Friday, June 22, 2012

This Is Not Gay Liberation

It's gay pride season. This weekend is New York City's big gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride parade. I've gone almost every year since I've lived in New York City, over thirty years. My first Pride was 1977, before I lived here. In the middle I went to Pride in Chicago. I marched many of those years. For a while I was even a member of the official planning coalition, before it became a nonprofit corporation. Back in those days we called it a gay pride "march."

The gay world has been abuzz with what would seem to be a slew of victories. The repeal of DADT has brought gay pride to, of all places, the Pentagon, where the masters of war plot how to subvert and attack people around the world. Apparently they will be taking a few moments from piloting child-killing drones over Pakistan and Yemen to celebrate "our rich diversity," as the flyer above reads. Later this year there will be a celebration of the end of DADT at the Intrepid, the aircraft-carrier turned museum floating in the Hudson off a New York City pier. That is, if they can swab the decks free of the bloodstains of thousands of Vietnamese killed by the Intrepid's planes in its period of service in the American war of aggression against Vietnam in the 1960s. Look! A rainbow flag!

Corporate sponsors are big news this year: a whole bunch of dubious corporations from Wells Fargo to Target have rolled out those rainbow flags, and the gay community rejoices, apparently turning a blind eye to the actual, you know, business practices and social role of these corporations. Hey, they're pro gay!

And speaking of taking time off from piloting drones, President Obama, er, came out in support of marriage equality. Well, he came out personally as a supporter of gay marriage. The day after the lesbian and gay community of North Carolina was devastated by a brutally anti-gay referendum that the President failed to comment on. Did I mention he thinks marriage equality is a states rights issue so his personal opinion doesn't mean he will intervene in such state struggles in the future? Oh sure I understand the limits of his executive power. He has certainly made clear the limits of his moral authority. It might come as no surprise that the gay community, deeply distrustful of Obama, immediately jumped full force on his reelection bandwagon. Seemingly, the only gay voices continuing criticism of the president are those on the right tainted by the dogwhistle racism of the Republicans.

Oh and a new book came out, which I can't imagine myself reading, by a heterosexual woman I'd not heard of before named Linda Hirshman entitled "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution." Yes, it seems we have won. The struggle for our civil rights is over! No doubt we are now approaching the same state of grace as all of "post-racial" America.

This needs to be said: This is not gay liberation.

I'm finding myself surprisingly pissed off this year. Lesbian and gay pride always seemed like an opportunity to take our star turn: to celebrate our place in the fabric of the city, in the fabric of society. To walk about openly without worry, armed with great numbers in mutual solidarity. It seemed to me that while it was not always an overtly political event, it certainly had the political subtext of bringing our own struggle for social justice to the same field of battle where all the other struggles are waged.

But this year it feels to me like the gay community is saying, "hey, we got ours!" I think the community understands the threat from the religious right: it's clear a large minority of people in the United States have no love for the gays. But I think the gay establishment, and hence a large segment of the community, has also been utterly seduced by those fluttering rainbow flags. Gay pride has literally been sold to corporations. And those who question the sale, or suggest that a pinkwashing sleight of hand is at work, are being silenced or marginalized.

What a sham it is that corporations are waving rainbow flags at the same time they're busting unions, taking back basic benefits like paid healthcare and time off, and generally engaging in the looting of society for their own financial gain.
For me, "gay liberation" has always been intimately tied to "the revolution." That is, one social justice struggle among many that got at the core nature of capitalist society and its divide-and-rule strategies and materially-based oppressions inherent in that politico-economic system. I always argued that victory for our struggle as gay people — deeply connected to the role of women in capitalism — was not possible in a capitalist society. I don't feel equipped to address that huge question head-on in this essay, but I have to say that what the gay community is experiencing right now doesn't feel like a victory to me. I suppose the end of certain forms of legal discrimination are an advance for a certain privileged layer of the community that may benefit many gay people up and down the class spectrum, but something feels hollow.

While semi-covert gay organizations quietly existed for years before the  legendary Stonewall rebellion, the mass gay civil rights movement has its roots in the social uproar of the 1960s and the radical movement against American involvement in Vietnam. It's no accident that the first militant gay organization, the Gay Liberation Front, was named in the spirit of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, more commonly known as the Vietcong.


At its beginning the queer movement was a revolutionary movement. Perhaps the theory was undeveloped but the impulse was clear. One early group was even called STAR, or Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. And in its earliest days gay liberationists united with others who recognized the connections. While shamefully some forces on the left were slow to embrace the gay struggle, black and Latino revolutionaries in the same gritty urban centers as the multi-racial gay community understood a natural alliance. The Occupy movement neighborhood assembly I work in, Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park, just showed the extraordinary documentary film "Palante, Siempre Palante" about the Young Lords Party, roughly the revolutionary Puerto Rican equivalent of the Black Panther Party. The film tells how the Young Lords openly and proudly supported gay liberation.

