Chris Knight replies to his critics

Chris Knight

Chris Knight's approach to revolutionary politics is very controversial. However, it is also thought-provoking, whether you agree with him or not. Here, he replies to his critics in the anarchist scene.

IN DEFENCE OF ACTIVISM

by Chris Knight

A number of anarchist journals and websites have criticised my own and my comrades’ activism in recent months and weeks. Criticism from the right is easy to dismiss. When it comes from comrades I know and respect, I need to take it seriously and come up with a considered response.

The tabloids have depicted me as a ‘top anarchist’ or ‘anarchist ringleader’. The truth is that I count myself a marxist. But like any consistent marxist, my goal is a stateless society. My political beliefs are based on my understanding of human origins and prehistory. For 95 per cent of our existence, our species lived as egalitarian hunter-gatherers, without any kind of state, showing in practice that anarchism works. My interest has been to elucidate precisely how such a lifestyle came into existence and how it worked. Hunter-gatherers are not free in the sense of ‘lawless’. They certainly uphold norms and principles of conduct, particularly with respect to sex. But these norms are enforced bottom-up, not top-down. It seems to me that we have much to learn from hunter-gatherers who still practice anarchism/communism today.(1)

Do I think the state can be used as a revolutionary instrument today? No, I do not. The state is intrinsically tied up with territorialism, with borders, with passports, with war. In my view it has to be smashed and replaced with self-organized forms of resistance cutting across all borders. Earlier marxists used to think in terms of stages, leaving abolition of the state to some future date following a successful revolution. In today’s world, this makes no sense. The revolution is intrinsically internationalist from the start, so talk about retaining the territorial state in any form is just reactionary. That’s my view. Whether it makes me an anarchist, I leave for others to decide.

Am I a ‘leader’, as the tabloids keep describing me? I am active and prominent in 'The Government of the Dead', a small street theatre troupe. We do have our supporters, but I doubt any of them consider me their leader. What’s happening here, I think, is a sense of humour failure. The tabloids strive to prevent any element of theatrical comedy from coming across, since it challenges their narrative about ‘anarchist thugs’. But if you consider the outcome – in ‘The Sun’ newspaper, for example – what you have is a so-called ‘anarchist leader’ who looks like a top-hatted zombie making a complete clown of himself, apparently on purpose. This is surely preferable to the media creating a believable leader. In my view, we don’t need any more Lenins, any more Great Helmsmen. In the spirit of Rabelais and Bakhtin, my theatrical project has been to dissolve any such idea in peals of laughter.

I respect those comrades who say we should never speak to the media. I also respect those who limit their media contacts to liberal middle class publications such as The Guardian or The Independent. But ‘The Government of the Dead’ has its own particular project, which is to help break through the wall of censorship erected by the mainstream media. Our project is to break out of the middle class bubble altogether and reach the working class.

Of course it would be nice if we could persuade the Sun or the Evening Standard to publish a positive piece on the need for revolution and the creative potential of anarchism. But that’s cloud cuckoo land. So we have to think of other ways. Accepting that we will be called ‘extremists’, ‘thugs’ etc. etc., can we persuade the tabloids to publish the crucial information? Sometimes things go wrong, but we’ve had our successes, too. In an Evening Standard article published just before the TUC march, we managed to insert a map of the route with all the planned feeder marches, encouraging people to expect an interesting day and not just an A-to-B march. Yes, the headline was ‘anarchist extremists plan to hi-jack TUC march’, but it seems likely that such detailed and informative coverage, however ‘negative’, may in practive have had a positive effect on the day. Ordinary people who read newspapers are not stupid: they can read through the lines.

Let me now come to the royal wedding. As far as I can see, every section of the anarchist movement was determined to do very little on that day. ‘The Government of the Dead’ planned some street theatre with a plywood guillotine. Inevitably, the tabloids insisted on describing us as ‘anarchist thugs’. They even reported supposed words of mine to foster that impression. I would ask comrades to remember that the mass media systematially lie. They attributed words to me that I never said, and would never have dreamed of saying.

On the day following the wedding, crime reporter Rebecca Camber of the Daily Mail (April 30, p. 26) reported not only that ‘hundreds of anarchists’ had planned to ‘wreck’ the event but that on the morning itself ‘masked thugs gathered in central London’ only to be ‘thwarted’ by police as they rounded up 99 ‘troublemakers’. So who were these ‘masked thugs’ seen gathering in their hundreds in Central London? Was there a single arrest of anyone wearing a mask? Those who arrived that morning in Soho Square were a few dozen young people including small children wearing zombie outfits and face-paint. None looked remotely like a ‘masked thug’.

