With his feline features, rail-thin yoga instructor body, and white-boy dreadlocks down to his buttocks, B. Traven might have won the debate against the pear-shaped, tan Dacron summer suit wearing, and dour-faced Chris Hedges on looks alone. It was the biggest mismatch I had seen since the Yippie tag-team of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman went up against SWP leader Fred Halstead in 1969 over “Which Way for the Antiwar Movement?” You probably know what Rubin and Hoffman looked like but Fred Halstead can best be described as a 350 pound, 6’6” behemoth with a face like a delegate’s to a Republican Party convention.
Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman
For me the appearance of SWP leaders like Fred Halstead was an asset since I had come to the conclusion that the mainstream of American society had to be won to our cause. Fred had been the leader of a G.I.’s “bring us home” movement in 1946 that led indirectly to the victory of a socialist revolution in China. As a long-time cutter in the garment industry and a housing project resident, Fred was totally “salt of the earth” and a marked contrast to Rubin and Hoffman both culturally and politically.
Ironically the debate between Hedges and Traven was a rehash in many ways of the 1969 debate. While Rubin and Hoffman were not interested in breaking windows, they definitely sought to create “confrontations” with the cops that would lead to billy club and tear gas attacks on protestors with the ultimate goal of radicalizing those who were beaten and jailed. Fred recounts the differences in “Out Now”, a history of the Vietnam antiwar movement:
SDS was bent on “doing its own thing,” which Rubin kept inviting people to do, in line with his dream of initiating wholesale disruption. Dellinger tended to dismiss the wilder statements of SDSers, Rubin, and others in those milieux as idle rhetoric. There was truth to this, but the rhetoric itself was hurting the mass character of the march. It was also the height of folly, in my view, because it gave the police a ready-made excuse to physically attack the demonstration. To counter this the SWP demanded assurances as to the peaceful, legal character of the mass march and rally. We pressed for this to be made publicly clear.
There were also some of the pacifists—like Brad Lyttle and Peter Kiger—who were uneasy about the “do-your-own-thing” rhetoric. They wanted assurances as to the nonviolent discipline. The SWP joined in these demands. But the area of rapprochement with those bent on “doing their own thing” was narrow.
Dellinger in this period was in the unenviable position of negotiating with Rubin and SDS on the one hand and some of the moderate groups on the other. He was, after all, a pacifist committed to nonviolence across the board. The SWPers were not. To him our stand may have seemed like a hypocritical maneuver against Rubin and SDS. But it wasn’t. We simply held to the position that the nonviolent tactic was necessary in order to maintain the mass character of the action under the given circumstances. A free-for-all fight—rhetorical or otherwise—was not part of the agreement.
This had nothing to do with “vacillation and timidity.” It had to do with keeping the movement’s statement clear and attracting the masses. One thing the new-guard SDSers had difficulty understanding was that ordinary people stay away from physical fights they can’t possibly win, not because they lack courage or conviction, but because they think it’s crazy or too costly.
In essence Chris Hedges defended an SWP-type position against B. Traven even though he has made a point of attacking both Marx and Lenin on occasion. I believe that Hedges has not really conducted a rigorous study of Marxism to this date and hope that he will at some point. He has said in the past and during last night’s debate that the Russian Revolution was peaceful and that the violence came from the Czarist forces. That demonstrates to me that he has at least gotten past Cold War Kremlinology even if he has on at least one occasion referred to Lenin “hijacking” the revolution.
The key point that Hedges made over and over again is the same as Halstead’s, namely the need to involve the mainstream. In his article likening the black bloc to cancer (I would have been more specific and likened them to intestinal cancer), he made a point that could have been lifted from “Out Now”:
This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience.
The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans.
Dave Dellinger, Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman and SDS all turned toward “confrontationism” out of frustration with the inability of mass demonstrations to end the war two or three years into the movement. They calculated that a “temper tantrum”, especially by middle-class white kids, would cause such angst among the ruling class that the war would end. A strong corollary of this approach was a belief in supporting “peace candidates” such as Eugene McCarthy. The 1968 convention was selected as a protest site in order to put pressure on the Democrats to adopt a peace platform.
Despite himself, B. Traven demonstrated the same kind of impatience during the debate but over a different war. When Chris Hedges referred to the futility of breaking windows, Traven responded by pointing to the 2003 demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq. Look, he said, these were the biggest protests in decades and what did they accomplish? The invasion took place anyhow. Hedges responded ably by pointing out that the antiwar movement essentially closed shop in 2004 in order to elect John Kerry, so the mass action approach was not really given a chance to work. This, of course, was a function of the CPUSA leadership of the peace movement. Given its craven support for the Democratic Party, the liquidation of the movement was a foregone conclusion. The only alternative to the CP was the SWP of the 1960s and 70s when people like Fred Halstead were around. Nowadays it is nothing but a cult around Jack Barnes whose newspaper gave implicit support for the invasion by characterizing the 2003 demonstrations as “anti-American”.