The gay movement went on a long journey toward moderation and respectability. A trans-class movement, it's no particular surprise that today's mainstream "LGBT" organizations are solidly in the pocket of the Democratic Party. But when I see today's pride parades built around corporate sponsorship or the narrow focus on "what's good for the gays" to the exclusion of any other social justice concerns, I am reminded over and over that it hasn't always been this way. Once upon a time gay people were protesting militarist monstrosities like the Intrepid. Now our political leaders are throwing a party on it.

It's not widely enough circulated, but back in 1970 the Black Panther Party's Huey Newton gave a speech in which he touched on the women's and gay liberation movements. The Black Panthers are sadly maligned in historical memory: virtually massacred by government COINTELPRO terrorism, the Panthers are misremembered as being violent, misremembered as some kind of glorified retrograde gang. Nothing could be further from the truth and Newton's far-thinking words from 1970 help reveal this:

"Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women's right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.... And maybe I'm now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that "even a homosexual can be a revolutionary." Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary. When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies, and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women's liberation movement." 

The whole text is quite remarkable, far more advanced than the politics of much of the left at the time. This history of connected revolutionary struggles needs to be revisited.

In New York and San Francisco #OWS contingents will be marching in the parades. They'll be pointing out all the corporate pinkwashing that's going on. Mainstream gays have already suggested this act of elementary and obvious political education is "disruption." They have accused Occupy people of being "outsiders," as if no actually queer person could possibly reject the sale of gay pride to corporate America.

"Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you."

Fighting civil discrimination is good. But fighting for the liberation of society is better. Let's not lose sight of the prize at the end: it's not about queer people being free just to be like suburban "middle-class" heterosexuals, it's about freeing society from all forms of oppressive relations.

The celebration of that victory will take place on the ruins of the Pentagon and at the site of the Intrepid being broken down into scrap.

Happy gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer pride. The struggle continues.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Lessons of the Sojourner Truth Organization

Truth and Revolution, A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, by Michael Staudenmaier

The Sojourner Truth Organization was one of the many small revolutionary left groups that dotted the American political landscape in the 1970s, spawned by the wave of radicalization that followed the upheavals of the 1960s. STO was also one of the many small revolutionary left groups that disbanded in the 1980s in the depths of the Reagan era. A wonderful new book, "Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1986," by Michael Staudenmaier, has just been published by the anarchist book house AK Press that documents the rise and fall of a group that has long passed into leftwing legend.

While the book is a meticulously documented product of a close read of STO's printed archive and years of interviews with former members of the group, Staudenmaier is clearly not just performing an academic/historical exercise. The author has a history in the movement, and his attention to important discussions really shows. Many of the issues that STO innovated and grappled with remain relevant today, even though the face of the left is barely recognizable from STO's time. The period of STO's vibrancy may seem like ancient times, but as I myself can attest, many of us who were active in that long-ago era find ourselves still — or perhaps, again — active today, can look to STO's story for lessons about how to be revolutionaries in America. Staudenmaier astutely notes the relevance of this tale from a past wave of radicalization for today's Occupy-era radicals.

I confess that the first thing this book inspired in me was a wave of nostalgic memories. I'm 53 today and I joined my first communist organization back in 1976 fresh out of high school. My own political demoralization and falling away from the organized left occurred ten years later, about the same time STO disbanded. Indeed the last organization I was a member of (and the one I was a member of for the bulk of that period) , the Revolutionary Socialist League, itself disbanded a couple years later. (I'm also happy to report my return to ranks of the revolutionary-minded politically active in the current radicalization).

I joined the communist left in Chicago, which was in fact the home base of STO. The descriptions of STO's work, first in factory-floor organizing, and later in anti-imperialist solidarity work, anti-fascist activism and in regroupment-oriented party-building on the left, were all intensely familiar. The language that STO used to discuss its work and direction was the language I learned. The era of post-radicalization "lull" and de-industrialization was the era I grew up in politically; these were the same issues the RSL dealt with as well. I left Chicago for New York in 1981, but many of the scenes and issues and forces described in "Truth and Revolution" were as I remembered them. It made me wonder if all the groups struggling to stay relevant in that dark time of counterrevolution were all going through the same process without realizing that a period of organizational decline was universal among communist and socialist groups.

