February 7, 2012
Yesterday Chris Hedges wrote an attack on the black bloc on Truthdig.com that has gone “viral” in the sense that the Internet is all abuzz about it. Resonating with the sickness metaphor, the appropriately titled article “The Cancer in Occupy” begins:
The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists—so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property—is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.
As most people realize, the people that Hedges is writing about are not really interested in defending themselves politically. From its inception back in the European autonomist movements of the 1980s, the black-clad activists refuse to answer anybody outside of their ranks. Within the “affinity group”, everything is cool. Outside of it, who gives a shit? Ironically, this kind of elitism is not that different from the “vanguard party” posture which puts the needs of the sect above that of the mass movement.
The European black bloc “autonomy” literally meant that they were not accountable to the rest of the left, particularly the traditional socialist parties and the trade unions that were viewed as the enemy in pretty much the same fashion as “third period” Stalinism. Just a brief history lesson on this. Stalin characterized the period of the late 1920s as the “third period” of capitalism in which communism would be triumphant against both capitalism and a sell-out left that collaborated with it. This led the German CP—infamously—to back a Nazi-initiated referendum to remove a Socialist Party elected official in Saxony.
I would say that trying to persuade a black bloc activist that they are harming the left would be as much of an exercise in futility as persuading a German Stalinist to unite with the SP in the 1920s.
It has been pretty much left up to people outside the “affinity group” to defend its antics against Hedges, who is seen as a liberal sell-out. The defense of the black bloc is mounted in total disregard of whether the tactic is effective and frequently in the most hysterical manner as this comment to my blog:
I identify with the Black Bloc because nuclear power killed my father and made me and my sister sick. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t want to smash something that would stop the madness.
That prompted me to respond:
I would tend to think that mass demonstrations against nuclear power plants would be more effective than spray-painting “Fuck the nuclear energy” on the walls of a Con Edison building. But then again, I am a Marxist and tend to believe in the power of the masses rather than adolescents in black levi jeans acting out.
Some of Hedges’s article is weak. For example, he tries to make the black bloc into some kind of hard-core enemy of the EZLN based on some selective citations, whereas in fact a lot of the black bloc posturing seems to be an idiotic attempt to emulate the Zapatistas, especially the donning of masks. In the 1960s, some of the student left fashioned itself after the Red Guards. Something of the same sort is going on here, I’m afraid.
Perhaps the best part of Hedges’s article is the words of Derrick Jensen, who told him:
Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy. They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you should throw a rock through if you are going to throw a rock. A lot of it is laziness.
I wouldn’t change a word of this. I would also concur with Chris Hedges’s take on the psychological dimensions of the black bloc:
The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship.
Some of the angry comments underneath Hedges’s article make the cases that there are plenty of gays and women in the black bloc. One supposes that you have to take them at their word, whether or not that makes the women or gays acting out any less hypermasculine. But more to the point, who knows who is behind the black mask? It is not as if someone put up a Youtube video about the day in the life of a black bloc participant. Can you imagine the intro? “Meet Kenny Goldstein, a web developer by day and a brick thrower by night. Kenny, can you tell us why you got involved with the black bloc?” “Sure, I just came to the conclusion that a spray-painted Whole Foods window is just the thing that can bring capitalism to its knees.”
I also agree with Hedges when he writes:
The Black Bloc’s thought-terminating cliché of “diversity of tactics” in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier. It is a safe bet that among Black Bloc groups in cities such as Oakland are agents provocateurs spurring them on to more mayhem. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent. These anarchists represent no one but themselves.
My only quibble is whether the black bloc is responsible for the “diversity of tactics” mantra as much as the people who are out in the open as coalition-builders. I am afraid that their sense of “diversity” is drawn from the nonprofit world they inhabit in which weekend retreats in Aspen are devoted to examining how some university or foundation can be more “inclusive”. Horsefeathers, I say.
One of the reasons there has been such a reaction against Hedges from the fellow-travelers of the vandalistas is that he is a highly respected figure. Here is somebody who could have been making millions of dollars a year as a top NY Times reporter or editor and he gave it up because of principle. As someone willing to get arrested for the movement and a good friend of the Occupy movement, he is not easily dismissed. Getting called a cancer by him is something you would prefer to avoid even if you and your posse brag that nobody outside your ranks really matters.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the left has grown terminally weary of these people, whoever they are.
It is also important to understand that other voices, while not as well known as Hedges, have also come down fairly hard against the black bloc.
Whatever problems people have with Counterpunch, the last thing that can be said about it is that it is “liberal” or that it has a fetish over nonviolence. With that in mind, it was of some significance that they chose to publish an article by Osha Neumann, a Berkeley lawyer who is an advocate for the homeless, titled “It’s Okay to Take Off Your Gas Mask — Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?” Neumann is the son of Frankfurt School luminary Franz Neumann, whose study of Nazism titled “Behemoth” is peerless. In the 1960s, he got involved with a small affinity group called the Motherfuckers that had a certain affinity with the Weathermen. In other words, he knows the ultraleft territory fairly well. This is what he has to say:
How could it have been different? The goal of taking over the Kaiser Center for community use was admirable, even brilliant, but in the end the point of what was billed as “Move-in day” got lost in meaningless rumbles with the police and the trashing of City Hall. (A note of caution here: Since no was arrested in the City Hall trashing, we cannot rule out that it was the work of agents provocateurs. Be that as it may, the failure to obtain our objective and to control the meaning of our actions cannot be blamed on infiltrators.) What if, instead of a group within Occupy picking a target and then calling for a day of action, we had initiated a campaign to make that building available for community use? We could have gone out into the neighborhoods, held meetings, where we would discuss whether people liked the idea of occupying the building and what they would like to see happen in the space. With our numbers swelled and diversified by those we had organized, we could make demands to the mayor and the city council in the name of the people.
Neumann is describing the patient hard work that a genuine revolutionary gets involved with. Going out into the street and spray-painting a Whole Food window does not require any special talents or training unless of course you need to be able to identify the business end of a spray can correctly. After all, no self-respecting black bloc militant wants to ruin a perfectly good mask with red paint.
Now it is entirely possible that Osha Neumann is as fatally compromised as Chris Hedges. I have no way of knowing how the black bloc arrives at its enemy list since they have so little interest in justifying themselves (rather like the police, one might say.)
That is why I found Asad Haider’s article “Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune” in Viewpoint so compelling in light of the fact that only two months ago he complained:
All over the internet liberals are warning of agents provocateurs who are trying to discredit the movement, or condemning the dangerous anarchist element that seeks confrontation with police. Such positions could be debated if they had any bearing on reality.
From the sounds of that, you’d think he’d be having the black bloc’s back. Not so fast actually. He writes:
It’s understandable that a clash with police has a marked effect on the adrenal glands. But there was nothing resembling a victory in this. The stated goal had not been achieved, and the police are familiar with the aggressiveness of activists in Oakland. They expect it. In fact, the Oakland Police Department is on the verge of federal receivership, an unprecedented move, because the OPD really likes violence, and seeks it out as part of a policy of state-sponsored gang warfare. And the insistence on “Fuck the Police” marches in Oakland leading up to yesterday could only shift the emphasis from the occupation itself to the clash.
He also has a very good assessment of how the black bloc and Moveon.org complement each other (even though he does not refer to the black bloc by name.)
A century later, insurrectionary anarchists and reformists like MoveOn vie for hegemony over the movement, each advancing street-fighting and voting not as tactics, but as the ultimate goals. And we have to be clear that it is an alliance between social democrats and ultra-leftists that has driven this movement, in spite of their public scorn for each other.