I came to the debate with the heightened expectations that it would approximate the fireworks of the Halstead-Yippie debate. Would B. Traven take out a spray-paint can in the middle of the debate and write “Death to Capitalism” across Hedges’s forehead? No such luck. For the most part he served as a kind of attorney for the black bloc or even a social worker or priest in the style of those 1930s to 1950s movies about juvenile delinquents. You know the kind of film I am talking about, with someone like Spencer Tracy telling the judge, “Your Honor, these boys are not bad. They are just a product of their environment and have to be understood.”
That’s what I heard from Traven when he explained why the black bloc was so strong in Oakland. It was because Oscar Grant was shot and killed by transit cops in 2009 and none of them were charged with a crime. Evidently there must be something wrong with New York City activists since a string of such killings, including Amadou Diallo, has prompted no Starbucks windows being broken or riots in the Black community for that matter. The reaction has mainly consisted of mass mobilizations led by Al Sharpton that have since abated since his absorption into the Obama/MSNBC liberal machinery.
Traven also tried to put vandalism into a global context, demanding to know why people like Hedges hail the Egyptian mass movement while opposing the black bloc here. After all, 100s of police stations were burned to the ground in Egypt. Hedges calmly replied that Egypt was a dictatorship with hundreds, if not thousands, of its citizens being denied the right to form opposition parties and forced to endure imprisonment, torture or state-sponsored executions. When the mass movement defended itself against police terror in Tahrir Square, that’s a far cry from spray-painting a Whole Foods window. If and when class polarization in the U.S. deepens to the point when we have to face such repression, it will make sense for the masses to use whatever means necessary to defend their rights. My guess is that under such conditions, the last place they will look for help is from the trick-or-treat, spring break in Fort Lauderdale boys behind the masks wearing black.
The last thing I want to do is waste my time exploring the thinking of Crimethinc.com, the website/collective that B. Traven belongs to but there is one article that I found quite revealing even if its points were not made during the debate by its dreadlocked spokesman. In an article titled “What Does Democracy Mean?”, they reach the interesting conclusion that it is not worth fighting for:
Our forebears overthrew kings and dictators, but they didn’t abolish the institutions by which kings and dictators ruled: they democratized them. Yet whoever operates these institutions—whether it’s a king, a president, or an electorate—the experience on the receiving end is roughly the same. Laws, bureaucracy, and police came before democracy; they function the same way in a democracy as in a dictatorship. The only difference is that, because we can cast ballots about how they should be applied, we’re supposed to regard them as ours even when they’re used against us.
Can you imagine someone passing out a leaflet with such ideas inscribed to sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1962? Or to someone living under Mubarak’s iron fist? Democracy means rule of the people, an idea of course that can only be fully realized under socialism. But the fight for socialism cannot be advanced unless working people have the right to form unions, to publish newspapers, to assemble in public and enjoy the freedoms afforded us under the Bill of Rights.
The sneering attitude toward democracy of course goes hand in hand with the whole black bloc modus operandi, where an affinity group decides unilaterally what it will do and when it will do it. Those who have studied the origins of the tactic will know that the autonomist movement in Germany initiated it. The autonomy they sought was not just from the capitalist state but also from the trade unions and left parties that workers built—with all their flaws. It did not matter that millions of workers decided that a General Strike would culminate in a peaceful demonstration. If the autonomists decided that Molotov cocktails had to be thrown, it was up to them and not the stupid workers to decide. My suspicion is that if we ever reach such an advanced stage in the U.S., we will have to be on close guard to make sure that young men in masks don’t act in unaccountable fashion. Vigilance will be necessary to defend the workers movement that surely will be arising under the conditions of permanent economic decline.
Chris Hedges observed during the debate that the Occupy movement never died, it just took different forms such as the Teachers strike in Chicago that is using mass mobilization. Can you imagine what the impact on the strike would have been if black bloc idiots had decided to start breaking windows during the mass demonstrations? Thank goodness they figured out that they would have been effectively drummed out of the movement if they did. Let’s hope that they figure out better ways in the future to oppose corporate rule. The movement needs unity at all costs today and everybody’s help is needed in moving forward. Everybody.