Never Content: On Don Hamerquist’s “A Brilliant Red Thread” [Jarrod Shanahan in the LA Review of Books]
[Mirrored from lareviewofbooks.org, where it was posted May 12, 2023.]
“TODAY WE FACE a bewildering conundrum,” writes Luis Brennan. “[M]illions of people are ready to engage in active combat with the ruling capitalist order, but we have not seen the emergence of a viable social force that articulates a promising alternative to that order.” Faith in capitalist governments, whether liberal-democratic or outright authoritarian, is eroding worldwide as crises proliferate, and even the wealthiest and most plunderous nation-states are proving incapable of sustaining the quality of life that ensures their working populations’ docility. We therefore enter a dangerous political era, when the operative question seems not to be whether serious alternatives to global capitalism will emerge, but whether they will come from the left or the right. And there is no preordained outcome; victory will go to those who fight the hardest—and the smartest.
Toward this end, Brennan, himself an experienced labor organizer, has edited a stellar collection of essays by its titular octogenarian American revolutionary, A Brilliant Red Thread: Revolutionary Writings from Don Hamerquist (Kersplebedeb, 2023). It is a work that juxtaposes soaring theoretical insights with a great humility of prose and posture exceedingly rare among leftist theoreticians. Hamerquist has long shunned the cult of celebrity embraced by many intellectuals, opting instead to stay in intimate contact with a small network of comrades concerned with working-class organizing and direct action. But Hamerquist’s rightful place among the United States’ foremost revolutionary thinkers is long overdue; the lessons of his nearly 70 years of agitating and theorizing toward human liberation constitute some of the freshest and most novel political writing available in our moment. And befitting its author’s lifelong dedication to placing well-measured political activity above pontification for its own sake, A Brilliant Red Thread is not intended for passive contemplation or rhetorical posturing. “This book is a weapon,” writes Brennan, “to be turned on the powerful for maximum impact.”
The unique political interventions offered in A Brilliant Red Thread are inseparable from the life experiences of its author. Don Hamerquist was born in 1939 and lived in a cabin deep in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. His parents were members of the American Communist Party (CP), and his father, a logger by trade, organized with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the original Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As Joseph Stalin’s icy grip on international communism hardened, the couple’s antiauthoritarian approach to politics placed them at odds not just with US elites—whose blacklist prevented Hamerquist’s father from retaining regular work or traveling to nearby Canada—but also CP leadership, who ultimately expelled them as dissidents. In both cases, the Hamerquists were unapologetic. Their son recalls the frequent counsel of his father: “[T]hink for yourself; don’t get too enthused about individual leaders; it’s more important to question leadership than applaud it.”
Hamerquist joined the CP himself in 1958 and spent years working in logging and trucking, punctuated by an abortive stint at Reed College. The party had become more outwardly tolerant of subversives, welcoming the elder Hamerquists back into its ranks in the early 1950s, and subsequently encouraging the young Don to dabble in the growing youth movement that would become the New Left. Described as “handsome” and “hardworking” in an otherwise hostile 1967 profile by Time magazine, Hamerquist became a protégé of General Secretary Gus Hall, near the center of the American party’s bureaucracy.
But the growing New Left challenge to party hierarchy and inertia, coupled with a rebellious streak inherited from Hamerquist’s parents, made this an uncomfortable fit. By 1968, Hamerquist was out, but not before a Kafkaesque process that ended when he unsuccessfully argued for his own expulsion—while leadership countered that he had simply resigned. Regardless, as a public staffer, Hamerquist promptly filed for—and received—unemployment checks from New York State.
Like many in the New Left, by the mid-1960s, Hamerquist felt the urgent need to rethink communist orthodoxy amid a rapidly changing world. In particular, the 1968 general strike in France, the Prague Spring, and the emergence of strident Black and Brown revolutionary movements in the United States and around the world all pointed to emergent forms of rebellion emanating from below and organized horizontally, far removed from the top-down stewardship of professional politicians and trade-union bureaucrats that had urged tepid reforms toward a vanishing horizon. Though feeling as little fidelity to Beijing as he did to Moscow, Hamerquist did have sympathy for one slogan of China’s Cultural Revolution: “Bombard the Party headquarters.”
