Nonviolent activists attempting to appear strategic often avoid any real strategizing with intrepid simplitudes such as “Violence is the government’s strong suit. We need to follow the path of least resistance and hit them where they’re weak.” It’s high time to make the distinction between strategizing and sloganeering, and get a little more sophisticated.
First, let’s start with some definitions. (The usages I will give for the following terms are not universal, but as long as we use them consistently they will be more than adequate for our purposes.) A strategy is not a goal, a slogan, or an action. Violence is not a strategy, and neither is nonviolence.
These two terms (violence and nonviolence) ostensibly are boundaries placed around sets of tactics. A limited set of tactics will constrain the available options for strategies, but the tactics should always flow from the strategy, and the strategy from the goal. Unfortunately, these days, people often seem to do it in reverse, enacting tactics out of a habitual response or marshaling tactics into a strategy without more than a vague appreciation of the goal.
The goal is the destination. It is the condition that denotes victory. Of course, there are proximate goals and ultimate goals. It may be most realistic to avoid a linear approach and picture the ultimate goal as a horizon, the farthest imaginable destination, which will change with time as once-distant waypoints become clear, new goals emerge, and a static or utopian state is never reached. For anarchists, who desire a world without coercive hierarchies, the ultimate goal today seems to be the abolition of an interlocking set of systems that include the state, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and ecocidal forms of civilization. This ultimate goal is very far away — so far away that many of us avoid thinking about it because we may find we do not believe it is possible. Focusing on the immediate realities is vital, but ignoring the destination ensures that we will never get there.
The strategy is the path, the game plan for achieving the goal. It is the coordinated symphony of moves that leads to the checkmate. Would-be revolutionaries in the US, and probably elsewhere, are most negligent when it comes to strategies. They have a rough idea of the goal, and are intensively involved with the tactics, but often entirely forgo the creation and implementation of a viable strategy. In one regard, nonviolent activists typically have a leg up on revolutionary activists, as they often have well developed strategies in pursuit of short-term goals. The trade-off tends to be a total avoidance of intermediate and long-term goals, probably because the short-term goals and strategies of pacifists box them into dead ends that would be highly demoralizing if they were acknowledged.
Finally, we have tactics, which are the actions or types of actions that produce results. Ideally, these results have a compounded effect, building momentum or concentrating force along the lines laid out by the strategy. Letter writing is a tactic. Throwing a brick through a window is a tactic. It is frustrating that all the controversy over “violence” and “nonviolence” is simply bickering over tactics, when people have, for the most part, not even figured out whether our goals are compatible, and whether our strategies are complementary or counterproductive. In the face of genocide, extinction, imprisonment, and a legacy of millennia of domination and degradation, we backstab allies or forswear participation in the struggle over trivial matters like smashing windows or arming ourselves? It boils one’s blood!
To return to our cool and reasoned analysis of these matters, it is worth noting that goals, strategies, and tactics correlate on a common plane, but the same thing could be viewed as a goal, a strategy, or a tactic depending on the scope of observation. There are multiple levels of magnitude, and the relationship among the elements of a particular chain of goal-strategy-tactics exists on each level. A short-term goal may be a long-term tactic. Suppose that in the next year, we want to set up a free clinic; that is our goal. We decide on an illegalist strategy (based on the assessment that we can force the local powers to concede some autonomy or that we can go under their radar and occupy preexisting bubbles of autonomy), and the tactics we choose from might include squatting a building, informal fundraising, and training ourselves in popular (nonprofessional) health care. Now suppose that in our lifetime, we want to overthrow the state. Our plan of attack might be to build a militant popular movement that is sustained by autonomous institutions that people identify with and struggle to protect from inevitable government repression. At this level, setting up free clinics is merely a tactic, one of many actions that build power along lines recommended by the strategy, which presumes to chart the course for reaching the goal of liberation from the state.
Having already criticized pacifists’ tendency to unify on the basis of common tactics rather than mutual goals, I will leave aside the liberal, pro-establishment pacifists and charitably assume a rough similarity of goals between nonviolent and revolutionary activists. Let’s pretend that we all want complete liberation. That leaves a difference of strategies and tactics. Clearly, the total pool of tactics available to nonviolent activists is inferior, as they can use only about half the options open to revolutionary activists. In terms of tactics, nonviolence is nothing but a severe limitation of the total options. For nonviolence to be more effective than revolutionary activism, the difference would have to be in the strategies, in a particular arrangement of tactics that achieves an unrivaled potency while avoiding all of the tactics that might be characterized as “violent.”
The four major types of pacifist strategy are the morality play, the lobbying approach, the creation of alternatives, and generalized disobedience. The distinctions are arbitrary, and, in specific instances, pacifist strategies blend elements of two or more of these types. I will show that none of these strategies confer an advantage on nonviolent activists; in fact, all of them are weak and shortsighted.
The morality play seeks to create change by working on people’s opinions. As such, this strategy misses the point entirely. Depending on the specific variation — educating or occupying the moral high ground — different tactics prove useful, though, as we shall see, they do not lead anywhere.
One incarnation of this strategy is to educate people, to disseminate information and propaganda, to change people’s opinions and win people’s support in a campaign. This could mean educating people about poverty and influencing them to oppose the closing of a homeless shelter, or it could mean educating people about the oppressions of government and influencing them to support anarchy. (It is important to note what is meant by “support” in these two examples: verbal and mental support. Education might influence people to donate money or join a protest, but it rarely encourages people to change their life priorities or take substantial risks.) The tactics used for this education strategy would include holding speeches and forums; distributing pamphlets and other informational texts; using alternative and corporate media to focus on and spread information about the issue; and holding protests and rallies to capture people’s attention and open space for discussion of the issue. Most of us are familiar with these tactics, as this is a common strategy for achieving change. We are taught that information is the basis of democracy, and, without examining the true meaning of that statement, we think it means we can create change by circulating ideas supported by facts. The strategy can be mildly effective in achieving very minor and fleeting victories, but it runs into several fatal barriers that prevent serious headway in pursuit of any long-term goals.
The first barrier is elite control of a highly developed propaganda system that can decimate any competing propaganda system nonviolent activists might create. Pacifism can’t even keep itself from being co-opted and watered down — how do pacifists expect to expand and recruit? Nonviolence focuses on changing hearts and minds, but it underestimates the culture industry and thought control by the media.
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.[
The quote above, written in 1928, is from Edward Bernays’s important book, Propaganda. Bernays was not some fringe conspiracy theorist; in fact, he was very much a part of the invisible government he describes.
Bernays’s clients included General Motors; United Fruit; Thomas Edison; Henry Ford; the US Departments of State, Health, and Commerce; Samuel Goldwyn, Eleanor Roosevelt; the American Tobacco Company; and Procter & Gamble. He directed public relations programs for every US president from Calvin Coolidge, in 1925, to Dwight Eisenhower in the late 1950s.”