Engaging with the media is always going to be a gamble. There will be costs as well as benefits. I accept that many anarchists have felt upset, particularly when it seemed there was a direct link between sensational coverage and subsequent police repression. Following the G20 protests, I was well aware that the media frenzy prior to our ‘Storm the Banks’ action was being blamed in some quarters for the climate in which Ian Tomlinson got killed. Immediately following that tragic event, I helped form the United Campaign Against Police Violence, working with the Tomlinson family among many others whose loved ones had died while in police custody. Yes, I had moments of doubt. Suppose we hadn’t ‘stormed the banks’. Suppose we’d all stayed at home. Wouldn’t Ian still be alive? It was all very difficult, to say the least. But as I said at the time, none of the violence on that day came from our side. We didn’t assault anyone; we didn’t kill Ian Tomlinson. Please lay the blame where it belongs: with the police! If we allowed state violence to persuade us all to stay in our beds, wouldn’t we be on a slippery slope toward a police state? We need to take inspiration from our counterparts in Syria – comrades who are still protesting despite being shot in the streets and even in their homes.

The Solidarity Federation, like Freedom Press, made their position clear in advance of the royal wedding. ‘We’re not planning anything’, they said on their blog. The Solidarity Federation insisted that it was business as usual – they would continue to focus their energy and resources on the working class. Other anarchists announced that the monarchy is irrelevant – ‘an embarrassing throwback to a bygone era.’ These are legitimate views. But if the monarchy is irrelevant, why did the state resort to such an unprecedented clampdown, arresting dozens of us for merely thinking of doing something on the day? The explanation, surely, is that this feudal spectacle remains vital to the maintenance of capitalist class rule in Britain.

Some people have accused me of wanting to replace monarchist pageantry with some other self-promoting media spectacle. Actually, the project is to dissolve all such spectacle, opening the door to celebratory street parties, occupations, picket lines and, in general, popular revolution as ‘the carnival of the oppressed’. Glimpses of this have begun breaking out during moments of victory across the Arab world and more recently across Greece and Spain. Humour, dance and theatre maximise the difficulties for the media in portraying us as thugs. Anyway, liberation should be fun. As Emma Goldman said: ‘If I can’t dance in your revolution, it’s not my revolution’.

To me, it seems ironic that some anarchist organizations mirror many of the worst aspects of their Leninist and Trotskyist counterparts. They jealously guard their sectarian boundaries, promote their supposedly ‘correct’ theories, insist on being worthy and boring, insist that their radical ideas are the vital ingredient that the working class needs. The truth is that the working class doesn’t need any of this. Workers need information about their own solidarity, their own unity in action, their own ability to stand up to the bosses and liberate themselves, their own human creativity and potential. As workers become collectively empowered, they’ll work out their own theories, making use, perhaps, of some of the ideas we activists can provide. Against that background, any insight which helps expose division and weakness in the enemy camp is useful; anything which fosters the impression that the ruling class is invincible is reactionary.

Let me conclude by saying that the worst possible kind of theory is the sort which says that everything is a ruling class conspiracy, that the police have got it all sewn up, that the system of mass media censorship is totalitarian and invincible, that there’s nothing we can do. A case in point is a recent Freedom article expressing the paranoid idea that Chris Knight and his comrades are actually part of a huge, well-organised police/media conspiracy designed specifically to justify repression of anarchists.

Well, believe that if you like. In fact, though, the ruling class aren’t so devilish clever. The deeper their crisis, the worse their mistakes. I pose this question: Why did the state feel obliged to make those pre-emptive arrests before and during the wedding? Was it a sign of strength? Or of weakness? Despite being arrested and imprisoned, few of us feel in any way intimidated or cowed. As far as the ‘Guillotine Three’ are concerned, we’ve found it hard to stop laughing. We are now in the process of building a movement to defend the right to protest in the face of a regime which appears more intolerant and insecure by the day.

If workers have accepted capitalist society, it’s because the system has offered limited freedoms and improvements in living standards. If it can’t offer either any more, people will be looking for alternatives. We’re heading for interesting times. Let’s stop attacking one another and focus on winning the revolution!

1. By the way, I am not a primitivist. If you want to understand more about the relevance of hunter-gatherers to revolutionary politics today, see the Radical Anthropology Group website, the lunarchy website or my shorter articles on libcom.

