Destroying fences at the border by the AATW, 2007
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I finished the Elbaum book and I am still trying to figure out my impression of it.  So instead here are a few impression.

He knows his stuff.  The research strikes me as meticulous and thorough.  I am not an expert about these groups, but I am versed in reading researched materials and this one strikes me as thorough.

The book is too well researched.  The minutia might have been of fundamental importance to the participants, which Elbaum was, but the distance between them and myself make some of these disputes and disagreements seem petty.  I cannot help but suspect that there is an overlooked component to much of the history – leadership, charisma and personality.  There is some discussion of some individuals being forces of nature and hence them being the organization, but these discussions are usually about midwesterners (people in Chicago to be more specific.)  Is it any shock then to learn that Elbaum participated as an undergraduate radical in Madison, WI.?  Despite this fault, however, Elbaum does a great job of never once sounding like a hagiography.

In all fairness to Elbaum, my interest does not seem to intersect with his main interest in writing the book.  I am interested less in the groups and more about the intersection of theory and the direct actions taken by the groups.  There was some discussion of this but mainly Elbaum focuses on why a group originates – what gap they were trying to bridge in the radical or local community – and why the group dissolved – what faction split into what new group.  Most of the talk about direct actions was reserved for the big nationally known groups: The Weatherman, Black Panthers, etc.  While this seems to be a criticism of sloppy scholarship it makes sense given the generally underreported nature of most radical actions, especially then.

I am curious why some longer established groups escape the book’s purview though.  There is not a single mention of the IWW.  I understand radical undergraduates are not exactly the target of IWW efforts but Elbaum spends a significant amount of time discussing labor unions and organizing within them.  Is this a serious oversight?  Or is it instead my wish for it to be a serious oversight?  Ursa can better explain this to me, as I have no idea how prevalent the IWW was in the late 1960s especially around college campuses let alone in the San Fransisco area.

Sadly, Elbaum is an apostate.  The books reads as a guilty confession for having not stood besides his now fallen comrades.  He sounds as though he will have no problem writing about radicals and maybe even honking his horn in support as he drives past a picket line.

All in all this was a good book as long as one understands Elbaum’s purpose.  He makes no attempt to disguise it either as he is very clear in the introduction why he is writing the book.  I just chose to overlook the warning and hoped to find something else.  Nate would probably enjoy this more than I did.  His conslusion was useful if not overly abstract though.

Elbaum, Max.  (2002).  Revolution in the air: Sixties radicals turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. London: Verso Books.

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Sayyid Qutb

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Theodore Dalrymple has another stunningly simple piece in City Journal this month.  His argument is simple and consequently does not stand up to scrutiny.  First he moves through a comparison between Communism and Islamism, conflating the two to as Lenin and Qutb, respectively.  They are similar because 1. they call for the abolition of the state, 2. they do not shy away from violence and finally they believe in vanguardism and not mass movements.  To say that theses differences make them the same, except the obvious different telos, is laughable (even if allowing the conflation of the two writers as emblematic of the two ideologies.)

He then spends some time to mark the ideological approaches offered as laughable for two reasons.  First, the preachers of the idological movements are privileged.

Avoiding material failure gives quite sufficient meaning to their [the struggling] lives.  By contrast, ideologists have few fears about finding their daily bread.  Their difficulty with life is less concrete.

Dalrymple then marks this academic-cum-liberator lifestyle as “the treason of the clerk”, a phrase coined in 1927 by Julien Benda.  If that argument has been floating around so long and still has not gained traction then maybe Dalrymple should investigate that instead.  His argument for dismissal of ideologists as privileged is actually the very argument advanced by Lenin, and maybe Qutb, for liberation.  By a vanguard.  Maybe Dalrymple is writing to an audience that does not have the background to dismiss this argument as easily turned and handled by the ideologists.

Dalrymple’s second argument is that ideology stands as a form of fetishistic disavowal, it serves as a token allowing the ideologists to avoid confrontation with what they are realyl upset about.  One can almost hear Dalrymple calling Qutb a homosexual in this passage.  Maybe there are larger questions at stake, more personal questions for individual activists, but that does nto change the veracity of their criticisms.  These are ad hominems.  Maybe if Dalrymple could show how the personal baggage affects the credibility of the theory, then there would be an argument.  Never mind the fetish is a Marxist form of interrogation to criticize the world as we know it.

Why then does Dalrymple go through these moves?  Surely he is not writing to dismiss Marxism and Islamism, as though the reader of City Journal needs such prodding.  Dalrymple then turns to environmentalism, claiming that it to is an ideology and ergo ought to be held under the same scrunities.  Except he, at no point, tries to show environmentalism as callign for 1. state dissolution or 2. violence or 3. vanguardism.  Dalrymple cannot even identify a voice that leads this new ideology.

The problem is that environmentalism is not an ideology, it is a platform.  It is a goal and a way of evaluating policies; it is not a cohesive story told to flatten out contradictions.  It rests upon a belief in purity, a belief shared by Islamism and modern day political conservatism.

This understanding is an easy one to make if someone believes, as Dalrymple does, that she is outside of ideology: that ideology is the space of an other, a marginal other.  Dalrymple’s other is a traumatized (impure) body, so all of us normal folk (pure) who enjoy buying things and selling our labor are immune to the vagaries of ideology.  Just the obverse, it is when ideology is most invisible that it works its magic on us the most.

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