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Rhetorical Militancy for a Rhetorical Mass Movement? If Only We Could Make Them Like Us...
by John Garvey Tuesday, Mar. 23, 2010 at 5:41 PM
The main purpose of this article is to address the questions of strategy and tactics in the anarchist movement with specific reference to the roles the Black Block tactic, and militant direct action play in our movement.
Rhetorical Militancy for a Rhetorical Mass Movement? If Only We Could Make Them Like Us…
By John Garvey
The main purpose of this article is to address the questions of strategy and tactics in the anarchist movement with specific reference to the roles
the Black Block tactic, and militant direct action play in our movement.
Addressing these questions now is particularly important due to the debate that has re-erupted after the “Heart Attack” protest on Feb. 13 in Vancouver and the upcoming G8/G20 protests in Toronto.
I take it for granted that militant direct action and revolutionary violence are a necessary part of any movement that aims to be revolutionary in practice, as well as in theory and rhetoric. I reject the idea and practice of “revolutionary non-violence” as both theoretically misleading and historically inaccurate.
This isn’t to say that non-violent political action doesn’t have a large role to play in social movements. It is to say that social movements should be both theoretically and practically prepared to accomplish their goals through revolutionary violence if that is what will be most effective. That said, we need to clarify what “diversity of tactics” means, and to continually examine both the tactics we are using and our strategy in protests and in
movement building .
Let’s Keep Pushing: Physically and Analytically
At the peaceful protest in Vancouver on Feb. 12, after the black block had been asked to take the front lines against the police by the elders who were leading the march and to push through the police line in order to
reach the Olympic Stadium, there was a young woman who kept insisting that we push through the police line. If everyone there had been willing to push forward, if there had been greater unity, tactically speaking, we
probably could have done it and then we would have crashed the opening ceremonies…Imagine that! Sadly, there simply wasn’t enough people who were committed to pushing through the police lines to accomplish this.
All the attention that is currently focused on the issue of tactics and strategy and violence and non-violence has created an opportunity for those of us who want to see a militant movement to push back against the
idea that social movements are merely a leftish “loyal opposition.” It is an opportunity to argue for a greater diversity of tactics than currently exists as well and to continue subverting the hegemony of the pacified, “non-violent” social activism that has pervaded the “radical
left” in Canada for the past 4 decades.
In the last 10 years the radical left in Canada has been able to push the discussion called “diversity of tactics” far enough that it is a constant theme in mass mobilizations here. At the least it is a discussion that political activists of all stripes are familiar with, and many feel that
they have to engage with, either for or against.
In addition to all of this, the discussion around the “Heart Attack” demonstration has created an opportunity for the anarchist movement to engage in much needed discussion about strategy and tactics. Articles like those by Mick Sweetman , David Rovics and others, while I strongly disagree with many points they made, both involve anarchists thinking strategically about anarchist movement.
Push? Burn? Build? Strategy in the anarchist movement?
It’s outside of the scope of this article (and of my ability) to address all of the possible strategies for anarchist movement in Canada. Instead I will only point out some of what seems to me to be particularly important at this time.
Real discussion and debate about strategy is pretty limited in the anarchist movement (and the radical left) in Canada. Given the need for us to think before we act , this should be a significant concern to everyone
in the movement. There is more debate around tactics, but it is often stilted due the offhand acceptance of ideas and concepts (such as “diversity of tactics”) rather than critical interaction with them. A fair bit of the discussion that does exist conflates strategies with
different anarchist tendencies: anarchist-communists argue for building class power through worker and community assemblies; green anarchists denounce workerism and industrial capitalism and argue for sustainability.
The anarchist movement (and the radical left) needs to reprioritize theorizing and strategizing. This is a point that INCITE!, among others, have made. They also emphasize the resources that the Right has put into their theorizing, and they assert that this has played and important role in the right wing resurgence of the last 30 years . To be clear, this theorizing needs to be tightly connected to movement practices, should be informed by them, and should inform them.
