The Alternative: Possibilities for Revolutionary Activism

I have made a number of forceful, even vitriolic, arguments against nonviolent activism, and I have not diluted these arguments. My goal has been to emphasize criticisms too often silenced, in order to defenestrate the stranglehold pacifism has over the movement’s discourse — a stranglehold exerting such a monopoly over putative morality and strategic/tactical analysis in many circles as to preclude even the acknowledgment of a feasible alternative. Would-be revolutionaries need to realize that pacifism is so vapid and counterproductive that an alternative is imperative. Only then can we weigh the different paths of struggle fairly — and, I hope, in a more pluralistic, decentralized manner as well — rather than attempting to enforce a party line or the single correct revolutionary program.

My argument is not that all pacifists are apologists and sellouts without redeeming merit or a place in a revolutionary movement. Many pacifists are well-meaning would-be revolutionaries who have simply been unable to move past their cultural conditioning, which programs them instinctively to react to assaults on, the Godlike state as the highest crime and treason. A handful of pacifists have shown such a sustained commitment to revolution and incurred such risks and sacrifices that they are above the criticisms typically deserved by pacifists, and even pose a challenge to the functioning of the status quo, particularly when their morals do not prevent them from working in solidarity with non-pacifist revolutionaries.[225] The point is that pacifism as ideology, with pretensions beyond a personal practice, incorrigibly serves state interests and is hopelessly wrapped up psychologically with the control schema of the patriarchy and white supremacy.
Now that I have demonstrated the need to replace a nonviolent revolutionary practice, I want to elaborate on what we might replace it with, as numerous non-pacifist forms of revolutionary struggle contain their own terminal flaws. In debate, pacifists typically generalize some broad faults of a few exemplified historical revolutions, avoid any detailed analysis, and rest their case. But rather than say, for instance, “See, the violent Russian Revolution led to another violent and authoritarian government, therefore violence is infectious,”[226] it would help to point out that all the Leninists wanted was an authoritarian, red-painted capitalist state with them at the head, and in their own terms they were quite successful.[227] We could also point out the contemporaneous anarchist revolutionaries in southern Ukraine, who consistently refused power and, for years, liberated huge areas from the Germans, the anti-Semitic nationalists, the Whites, and the Reds — but did not impose their will on those they liberated, whom they encouraged to self-organize.[228] Further leaving aside pacifism’s mystifying, sweeping analysis, it might do well to dirty our hands in the historical details and analyze degrees of violence, perhaps by showing that in terms of structural depravity and state repression, Castro’s Cuba, the product of a violent revolution, is arguably less violent than Batista’s Cuba. However, there are already enough apologists for Castro as to disincline me from expending my energies in such a manner.

The common element of all of these authoritarian revolutions is their hierarchical form of organization. The authoritarianism of the USSR or People’s Republic of China was not a mystical carryover from the violence they used, but a direct function of the hierarchies to which they were always wed. It is vague, meaningless, and ultimately untrue to say that violence always produces certain psychological patterns and social relationships. Hierarchy, however, is inseparable from psychological patterns and social relationships of domination. In fact, most of the violence in society that is unarguably wrong stems from coercive hierarchies. In other words, the concept of hierarchy has most of the analytical and moral precision that the concept of violence lacks. Therefore, to truly succeed, a liberation struggle must use any means necessary that are consistent with building a world free of coercive hierarchies.

This anti-authoritarianism must be reflected in both the organization and the ethos of a liberation movement. Organizationally, power must be decentralized — this means no political parties or bureaucratic institutions. Power should be located as much as possible in the grassroots — with individuals and in groups working within a community. Because grassroots and community groups are confined by real-life conditions and have constant contact with people outside the movement, ideology tends to flow upward, concentrating in “national committees” and other centralized levels of organization (which bring together like-minded people steeped in abstraction and removed from contact with most other folk’s everyday realities). Few things have more potential for authoritarianism than a powerful ideology. Therefore, as much autonomy and decision-making power as possible must remain at the grassroots. When local groups do need to federate or otherwise coordinate over a wider geographic area — and the difficulty of this struggle will require coordination, discipline, pooling of resources, and common strategy — whatever organization arises should ensure that local groups do not lose their autonomy and that whatever higher levels of organization are created (such as the regional or national committees of a federation) are weak, temporary, frequently replaced, recallable, and always dependent on ratification by the local groups. Otherwise, those who fill the higher levels of organization are likely to develop a bureaucratic mindset, and the organization is likely to develop interests of its own, which will soon diverge from the interests of the movement.

