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San Francisco in the Sixties

Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967),
the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975)

 

 

San Francisco Bay Guardian

1971

Nixon’s “Revolution”
The War in Indochina
The Commune Movement
Communal Movements of the Past

 

 


 

Nixon’s “Revolution”


For weeks the papers have been full of “Nixon’s Revolution.” Mostly, this is pure bullshit. The old Southern Bourbon-Northern Republican nonsense about States’ Rights and strict interpretation.

It has to be understood that the Republican and Democratic parties really have principles that distinguish them — loose versus tight interpretation of the Constitution. That’s what the Civil War was about, so the Southerners said. What confuses most people is that the two parties have totally changed places since Woodrow Wilson.

This issue, raised at this stage in history, is mostly demagogooy. The ever-increasing centralization of the State in the age of embattled American imperialism is not going to stop. What it’s all about really is, first, pure, crooked demagogooy — plain lying, in other words.

Second, the promise of uncontrolled pork-barrel patronage — this is an attempt to stop the revolt of the state Republican Parties, the governors and Senators, that became obvious this winter in the Republican governors’ conference. Nixon has not given them any help and he has not given them enough loot.

Third, since the American hinterland and the Dixie Balkans are more reactionary and more ignorant than the urban Northeast and the Pacific Coast, they want to escape from the liberal control over their honesty and social responsibility. “Back to a federated republic” means graft for the local state house and a boot in the pants for the poor, the sick, the aged and the young, and of course, the blacks, not to speak of the Indians of the states with large reservation populations. And it means local control over the forests, the ranges, the minerals and the environment.

Nixon’s slogan, “Back to a federated republic,” is bait to help out a bunch of common crooks by a boss gangster.

What is far more important is the steady attack upon, not just the Bill of Rights, but on all principles of the civilized state since the Magna Carta. There is not a principle of civilized government that Attorney General Mitchell is not on record as attacking, and always in his characteristic lowbrow, hard-hat, militantly mindless lingo.

The Mitchells are so perfect I wonder if they are coached and their speeches written for them. The most vulgar, satchel-assed clerk in a cheap dress shop off New York’s Union Square doesn’t talk that way. I wonder if Mrs. Attorney General calls Mrs. President “dearie,” and her husband calls her “doll.” This is all part of policy, the lingo goes with the hatred of the mind, the hatred of civilization and the passionate desire to exterminate everybody who reads a book after college. Simple illiteracy is becoming a dangerous challenge to the totalitarianism of the American Empire.

Another revolution is going on in the regions guarding the borders of the empire, the same revolution that went on at the end of the Roman Empire and brought it down — the creation of mercenary armies out of the “barbarians” themselves.

This is what Vietnamization means, and all it means. Nixon knows that the Mothers of Middle America don’t give a damn how many gooks he kills — they just don’t want their darling boys hurt, and the military-industrial complex knows it can make more money out of fancy hardware and multimillion-dollar bombers expended lavishly than it can out of clothing and feeding G.I.’s, and anyway the gooks will have to buy the Spam, the khaki pants and the rifles. From their point of view the ideal situation would be mercenary natives on the ground, black G.I.’s behind the lines and as emergency shock troops, and white technocrats pushing buttons in the air.

It’s not just their ideal; it’s what is certain to come if they are going to hold the lines of the American Empire. In countries where the average wage is less than $300 a year, food, clothing, shelter, a dollar a day spending money and a chance to do some shooting is very attractive indeed. As long as the center holds, the U.S. can buy more mercenaries than it needs at the perimeter.

The two newsweeklies recently made a great thing of Tricky Dick’s tricky welfare proposals. The center is not holding. What his proposals amount to is a drastic reduction in federal support for the northern cities and a subsidy of welfare in the South — in the case of Alabama, at twice the going rate, with the resulting leakage into the pockets of those rednecked politicians upon whom Nixon knows he is going to have to depend for reelection, unless he chooses a military coup d’état.

