Life on the Fringe: An Inauguration Day Story

obama fans3

OR: Foofooraw: The Dialectic of Impotence

2:45 pm: the day before Obama’s inauguration. The temperature is well below zero. I’m more than slightly intoxicated, ruing the poor blood circulation in my hands and wondering if Shyne is still in prison, all the while navigating through checkpoints around the White House on the way back to my dorm.  I strike up a conversation with, then give two exchange students from Germany some absolutely awful directions.  Unable to convince a national guardsman that I’m not an immediate threat to F and 18th, I’m forced to take a three block detour through a crowd of people.  I’m no misanthrope, but I was fairly certainly that most of these people were trying to sell me crap I didn’t want.  I politely refuse Obama flair of every size and shape and put my headphones in to listen to some '80’s pop music.  I figure that no one in their right mind would bother someone looking at the ground, speed walking and blasting Prince.  I was right.  First, I was accosted by some religious types.  Christian Zionists, to be specific.  “One Jerusalem,” “Obama’s a Muslim,” some ranting about the Second Coming.  I wondered what Berl Katznelson would say.  I wondered what could have possibly went wrong in a 19-year old’s life that he would know who Berl Katznelson was?  I thought about the pretty, now probably hopelessly lost, Germans.  Poor girls.  I gave my directions with such confidence.  I snap back to consciousness and the teenage comrade of Israel is still raving. But having just read Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, which caused me to reconsider my lifelong atheism, I'm especially polite to my pasty friend and I grab some of his publications.  I know that their literature is “ironical” enough for one of my friends to want to put in a scrapbook or something.  I take a few more copies.  More for me, less for them to confuse people prone to confusion with.

Ten steps later, still looking down at the ground, thinking about how great the word “foofooraw” is, I hear two more magic words that send a warm tingle down my spine, “Bob Avakian.”  I’d seen copies of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s (unimaginatively named) Revolution newspaper strewn about the street during the past few days and I had heard strange stories of encounters with Übermensch. Those whom braved the bitter cold to speak of their dear leader’s plan to “serve masses and make glorious proletarian revolution.”  I quickly discard my Starbucks cup and shove my Iphone into my back pocket.  Yes, an Iphone that cost, a perpetually broke student, 40 some odd labor hours.  It may seem like a decadent extravagance, but if you’re among the few that are suddenly compelled to find out the legal status of Shyne’s case or the definition of “foofooraw,” it’s an absolute necessity.  Now fully de-bourgeoisified, I venture forth to introduce myself to my comrades.  After a few years on the radical left, I finally found the elusive vanguard.

If I pretended like the ensuing conversation was especially enlightening, instead of bitterly frustrating and depressing, anyone who has journeyed on the left would call me out.  To preface, deep down inside I wasn’t seeking any sort of critical, pedagogical dialogue. I really engaged with “comrades” from the RCP for the same reason that I tell small children that the Easter Bunny is a revengeful and jealous god -- I find these kind of exchanges hilarious.  As a matter of fact, they are the only things that keep me going.

The conversation should have been significantly better than the ones I normally have.  After all, while talking with the two redshirted cadre, I took special care to avoid thinking about Thai transsexual scat porn, time travel paradoxes or Michael Moore’s sex life -- things that normally consume me.  They hit me with their usual scripted routine, but I interrupt them and announce that I was already a Marxist.  Why, they ask, am I not a member of the RCP?  I mention that the RCP doesn’t have a presence around Washington D.C., plus I was a “post-Trotskyist” of sorts.  They had traveled to DC from the Bay Area and New York respectively, but didn’t seem to have any idea what a “post-Trotskyist” could be.  I asked them why they put so much emphasis around this elusive Bob Avakian character.

The response came quickly and almost robotically, “Bob Avakian’s renowned thinking is a bomb that needs to placed in the hands of workers and progressive-minded peoples.”  I think the words “people’s struggle,” “imperialism” and “socio-capitalist” were also thrown about rather incoherently.

The younger RCPer added that, “The RCP is the only group committed to actually going out and doing ‘stuff’, not just sitting around and talking about doing ‘the stuff’.”

I asked what kind of “stuff” the rest of the left should be doing and I was met by a rant about the Black Panther Party, which Bob Avakian helped start (don’t tell Huey) and how it did real “stuff.”  I suddenly understood why Michael Harrington sometimes liked to present himself as a social democrat.

I should have probably given a Chris Cutrone-esque prognosis about the unforeseeablity of relevant, emancipatory politics with the coherent composition of the left.  I could have recommended some more sane socialist thinkers, like Irving Howe or Joseph M. Schwartz, to these comrades.  But it was cold and I didn’t really give a care.  Plus, my Christian Zionist friend a half-block away was giving me a dirty look. I mention that I had to go and the older Avakianista kindly offers his contact information.  I’m sure, dear reader, that you’ve been offered contact information that you never planned to use before. And I’m sure you waited patiently, while your new “friend” fumbled for a pen and a scrap of paper.  I’m sure you smiled and took the number and promised to call if you were ever around.  But there are always alternate choices in life, if only you're enough of a jerk to go and find them -- so I just walk away, like a tall girl impervious to my 5’7'' charm.