[First Published in FREEDOM, June 18 2011]

Comments

Django
Jul 7 2011 17:38

Wouldn't this article be more appropriate for the library than as a news item?

Chilli Sauce
Jul 7 2011 17:50
Quote:
For 95 per cent of our existence, our species lived as egalitarian hunter-gatherers, without any kind of state, showing in practice that anarchism works. My interest has been to elucidate precisely how such a lifestyle came into existence and how it worked. Hunter-gatherers are not free in the sense of ‘lawless’. They certainly uphold norms and principles of conduct, particularly with respect to sex. But these norms are enforced bottom-up, not top-down. It seems to me that we have much to learn from hunter-gatherers who still practice anarchism/communism today

Fuck me...

Quote:
In an Evening Standard article published just before the TUC march, we managed to insert a map of the route with all the planned feeder marches,

Yeah, cause it's not like the goal of the feeder marches was to avoid the policing of the main march. Nope, let's make it a victory that we've given the cops a nice easy map of where militants who don't want to partake in the toothless TUC 'march for the alternative' will be.

Quote:
As far as I can see, every section of the anarchist movement was determined to do very little on that day.

Yeah, maybe there was a reason for that Chrissy-boy...

Quote:
The explanation, surely, is that this feudal spectacle remains vital to the maintenance of capitalist class rule in Britain.

Hi, my name is Chris Knight. I like to make statements without any backing or evidence.

Spikymike
Jul 7 2011 18:48

Chilli,

I'm not a fan of Chris Knight and I don't agree with his approach to the 'media' but if you or others are going to criticise this text please do it sensibly.

Others will read it without any background knowledge of this guys history (which is presumably prompting your outburst) and 'on the face of it' he makes some reasonable comments here which deserve reasoned responses.

And a communist interest in primitive human society is perfectly valid and does not need this kind of knee jerk response.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 7 2011 19:16

Ah, fair enough, I don't have the patience to even bother even making the effort to engage with the plonker. In any case, I think don't think it takes much previously knowledge to dismiss anyone who thinks that humans live in perfect equality for 95% of our existence.

communal_pie
Jul 7 2011 20:29

I would think that the police knew about feeder marches before they were published in the ES.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 7 2011 20:36

Yeah, so would I, but I still don't think getting it published in a national paper should be claimed as any sort of victory.

Baderneiro Miseravel
Jul 8 2011 18:27

While the man seems to have something of a spetacular approach, this text is actually pretty sensible. This nit-picking on "95% of human existence" and his points on "getting the march on the national paper" looks somewhat petty.

He really is right that calling them "media provocateurs" is really bizarre. I'd like to see how UK anarchists answer to his points about trying to get across information even through the veil of "anarchist thugs" coverage and the strange sectarian approach of anarchist groups/theories.

And yes, street threatre sucks, but can be fun.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 8 2011 20:18

I mean, this might sound like a bit of a broken record, but we "get across information" and change the perception of anarchists by establishing anarchists and anarchist organisations as effective militants and organisers. In my experience at work I keep my politics quite low profile, but I do to try act as an effective militant--being knowledgeable about workplace issues and suggesting effective ways to tackle them collectively. When I do tell workmates I'm an anarchist, they understand anarchism through my actions, not through the media or popular misconceptions.

baboon
Jul 9 2011 11:22

I don't know about humans living in "perfect equality" for 95% of its existence and I don't think that anyone is talking about "perfect equality". You're drawing precipitous conclusions Chilli. If one were to say that humans existed in some form of relative harmony for 95% of their existence then that would be an underestimate of the time-span.

The age of humans, hominin, the species homo, an off-shoot from an ape-like creature, is around five million years old. Stone tools made by homo found in Africa have been dated to 3.2 million years ago so let''s call that a starting point. Let's give a generous period to the development of civilisation, ie, oppressed and oppresser class society, and say it's around 20 thousand years in the making (and that's very generous). Incidentally, there's no overnight changes or blind cut-off points - the twenty thousand years is the expression of a certain development towards civilisation, plus its development within that. At any rate, 20,000 years from 3.2 million leaves a lot of doughnuts! I don't know what the percentage works out to but I bet it's over 95%.

The societies of 3 million years ago wasn't us but they were our ancestors. Darwin is clear on their essentially cooperative nature and behaviour because they couldn't have survived otherwise (while the bourgeoisie present Darwin's analysis as "the survival of the fittest" it is much more profound and subversive than that). Much of this period would have been without fire which, given the size of predators roaming around then, was no mean feat in itself. There's evidence along the whole period of a fundamentally cooperative, moral (both unconscious and conscious) and egalitarian species. This is not an "ideal" society of course: but it was a form of primitive communism whose "comforting chains had to be broken - were broken" (Marx). The development of the productive forces and consciousness made sure of that.

