the 1980’s. They influenced the radical environmentalist movement of that period, as well as some anarchists. However, I don’t hear his name mentioned often nowadays. When I lived in Oregon, the anarchists I met there mostly talked about Kropotkin and Bakunin. There may be any number of reasons for this, but I suspect that one of them may be that Abbey sometimes wrote things like this:

    This being so, it occurs to some of us that perhaps evercontinuing [sic] industrial and population growth is not the true road to human happiness, that simple gross quantitative increase of this kind creates only more pain, dislocation, confusion, and misery. In which case it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. At least until we have brought our own affairs into order. Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which – let us be honest about this – is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful–yes, beautiful!–society, for another. The alternative, in [sic] the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see. [Emphasis added.]

This is from an article that Abbey wrote for The New York Times. The Times, which has never been a huge defender of immigrants, refused to publish it.

How did Abbey propose to keep out these “culturally-morally-genetically impoverished” people? He tells us:

    Therefore-let us close our national borders to any further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, as does every other nation on earth. The means are available, it’s a simple technical-military problem. Even our Pentagon should be able to handle it. We’ve got an army somewhere on this planet, let’s bring our soldiers home and station them where they can be of some actual and immediate benefit to the taxpayers who support them.

So, Abbey wanted to militarize the U.S.-Mexican border. Some environmentalist. Few things are more environmentally destructive than an army.

Elsewhere, Abbey wrote:

    Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

One sympathetic article in The New York Times described him as as a “a melancholic naturalist who loved the land but did not care much for Indians, Hispanics or blacks.”

This melancholic naturalist is the man with whom the editors of CounterPunch politically identify.


Letter from a Young Radical

May 24, 2013

Bhaskar Sunkara

Bhaskar Sunkara, the young editor of Jacobin magazine, has an article in The Nation entitled Letter to ‘The Nation’ From a Young Radical. He begins by making a critique of liberalism that is both non-dogmatic and non-sectarian. He writes:

    Liberalism’s original sin lies in its lack of a dynamic theory of power. Much of its discourse is still fixated on an eighteenth-century Enlightenment fantasy of the “Republic of Letters,” which paints politics as a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas. The best program, when well argued by the wise and well-intentioned, is assumed to prevail in the end. Political action is disconnected, in this worldview, from the bloody entanglement of interests and passions that mark our lived existence.

Liberals see politics as a conflict of ideas, when it is actually a conflict of class interests. This misapprehension leads liberals to view the Democratic Party as their party, when it is actually a party representing corporate interests. Most of them have lined up behind President Obama, who is not a liberal, not even on social issues. (Consider the frantic efforts of Obama’s justice department to prevent the Morning After Pill from being sold over the counter.) In effect, liberals are in an impossible position politically.

Sunkara is more optimistic about the situation of radicals, despite the defeat of the Occupy movement, citing the emergence of new radical thinkers and journals, but he believes that radicals need to reach out beyond their narrow circles. He writes:

    Which is to say that the left needs a plan—a plan that must incorporate more moderate allies. American radicalism has had a complex and at times contradictory association with liberalism. At the peak of the socialist movement, leftists fed off liberal victories. Radicals, in turn, have added coherence and punch to every key liberal struggle and advance of the past century. Such a mutually beneficial alliance could be in the works again. The first step is to smash the existing liberal coalition and rebuild it on a radically different basis.

Sunkara cites the recent struggles against school closures in Chicago and in Philadelphia as an example of an issue on which radicals and liberals can work together.

I think that Sunkara’s arguments are worth consideration and discussion. It certainly doesn’t appear that anyone else on the Left has any better ideas at the moment. The “red-brown” strategy favored by websites such as Counterpunch and Dissident Voice is obviously a dead end. Kasama Project is trying to revive Maoism – as if a peasant rebellion were a real possibility in this country. And the ISO’s particular brand of Trotskyism appears to have only limited appeal. We need to find a way for the Left to move forward.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh

January 13, 2013


After reading my review of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a friend of mine recommended that I watch the 2002 Indian film, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, which also touches upon the question of what tactics should be used in the struggle against injustice. Although Bhagat Singh (1907-1931) is little known in the U.S., he is famous in India for his role in the Indian independence movement. He rejected Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance. He was a founding member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, which sought to organize a mass uprising against the British. When the Indian writer, Lala Lajpat Rai, died after being beaten by the police, Singh and his comrades killed a British police officer in revenge. Later, they threw bombs in the Indian National Assembly, with the intent of getting themselves arrested. Singh hoped that his speeches at the trial would inspire the Indian people to rise up against their colonizers. His trial received considerable attention, and for a time he became as popular as Gandhi. However, this did not stop the British from executing him.

