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Violence, non-violence and ultra leftism

A look back at Chris Hedges and the black bloc

27 April 2020

A reader, Paul, has sent us a past critique by Chris Hedges of the anarchist Black bloc inside a discussion of the Occupy movement of 2011. We thought it worthwhile to tease out some of the issues.


I have an anarchist friend who doesn’t like Hedges. He sent me this argument from Hedges. I don’t have a problem with Hedge’s argument here. What do you think?

Our response:

The majority of the Hedges piece is about strategy: A non-violent strategy held out the possibility of winning more support and broadening the movement while violence isolated the movement and gave a free hand to the police. Non violence would not only win public support but also would attract police and those in power who had a conscience to respond positively. A violent response to the State is not ruled out, but the need must meet high criteria.

Yet Occupy is confronted with a standard mechanism; State violence, capitalist organisations and the media aligned to mount a concerted attack on the movement. These resonated with internal weaknesses of Occupy to bring it down. Many remnants were sucked into the graveyard of the Democratic party so the critique of the Black bloc gives it a significance it did not have.

The attack by Hedges on Black Bloc philosophy carries more weight. Their call for 'diversity of tactics' and the primacy of 'spontaneity' is a rejection of democracy. At the end the Black bloc were using the Occupy movement as a human shield.

However the weaknesses of the bloc were reflected in the Occupy movement itself. Their insistence on consensus in reaching decisions was in practice a way of denying democratic rule and the lack of clear political objectives meant that in the end the oppression of black people and of the working class were not central to their actions. Both they and the Black Bloc lived in a bubble of their own activism, although a minority did break through and link up with sections of the working class.

Occupy popularised the term "the 1%" and drew attention to the massive concentration of ruling class wealth but that by itself does not lead to class consciousness or class action. Many on the Right see the wealth concentration but blame it on conspiracy.

To return to the question of violence. Marxists argue that the working class are the vast majority of society. If they act together as a class then they will prevail. However capitalist society is not made up of '1%' that can be easily cast aside. It is a dominant mode of production that involves the State, the police and army, the media, the churches, the education system and all the other mechanisms of

social control. When any section of the working class organises there will be some level of suppression which can lead to some level of violent response from workers.

Marxists are not responsible for any of this. We certainly have no control over the State forces and a reaction against that force is to be expected. Insofar as we use force it should be enough to confront and deter the State or to distract - for example mobilising in town B to relieve the pressure in town A.

What we should avoid is a strategy of armed confrontation, militarism, or ultra left "propaganda of the deed." Any long term violent confrontation between relatively small groups and the State can only end in defeat.

How do you convince young workers throwing themselves forward against the State to hold back until the most suitable moment for the insurrection by the militant vanguard of the whole class? That can only be done in a democratic movement where tactics and strategy are argued out. That's only possible where there is an agreed programme that has been adopted by the movement and that can be amended as circumstances dictate.

Our experience comes from our progenitor, the Irish People's Democracy movement. Many in the civil rights movement had non-violence as a principle. That meant that they would never break with the State and were essentially lobbying for its reform. It caused a scandal when we argued for non violence as a tactic, saying that we would be able to demonstrate to workers that the State would not reform and would try to beat us off the streets.

We were right, but we did not understand fully how to organise a defence once the bloody repression began. That's not a matter of collecting guns. In Ireland the tasks involved preventing betrayal by the reformists, arguing against the physical force tradition of Republicanism, fighting sectarianism and broadening the movement so that it took up the needs of workers in the formally independent Irish State and broke with nationalism.

This may seem like an abstract debate at a time when reformism rules absolutely in trade unions and traditional parties. New movements often lack class consciousness, but there is no point in simply decrying that. On the other hand the hope that this time we might strike lucky is futile. The task of socialists is to advance a programme for the working class inside the new movements.

Today's workers have not broken from traditional leaderships, but the class struggle is constantly in the background, constantly throwing up new forms of struggle.

When the new surge occurs we will not be mistaken. There is all the difference in the world between middle class activists shouting "no violence" as the police close in and the bitter hand to hand fighting with the workers that makes the cops turn and run.

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