Even if we take the period of the existence of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) (which would be scientifically unjust in the context) then that period of our own would be around 120,000 and hundred thousand years and 20,000 years into that is still only a fifth at best, ie, 80% of the time.

So, I think leaving aside ideas of "perfect equality" that we can safely say that Chris Knight is broadly correct in his estimation that for the vast majority of time a fundamentally egalitarian society has been in existence. The why's and wherefore's of such society, its material basis etc., are questions that Marx, from all the lack of evidence at the time, gave some priority to examining in detail. Both Marx and Engels, who worked like a well-oiled machine on this issue, were along with the Union officer Lewis Henry Morgan, responsible for the best and most succinct work on this, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 9 2011 12:35
CK wrote:
For 95 per cent of our existence, our species lived as egalitarian hunter-gatherers...hunter-gatherers who still practice anarchism/communism today

Egalitarian communities who practice anarchism/communism? That seems like a claim of pretty damn near perfect equality. But whatever, this could all get very semantic.

However, I'm not sure these communities count as egalitarian. Just because there wasn't class oppression there is--at least I understand the research and fully acknowledging I'm not an anthropologist--evidence for tribal hierarchies and inequality between women and men in the majority of pre-"civilization" communities. I don't personally think that qualifies as egalitarian.

Chris Knight's a tosser and if we're going to be making arguments for communism, they need to be rooted in modern, industrial society. Anthropology and examining egalitarianism and equality in past societies is an interesting pursuit (and one that can inform our ideas), but to base such a large chunk of your argument on hunter-gatherers just sounds mental to the vast majority of people who enjoy luxuries that civilization and industrialization have brought to the modern world.

Lurch
Jul 9 2011 13:03

"Mental"? I've always found it a very useful argument when 'people' question whether communism can ever exist, that it's 'against human nature'. To be able to state that for the vast majority of its existence on this planet, humanity lived a largely communal existence, without money, the market, a state, sharing both labour and its products and ruled not by a separate strata of ‘nobles’ but by assemblies of all the tribe - well it makes them think and also calls into focus the transitory nature of capitalism. No-one's arguing for an idealisation of these ‘primitive communist’ societies which were not the product of ‘nicer people’ but represented an under-development of mankind’s productive capacity: they were communal through necessity and existed in conditions of scarcity. However... (And you can add Kropotkin to Baboon's list of those in the workers movement who had good reason to study where we've come from in order to gain more insight about where we'd like to go - albeit on a 'higher level' and under different circumstances.)

Tojiah
Jul 9 2011 13:20
baboon wrote:
The societies of 3 million years ago wasn't us but they were our ancestors. Darwin is clear on their essentially cooperative nature and behaviour because they couldn't have survived otherwise (while the bourgeoisie present Darwin's analysis as "the survival of the fittest" it is much more profound and subversive than that).

Unlike most Marxists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists don't view the work of their progenitor as Holy Writ. If you want to actually argue about human history, you might want to use more up to date sources.

Spikymike
Jul 9 2011 16:48

It's not a subject I know much about but I recall my old comrade John Crump wrote an article for the SPGB in a magazine called 'World Socialism' back in 1969 criticising some of the 'schematism' of Engel's 'Origin of the Family' on the basis of work by Malinowski and others, whilst defending the basic assertion ''..that for thousands of years over vast areas large groups of men did live communally on the basis of voluntary work and free distribution..'' as being reinforced by modern anthropological research.

Don't know if the WSP/SPGB web site has this available , but if not they might consider publishing it there.

communal_pie
Jul 9 2011 20:13

Knight is a bit annoying but I don't get the hatred towards him, whats the point? Its not really worth it.. is it?

Rob Ray
Jul 10 2011 11:26

The problem from many people's perspectives is that he acts as an enabler for the press to talk about crazy anarchists (his insistence that there would be a pagan orgy on Parliament Square on the day of the Royal Wedding "in protest" for example). And while he may actually be a Marxist, he certainly doesn't seem to make much effort to correct the press perception.