Since then, the public relations industry that Bernays helped form has only grown.
Whether against a local grassroots campaign or the broader struggle for revolution, the propaganda machine can mobilize to counter, discredit, factionalize, or drown out any ideological threat. Consider the recent US invasion of Iraq. It should have been a model for the success of this strategy. The information was there — facts debunking the lies about weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida were publicly available months before the invasion began. The people were there — protests prior to the invasion were immense, though the involvement of protest participants rarely went beyond the vocal and symbolic, as we would expect from an education strategy. Alternative media was there — enabled by the internet it reached an especially large number of Americans. Yet the majority of public opinion in the US (which is what an education strategy seeks to capture) did not turn against the war until the corporate media began regularly disclosing information about the falsity of reasons for going to war and, more importantly, the mounting costs of the occupation. And, in full accordance with its nature, the corporate media did not disclose this information until significant segments of the elite themselves began to oppose the war — not because the war was wrong or because they had been educated and enlightened, but because they realized it was becoming counterproductive to US interests and US power. Even in such ideal circumstances, nonviolent activists using an education strategy could not overcome the corporate media.
In what can best be described as a stupefying social environment, the endless repetition and near-total information control of the corporate media are much more potent than solid, well researched arguments supported by facts. I hope that all pacifists understand that the corporate media is as much an agent of authority as is the police force or military.
In the face of this, many activists look to alternative media. While spreading and further radicalizing alternative media is an important task, it cannot be the backbone of a strategy. It is readily apparent that while alternative media can be an effective tool in certain circumstances, it cannot go toe to toe with the corporate media, primarily because of gross inequities of scale. Alternative media is kept in check by a number of coercive market and legal factors. Getting information to millions of people is expensive, and the sponsors do not exist who will fund revolutionary press en masse. The Catch-22 is that there will be no loyal readership to subscribe to and fund a truly mass radical media as long as the general population is indoctrinated away from radical news sources and sedated by a culture of complacency. Beyond market pressures exists the problem of government regulation and intervention. The airwaves are the domain of the state, which can and does shut down or undermine radical radio stations that manage to find funding. Governments around the world — led, of course, by the US — have also made a habit of repressing radical websites, whether by imprisoning the webmaster on bogus charges or seizing equipment and shutting down servers on the pretext of some terrorism investigation.
The second barrier in the way of educating people toward revolution is a structurally reinforced disparity in people’s access to education. Most people are not currently able to analyze and synthesize information that challenges the integral mythologies on which their identities and worldviews are based. This is true across class lines. People from poor backgrounds are more likely to be undereducated, kept in a mental environment that discourages the development of their vocabularies and analytical skills. The overeducation of people from wealthy backgrounds turns them into trained monkeys; they are intensively trained to use analysis only to defend or improve the existing system, while being incurably skeptical and derisive toward revolutionary ideas or suggestions that the current system is rotten to the core.
Regardless of economic class, most people in the US will respond to radical information and analysis with syllogism, moralism, and polemics. They will be more susceptible to pundits arguing conventional wisdoms with familiar slogans than to people presenting challenging facts and analysis. Because of this, activists taking an educational approach tend to dumb down the message so that they too can take advantage of the power of clichés and platitudes. Examples include anti-war activists who declare that “peace is patriotic” because it would be too difficult to explain the problems with patriotism in the current semiological terrain (never mind dynamiting the terrain) and culture jammers trying to find radical “memes.”
A third barrier is a false assumption about the potency of ideas. The education approach seems to assume that revolutionary struggle is a contest of ideas, that there is something powerful in an idea whose time has come. At its base it is a morality play, and it ignores the fact that, especially in the US, a good many people on the side of authority know quite well what they are doing. Because of the hypocrisy of our times, people who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, or imperialism (nearly the entire population of the Global North) like to justify their complicity with systems of domination and oppression with any number of altruistic lies. But a skilled debater will find that a majority of these people, when argued into a corner, will not have an epiphany — they will lash back with a primal defense of the evils that privilege them. Typically, white people will claim credit for the wonders of civilization and insist that their ingenuity entitles them to the benefits of legacies of slavery and genocide; wealthy people will claim that they have more right to own a factory or a hundred acres of real estate than a poor person has to food and shelter; men will joke about being the stronger sex and having a historically guaranteed right to rape; US citizens will belligerently assert that they have a right to other people’s oil, or bananas, or labor, even after they can no longer obfuscate the nature of global economic relations. We forget that to maintain the current power structure, a good number of technicians, be they academics, corporate consultants, or government planners, have to constantly strategize to continue increasing their power and effectiveness. Democratic illusions can only run so deep, and, in the end, education will cause relatively few privileged people to truly support revolution. On certain levels, people with privilege already know what they are doing and what their interests are. Internal contradictions will emerge as the struggle gets closer to home, challenging the privileges on which their worldview and life experiences are based and threatening the possibility of a comfortable, enlightened revolution. People need more than education in order to commit to a painful and drawn-out struggle that will destroy the power structures that have encapsulated their very identities.
Education will not necessarily make people support revolution, and, even if it does, it will not build power. Contrary to the maxim of the information age, information is not power. Remember that Scientia est potentia (knowledge is power) is the watch phrase of those already at the helm of the state. Information itself is inert, but it guides the effective use of power; it has what military strategists would call a “force-multiplying effect.” If we have a social movement with zero force to begin with, we can multiply that force however many times we wish and still have a big, fat zero. Good education can guide the efforts of an empowered social movement, just as useful information guides the strategies of governments, but the information itself will not change anything. Idly circulating subversive information in the current context only gives the government more opportunities to fine-tune its propaganda and its ruling strategies. People trying to educate their way to revolution are tossing gasoline onto a prairie fire and expecting that the right kind of fuel will stop the fire from burning them.
(On the other hand, education can be explosively effective when integrated into other strategies. In fact, many forms of education are necessary for building a militant movement and for changing the hierarchical social values that currently stand in the way of a free, cooperative world. Militant movements have to conduct a great deal of education to explain why they are forcefully struggling for revolution and why they have given up on legal means. But militant tactics open up possibilities for education that nonviolence can never tap.
Because of its imperative principles, corporate media cannot ignore a bombing as easily as it can ignore a peaceful protest. And even though the media will slander such actions, the more images of forceful resistance people receive through the media, the more the narcotic illusion of social peace is disrupted. People will begin to see that the system is unstable and change is actually possible, and, thus, overcome the greatest obstacle to change created by capitalist, media-driven democracies. Riots and insurrections are even more successful at creating ruptures in this dominant narrative of tranquility. Of course, much more than this is needed to educate people. In the end, we must destroy the corporate media and replace it with an entirely grassroots media. People who use a diversity of tactics can be much more effective at this, employing a number of innovative means to sabotage corporate newspapers and radio and television stations; hijack corporate media outlets and deliver an anti-capitalist broadcast; defend grassroots media outlets and punish the agencies responsible for repressing them; or expropriate money to fund and greatly increase the capacities of grassroots media outlets.)
