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Smarmy Social Democrats on the Anniversary of the Long March

Yesterday, during the initiation of #occupytoronto, the group with which I was involved brought a banner of Mao's face to our anti-imperialist march and into the occupy site.  This was appropriate because, as the person who painted the banner reminded me, today is the anniversary of the beginning of the Long March. Although I'm not always into expressing my politics through floating heads (because I think that sometimes this facialization might obscure political content), what made the banner interesting in this specific context was that it encouraged more attention and interaction than the majority of other banners that were mainly acronyms, abstract designs, and not entirely distinguishable from each other.

For most of yesterday the banner was photographed by pretty much everyone with a camera (sometimes these people asked us to pose, or asked to take a picture with Mao's head), but more importantly we were forced to interact with a constant barrage of people who wanted to know why we were standing with a painted effigy of Mao Zedong. [Although one of my friends joked: "why are you marching with an Andy Warhol banner?"]  On multiple occasions this curiousity resulted in fruitful political discussion that ended with an exchange of emails.  Once, because I guess the politics represented by Mao in the common imagination was apparent in our head (these folks are crazily anti-capitalist!), we were actually asked by someone else to intervene in a confrontation with the libertarian Ron Paulbots who are using these #occupy demos to push an abhorrent anti-people politics.

Right when we were about to pack up the banner and go to the general assembly, however, we were finally met with hostility.  A group of self-satisfied, smarmy protestors, one who was a self-proclaimed and proud "social democrat" banded together to inform us that Mao was a "mass murderer" and that our banner was akin to "hate speech."  The social democrat felt he had the right to inform us that we had no right to be at "his" protest.  Here was where the facialization predominated and the talk became abstracted from the political content represented by the head; we ended up getting sucked into an argument about the historical facts of the Chinese Revolution, particularly the Cultural Revolution.  And though a number of us (including a friend who wasn't a Maoist but who was genuinely surprised by the earlier positive reaction we were getting and found this round of critiques idiotic) demanded sources for these typical counter-revolutionary claims, going so far as to demonstrate that we were largely aware of the sources they were using––but sources they themselves could not cite––these social democrat morons were unable to offer any convincing counter-argument.

So what should this tell us about the use of a stylized face as a political banner?  We know that there are some cultish groups (such as the RCP-USA) that use the faces of pseudo-revolutionaries to push a cult of personality that lacks any depth.  We know the ultimate silliness that results in this method of political practice: posting stenciled photos of Bob Avakian's head around Burning Man.  Since Mao Zedong was the foremost revolutionary leader and theorist following Lenin, there should be a clear distinction between the use of his image and that of Bob Avakian's but, still, there is always the possibility that the use of a revolutionary face could conjure the spectre of a cult of personality that ends up replacing revolutionary political content.  After all, Mao's image was used even by the enemies of Mao's political line during the Cultural Revolution.

In the context of the #occupy movement, however, I think the use of Mao's image resulted in a very fruitful social investigation.  If we are in a moment of accumulating revolutionary forces, then those the most curious about, but not necessarily hostile to, Mao, and who wanted to talk to us about politics, emerge as a population of possible allies or future comrades.  The fact that many of the people who spoke with us wanted to exchange contact information was perhaps even more important than ideological exchange.  And the fact that we pissed of a small group people revealed that population which will refuse to organize around revolutionary ideas: one of them even said that he rejected the violence of every revolution, of every moment where the oppressed were forced to kill their oppressors.  These are people who find the entire notion of revolution abhorrent, a significant sector of the 99% who, as discussed in previous posts, would be quite happy becoming the 1%.

