Sunday, July 11, 2010

Black Bloc Follow Up

The Black Bloc, political tactics and resistance have all been on my mind a lot lately, and I'm beginning to think that my initial reaction to the G20 protests may have been a touch impulsive. I still stand by worries about political groups committed, in advance of a serious contextual analysis of the situation, to confrontational tactics (and I still stand by my worries with the folks who endorse "The Coming Insurrection" stuff). But, other things being equal, if the planners of the G20 summits have to worry about confrontations and mayhem everywhere they go, that's OK with me. But I still need to think more about where I stand on groups that embed themselves within larger protests and then spring into action to confront police without ever consulting the other members of the protest. I don't think, however, that responding to all criticisms with charges of "paternal scolding" is enough to help those on the fence come to a reasoned position on the matter. But I do think there are complex questions here and I'm not sure where I stand on all of them.

Having said all of this, I'd like to make clear that whatever one says about the BB'ers, any serious person on the Left stands with them against bullshit like this or this, not to speak of countless other attacks by police.


Richard said...

I am not a Black Bloc supporter. I have similar reservations, plus others related to the dilemmas associated with militaristic anarchism, as stated in response to your initial post.

But it is a response to the political conditions of the time, as well as a radical extension of the anarchist critique of contemporary society and power welded by capital, particularly financial institutions and an ever expanding surveillance and security apparatus. In regard to the latter, the anarchists have been more effective at recognizing it, and integrating into their daily praxis than the Marxist left.

If one condemns the approach of the Bloc, then it is, in my view, incumbent upon the broader left to examine why the Bloc, and other confrontational forms of anarchism, have become appealing as the Marxist-Leninist left has declined. I alluded to this in my comments to your first post as well, and I got a response to the effect that the Bloc has nothing to do with the failures of the Marxist-Leninist left. I find that an odd thing to say, given the decline of mass, worker based forms of social organization and resistance in the last 40 years, because, if there had been no such decline, the Bloc, and the variegated world of anarchism more generally, would find itself, rightly or wrongly, as marginalized as it was during the 1950s and 1960s.

t said...

I myself find the label "Marxist-Leninist" entirely unhelpful. For starters, the term itself crystallized in the late 1920s and is entirely the product of Stalinism. The label "Marxist-Leninist", in fact, marked out Stalinists from others on the Left for most of the 20th century. "Marxism-Leninism" is the official ideology of Stalinism.

No Trotskyist organizations, or other anti-Stalinist New Left groups so far as I'm aware, described themselves as a "Marxist-Leninist" party although they firmly stood in Marxist tradition of which Lenin is a crucial part.

Most Marxists who take the political and tactical thought of Lenin very seriously, would hardly want to be confused with "Marxist-Leninists".

I hear what you're saying, but I'm not convinced that the Bloc is becoming more appealing as Marxist politics wane in appeal. The Bloc is a highly visible phenomenon, to be sure, (this is, I take it, part of their goal) but it not clear that the BB is anything like a mass phenomenon. In fact, Marxist organizations seem to be growing at far more healthy rate. The ISO, in particular, is growing immensely right now. They are, so far as I can tell, the most vibrant and visible group on the far-Left in the US right now. I'm not saying groups on the Anarchist Left aren't growing as well (they surely are), but it hardly seems obvious to me that the BB is out in front.

Another thing about the ISO: they have recently been doing really good things in terms of reaching out and starting dialogue with the Anarchist Left (there is an excellent article on contemporary anarchism in the most recent ISR, for instance). This makes sense given that the ISO's "socialism from below" politics are certainly in close proximity to, say, syndicalist anarchist groups. This is also refreshing given how stale the "debate" between the anarchist and socialist Left has become. I think both traditions are more dynamic than the caricatures they make of each other, although I myself identify more with the socialist tradition.

I can't speak for anarchists, but it's certainly true that any serious Marxist must have a highly dynamic conception of tactics/organization that is tightly bound up with a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. That was certainly Lenin's view, whether or not you agree with all his conclusions.

Richard said...