Like a lot of the problems on the left, ultra-leftism has been around for a very long time. Lenin’s brother was a Narodnik who chose the “propaganda of the deed” so he had a personal as well as a political stake in convincing idealistic young people in Czarist Russia to choose mass action.
In 1970, when I was 25 years old, my party had its hands full with the same sort of problem. Peter Camejo, who I regard as my greatest mentor, gave a talk titled “Liberalism, ultraleftism or mass action” that had a big impact on our own ranks as well as antiwar activists who had grown wary of SDS type adventures. It is very much worth reading in its entirety but I want to conclude with Peter’s observations about ultraleftism:
There’s another point of view, and that is ultraleftism. This represents a small section of the student movement, but a much larger proportion of those who call themselves radicals or socialists.
Now basically an ultraleft is a liberal that has gone through an evolution. What happens is this. They start out as liberals, and suddenly the war in Vietnam comes along. Now, what does a liberal believe? He believes that the ruling class is basically responsive to his needs. So he demonstrates.
You know, in the beginning when the antiwar movement first started there were very few ultraleftists. Most of the ultraleftist leaders of today were people who were organizing legal, peaceful demonstrations back around 1965.
But after they called a few demonstrations against the war, they noticed something was wrong. The ruling class was not being responsive. Not only that, they understood for the first time that the US was literally massacring the Vietnamese people. This frightened them. It was as if you all of a sudden found out that your father was really the Boston Strangler. That’s what it was like for these people. They were liberals, who believed that Johnson was better than Goldwater, who had worked and voted for him only to find out that he was the Boston Strangler.
February 6, 2012
January 11, 2012
Previous posts in this series:
In many ways the controversy over the black bloc intervention in Oakland on November 2nd during a day of protests designed to shut down the port was just the latest involving two wings of the anarchist movement.
In an November 12 article that appeared on Znet titled “Throwing Out the Master’s Tools and Building a Better House”, Rebecca Solnit wrote:
Another Occupy Oakland witness, a female street medic, wrote of the ill-conceived November 2 late-night antics, “watching black bloc-ers run from the cops and not protect the camp their actions had endangered, an action which ultimately left behind many mentally ill people, sick people, street kids, and homeless folks to defend themselves against the police onslaught was disturbing and disgusting in ways I can’t even articulate because I am still so angry at the empty bravado and cowardice that I saw.” She adds, “I want those kids to be held accountable to the damage that they did, damage made possible by their class and race privilege.” And physical fitness; Occupy Oakland’s camp includes children, older people, wheelchair users and a lot of other people less ready to run.
As Oakland Occupier Sunaura Taylor put it, “A few people making decisions that affect everyone else is not what revolution looks like; it’s what capitalism looks like.”
Solnit and her brother David are the co-authors of “The Battle of Seattle”, an AK Press book that attempts to debunk the notion that this battle was an expression of black bloc militancy, something that the bourgeois press sought to propagate for obvious reasons. Not only did the bourgeois press seek to exploit this. Hollywood joined in with its typical mindless bullshit, coming out with “The Battle of Seattle” starring Charlize Theron as a black bloc member. The idiots at Infoshop, who never saw a black bloc provocation that they did not love, posted an item on the movie that sounded positively gleeful:
Charlize Theron Joins the Black Bloc
Wednesday, August 30 2006 @ 12:21 PM CDT
Contributed by: Anonymous
You know that thing in cartoons where someone sees something unbelievable and they blink a couple of times and rub their eyes? That’s what I had to do when I read that not only was there going to be a movie made about the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests-turned-riots, but that Charlize Theron would star in it, presumably as a beautiful and committed activist.
Stuart Townsend, the director of “Battle of Seattle” and Theron’s ex-husband, met with Solnit to get her input on the film. After reading the script, she wrote Townsend making a number of suggestions about how to make the film more accurate. Among them was the need to distinguish between anarchists—a group she identified with—and the black bloc, something she described as a militant tactic adopted by European autonomists. Townsend obviously preferred to stress the lurid aspects of the Seattle protests, even when they never occurred. For example, he dramatized protestors throwing bags of urine at the cops even though this never happened, an urban legend much like Vietnam era protestors spitting at returning soldiers.
While Townsend’s script was deeply flawed, it was far better than the reporting in august journals such as the NY Times. In a chapter titled “The Myth of Seattle Violence: My Battle with the NY Times”, Solnit described her attempts to correct a September 2, 2004 article on the Republican Party convention in NY that stated:
The demonstrations, too, have thus far been more restrained than many recent protests elsewhere; five years ago in Seattle, for example, there was widespread arson and window-smashing, none of which has occurred here. Lacking bloody scenes of billy-club-wielding police or billowing clouds of tear gas, the cameras — and the public’s attention — have focused elsewhere.
Challenging the paper’s assertion that “widespread arson” occurred (apparently the worst of it was a garbage dumpster that caught fire, perhaps from a tear gas canister), the gray lady was forced to admit that “there were no reports of widespread arson,” even though it continued to label the Seattle protests as “largely violent”.
The most useful corrective to the mainstream media’s fictional take on Seattle is an article in the Solnits’ book by Chris Dixon titled “Five Days in Seattle: the View from the Ground” (an early draft can be read here: http://users.resist.ca/~chrisd/reflecting/5days.htm).
Dixon makes clear that while the protests were nonviolent, they were bold and confrontational in a positive manner. In other words, they were similar to many of the aspects of the Occupy movement:
Protesters gathering at both meeting sites grew from the hundreds to the thousands by 7:30 am when they began lively processions toward downtown Seattle. In the drizzly early-morning dawn, there was more brilliant color in the crowds than in the entire drab cityscape that surrounded us. Looking around, there was a group of activist Santa Clauses; many returning sea turtles; a sprinkling of expert stilt-walkers; a jubilant squad of radikal cheerleaders; an indescribable number of puppets; an anarchist marching band, complete with matching pink gas masks; and hordes of regular-looking folks, ranging from steelworkers to yuppies.
As the processions neared police lines around the Convention Center, some affinity groups deployed blockades while others were already in progress. By the time marchers had circled the nearly twenty-block circumference, every single intersection, alleyway, and hotel entrance was blocked by nonviolent protesters. Some simply sat across roads with arms linked. Others locked their arms inside pieces of pipe known as “lockboxes,” creating an impervious human wall. Still others used a combination of U-locks and bike cables to chain their necks together. One affinity group successfully set up a tripod with a protester sitting at the top and others locked to the base. By far, the most unique blockade, though, was created by a cluster which carried in a large wooden platform underpinned by metal pipes. Once set down in an intersection, activists locked their arms into each of the pipes and others sat in a circle around them.
However, just as was the case in Oakland, the black bloc stuck their two cents in:
Months before, DAN [Direct Action Network, the group that Solnit worked with] and affiliated organizations had all agreed to a set of nonviolence guidelines that prohibited “violence–physical or verbal” and “property destruction” for the duration of the Tuesday action. However, not everyone in the streets had agreed to abide by them. Since mid-morning, small bands of black-masked anarchists had been carefully busting windows at select corporate targets, including Nike, the Gap, and Bank of America. Using what they called “black bloc” formations, they stuck together and avoided police confrontations. By the afternoon, though, their targeted property damage and sometimes delightful graffiti had gone to the wayside as a handful of random protesters took over. Even the graffiti degenerated. For instance, the spray-painted phrase “FUCK WTO BITCHES” showed up across from NikeTown.
