Resistance and violence

This post was originally a static page on both my blogs and has been archived so that the content may be preserved. Since it was written, my views as described within may have evolved somewhat.

There has long been a broad debate within resistance movements over the use of violence. The best example of such is within the Civil Rights Movement, and the schizm between the followers of Martin Luther King and ofMalcolm X‘s Nation of Islam. It’s an important debate, and one which must continue so that we are never complacent and so that the lines drawn are valid to ourselves rather than arbitrary.

Within anarchism, too, this issue is an important one. The most obvious reason for this is that anarchism is, in the popular imagination and the stories spun by the state and media, synonymous with terrorism. It is a common perception, indeed one that I learned in history at secondary school, that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which catalysed the start of the Great War, was committed by an anarchist. In fact, both Gavrilo Princip and The Black Hand organisation to which he belonged were Serbian nationalists. Similar false attachments to terrorism have followed anarchism through the twentieth century, the connection more easily made after the publication of the ridiculous Anarchist Cookbook.

However, anarchist theory and anarchists in general reject terrorism as a means to achieve their goals. According to Mikhail Bakunin “we wish not to kill persons, but to abolish status and its perquisites” and anarchism “does not mean the death of the individuals who make up the bourgeoisie, but the death of the bourgeoisie as a political and social entity economically distinct from the working class.” An anarchist pamphlet from 1979, You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship spells out the anarchist position in quite unequivocal terms:

You can’t blow up a social relationship. The total collapse of this society would provide no guarantee about what would replace it. Unless a majority of people had the ideas and organization sufficient for creation of an alternative society, we would see the old world reassert itself because it is what people would be used to, what they believed in, what existed unchallenged in their own personalities.

Proponants of terrorism and guerrillaism are to be opposed because their actions are vangaurdist and authoritarian, because their ideas are wrong or unrelated to the results of their actions, because killing cannot be justified, and finally because their actions produce either repression with nothing in return or an authoritarian regime.

Anarchism did go through a well-known phase of “Propaganda of the Deed,” wherein important political figures were assassinated, but this was widely recognised as counter-productive. Peter Kropotkin acknowledged that this “spate of terrorist acts” only succeeded in motivating “the authorities into taking repressive action against the movement” and that they were “not in his view consistent with the anarchist ideal and did little or nothing to promote popular revolt.”

What of violence that is not terrorism, though? Where do anarchists stand in the choice between non-violent civil disobedience and violent resistance to authority? Quite simply, anarchists are in favour of direct action.Rudolph Rocker defined this as “every method of immediate warfare by the workers against their economic and political oppressors. Among these the outstanding are: the strike, in all its graduations from the simple wage struggle to the general strike; the boycott; sabotage in all its countless forms; anti-militarist propaganda, and in particularly critical cases,… armed resistance of the people for the protection of life and liberty.”

Anarchists are not against reforms, as any and every improvement in the lives and freedoms of the working classes is indeed welcome, but we reject reformism, the notion that reform alone can shape society for the better. Ultimately, it is not the beneficience of the rulers but the activism of the people that will bring about the society we want to see. This is what direct action is all about, and it is neither exclusively violent nor exclusively non-violent, as Voltairine De Cleyre explained;

Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist. Some thirty years ago I recall that the Salvation Army was vigorously practicing direct action in the maintenance of the freedom of its members to speak, assemble, and pray. Over and over they were arrested, fined, and imprisoned; but they kept right on singing, praying, and marching, till they finally compelled their persecutors to let them alone. The Industrial Workers [of the World] are now conducting the same fight, and have, in a number of cases, compelled the officials to let them alone by the same direct tactics.

Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.

Every person who ever in his life had a difference with anyone to settle, and went straight to the other persons involved to settle it, either by a peaceable plan or otherwise, was a direct actionist. Examples of such action are strikes and boycotts; many persons will recall the action of the housewives of New York who boycotted the butchers, and lowered the price of meat; at the present moment a butter boycott seems looming up, as a direct reply to the price-makers for butter.

These actions are generally not due to any one’s reasoning overmuch on the respective merits of directness or indirectness, but are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation. In other words, all people are, most of the time, believers in the principle of direct action, and practicers of it.

So, anarchists do not utterly eschew violence. Indeed, it can be utterly necessary for self- and community-defence. The fight against fascism, most notably General Franco in revolutionary Spain or organised neo-Nazisin modern Russia, is testament to this. But this is far from the full extent of our arsenal. Though violence (or, more accurately, resistance against state violence) can ignite the passion of rebellion, it cannot shape a revolution. Alexander Berkman, in his ABC of Anarchism ties up this thought eloquently;

We know that revolution begins with street disturbances and outbreaks; it is the initial phase which involves force and violence. But that is merely the spectacular prologue of the real revolution. The age long misery and indignity suffered by the masses burst into disorder and tumult, the humiliation and injustice meekly borne for decades find vents in facts of fury and destruction. That is inevitable, and it is solely the master class which is responsible for this preliminary character of revolution. For it is even more true socially than individually that ‘whoever sows the wind will reap the whirlwind;’ the greater the oppression and wretchedness to which the masses had been made to submit, the fiercer the rage [of] the social storm. All history proves it . . .


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