The idea of giving Alabama politicians $1600 to hand over to an impoverished black family of four is hilarious. The folks would be lucky to see $16 of it.

Yet, the unskilled, which means largely black, the aged, and unfit and, don’t forget, the young, are redundant. Society doesn’t need them. The Bourbon politicians are always talking about how the fathers on welfare would rather live on the dole than do menial work. What menial work? There are 800,000 people on welfare in Los Angeles alone. Can they all go to work swabbing public toilets?

The newsweeklies are right when they title their stories “The Welfare Maze.” That’s what’s dangerous to the power structure, the anarchism of relief. Unless the poor are regimented and disciplined they will make the cities unlivable.

So far, we are still a ways from the Unemployed Councils, the Workers Alliances, the hunger marches and massive riots of 1932, but we are not a very long way. If the dispossessed of the affluent society once get started rolling, nothing will control them except military repression.

If the country cheered when the National Guard murdered its own children, what will they do when the troops shoot down streets full of bums who wouldn’t work if they had a job, led by dirty communists, probably college professors in disguise?

The only solution to the American Empire is rigid, inescapable discipline of the dispossessed, and that solves another problem, too. If the great race war with China does break out, they are already rounded up.

Are you aware, my liberal white friend, that black lawyers, judges, college professors, bureaucrats, engineers, even cops, and editors of the alrightnik magazine Ebony, are coming to believe that the American Empire has already completed its plan to exterminate all of its colored citizens?

Read The Choice, by Samuel F. Yette, Putnam, $6.95. I think it’s a little exaggerated and I don’t agree with all of it, especially his attacks on population control, but believe me, Mr. Yette is just as well educated, just as enlightened, just as sensible as you.

[February 26, 1971]

 


 

The War in Indochina


The last few weeks have seen a deepening of each of the several crises of American society and their merging into a general crisis, which has been made apparent by the inability of American capitalism to sustain the value of the dollar.

The financial pages of the kept press have represented the latter as purely a monetary crisis, due to the cumbersome and outworn structure of international financing and monetary control, a sort of bookkeeping error, a key that stuck in the old comptometer.

It is nothing of the sort. It is the beginning of a massive vote of no confidence in the U.S. by world capitalism, including American. “A sudden flood of American dollars into Europe” means of course that American big investors themselves are anxious to trade their inflating dollars for hard marks and francs.

The financial crisis is a reflection of the military crisis. The invasions of Cambodia and Laos were not just tactical maneuvers, but overall strategic actions that failed, and that not only failed, but which resulted in the going over of hitherto neutral or pro-American territory to the other side.

Sihanouk was probably, with his own people, the most popular head of state in the world, and Cambodia was genuinely neutral. The CIA arranged his overthrow and the country immediately revolted against their puppets. Forces were hastily thrown in and succeeded in spreading “Communism.” The neutral buffer against the left flank of the Americans has now become a few scattered, beleaguered redoubts with constantly interrupted communications held at tremendous expense. The action in Laos only served to demonstrate that Vietnamization was never going to work.

Meanwhile the morale of the American army has completely broken down, and its effective presence differs in no wise from that of the South Vietnamese forces — that is, it depends on airborne elite cadres, overwhelming material and pushbuttons. The attrition of field officers continues to mount. The Americans after all these years are back at Dienbienphu.

The rush for oil leases in the waters off the Indochinese peninsula has led to the old cry of “Economic Imperialism” by the followers of the out-of-date Lenin-Hobson thesis. As a matter of fact, the great oil companies are holding back from investment in offshore South Vietnam. Who on earth would want to sign a contract with the Thieu-Ky government? Again, as a matter of fact, American capitalism no longer disposes of the resources to exploit Indochina. The whole Indian Ocean basin is being taken over by American capitalism’s junior partner, Japan.

American business enterprise cannot even exploit the boom-town economy of Saigon, admittedly only a petty-bourgeois operation, but where are the American petty bourgeois? Scared to death and sitting tight on their money at home.