For me, Marxist-Leninist is a helpful designation, and it is not meant to purvey stereotypes evocative of the Stalinist period. Marxist-Leninists are a particular group of Marxists, a sub group, if you will, that rely upon Lenin in terms of his theories of imperialism and revolutionary organization and activity.

Why Marxists who are also Leninists would take offense at being described as "Marxist-Leninist" strikes me as a little odd. Now, of course, they are others who place Marx and Lenin within a broader context of Marxist thought and political activity, and they might understandably complain that the description is too narrow, and fails to account for the breadth of their social and political perspective, but shouldn't that merely engender a mild explanatory rebuke? And, note, I don't ever recall the Trotskyites over at Lenin's Tomb complaining about being called Marxist-Leninists.

As for the ISO, I agree that there should be dialogue and joint activity between between Marxist-Leninists and anarchists on projects of shared purpose (note, I don't say "Marxists and anarchists" because a lot of anarchists emphasize Marx as well in particular contexts). And would I expect more of them in the future. But posts like Proyect's are uniquely unhelpful in this endeavoer, as it plays the old game of characterizing a political competitor as being devoid of any legitimacy or ideological credibility (which, as you know doubt know, was a common tactic of Stalnists).

I do try to avoid the staleness of the old anarchist/Marxist-Leninist debates, you know, were the sailors at Kronstadt good guys or bad guys, the suppression of the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, that sort of thing. That's why it is important to understand why the Black Bloc does what it does, and how it justifies it, as opposed to arguing that they are just a bunch of out of control juveniles. And that is obviously true for anarchists generally, Marxist-Leninists, autonomists, etc. And all of this should be done against the backdrop of contemporary conditions (which is why the Graham book, "Cities Under Siege", is so important, it can instigate such a discussion).

But it can be hard sometimes. For example, whenever anarchists or autonomists are brought up over at Lenin's Tomb, it is amazing how tired and unimaginative some of the responses are, such as, for example, maligning the autonomist movements in Italy in the 1970s (not the Red Brigades, which is a different story, but the overall movement), when none of them had ever participated in a mass mobilization that had been effective to that degree, even if it ultimately failed.

dnw said...

My failure to understand this discourse is due to the supposed connection between the anarcho-syndicalist left and the Black Bloc. I don’t understand how the Black bloc fits into the latter category; therefore, the plea for dialogue between the socialists and the libertarian left is lost on me. The Black blocers (to me) are not political competitors whose legitimacy is being discredited, but rather non-competitors until their purpose can be better clarified. So I agree that “it is important to understand why the Black Bloc does what it does, and how it justifies it,” but it is precisely this point which I fail to grasp. Why does the Black Bloc do what it does? How does it justify it? If reading Graham’s book is a necessary condition for understanding the significance of the Black Bloc, then I’m simply unfit to discuss it.

If anything, however, the crude “Kill Capitalism” message of the Black Bloc seems antithetical to the contemporary currents of the anarchic left I’m familiar with, most of which suggest building a participatory society by nurturing new forms of economic organization from within the interstices of (capitalist) society. The Spanish anarchist movement was decades in the making, and the policies effected by agrarian collectives had been thoroughly debated at the local participatory level. Pamphlets were distributed, anarchist newspapers were founded, and collectives had collaborated to reduce illiteracy in Valencia from 70 to 10 percent. There was nothing spontaneous, sectarian, or militaristic about these anarchists. It was a long, painstaking process. Current anarchist thinkers like Chomsky, Michael Albert, and Robin Hahnel emphasize the importance of having a coherent, procedural model of community-based economic and social planning: it is not enough to wait for (or enact) spontaneous revolt without having a substantive vision of the society one wants realized.

So frankly, I don’t even understand how the Black Bloc fits in with the anarcho-syndicalist side. I don’t want my challenges interpreted as dismissive or “vanguardist.” I still just don’t get it (the Black Bloc), as much as I’m trying to. But I would like to.

t said...

Thanks for the response, Richard. I do want to make clear, though, that as a matter of history, the term "Marxist-Leninist" emerged in the late 20s from Stalinism. The creation of a so-called "Marxist-Leninist philosophy" was also coined by Stalin. This will always have the ring of Stalinism for me, and for many on the anti-Stalinist Left (in my experience).