It must be said that the final version of Dixon’s article that appeared in the book was a bit more charitable to the black bloc, quoting their communiqué without comment: “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds property rights.” He also left out the business about fuck the WTO bitches.
A year later Dixon began to think more deeply about the protests, finding fault it would seem with both the black bloc and the more peaceful majority’s insistence on “raising the ante” through risky confrontations that would lead to being attacked by the cops and a night in jail. In an article titled “Finding Hope After Seattle: Rethinking Radical Activism and Building a Movement“, he wrote:
Anarchism is fundamentally about dismantling systems of power. And promisingly, this critical orientation is cropping up throughout the movement. But while successive mass mobilizations since the WTO have directly confronted a number of powerful institutions, they have also managed to replicate patterns of power and exclusion, especially based on race and class. No doubt, many anarchists and other activists realize this. I’m not the first and certainly not the most articulate to level these criticisms. I think, though, that they’re worth briefly repeating, particularly since many young white, middle-class radicals (myself included) often acknowledge them without really reflecting on them.
Broadly, they can be distilled into a single question: Who can afford to action-hop? And we must understand that word afford with its many meanings: Who can afford to travel across the country, or even the world? Who can afford to risk their bodies in potentially dangerous police confrontations? Who can afford to be away from family and/or work responsibilities for uncertain periods of time? Who can afford to risk their legal statuses with the possibility of arrest? Altogether, not many people.
A key problem, then, with the focus on mass mobilizations is the underlying idea that we, as people who seek radical social change, must each take great risks and make huge commitments in very prescribed ways — and that all of us can afford to do that. Yet this just doesn’t face reality. When many folks are working one, two, or even three jobs, taking care of family members, and dealing with immediate crises, they simply can’t devote all of their time to activist efforts. Indeed, many people are concerned about simple survival — feeding their kids, getting some work or getting to work, paying the rent, keeping out of jail, staying healthy with limited or no access to health care.
More to the point, direct action, as many anarchists tend to define it, can be deeply exclusionary. While it undeniably empowers some — mainly white and middle-class — it disempowers others. Used as a central tactic of mass mobilizations, direct action can in fact implicitly assume a certain degree of privilege, with dire consequences. As anti-capitalist organizer Helen Luu explains, “the emphasis on this method alone often works to exclude people of colour because what is not being taken into account is the relationship between the racist (in)justice system and people of colour.” White working-class and poor people, also frequently veterans of police repression, face some similar forms of marginalization.
Dixon is really hitting on some profound truths in this passage, but it can be expanded a bit. The issue is only partially about involving working class and poor people on a less exclusionary basis. It is more importantly about drawing them into mass actions to the point where they begin to find their own ways to take their own kinds of action, exercising social power in a way that young, mostly student, activists cannot.
For example, the “boring” antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s began to draw in ordinary working people to the point where they felt like they were speaking for the true majority of Americans. It was the government that was acting lawlessly by prosecuting a war clearly against their interests. At a certain point their mood became so infectious that their sons and daughters in uniform began to challenge their officers about continuing the war. This was one of the major factors leading to American withdrawal. Smaller, but more “sensational” actions would have never had that impact.
Supporters of the black bloc had an entirely different take on Seattle, conforming more to the urine-tossing, “widespread arson” fictions of Stuart Townsend’s screenplay and the NY Times. In Chapter two of “The Black Block Papers”, a Weatherman-worshipping book that can be read on Infoshop, there’s this breathless account of what happened in Seattle:
Within this vast array of demonstrators, an Anarchist Black Bloc took to the streets in order to inflict material damage upon corporate banks/businesses, correctly viewed by them as real incarnations of the economically and culturally homogenizing Capitalist force we are beholden to. The Bloc, following police attacks on non-violent protesters, proceeded to move through the streets of Seattle smashing bank and corporate windows. In some cases the contents of the business in question were expropriated from the building and subsequently left in the streets.
It turns out that the black bloc consisted of less than one hundred protestors, according to Paul de Armond, the author of “Netwar in the Emerald City: WTO Protest Strategy and Tactics“, an article that must be placed alongside Chris Dixon’s as an authoritative account of what happened on November 30, 1999.
De Armond, a journalist who focuses on rightwing terrorism in the US, described the black bloc action that day:
While the police were regrouping and preparing to force the Direct Action Network protesters to join the AFL-CIO parade, several groups took advantage of the lull in the battle. They have all been lumped together into a nameless anarchist horde, but the fact remains that there were two distinct groups acting out different agendas, not one “organized” anarchist conspiracy as the myth would have it.
At approximately 1 p.m., the police temporarily stopped trying to push corridors through the protest area. Earlier, the Black Bloc anarchists had entered into an understanding with the Direct Action Network that they would refrain from vandalism at least as long as the streets remained peaceful. But meanwhile, the Black Bloc arrived downtown armed with hammers, crowbars, spray paint, M-80 firecrackers, and paint bombs. Their goal was a “propaganda of the deed,” centering around vandalizing chosen stores—Nike, Starbucks, the Gap, Old Navy, and others—that they saw as fitting targets.
The Black Bloc anarchists were simply biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to vandalize these stores and then get away. They had been closely monitored by the police and FBI since the preceding day. Early Tuesday morning, the FBI had briefed Seattle police on the Black Bloc’s whereabouts and activities. The close observation of the Black Bloc included undercover FBI agents dressed to blend in with the anarchists, right down to wearing masks to hide their faces.
De Armond does not speculate on the significance of FBI agents having infiltrated the black bloc but I would not rule out the possibility that their purpose was not to prevent laws from being broken but figuring out ways to provoke the young testosterone-laden boys into “escalating” their tactics.
Mayor Schell took advantage of the black bloc’s antics in order to justify calling in the National Guard and turning Seattle into a police state. As the NY Times reported on December 1, there were sharp differences between the average protestor and the mask-wearing schmucks:
A small group of men, dressed in black clothing and masks and ignoring cries of “Shame on you!” from other protesters, smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti at downtown stores like Nordstrom, Niketown, Starbucks and the Gap. Both were jarring sights in a city that prides itself on its laid-back image.
“We are here peacefully; we just want our message to be heard,” said Gloria Haselwander, a 21-year-old clerk in a Seattle music store who said she believes that the world trade group’s rulings contributed to environmental destruction and ever-greater gaps between the world’s richest people and its poorest. “We kept saying, ‘No violence, no violence,’ ” she added, “but there was just this mass of gas. My throat hurts, my lungs still hurt.”
Most of the demonstrators were clearly opposed to the window-smashing and other destructive acts by a small knot of protesters, most of whom were young men wearing masks and declining to give their names when asked by reporters.
“Anarchy rules!” said one, carrying a trash can down the street and then using it to smash a window of a Starbucks coffee shop.
Showing absolutely no concern for people like Gloria Haselwander let alone the thousands if not millions who would like to protest without risking tear gas or jail, the black bloc issued a communiqué defending its right to act as agent provocateur:
Unfortunately, the presence and persistence of “peace police” was quite disturbing. On at least 6 separate occasions, so-called “non-violent” activists physically attacked individuals who targeted corporate property. Some even went so far as to stand in front of the Niketown super store and tackle and shove the black bloc away.
Indeed, such self-described “peace-keepers” posed a much greater threat to individuals in the black bloc than the notoriously violent uniformed “peace-keepers” sanctioned by the state (undercover officers have even used the cover of the activist peace-keepers to ambush those who engage in corporate property destruction).
This is the same talking point, of course, heard after the Oakland events. Any attempt by the majority to control what happens on a demonstration that it organized is a “threat” to the rights of 30 or 40 morons who harbor FBI agents in their midst.