The frightful expense and the social demoralization of the long drawn out, losing war are the primary source of the other internal crisis of the country. The war against the feeble-minded, the poor, the sick, the young and against culture and civilization as such being waged so successfully by the proto-Fascist government of California is possible simply because the money that should go to health, education and welfare has gone for death and left a mountain of unpayable debt.

Of course it’s a taxpayer’s revolt, but the imbecile taxpayer is perfectly willing to shoot and gas his own children for demanding a free and civilized education and yet never attack, in any effective way, those who are really spending his exorbitant taxes: the famous military-industrial complex.

The polls show 75% of the people now opposed to the war. The largest demonstrations in the history of the world fill the streets of Washington. Just as the President promised, they have no effect on him whatsoever.

All the propaganda devices — war crimes trials and people’s peace treaties — serve only to keep protestors busy, keep sentimentalists upset and ground out effective action. The ineffectiveness of the massive objection to the war demonstrates conclusively the ineffectiveness of petitions to delegated authority. The only kind of action that authority pays any attention to is what old-time radicals used to call “action at the point of production.”

The point of production in the war is the Armed Forces. The wholesale breakdown in morale to the point of a universal, dry mutiny is the action that is taking place. The French got out of Indochina whenever their ex-Nazi mercenaries had become so mutinous that fighting was impossible. No officer’s life was safe. The American army is in very nearly that condition now, but unlike the French, the Americans have no Big Daddy Warbucks to turn the problem over to. Nixon has only two alternatives — to get out as fast as possible, or to wage a war of extermination with nuclear weapons, the bombing of the ports and the destruction of the Red River dykes.

If this happens, of course the Chinese will enter the war and then the alternative will be genocide or defeat. The only way the Chinese can be defeated is by wholesale nuclear destruction of their cities, but are there enough elite cadres who will agree to fly the planes and drop the bombs? What would happen if there weren’t?

Nixon is on record advocating atomic warfare in Asia, and this record may be an additional factor in the flight from the dollar, now that he is left with so narrow an option.

[June 7, 1971]

 


 

The Commune Movement


For the last few months I have been writing a book about both the theory and the practice of communism — with a small c — and anarchism, from the Neolithic village community to modern times.*

I just finished the Hutterites. Ahead of me lies the present-day commune movement. It is my hope that my readers will be able to come to some understanding of the present by knowledge of the past. This of course in itself is a most Utopian notion. There is not a particle of evidence the men learn from experience or that mankind learns from history.

Today communes are everywhere. It’s Old MacDonald’s commune farm. Is this a movement that will change society? A passing craze like the hula hoop or the Bunny Hug? A symptom of the breakdown of the middle class? Or the real revolution come at last?

It is probably all of these. Two journalistic books have just been published on the commune movement. They are both very arch. One is by a successful slick magazine writer and editor, and is written in the most insufferably coy journalese I think I have ever read. Both are obsessed by sex, one also with drugs. These are the aspects that television, the picture magazines and the newspaper feature writers all play up. One states flatly that what unites the new “commune culture” is drugs, by which he means mostly marijuana, but he then proceeds to describe several, including the most successful groups, in which marijuana and in some cases meat, alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea are forbidden.

As for sex, there are communes where everybody balls everybody, all the time, when not too stoned, but these don’t seem to be very common, however notorious. One author describes what is really a cooperative flat in Berkeley dedicated to group sex, where there’s a chart alongside the kitchen blackboard with slots in it showing at a glance who sleeps with who that night and changed daily.

However, the same book calls Haight-Ashbury “an area of flophouses and parking lots,” and refers to “Stimpson” Beach. Having lived in the Haight-Ashbury for over ten years, I sure missed those parking lots. I wonder how much of this sensational reportage is entirely made up?

Certainly, there can be found within a short drive from San Francisco at least one commune open to all, where at the height of the summer there will be 500 people on 300-odd acres with no piped water or sanitary facilities whatever and where everybody is stoned all the time.