In 1969, Hamerquist co-founded the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a small yet impactful grouping in the so-called New Communist movement, alongside a core of innovative young Marxist thinkers descendent from the New Left. At its best, this group, which persisted well into the 1980s, emphasized experimental praxis, and practiced rigorous critique of itself and its surrounding world. STO proposed that revolution in the United States would not be initiated by the protracted and deliberate initiative of large formal organizations, including traditional parties and labor unions, but would arise instead from the contradictions structuring daily life, under which people labor and live in close cooperation, while enacting a social order that degrades and deforms their common humanity, engenders perennial crises, and places them in competition with one another.
As chronicled in Michael Staudenmaier’s book Truth and Revolution: A History of the Sojourner Truth Organization, 1969–1986 (AK Press, 2012), STO engaged in vigorous debate about the forms adequate to relate to rebellion from below and to help it generalize into outright insurrection. Rather than a solution to the question worked out on paper, this framework invites organizers and agitators to take equally seriously the twin perils of spontaneous struggle simply burning out for lack of coherence and consistency over time, or else its dynamism and radical potential being crushed by the imposition of too much formal structure. Needless to say, the question remains an open one.
Moreover, at a time when a popular movement slogan ran “Black and White, Unite and Fight,” STO argued that the color line itself must be smashed by a new type of solidarity between white and Black workers. White workers should not organize as white workers—beneficiaries of a series of now-famous “privileges” underlying their compliance with the boss—but must advance the demands of the Black and Brown workers at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. In subsequent decades, so-called privilege theory was watered down to a business-friendly exercise in scolding workers because somebody somewhere has it worse than them. But it originated as a communist praxis of workplace organizing, first formulated by another STO founder, Noel Ignatiev, who put it succinctly: “Treason to Whiteness Is Loyalty to Humanity.”
Like most of STO’s best work, these theories were not formulated in abstraction, but came from members’ participation in factory struggles in the Steel Belt, with a ground zero of Chicago, where Hamerquist lived for many years. STO had no interest in apologetics for the increasingly farcical and barbarous regimes of “actually existing socialism” in Russia, China, or anywhere else. As believers in the vision that animated these revolutions, they argued that the end result had to be honestly assessed by those who sought to realize it. The sum total of these political positions was a unique political orientation, at once internationalist and distinctly American, which characterizes the writing featured in A Brilliant Red Thread.
While Hamerquist has been diligently writing and arguing for most of his political life, the offerings contained in A Brilliant Red Thread begin in 2000, long after Hamerquist left STO and became something of an elder statesman among anarchists and unorthodox communists. Most of the entries began as correspondence with organizers trying to make sense of the present struggles they were engaged in and the changing world around them. And activists go to Don with such questions because they know they will not be served up reheated leftovers from the 20th century; while Hamerquist draws deftly on his considerable experiences, his reflections are grounded in the present, even the near future.
Sometimes the topics of these exchanges are what we may call niche, such as the controversy within the present-day IWW over whether or not to form legally recognized unions. But the depth of Hamerquist’s hard-won, deeply practical wisdom, coupled with the lapidary editing work of Brennan and a small circle of confidants, allows these correspondences to stand on their own as much broader political reflections. A common theme uniting these diverse interventions is also a consistent feature of Hamerquist’s political life: the imperative to reflect critically on the present terrain of struggle, unclouded by sentimentality or dogmatism, leaving no axiom untested by critical scrutiny or practical experimentation.