Additionally, no organization should monopolize the movement. Organizations should not be empires; they should be temporary tools that overlap, proliferate, and die out when they are no longer needed. A movement will be healthier and harder to co-opt if there is a diversity of groups filling different niches and pursuing similar purposes,[229] and these groups will be less prone to infighting if people within the movement tend to belong to multiple groups rather than giving their loyalty to a single group.

The culture, or ethos, of the liberation movement is also vital. Noncoercive structures are easily subverted if the culture and desires of the people operating those structures draw them toward other ends. For starters, a culture of liberation must favor pluralism over monopoly. In terms of struggle, this means we must abandon the idea that there is only one right way, that we must get everyone to sign on to the same platform or join the same organization. On the contrary, the struggle will benefit from a plurality of strategies attacking the state from different angles. This does not mean that everyone should work alone or at cross-purposes. We need to coordinate and unify as much as possible to increase our collective strength, but we should also reconsider how much uniformity is actually possible. It is impossible to get everyone to agree that one strategy for struggle is the best, and indeed this contention is probably wrong. After all, different people have different strengths and experiences and face different aspects of oppression: it only makes sense that there should be different paths of struggle on which we fight simultaneously toward liberation. The authoritarian monotheism inherent in Western civilization would lead us to view these other paths as unintelligent detours, as competition — we might even try to repress these other tendencies within the movement. Anti-authoritarianism requires that we abandon this mindset, recognize the inevitability of differences, and think of people who deviate from us as allies. After all, we are not trying to impose one new, utopian society on everybody after the revolution; the goal is to destroy centralized power structures so each community has the autonomy to organize itself in the way that all its members collectively decide will best enable them to meet their needs, while also joining or leaving free associations of mutual aid with communities around them.[230] Everyone has an innate potential for freedom and self-organization; therefore, if we identify as anarchists, our job is not to convert everyone else to anarchism, but to use our perspectives and collective experiences to guard against the co-optation efforts of the institutional Left and to provide models for autonomous social relationships and self-organization in cultures where none currently exist.

There is also the question of leadership in an anti-authoritarian struggle. The traditional idea of leadership, as an institutionalized or coercive role, as holding power over people, is hierarchical and inhibitive of people’s growth. But it is also true that people are not equal in terms of abilities, that this revolution will take a tremendous amount of expertise, and that smart, non-egotistical people will voluntarily place someone with more expertise than others in a position of non-coercive and temporary leadership. The approach of an anti-authoritarian ethos toward leadership is that power needs to be constantly redistributed outwards. It is the responsibility of people who find themselves in positions of leadership to lend their talents to the movement while spreading their leadership around, teaching other people rather than holding on to their expertise as a form of power.

Additionally, an anti-authoritarian ethos favors fighting uncompromisingly against oppression, but opposes crushing those who have been defeated; it favors reconciliation over punishment.

With these structures and culture, a liberation movement has a better chance of succeeding without creating a new authoritarian system. There will always be a tension between being effective and being liberating, and in the complexity of struggle there is plenty of gray space, but it helps to see cultivating an anti-authoritarian practice as a constant battle between two requirements (efficiency and freedom) that are conflicting but not mutually exclusive. The pacifist vision of struggle, based on a polar dichotomy between violence and nonviolence, is unrealistic and self-defeating.

More concretely, it is hard to generalize how a liberation movement using a diversity of tactics should conduct its struggle. Specific groups need to decide that for themselves based on the conditions they face — not based on the prescriptions of some ideology. In all likelihood, though, an anti-authoritarian liberation movement would need to emphasize building an autonomous culture that can resist the mind control of the corporate media and a foundation of social centers, free schools, free clinics, community agriculture, and other structures that can support communities in resistance. Westernized people also need to develop collective social relationships. For those growing up in the Global North, being an anarchist provides no exception to being imbued with individualistic, punishment- and privilege-based forms of social interactions. We need to employ working models of restorative or transformative justice so that we truly don’t need police or prisons. As long as we are dependent on the state, we will never overthrow it.

Readers may notice that some of the major initial requirements of a liberation movement do not include “violent” actions. I hope that by now we can abandon the dichotomy between violence and nonviolence altogether. The use of violence is not a stage in the struggle that we must work toward and pass through in order to win. It does not help to isolate violence. Rather, we must be aware of certain types of repression we will probably have to face, certain tactics we will probably have to use. At every stage in the struggle we must cultivate a militant spirit. Our social centers should honor militant activists in prison, or those killed by the state; our free schools should teach self-defense and the history of struggle. If we wait to bring in militancy until the state has increased repression to the level that it is blatantly obvious that they have declared war on us, it will be too late. Cultivating militancy should go hand in hand with preparation and outreach.

