Tuesday, April 28, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Wobblies and Zapatistas by Staughton Lind & Andrei Grubacic (PM Press, 2008, pp300)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar

From the moment Marxists and anarchists parted ways in 1872, the peculiar and occasionally rancorous tension between the divergent schools of socialism has been the subject of many a debate, study group and protest. For anarchists, as Mikhail Bakunin articulated, Marxism's ascension would virtually necessitate it would become as oppressive as the capitalist state. For Marxists, anarchism's impulse to support no one having power meant the well-connected in-crowd, mostly well-heeled and white, would exert their power in other ways and with tacit support of the core. And from these early conflicts came years of characterizations -- as often fair as misguided -- on a host of motivations, aspirations, organizing and lack thereof.

Still, it would be a sin of omission to avoid saying there was not at least a hint of admiration at times, be that from Marxists of anarchism's flair for harnessing the creative energies of youth or from anarchists, who secretly desired to have the credibility to organize broadly, with clarity and among communities of color. The admiration is spotty though. Marxism and anarchism have had a love-hate relationship for the ages, as impassioned and tragic as anything Euripides ever penned.

Anti-globalization currents, and both tendencies' tussle to turn early protests into a massive anti-capitalist mobilization, have rekindled discussions of the kind found in Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. Granted, few of those dialogs have involved luminaries of Staughton Lynd's stature, yet they represent a starting place -- not only about differences, but commonalities, shared values and hopes for a better world.

Wobblies and Zapatistas puts Lynd at the table with Andrej Grubacic, a Northern California anarchist by way of the Balkans, for extensive exchanges about history, political theory and practical reality. Removed from these talks are some of the stranger hues of Marxism and anarchism -- extreme sectarianism and 'post left' posturing among them -- nor is this book intended to blast one idea or the other. Instead Lynd and Grubacic aim squarely for those looking to build bridges between the camps.

From chats about the Zapatistas' militancy emerges an intriguing discourse flowing throughout the book, that politics over this last generation has fundamentally changed and thus how activists and radical partisans in the struggle see themselves and their orientations must also change, with an eye to rejecting old labels. Such is not a new revelation; the New Left postulated such ideas for some time, and the aforementioned anti-globalization clashes have often eschewed tags. In Lynd and Grubacic's estimation, internationalism is as much of the heart as it is of politics. One could derisively call that misty idealism certainly, although one cannot discount their earnestness in that belief.

Both are correct in seeing the gravity of big-picture ideas when putting forward a vision. Proclaiming Joe Hill would have seen himself a Palestinian conjures efficacious imagery, for example, and creates many discussions from that point. Lynd seems to acknowledge the work when he argues movements of today face difficulties over strategy -- contrast with the South's fight over African-American disenfranchisement and the North's battle against Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, which galvanized disparate forces. Yet the bulk of Wobblies insinuates the bigger problem is old ways. What gets a little downplayed seems the amount of work involved to build toward those big-picture moments.

Lynd remarks anarchism and Marxism are not mutually exclusive alternatives, but Hegelian moments split by personality clashes with the First International, seem simplistic, and comments here too often boil down significant and substantive splits to dismissive sleights of hand. At the same time, engaging critiques, such as seeing anti-imperialism not as a rejection of everything American or embracing the best in American radical traditions, abound. Reexaminations of the Haymarket affair and the Industrial Workers of the World ("the Zapatistas of yesteryear," Lynd recalls) are sure to make one look upon these memorable upticks in a new light. Chalk that up to Lynd's take on history, which is richly textured and buoyed by the weight of experience.

One cannot purely address the ideas here without appreciating Lynd's remarkable life. From his military expulsion to directorship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Schools to his engagement in the Youngston steel mill struggle in the 1970s and beyond, Lynd has been a critical figure on the left. He has also been a vibrant socialist, albeit as one who has embraced socialism's diversity over dogmatism. His genuine love for humanity shines through, and it is doubtful such a touching text could be so arresting without his compassion.

Noted German statesman Otto Von Bismarck was once famously quoted as saying after the First International split, "crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the black and red unite." In the pages of Wobblies and Zapatistas, such a possibility seems not so far away.