Maintaining the moral high ground, which is a more overtly moralistic variation on this type of strategy, has a slightly different set of weaknesses but runs into the same dead end. In the short term, occupying the moral high ground can be effective, and it’s easy to do when your opponents are white supremacist, chauvinistic, capitalist politicians. Activists can use protests, vigils, and various forms of denunciation and self-sacrifice to expose the immorality of government, either in particular or in general, and set themselves up as a righteous alternative. “Plowshares” anti-war activists often use this approach.
As a type of strategy for social change, occupying the moral high ground is weakened by the critical problem of obscurity, which is difficult to overcome given the same corporate-media barrier discussed above. And, in media-driven democracies, which turn the greater part of politics into a popularity contest, people are unlikely to see a miniscule, obscure group as either moral or imitable. However, the moral-high-ground approach sidesteps the challenge of educating a miseducated population by relying on extant moral values and simplifying revolutionary struggle to the zealous pursuit of a few principles.
A group that focuses on occupying the moral high ground also attracts potential recruits with something the corporate media cannot offer — an existential clarity and a sense of belonging. Plowshares pacifists and anti-war hunger strikers are often lifelong members. However, the corporate media is not the only institution for manufacturing social conformity. Churches, Elks lodges, and Boy Scout troops all occupy this niche as well, and, given the emphasis that morally elevated groups place on surrendering to in-group culture and values, there is little critical discourse or evaluation of the moralities involved; thus, having a morality that is more realistic or fair confers little actual advantage. What matters more is the elevation of a particular high ground, and these mainstream moral institutions are far stronger than pacifist groups in terms of access to resources — in other words, they are higher up and more visible in society, so they will overwhelmingly win the competition for new recruits. Due to the atomization and alienation of modern life, there are many gaps left unfilled by these moral institutions, and many lonely suburbanites still grasping for a sense of belonging, but radical pacifists will never be able to win more than a minority of these.
Those they do win will be more empowered than the members of a movement that aims simply to educate. People will go to great lengths to fight for a cause they believe in, to fight for a moral leader or ideal. But a moralistic movement has a greater potential than an education-based movement for empowering itself and becoming a dangerous thing (that is, eventually abandoning its pacifism). Woe to its allies, though. Such a movement will exhibit a mass authoritarianism and orthodoxy, and it will be particularly prone to factionalism. It will also be easily manipulated. There is perhaps no better example than Christianity, which evolved from opposition movement to potent weapon of the Roman Empire, from pacifistic cult to the most pathologically violent and authoritarian religion humanity has ever conceived.
In both variations of the morality-play approach to pacifist strategy, the purpose is to induce the majority of a society into joining or supporting a movement. (We can leave aside the laughable pretensions of simply enlightening or shaming the authorities into supporting revolution.) Both variations face terminal odds in pursuit of that majority due to the effective structural controls over culture within modern societies. In the unlikely chance that these odds were overcome, neither variation would be functionally capable of winning over more than a majority. Even if education were to become a more effective tool with privileged people it will not work against the elite and the enforcing class, who are given strong incentives and are culturally bound to the system, and occupying the moral high ground necessarily entails the creation of an inferior “other” to oppose.
At the absolute best, strategies of this type will lead to an oppositional but passive majority, which history has shown is easy for an armed minority to control (colonialism, for example). Such a majority could always switch to some other type of strategy that involves fighting and winning, but without any experience or even intellectual moral familiarity with real resistance, the transition would be difficult. Meanwhile, the government would have recourse to easily exploitable flaws ingrained in the morality-play strategy, and an ostensibly revolutionary movement would have constrained itself to a horribly mismatched battle, trying to win hearts and minds without destroying the structures that have poisoned those hearts and minds.
Educating and building a liberating ethos are necessary to fully root out hierarchical social relationships, but there are concrete institutions such as law courts, public schools, boot camps, and public relations firms that are structurally immune to “changes of heart” and that automatically intervene in society to indoctrinate people in the morals that uphold hierarchical social relationships and capitalist production and consumption. Denying ourselves non-pacifist means to strengthen the movement and weaken or sabotage these structures leaves us in a sinking boat, with a little bucket to bailout the water pouring in through a tenfoot-wide hole, pretending we’ll soon be high enough in the water to set sail toward our goal. This seems like waiting for pie in the sky, and it really should not qualify as a strategy. In a short-term battle to prevent a new coal mine or waste incinerator from coming into the neighborhood, it is possible to come up with a savvy media strategy within pacifist constraints (especially if your education campaign includes information about how the mine will harm privileged people in the area). But in pursuit of any lasting changes, strategies of this type usually can’t even successfully lead to the dead end they inevitably create.
Would-be revolutionaries exemplify the ineffectiveness of nonviolence in building power when they approach their struggle as a morality play, and also when they take the lobbying approach. Lobbies were built into the political process by institutions that already had significant power (for example, corporations). Activists can build power by holding protests and demonstrating the existence of a constituency (on which their lobbyists bank), but this method for funneling power to lobbies is much weaker, pound for pound, than the cold, hard cash of corporations. Thus, “revolutionary” lobbies are impotent compared to opposing lobbies of the status quo. Lobbying also leads to a hierarchical and disempowered movement. The vast majority are simply sheep who sign petitions, raise funds, or hold protest signs, while an educated, well-dressed minority who seek audience with politicians and other elites hold all the power. Lobbyists will eventually identify more with the authorities than with their constituents — courting power, they fall in love with it, and betrayal becomes likely. If politicians run up against a morally upright, uncompromising lobbyist, they will simply deny that lobbyist an audience, pulling the rug out from under her organization. Activist lobbies are most successful when they are willing to compromise their constituency (representative politics in a democracy being the art of selling out a constituency while maintaining its loyalty). Some groups attempting to pressure the authorities do not appoint any specialized lobbyists, and thus avoid developing an elite leadership that will be co-opted by the system; however, they have still put themselves in the position of mobilizing pressure to get the system to change itself.
