Violence and Street Fighting: Who Says It Alienates the People? (Kasama Project)

[Part of our series on military strategy in imperialist countries.  Originally posted here.]

by Mike Ely

An anarchist wrote in a neighboring thread:

“i find it a little odd the way Marxists in the US always associate militant action with anarchists almost exclusively.”

That is a misunderstanding. I think you are talking to the wrong Marxists. The experience of the Maoist movement in the U.S. (to take just one example) is closely tied with many forms of militancy — starting with the Black Panther policies of armed self defense, and then also with the militant combativity of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). And denoucing militancy is (in my view) associated with very particular currents within the Left — whose strategic errors are closely tied up with those tactical views..

Learning and Practising Street-Fighting in 1968

Zengakuren 1967

While in high school, those of us attracted to SDS took classes at a local “Free University” in radical theory and the street fighting snake dances of the Japanese Zengakuren.

In Washington Square park squads of us practiced — using 5 foot cardboard tubing from the garment district — in how to unhorse “cossacks” sent against us. Over and over we would organize anti-imperialist feeder marches to the growing antiwar parades — and march in ranks through the main streets of Manhattan without permits, defying and confronting the cops.And speaking for ourselves, the violence of the National Liberation Front, of the Paris fighters  in May 1968, or of the Zengakuren in Japan, or our fearless young brothers and sisters of Black urban rebellions…. that violence did not alienate us, or disturb us… it was an inspiration and a beacon. And it is hard to imagine the great upsurges of the 1960s without such beacons of revolutionary violence.

It is worth mentioning that this scene among youth in the U.S. was politically very diverse, and emerged in many parts of the country (and on many campuses).

Where I was (i.e. NYC) included at the time Workers World Party (and its youth group YAWF) who were, then, far more militant than you could possibly imagine (especially knowing them today). Their favorite slogan was “The Streets Belong to the People” — and they were an important force arguing for heightened militancy and bolder anti-imperialist politics. And along side them were those of us who would congeal within the Maoist and anarchist currents of the new wave of organizations — including quite a few of us who joined Revolutionary Union. One key figure was Walter Teague, a fearless radical at that time, who led the “U.S. Committee to Aid the NLF.” (I remember scouring New York City to find one of their buttons. It said “Support Our Boys in Vietnam, Victory to the National Liberation Front.”

NLF flag at washington square arch

Out of  high schools, SDS, the local Free University, Loisada anarchist groups, and forces like WWP, we formed the early   “Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist Movement” (CoAIM) — dedicated to a rupture with peace parade politics. In one event, when we circled and circled the Washington Square fountain until the signal was given — someone had occupied the Washington Square arch the night before and unleashed a gigantic NLF flag that suddenly appeared hanging down the monument. And on that signal we darted off at a run going west, broke through police lines. Free in the West Village! and then turned north through Chelsea and the Garment District into Midtown toward Central Park. And i remember sweatshop workers from Latin America hanging out their windows as we streamed past their factories with huge red flags, and they were waving red in reply.

I recently wrote about May Day 1970 — where tens of thousands traveled (under threatening conditions) to New Haven to fight for the then-imprisoned Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party… which (for many of us, including the proto-Revolutionary Union forces) meant being prepared for street combat (with helmets, first aid, group tactics etc.)

And lets not forget that this was a time when SDS chapters (and similar radical groups) were burning ROTC building and banks across the U.S., and urban rebellions of Black people were considered a central feature of each “long hot summer.”

There, then and now, some self-described communists who hated all this militancy. Who thought it was always inappropriate and counterproductive. Who secretly called it lunacy. Who associated street fighting with anarchism, and who labeled us “adventurers,” or “ultraleftists,” or even “probably police agents” for organizing such militancy.

Cambridge 1970: Street Fighting for Bobby Seale and those who denounced it

Black Panther Party

In Boston, during the spring of 1970, ten thousand people rioted for Bobby Seale after trashing parts of MIT and occupying Harvard Square. The fighting was intense with cops driving people into subway tunnels and trying to gas them there. And it was the first time many of us had seen police unleash dogs on the people (in a way imitating the tactics of the notorious Southern bubba sheriffs.)

It was a rather magnificent action, where the street militancy was genuinely a mass affair, and where there was a common consciousness of the need to fight, and to fight hard.

At that action, I saw a team of white working class youth from the nearby factory town of Lynn who came (literally) with bags of rocks, so they would have material to throw as they fought. (Think about this: an affinity group of white working class youth traveling to Cambridge Mass, to fight the white Boston cops in the name of the Black Panther Party’s chairman Bobby Seale!)

And they  weren’t just fighting in the streets for some immediate demand, but rallying support to a notorious outrageous political party who had “ideologized the gun” back onto the stage of political possibilities.

And predictably there were left forces (even supposedly radical ones) who considered all this quite terrible. Progressive Labor Party (a left split from the CPUSA, and then leader of the Worker-Student Alliance faction of SDS) considered the demonstration awful (for a number of reasons) and issued a leaflet headlining “NAC Leaders Bait Police Trap.”