These interventions take place on several interrelated levels. The first is a sophisticated analysis of the changing nature of transnational capitalism, its relationship to nation-states, and the makeup of states themselves. Hamerquist draws on a fusion of postautonomist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and military theorist John Robb to depict global capital as increasingly usurping the power of nation-states, including in the so-called West, and depriving states of their ability to weather the crises inherent in capitalism in ways that do not immediately serve short-term profit motives. Call for “new New Deals” all you like, Hamerquist argues. No executive power exists to bring them into being. Even as devolving quality of life in the wealthiest countries threatens open revolt, considerable internationally organized ruling-class power pushes against strong state policy, or redistribution in any direction but up.
In one profound entry, written in 2009 to the small communist cadre organization Bring the Ruckus, Hamerquist discusses the diminishing importance of white Americans in the international division of labor, which has led to the erosion of much of the “privilege” on which STO focused so intently. “The loyalty of US white workers is no longer worth as much,” he argues, “and less will be paid for it.” This of course threatens the historical alliance between white workers and white elites, on which much of US society has been built since colonial Virginia. While this prediction has proven prescient, and the increasing devaluation of the “wages of whiteness” have been a boon to right populism and outright fascism in white America, there is presently no organized bloc of state powers or capitalist firms willing or able to intervene decisively to reverse this trend.
While Hamerquist gestures toward the possibility of coherent global powers greater than today’s states, which might handle crises in a more far-sighted way, this moment has not yet arrived. Today’s political terrain remains a fraught mixture of increasingly “hollow states,” drained of their ability to manage society by means other than the brute force of police and military, and multinational corporations that simply chase profit margins and presently do not have the capability, if they have the desire, to effect long-term planning.
The second level is a close consideration of the complex struggles on the local level, where a crowded field of actors seek to push the momentum of mass struggle either back into the legitimate organs of the state, or into extraparliamentary right-wing politics the likes of which we saw on January 6, 2021. Hamerquist has helped theorize this terrain as a “three way fight.” Whereas leftist orthodoxy treats fascism as an option freely chosen by ruling classes in the face of social disintegration—thereby dismissing self-identified revolutionary fascists as mere puppets of elites, often while making coalitions with progressive elites to defeat them—Hamerquist argues that fascism can be a political form distinct from liberal-democratic capitalist society, and its “third-positionist” adherents are not mistaken that it would represent a revolution—albeit toward barbarism. Once we take fascism seriously as a challenge to the capitalist status quo, Hamerquist argues, we must confront the frightful possibility that growing anti-capitalist sentiments worldwide will not find an adequate expression in left politics, and will instead find it in the right.
This prospect is especially dangerous as the ruling class has taken on the rhetoric surrounding many bedrock leftist issues, including anti-racism and “social justice,” making them appear indissociable from big capital and state power at a time when these actors are quite unpopular. The saturation of media, workplaces, and schools with a business-friendly version of liberatory politics has made issues that impact some of society’s most powerless people begin to appear elitist. A clearly demarcated anti-capitalist alternative, existing in laudable pockets here and there, has yet to cohere—though it must. A final and related point Hamerquist emphasizes should be easy to grasp in 2023: ostensible gains and victories, no matter how definitive, can always be subject to reversal, sometimes abruptly. Nothing must be taken for granted. Things can always change—quickly, for the worse.
This leads to the third level, where small groups of like-minded revolutionaries organize collective projects aimed at waging three-way fights, cultivating international ties, and ultimately building a postcapitalist society. While his rejection of top-down, bureaucratic organizing led Hamerquist out of the CP, he did not become a pure “spontaneist,” one who places faith in capitalism to mechanistically give way to communism through the unfolding of its intrinsic contradictions. Instead, Hamerquist believes that adequate political organization will make or break the historical trajectory presently undecided between Rosa Luxemburg’s famous crossroads: socialism or barbarism. Hamerquist knows better than to offer ornate blueprints for diverse social and political landscapes. But he nonetheless has a clear sense of best practices—many derived, as he is often quick to point out, from being intimately acquainted with the worst ones.