Nonviolent activists using the lobbying strategy attempt to craft a passive realpolitik to exercise leverage. But the only way to use leverage against the state in pursuit of interests diametrically opposed to those of the state is to threaten the state’s existence. Only such a threat can make the state reconsider its other interests, because the state’s primary interest is self-perpetuation. In his interpretive history of the Mexican revolution and land redistribution, John Tutino points out, “But only the most persistent and often violent rebels, like the Zapatistas, received land from the new leaders of Mexico. The lesson was clear: only those who threatened the regime got land; thus those seeking land must threaten the regime.” This was from a government supposedly allied with Mexico’s agrarian revolutionaries — what do pacifists think they’ll get from governments whose favored constituency is avowedly the corporate oligarchs? Frantz Fanon expressed the same sentiment in a similar way with regard to Algeria:
When in 1956...the Front de Liberation Nationale, in a famous leaflet, stated that colonialism only loosens its hold when the knife is at its throat, no Algerian really found these terms too violent. The leaflet only expressed what every Algerian felt at heart: colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.
The lessons of Algeria and the Mexican revolution apply throughout history. The struggle against authority will be violent, because authority itself is violent and the inevitable repression is an escalation of that violence. Even “good government” will not redistribute power downward unless it is threatened with the loss of all its power. Lobbying for social change is a waste of scarce resources for radical movements. Imagine if all the millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours from progressives and even radicals that went to lobby for some piece of legislation or to defeat the reelection of some politician instead went into funding activist social centers, free clinics, prisoner-support groups, community conflict-resolution centers, and free schools? We might actually lay the foundation for a serious revolutionary movement. Instead, a huge amount of effort is wasted.
Further, activists using the lobbying approach fail to see that making demands to authority is bad strategy. Nonviolent activists put all their energy into forcing authorities to hear their demands when they could use this energy to build power, to build a base from which to wage war. If they are successful, what will they have accomplished? At most, the government will mutter a brief apology, lose a little face, and meet the demand on paper (though, in reality, they’ll just juggle things around to obscure the problem). After this, the activists will lose their momentum and initiative. They will have to go on the defensive, change directions, and readjust their campaign to point out that the reform is a fraudulent one. Their organization’s disillusioned members will drop out, and the general public will perceive the organization as whiny and impossible to satisfy. (No wonder so many lobby-oriented activist organizations claim victory at the most hollow of compromises!)
Consider, for example, the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). For more than a dozen years, the organization used annual passive protests, documentaries, and education campaigns to build lobbying power to convince politicians to support a bill to close the School of the Americas (SOA), an Army school that trained tens of thousands of Latin American officers and soldiers who were complicit in most of the worst human-rights abuses and atrocities in their respective countries. By 2001, SOAW almost had enough congressional support to pass a bill to shut down the SOA. Sensing the danger, the Pentagon simply introduced an alternative bill which “closed” the SOA while immediately reopening it under a different name. The politicians took the easy exit and passed the Pentagon bill. For years afterward, SOAW could not regain the support of many of the politicians, who claimed they wanted to wait and see if the “new” school was an improvement. If SOAW ever does succeed in closing the school by whatever name it calls itself, the military can simply spread out its torture-training operations to other military bases and programs throughout the country, or shift most of that work to military advisers abroad. If that happens, SOAW will be caught without a viable strategy, without having made any dent in US militarism. When has the US government ever let a law or treaty stop it from doing what it wanted to do?
On the contrary, if radicals shifted their approach to directly fight US militarism, and if they could constitute a real threat without ever approaching a negotiating table, frightened government officials would begin drafting compromises and legislating reforms in an effort to prevent revolution. Decolonization, civil rights legislation, and nearly every other major reform was won in this manner. Radicals need never box themselves in or ensure betrayal by standing in a lobby or sitting down at the negotiating table. By refusing to be placated, revolutionaries drive a harder bargain than those whose aim is to bargain. Even when they lose, militant movements tend to cause reforms. The Red Brigades in Italy were ultimately unsuccessful, but they mounted such a threat that the Italian state instituted a number of far-reaching social-welfare and culturally progressive measures (for example, expanding public education and social spending, decentralizing some government functions, bringing the Communist Party into the government, and legalizing birth control and abortion) in an effort to drain support from the militants’ base through reformism.
The alternative-building approach employs one important component of a revolutionary strategy but underestimates all the complementary components that are necessary for success. The idea is that by creating alternative institutions, we can provide for an autonomous society and demonstrate that capitalism and the state are undesirable. In actuality, while building these alternatives is of the utmost importance in creating and sustaining a revolutionary movement and laying the groundwork for the liberated societies that will come after revolution, it is absolutely absurd to think that the government will sit back and let us build science fair experiments that will prove its obsolescence.
Events in Argentina surrounding the 2001 economic collapse (for example, the factory takeovers) have greatly inspired anti-authoritarians. Nonviolent anarchists (many of whom are academics) who favor the strategy of peacefully creating alternative institutions use a watered-down interpretation of events in Argentina to inject some life into their otherwise limp strategy. But the occupied factories in Argentina have survived by one of two means: either becoming legally recognized and recuperated into a capitalist economy, simply a more participatory form of corporation; or putting in their time at the barricades — fighting off police attempts to evict them with clubs and slingshots and building alliances with militant neighborhood assemblies so that the authorities fear a spreading of the conflict if they escalate their tactics. And the factory movement is on the defensive. Its practice and theory are in conflict because, in general, it is not headed toward a goal of replacing capitalism by spreading worker controlled alternatives. The radical workers’ major weakness has been an inability to expand their movement by the expropriation of factories where the managers are still in charge. Such a course would put them in greater conflict with the state than they are currently ready for. To be sure, they are providing an important and inspiring example, but as long as they are only able to take over factories that have already been abandoned, they have not created a model for actually replacing capitalism.
At the 2004 North American Anarchist Convergence, keynote speaker Howard Ehrlich advised today’s anarchists to act as though the revolution were already here and to build the world we want to see. Leaving aside the meaninglessness of this advice for people in prison, indigenous people faced with genocide, Iraqis trying to survive under occupation, Africans dying of diarrhea simply because they are deprived of clean water, and a majority of the world’s other people, his statement makes me wonder how Ehrlich could miss the lengthy history of government repression of autonomous spaces in service of revolutionary movements.
In Harrisonburg, Virginia, we set up an anarchist community center, allowed homeless people to sleep there through the winter, and provided free food and clothes out of that space. Within six months the cops shut us down using a creative array of zoning laws and building codes. In the 1960s, the police took an active interest in sabotaging the Black Panther program that provided free breakfast to children.
How exactly are we supposed to build alternative institutions if we are powerless to protect them from repression? How will we find land on which to build alternative structures when everything in this society has an owner? And how can we forget that capitalism is not timeless, that once everything was an “alternative,” and that the current paradigm developed and expanded precisely out of its ability to conquer and consume those alternatives?
Ehrlich is right that we need to start building alternative institutions now, but wrong to de-emphasize the important work of destroying existing institutions and defending ourselves and our autonomous spaces in the process. Even when mixed with more aggressive nonviolent methods, a strategy based on building alternatives that constrains itself to pacifism will never be strong enough to resist the zealous violence that capitalist societies employ when they conquer and absorb autonomous societies.
