A critical and historical look at non-violence and how it relates to revolutionary struggle.
In an interview for The Guardian, environmentalist and human rights activist and author, Arundhati Roy, told Stephen Moss, “If you’re an Adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theater. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.”
Nonviolent protest relies entirely on a sympathetic audience that has the power to make political change. It is ultimately dependent on the mercy of the ruling class that we ought to be fighting, not begging for scraps. Without elite support (from universities, corporate media, governments, especially police and political parties, corporations, NGOs, and wealthy benefactors) or without mobilizing those not afraid to use more combative means, nonviolent movements alone generally change nothing because power concedes nothing without force. Without support, nonviolent movements are simply crushed, arrested, killed, ignored, or beaten into submission. Putting aside the efficacy of nonviolence as a tactic, how can one in good conscience go on hunger strike when over a billion people in the world go hungry every night? Are the billion people not enough to compel change? Whether hunger strikers realize this or not, their actions convey a message that their bodies are more important than those who starve without some kind of political motivation but rather starve simply because of destitution caused by State or corporate greed that has robbed them of their resources to survive. It may be an attempt to show solidarity but it just adds to the senseless suffering in the world.
While a desire for peace is noble and perhaps a beautiful vision, pacifism in this world dominated by violence is ultimately pathology as Ward Churchill put it. It is simply magical thinking to believe peace can be “wished,” “prayed,” or protested into existence. Justice must come before peace because if we prioritize peace before justice, we ignore every ongoing and past atrocity and crime against humanity committed by the parasitic ruling class of the world and they will continue to mete out abuse. Assata Shakur wrote “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” This is because one can’t appeal to the hearts, minds, or humanity of people who have none.
Nonviolence puts those who practice it at the mercy of the State and corporate thugs. It is defenseless and it fetishes martyrdom in a world filled with billions of martyrs, living and dead. It implies practitioners are more important than the matyrs who never got their close ups on TV. In his book The Failure of Nonviolence, Peter Gelderloos explains“The only thing pacifists can accomplish is to convince those of us who actually care about doing the right thing – and neither states nor institutions, nor abstract forces such as capital have ever been included in this category.”i So they only succeed in pacifying those who need to fight the institutions that will never do the right thing as they don’t care about what’s right. To put it bluntly, committing to nonviolence regardless of the circumstances is suicide.
What Does Violence Even Mean?
The definition of violence ought to be simple and straight-forward but it is muddled by the propaganda of those who enjoy a monopoly on violence and who seek to be seen as“peacekeepers” of the world. Governments get to be as violent as they like but they never call themselves violent. They claim to be practicing “self-defense” yet when we defend ourselves from the government, we are labeled terrorists. In the State’s point of view, there is no legitimate self-defense against it. But it’s important to note self-defense is still violence. So violence is not inherently a good or bad thing. It depends on the circumstances. Many like to make a distinction between violence in self-defense and unprovoked violence. But this is less of a reflection of the actual meaning of the word and more of a reflection of how people use it as a term of slander or indictment. Peter explains “[Violence] is a category, a human construct in which we choose to place a wide array of actions, phenomena, situations, and so forth. “Violence” is whatever the person speaking at the moment decides to describe as violent. Usually, this means things they do not like. As a result, the use of the category “violence” tends towards hypocrisy. If it is done to me, it is violent. If it is done by me or for my benefit, it is justified, acceptable, or even invisible.”ii
Consulting the most objective source, Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines violence as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.” This definition doesn’t distinguish between violence in self-defense or unprovoked or indiscriminate violence, as well it shouldn’t. One word can’t describe the nuances of conflict but capitalist societies have a tendency to reduce everything into black and white soundbites, so we are left with words that are only used in one sense.
As the saying goes “when the rich rob the poor it’s called business. When the poor fight back it’s called violence.” The word violence is used by powerful institutions to describe something not officially ordained or illegal with little regard for the actual meaning.“In the dominant discourse, “violence” is reserved for those acts which disrupt the social peace,”iii which is the illusion of peace. It is order enforced through the subjugation and oppression of the underclass. Enforced “peace” or social “peace” are oxymorons. The force required for such “peace” is violent. So any “peace” achieved through the State that gives itself the “right” to enforce it is violent. One can’t be nonviolent and support the State and condemn those who resist it. One also can’t be passive and nonviolent. By doing nothing, you become complicit in the violence you do nothing to stop. Doing nothing in the face of injustice or letting others get slaughtered because of an alleged “commitment to nonviolence” is nothing but hypocrisy and arguably more violent than the violence inflicted to resist that slaughter. Violence is used as a slur by the State and media much like the words terrorist, illegal alien, or communist. But states use violence more than anyone. They just don’t call it violence. The victors in wars never say that. But they always call the losing side violent or terroristic.