First, Hamerquist offers flexible criteria for organizing groupings and evaluating their success, proceeding from the premise that some kind of organization is necessary. “I think that any revolutionary organization that does not expect minorities to accept majority decisions on basic issues,” he writes, “and that does not collectively evaluate everyone’s political work is an organization that will quickly become an ex-organization or an organization of ex-revolutionaries.” Should projects then cohere around ornate theoretical unity, draped in all the vestments of the 20th-century revolutionary tradition? This might work, Hamerquist notes, but you don’t know for sure what somebody’s self-styled politics actually amount to, until action is required and risk enters the equation. The question thereby becomes a calculus of practical unity, underscoring the necessity to identify key points of necessary agreement.
In one critical letter to a nascent anarchist federation, Hamerquist outlines three necessary points of agreement:
First, we want people who aren’t reformists and whose orientation is to fight the system […] Second, we want people who believe that revolution must be achieved through the development and exercise of popular power, and who understand that political work must embody and develop this power as a practical content, not just an ultimate goal […] Finally, we want people who are willing to subject their ideas and activity to collective discussion and decision-making.
In this way, a culture of ruthless critique, and open democratic channels for voicing it and participating in decisions, put to the service of concrete political engagement, becomes a more decisive factor than a priori unity rooted in politics likely extracted from a different time and place.
Relatedly, as scholar Orisanmi Burton recently put it, “revolution is illegal.” Hamerquist is insistent that sustained revolutionary efforts, in the best of possible outcomes, will quickly transcend the narrow confines of liberal-democratic participation and place their participants in growing danger, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. The question, then, is not whether to engage in activity that provokes state repression, but how to do so wisely. A survivor of COINTELPRO, Hamerquist cautions activists to develop a grounded assessment of state repression, and to avoid the twin scourges of disregarding it altogether, or allowing the assumed omnipotence of the state to paralyze. A student of state counterinsurgency strategies, Hamerquist argues that direct violence against movements is not the preferred method of effective counterinsurgents, and more complex operators aim at influencing the course of mass movements toward aims favorable to national and transnational elites.
Navigating state repression is a game of blind man’s bluff: the necessity to act comes alongside the impossibility of knowing more than a small part of the whole. None of this, Hamerquist argues, gets any better if revolutionaries who face repression simply fall back on claims of “free speech” and insist that they were actually harmless all along. “There is no doubt that the state is taking us seriously,” he wrote in a 2001 editorial for the ARA Research Bulletin, a publication of the pugnacious leftist street organization Anti-Racist Action.
We should also take ourselves seriously. Playing the innocent victim is not serious. Treating repressive policies as if they were reflexive reactions of idiots and thugs is not serious […] We won’t get anywhere or gain anything by reaction to incidents of repression with appeals to civil libertarian rights to protest. The state isn’t committed to these “rules of the game,” and the movement isn’t either—or at least it shouldn’t be.
These different levels of analysis intertwine with an understated grace; for instance, Hamerquist’s most sustained and thoughtful reflection on transnational capital and hollow states comes in an essay making sense of the 2014 rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, perhaps the finest in the collection. Similar weaving of granular, local, and trans/national analyses characterizes reflections on the anti-globalization movement, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and numerous other flashpoints of struggle Hamerquist studied intently, and debated their contents collectively, as they unfolded, with an eye to more generalizable lessons for moving ahead. As Hamerquist writes, in a 2012 reflection on the activist shutdowns of Longview Port in Washington and the Port of Oakland in California: “It is important not to be seduced by any cheerleading rhetoric, including our own; to tell the truth as we understand it, even when it is painful; and to rely on and help develop the capacity of ordinary people to think about complicated alternatives and decide important questions.”
The essays contained in A Brilliant Red Thread are the work of a political mind that never rests content with having the answers but strives instead for bigger and better questions, and experimental praxis suitable for trying them out. This is a book that must be read, debated, and otherwise reckoned with by all who believe themselves to be fighting for a world after capitalism. Hamerquist would be the last person to claim that any one text or individual can point us there, but this book takes us more than a few steps along the way.
Jarrod Shanahan is an author, activist, and educator living in Chicago.