Sunday, March 18, 2007 

Aquatic Conspirators: Drawings by Brandon Freels

Friday, March 02, 2007 

A Review of Dancin' in the Streets

Dancin in the Streets: Anarchists, IWWs, Surrealists, Situationists & Provos in the 1960s Edited with Introductions by Franklin Rosemont & Charles Radcliffe (Charles H Kerr, 1740 West Greenleaf Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60626) 447 pp. $17 paper.

Certain books have a magical glow to them. The choice of illustrations to accompany the text, the overall layout of the book and, most importantly, the writing, are all factors that contribute to whether a book has this special aura to it. As a lover of books and an avid reader of history, philosophy, poetry and literature, even the feel of a book in my hands is important. During long cold winters there are times when all I feel like doing is making a cup of scalding hot tea and lying cozily underneath the covers with a long Russian novel like Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

During the damp, cold and dreary winter this season in Portland I was fortunate enough to be able to get a hold of a copy of the exciting collection of texts from the radical 1960s publications Rebel Worker and Heatwave entitled Dancin’ in the Streets. When I started to read it I immediately realized that in spite of the dreary weather and world situation, spring would soon be around the corner. There is something alive in these texts and illustrations that are, in a sense, timeless. Indeed, it can’t be denied that both Heatwave and Rebel Worker are limited by the fact that they were produced in the 1960s. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that they speak in a language and spirit that is still relevant for our time (which is characterized by the politics of the real and a noticeable lack of utopian imagination).

But unlike what is often referred to as desire politics in the 21st century, these two publications actually discussed class struggle and made strong efforts to link said struggle with the everyday reality we face. And the result of such a discussion is nothing short of lively, dreamy and most of all, spirited. When radicals attempt to tackle similar questions today it tends to get weighed down with notions about how individuals only have to free themselves from the constraints of this society by becoming a hobo trainhopper (which, in the US in the early 20th century, was an extremely hard life that many had to lead due to economic necessity – and such a way of life shouldn’t be romanticized), by dropping out of it (forming a commune), or by living off the dregs of it (dumpster diving turned into a moral imperative – if one chooses not to rummage through smelly, dirty trashcans then, according to this logic, they are merely another privileged consumer).

Even though the texts in this collection are filled with a sort of youthful zealotry that borders on the naïve in places, the positive aspect is that they are not moralistic nor are they prone to playing the not-so-pleasant game of guilt tripping. Quite to the contrary. There is an empowering element to these texts which doesn’t make people feel despair or guilt about the world. Instead, the string of pieces brought together in this collection speak a language that would make a young person at that time believe that, through acting in the world against their condition, they could contribute to changing that very world. This is in marked contrast to our time.

Most radicals in the period we live in are of the opinion that revolutionization of this society is an impossibility. This stems from the fact that we living in a reactionary period, but it also reveals the historical amnesia that is so prevalent. When this author has mentioned certain revolutions like the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917 or Spain in the 1930s, there is frequently complete ignorance of the events and an inability to apply an understanding from such revolutions to the reality we confront on a daily basis.

For example, a belief in lesser-evilism is part of what destroyed the revolution in Spain in the 1930s (among many, many other factors). Rank and file Spaniards came to think that it was more important to fight the fascists than the conditions which breed fascism (the capitalist state and capitalism). The consequences of this capitulation are too dizzying to contemplate. As it relates to our own day, there are radicals who honestly believe that electing a Democrat to office would qualitatively alter the general make up of American politics. But a short gander back at American history proves otherwise. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1964 the Students for a Democratic Society held the position that Lyndon Johnson represented a lesser evil against the ultra conservative, Barry Goldwater (their slogan was “Half way with LBJ”). Their energy was ferreted out in the direction of championing Johnson as a man who could potentially get America out of the war. And their efforts paid off. Lyndon Johnson was elected on the platform of peace candidate. But within months of being elected he heightened US involvement in Vietnam by sending roughly 550,000 more US troops.

And this is where Dancin’ in the Streets offers a different pathway. In a very real sense, this book sees through many of the false choices and parallel dualisms that radicals created in the 1960s and continue to prattle on about in our own era (which is itself a consequence of the historical amnesia, and the inability to dream, which are both hallmark features of American life). The articles that appeared in Rebel Worker and Heatwave don’t have a thoroughly trenchant historical analysis (most of the articles are too short to offer this) but they don’t reject history. In an article that reviews Andy Anderson’s Hungary 1956 Penelope Rosemont tries to relate the lessons from the Hungarian uprising to American workers and youth by stating, “Those who have read the average daily voice of the employing class probably have the impression that the Hungarian Revolution was bourgeois-democratic, and that the Hungarians fought to gain “freedom” in the capitalist sense of free enterprise (p. 134).”

