The Left-Libertarians — the last of an ancient breed

BY BILL WEINBERG  |  Last year, I was approached by Peter Lamborn Wilson — the elusive underground intellectual who is a refugee from the Lower East Side — who beseeched me to revive the Libertarian Book Club.

Revolution was shaking the Arab world, although the wave had not yet come to Europe, Wall St. and Oakland. At this propitious time, New York City’s oldest anarchist institution could not be allowed to die, I was implored.

We had worked together in the L.B.C. for years, before Peter left the city and the Book Club became moribund. Old members were getting older, and we lost our longtime office at 339 Lafayette St., the notorious “Peace Pentagon” run by the pacifist AJ Muste Institute. But more significant, ultimately, was our identity crisis.

The L.B.C. was founded (to the best of anyone’s reckoning) in 1946, by anarchist exiles from fascist Europe, mostly Jews and Italians. At that time, the word “libertarian” was basically synonymous with “anarchist” or “anti-authoritarian” — although with a more intellectual and perhaps slightly euphemistic ring. One of the founders, Jack Frager, had actually known Emma Goldman, so we could claim an unbroken lineage back to the “classical” era of revolutionary anarchism.

Jack was gone before my time, but I did know Valerio Isca — the last of the old-timers. Walking with a cane, in his trademark black beret, he rarely said a word. But I was privileged once to hear him boast in broken English, his face beaming, about how he had fought followers of Mussolini’s Black Shirts in the streets of Brooklyn in the ’30s. He died in 1996. (The words of these heroes can be read in the classic of oral history, “Anarchist Voices,” by the late Paul Avrich of Queens College, himself a longtime friend of the Book Club.)

I gravitated to the Book Club as a young, aspiring radical seeking a sense of heritage and continuity with my forebears, back in the ’80s. I was on the tail end of a “second wave” of New Left types, hippies and punks who were revitalizing the L.B.C. at this time. Peter Wilson, then producing the “Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade” on WBAI, became our new leading light.

Although the Book Club had actually printed a few books over the years, its primary activity was by then a monthly discussion series, hosted by the lefty Jewish fraternal organization Workmen’s Circle in the rec room of one of the Penn South buildings.

It was also at about this time that some of the younger members (myself included) began protesting that the word “libertarian” had been appropriated by the free-market right, and sent the wrong message about who we were. Eventually, we decided on a compromise: The ongoing discussion series would be dubbed the Anarchist Forum, while — in stubborn deference to the past — the organization holding the event would continue to be the Libertarian Book Club.

The years of my involvement with the L.B.C. saw the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot, and subsequent backlash of squatter evictions and gentrification on the Lower East Side; the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, shortly followed by capitalist restoration; the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, which I witnessed first-hand as a journalist; and the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, and ensuing anti-globalization campaigns. Despite the hopes represented by Chiapas and Seattle, the general trajectory of society worldwide was to the right — and there was a growing sense that anarchism, especially, was an irrelevant ideological artifact.

Not surprisingly, the L.B.C.’s real decline began after 9/11, with its unleashing of paranoia and war fever. By then, we had lost our meeting space as Workmen’s Circle moved out of the Penn South complex. For a while, we met at the Brecht Forum (a.k.a. the New York Marxist School) in the West Village, and at the Living Theater on Clinton St. But sometime around five years ago, the Anarchist Forum sputtered out. The Muste Institute, facing the prospect of expensive repairs on the old building at Lafayette St., rightly requested that we vacate the office.

Last year, at Peter’s urging, the Anarchist Forum rose from the ashes (now office-less, in the age of social media). I organized three discussions, back at the Brecht Forum space. I spoke about anarchist perspectives on the Libyan war and the Arab Spring; Peter gave a talk on the poignant question, “Does Anarchism Have a Future in the 21st Century?” And we gave a focus-group screening for Wall St. Occupiers of the soon-to-be-released film “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” — on the 1990 terror attack in California on ecological defenders struggling to protect some of the last old-growth redwoods from the timber barons.

Today, when I look at the generic masked protester featured as “Person of the Year” on the cover of Time magazine,  I see the anarchist instinct — if not quite the ideology — re-emerging on the world stage. Even anti-capitalism — officially anathema since the fall of the Soviet bloc — is back in popular discourse. Economic grievances (despite the best efforts of the Western media and politicians to obscure this) animated the protests in the Arab world; the wave that began in Tunisia a year ago has swept through Athens, Madrid and Barcelona, London and Birmingham, and finally Manhattan, Oakland and nearly every city in the U.S. Industrial actions and peasant protests rocked China’s Guangdong province, police massacred striking oil workers occupying a public square in Kazakhstan, and rent protesters erected a street encampment for weeks in downtown Tel Aviv. Students protesting budget cuts repeatedly shut down Santiago and Bogotá. At year’s end, mass protests over contested elections broke out in Russia. And, with several Arab dictators overthrown,  the uprisings continue in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Bahrain. Nigeria appears to be next.