For myself I find him vaguely amusing but also problematic as his activity often adds negatively to a public perception about anarchism which is already pretty dire. Most of his actions are also pretty pointless, I can't think of a single case of someone I know looking at his horses of the apocalypse and demands for us to eat the rich and gone "actually, you know what we totally should have a revolution."

baboon
Jul 12 2011 17:36

Tojiah, there's plenty of "up-to-date" evidence on the antiquity of humanity - Colin Renfrew's "Prehistory, the making of the human mind" and the latest which I haven't yet read, Chris Stringer's "The Origin of our Species".

"Holy writ" - holy cow! You can't be seriously suggesting that we ignore the works of Marx and his materialist contemporaries on the question of mankind's development can you? The works of Marx, Engels, Morgan, Darwin, Wallace and Kropotkin are so important now because their general theses (though some dating could be tidied up) have been overwhelmingly confirmed by archaeological, biological, dating and ethnological evidence over some hundred and fifty years,

Chris Knight's position that for (over in my opinion) 95% of our history a society existed that was undivided by class divisions, and all that that implies, is a valid one.
Aside from his involvement in clownish activities, Knight defends a materialist position on mankind's history and perspectives overall. From what I've read of his work, while not agreeing with everything, he expresses a global historical view resulting in a defence of internationalism.

As to his giving anarchism (or marxism) a bad name, that strikes me as a little over-sensitive. The bourgeoisie constantly use any expression of the class struggle to attempt to rub the faces of workers into the dirt. And let's keep our bad name, it too is part of our history.

Entdinglichung
Jul 13 2011 08:38

Renfrew is a Tory peer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colin_Renfrew,_Baron_Renfrew_of_Kaimsthorn ... his archaeological research is far better than his politics

shug
Jul 13 2011 13:49

I agree with Baboon

Quote:
Chris Knight's position that for (over in my opinion) 95% of our history a society existed that was undivided by class divisions, and all that that implies, is a valid one.

Chris Stringer's new book, writing about Knight, says
"I think these ideas are ingenious, and I do believe that human behaviour changed in revolutionary ways during the middle Stone Age, to trigger our expansions within and then outside of Africa. However, I dont think that Knight's views provide the correct explanation, or even the correct kind of explanation. This is because I no longer think that there is a single 'right' answer to the question of our behavioural origins."

Choccy
Jul 13 2011 14:51

Isn't Stringer involved in RAG with Knight?

martinh
Jul 13 2011 23:44

He lectures sometimes to RAG, but I don't think he is involved in running it at all.

Choccy
Jul 14 2011 08:12

I always meant to pop along to one of their lectures/meetings but never bothered.

roffroff
Nov 26 2012 16:26

Here's the full quote of Chris Stringer's praise for Chris Knight's work in The Origin of our Species. Coming from many other people it wouldn't mean too much, but Prof. Stringer is Research Leader at the Natural History Museum and one of the world's top experts in this stuff:

“From the evidence of burials and symbolic objects, rituals and religious beliefs probably go back more than 100,000 years, but could they actually have been central to the origins of modern humans? A British anthropologist, Chris Knight, certainly thinks so, and in a wide-ranging synthesis of data from present-day anthropology, primatology and sociobiology, together with archaeology, he and his collaborators have argued that women collectively produced a social revolution in Africa over 100,000 years ago. The symbolic use of red ochre began as part of a female response to accumulating social and reproductive stresses caused by increasing demands of pregnancy, infant and childcare, and the need for male provisioning. The blood-red pigment was deployed by menstruating and non-menstruating women, smeared on their bodies to spread the taboo of menstruation across alliances of female kin. This instituted a ‘sex-strike’, which could only be broken when the men returned from collaborative hunts with food to share. Female rituals evolved around the sex-strike, male ritual around the hunt (begun under dark moon, returning at full moon, thus linking menstrual and lunar cycles and the blood of women and of animals), and tribal rituals of celebration and feasting would follow the return of the successful hunters.

I think these ideas are ingenious, and I do believe that human behaviour changed in revolutionary ways during the middle Stone Age, to trigger our expansions within and then outside of Africa. However, I don’t think that Knight's views provide the correct explanation, or even the correct kind of explanation. This is because I no longer think that there is a single 'right' answer to the question of our behavioural origins."

Of course, Stringer is right to say there is no single 'right' answer to human origins. But there was a very real qualitative break (as there was with the origins of the universe or the origins of life on earth) that requires explaining. Simon Wells has written an interesting critique of Stringer's approach here: 'What Made Us Human'.

Still, for someone at the top of the scientific establishment, such as Chris Stringer, to praise (but then not agree with) Knight’s work is evidence enough that his theories are taken very seriously by experts who read him.