This film shows Gandhi in an unflattering light. It accuses him of dropping his demand that the Viceroy commute Singh’s death sentence so that he could get a political pact with the British granting limited rights to Indians. Given all the adulation given to Gandhi in both India and the West, it’s interesting to see a film that portrays him in a negative manner. In effect, it accuses him of being willing to sacrifice principle in order to get an agreement with the British.

The director, Rajkumar Santoshi, paints the story of Singh’s life in broad strokes. He doesn’t spend much time on character development. Singh (Ajay Devgan) appears fearless and wise almost from the time of his birth. And in true Bollywood fashion, there are musical numbers. Singh sings. He sings (twice) while he is on a hunger strike, and he sings while he is going to his execution. The Legend of Bhagat Singh emphasizes Singh’s advocacy of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation. (Singh came from a Sikh family, but he became an atheist at an early age.) Santoshi clearly wanted to remind his fellow Indians of Singh’s politics, which are more relevant than ever with the sectarian violence that has sometimes taken place in that country in recent years. No doubt Santoshi thought that following the conventions of Bollywood would give the film more appeal, although I’m told that it actually did not do well at the box office. In all honesty, I could have done without the singing, but I found this a compelling film nonetheless.

Some Thoughts on the Occupy Movement

July 8, 2012

At CounterPunch, Alexander Cockburn has an article about the Occupy movement. Although Cockburn makes some valid criticisms, I think he is too dismissive of the movement as a whole. He writes, “People have written complicated pieces trying to prove it’s not over, but if ever I saw a dead movement, it is surely Occupy.” In fact there are still Occupy groups all over the country, and many of them still hold regular meetings. It is true, however, that the movement doesn’t have as strong a presence as it did last winter. It’s possible, I think, that the movement might be in better shape if some things had been done differently.

In hindsight, I think it was a mistake not to put forward clear demands. The argument that I often heard for not doing so was that demands would lead to disagreements, which would lead to divisions. Yet disagreements and divisions happened anyway. Political clarity was sacrificed in order to attain an impossible ideal of group harmony. The greatest division, it seems to me, was, and is, between those who favor Black Bloc tactics and those who advocate Gandhian non-violent resistance. These two approaches are, in fact, mutually exclusive. This can not be covered up by platitudes about “diversity of tactics”. Some tactics are incompatible with others.

I suspect that this exaggerated fear of division is what drives the insistence upon a consensus approach to decision-making. The argument was that consensus, although time-consuming, will bring everyone into harmonious agreement. Yet some people became dissatisfied and left anyway, as would have happened under simple majority rule. So, what has been gained by having consensus? Nothing that I can see.

Then there is the pretense of “leaderlessness”. The truth is that some people become unofficial leaders, either because they are very good at making arguments, or because they possess specialized skills that are useful to the movement, or because they are simply both willing and able to devote an enormous amount of time and energy to the cause. Wouldn’t it make sense to acknowledge this and make these people directly accountable to the entire group?

Cockburn makes one point that strikes me as particularly salient. He writes:

    Where was the knowledge of, let along [sic] the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors [sic] of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took [sic] McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
Yet when one [sic] raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Typographical errors aside, what Cockburn says here is true of much of the U.S. left. How many American leftists have even heard of A.J. Muste? Or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement? Or C.L.R. James? (Although you can always find an anarchist who is willing to talk your arm off about Kronstadt.) On left-wing British websites you can find informed discussions about such topics as the Battle of Cable Street, the 1926 General Strike, or Trotsky’s conception of the united front. We have nothing quite like this here in this country. There is little effort among the U.S. left to learn from the successes and failures of the past. It’s as though we must continually re-invent the wheel. What’s more, this historical amnesia makes us vulnerable to all kinds of dishonesty, as when, in Capitalism: A Love Story, Michale Moore reminds us of the 1936 Flint sit-down strike – only to make the false claim that F.D.R. sent in National Guard troops to defend the strikers from the police. In fact, they were sent there to intimidate the strikers.

These are just some thoughts I have had about the Occupy movement and about the U.S. left in general. I would be interested to hear what other people have to say about these topics.