The pros and cons of the black bloc
A black bloc, despite all the controversy around it, isn’t a complicated thing. It is simply the act whereby great numbers of people wear all-black clothing and cover their faces on demonstrations. They then come together as a unit, for both strength in numbers and anonymity. That’s it.
It is not an organisation, as conspiracy theorists and ill-informed media pundits alike contend, but a tactic. There is, very often, more to it than just masking up. After all, though the way they do so is overblown hysteria, those mainstream commentators are shrieking about vandalism and violence against property for a reason. On the breakaway from the March for the Alternative, I witnessed several people use a dumpster to smash in the doors of a HSBC branch. At G20 demonstrations in 2009, protesters also forced their way into a bank. Indeed, as Infoshop.org’s black bloc FAQ notes, “the black bloc that marched in Seattle during the N30 anti-WTO protests is the one that put black blocs on the international radar,” and “they engaged in a variety of activites, including property destruction.”
I’m not going to condemn this. The debate over violence against property should be a tactical one, and I have already laid out my own perspective on this. The moral debate that the media and the state seek is a divisive one that serves the interests of the ruling class, so I refuse to engage with it. My only point is that the black bloc and vandalism have become almost synonymous.
As a result, to defend the black bloc is in the eyes of many to defend mindless hooliganism and rioting on the streets. Me stating otherwise won’t change that perception for most with such a mentality, but it remains that I do not advocate violence or destruction for their own ends. To repeat, my argument is a tactical one concerned with class struggle from an anarcho-syndicalist point of view.
The limitations of the black bloc
From the outset, it should be obvious that, if a black bloc is useful at all, it is useful only in specific circumstances. There appears to be a presumption amongst critics of the tactic that those who advocate it do so as an all-or-nothing approach. i.e. that the black bloc is the movement, and beyond it there is nothing. This is simply not the case.
For example, Owen Jones writes that “it substitutes for the collective power of the working-class.” The bloc is “a self-selecting elite (i.e. those with the stomach for causing property damage) taking the initiative in … place” of the “organised power of working people.” Adam Ford traces the philosophy of black bloc tactics back to insurrectionist Johann Most‘s “strategy whereby convinced revolutionists would substitute themselves for the working class in acts of violence against state and capitalist targets.” The Socialist Worker goes further to portray anarchists as a whole as “believ[ing] small, imaginative groups of radicals should act on behalf of the masses.”
The three critics above come from quite different perspectives. Jones is a member of the Labour Party. Ford is a libertarian Marxist. The Socialist Worker is the paper of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). But all seem to agree on the black bloc (or autonomism, in the SWP’s terms) representing substitutionism.
If that were the case, then I would agree with them. As an anarcho-syndicalist, the core of my political philosophy is that working class people have a great collective power and that, by combining, we can use it to bring about enormous social change. In fact, I would explicitly contrast that with the diverging forms of vanguardism offered by Labour and the SWP, both of whom actually do intend to “substitute themselves for the working class” – Labour by representing it within the existing capitalist system, the SWP by taking the mantle of its “revolutionary leadership.”
The reason that the black bloc doesn’t represent this kind of substitutionism is because it doesn’t exist beyond mass demonstrations – but the people who comprise it do.
As a tactic, it would indeed be ineffective on a picket line, leafleting a working class estate, or during a long-term squat or occupation. That is why we don’t see it in those situations. But the black bloc not being there doesn’t mean that those who engage in black bloc tactics aren’t. As the Evening Standard was kind enough to point out, we are more than capable of changing our clothes.
Critics of the black bloc are right to point out that defeating capitalism requires a mass movement. It is exactly what I have previously advocated myself. The only difference being that where others would call for “stronger,” “better,” or “more militant” leadership, the libertarian left consistently advocate the rank-and-file of the working class taking control of their own struggles and self-organising. This, of course, is not something that arises spontaneously but as a result of education, agitation, and organisation by anarchist and other radical workers.