Another great aspect of Rebel Worker was its’ often times novel approach to the Vietnam War. While American radicals were, for the most part, seeing the war that raged in Southeast Asia within the imprisoning lens of imperialism = bad, anti-imperialism = good, Tor Faegre approvingly summarizes the London Solidarity group’s assessment of the conflict, in “Watching the War,” by saying, “For Solidarity (and for us) the battle cannot be viewed simply as a peasant guerilla war against a bad imperialist aggressor. Vietnam must be seen ‘in the context of the world situation – a world where the giant economic powers are struggling for supremacy (p.167).’ ” And he goes on to quote Bob Potter’s excellent pamphlet, Vietnam, published by Solidarity:

This pamphlet traces the history of the two Vietnams and how the people of both have been used. That the Vietnamese peasants are sincere revolutionaries is unquestioned. But how this dedication is used by Hanoi, Peking and Moscow is an altogether different matter. It is no the first time in the history of communism bureaucracies have been founded on the sacrifices of millions of revolutionaries (pp. 167-168).

Such a perspective is a welcome breath of fresh air in an age when radicals/leftists look back with nostalgia on late 1960s armed struggle groups like the Weatherman or the Symbionese Liberation Army. Such groups were products of the politics of despair but they were, more pointedly, guilt-ridden expressions of a radicalism that fetishisized violent confrontations with “First World” states (such organizations had little problem with “Third World” states once those states threw off the yoke of colonial oppression). Franklin Rosemont dismissingly states in his introduction that those involved in the Rebel Worker group regarded the Weathermen as “silly bourgeois twits (p. 73).” As we noted in Communicating Vessels No. 12:

…western Marxist-Leninists held the mistaken view that the Algerian and Vietnamese nation-states were a positive step on the road to mankind’s final emancipation. On the other hand, according to this logic, the French and American nation-states were seen as archconservative. Gone from this was an understanding that national-state entities, in whatever guise they take, are inherently militaristic and antagonistic to a libertarian social change project. Indeed, all nation-states (whether they be liberal capitalism like here in the US or the state-capitalist regime of Cuba) rely on a standing army and a police force, both of which are, by their very nature, conservative. (1)

Ken Knabb, seminal author of Public Secrets and translator of situationist texts, makes a point that parallels our argument. Based on his experience, he lucidly underscores the problem in Public Secrets:

…the healthy participatory-democracy tendencies of the early New Left were being smothered by browbeating, spectacularization and ideological delirium. Calls for terrorism and “picking up the gun” were echoed in much of the underground press. Activists who disdained “theoretical nitpicking” were caught unprepared when the Students for a Democratic Society was taken over by asinine sects debating which combination of Stalinist regimes to support (China, Cuba, Vietnam, Albania, North Korea). The vast majority of us were certainly not Stalinists (to speak for myself, even as a child, reading about the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, I had enough sense to know that Stalinism was total bullshit); but in our ignorance of political history it was easy to identify with martyrized heroes like Che Guevara or the Vietcong as long as they were exotic enough that we didn’t really know much about them. Fixating on the spectacle of Third World struggles, we had little awareness of the real issues at play in modern society.

It is truly unfortunate that bowl-twaddle like Max Elbaum’s 2002 book entitled Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (2) or Bill Ayer’s jaundiced trip back to the happenings of the Weather Underground in his Fugitive Days: A Memoir (3) will sell like hotcakes while a book like Dancin’ in the Streets will almost certainly be neglected by most young American radicals. This is to be expected. As has been stated again and again image, pragmatism and rhetoric – even in radical circles – take precedence over contemplative and imaginative critiques of the world we live in. Dancin’ in the Streets, does not, in the texts reproduced from Heatwave, Rebel Worker or in the introductory pieces by Franklin Rosemont and Charles Radcliffe, discuss in machismo posturing and language, how they will single-handedly take down the state in an armed group separate from the population. Instead we are presented with reasonably well-thought-out and playful texts that expose the absurdity of our world. Unlike the assorted leftist groups that pandered to guilt-tripping, the texts in both Rebel Worker and Heatwave sought to empower workers and young people to take control of a world that was (and still is) spiraling from one crisis to the next.

All the same, Rosemont, in his introduction written in 2004, critically reflects on his past by acknowledging, “All of us were gifted in the arts of obstinacy and impatience (traditional favorites of young radicals everywhere), and we practiced them aplenty (p. 78).” Although I agree that instances of the 1960s sentiment of “the revolution must take place at this moment or I might as well not even bother at all” is evident in many of the texts collected here, none of them are graced with the rhetorical flourishes of violence so common back then.

Another factor that contributed to the overall effectiveness of Rebel Worker as a street sheet was the focus on everyday concerns of young people and workers alike. Jim Evrard’s essay – which appeared in Rebel Worker No. 7 – “Five O’ Clock World 2: Workers’ Hobbies” in which he writes, in confrontational language, that the supposed hobbies that many attend to in their free time away from wage labor are not actual compensation for devoting one’s life to making the boss rich. Unfortunately the article suffers from the illusion that machines will liberate human beings by doing the work deemed as onerous.