Moreover, it is telling that this counter-revolutionary population claims the #occupy movement as their own.  These proud social democrats are clearly under the impression that this movement is their terrain, that activists who have been organizing (however movementist or sectarian) in Toronto for years are "offensive"––chances are they would never show up at any of the older style demonstrations, probably not even at the G20 or previous anti-globalization demos, and exist in a state of historical absence where nothing has proceeded before "their" movement arrived to represent "their" petty bourgeois ideas.  Again we are forced to recognize the current petty bourgeois boundaries of the #occupy movement; by recognizing this, however, we should be led to push a politics that rejects the limits beloved by these social democrats who are so offended by the entire notion of revolution.

It is both interesting and important that in this activist context the image of a revolutionary leader can be polarizing.  But the point of revolutionary politics is, by these politics' very nature, to be polarizing.  Class struggle is necessarily polarizing in that it divides people into revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries; if we pretend otherwise we are engaged in opportunism.

We on the left have always used divisive and polarizing symbols.  There was a time when Che's image, before it became a pop-cultural icon was extremely divisive (and it still is for some), and I remember a time, not so long ago, where wearing a Palestinian keffiah was considered extremely "divisive" and "alienating" even amongst the mainstream left.  But those of us who were anti-zionists and who, over a decade ago when the Palestinian struggle was not yet a normative feature of mainstream leftwing demos, intentionally wore keffiahs in order to make a polarizing political point.  I remember when the keffiah would cause supposed leftists (some of whom today are now all about boycott-divestment-sanctions) to complain that I was supporting "extremism" and that the keffiah, though not a face, was an instance of "hate speech" because it was "anti-semitic."  But now that the keffiah has become a staple of the activist dress code (and at one point even a staple of the hipster dress code), only raving zionists would argue that it is "offensive."  The reason it was initially worn, however, was to be intentionally political which means intentionally divisive.

Once you take a clear political position you have already articulated who is included and who is not.  Even those liberals who pretend they are apolitical––because liberalism is a default position––have decided who and who is not included in their politics; they might imagine everyone is with them, but the truth is that, like those smarmy social dems at yesterday's #occupy kick-off, have decided who is excluded from their set politics.  All political commitments are defined by, their very goals and ideology, deciding who are political friends and who are political enemies.  Which is why Mao once argued, in his analysis of classes in Chinese society, that we have to begin by answering the question who are our friends and who are our enemies… I suppose that, yesterday, it was appropriate that the image of Mao's face made us think of this question.


  1. I can't help but think of the Phil Och's song "Love me, I'm a Liberal" when I read this post.

    I'm not sure if you saw the photo on the Star's website of a woman's tattoo that said something like "Bloodless Revolution" or "Non-Violent Revolution" or something like that. I thought it was pretty ludicrous - as though those in power will simply relinquish their power and stop oppressing people either because they feel bad or because you've made a particularly convincing argument. (the same kind of statement was made at one of our membership meetings where someone said that we shouldn't have to go on strike - if we just present compelling arguments to the employer in a rational way, they'll give us everything we want)

    And as you (or our friend) said: The French Revolution was bloody. Would you prefer that didn't happen and that feudalism continued to exist?

  2. It was actually our friend who made the comment about the French Revolution in that context, and it was a great comment.

    Didn't see that tattoo, but that's just sad but typically sad.

  3. non-violent revolution is the drug of choice around here. the occupy movement (I refuse to use the hash mark) in my city pre-emptively secluded itself in a remote corner of a downtown park and adopted slogans about causing spontaneous revolution through joy etc. I can't even imagine the hostility an image of mao would provoke- I think the 'oh look at those weirdos, let's get a picture for facebook' response you got is probably the best I could hope for.

  4. I think the head could have been contextualized somehow, but it certainly attracted people to talk (even if many just wanted to gawk). I was surprised at how many people were genuinely open to debate. I think people generally respect you if you treat them and their arguments seriously and with respect. It was funny to watch that group of social democrats denounce you with the vigour and the deaf, dogmatic certainty that they themselves associate with maoism!