It is dangerous to become totally cut off from a mainstream reality by rushing into tactics that no one else can understand, much less support. People who act prematurely and cut themselves off from popular support will be easy for the government to pick off.[231] That said, we cannot let our actions be determined by what is acceptable in the mainstream. The opinions of the mainstream are conditioned by the state; pandering to the mainstream is pandering to the state. Rather, we must work to escalate militancy, to educate through exemplary actions, and to increase the level of militancy acceptable (to at least segments of the population we have identified as potential supporters). Radicals from a privileged background have the most work to do in this regard because these communities have the most conservative reactions to militant tactics. Privileged radicals seem to be more likely to ask, “What would society think?” as an excuse for their passivity.

Increasing the acceptance of militant tactics is not easy work, we must gradually bring people to accept more militant forms of struggle. If the only choice we can give is between bomb throwing and voting, almost all of our potential allies will choose voting. And though more cultural conditioning must be overcome before people can accept and practice more dangerous, deadly tactics, such tactics cannot be placed at the top of some hierarchy. Fetishizing violence neither improves a movement’s effectiveness nor preserves its anti-authoritarian qualities.

Because of the nature of the state, any struggle for liberation will probably eventually become an armed struggle. In fact, a good many peoples are engaged in armed struggle to liberate themselves right now, including the Iraqis, the Palestinians, the Ijaw in Nigeria, some indigenous nations in South America and Papua New Guinea, and, to a lesser extent, anti-authoritarian groups in Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. As I write this sentence, indigenous activists, anarchists, and unionists armed with just bricks and clubs are holding the barricades in Oaxaca against an impending military assault. Several of them have already been killed, and, as the military strikes again and again, they must decide whether to escalate tactics to improve their capability for self-defense, at the risk of graver consequences. I won’t say that armed struggle is an ideological necessity, but for many people in many places it does become a necessity to overthrow, or simply defend against, the state. It would be wonderful if most people did not have to go through a process of armed struggle to liberate themselves, and, given the extent to which economies and governments are integrated globally these days, a good many governments might easily collapse if they were already weakened by spreading waves of global revolt. But some people will have to experience armed struggle, some have to even now, and it would be unforgivable if our strategy for revolution banked on the certainty that other people will die in bloody conflicts while we remain safe.

We must realistically accept that revolution is a social war, not because we like war, but because we recognize that the status quo is a low-intensity war and challenging the state results in an intensification of that warfare. We must also accept that revolution necessitates interpersonal conflict because certain classes of people are employed to defend the centralizing institutions we must destroy. People who continue to dehumanize themselves as agents of law and order must be defeated by whatever means necessary until they can no longer prevent people’s autonomous realization of their needs. I hope that during this process we can build a culture of respect for our enemies (a number of non-Western cultures have shown it is indeed possible to respect a person or animal you must kill), which will help to prevent purges or a new authority when the present state has been defeated. For example, it could be seen as acceptable to kill a more powerful enemy (for instance, someone who must be targeted clandestinely for fear of state reprisal), unfavorable to kill someone who is equally powerful (such that it would only be seen as justified by one’s peers in pitched circumstances and self-defense), and downright immoral and scornful to kill someone weaker (for instance, someone already defeated).

We can succeed at feasible revolutionary activism by striving toward undiluted, long-term goals, but we must not forget short-term victories. In the meantime, people need to survive and be nourished. And we must recognize that violent struggle against an extremely powerful enemy in which long-term victory may seem impossible can lead to small short-term victories. Losing fights can be better than not fighting at all; fighting empowers people and teaches us that we can fight. Referring to the defeat at the Battle of Blair Mountain during the 1921 Mine War in West Virginia, filmmaker John Sayles writes, “the psychological victory of those violent days may have been more important. When a colonized people learn they can fight back together, life can never again be so comfortable for their exploiters.”[232]

With enough bold, empowering resistance, we can move beyond small victories to achieve a lasting victory against the state, the patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. Revolution is imperative, and revolution necessitates struggle. There are many effective forms of struggle, and some of these methods can lead to the worlds we dream of. To find one of the right paths, we must observe, assess, criticize, communicate, and, above all, learn by doing.