Living with the Lower Case [Gabriel Kuhn reviews A Brilliant Red Thread]
A review of Don Hamerquist, A Brilliant Red Thread (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2023).
There is much to like about Montreal publisher Kersplebedeb. One thing is the political positioning. Introducing a list of “Texts for leninists with an anti-authoritarian critique of leninism, and for anarchists with a pro-rev critique of anarchism” they write: “Here at Kersplebedeb, some of of our favourite radical theory occurs where anarchists (broadly speaking) who are critical of anarchism – and are therefore charged with being Leninists – intermingle with Leninists (broadly speaking) who are critical of Leninism – and are therefore charged with being anarchists.”
Now Kersplebedeb has released a(nother) book that fits the profile. The most remarkable thing (among others) about A Brilliant Red Thread, a collection of writings by Don Hamerquist, veteran of the Sojourner Truth Organization and longtime revolutionary activist and thinker, is the absence of sectarianism. Hamerquist pays respect to all revolutionary traditions on the left, from anarchism to Leninism to Maoism. It’s almost unfortunate that Hamerquist’s best-known piece remains the essay “Lenin, Leninism, and Some Leftovers” (included in A Brilliant Red Thread in an updated version), which has caused many to place him solidly into the orthodox Leninist camp. In truth, the piece is a call for a broad left-revolutionary front. In Hamerquist’s words:
“[We] lack the collective political practice required to evaluate alternative strategic initiatives. In my opinion, the necessary first step in this direction is to bring together social anarchists and those Marxists and Leninists who could live with the lower case ‘m’ and ‘l’ – although they may not have realized it yet. I’m well aware that there are many, perhaps most, in each camp who think this is impossible, unnecessary, or a mistake. I hope that this paper might change some opinions.”
Hamerquist is not shy when it comes to criticizing self-complacency in Marxist circles. Here’s another quote from “Lenin, Leninism, and Some Leftovers”:
“The questionable assertion that communists have made revolutions while anarchists (or Trotskyists in an earlier day) haven’t puts an exaggerated blame for all failures and limitations on the equivocation and vacillation of the non–Marxist-Leninist left that failed to challenge for power or to fully support those who did. This removes the incentives to examine the exercise of working-class authority and power prior to, during, and following revolutionary crises, and provides a sectarian barrier to a thorough criticism of the actions of organized revolutionaries in these periods. Real mistakes of commission appear as unavoidable or isolated ‘accidents.’ Incompetent policies and attitudes are rationalized and minimized as examples of a revolutionary commitment to the ultimate goal, deflecting attention from many historical examples where the M-L Party has been a major obstacle to revolutionary progress, not just a source of equivocation and vacillation.”
Where Hamerquist criticizes anarchism, his critique is equally valid:
“In my experience, anarchists are hard pressed to discuss their political work critically and are wary to the point of being hostile to any process that might result in one area of work being prioritized over another. They are unwilling to collectivize an estimate of political conditions if it means everyone’s ideas are open to discussion and criticism but will not end up with equal validity. They find it difficult to deal with destructive tendencies in their own social and political culture. They don’t take responsibility for evaluating major strategic initiatives that encounter obstacles – e.g., the anti-globalization movement after Genoa – or political developments that dramatically alter the context for work – e.g., 9/11 and the War on Terror. These factors combine to create an amorphous anarchist milieu where major issues are determined according to what feels comfortable, what people want to do, what makes them happy, what is not too difficult or too dangerous – as if questions of revolution were individual lifestyle choices between fads and hobbies.”
For those who care, similar thoughts have been expressed in my essay “Revolution Is More than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism”, and in a recent interview with Matthew Wilson (author of the brilliant Rules Without Rulers: The Possibilities and Limits of Anarchism) in Anarchist Studies.
Hamerquist’s quote on anarchism comes from a text that, as most texts in A Brilliant Red Thread, has not been previously published. The majority of the texts in the book were written as emails to friends or as contributions to online discussion forums. It appears as if the book’s editor, Portland IWW organizer Luis Brennan, sifted through hundreds of files. Brennan structured the texts he chose into six chapters (from “Organizing” to “Analysis”), added an acronym key, a glossary, and extended notes. He has done great work.
The idea of basing a book on emails is far from outlandish at a time when famous people can write bestsellers based on email conversations. But only because famous people can afford to do so, it doesn’t mean that it always works. Luckily, in this case it works pretty well. Hamerquist’s writings are full of valuable insights. Yet, since they are written as emails and contributions to online discussion forums, they aren’t always well-structured, polished, or even finished. At times, it requires a bit of searching to find the gems. If there is anything that would make me hesitate to enthusiastically recommend the book to just about anyone, it’s the length. At around 400 pages, it’s a lot to wade through if you’re not a nerd when it comes to revolutionary analysis.