This of course is just what it seems — a breakdown of middle-class America. Today, every group of college students that gets together to share an apartment calls itself a commune. This is just a craze for a word. “Commune” becomes something like “right on” or “outasight.”

On the other hand, scattered all over the country, or for that matter the Western world, groups of people have gotten together, both in the country and in the cities, completely devoted to a communitarian philosophy and self-disciplined, in most cases closed to commune-shoppers, vagrants and journalists.

Some groups have been in existence ever since the end of the Second World War. Then, of course, there are a number of religious and a few secular communes which have existed for generations — the Hutterites for four hundred years.

What makes for stability and a meaningful life in a commune? Careful selection of members. A passionately held ideology or religion shared by all. The most successful communes have always been religious. Strong leadership.

Few people are willing to face the brutal fact that all libertarian movements have been dominated by powerful leaders — Bakunin, Kropotkin, Makhno, Alexander Berkman — and most non-libertarian communist movements have been totalitarian, from the Munster Anabaptists to the left-wing Maoists or the neo-Trotskyites.

Communes have been most successful and long-lived when they have had charismatic leaders, who at the same time knew how to handle people diplomatically, and who had a wide range of practical knowledge and abilities, who knew how to keep books, fix the plumbing, cook, tend babies and discuss the fine points of the philosophy of the movement.

In America, which historically has seen hundreds of communes come and go, the agrarian ones, unless they were made up of people who were farmers or peasants in the first place, and then only if they were held together by supernatural sanctions, have failed.

City bohemians, however passionately they may wish to get back to the land, usually make a mess of it immediately, and hardly ever are successful in the long run. They get tired. Farming is hard work, a kind of highly skilled unskilled labor. I know of no agricultural commune in the recent movement which is completely self-supporting — much less shows a profit. Yet well-watered arable land in the old mixed-farming belt, which replaced the eastern deciduous forest, should be able to support comfortably at least two people to the acre with modern intensive farming methods.

Although prices in the Strout and United Farm catalogues for well-equipped but no longer profitable farms in upstate New York, West Virginia, northern Wisconsin and so forth, have doubled in the last three years due to the commune craze, these places from which farmers used to retire at fifty are today supported by income from outside work, welfare and food stamps.

Almost all urban communes are in fact cooperative living arrangements; the members go out to work and pool their income.

The ideal arrangement would be a commune in a pleasant countryside within driving distance of a big city with most of its food coming from vegetable gardens, and with some cows or goats for dairy products, but with its principal income earned by a combination of crafts and small manufacturing.

This was the solution of Oneida and Amana, two of the longest lived, which still survive as joint stock companies. One of the Bruderhofs, a secular movement modeled on the Hutterites, was successfully making toys the last I heard of them. Another makes maple syrup and sugar. How many others are there like this?

[September 27, 1971]

__________
*Rexroth’s Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (Seabury, 1974) is long out of print, but the entire book is online at this website.

 


 

Communal Movements of the Past


As I’ve said in previous columns, I’ve been working for some time on a history of communalism, communist anarchism, and similar societies and movements. I have been doing it because I thought that through the study of the past, especially the more remote past (the literature on the 19th-century communes is already sufficiently large), I might learn something of value about the contemporary movement.

Certainly communes today are proliferating, not just in the U.S. but all over the Western world. In fact the movement has become such a craze that it has penetrated the Communist countries, the last place in the world one would expect communism to appear, and the last few years have seen there a rebirth of scholarly studies of historical communes and most recently an as yet unsatisfied demand on the part of young intellectuals to be permitted to set up communes of the sort that now flourish from Finland to New Zealand.

China, of course, tried to organize its agriculture on the basis of communes rather than collective or state farms and to tie into these agricultural communes a certain amount of decentralized industrial production. This program seems to have been abandoned.

I think, surveying the long history of societies that could strictly be called communist, that is societies which practiced communism of consumption where all goods were held in common and those few societies which also practiced communism of production, certain facts stand out.