While I am far more concerned in these series of articles to put the black bloc under a microscope, there is problem about decision-making that needs to be addressed. It involves some of the operative assumptions of the anarchist leaders of the movement about “consensus” versus majority rule, the modus operandi of both the trade union movement and the organized left.
Within the “affinity group”, friendship and/or shared politics and lifestyle make consensus relatively easy. Their “autonomy” comes first and foremost, a defense against the authoritarians at the gate whether they are real cops or “peace police”. Since the black bloc—by definition—is a coming together on an ad hoc basis for vandalism and confrontation with the cops, you do not have the internal structures for making decisions that you are held accountable for by the larger movement.
One can understand the alienation that some young radicals can feel toward trade unions and political parties that while operating in the name of majority rule tend to in reality serve as instruments of the bureaucratic minority at the top.
But I doubt that this has much to do with the Direct Action Network that Rebecca Solnit and Chris Dixon were involved with. The goal is to build a movement that can operate in unison once a thorough discussion has taken place. Keep in mind that perhaps the greatest expression of direct democracy known in history was embraced by anarchist, socialists and militant trade unionists alike:
The [Paris] Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.
Having once got rid of the standing army and the police – the physical force elements of the old government – the Commune was anxious to break the spiritual force of repression, the “parson-power”, by the disestablishment and disendowment of all churches as proprietary bodies. The priests were sent back to the recesses of private life, there to feed upon the alms of the faithful in imitation of their predecessors, the apostles.
The whole of the educational institutions were opened to the people gratuitously, and at the same time cleared of all interference of church and state. Thus, not only was education made accessible to all, but science itself freed from the fetters which class prejudice and governmental force had imposed upon it.
The judicial functionaries were to be divested of that sham independence which had but served to mask their abject subserviency to all succeeding governments to which, in turn, they had taken, and broken, the oaths of allegiance. Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable.
The Paris Commune was, of course, to serve as a model to all the great industrial centres of France. The communal regime once established in Paris and the secondary centres, the old centralized government would in the provinces, too, have to give way to the self-government of the producers.
Karl Marx, “The Civil War in France“
December 6, 2011
(Second in the series of posts on the black bloc. The first is here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/shining-a-light-on-the-black-bloc-part-1-italian-autonomism/)
Although clearly influenced by Italian autonomia, the German autonomen differed in two major respects. First of all, it made much less of an attempt to link itself with the Marxist tradition, even something as heterodox as Toni Negri’s “refusal to work” brand. Secondly, it was much more of a “scene” or a life-style and more particularly a kind of blend of the punk sensibility with ultraleft militancy—sort of half Sid Vicious and half Mark Rudd circa 1970. A rather unappealing mixture in my view.
The other major difference, of course, between the Italians and the Germans is that the latter group gave birth to the black bloc tactic that has become fairly ritualized ever since its introduction in the early 80s. The tactic had always been around in one form or another since the late 70s at least but it took German ingenuity to effectively patent it.
Ironically, it was the German cops who first coined the term referring to the “Schwarzer Block” in a raid in Frankfurt on July 28, 1981 against squatters and other “subversives”. The cops did not view the schwarzer block as a tactic, but as a group even if was ill-defined. In fact it was so ill-defined that charges were eventually dropped against those arrested.
But as pointed out earlier, the tactic predated its naming by the cops and its enshrinement as a permanent tactic by the autonomen. In the late 70s, a wing of the radical movement donned helmets, masks and black clothing when they went out to fight neo-Nazis and the cops. It should be mentioned at this point that such activists had little use for exploiting peaceful demonstrations. There was such a deep hatred toward the German state in this period that the black bloc tactic could summon thousands of activists into battle. Only a few years earlier the Red Army Faction, led by Baader and Meinhof, could count on support that the American Weather Underground could only fantasize about. Fully one out of four Germans supported their activities and one out of ten said they would hide an RAF member from the cops.
Despite his proud identification with autonomism, Georgy Katsiaficas’s treatment of the German movement is decidedly ambivalent in “The Subversion of Politics”. He views the widespread choice of black as a “style” preference rather than an indication of any kind of deep ideological affinity with anarchism:
The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior — symbols of a way of life which made contempt for the established institutions and their U.S. “protectors” into a virtue on an equal footing with disdain for the “socialist” governments in Eastern Europe. Black became the color of the political void — of the withdrawal of allegiance to parties, governments and nations.
In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the clash between “mods” and “rockers” in Britain a decade or so earlier, the German left became a battleground between the punkish black leather favoring Mollis (those who threw Molotov cocktails) and the more laid-back hippy types called Müslis, after the breakfast cereal.
The primary arena for struggle by the “molli” faction was defending squats. In places such as the Kreuzberg neighborhood of West Berlin, thousands of empty apartments and stores had become occupied by the autonomen and turned into both places to live and cultural centers embodying their values. On a much smaller scale the same thing happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan around the same time.
Serving as morality police in Kreuzberg, autonomen activists punished any and all violators of the group ethos as Katsiaficas points out:
In response, autonomous groups seeking to preserve the independence and character of their neighborhoods intensified their attacks on yuppie entrepreneurs, leading to a widespread perception of the Autonomen as little more than neighborhood mafias (Kiezmafia). Seeking to create a “dead zone for speculators and yuppie-pigs,” groups waged a concerted campaign against gentrification in Kreuzberg. They vandalized upscale restaurants catering to professionals — in some cases throwing excrement inside — torched luxury automobiles costing in excess of $40,000, and repeatedly damaged businesses they deemed undesirable.
They were also as set in their ways about culture as the Taliban. When a small theater called Sputnik decided to show the film “Terror 2000”, a low-budget anti-Nazi satire, a group of activists sprayed the projectionist with teargas, and used butyric acid to destroy a copy of the film, which they considered “sexist and racist.” Afterward, they threatened to return and “destroy everything” if the movie was ever screened again.
Katsiaficas is rather mealy-mouthed when it comes to this incident, writing “I find it difficult to fault completely those who attack neo-Nazis and films like Terror 2000 in which gratuitous violence and sexual objectification reproduce within the movement the very values which it opposes.”
I wonder how he would react if some hard-core Albanian Maoists took it upon themselves to visit Dr. Katsiaficas’s office and spray him with teargas because they objected to his autonomist deviations. In general, I don’t think it is very useful for leftists to use violence to suppress ideas they find objectionable.
Apparently, the Kreuzberg autonomists had a big thing about “politically incorrect” movies. In a “Letter from Europe” devoted to the Kreuzberg scene that appears in the November 28, 1988 New Yorker Magazine, Jane Mayer reports on another incident:
The Eiszelt is a little theatre on the Zeughofstrasse that shows underground movies , and last spring it was showing a movie called “Fingered,” directed by a Lydia Lunch, which some Kreuzbergers considered pornographic and some sexist and some violent—although apparently not too pornographic or sexist or violent to have shown a few weeks earlier at a theater in town. Twelve masked men and women broke into the Eiszeit during the movie’s run to deal with “Fingered”. They destroyed the projector, and the film in the projector (which turned out to be some other movie), and then they emptied the cash register and fled.
Supposedly the cash receipts were funneled to either a lesbian feminist or anti-imperialist group, but nobody knew which one.
Mayer goes into considerable depth describing the events leading up to the excrement attack on the “upscale” restaurant mentioned in passing by Katsiaficas. You might get the impression from his use of this word that it was one of those joints reviewed in the NY Times with the $200 per person tasting menu. In actuality, the restaurant—called Maxwell—had much more in common with the sort of places opened up in Park Slope by a husband-and-wife team.