In that respect, then, the criticism of tactics which “substitute for the collective power of the working-class” is one best applied by anarchists to the various would-be vanguards of the authoritarian left rather than against anarchists. In looking at where the black bloc is useful, it should be remembered that it is a tactic to be deployed in particular situations – not an all-encompassing strategy to defeat capitalism.
One movement in particular which deploys black bloc tactics effectively is the international Antifa, or militant anti-fascist, movement. Again, it must be emphasised that the black bloc is not a universal strategy for taking on the far-right. It is a tactic for specific situations. During which, it works extremely well.
The breadth of militant anti-fascist tactics is emphasised by Liverpool Antifascists;
Liverpool Antifascists rejects the liberal argument that we must appeal to authority in order to make the bad men go away. Fascism is an attack on the working class, and it must be defeated through working class self-defence. We must confront and dismantle their hateful and divisive ideas. We must build a movement to outnumber them and drown them out on the street. We must physically resist them when they try to organise and put their policies into action, or to invade our communities.
This is militant antifascism. “No platform” is not the form of censorship and state oppression that liberals advocate. It is working class self-defence against the ideas and the force of the far-right.
It is on the latter point, physical resistance, that I will dwell.
Fascism is a violent ideology. Its advocates have consistently engaged in hate campaigns which have seen homes burnt out, businesses looted, and people seriously injured or even killed. Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany is perhaps the most lurid example of this point, but such racist violence has been deployed by the far-right and the English Defence League are only the latest far-right group to get in on the act.
In Britain, street-fighting fascism never gained serious ground simply because working class people repelled the far-right from their communities and smashed the thugs off the streets. This did not happen in isolation, and certainly winning the war of ideas has played and continues to play an important part. But the fact remains that if they hadn’t been physically resisted, groups like the National Front would be a significant threat today, rather than reduced to a handful of ageing boneheads who spend most of their time reminiscing about their “glory days” on internet forums. Militant anti-fascism works.
Beyond Britain, it is perhaps even more vital because fascist attempts to rule the streets weren’t snuffed out early. As a result, neo-Nazis in Russia are able to mobilise in their thousands, and to carry out terrorist attacks and beheadings with impunity. In Germany, street clashes between fascists and anti-fascists are akin to war zones, with thousands of people on each side.
Even in Britain, being identified as an active anti-fascist carries with it a certain level of risk. In Germany, Poland, Russia, and many other places, it can be deadly. The shooting of well-known Russian anti-fascist Ivan Khutorsky, on his own doorstep, is a case in point. Faced with such an enemy, the anonymity and strength of numbers afforded by the black bloc tactic is the only sane response.
Beyond the anti-fascist movement, mass demonstrations are the other arena in which the bloc can be effective. This is particularly true in times of heightened state repression, or in the intensified class struggle which usually results in such.
It is a common argument that, as Jones put it, the tactic “provides a pretext for the state to crack down on basic civil liberties.” However, this ignores the fact – as the Solidarity Federation argue – that “repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions.” Anybody with historical awareness knows that “there is a long history of peaceful pickets and occupations being violently broken up by police, from the Chartists to the Miners Strike.”
A case in point here is the student movement which was for a significant time the driving force in the anti-cuts struggle. Without the occupation of Millbank Tower (which required attacks upon property in order to succeed), the momentum which carried the movement forward simply wouldn’t have been there. Hence the deliberate campaign of police repression, and the much more determined use of violence against protesters at subsequent demonstrations. Then there is the entirely peaceful UK Uncut, who were previously attacked with pepper spray by police, and who on March 26th were arrested en masse despite assurances to the contrary.
This is not to mention the ever-present threat of state surveillance. Writing for Red Pepper, FITwatch’s Val Swain explains that “for the past six years a secretive, unaccountable, publicly-funded yet privately-run organisation has collected, collated and analysed vast amounts of personal data relating to political activists, organisers and protesters.” As well as taking pictures at demonstrations and operating an “image and criminal database containing the personal details of thousands – possibly hundreds of thousands – of protesters, data that it shares with NCDE and the Counter Terrorism Unit,” the police “plac[e] FITs [Forward Intelligence Team evidence gatherers] outside lawful public meetings of political and campaign groups, so that those attending have had to deal with uniformed police with large cameras taking their photograph before they even got through the door.”