I believe that the politics that are delineated by the combination of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-oppression are a good starting place for the anarchist movement. I would also argue that an essential
part of anti-oppressive practice is a commitment to anti-authoritarianism. The first three principles are all part of the politics outlined by the journal Upping the Anti in their first editorial. In that editorial they also flag the fact that this starting place is purely oppositional, and the need for the radical left to find “conceptual and practical
alternatives to the system [and] strategies for getting there. ”
In addition to this we need to be clear about what we mean when we use the terms anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-oppression. Like the phrase “diversity of tactics” any and all of these terms can become devoid of meaning if we are simply repeating them. All three of these politics, as well as the connections and contradictions between them, need to be clarified.
One of the reasons that the theoretical framework of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and anti-oppression seems useful to me is the possibility this framework has for building common ground on the radical left in
Canada. In his excellent article , Joel Olson states that the anarchist movement needs to move beyond Infoshops and Insurrection to movement building, and
to prioritize struggles against certain forms of oppression as more relevant or strategic than others. Regrettably, he doesn’t define the exactly what is involved in movement building.
It seems to me that we want, at the least, to be part of an anarchist movement, as well as of autonomous social movements, that address the triple oppressions of race, class and gender. Building this kind of movement means that anarchists need to focus on issues that address these oppressions, such as, for example, organizing against anti-police violence and the prison-industrial complex.
Focusing on these three oppressions would involve updating anarchist theory and practice to take into account the most vibrant movement of the past 5 decades: anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, the feminist, anti-nuclear, queer and environmental movements. The anarchist movement needs to take this into account. The classical anarchist tradition with its relatively exclusive focus on class does not adequately address the issues of these movements and the theory and practice that has come out of them.
Finally, on the subject of insurrection, mass anarchism and revolutionary violence, it is mistake to separate building a mass movement with building a movement that also engages in militant direct action and has the
capacity to engage in revolutionary violence. That is to say, a mass anarchist movement, if it is to be more than rhetorically revolutionary will need to be capable of defending itself from state and corporate repression, and will need the capacity to engage in offensive strikes
against state and corporate power. Numbers will not be enough, and we can’t rely exclusively on the General Strike, as important as mass strikes will be in any confrontations with Canadian capitalism and the Canadian
The long history of the Canadian state using violence, up to and including murder, to break strikes in the 19th and early 20th centuries provides a clear example of what the state will do when revolutionary unions and workers threaten the status quo. Similarly, US state repression of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement provides a more recent example of the lengths to which the state will go to protect itself
from threats, as well as offering up another revolutionary model than revolutionary unionism. In both cases revolutionary movements at the time were required to defend themselves, and, for different reasons, they were
incapable of doing so. We need to be conscious of this history and to be planning how to defend ourselves, our allies and our movements.
Not Now (Not Ever): Diversity of Tactics and the Black Block
The first thing that needs to be said in this debate is that we can’t simply substitute the phrase “respect for a diversity of tactics” for actual and critical discussion for any and all tactics used at and outside of protests . As others have pointed out, honest criticism of certain
tactics can’t focus exclusively on the black block, as opposed to, for example, signing petitions, and lobbying politicians . That said, attempting to silence people who engage in respectful criticisms of the black block and other tactics is wrong both at a moral and a political
This article isn’t going to trace all of the points and counter-points that have been made for and against a “diversity of tactics.” Instead it will be quickly and one-sidedly respond to some criticisms of the black
block made by people inside of and outside of the anarchist movement.
Some of the debate around “diversity of tactics” has become somewhat stylized, so that we already know in advance what people will say on “both” sides of the issue. This condemnation or support for a diversity
of tactics usually falls along a few binaries: violent/non-violent, illegitimate/legitimate, illegal/legal and ineffective/effective . The Black Block is often coded as violent, illegitimate, illegal and ineffective. These different binaries, and others could be added, are also often, but not always, considered reinforcing: violent protest =
illegitimate protest = ineffective protest.
People also often make references made to the civil rights movement, emphasizing that it was non-violent and effective. It’s effectiveness is usually linked to, they say, it’s perceived legitimacy with large numbers of people and the use of the tactic of civil disobedience.