Now, Trots have no problem (in my experience) being characterized as Leninists or Marxists. But the hyphenated "Marxism-Leninism" is thoroughly bound up with Stalinism (as far as history is concerned). I'm not sure how much hangs on this, but I do think it is important for any sensitive person on the Left not to resort to painting the Marxist left with the same brush. The Stalinist/anti-Stalinist distinction is crucial, and the equation of Stalinism with Marxism as such was a favorite card trick of anti-Communist cold warriors that contemporary leftists should unequivocally oppose.

I'm not sure how much hangs on this, but I think the history here is important.

I know that people on the socialist Left throw around stale arguments that are unfairly dismissive of autonomists, anarchists, and so on... but the same is true of things anarchists, etc. say about their socialist counterparts. My point is that this is facile and politically unhelpful way to go about engaging each other. There are important disagreements between, say, trots and autonomists, but these disagreements can't be learned from and worked through if they occur via unhelpful epithets and dismissive remarks (I'm not accusing you of this, but you'll agree that it is a common feature of the terrain). I'm not saying we should all just get along and "tolerate" differences, etc... What I'm saying is that people shouldn't hide behind labels and quick-and-dirty denuncations; they should be prepared to defend and think critically about their politics at all times. One's political convictions, like everything else, are fallible.

Richard said...

t: your additional exposition on the origins of the term "Marxist-Leninist" is persuasive to me, I will aspire to use the term "Leninist" from now on, with the assumption being that the notion of a non-Marxist Leninist is oxymoronic

and, of course, anarchists engage in simplistic condemnations of Leninists and the broader Communist left a lot, too, and that's equally unhelpful

dnw: at the risk of generating more confusion, consider this additional elaboration on the subject of the Bloc

first off, in terms of what happened at G-20 meeting, I have seen accounts that state that it was not just the Bloc who participated in the attacks upon property (just as it has been more than anarchists who have done so in Oakland in response to the murder of Oscar Grant, either), it was an array of people who could perhaps be described, if they can be placed under one umbrella, as militarized anarchists, borrowing the term from Chris Ealham, who just published a book about anarchism in Barcelona

and, of course, there are many anarchists who are not militarized and have serious concerns about such tactics

for some reason, describing such people as Black Bloc has become a convenient shorthand that may obscure as much as it clarifies

it is not hard to find ideological justifications for why such anarchists attack financial institutions, the police and security/surveillance firms, as they have issued a proliferation of statements on this over the years (for a recent example, see the AK Press book, "We are An Image From the Future", about the Greek uprising of December 2008)

at the risk of inappropriately speaking for others, they tend to see the commodification associated with finance capital, and the emergence of a surveillance society that reduces everyone to the role of consumer as tentacular, as devouring all personal and collective spaces of everyday life outside the market, necessitating immediate and dogged resistance

now, I would never say that anyone just has to read a particular book to have an engaged left perspective (for example, I've never been a particular fan of Chomsky, and have only read transcripts of his remarks during interviews), but Graham's book, "Cities Under Siege" is a very compelling distillation of how capitalist society is increasingly dependent upon globalized policies of surveillance and segregated social control, so much so that it may have now become one of the primary means for accumulation (Graham states that firms associated with the research and deployment of technologies associated with surveillance and suppression were one of the few profitable, expanding areas of the global economy in 2008 and 2009)

Your summation of the development of Spanish anarchism is, by and large, one that I would agree with, except that it was a more violent process than you describe, there were always anarchists engaged in violent activities in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, independent of the anarcho-syndicalism that you describe, and that was, of course, quite contentious, with Chris Ealham's book, "Anarchism in the City", addressing the issue quite well

if you are interested in my review of it, which deals explicitly with this question, go here

dnw said...

Richard, thanks for your reply and for the link to your informative review.

This definitely clears things up. As you point out, neither the anarchist left nor the Marxist or post-Marxist side should be painted with a broad brush. I am sympathetic to the concerns regarding the "surveillance society," but I'm not yet convinced that the Black Bloc offers a constructive form of resistance.