Jonathan Swift compared satire to a mirror in which people could see every face besides for that of their own.  I ran into the RCP, one of the left’s most absurd and pathetic little cults, but the brief encounter was a microcosm for what’s wrong with the entire radical left.  The RCP is languishing on the fringe of American society, spouting arcane rhetoric and claiming to speak for a class that is largely not even conscious of its own existence.  What were those RCP cadre hoping to accomplish by hawking their crappy r-r-r-revolutionary wares?  Did they want to gain a couple more members to cover for those constantly leaving (all small sects suffer from a high turnover and attrition)?  The same can be said for the more sane (it’s all relative) and respectable members of the socialist left like the International Socialist Organization.  It begs the question, is this how students of the Russian Revolution really think mass movements are born?  By building a small sect with the right line member-by-member, brick-by-brick until it can pose the question of power?  By tailing movements, exaggerating the level of struggle and deemphasizing their own impotence?

Deep down inside all the groups on the radical left, from the ISO to the CCDS, recognize the marginalization they face and the need to actually engage with the polity.  Unfortunately, the bulk of these groups work under the illusion that their “front groups” serve this purpose.  The quasi-Stalinist Party for Socialism and Liberation has the ANSWER Coalition, the ISO has the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, etc. etc.  What we have in these groups are a mix of crude, autocratic centralism, a secretive, conspiratorial emphasis on “respectable” front groups and an absurd overemphasis on hawking their party publications.  Ostensibly, this magic recipe amounts to “independent class action”, but what it really does is create self-sustaining, marginal, groups.  On the flipside of the coin, groups like the Communist Party USA have shown astounding naivety about the character of the Obama administration and try to maintain a tenuous connection with the mainstream by giving left cover to the Democratic Party.

If you put a gun to my head and asked me if the left could be a powerful enough force in the 21st century to pose the question of power, I’d take the safe bet and say absolutely not.  But, there can probably be a more effective politics.  A good start would be working towards a regroupment of a democratic, internationalist, socialist left in an open, democratic, multi-tendency organization that respects freedom of intra-organizational debate (there is a simpler term for this, but apparently it’s taboo).  The tasks for this generation’s left is creating this kind of coherent, pole of opposition that would multiple by many times the effectiveness of our current ventures.  The truth is there are many talented figures on the left, people with real skill and experience organizing and relating to working people.  The status quo is not doing this latent talent justice.

As I looked back at the Christian Zionists and the confused RCPers, I felt like that big, dumb horse at the end of Animal Farm.  My eyes flickered from face to face, from Maoist to Christian fundamentalist, from stogie of Avakian to weed-carrier of Hagee, and it was impossible to tell, which one was which.

This isn’t a call for “bourgeois respectability” or for acceding to the ground rules of mainstream politics, but it is somewhat of a reality check. Comrades, like Ice Cube said to NWA, “Here’s what they think about you”:

Attending the [National Equality March] was a "waste of time at best," Barney Frank told a reporter a few days before. "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."
According to NBC News' John Harwood, administration officials viewed demonstrators--and, in fact, anyone who criticizes Obama from the left--as an "Internet left fringe" that "needs to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult."

Ouch!  They certainly aren’t using any Vaseline, but they might be right.  Maybe getting ignored at the G20 was precisely what the left deserved.  The left can’t just pop out of nowhere a few weekends of a year and expect to me treated as a real political force instead of an absurd aberration.  In all likelihood things will never change.  The psuedo-left loves the word “resistance”, because it likes the almost biblical struggle it represents.  We, the weak, the holy, against them, the Goliaths, the malevolent.  We’ll lose, but at least we’ll have a history of bitter defeats to reminiscence about.  This fatalism is deeply engrained on the left.  Che Guevara’s martyrdom won’t be forgotten by the psuedo-left, but what of the real, living, contradictions in Cuban society today?  How many young Black Panthers died in Oakland, while students cheered on from Berkeley?  Has this adolescent thirst for violence really changed in a left willing to cheerlead anyone, no matter how reactionary, in their resistance against “the Empire”? The fetish of “resistance” implies that there will always be the enemy taking the initiative to resist.  The left, whether conscious of it or not, will probably be unable to break its addiction to this paradigm and engage in more productive politics that might actually one day yield victory. Victory will beget a counterrevolutionary resistance -- the reactionaries resisting the agents of History.  Isn’t that a novel idea?

There has been some inspiring recent attempts at unity and organization across the broader Western left.  Specifically, SYRIZA in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal and the New Anticapitalist Party in France.  These nations have a far more vibrant left and more residual class consciousness, but there are certainly some lessons to be learned.

Maybe I’m a jaded young man, but I feel like these banner drops, the reactionary yearnings for pre-capitalist society, the black blocs, the “revolutionary” newspapers, the self-appointed vanguard sects, are at worst a waste of time and resources and, at best, some entertaining foofooraw. 

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