Finally, we have the nonviolent strategic approach of generalized disobedience. This tends to be the most permissive of nonviolent strategies, often condoning property destruction and symbolic physical resistance, although disciplined nonviolent campaigns of nonviolence and disobedience also fall within this type. The recent film The Fourth World War is at the militant edge of this conception of revolution, highlighting resistance struggles from Palestine to Chiapas while conveniently hiding the significant segments of those movements engaged in armed struggle, probably for the comfort of US audiences. Disobedience strategies seek to shut the system down through strikes, blockades, boycotts, and other forms of disobedience and refusal. While many of these tactics are extremely useful when building toward a real revolutionary practice, the strategy itself has a number of gaping holes.
This type of strategy can only create pressure and leverage; it can never succeed in destroying power or delivering control of society to the people. When a population engages in generalized disobedience, the powerful face a crisis. The illusion of democracy is not working: this is a crisis. Highways have been blockaded, and business has been brought to a crawl: this is a crisis. But the people in power still control a large surplus; they are not in danger of being starved out by the strike. They control all the capital in the country, though some of this has been disabled by occupations and blockades. Most importantly, they still have control of the military and police (elites have learned much more about retaining the loyalty of the military since the Russian Revolution, and, in recent decades, the only significant military defections have occurred when the military faced violent resistance and the government seemed to be in its death throes; the police, for their part, have always been loyal lackeys). Behind closed doors, business leaders, government leaders, and military leaders confer. Perhaps they have not invited certain shamed members of the elite; perhaps multiple factions are scheming to come out of this crisis on top. They can use the military to break through any nonviolent barricade, retake any occupied factory, and seize the product of their labor if the rebels try to conduct an autonomous economy. Ultimately, the powerful can arrest, torture, and kill all the organizers; drive the movement underground; and restore order in the streets. A rebellious population that is conducting sit-ins or throwing rocks cannot stand up to a military that has been given free reign to use all the weapons in its arsenal. But behind closed doors, the country’s leaders agree that such methods are not preferable; they are a last resort. Using them would destroy the illusion of democracy for years, and it would scare away investors and hurt the economy. So they win by letting the rebels declare victory: under pressure from business and military leaders, the president and a few other elected politicians step down (or, better yet, flee in a helicopter); the corporate media call it a revolution and begin trumpeting the populist credentials of the replacement president (who has been picked by the business and military leaders); and activists in the popular movement, if they have constrained themselves to nonviolence rather than preparing for the inevitable escalation of tactics, lose just when they are finally at the threshold of revolution.
In its long history, this strategy type has not succeeded in causing the class of owners, managers, and enforcers to defect and be disobedient, because their interests are fundamentally opposed to the interests of those who participate in the disobedience. What disobedience strategies have succeeded in doing, time and time again, is forcing out particular government regimes, though these are always replaced by other regimes constituted from among the elite (sometimes reformist moderates and sometimes the leadership of the opposition movement itself). This happened in India at the time of decolonization and in Argentina in 2001; with Marcos in the Philippines and with Milosevic in Serbia (this latter example, and similar “revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Lebanon, show the ineffectiveness of generalized disobedience in actually delivering social power to the people; all of these popular coups were actually orchestrated and financed by the US to install more market-friendly, pro-US politicians). It is not even proper to say the old regimes are “forced out.” Faced with rising disobedience and the threat of real revolution, they choose to hand over power to new regimes that they trust to honor the basic frameworks of capitalism and state. When they do not have the option of a transfer of power, they take off the gloves and attempt to brutalize and dominate the movement, which cannot defend itself and survive without escalating tactics. This is what happened to the anti-authoritarian labor movement in the US in the 1920s.
Generalized disobedience strategies attempt to shut down the system, and even in that endeavor they are less effective than militant strategies. Within the same context as that required for generalized disobedience — a broad and well-organized rebellious movement — if we do not restrict the movement to nonviolence, but support a diversity of tactics, it will be tremendously more effective. In terms of shutting the system down, there can be no comparison between peacefully locking down to a bridge or train line and blowing it up. The latter causes a longer-lasting obstruction, costs more to be cleared up, requires a more dramatic response from the authorities, does more to damage the morale and public image of the authorities, and allows the perpetrators to escape and fight another day. Blowing up a train line (or using some less dramatic and less threatening form of sabotage, if the social situation suggests that this will be more effective) will scare and anger people opposed to the liberation movement more than a peaceful lockdown will. But it will also cause them to take the movement more seriously, rather than dismiss it as a nuisance. (Of course, those who practice a diversity of tactics have the option to carry out a peaceful lockdown or an act of sabotage, depending on their estimation of what the public response will be.)
While somewhat useful to workers, a strategy of generalized disobedience has no relevance to already marginalized, surplus populations such as the many indigenous nations slated for expulsion or extermination, because their participation is not vital to the functioning of the aggressor state. The Ache of the Amazon do not pay any taxes to withhold, and they do not work any jobs to walk out from. The genocidal campaign against them does not hinge on their cooperation or non-cooperation. People whom the authorities would love to see just up and die can win no leverage through disobedience.
As we have seen, the major types of nonviolent strategies all encounter insurmountable dead ends in the long term. Morality play strategies misunderstand the way the state maintains control; thus, they are blind to the barriers posed by media and cultural institutions, and they offer no counter to the ability of armed minorities to control unarmed majorities. The lobbying approach wastes resources trying to pressure the government into acting in contradiction to its own interests. Strategies centered on building alternatives ignore the state’s ability to repress radical projects and capitalism’s talent for absorbing and corrupting autonomous societies. Generalized disobedience strategies open the door to revolution but deny popular movements the tactics necessary to expropriate direct control of the economy, redistribute wealth, and destroy the repressive apparatus of the state.
The long-term view that shows these nonviolent strategy types to be ineffective also makes the chances of any militant strategy seem bleak, seeing as how most anarchist communities in the US today are probably completely unprepared to defend themselves against the state. But it is in our everyday organizing that anti-authoritarians can strategically overcome passivity and foster militancy, and thus change the prospects for future struggles. Nonviolent strategies prevent this work. They also disadvantage us in interactions with the police and media, two examples that are worth going into.