NAC was the November Action Coalition made up of the Revolutionary Youth Movement factions. And so this leaflet was making the claim that the successful mass demonstration was a “police trap” — implying that the organizers of the highly militant action were, somehow, suspiciously serving police purposes. It was typical of a certain Communist Party USA and post-CP mindset.

A Divide within SDS and RYM2

It is worth noting that the emerging division within RYM2 of SDS involved (among other things) a debate of “social pacifism vs. adventurism.”

The first time I ever heard of Bob Avakian was following the 1969 Atlanta conference of RYM2 when I heard a vague report that RYM2 (which I identified with) had split — with the Klonsky faction opposing street militancy and armed self-defense, and the Avakian faction opposing their “social pacifism.” I immediately took note — and  aligned myself with Avakian.

Part of what I’m saying by running down this partisan pre-history of the New Communist Movement is that major currents of the Maoist movement were rooted in an eager militancy — what we later called “combativity.” And there were other currents (much more influenced by the old CP) that rather automatically branded street militancy as “anarchist,” “ultraleft,” and as something that objectively served the ruling order.

I raise all this not to rake the coals of old splits and arguments. And still less, to provoke those who (one way or the other) were on the other side of those debates. But I raise this history to raise to ideological and political points that have current relevance.

Does Militancy and Violence Automatically Alienate The People?

Watching a revolutionary march -- not everyone appreciates the politics and militancy.

The assumption of those who we’ve called “the social pacifists” was (and often still is) that violence is automatically self-isolating and alienating. And that “the masses of people” can’t possibly “relate” to violence, and will be “turned off.”

They find that a potent argument. I find it absurd.

First, it is often (what we Maoists call) a confession without torture. Political forces fixated on respectability assert their tactical orientations in the name of appealing to “the people” — but really they want a politics and a set of tactics that are acceptable to sections of the ruling establishment and Democratic party.

If left to them, we would have a uninspired world of voting and agonizingly boring peace parades.

It is, of course, possible to carry out militant tactics that do alienate people. And those tactics often have to do with getting bystanders and “innocent people” hurt. Provoking police attack on unprepared people is not generally a good idea. Attacking ambiguous symbols that many ordinary people identify with is also not a great idea (why burn a supermarket in an urban rebellion? why target small grocery store owners?). Black Blocs sometimes are rather arrogantly indifferent to their surroundings, and like a great deal of anarchist politics is seen as an act of self-expression.

But the issue there is not violence per se. Many among the people respect violence and militancy, and find it attractive politically. (And you need go no further than Northern Ireland to see a world-class example of that.)

This was certainly true among working people. Anyone who thinks that “violence just turns people off” knows nothing about the working class. And should spend a night in  a West Virginia beer joint, or on a wildcat picket line!

Anti-Teng Demo — Not a Trade Union Moment

It is worth noting that a pivotal moment in the history of the RCP was the 1979 streetfighting in front of the White House, where almost a thousand Maoists rioted — in a melee that spread over a dozen or more square blocks — consciously creating the headlines of an “international incident” as Deng Xiaoping arrived to meet President Carter.

This action was not designed to appeal to bystanders in DC, or even for any particular audience in the U.S. itself. It was a way of “lighting the sky” worldwide — and I later met Maoists from different parts of the world that said this was the first time they had realize that they were not alone in opposing the 1976 capitalist coup d’etat in China. It was quite successful in that intended effect.

I imagine there are people who still think that this kind of action exemplifies the “ultra-leftism” of the RCP — because to them raising the reversal of socialism in the world is a kind of lunacy (because they think working people in the U.S. can’t possibly “relate” to all that). I don’t agree, and its a good example to sharpen a theoretical debate today.

Before going to the RCP’s Teng demo, we did some wide scale agitation about the event in the coalfields. Everyone at my mine knew I was going. And there was actually quite a bit of interest: it was a bit “ho hum” to go to Washington DC to fight for Black Lung benefits, but the fact that I was going there to help confront the leader of China, made people want to know more.

But then I came back after having been in the thick of the fighting — and I had been badly beaten by police with stitches and bruises that cover a whole side of my body. And as I stood there naked in the bathhouse, looking like a pink and black zebra, people suddenly really wanted to know why China was important to us revolutionaries (who they already identified closely with working class militancy). Why should their most die-hard militants want to fight over the events in China? And they wanted to know about the fighting. I told how they had brought both demonstrators and injured cops into the same emergency room, and how we had started to fight there in the hospital, and how the doctors had to create two emergency rooms to separate us, so that the demonstration would not spill further into the hospital itself. And how TV camera crews had come to the hospital to fill the carnage, and how the cops had attacked them, right there, in the waiting room, and smashed their cameras and driven them out.

And, many political forces would say that it is nuts to raise (among coal miners) the question of defending socialism in china, or of bringing people to DC to engage sharply with the authorities that were hosting that pig Deng Xiaoping.

But the truth is that i had never before encountered (or unleashed) so much interest in socialism and world affairs as i did standing naked there with black and blue stripes up my legs and back. People wanted to know.