In the case of Maxwell, the husband was Hartmut Bitomsky whose values were decidedly opposed to the Style section of the NY Times. His wife Brigitte loved to cook and decided to open a place on the Oranienstrasse, a main drag in Kreuzberg where autonomist values had to be followed to the letter. Not long after Maxwell opened, the Bitomsky’s discovered that they were on a hit-list. They didn’t have to worry about their lives, but their right to open a restaurant was being decided by the morality police.
Twenty years before the Bitomsky’s opened Maxwell, Hartmut was occupying in protest the German Film and Television Academy in West Berlin which he and seventeen other students renamed the Dziga Vertov Academy in honor of the Soviet documentary filmmaker. He was expelled for his efforts.
That did not prevent him from becoming a major figure in the left film world. He wrote what Mayer described as a book of “Marxist aesthetics” on film that was titled “The Redness of the Red in Technicolor” and began making decidedly uncommercial films in Berlin. Becoming obsessed with “German images” like forests, superhighways and blond braids, he reworked them into a film critique of Nazi totalitarianism. His best known work is “B-52”, a documentary on the bomber that the NY Times reviewer described as follows:
”B-52” has grimly detailed accounts of other broken-arrow accidents in Greenland and Spain. A tour guide talks about the Spanish one while showing off a portion of a bombshell at a museum, and a civilian investigator is seen still checking water samples in Goldsboro for signs of nuclear contamination more than 30 years later, mentioning ”a small piece of a nuclear weapon they were unable to recover.” There are horrific stories about the bomber’s use in Vietnam by veterans of that conflict. When Mr. Bitomsky isn’t being glib and uses his interviews to subtly tear down the wall of propaganda about the plane’s efficacy, ”B-52” is absorbing and clear.
None of the black leather clad morality enforcers cared about any of that. All they knew is that Maxwell typified the Schicki-Micki threat to Kreuzberg, a term that means Mickey Mouse chic. It can be likened to “gentrification” in New York and particularly the “yuppie” threat to the Lower East Side in the 1980s that the local counterparts resented even though they never threatened to drive any restaurants out of the neighborhood. In fact, I was friendly with a French chef named Bernard Leroy, who opened a restaurant on Avenue C, the Lower East Side’s equivalent of Oranienstrasse. (He also had a show on WBAI at the time, when it was still very listenable if not compelling radio.) In 1988, the very year that Mayer filed her report, the NY Times reviewed Bernard’s restaurant:
Slum chic may be the next fad in French bistros, what with the success of Bellevues, the Gallic diner on a tawdry block of Ninth Avenue near 37th Street, and now Bernard Organic French Cuisine, at Ninth Street and Avenue C, a scary, drug-plagued neighborhood that makes the Port Authority Bus Terminal’s environs look like Scarsdale.
The creation of the 31-year-old French-born Bernard Leroy, the year-old restaurant is packed nightly, testimony to the resoluteness of trend-seeking Manhattan diners. Mr. Leroy says he uses organic produce and meats ”as much as possible,” doing most of his shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket. He worked at restaurants in France before moving to New York 10 years ago and taking jobs at the caterer Glorious Food, the SoHo Charcuterie and La Petite Ferme. He chose the Avenue C location because, quite simply, ”I could afford it,” he said.
I believe that most local denizens welcomed Bernard into the neighborhood. Maybe that’s a function of their not having been indoctrinated into proper autonomist values. As far as I can remember, they were also big fans of Lydia Lunch, a resident of the neighborhood, as well.
Brigitte Bitomsky’s sole intention in opening Maxwell was to allow people to eat healthy food, like crisp vegetables and fresh fish with interesting spices, an offense in some eyes equal to nuclear power or gang rapes. The restaurant had one room with seven wooden tables and thirty wooden chairs, simple enough. Their mistake, however, probably was using linen tablecloths and napkins, which surely betrayed support for American imperialism.
They opened for business on Christmas of 1985.
In the summer of 1986, the Bitomsky’s figured out that they had become the “enemy”. After furious fighting between the cops and the “mollis” on May Day and in ensuing months, things had become polarized between the hard core left in Kreuzberg and just about everybody else. On one side you had the autonomen in black leather, on the other side you had people who drove SUV’s, Ronald Reagan, the neo-Nazis and Brigitte Bitomsky’s restaurant. People would stop Hartmut on the street and ask him about the ratio between wages and profits in the restaurant, or its “infrastructure”.
Late one night when there were only four customers in the restaurant, nineteen men and women clad in black leather and wearing Doc Martens stormed into the restaurant, started throwing beer cans and turning over furniture. The Bitomsky’s first reaction was to think that they were dealing with neo-Nazis. Some people who ran a soup kitchen down the street told them that they had been victims of the Redskins, a hard-core autonomist gang. They were advised to offer them payoffs, just as if they were characters in “The Sopranos”.
The Redskins came back on Sunday and instructed the Bitomsky’s that they were going to stand trial. They were denounced by an autonomist Vishinsky who demanded to know: “What are you doing in Kreuzberg? You are destroying the infrastructure of Kreuzberg”. Yes, the poached tilapia was certainly a threat to humanity.
Brigitte told Mayer what happened next:
It was hot, and August, and we had only four customers—plus Hartmut, sitting by the door, waiting, and, of course, the whole world watching. But they took us by surprise when they came. You see, we were watching for motorcycles and boots and bomber jackets, and this time it was different. There were only three of them, to begin with. Three men with dark sunglasses and woolen caps pulled low on their foreheads—and carrying buckets. Three men carrying three buckets full of shit and emptied the shit in my restaurant and then they vanished. At that moment, it was all over. We cleaned up and closed the restaurant for good. Who would ever want to eat at Maxwell again?
I will conclude with Kastiaficas’s insightful take on the blind alley that this movement had marched into. Keep in mind that he is one of the foremost defenders of autonomism in the academy, along with John Holloway.
No matter how heroic its members, the existence of an oppositional movement does not necessarily mean that a new psychological structure has emerged which stands in contrast to the unconscious structures of the old social order. By themselves, combativeness and a constant willingness to fight, are not revolutionary attributes — indeed, they are probably the opposite. Even at a moment when the Autonomen were the only public force in Germany directly to oppose the fascist wave of violence which swept across the country in 1992, fights broke out among those who went to Hoyerswerda to stop the pogrom. Internal dangers are all the more real since there are elements to the Autonomen containing within them the seeds of aggression and destruction. “Punk rules,” once a popular slogan, has counterparts today in equally absurd ideas: “Germany-all downhill now” and “Fire and Flames.” The pure nihilism present to some degree in the movement is expressed in a variety of ways. Indications like the combat boots and black leather jackets worn by many militants can be disregarded as superficial, but equally obvious characteristics of the scene merit attention: a scathing anti-intellectualism, an overt and often unchallenged “male” process of events, and random violent clashes among members of the scene. To put it mildly, the movement often fails to establish peaceful and supportive community, and it also contains a dose of German national pride. Both the Greens and the Autonomen have been widely criticized for focusing too much on the German movement’s needs and not enough on the international movement. On these levels, they have not broken with some of the worst dimensions of their cultural tradition.
When you keep in mind that these are the very people who are widely regarded as the inventors of the black bloc tactic, some deep thinking about its role in mass protests has to take place.
In a series of posts to follow, I will take a close look at what happened in Seattle in 1999 and other landmark battles involving the black bloc.
November 27, 2011
(Posted to LBO-Talk by Charles Turner.)