To take up the side of the people who support revolutionary violence and the black block
tactic (which I do) I offer this quote:
“while the American civil rights movement is often credited with the use of non-violent means, the abolition of legalised segregation in the United States was in fact accomplished through a series of what were clearly violent state interventions, most notably sending in the National Guard to oversee the desegregation of schools in southern states. ”
The point being that no matter how non-violent the civil rights movement was and how large, it was it was relying on state violence to enforce desegregation. So, people who use this example to valorize non-violence are often being contradictory.
In any case, and for better or for worse (for worse, I think) the civil rights movement all too often gets used in order to make political points by different sides in arguments over diversity of tactics.
This is only a very superficially look at how these binaries play out in two arguments. The larger point that I am trying to make is that in order to make a militant movement we need to break down these mutually
Moving along, it is also common for people to assert that militant actions dissuade people from joining the movement. The evidence for this is usually purely anecdotal and/or personal in nature. This lack of
foundation means that, at the exact same time, the opposite argument, that militant action brings people into the movement, is also made. Given this, it seems likely that militant actions and militant tactics by
themselves don’t necessarily do either of these things and that the result of using militant tactics and engaging in militant actions depends on the “who, what, when, where, and how” of an action, on the context of an
action. So, for example, the fire bombing of three porn stores that distributed pornography that eroticized violence against women by the Vancouver 5 didn’t result in the collapse of the feminist movement in Vancouver, or of the campaign that existed to shut these outlets down. In fact, these actions were an effective contribution to the campaign, and were widely supported by large numbers of activists . However, and I
realize this is obvious, but bear with me, if there hadn’t already been a mass feminist movement and a significant campaign specifically targeting the chain, then the response likely would have been entirely different.
Which is to restate that the effect of militant tactics and actions depends on the context in which they are undertaken. Excluding militant direct action, and demonizing the people who do it is and will continue to
be divisive and if it were accomplished would significantly shrink the movement, not expand it.
Finally, I want to talk about the issue of police infiltration. Some of the criticisms about the black block, and of militant tactics are that it is a tactic that is easily used by the police and the police use it to discredit the anarchist movement (or whichever movement the person making
the point belongs to). This argument isn’t very convincing. Arguments about whether an action or tactic discredits or benefits the movement often has more to do with the personal opinion of the author (ahem) than
anything else. If it discredits the movement, then it does so regardless of who throws the stones. Personally, I don’t think that it does. It may be true that a police agent threw the first stone, but this is the sort of
thing that we’ll ever be able to prove. And, in fact, relying for argument on accusations that are impossible to prove is evidently and concretely an action that hurts the movement .
Further, I would argue that one of the likely goals of the police is to discredit a tactic, the black block tactic, as well as to discredit any and all forms of militant direct action. Truthfully, I believe that they are content to discredit groups and movements regardless of what tactics they are using. To the extent they (re)act in a rational manner, the police and organizations like CSIS will try and discredit any tactic, movement, group, etc. which they perceive as a threat to the status quo.
In the case of the anarchist movement, this means to the extent that it threatens to become a mass revolutionary movement. It isn’t helpful to
isolate the Black Block tactic as the only way in which the police can infiltrate our movement. Any above ground or open organization can be easily infiltrated by the police. Any strategy and/or tactic that said organization chooses or uses is open to manipulation by police agents. And, to the extent that we are
going to organize openly there is not much we can do about it except to ensure that the strategy and tactics that we decide on will be effective in building the type of anarchist movement that we want.
Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones, but Words Will Never Hurt Me
“For those who came here to peacefully make their point, I welcome them here because I want them to be integrated into the long-term debate. For those who came here to break windows and hurt small businesses or stop people from going to meetings and having their say, I condemn them. And I’m sorry that the mayor, the governor, and the police officers and others have had to go through this. We need to make a clear distinction between that which we condemn and that which we won’t.” - Bill Clinton
This quote illuminates a similarity between Bill Clinton’s politics and certain statements made by anarchists in the recent debate about strategy and tactics with regards to property destruction. It is also helpful in highlighting the fact that “the establishment” actually doesn’t like
property destruction, contrary to the point being made by people who accuse the Black Block of doing the will of the police.
Granted, the reasons that Bill Clinton, and Democrats who support him, and anarchists oppose property destruction are different. Still, I feel like it says something when you’ve got Bill Clinton on your side.