Nonviolence plays into community policing and crowd control strategies. The tactics of pacifism, like many of the tactics of modern crowd control policing, are designed to de-escalate potentially insurrectionary situations. In his recent book detailing the history and development of the modern US police forces, Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams documents how the crisis of the 1960s and 70s demonstrated to police that their methods of dealing with popular insurrection (such as urban riots and militant protests) only encouraged more resistance and more violence on the part of the resisters. The resistance was empowered, the police lost control, and the government had to send in the military (further eroding the illusion of democracy and opening the possibility of real rebellion). In the years afterward, the police developed community policing strategies-to improve their image and control potentially subversive community organizing-and crowd control tactics emphasizing de-escalation. Descriptions of these tactics mirror exactly pacifist recommendations for conducting protests. The police allow minor forms of disobedience while maintaining communication with protest leaders, whom they pressure in advance to get the protest to police itself. “Peace marshals,” police liaisons, and march permits are all aspects of this police strategy, which leads me to wonder if pacifists came up with these ideas independently, as a function of their implicitly statist mentality, or if they were so enthusiastic about loving their enemy that they swallowed whole the suggestions of that enemy for how to conduct the resistance. Either way, as long as we continue to tolerate nonviolent leadership, the police will have us right where they want us. But if we refuse to de-escalate and to cooperate with the police, we can organize disruptive protests when they are needed and fight for the interests of our community or our cause without compromise.
Nonviolence also leads to bad media strategies. Nonviolent codes of conduct for protest actions contradict the number-one rule of media relations: always stay on message. Nonviolent activists do not need to employ nonviolence codes to keep themselves peaceful. They do it to enforce ideological conformity and to assert their leadership over the rest of the crowd. They also do it as insurance, so that if any uncontrollable elements do act violently during a protest, they can protect their organization from being demonized in the media. They whip out the nonviolence code as proof that they were not responsible for the violence, and prostrate themselves before the reigning order. At this point, they have already lost the media war. The typical exchange goes something like this:
Reporter: What do you have to say about the windows that were smashed in today’s protest?
Protester: Our organization has a well-publicized nonviolence pledge. We condemn the actions of extremists who are ruining this protest for the well-meaning people who care about saving the forests/stopping the war/halting these evictions.
Activists rarely get more than two-line quotes or ten-second clips in the corporate media. The nonviolent activists exemplified in this skit waste their fleeting spotlight by going on the defensive; making their issue secondary to the concerns of the elite (property destruction by protesters); seemingly admitting weakness, failure, and disorganization to the public (by simultaneously taking responsibility for other protesters while bemoaning failure to control them); and, not least of all, backstabbing allies in public and dividing the movement. That exchange should have looked like this:
Reporter: What do you have to say about the windows that were smashed in today’s protest?
Protester: It pales in comparison to the violence of deforestation/the war/these evictions. [Insert potent facts about the issue.]
If pressed, or asked by law enforcement, activists might insist that they were not personally responsible for the property destruction and cannot comment on the motivations of those who were. (But it is best not to talk with members of the corporate media as though they were human beings because they rarely comport themselves in such a manner. Activists should only answer in concise statements that tactfully address the issue; otherwise, editors are likely to run inane quotes and censor informative or challenging quotes.) If activists are successful in keeping the focus on the actual issue, they can avail themselves of subsequent opportunities to clear their names while again driving home the issue at hand (with tactics such as writing letters to the editor or protesting a media outlet’s libelous accusations). But if activists are more concerned with clearing their names than addressing the issue, they are stillborn.
At first glance, a militant conception of revolution seems more impractical than a nonviolent conception, but this is because it is realistic. People need to understand that capitalism, the state, white supremacy, imperialism, and patriarchy all constitute a war against the people of this planet. And revolution is an intensification of that war. We cannot liberate ourselves and create the worlds we want to live in if we think of fundamental social change as shining a light in the darkness, winning hearts and minds, speaking truth to power, bearing witness, capturing people’s attention, or any other passive parade. Millions of people die every year on this planet for no better reason than a lack of clean drinking water. Because the governments and corporations that have usurped control of the commons have not found a way to profit from those people’s lives, they let them die. Millions of people die every year because a few corporations and their allied governments do not want to allow the production of generic AIDS drugs and other medicine. Do you think the institutions and the elite individuals who hold the power of life or death over millions give a fuck about our protests? They have declared war on us, and we need to take it back to them. Not because we are angry (though we should be), not to get revenge, and not because we are acting impulsively, but because we have weighed the possibility of freedom against the certainty of shame from living under whatever form of domination we are faced with in our particular corner of the globe; because we realize that some people are already fighting, often alone, for their liberation, and that they have a right to and we should support them; and because we understand that the overlapping prisons that entomb our world have by now been so cleverly constructed that the only way to free ourselves is to fight and destroy these prisons and defeat the jailers by whatever means necessary.
Realizing that this is a war can help us decide what we need to do and craft effective strategies for the long haul. Those of us living in North America, Europe, and some other parts of the world live under the illusion of democracy. The government politely pretends it would never kill us if we challenged its authority, but that is a thin veneer. In his annual address to Congress, on December 3, 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt, speaking of the enemy of the day, declared: “We should war with relentless efficiency not only against anarchists, but against all active and passive sympathizers with anarchists.” One hundred years later, in September 2001, President George W. Bush announced: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Aside from showing how little our government has changed in a century, this quote poses an interesting question. Of course we can reject Bush’s demand that if we do not line up with Osama bin Laden then we should declare allegiance to the White House. But if we insist on disloyalty, then regardless of our personal affiliations Bush has judged us as terrorists, and the Justice Department has demonstrated that it might prosecute us as such — in its campaign against the radical environmental activists it has labeled “ecoterrorists”; in the Joint Terrorism Task Force’s spying on dissidents; and in the harassment, repression, and deportation of Muslims and immigrants that has been the major domestic “security” activity of the government since September 11. We could proudly recognize that “terrorist” has been governments’ label of choice for freedom fighters for decades, and certainly this honor is premature given the state of our movement. But the pacified resistance in the US is not comfortable in the role of freedom fighter. Instead of acknowledging the war that already exists, we have shuffled over to the safe side of Bush’s dichotomy, whether we admit it or not, and nonviolence has been our excuse.
General Frank Kitson, an influential British military, police, and social-control theoretician whose strategies have been disseminated and adopted by state planners and police agencies in the US, breaks social disturbances down into three stages: preparation, nonviolence, and insurgency. Police understand this, and they do what they can to keep dissidents and disaffected masses held back in the first two stages. Many of those dissidents do not understand this. They do not understand what it will take to redistribute power in our society, and they prevent themselves and their allies from going all the way.
Quite evidently, the state is more afraid of militant groups than nonviolent groups, and I have used this as evidence that militant groups are more effective. The state understands that it has to react more forcefully and energetically to neutralize militant revolutionary movements. I have heard quite a few nonviolent activists turn this very fact on its head to argue that nonviolent attempts at revolution are more effective because militant attempts will be savagely repressed (and in other chapters I have quoted these activists to show that their primary concern is their own safety). True, the path to revolution envisioned by militant activists is much more dangerous and difficult than the one envisioned by pacifists, but it also has the advantage of being realistic, unlike the pacifist fantasy. But this logical juggling is worth examining.