An extended series of Tweets from Mr. Riley from Friday, 11/24:
Not that we need that, but some dedicated non-violent folks in the movement should know that u have2work with others to make change.
Folks dedicated to blac bloc tactics shuld understand working w/others as well. We can’t be dedicated2a tactic. We must b dedicated2winning.
I believe that breaking windows is not “wrong”- it just doesn’t work. For a number of reasons. That is a tactic that puts the mask wearers
in a “vanguard” position. It says “We are the revolutionaries- everyone else needs to wake up!” This either turns ppl off cuz their not at
that point yet, or it causes people to simply cheer from the sidelines. It’s problematic in a mass action where the masked ones know whats
about to happen and everyone else is caught off guard and more vulnerable to the police. The other problem is one of analysis. If we are
in the middle of one of the biggest, most overtly class conscious acts of the last 65 years- one that has the unity of action of 50,000 ppl-
one that caused millions in damage through an action that teaches class analysis and builds an apparatus for future action-why would u think
breaking a window at whole foods is taking it to another level? Its not. The message it gives to most is one of futile frustration. It makes
many feel that they can’t win, that all we can do is break windows. We are making a movement that can stop the wheels of industry. That’s
much more powerful than breaking some windows. Those tactics are ones that could b of use when masses of ppl aren’t taking action. But w/an
action in which 50,000 people are making a huge step and having a general strike, the message should just be “We are all awake.”
But, I think there is an ideological trend that i have encountered that leads to this- one that thinks that the ppl can’t win.
When I critiqued someone around a similar action a few years ago, saying it didn’t pull ppl in, & u can’t win w that tactic. they resonded:
responded: “You can never win, you can only choose how to lose.” Versions of this idea are at the heart of some of this, I believe.
I believe, now even more than a few months ago, that we can win. This is a new era. People are ready. We can win.
The other thing that I left out is that when a group of masked white kids break windows in a city that’s many ppl of color, it feels like
the white kids are claiming ownership, not saying that this city is all of ours. It makes it harder to build a viable mass movement.
I’m saying this knowing the truth, many masked blac bloc folks are NOT white. But, if everyone perceives u as white cuz u have a mask on-
then it has the same effect. We need tactics that help build that movement. That’s all. Black folks in the community I come from look at
marches on Washington and breaking store windows in a similar light- that they’re futile appeals to power. So people stay away.
The thing is, no one can show me a successful revolutionary organization who relied on the tactic of breaking windows as a lynchpin.
It’s like saying, in war, that ur gonna use 1 tactic in every battle, even if it doesnt work.
To be clear, I am speaking to people that I consider comrades. There is no “Blac Bloc”, it’s just ppl who deciding to use that tactic at that
To be clear, I’m speaking to folks as comrades. Blac Bloc is not a group, its folks deciding2use that tactic at a certain time.
But, I have to say, there is a reason why ppl suspect that as bein done by agents:
Recently- During the OscarGrant case, proven police agent, Mandingo, did similar things. There r other cases as well. The problem comes w
using those tactics in a crowd. If u wanna break windows do it separately, don’t have the crowd b the buffer btwn u & police.
Now, the only tactics I’m speaking of are vandalism and why that doesn’t work. There are other tactics that do work.
There are tactics I’ve seen, and that we used for the march to the port, in which we have a group of folks with shields that can push thru
a police line, blocking themselves from batons and bullets & creating a spearhead for the march to go thru. That’s a good one.There r others
Often as seen in OO’s thanksgiving video, police will charge@ one person, causing our line to break and allowing them thru.
We can use our own distractions as well2get thru their lines. This takes not being dedicated2 a certain tactic, but being dedicated2winning.
The main thing I’m saying is that every situation, every terrain, calls for different tactics.
For example, most of you wouldn’t know me if I had just made an album w different versions of “The Internationale”. We’r in a new situation.
For everyone quoting Gandhi: His movement wasnt the only reason India gained independence. U think the British were only fighting Gandhi?
India had been fighting for its independence for decades via MILITANT movements that still existed during Gandhi’s time.
Britain was involved in a BLOODY conflict w Palestine that soaked up resources. The Hollywood version of Indian independence amazes me.
Gandhi called strikes violent cuz they physically kept scabs out. He was at odds w many others in movement.
Lastly,2supporters of blac bloc tactics: it keeps folks away that would otherwise be militant supporters otherwise. We need the numbers.
We must be guided by what’s rightðical,not what’s legal. Blockin the port: illegal. Did we do it? Yes. Will we do it on Dec 12? Hell yes.
To answer some tweets- Nothing I said advocates assault. I advocate using numbers2make it so police can’t stop our movements.
Sidenote: I’m in Paris, doing shows. When I say I’m from Oakland, many say “Oh! Caleeforneea!”, but half say “Oui! Occupy Oakland!”
November 15, 2011
Starting with Seattle in 1999, there has been controversy over the role of black bloc tactics in major mobilizations. Although I have had plenty to say about it in the past, I never really got to the bottom of where it came from. This is the first in a series of posts that will try to answer that question as well as review the impact it has had on various mass actions, starting with Seattle and ending with recent events in Oakland. While these articles will probably not change the minds of anybody who advocated vandalism or other forms of the “propaganda of the deed”, I do hope that they will give Marxists a better handle on the challenge they face in the mass movement and strengthen their resolve not to adapt to it in the spirit of a weak-kneed “diversity of tactics” liberalism. The stakes are very high indeed in a period of deepening class polarization when the heavy battalions of labor will begin to act in their own interest. Anything that stands in the way of their participation has to be challenged mercilessly.
In today’s post on Italian autonomia and the one that follows on German autonomen movements that invented the black bloc tactic, I will be drawing from Georgy Katsiaficas’s “The Subversion of Politics: European Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life“. This book, along with Steve Wright’s “Storming heaven: class composition and struggle in Italian autonomist Marxism“, are essential reading despite their frequently self-serving character, a function obviously of the authors’ autonomist affinities. Wright and Franco Barchiesi, a South African professor, started a mailing list titled aut-op-sy (Autonomia, Operaismo, and Class Composition) sometime in the 1990s that was shut down in 2004. It was restarted in 2008 and its archives can be read here.
Katsiaficas is virtually rapturous about autonomism although he is at somewhat of a loss on how to define it. To some extent, that is a function of its refusal to define itself:
Indeed, actions speak for most Authonomen, not words, and the sheer volume of decentralized happenings generated by small groups acting on their own initiative prohibits systematic understanding of the totality of the movement, a first step in the dismantling of any system. No single organization can control the direction of actions undertaken from the grass roots.
Unfortunately, Katsiaficas does not bother to address the question of what to do when actions go against the wishes of the broader movement.
I am not sure whether American activists were inspired by what was happening in Europe in this period, but they pretty much followed the same norms when they created “affinity groups”. It is entirely possible that the affinity group model predated autonomism, a research project for some graduate seminar on radical politics it would seem. Starhawk, a website committed to leftist activism of an anarchist/autonomist bent, has a write-up on affinity groups that would lead one to believe that this form of organization—so to speak—is still going strong:
Organize in clusters! Form a group with your friends! Be loud! Look exciting! Have fun! What is an affinity group?
An affinity group is a group of people who have an affinity for each other, know each others strengths and weaknesses, support each other, and do (or intend to do ) political/campaign work together. Most of us will have had some childhood/formative experience of being part of a group whether informally, as in a group of kids that are the same age and live in the same street, suburb or town, or formally, as in being involved in a sports team. However, affinity groups differ from these for numerous reasons, as explained below, (hierarchy, trust, responsibility to each other etc).