The articles reproduced from Heatwave are equally as compelling as those that Rosemont chose to reprint from Rebel Worker. There are two excellent pieces about the Dutch Provos that effectively spell out the function of the Provos and where they were coming from socially and politically. Both of the articles are teeming with energy and enthusiasm. When I read Charles Radcliffe’s diary-like “Daytripper! A Visit to Amsterdam!” I felt like I was living in a whole different era – one in which people were actually putting in the effort to transform the world. And Amsterdam was a key locale that saw such efforts. But who were the Provos? The primary intention of the Provos was to provoke, and they did just that. Sensing that the modern city was becoming a cesspool of exhaust and atomization – due in large measure to the private automobile – they envisioned white bike plans where thousands of bicycles would be placed around the city for anyone to ride. The Provos provided the first fifty bicycles which were quickly confiscated by the police. Other of their white plans included free day care centers and the like. Moreover, their overall approach to rebellion was playful. I have read over Radcliffe’s article more than once and every time I’ve done so it is like being taken on a fantastic journey through the narrow streets of that scented city with youthful idealists who are as determined to change the world as Radcliffe himself. But Radcliffe isn’t content merely romanticizing the Provos. He takes the leadership to task for holding the illusion that change can emanate from city council. Apparently, according to Radcliffe, the leadership suggested that infiltration from the inside was the way to dismantle its authority. Meeting with Roel van Duyn, editor of Provo, Radcliffe expressed surprise that an avowed anarchist group would so brusquely disassociate itself from the riots that the Provos, in a way, were responsible for fomenting.

Taken together, the introductions by Rosemont and Radcliffe are helpful in clarifying the contexts in which the texts were written. Furthermore, both authors are critical of certain aspects of their activities in the 1960s. They simultaneously make note of the fact that they were young and perhaps in a certain sense naïve (who isn’t at such a ripe age?), but at the same time they bring to light that their critique was actually alive and made a whole hell of a lot of sense for a time that noticeably lacked such an erstwhile and delirious analysis.

* * *

In the year 2005 there are no publications I’m aware of that are in any way comparable to the approach that Rebel Worker and Heatwave took during the 1960s. Admittedly, as editor of Communicating Vessels, I was without a doubt influenced by Rebel Worker and Black & Red (a publication put together in the late 1960s primarily by Fredy and Lorraine Perlman) when I first stumbled upon them a few years ago. I keenly remember rummaging through the vast stock of closed archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society enamored by the spirit of both publications. The mimeographed sheets of Rebel Worker and the printed pages of Black & Red were an entrance into the activities of a small minority of 1960s radicals. The attitude, creativity and overall passion put into the publications struck a resounding note in me. And both of them prove to be an influential reference point for Communicating Vessels.

With all of this in mind, I hope the modest efforts of those involved with producing Rebel Worker, Heatwave and Black & Red can help motivate a new generation to hold steadfast – even in our despairing period – to their dreams, principles and commitment to transforming the world.

Anthony Leskov
Originally published in Communicating Vessels 16 (2005)

Endnotes: (1) Communicating Vessels, No. 12, January/February 2004, “Nationalism, Internationalism and Social Identity,” pg. 35. (2) Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London; New York: Verso, 2002) makes the argument that the turn to Third World nationalism was a logical response to world developments in the 1960s. His argument has a ring of truth to it. However, this response cannot be seen as a positive one. It was one of the many wrong turns that radicals made in the 1960s that we need to learn from – and unlike Elbaum, not feel longingly nostalgic about. (3) Bill Ayer’s Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) is a glaring example of an account of all the faults of the Weathermen. Moreover, the patriarchal nature of the organization is easily detected in the text. The chief problem with it is that it reads like a rompingly callous and seedy adventure novel. It is unfortunate that Ayers tends to trivialize the asinine violence that the Weathermen were so responsible for fomenting among young people. In contrast to the various laudatory tracts that have been surfacing lately on the Weathermen and similar groups, I strongly recommend Charles Denby’s Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989). Denby was a Marxist-Humanist, associated with Marxist theorist Raya Dunayevskaya. In chapters 20 and 22, he does a remarkable job criticizing certain Black Panthers and even Angela Davis. He points out how a lot of what was being said by such people was often showy, militant rhetoric. Equally as important is Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Boston: South End Press, 1998) by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin. Their book traces the rise and fall of the rank and file black workers organization, League of Revolutionary Black Workers. There is also an incredibly moving documentary film on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers entitled Finally Got the News. It is worth going out of your way to see. I think both books and the documentary are useful antidotes to the steady stream of crap flooding the market on the 1960s. The annoying part of it is that none of these works are nearly as widely read or viewed as the umpteenth book or documentary on assorted Maoist and Stalinist sects from the same period.

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