Pacifists claim they are more effective because they are more likely to survive repression. The reasoning is that militants give the state an excuse to eliminate them (the excuse being self-defense against a violent enemy), whereas states are unable to use overwhelming violence against pacifists because there can be nojustification. The gullible assumption on which this reasoning is based is that governments are ruled by public opinion, rather than vice versa. Getting past the sophistry of nonviolence, we can easily establish the factor that determines whether government repression will be a popular measure in the court of public opinion. That factor is the popular legitimacy, or lack thereof, which the resistance movement enjoys — it has nothing to do with violence or nonviolence. If the people do not see a resistance movement as legitimate or important, if they wave the flag with all the rest, they will cheer even when the government carries out massacres. But if the people sympathize with the resistance movement, then government repression will foster more resistance. The slaughter of a peaceful group of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek only brought applause from the white citizenry of the Union; similar was the national response to the repression of harmless “communists” in the 1950s. But at times of peak popularity, British attempts to repress the Irish Republican Army (IRA) only brought more support for the IRA and more shame to the Brits, both within Ireland and internationally. In the last decade, Serbian attempts to crush the Kosovo Liberation Army had the same effect.
The government is able to repress both nonviolent and militant groups without causing a backlash so long as it has control over the ideological terrain. Nonviolent groups can operate with less cultural independence and popular support because they tend to aim lower and pose less of a threat, whereas a militant group, by its very existence, is a direct challenge to the state monopoly on force. Militant groups understand that they need to overcome the state, and, until they help create a broad culture of resistance (or unless they arise out of such a culture), they will be isolated and on the run. Pacifists, on the other hand, have the option of forswearing confrontation with state power and pretending they are engaged in some process of magically transforming the state through the “power of love,” or their “nonviolent witness,” or by disseminating heart wrenching images of cardboard puppets through the media, or some other swill. The prevalence or scarcity of pacifism is a good barometer for the weakness of the movement. Strong popular support allows a radical movement to survive repression; if a movement has built popular support for militant struggle against the state, they are that much closer to victory.
A state decides to repress activists and social movements when it perceives dissidents’ goals as threatening and achievable. If the goal is to seize or destroy state power, and agents of the state think there is any chance of approaching that goal, they will repress or destroy the movement, regardless of the tactics advocated. Does violence encourage repression? Not necessarily. Let us consider some case studies and compare the repression of the Wobblies with that of the immigrant Italian anarchists or the Appalachian miners. All three cases took place in the same time period, through World War I and the 1920s, in the United States.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — members were known as “Wobblies” — was an anarchist labor union seeking the abolition of wage labor. At its peak in 1923, the IWW had nearly half a million members and active supporters. In the earlier days, the union was militant: some of the IWW leaders encouraged sabotage. However, the union never fully rejected nonviolence, and its main tactics were education, protest, “free speech fights,” and civil disobedience. The IWW’s above-ground organization and centralized structure made it an easy target for government repression. In response to state pressure, the organization did not even take a position to oppose World War I. “In the end, the leadership decided against explicitly encouraging the membership to violate the law [by opposing the draft]. The way they were subsequently treated by federal and state officials, however, they may as well have.” The Wobblies also accommodated state demands for passivity by suppressing a pamphlet of a 1913 Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speech encouraging sabotage. The IWW withdrew similar books and pamphlets from circulation and “officially renounced the use of sabotage by any of its members.” Of course, none of these actions saved the union from repression because the government had already identified it as a threat to be neutralized. The IWW’s goal (abolition of wage labor through the gradual shortening of the work week) was a threat to the capitalist order, and the size of the union gave it the power to circulate these dangerous ideas and carry out significant strikes. One hundred Chicago Wobblies were put on trial in 1918, in addition to IWW organizers from Sacramento and Wichita; the government accused them of sedition, advocating violence, and criminal syndicalism. All were convicted. After the imprisonment and other repression (including lynchings of IWW organizers in some cities), “the dynamic force of the union was lost; it never regained its hold on the American labor movement.” The Wobblies accommodated state power and pacified themselves, renouncing violent tactics; this was a step along the road of their repression. They were jailed, beaten, lynched. The government repressed them because of the radicalism and popularity of their vision. Renouncing violence prevented them from defending that vision.
Immigrant Italian anarchist militants living in New England survived government repression at least as well as the Wobblies, though their ranks were much smaller and their tactics more spectacular — they bombed the homes and offices of several government officials, and they almost killed US attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. The most militant of the Italian anarchists were the Galleanists, who threw themselves into the class war. Unlike the Wobblies, they vocally and openly organized against World War I, holding protests, making speeches, and publishing some of the most uncompromising and revolutionary anti-war tracts in papers such as Cronaca Sovversiva (which the Justice Department declared “the most dangerous newspaper published in this country”). In fact, several of them were shot to death by police at anti-war protests. The Galleanists energetically supported labor organizing in New England factories and were key supporters of several major strikes; they also found time to organize against the rising tide of fascism in the US. But the Galleanists left their deepest mark with their refusal to accept government repression.
They carried out dozens of bombings in New England cities and in Milwaukee, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, DC, and elsewhere, mostly in response to the arrest or killing of comrades by state forces. Some of these attacks were well-coordinated campaigns involving multiple simultaneous bombings. The largest was the 1920 bombing of Wall Street in response to the frame-up of Sacco and Vanzetti (who were not involved in the Braintree robbery for which they were executed but probably played support roles in some of the Galleanist bombings). That act killed 33 people, caused $2 million in damage, and destroyed, among other things, the House of Morgan, J.P. Morgan’s capitol building of American finance, as it were. The feds organized a massive investigation and manhunt but never caught anybody. Paul Avrich has established the bombing to be the work of a lone Galleanist, Mario Buda, who escaped to Italy and continued his work until he was arrested by the Mussolini regime.
The government undertook major efforts to repress the Italian anarchists, and with only partial success. Government forces killed a few by police action or judicial execution, and imprisoned more than a dozen more, but unlike the Wobblies, the Galleanists avoided being arrested en masse. This was, in part, due to the decentralized, security-conscious forms of organization that the Italians’ concept of militant revolution influenced them to adopt. And it should be noted that the Galleanists were especially at risk of government repression because, unlike many of the Wobblies, they could be targeted with WASP xenophobia and threatened with deportation. (In fact, about 80 of them were deported, yet the others were able to stay highly active.) The Galleanists’ uncompromising response to state repression had at least some measurable results in discouraging repression (aside from making both government and factory bosses afraid to do anything to further incite their workers, lest they join the anarchist bomb throwers). Through the threat of letter bombs, they caused the prodigal Bureau of Investigation detective who had been instrumental in tracking down and arresting several of their comrades in 1918 to go into hiding and then leave the bureau entirely in 1919. The only consequences that the government agents responsible for repressing the Wobblies had to deal with were promotions.