The concept of ‘affinity groups has a long history. They developed as an organising structure during the Spanish Civil war and have been used with amazing success over the last thirty years of feminist, anti-nuclear, environmental and social justice movements around the world. They were first used as a structure for a large scale nonviolent blockade during the 30,000 strong occupation of the Ruhr nuclear power station in Germany in 1969, and then in the United States occupations / blockades of the Seabrook nuclear power station in ’71 when 10,000 were arrested and again many times in the highly successful US anti-nuclear movement during the ’70’s and ’80’s. Their use in sustaining activists through high levels of police repression has been borne out time and again. More recently, they have been used constructively in the mass protest actions in Seattle and Washington.
I hate to sound like an old stick-in-the-mud, but urgings to “be loud”, “look exciting” and “have fun” are lost on me. Now it is true that being 66 has a lot to do with this, but I wasn’t much different when I was 26. I have no objections to others wanting to have fun, just as long as it doesn’t involve vandalism or any other provocation that leads to a police riot.
The term “autonomous” can of course be used in a variety of ways. It can mean autonomy from bourgeois society, including its repressive family institutions, dress codes, and 9-5 drudgery. To become part of the autonomist movement implies cutting yourself off from the mainstream and living a kind of left-bohemian existence—of course with its own particular social pressures.
You really have to wonder how someone over 40 will fit into the autonomist milieu since everything about it suggests that is exclusively the domain of young people without any family or job responsibilities. In my visit to ANC headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia back in early 1990 I was taken by how well integrated men and women in their 70s and 80s were. I strongly believe that this is the kind of revolutionary movement that we need. I of course am not endorsing the ANC’s politics but its willingness to create a big tent for everybody willing to fight on its issues, whatever their age.
Autonomists were affected by the “tune in, turn on, drop out” zeitgeist of the 1970s, no surprise given the mood of the time. A group in Hamburg issued a proclamation in 1982 that said:
The aspiration for autonomy is above all the struggle against political and moral alienation from life and work – against the functionalization of outside interests, against the internalization of the morals of our foes … This aspiration is concretized when houses are squatted to live humanely or not to have to pay high rents, when workers call in sick in order to party because they can’t take the alienation at work, when unemployed people plunder supermarkets … because they don’t agree with absurd demands of unions for more jobs that only integrate people into oppression and exploitation. Everywhere that people begin to sabotage, to change the political, moral and technical structures of domination is a step toward a self-determined life.
Given today’s realities, this sneering at the demand for “more jobs” is about as passé as a Nehru jacket. You can find elements of it in Hardt and Negri’s “Empire”, a book that was capable of being written only in a time of economic expansion. From my review of this best-seller:
What they call “antagonism and autonomy” resides not in trade union struggles, but in a phenomenon they call “refusal to work.” For those of us old enough to have danced to Janis Joplin, this phenomenon would be as familiar as an old pair of bell-bottom jeans. Just to make sure that everybody gets the message, this section includes an epigraph by Jerry Rubin: “The New Left sprang from … Elvis’s gyrating pelvis.”
So what was this “mass refusal of the disciplinary regime, which took a variety of forms” and which “was not only a negative expression but a moment of creation” but “what Nietzsche calls a transvaluation of values”? This mouthful of ungainly academic prose amounts to praise of the following:
- Going to live in Haight-Ashbury.
- College students experimenting with LSD instead of looking for a job.
- “Shiftless” African-American workers moving on “CP” (colored people’s time).
In 1969 Italy went through what was called the “Hot Autumn”, a mass movement that had a lot in common with the revolutionary upsurge in France of May-June 1968. As is the case with the unfolding Occupy movement of today, you saw workers and students joining together in militant protests against capitalist misrule.
Like France, the powerful Communist Party of Italy did everything it could to put the break on the movement, many of whose most determined activists were either hostile to Stalinism at the outset or grew hostile after seeing it in action.
Although Italy, like France, was plagued by warring Trotskyist and Maoist sects, a majority of activists on the far left could be described as “new leftists” who were trying to develop their own approach. One trend was called Operaismo (“workerism” in English) that would eventually morph into the autonomist current proper. Italian “Workerism” did not have the same meaning it had in the American left at the time, where it was applied pejoratively to obscure Marxist-Leninist groups or factions within such groups that viewed all movements outside the point of production as “petty-bourgeois”. In Italy the term had more to do with a particular interpretation of Marx’s writings about class even though in practical politics it did mean focusing on working class struggles. It also meant trying to organize workers outside of the framework of Stalinism, avoiding or even confronting most of the traditional trade union organizations where the CP enjoyed hegemony.
Potere Operaio (Worker’s Power), one of the most important workerist groups, was launched in 1968 by Antonio Negri and others. PO then evolved into Autonomia Operaia (Worker’s Autonomy) in 1973, one of the first autonomist groups in Italy. There is a lot of overlap between the ideologies of both movements, but autonomism broadened the scope beyond the point of production and soon became closely identified with the squats occupied by young radicals throughout Western Europe.
While Autonomia Operaia retained much of Potere Operaio’s orientation to working-class struggles, other campus-based groups in the autonomist camp had much more of a counter-cultural character, especially the Metropolitan Indians, a group that dressed up and put on war-paint like indigenous people in the U.S., a sign of their “autonomy” from bourgeois society. Among their demands were free pot and LSD for anybody who wanted to use them and occupying empty buildings as sites for alternatives to the nuclear family. It was the “sixties”, after all.
In 1973 they stormed a jazz festival in Umbria and harangued the audience with the message that the “weapon of music cannot replace the music of weapons”. Apparently, they had a big fetish over the P38, a pistol made by Walther. (James Bond used the Walther PPK.) Obviously we are dealing with some very humorless people despite their feeble attempts to the contrary.
As was the case in the USA and Japan, European radical politics grew increasingly ultraleft in the 1970s, a function of frustration with the movement’s inability to make a serious dent on class society. Increasingly adventurist tactics, including robberies and bombings, led to stepped up repression by the state. By 1977, things were coming to a head in Italy. A nation-wide student occupation protesting an education “reform” bill prompted the CP to intervene on behalf of the government. On February 17 a two thousand strong detachment of CP trade unionists accompanied CP leader Luciano Lama to the campus of the University of Rome where he intended to deliver a speech against the occupation. Not long after Lama’s talk began, the Metropolitan Indians donned masks and led an assault on Lama and his supporters. At least fifty people were seriously injured in the fracas. This violent attack gave the government the pretext it needed to launch an assault on the university. Two thousand cops raided the campus and used tear gas and clubbed everybody in sight. Sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it?
In my view it was a serious mistake to prevent Lama from speaking, no matter how repugnant his message. Radical politics has to proceed on the basis of vigorous debate, not fisticuffs. Furthermore, no matter how integrated the CP was in the Italian state, it was necessary to find ways to win the rank and file away from bureaucrats like Lama. This cannot be done by beating him up.
Lenin wrote “Ultraleft Communism: an infantile disorder” to help orient impatient young revolutionaries on how to orient to the SP and Labour Parties, the CP’s of his day. As difficult as it is to maneuver around such a hidebound party, you create more difficulties for yourself by trying to confront it physically. As a sign of the possibilities that existed in this period, a large crowd of CP members chanted for unity in Bologna in 1977 against government repression, something that was only met by contempt by the autonomists as Katsiaficas reports with relish. One doubts that such unity could ever have been possible given the fact that at a conference of the far left that year, some 8000 people “divided and clashed among themselves, smashing chairs over one another’s heads and failing to arrive at any solution,” according to Katsiaficas. If the far left couldn’t unite, how could it ever unite with the CP?