Interestingly, there was a brief moment when we in the RSL, then on a trajectory away from the Trotskyism and even Leninism that it had grown up in, were all fascinated by the Sojourner Truth Organization and discussed trying to orient to them in some way. I'm not sure whatever happened to that idea. Staudenmaier discusses at great length the unique path that STO traced. Its core founders were old left, but it grew up in the world of the so-called New Communist Movement, that is generally meant as the "Maoist" wing of the left that emerged from the 1960s student movement and rejected both the established Soviet Union-sponsored world communist parties and also the existing critical/oppositional Trotskyist communist movement. One could discuss endless factional hairsplitting among the parties and sects of that era, but the STO walked its own unique line. With a critique of "Stalinism," an affinity for the one-time Trotskyist and theorist of black liberation C.L.R. James, and a strong commitment to supporting "Third World" liberation organizations, as they were called back then, STO couldn't be easily pigeonholed.

One of STOs groundbreaking pamphlets: Understanding and Fighting White Supremacy
Staudenmaier discusses at great lengths STO's reputation for discussing and developing theory. He details how they tried to advance the ideas of Marxism and of Marxist theorists like Antonio Gramsci into a time like the 1970s and a country like the United States that presented so many challenges for revolutionaries. I found his discussions of STO's theory of "dual consciousness" incredibly thought-provoking.

Staudenmaier explains how STO, largely through the theoretical work of one its members, Noel Ignatin, made a name for itself addressing the key question for American radicals: racism. Ignatin addressed the theories of white skin privilege and the white blind spot, and explained how the white working class came to be poisoned by its material attachment to white supremacy. STO came to believe that the prime directive for white workers, indeed for white revolutionaries, was to support the autonomous organizing of black people, of Puerto Rican people, of world revolutionaries fighting against American hegemony. The arguments on racism and white supremacy are deeply compelling. These are arguments far removed from "traditional Marxism" and yet very familiar to many schools of political and cultural thought today. It strikes me that this theory of white supremacy is ripe to be returned to the sphere of making revolution. Nothing says "white supremacy" quite like today's allegedly post-racial consciousness.

And yet STO's theoretical innovations revealed a contradiction unsolved by STO that proved to be one of its unmaking: do white revolutionaries unite with black revolutionaries in a single organization? How are the theoretical differences that might arise breached? If revolutionaries support the autonomous organizing of oppressed and working people in all kinds of struggles, what is the role of a party to that autonomy? STO was not afraid to get its hands dirty in the struggle, but it somehow managed to get tangled up in its own argument and failed to recruit masses of people from the struggles in which it engaged.

Indeed it is in the issue of building an organization that can fight for the necessary massive societal change, a party of revolutionaries, that I found "Truth and Revolution" most thought-provoking. Clearly the 1970s/1980s model of competing hair-splitting self-proclaimed vanguard sects did not work. Much of the left globally is stuck in this model that seems quaint at best and cringe-worthy at worst. How to synthesize the many best traditions of Marxism, of Leninism, or of Anarchism, Maoism, or even Trotskyism, into something that might, you know, actually be capable of waging an actual revolutionary struggle and overturning the wretched mess that is globalized capitalism? This seems incredibly relevant.

For me, the Occupy movement has really made it clear that the first task of revolutionaries is to stay connected to changing reality, and engaged with the consciousness of people in motion. Contrast, for example, this exercise in sterility and self-righteous abstentionism from one ultrasectarian grouplet at this link to the wonderful "It's Five Minutes to Dawn and the Wind Smells like Freedom" statement of the Kasama Project aimed at Occupy activists. Some of the failures of the STO seem self-inflicted. But some of its failures were borne of the simple reality that fifty or a hundred people, even if they're all brilliant, committed and heroic, is not enough people to defeat an empire. But when the balance of forces shifts, people need to be ready and organized to ride the wave. Creating a vehicle that is creative, self-aware, flexible, and awake to the possibilities around us seems like an important thing.

"Truth and Revolution" is history. I suppose it's ultimately the story of a defeat: I don't think we understood how the reality Reaganism ushered in was going to be so successful in undoing the 1960s. I know we didn't understand the change that was happening to the world. But something is changing in the world, and as we try, again, to get it right, it's definitely worth going over the story of a group like the STO.

"Truth and Revolution" is available directly from the AK Press and also from mainstream vendors like Amazon.

Much of STO's published work is available on the internet at the remarkable Sojourner Truth Organization Digital Archive.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

A Few Modest Suggestions for a Very Proper Jubilee Celebration

Happy jubilee Queen Elizabeth! Thinking of you and your cousins! What could one possibly give one of the world's richest welfare parasites other than a few heartwarming tales?