Tactics that are easily reconciled with establishment views of political legitimacy risk being relatively easily appropriated and co-opted. If, however, the argument isn’t against property destruction, per se, but
against property destruction at this time, this means that the question of when property destruction will be acceptable needs to be answered: if not now, when? The argument goes that at some point in the future the
anarchist movement will begin to engage in mass militant direct action that will destabilize Canadian capitalism and its state. I think that this is an impractical argument:
“You have to build the consciousness, you have to build the psychology, you have to build the experiential base, and you have to build the theoretical base… ”
A movement that has refrained from engaging in revolutionary violence and militant direct action won’t have done any of these things and will necessarily have to start from scratch. That puts us behind the game, not
in front of it. This is particularly so in the Canadian context given the extent to which pacifism has and continues to influence movements for social justice.
This isn’t to leave the Black Block off of the theoretical hook:
“…If you are going to go up against [the repressive apparatus of the state,] of if you’re going to do serious damage to the structure of things, it isn’t going to happen in some sort of frontal confrontation with whatever deployment of force the state makes. So it is symbolic [in a sense.]….[The Black Block] might want to ditch the uniforms…put on a phony beard….And it is just this level of tactical evolution they’ve refused. ”
The Black Block tactic is one tactic, no more and no less. To me there shouldn’t really be any controversy about using it. If blocking up and breaking windows at a demonstration accomplishes something, people should
do it. And if the Black Block is used by rote, if the tactic is used in an entirely ritualized fashion so that it becomes the anti-capitalist version of “family-friendly” liberal demonstrations with politicians like Iggy and Jack Layton as the main attraction, this needs to be criticized.
That said, the Black Block should also not become the limit of our militancy. Taking the Black Block, or any one tactic as the limit of the meaning “diversity of tactics” is a contradiction in terms. Our tactics should only be dictated by what will be most effective in reaching our
What if, for example, one of the affinity groups at the “Heart Attack” Demo had chosen instead to torch a Hudson’s Bay Company outlet on the outskirts of Vancouver, or in another city? This would have resulted in significantly more financial damage to the HBC. It could also move the debate around tactics further forward and reduce the criticism of the Black Block, as people who want to condemn militancy would probably focus on arson rather than window breaking.
In Conclusion: Militancy and Mass Movement
Sometimes it seems like critics of the Black Block are drawing a comparison between it and insurrectionary anarchism’s “propaganda by the deed”. For the most part I think that this comparison is not accurate.
While some members of the Black Block may draw inspiration from this history, the tactic itself is incompatible with it in a number of ways, the clearest being that it depends on and is designed for mass action. It is a tactic that is used at relatively large demonstrations, and that is more effective the larger the size of the demonstration and of the Block
itself. And it is important to remember that a large number of people who use the tactic and/or who support the tactic are not insurrectionary anarchists. It is a mistake to make generalizations about the politics of
people who use the Black Block tactic, and it is a mistake to make a division between the Black Block and a mass movement.
The anarchist movement needs to be a militant mass movement. The militancy shouldn’t begin at some hypothetical point in the future, but needs to be, for very practical reasons, part of our current practice.
The idea that the Black Block and militant tactics, in themselves, ruin the potential for a mass movement is an assertion is simply not true. Instead, tactics need to be seen in context. Out tactics need to be dictated by well thought out strategies. I’m not making an argument
against militant direct action right now, however; quite the contrary. Our movement needs to become increasingly militant as of yesterday or even two weeks ago. What I am suggesting is that people who have the courage, the desire and the ability to take more militant actions think carefully about all of the possible consequences of their actions. The rule of
thumb seems to be that militant actions shouldn’t be taking in isolation but need to be part of a larger campaign and movement.
The lack of discussion around strategy in the anarchist movement creates is one of our weaknesses. It results in divisive arguments around militancy and the Black Block. It also results in a lack of much needed clarity about what actions we need to take in order to build a mass
For example, is the theoretical position of opposing all forms of oppression really a disadvantage when it comes to movement building? Does it prevent us from organizing effectively due to the fact that the
movement is going in so many directions at the same time? If so, what should we be focusing on? What does this mean for organizing around issues that are deprioritized? What is to be done?