From 1919 to 1920, the height of the Red Scare took its toll on the Italian anarchists, though they remained active and uncompromising and did not fold as quickly as the Wobblies. In October 1920, Cronaca Sovversiva, the newspaper that served as a hub for many of the Galleanists, was finally suppressed by the authorities, and the focus of immigrant Italian anarchist activity returned to Italy, to which many of the activists fled or were deported. The end of their movement in the United States was not the end of their movement overall, however, and for several years these anarchists were key opponents to Mussolini, who, like his American colleagues, feared them and prioritized their repression. (In fact, the new Bureau of Investigation director, J. Edgar Hoover, supplied the fascists with invaluable information for the specific purpose of destroying the Italian anarchists.) And some of the exiled Italian anarchists took part in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Though Italian anarchism in the US “never recovered” after 1920, “the anarchists by no means vanished from the scene.” With an international focus, they organized opposition to the rising communist and fascist dictatorships (they were at the “forefront of antifascist struggle” in Little Italys throughout the US), and also turned Sacco and Vanzetti’s support campaign into a world wide cause.
Far from being universally alienating figures, Sacco and Vanzetti won the support of their communities — Italians as well as WASPs — and the support of public figures in the US and Europe, this despite being imprisoned and their continued call for violent revolution and bombing campaigns against the authorities. Their supporters on the outside did not disappoint them. From 1926 to 1932, anarchists carried out several more bombings, targeting the judge, the governor, the executioner, and the person whose call to the police got the two arrested; none of the bombers were ever caught. The Italian anarchists also continued to agitate and spread their ideas — the successor to Cronaca Sovversiva, L’Adunata dei Refrattari, was published for another 40 years, into the 1960s.
The 1921 Mine War in West Virginia offers another example of government responses to militant tactics. When the mine owners repressed the efforts of the miners to form unions — firing union members and bringing in scabs — Appalachian rebels responded forcefully. They opened fire on scabs and killed several coal-company thugs and deputies sent to repress them. In time, a guerrilla conflict and then a full-blown war developed. On several occasions, police and company thugs opened fire on miners’ encampments, targeting women and children. In the most famous massacre, they gunned down Sid Hatfield, who, in his capacity as sheriff, actually fought against the repression carried out by company thugs. Thousands of armed miners formed an army and marched on Logan, West Virginia, to remove (and hang) the sheriff there, who was especially active in repressing the union miners. The US Army responded with thousands of troops, machine guns, and even bombardment by airplanes in what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. After the battle, the union miners backed down. But despite participating in one of the century’s largest acts of armed mutiny, very few of them got serious prison sentences — most of the rebels received no punishment at all — and the government eased off somewhat and allowed the unionization of the mines (their union still exists today).
More recently, police strategists writing about the anarchist movement have noted, “Intelligence gathering among the most radical — and often most violent — factions is particularly difficult....The very nature of the movement’s suspicion and operational security enhancements makes infiltration difficult and time consuming.” So the claims that nonviolent groups are more likely to survive repression do not stand up to scrutiny. Excluding the tendency of pacifists to roll over in advance so they never pose a threat of changing anything, it seems that actually the opposite is true.
Consider a few timely points regarding nonviolent so-called resistance to the US occupation of Iraq, one of the most pressing issues of the day. Pacifism sees victory as avoiding or decreasing violence, so naturally pacifists cannot confront violence directly. Any real resistance to military occupation would lead to an increase in violence (as the occupiers attempt to stamp out resistance) before liberation and the possibility of real peace — it has to get worse before it gets better. If the Iraqi resistance is overcome, the situation will appear more peaceful, but, in reality, the spectacular violence of warfare will have turned into the threatened, invisible, and mundane violence of successful occupation, and the Iraqi people will be much further away from liberation. Yet nonviolent activists are prone to misinterpret this apparent peace as a victory, much as they interpreted the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam as a victory, even though bombing intensified and a US-backed regime continued to occupy South Vietnam.
What nonviolent anti-war activists are unable to realize is that the most important resistance, probably the only significant resistance, to the occupation of Iraq is the resistance being waged by the Iraqi people themselves. On the whole, the Iraqis have chosen armed struggle. Americans who condemn this while lacking any personal knowledge of what it is like to organize resistance in Iraq only flaunt their ignorance. People in the US who claim to be anti-war use nonviolence as an excuse to avoid their responsibility to support the Iraqi resistance. They also parrot corporate media propaganda and pretend that all Iraqi resistance groups are composed of authoritarian, patriarchal fundamentalists, when it is an accessible fact, to anyone who cares to know, that the Iraqi resistance contains a great diversity of groups and ideologies.
Nonviolence, in this case, is a greater obstacle than the fear of government repression to building relationships of solidarity and becoming critical allies to the most liberatory of resistance groups. Condemning them all ensures that the only groups getting outside support are the authoritarian, patriarchal, fundamentalist ones. The approach of the US anti-war movement in relation to the Iraqi resistance does not merely qualify as bad strategy: it reveals a total lack of strategy, and it is something we need to fix.
The strategies of nonviolence cannot defeat the state — they tend to reflect a lack of understanding of the very nature of the state. The power of the state is self-perpetuating; it will defeat liberation movements with any means at its disposal. If attempts to overthrow such a power structure survive the first stages of repression, the elite will turn the conflict into a military one, and people using nonviolent tactics cannot defeat a military. Pacifism cannot defend itself against uncompromising extermination. As explained in one study of revolution in modern societies:
During World War II the Germans were not familiar with passive resistance (when it occurred); but today’s armed forces are far better prepared to cope with non-violence, both technically and psychologically. Advocates of non-violence, one British military specialist reminds us, “are inclined to overlook that fact that its main successes have been obtained against opponents whose code of morality was fundamentally similar, and whose ruthlessness was thereby restrained...The only impression it seems to have made on Hitler was to excite his impulse to trample on what, to his mind, was contemptible weakness....” If we accept the premise of the black revolutionists in this country, namely, that we live in a racist society, less ruthlessness can hardly be expected....
It might be interesting to try to depict the course of a nonviolent insurrection....Actually, “role-playing” experiments in “civilian defense” have already taken place. In a thirty-one hour experiment on Grindstone Island in Ontario Province, Canada, in August 1965, thirty-one non-violent “defenders” had to deal with six “armed” men representing a United States-supported “right wing Canadian government [which had] occupied major portions of the Canadian heartland...” At the end of the experiment, thirteen of the defenders were “dead”; the participants “concluded that the experiment had been a defeat for non-violence.
The history of its practice leads me to the same conclusion: nonviolence cannot defend itself against the state, much less overthrow it. The proclaimed power of nonviolence is a delusion that gives its practitioners safety and moral capital to make up for an inability to win.