And anyone who thinks that the violence of that action would be inherently alienating to the people — well, you should have been there in that bathhouse. Because these miners were not afraid of violence and risk — including “senseless” violence of everyday life. Anger is not alien to them. Real militancy is something they respect.

So, again, I want to make the basic point:

The “social pacifists” (then and now) are basically wrong when they argue that violence and militancy is inherently alienating. It reveals what their prejudices (and strategies) are, and who they are afraid of alienating. But among the oppressed this is just not automatically and universally the case.

Protracted Peoples War Cannot Work in an Advanced Country

Just like it is wrong to direct violence against ordinary people, you also cannot in the U.S. go over “to a war footing” in ordinary times.

It is wrong for left forces to act like they are already at “war” with the government. The power of the state and the coherence of the system means that those foolish people who move to such a war footing will either be hunted down and captured (relatively quickly), or else they will be forced to burrow so deep into an isolated “underground” that they will politically self-neutralize.

Venceremos was rounded up quickly. Weatherman basically just hide out, and made a few symbolic acts with made pompous declarations. The Puerto Rican armed groups were broken up and captured. The BLA and allied groups like May 19 were a fiasco.  Their politics were (at best) symbolic — manifestos without prospects of influence or power. They were not about “preparing minds and organizing forces for revolution.”

The only exception has been, as Mao pointed out, when imperialist countries were under occupation — and where the political conditions for some anti-fascist armed struggle existed in Nazi-occupied  Europe (or where the Brits occupied nationalist communities in Ireland):

“The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution. This Marxist-Leninist principle of revolution holds good universally, for China and for all other countries.

“But while the principle remains the same, its application by the party of the proletariat finds expression in varying ways according to the varying conditions.

“Internally, capitalist countries practice bourgeois democracy (not feudalism) when they are not fascist or not at war; in their external relations, they are not oppressed by, but themselves oppress, other nations. Because of these characteristics, it is the task of the party of the proletariat in the capitalist countries to educate the workers and build up strength through a long period of legal struggle, and thus prepare for the final overthrow of capitalism. In these countries, the question is one of a long legal struggle, of utilizing parliament as a platform, of economic and political strikes, of organizing trade unions and educating the workers. There the form of organization is legal and the form of struggle bloodless (non-military). On the issue of war, the Communist Parties in the capitalist countries oppose the imperialist wars waged by their own countries; if such wars occur, the policy of these Parties is to bring about the defeat of the reactionary governments of their own countries. The one war they want to fight is the civil war for which they are preparing.

“But this insurrection and war should not be launched until the bourgeoisie becomes really helpless, until the majority of the proletariat are determined to rise in arms and fight, and until the rural masses are giving willing help to the proletariat. And when the time comes to launch such an insurrection and war, the first step will be to seize the cities, and then advance into the countryside’ and not the other way about. All this has been done by Communist Parties in capitalist countries, and it has been proved correct by the October Revolution in Russia.”

The problem with groups like Weather Underground or the Black Liberation Army was not a matter of  tactical militancy itself, but their disastrous strategic decision to go over onto an actual war footing (which then defined their tactical forms of struggle and organization).

Revolution Involves Combativity and the De-Legitimizing of Power

TNL makes an important point:

“Lets stipulate that the Black Bloc doesn’t generally think its actions through in terms of their strategic consequences and that the elevation of trashing to a strategy in its own right is foolish. That said, we shouldn’t measure the effects of these actions simply in terms of how they are popularly received. Strikes can also be unpopular and “alienating.” Indeed many many people don’t approve of political demonstrations at all. The tactics we use are not just for passive consumption through the mass media, they are also about developing our capacities. One of the capacities any revolutionary movement needs to develop is a capacity to fight.”

A revolutionary movement needs a capacity to fight. It also needs to train its audiences and supporter ideologically to politically appreciate and actively uphold militant resistance. And such a movement needs to understand (deeply and viscerally) why the pulls and impulses of “respectability” lead onto the wrong road.

Revolutionary politics is inherently shocking to powerful sections of society. It is certainly unacceptable to that liberal establishment (that some want to ally with). It is offensive and infuriating to the more backward. And any serious revolutionary movement needs to travel (with enthusiasm) straight into those hostile winds — with a deep strategic sense that there are other forces who in class society who are not so conservative.

Street fighting in Paris 1968

And a revolutionary movement that can’t appreciate mass acts of rebellion is not a revolutionary movement.

When coal miners arm themselves and defy the state police and national guard, when the oppressed of LA light the sky in 1992 and drive out the authorities for a few days, and when (in decisive moments) like the Teng demo or the May Day for Bobby Seale or the streets of Paris in May 1968, or a dozen other moments around the world we could mention, when more politically radical forces decide to raise the tactical level to make a manifesto of combativity and resolve. There are times when people speak about their distain for this system and their dream of something else using the language of militancy. And when they do so, we should politically uphold it.

Militancy is (in fact) part of the preparation for revolution, and part of the hardening of forces that can lead or make a revolution.

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