  5. And yea, I find this confused understanding of revolution quite widespread. It seems so many beautiful souls want to believe in the idea of a revolutionary transformation of systemic oppression but cringe in distaste at the reality of history. They seem to believe it always _could have been_ bloodless, or they exaggerate or distort in their minds past instances in which significant reforms were achieved with (relative) bloodlessness. Usually they are able to do so only by wilfully ignoring a larger context in which violent resistance or inter-imperial war in one place made non-violent action in another viable. This is almost the default liberal-left consciousness, a product of a completely ahistorical imagination that seems to rely on an unfounded faith in the deep-seated humanity (and agency) of the individual oppressor and a disturbing blindness to the countless deaths and incalculable suffering caused by liberal capitalism as an economic system. But if the leaders of communist regimes are to be held directly responsible--as wilful murders--for the death and suffering that results from their industrial or agricultural policies (and in some cases I believe they should be), why is it that the liberal and social democratic elites cannot be held responsible for all the death and suffering that results from capitalism? Apparently they cannot be held responsible, we are told, because the operations of the market are like a force of nature or an act of god. All we can do is try to mitigate harm. But anytime the leaders of a communist regime claim to have tried to mitigate suffering and point at the reforms and success that are supposed to justify the misery and deaths of others, we are all supposed to scoff at the transparent cynicism and cold, instrumental rationality of the machinery of the state. When the social-dems make the same gesture with even less to show for it we on the Left are supposed to applaud their humanity, their pragmatism, courage and generosity.

  6. Agreed on the contextualization: I believe we had a talk about this later in the day... Excellent points about violence and non-violence: as I recall these were the points you were trying to make in certain arguments, but the close-mindedness of the people you argued with (which speaks to your above point about the intentional unwillingness to listen) tended to prevent them from doing anything more than just repeating an "I don't like it" position.

  7. and yarp, connected to the comments Jude just made, there is clearly a predominance of non-violent fetishism. Secluded in a corner of a downtown park you say? That's exactly how it is in Toronto when the informal organizers decided, with their "consensus" prior to everyone showing up, that they would hold the occupy site half an hour away from the financial district (Toronto's wallstreet) in a park that the capitalists never go to. Even on the symbolic level, which is generally the main level these things tend to exist at, this seems rather stupid.

  8. I also just found out from a friend who actually went that there's a "turf war" between the homeless people who were in that corner of the park before and the "99%" who have taken the choicest spots from them.

    I know some people use the phrase "settler left" but this is really taking it to another level.

  9. Um: yeah... I was commenting about this on someone else's blog. The displacement of the homeless population is a topic that has come up, over and over, amongst those of us who are involved but are still critical.

  10. Hi

    I was the person who called you over to the Ron Paul people. I did so because I was engaged in a rather sharp debate with them. In response to everything I said they kept calling me a Maoist and "I should be over there with the Mao banner". I am not a Maoist. I called you folks over so they could debate with you directly as they were really into "the Maoists".


  11. Good to know, and interesting story. And how much time did you waste debating the Ron Paul Randbots before passing the torch? The inability of libertarians to have a rational appreciation of history is always both frustrating and amusing.

  12. It was a bit of a theatrical "debate" on my side. I did it for the benefit of others who may not have known what they were about. Really it was me asking them what their position on universal daycare (against), healthcare (against), libraries (against) etc etc. Being in favour of all of the above made me a Maoist (what do you think?). It looks like that was their last time at the Occupy site. The bigger problem is the Zeitgeist people. They actually have an audience. Take a look at this critique with a clever name:

    - SV

  13. Oh yes, the zeitgeist people... Aren't they also connected, in some way, to those Venus Project folks who are seemingly trying to renew Fabian Socialism?

    Of course debating in the "theatrical" way is important for other people... really, the only reason to have these debates is to prevent other people who are new to these sorts of debates to not end up getting indoctrinated by the libertarian types.

    And though as a Maoist I am in favour of socialized everything (with an aim towards communism, of course), so are all socialist oriented folks. They were probably just trying to push you into their simple categories, which is much easier than actually debating.


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