This made it all the more frustrating to see partisans of the “libertarian” Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul maintaining a prominent (if, one hopes, unrepresentative) presence at Zuccotti Park. On the ’Net, Paul won enthusiasm from leftist talking heads for his antiwar and civil libertarian rhetoric.

There is, of course, a legitimate right-libertarian tradition that takes its tip from Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises rather than Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. But Ron Paul’s positions aren’t even as progressive as those of the Libertarian Party on issues like abortion and immigration. The Libertarian Party at least has a consistent position on personal freedoms, while Paul says he wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned and birthright citizenship expunged from the Constitution. If Paul and his supporters don’t believe in fundamental freedoms like reproductive rights and birthright citizenship, they shouldn’t call themselves “libertarian.” They give the word a bad name.

They seek to restrict rights for women and immigrants, and it makes little difference if the oppressor is Arizona or Alabama rather than the federal government in their “states’ rights” utopia. (Paul has even said he would overturn the Civil Rights Act!) Their “freedom” too often means the “freedom” of the states to deny others their freedom. For those outside the propertied, disproportionately white elite, their utopia would be completely dystopian.

Apart from the inconsistencies on civil liberties issues, the economic prescriptions of the Paulistas would be utterly oppressive for the fabled 99% — the dismantling of OSHA and the E.P.A.; the abolition of the federal minimum wage, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and public education; the sale of the national parks to oil companies.  Et cetera. 

Left-wing anarchists — libertarian socialists, in the more polite formulation — make no distinction between authoritarian power exercised by state or federal bodies, through governmental or economic means. A landlord, banker or industrialist owns the lives of his wards (tenants, debtors, employees) no less than a public-sector bureaucrat. The state is an entity of capitalism, and you can’t struggle against one without struggling against the other. An unheeded lesson of the Cold War is how state “socialism” inevitably degenerates into capitalism.

We seek inspiration in such historical episodes as the Zapatistas in Mexico (1910-19), Makhnovists in the Ukraine (1917-20), Spanish anarchists in Catalonia (1936-37), and Zapatistas in Mexico again (1994 to date) — peasants and workers who took back the land and the factories, building socialism from below, without commissars or politburos.

Yet, nor (we hope) are we mere history buffs or impractical dreamers. Contrary to the right-wing libertarians, we recognize that as long as we live under capitalism, individual liberties are best served by massive public restraints on its workings. This need not be seen as reformism or an abdication of revolutionary aspirations. The British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote of a principle of “moral economy” — the pressure that common people can bring to wrest a better deal from the system. New York tenants certainly understand this about rent-control laws — or they should, anyway.

There can be unity between left and right libertarians around issues of personal freedom — opposing the surveillance state, Internet censorship, the war on drugs. In fact, a few right-libertarians (albeit, the long-haired, cannabis-smoking type) did gravitate to the L.B.C. in the ’80s. And some of the books the L.B.C. published were written by co-founder Enrico Arrigoni, an Italian veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who became an “individualist” in reaction against Stalinism.

But politicians like Paul shouldn’t be allowed to usurp the “libertarian” label — and the left-libertarian tradition shouldn’t be erased from history. The memory of fighters like Valerio Isca should not be allowed to die.

More than that — can the left reclaim  the libertarian legacy from the right? With Occupy Wall Street, the left has very effectively taken back the populist imperative from the right, which had cornered the political protest market with the Tea Party.

A libertarian left movement wouldn’t have to adhere rigidly to 19th-century anarchist dogmas. But it would have to be fundamentally serious about freedom — rooting for the protesters, not the despots, in Syria and Iran and China and Russia; unequivocal on “libertine” or “lifestyle” issues like (yes) cannabis legalization; testing the limits of police control rather than acquiescing in it; and functioning (as O.W.S. does) with an ethic of internal democracy.

I don’t know if the Libertarian Book Club’s Anarchist Forum series will resume in 2012. But, for the sake of humanity’s future, the libertarian left tradition deserves a political renaissance. And now, for the first time in my conscious life,  I think it stands a fighting chance to get one.

Weinberg for 20 years co-produced the “Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade” on WBAI. He now produces the Web site WorldWar4Report.com.

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