In “Free Speech for Poets Dispatch #1: Ann Coulter!,” an unnamed Dispatches editor (who I assume is Kent Johnson) decries the “proto-Stalinism” of the faculty and students at Berkeley who stopped Ann Coulter’s talk at that university. In a follow-up, Michael Boughn offers a slightly different take, attributing the violent clashes at Berkeley to “two battling gangs of proto-fascists.” I largely agree with the positions of both Kent and Michael, but I want to focus on their fascinating uses of the prefix “proto.” Literally, of course, none of these people is even remotely Stalinist, and I’d be willing to bet only a small minority of the Berkeley students could give even the vaguest description of Stalin’s place in Soviet communism. Also, since Stalin came to power in 1922 and died 31 years later, there’s obviously no way the Berkeley students and faculty could come before Stalin. It’s also clear that while at least some of the Coulter supporters share the nationalism and racism of various fascist movements, they’re certainly not emerging from the somewhat incoherent mixture of anarchism, monarchism, socialism, and authoritarianism that characterized proto-fascism a century ago.
Kent and Michael could have used the prefixes “quasi-“ or “crypto,”– but “proto” seems strangely appropriate. One of the contradictions of our historical moment is that it doesn’t seem historical at all; it is simply a moment, perhaps vaguely connected to the vast jumble of other moments. Terms like “Stalinist” and “fascist” have become detached from history and slip like ghosts across time and space. Their definitions are now evocative, metaphorical, and – most importantly – nostalgic. Communism is now a different kind of spectre from the one Marx and Engels announced: The Communist Manifesto accurately predicted a spectre about to become incarnate. But communism is now dead and buried, and (as always with spectres) its ghostly presence reflects a desire for and/or an anxiety about what is gone: the soothing teleologies that no longer apply to our time. Almost four decades ago, Lyotard defined postmodernism as “skepticism toward metanarratives,” meaning that the grand visions implicit in Marxism and Christianity (for example) had lost their psychological, political, and emotional power. (In fairness, Lyotard stipulated he was “simplifying in the extreme.”) But metanarratives, even when they’re bogus, provide comforting frameworks, ways to organize the chaos of time and history. Now, in post-history, we’ve taken half a step away from skepticism, returning in a stumbling, uncertain way to those anachronistic visions the way that the quasi-pagan Pound “returned” to Dante, motivated by uncertainty and something like nostalgia for a time when the grand teleologies competed like pro wrestlers. The problem is that now they’re less teleologies than vague placeholders for ideological positions that don’t seem to fit in any overarching political narrative.
I also think there’s a sort of ironic nostalgia in Kent’s brilliant use of communist iconography in Dispatches and his other work. As a former Trotskyist, Kent knows the internecine squabbles in 20th century Marxism as well as anyone, and his use of Maoist posters to satirize the leftiest of contemporary poets is always sharp and funny. But I think the posters work simultaneously as kitsch and objects of desire: they’re as outdated as velvet paintings, but they also point back to a time when the ideological lines were sharp and widely understood. I should add that that’s a tendency I find in myself: I have a book of Chinese revolutionary posters that my son, who was ten at the time, picked out for me in the bargain shelves of a Barnes and Noble. Hanging on the wall a few feet from where I’m typing are two reproductions of RoSTA posters, the striking propaganda posters hung in post offices during the early days of the Soviet Union; those were Christmas presents from my wife. It says quite a bit when your family members recognize your semi-ironic affinities for Marxist propaganda.
But sometimes that mix of kitsch and nostalgia slides into a mere recapitulation of the past that’s essentially historical karaoke, as in the Fugs’ recent “exorcism” of evil spirits in the White House, a video of which was posted on YouTube and Dispatches. Half a century ago, the Fugs, along with Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, and many others attempted to “exorcize the Spirits of murder, violence & creephood” from the Pentagon. They also sought to levitate that building three feet above the ground, and I think those events were funny and vaguely provocative bits of Yippie performance art. While I have enormous respect for Ed Sanders, a “re-exorcism” fifty years later is little more than a Halloween skit in which poets and musicians who should know better pretend to re-banish the spirits of spirits who never existed in the first place. It’s almost as harmless and de-politicized as the Che t-shirts which have become trendy. (Get yours at the Che store: https://www.thechestore.com. Free shipping on orders over $75!)
There is perhaps no time in history that has been more obsessed with the present than our own moment. We also lack an ability to imagine a politics that could (allegedly) transform the future, and so we fall back on caricatures of the past.
And no, I don’t have any idea about how that might change.