I am, so I found going through A Brilliant Red Thread to be a pleasure. Hamerquist looks at the most obscure radical group with the same earnestness with which he approaches bigger players such as SDS, Anti-Racist Action, or Bring the Ruckus. Some of my best friends in North America were organized in groups discussed by Hamerquist, which made his thoughts on them particularly interesting. There’s also plenty in the book that relates to my current organizing efforts within Sweden’s syndicalist union SAC. I was happy to see an extended discussion of the 2009 pamphlet Strategy and Struggle: Anarcho-Syndicalism in the 21st Century, written by comrades from the Solidarity Federation in Britain.
The texts included in A Brilliant Red Thread cover a twenty-year period. Some might be a touch outdated, such as a long 2005 email on the Iraq War, while others remain – unfortunately – highly relevant, such as Hamerquist’s reflections on “third position fascism.” Not only have far-right attempts to appeal to anti-capitalists and radical sections of the working class become, as Luis Brennan points out, a feature of the Alt-Right, similar tendencies are highly prevalent in Europe, not least in the “Querdenker” (literally, “cross-thinker”) scene in Germany, arguably the strongest political force coming out of the Covid years. (“Querfront” has been a longstanding German term to describe attempts to bring together far-left and far-right politics.) There is a lot to say about the necessity to continue the “three-way fight” that emerged as a strategy out of discussions Hamerquist was involved in in the early 2000s.
In the “Editor’s Preface”, Luis Brennan writes:
“Over six decades of active political engagement and intellectual work Hamerquist has remained mostly unknown outside of those ‘in the know.’ This has not been out of vanity or elitism; instead it has been due to Hamerquist’s humility and the primacy of his commitment to the work of politics rather than money or notoriety.”
I don’t know how humble Don Hamerquist is, we have never met. But the “commitment to the work of politics” certainly rings true. Of course, one might argue that even if Hamerquist had hunted money or notoriety, he picked the wrong playing field. It’s hard to reach circles outside of those “in the know” when focusing on revolutionary left politics. But it’s true that Hamerquist could have watered his ideas down to a point where his writing had become palpable for a publishing industry that has no qualms about selling “radical” messages, as long as they sell. That Hamerquist preferred to write about the latest MLM group on an online discussion forum rather than about the Green New Deal on Jacobin (or worse) speaks for him. It has also allowed him not to mince his words with regard to some of the most popular writers on the left. Here is a quote from a 2008 email to a friend addressing Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism:
“I’ve been reading Klein with my usual cynical bias. Given the unadulterated crap that passes for left political and social analysis, I hesitate to be too critical of her more skillfully adulterated output. But it’s only a momentary hesitation. The surface distinctiveness stemming from Klein’s straightforward hostility to US power obscures, but does not eliminate, the underlying similarity between her analysis and liberal reformism. She is a non-US left-liberal ‘third way’ advocate who looks better by not being home grown—but probably isn’t. There is a reason why she is welcome on Bill Maher’s show and why the well-intentioned Cusack family bases a movie on her work. She challenges, but not too much.”
I admit that I was a little surprised to find numerous references to Alain Badiou in A Brilliant Red Thread, although this probably explains why some of my best friends in North America told me about a decade ago that I absolutely had to read The Communist Hypothesis (I was disappointed). Not only does Badiou play the role of the feuilleton radical quite well, he also – which seems connected – regularly escapes into academic hyperbole, while Hamerquist’s own writing always stays close to organizing on the ground.
I’d like to close the review with another quote from Hamerquist’s emails that illustrates just that:
“There is one central problem that we’ve encountered in communist organizations that placed a high premium on theoretical discussion and agreement – on ‘centralism’ and, more importantly, on ‘unity,’ on conscious adherence to an elaborated set of common principles and estimates. We have found that this idealized unity is unlikely to survive in a real struggle situation when ideas begin to have consequences. To put it differently, it is not nearly so certain that unity will develop through collective struggle, as it is that any latent disunity will emerge and crystallize as the struggle raises the potential costs for the participants. A very developed political ‘agreement’ can quickly dissolve if a political position incurs risks and sacrifices, so it is important to ensure that the initial cadre grouping develops its positions in a manner that includes an actual commitment to ‘construct acts to the end’ – a posture that is more ethical stance than intellectual agreement. In fact, this commitment is more significant than a high degree of intellectual agreement until the latter has been tested in some meaningful way. When the point of action is reached, and that should be early in the process in my opinion, it is most important to draw organizational lines so that those militants who will fight are included and those who just talk a good fight are always challenged.”
(March 31, 2023)