"Arriving at the foot of the guillotine, Louis XVI looked for a moment at the instruments of his execution and asked Sanson why the drums had stopped beating. He came forward to speak, but there were shouts to the executioners to get on with their work. As he was strapped down, he exclaimed "My people, I die innocent!" Then, turning towards his executioners, Louis XVI declared "Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything of which I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French." The blade fell. It was 10:22 am. One of the assistants of Sanson showed the head of Louis XVI to the people, whereupon a huge cry of "Vive la Nation! Vive la République!" arose and an artillery salute rang out which reached the ears of the imprisoned Royal family." —eyewitness Charles Henri Sanson, 1794

"Nicholas, facing his family, turned and said "What?"[1] Yurovsky quickly repeated the order and the weapons were raised. The Empress and Grand Duchess Olga, according to a guard's reminiscence, had tried to cross themselves, but failed amid the shooting. Yurovsky reportedly raised his gun at Nicholas and fired; Nicholas fell dead instantly. The other executioners then began shooting until all the intended victims had fallen. Several more shots were fired and the doors opened to scatter the smoke.[1] There were some survivors, so P.Z. Yermakov stabbed them with bayonets because the shouts could be heard outside.[1] The last to die were Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria, who were carrying several pounds (over 1.3 kilograms) of diamonds within their clothing, thus protecting them to an extent.[8] However, they were speared with bayonets as well. Olga sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Anastasia and Maria were said to have crouched up against a wall covering their heads in terror until Maria was shot down, and Anastasia was finished off with the bayonets. Yurovsky himself killed Tatiana and Alexei. Tatiana died from a single bullet through the back of her head.[9] Alexei received two bullets to the head, right behind the ear.[10] Anna Demidova, Alexandra's maid, survived the initial onslaught but was quickly stabbed to death against the back wall while trying to defend herself with a small pillow she had carried that was filled with precious gems and jewels." — description based on eyewitness accounts, Yekaterinberg, Russia, 1918

"The king adjoins, 'I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.'The bishop: 'You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown, - a good exchange.' Then the king asked the executioner, 'Is my hair well?' And taking off his cloak and George [the jeweled pendant of the Order of the Garter, bearing the figure of St. George], he delivered his George to the bishop. . . Then putting off his doublet and being in his waistcoat, he put on his cloak again, and looking upon the block, said to the executioner, 'You must set it fast.' The executioner: 'It is fast, sir.'...Then having said a few words to himself, as he stood, with hands and eyes lift up, immediately stooping down he laid his neck upon the block; and the executioner, again putting his hair under his cap, his Majesty, thinking he had been going to strike, bade him, 'Stay for the sign.' Executioner: 'Yes, I will, and it please your Majesty.' After a very short pause, his Majesty stretching forth his hands, the, executioner at one blow severed his head from his body; which, being held up and showed to the people, was with his body put into a coffin covered with black velvet and carried into his lodging."eyewitness report of the execution of King Charles 1, 1649

Still, perhaps this tale of compassion offers hope. Chin up!

"Next, testimony came from 27 teenagers and young adults who were former school children who testified to being the only survivors of the 180 children who were arrested and died in April 1979 after they threw rocks at Bokassa's passing Rolls-Royce during the students protest over wearing the costly school uniforms which they were forced to purchase from a factory owned by one of his wives. Several of them testified that on their first night in jail, Bokassa visited the prison and screamed at the children for their insolence. He was said to have ordered the prison guards to club the children to death, and Bokassa indeed participated, smashing the skulls of at least five children with his ebony walking stick....One of the most lurid allegations against Bokassa was the charge of cannibalism, which was technically superfluous. In the Central African Republic, statutes forbidding cannibalism classified any crime of eating human remains as a misdemeanour...Former president Dacko was called to the witness stand to testify that he had seen photographs of butchered bodies hanging in the dark cold-storage rooms of Bokassa's palace immediately after the 1979 coup. When the defence put up a reasonable doubt during the cross-examination of Dacko that he could not be positively sure if the photographs he had seen of dead bodies were used for consumption, Bokassa's former security chief of the palace was called to testify that he had cooked human flesh stored in the walk-in freezers and served it to Bokassa on an occasional basis. The prosecution did not examine the rumours that Bokassa had served the flesh of his victims to French President Giscard d'Estaing and other visiting dignitaries....On 12 June 1987, Bokassa was found guilty of all but the cannibalism charges. The court acknowledged that many individual allegations of murder had been levelled at Bokassa but found that the evidence was unimpeachable in only about 20 cases. Bokassa was said to have wept silently as Judge Franck sentenced him to death....On 29 February 1988, President Kolingba demonstrated his opposition to capital punishment by voiding the death penalty against Bokassa and commuted his sentence to life in prison in solitary confinement. With the return of democracy to the Central African Republic in 1993, Kolingba declared a general amnesty for all prisoners as one of his final acts as President, and Bokassa was released on 1 August 1993." — the fate of Jean Bedel Bokassa, the late self-crowned monarch of the former "Central African Empire