Marxists, who are in fact state capitalists, and in theory state socialists, have always said that the true communists, that is, communalists, or communist anarchists, wish to return to the most primitive forms of organized society — directly and immediately — rather than by way of the long process of the Socialist State.

This is true. The agricultural villages of the Neolithic Age were typical little communistic societies, largely self-contained, with both production and consumption, and probably even trade, shared in common. It is only among preliterate people, so-called primitives, who are still at that technological state of development, and who have not been subject to outside interference — conquest by nomads, contact with more advanced civilizations, or similar factors — that the economically self-sustaining commune has survived into modern times.

It is, however, true that all societies before the development of large cities, militarism, organized religion and slavery, were far more “communist” than any states we know in the world today.

As later societies break down or crumble at the edges, and as alienation and secession of elites become common, certain people withdraw and revert to the social forms that preceded the state — that is, organized class exploitation. The similarity of these little societies is remarkable.

The Essene community that left the Dead Sea Scrolls may or may not have influenced early Christianity, but the social pattern runs direct from them to the Christian monks of the desert, to the communal Ismaili Islamic sects to the kibbutzim of Israel, the same social forms in the same places, and all are reflexive to breakdown in their dominant societies.

Communal movements in western Europe on the eve of, and in the early years of, the Protestant Reformation similarly reflect loss of confidence in the dominant society. Since the dominant society, Catholic or Protestant, was incomparably more morally or spiritually totalitarian than anything before it, these secessionists were persecuted with unparalled virulence.

Only the Hutterites survive as a self-contained society of communism of both consumption and production. Today they are dependent upon the dominant society for the common manufactured goods of modern life, but could undoubtedly do without them. If civilization were obliterated tomorrow, they could survive. All other communal groups are to a greater or lesser degree parasitic and almost all of them have no true communism of production.

Who is parasitic on capitalist production? Who are the eaters of surplus value? It is from the same classes and castes that the modern commune movement is recruited, and that is was recruited by and large in the 19th century. Employees, white-collar workers, intellectuals, bohemians, eccentrics, inhabited Brook Farm, the Kaweah Kooperative Commonwealth in California, the Fourierist Phalanxes in the Middle West, just as they inhabit Morning Star and Wheeler’s Ranch today.

There is nothing wrong with this, but such activities are very far indeed from being independent of the dominant society. They are in fact more dependent both on its affluence and its degeneration than is for instance the average working man with an old-fashioned craft. A carpenter, for instance, has considerably more independence and mobility.

Changes in the dominant society eliminate communes even if they to not fail economically or break up in mutual quarreling. The communes which survive from the 19th century were extremely authoritarian, had powerful religious sanctions, strict internal discipline, strict qualifications for membership and were made up of hard-headed farmers, like Amana, or skilled craftsmen and businessmen, as Oneida finally was.

But even the Hutterites are in the final analysis elitist. An elite exists because it thinks it is elite. So a community of deeply religious farmers that considers itself a remnant saved out of a damned society is an elite, even if its members never read books.

Large-scale communist societies, whole towns or small territories made up of all kinds of people, have existed only in pre-Reformation Bohemia, Silesia and Poland and amongst heretical Muslims around the head of the Persian Gulf at the time of the Christian Crusades. Of course, even they considered themselves elites. In both instances, the economies were not completely self-sustaining. In fact the Islamic communities have been called “a communism of brigandage”: they lived by preying on the decaying Abbasid Caliphate — and held all things in common — that is, the loot.

There is nothing wrong with the “secession of the elites.” It’s usually what saves a deteriorating society, if it can be saved. The problem today is to evolve a worldwide communal movement that can change the dominant society, rather than simply challenge it, before it destroys us all. Such a movement would have to be self-sufficient, disciplined and possess universally acceptable sanctions.

[December 22, 1971]

 


“San Francisco in the Sixties” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.


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