At the End of the Barrel of a Gun

Photograph Source: A demonstrator offers a flower to military police at an anti-Vietnam War protest in Arlington, Virginia, 21 October 1967 – Public Domain

I want to stay far away from anything resembling anti-intellectualism or guilt by association, especially since the right-wing political, economic, and social systems we live in in the US give plenty of space to anti-intellectualism and the dominance of ignorance. Blood now runs in the streets, so the impact of the far right (read fascists) must also be acknowledged and strenuously fought.

The bookstore is located in the heart of Harlem, a place where I seem to feel more comfortable with than many other places in New York City, with the important exception of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village because of how many of the profoundly personal, societal, cultural, and historical changes took place there during the 1960s and early 1970s. Many lived that history, so criticism of some of its aberrant ideological leanings  is a valid exercise.

I went into the bookstore because it had a reputation as both a welcoming place and a shop at which lots of great critical titles could be found with histories, biographies, autobiographies, poetry, essays, and critiques about how bad it really is and some possible ways out of the maelstrom. I write these words after two mass shootings in the US, one in Texas and one in Ohio, so readers understand exactly where I’m coming from and the pressing need for radical change. The radical right media, personified by Fox News, demonizes antifa while the blood of innocent people runs in the streets.

I also went to the bookstore to find out if the group that operates the store would review and possibly sell my book, Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2018), about my resistance to the Vietnam War. It seems that resistance during that war has all but been forgotten, and I refuse to be a participant in that amnesia in the face of militarism and endless wars. Gun violence in the streets here is connected in some ways to those endless wars. Although I was greeted at the bookstore with open arms and friendliness that is not seen in retail establishments in a society where everything is bought and sold and everything has value solely as a consumer good, I quickly learned that the shop would never accept my book and put it on their shelves. It’s not that I wouldn’t submit it, it’s the fact that reading the political handouts  available at the bookstore show that a strict sectarian ideology informs almost everything about the place. I felt as if I was at a political organizing meeting in New York City around 1970. Two of the people associated with the bookstore and the particular communist organization on which the bookstore was founded quickly turned to questioning me about my politics in a manner that bordered on the invasive. I felt as if I was being interrogated for potential membership in their politcal organization.

The politics that the store represents is an old variety of communism with a fresh coat of paint. Just how the masses will create the conditions for a revolution through some kind of bloodless transformation remains a mystery after reading some of the literature about the brand of radicalism that the store promulgates. I’m not averse to many of the premises of democratic socialism, it’s just that the societies where communism was installed as a political and economic system ended up with horrific examples of mass murder. Whether it was the mass relocations of people out of the cities in Mao’s China, or Stalin’s gulags filled with real and imagined political opponents, the results were just about the same: mass bloodletting. There’s a poster of Mao Zedong on a wall of the shop that depicts him among the masses. Left out is the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China that took place from 1966-1976 in which from 500,000 to 2,000,000 people were killed in that “sociopolitical movement.”  During the same period, the US, in its insane variety of anti-communism and imperialism, killed millions of people in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The historical record shows that when more rational forms of communism and democratic socialism came to power in places like Chile, they were annihilated by the far-right forces of capitalism and imperialism, and they were murdered violently. Would Cuba under Castro have been different had the US cooperated with his government, or would some extremes of his political system have developed anyway: it’s impossible to know with any certainty? Cooperation would never happen with Cuba (with a brief respite during the Obama administration). The US still enforces the Monroe Doctrine there. I know, however, that I could not write these words in Cuba, either in the past or now and hope to be allowed to remain in that country.

The leader of the communist political party under which the bookstore operates was a member of the New Left and one of the revolutionary groups that formed as that Left spiraled into oblivion in the early

1970s. Reading the biography online about the leader, I recalled the asinine debates about who could actually be called politically authentic in the leadership as the New Left reached its demise. Some have called the leadership of the party that the bookstore lionizes as a “cult of personality.” It was reminiscent of the sectarian squabbles that are so accurately portrayed by the journalist Jack Reed in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), his first-person account of the Russian Revolution.

As I left the shop, one person said that if I took nothing else with me that day, I needed to buy the manifesto of the communist group’s leader that was prominently displayed near the front entrance to the shop. I balked, as my superficial perusal of the book reminded me of both my own experiences with sectarian ideolouges from the Vietnam era and what I have learned from history. The one true way is seldom the one true way, as Jack Reed and others quickly learned from their experiences at the inception of the former Soviet Union. Yes, there were vicious roadblocks put in the way of that revolution by the West, but the dictatorship of the proletariat always turned out to be a blot on humanity and not something that benefited humankind. Governments cannot lock up political opponents and throw away the key and call themselves progressive. Those same governments can’t summarily shoot opponents  True, challenges come at revolutionary systems from all sides, but taking away personal and societal liberties ends with mass incarceration that is also so obvious in the US today.

I don’t think after my visit that I will submit my book to the bookstore for review because my approach to political, economic, and social change is to look at those realities as they are found on the ground in the real world, not in any sectarian paradise that really has never existed and may never exist considering the foibles and extremes of human behavior. One foot in the system and one foot out seems to be a good ideal and practical even if the results are often disappointing. Parties and movements in the US always get sucked into the politcal duopoly and their achievements are soon eliminated or radically muted. As limiting as the reality on the ground often is, a person can maintain his or her ideals for a new world while fighting for ways to reshape the tattered one we see before us.

The New Left quickly faded with the end of the Vietnam War, after some lethal forays into violence by a tiny minority that many view today as great mistakes. This is not a critique of methods, but a realization of how the ends can be confused with the means, when the means lead to a cul-de-sac to nowhere. It opens movements for social change to valid criticisms as we see how the system of capitalism that spawns vicious and murderous levels of hate and greed has deteriorated at the end of the barrel of a gun.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).