The police is active in “targeting and deterring those judged to be the most likely perpetrators of future crimes.” In practice, this means that the state is cracking down on basic civil liberties regardless of pretexts. It is in the interests of our own security, then, that more and more activists are masking up and adopting the black bloc tactic. Because the only worthwhile response to repression is to challenge it head on, not to bow to it and tone down our actions.
As Buenaventura Durruti said during the Spanish Civil War;
They persecute us. Yes, of course they do. We’re a threat to the system they represent. If we don’t want them to harass us, then we should just submit to their laws, integrate ourselves into their system and bureaucratize ourselves to the marrow. Then we can be perfect traitors to the working class, like the Socialists and everyone else who lives at the workers’ expense. They won’t bother us if we do that.
That is the response that the “official” movement seems to want. Uncover your faces and march placidly; you may protest only if you do it within the established parameters. Those who take to dressing in black and hiding their identities are actively refusing to take that position.
A beacon for the disaffected and violence on the periphery
As stated earlier, I would argue against violence and destruction for its own sake. For that reason, a distinction can be made between those who smashed in the windows at Millbank so as to force their way inside and randomly smashing the windows of banks or branches of McDonald’s. Though, to repeat, this is a tactical distinction and not a moral one.
The former was an act of vandalism which facilitated an iconic direct action, the sight of red-and-black flags waving over Tory HQ being the catalyst for a militant movement against the government’s attacks on education. The latter is an expression of anger or frustration, largely without direction. Two black bloc participants interviewed in the Guardian refered to such acts as “symbolic.” The point is to “show that direct action in the wider society was both valid and possible.” The only problem is that this isn’t the message that comes across.
For such a message to come across, the direct action deployed by a black bloc has to have an impact on the status quo all by itself. Millbank did that, for reasons stated above. I would argue that on March 26th the black bloc did this to a lesser scale, acting as a roaming blockade that – forcing Oxford Street to close down – inflicted significant economic damage. When the largest part of it joined the occupation of Fortnum and Mason’s, it also made the link between two different forms of direct action, underlining the argument for a diversity of tactics in the class struggle. By contrast, the trashing of the Ritz occured on the periphery of the bloc, more an outburst of impotent anger than anything else.
But, contrary to Jones and the SWP, the reason it took place wasn’t as a substitute for a mass-based movement – it was a manifestation of the frustration many people feel at the lack of such. Ford argues that the vandalism was “a result of the TUC leadership’s predictably traitorous embrace of the Labour ‘opposition’, and mildly critical partnership with those determined to push working class living standards back to the levels of the 1930s.” As such, “when largescale grassroots struggle does emerge, the ‘need’ for acts of destruction as adverts for anarchism will disappear.”
The positive we can take from this is that even if the result is violence on its periphery, the militancy shown by the black bloc drew in not only people who felt the need to break away from the main march but also those who hadn’t been involved in protest at all that day. If those who made up the black bloc really did only exist on demonstrations, then Jones might be right that this “is a sign of failure, not of success.” But that isolation is a myth, built up by others to serve their own agenda. We are workers, students, and unemployed. We are parents and children. We are male and female, gay and straight, transgender. We are in unions, community groups, and all manner of organisations. In short, we are of the working class – not apart from it.
Looking into that, it is not hard to discover that militancy and direct action go far beyond demonstrations and the blocs we form on them. They are a part of everyday struggle, and everybody can get involved. It is on this side of things, long after the big demos are over, that anarcho-syndicalists continue to agitate for mass participation and for struggles led by the rank-and-file.
The fight against capitalism neither begins nor ends with the black bloc. It is not a strategy, but a tactic for use in specific situations. It has very definite limitations beyond which it is not just ineffective but counterproductive. But perhaps its greatest strength is that most people who participate in it, unlike its critics, are aware of that.