Some activists drew the conclusion that it was time to launch an armed struggle. The Revolutionary Brigades became the best known urban guerrilla group, becoming the counterpart of the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof) in Germany and the group of the same name in Japan.
In a landmark legal case, Antonio Negri was found guilty of abetting the Revolutionary Brigades, who had kidnapped and murdered parliamentarian Aldo Moro, and spent four years in prison until his exoneration.
Negri’s defense was that he was merely a theorist working with an autonomist group that had no connection to urban guerrilla warfare or terrorism. While this was true, a close examination of Autonomia Operaia will reveal Metropolitan Indian styled “violence within the movement”. As was the case with the Stalinist movement it so despised, the autonomists frequently relied on physical intimidation against their opponents.
In the 2002 edition of “What Next”, a British journal with Trotskyist leanings, you can find an article by Tobias Abse titled “The Professor in the Balaclava: Toni Negri and Autonomist Politics” that was written on the occasion of the publication of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire”.
Abse’s portrait of Negri is not very flattering:
[Giorgio] Bocca, an expert on terrorism who interviewed many BR members, many of whom he saw as misguided idealists, had no liking for Negri, whom he subsequently described as “that little university Lucifer” and “a narcissus with a subtle brain”, one of those who use “a powerful memory purely to assist their tricks”, remarking that Negri “knew how to copy well from books that had not yet been translated in Italy”. Bocca has no doubt that Negri, whom he sees as far more influenced by Nietzsche’s and D’Annunzio’s ideas about “the superman” than by Marx, lived out his fantasies, albeit by proxy.
The two concrete instances he gives of Negri inciting others to commit criminal acts on his behalf have a definite ring of truth; they are precisely the sorts of crime one can imagine amoral academics engaging in. Firstly, when Negri lived in Milan, he used to send the young autonomi he regularly received in his house out to the nearest bookshop to steal all the books that interested him. Secondly, and rather more seriously, he asserted his power in Padua University by getting his “reactionary” colleagues kneecapped, and then used to theorise in his usual jargon-ridden style that “the levels of the use of force of counter-power have been exemplified by the punishment of teachers who are particularly zealous in anti-proletarian initiatives: Galante, Santo, etc”.
In a review of Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” in the New York Review of Books, journalist Alexander Stille provides some detail on the kneecapping charge:
Professors and former students at the University of Padua, where Negri taught, describe a reign of terror in which, for about three years, the autonomi, who recognized Negri as their principal leader, took over buildings, disrupted classes, shouted down opposing speakers, set off bombs, humiliated and beat up professors, and intimidated dissenting students. During their so-called Nights of Fire, Autonomia set off bombs in several different places in or around Padua.
The gestures of what Negri called “proletarian self-affirmation” assumed truly grotesque forms: under threat of violence an elderly professor was forced by the autonomi to give an oral examination to a dog. Guido Petter, a psychology professor who had supported the student demonstrations of 1968, was so badly beaten with iron bars that he was taken to a hospital. Oddone Longo, a professor of ancient Greek literature and the dean of the literature department, was also savagely beaten by three autonomi wearing ski masks and wielding metal wrenches.
This attack was particularly cowardly: Longo already suffered from a congenital limp and walked with great difficulty so that he could neither defend himself nor run away. He was able to get his hand over his head so that when they tried to smash his skull, they ended up breaking the bones in his hand instead. Along with his effort to maintain the ordinary meeting of classes in his department, Longo’s principal offense was being a member of the Italian Communist Party—the bête noire of Negri and Autonomia. When I asked Negri about the beatings of professors at his old university, he dismissed them as the work of “a few stupid students,” for which he had no responsibility, and he became annoyed at my bringing them up. But if Negri disagreed with what was going on around him in Padua, he did not object to it at the time.
Just in case anybody is harboring suspicions that the Unrepentant Marxist is stacking the deck against Italian autonomia, I would advise you to read the chapter in Wright’s “Storming the Heavens” titled “The Collapse of Workerism”, and the section titled “The Movement Loses Direction” in particular. He states that by 1977, almost weekly confrontations between activists and cops undermined the movement’s ability to consolidate and extend itself, especially given its determination to define itself as a “youth” movement that had turned its back on the “older generation”.
Autonomist theorist Marco Belotti complained about the: “[t]he perverse spiral of raising the stakes in the direct clash with the repressive apparatuses of the state IN PRACTICE conceded hegemony to the deliriums of the armed struggle ideology [combattentismo].”
Considering Katsiaficas’s embrace of “anti-politics”, Wright’s observations, including another citation from Belotti, are particularly germane:
In this context, the refusal of politics became ‘the exclusive privileging of the “military'” dimension, while ”’revolutionary radicalism” became measurable only in terms of the hardness of the clash with the adversary, whether this be the state or the “deviationist comrade'”. At the same time, in many parts of the movement,
the unconscious/thoughtless [incosapevole] introjection of the thematic of ‘two societies’ turned snobbish, the total exclusion of any relation with the city’s working-class and proletarian fabric. (ibid.)
And finally, this rather devastating charge by Wright against a movement he is known to have championed over the years:
That the majority of autonomist groupings, by their arrogance, had recently squandered enormous opportunities was now also apparent to Scalzone. The ‘micro-factions’ of the Area, he noted in December 1978, had begun to reveal their fundamentally conservative nature earlier that month, when they had chosen to isolate themselves from the demonstrating metalworkers, ‘not all of whom, certainly, were union functionaries’. Amongst other things, this demonstrated that the attempt to apply ‘the classic model of democratic centralism’ within the various segments of the ‘organised’ Area had only generated ‘monsters’.
The combination of autonomist thuggery and Red Brigade terror had a lot to do with the implosion of the Italian left. While the Italian bourgeoisie was ready to carry out a repression even if the left had been far more intelligently organized, this was no excuse for carrying out tactics calculated to drive the average working class person into the arms of the government in the name of “security”.
Revolutionary politics is really a project that is designed to win people to a cause. This involves patient explanation. Once someone develops a revolutionary consciousness, there is little that the state can do to vanquish it. A broken window can easily be replaced, but a revolutionary mind is permanent.
November 11, 2011
This is a clip from the documentary “The Weather Underground” that can be viewed in its entirety at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV7GSff4fIA. The two old guys–at least as old as me–featured in the clip are Bill Ayers, who starts off, and Mark Rudd.
An Anthology of Primary Texts
From The North American Anarchist Black Bloc
The Battle of Seattle Through The Anti-War Movement
Edited and compiled by David Van Deusen and Xaviar Massot of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective
The Black Bloc can trace its historical roots all the way back to when- and wherever people comprising an oppressed class or group militantly rose up against their oppressors. Elements of the particular tactics of the Bloc were previously utilized by the Weather faction of Students for a Democratic Society (the SDS) in North America during the “Days of Rage” in 1969.
Another function of the Black Bloc is to push the protest at hand towards a more militant and socially comprehensive direction. Largely this was achieved by the Bloc positioning itself at the forefront of the demonstration and subsequently forcing an escalation between the State forces and the protesters. Simply by resisting arrest, refusing to remain on sanctioned parade routes, challenging police barricades and by actively directing its anger at corporate targets, the Bloc ensured that such an escalation would ensue.
The purpose of such escalation in part lies in the belief that such conflict necessarily results in the unmasking of the brutal nature of the State. The subsequent brutality of the opposing police/military force is revealed. The idea is that by showing the larger population the violent means by which the status quo is maintained, a significant number of people will become further radicalized by this physical and visual demonstration of the nature of the State.