Organizer and anarchist writer, Tawinikay, wrote of states that “They don’t consider it violent to storm into a territory with guns drawn and remove its rightful occupants. They don’t consider it violent to level mountaintops, or clearcut forests, or to suck oil out of the ground only to burn it into the air. They don’t consider it violent to keep chickens and pigs and cows in tiny crates, never allowing them to see sunlight, using them like food machines. But smash a window of a government office.. Well, that goes too far.”
People rarely identify as violent or nonviolent. Most people consider both behaviors as potentially viable given the circumstances and being willing to fight does not mean lacking compassion. One could simultaneously fight fascism and provide emotional support, food, water, education, and medical care to those in need and some do. That is not a contradiction but behaviors that compliment one another. What one fights for is most important.
As stated violence can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances and who is on the receiving end. This should be obvious, yet most proponents of pacifism claim all violence is “the same,” i.e. “bad.” However, ”pacifists have always been more comfortable with the violence of the oppressor than with the violence of the oppressed.”iv They want us to believe that the violence of an abductor kidnapping a child is the same as the violence used by the child to resist his or her captor. Obviously, it isn’t. Too often proponents of strict nonviolence also misrepresent State wars as driven by misunderstanding between two equally violent and powerful sides because that is far more palatable for most people and requires less action. But the reality is almost always incredibly one-sided: giant, trillion-dollar empires massacre completely outgunned victims for profit. Violent resistance to these empires, even within the context of a war, can’t be compared even remotely to the empire’s violence. It’s not “all violence.” That kind of reductive thinking is what maintains injustice, exploitation, oppression, slavery, and other forms of hierarchical relations.
If we use Merriam Webster’s definition of violence just about everything the State does can be considered violent and supporting the State is violent as it contributes to the State’s violence. Simply paying taxes is indirectly violent because taxes fund wars, prisons, oppressive laws, police forces, psychiatric wards, border patrol, and a variety of other coercive institutions. Other indirect forms of violence include supporting any part of the government, (police, military, etc.) doing nothing to stop State violence, buying clothes from a sweat shop, calling the police, foreclosing homes, and snitching.
Peter Gelderloos explains in his book that “Nonviolence in its most current and effective forms not only lacks revolutionary, transformative character, but it serves the interests of the very organizations that on a world scale are most exploitative, the most powerful, and the most violent.”v This is because the corporate media, other corporations more broadly, governments, and religious institutions decide what is violent and what is not. And when nonviolent protesters base their actions on how they will be portrayed by these institutions, they lose their own moral compass and adopt the values of these institutions. But these institutions always demonize any movement or person, nonviolent or violent, if they are against the State, corporate interests, or religious hierarchy and dogma. Many pacifists naively believe that the “truth will prevail” (meaning corruption will be exposed by the media, the beatings of pacifists will speak for themselves, and good will triumph over evil) because they think the corporate media is on their side when in reality it’s just a lapdog mouthpiece for the corporate State. The truth often does come out but nearly no one reads about it or sees it because the corporate media ignores it and when judges and prosecutors decide our fate anyway, the truth doesn’t matter because they can decide whatever they like regardless of the truth. For example, countless murderers on the police force have walked free, even when their murders were filmed, such as the police murder of Eric Garner.
The Pacifist Rewriting of History
A common tactic of pacifists is to rewrite history and portray movements that employed a diversity of tactics as strictly nonviolent like the protests against the Vietnam war, in which some US soldiers fragged their commanding officers in protest and the decisive factor that ended the war was the highly violent Viet Cong resistance. The civil rights movement also portrayed as completely nonviolent by many owed much of its success to armed groups like the Black Panther Party, the Deacons of Justice and Defense, and Joseph Mallisham’s defense force that defended nonviolent activists. During the so-called “nonviolent” Tienanmen Square protests there were “major riots, armed resistance, and the lynching of several soldiers by the crowd.” The Indian independence movement is yet another example. Ghandi is often mentioned exclusively in history classes on the Indian Independence Movement by pacifists, whereas revolutionary, combative figures are left out completely like Bhagat Singh who bombed the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi and killed British police officer, John Saunders, in Lahore, British India to avenge Lala Lajpat Rai who died two weeks after being beaten by police in a protest. Indian Revolutionary Freedom fighter, Madan Lal Dhingra, who assassinated British official Sir William Hutt Curzon Wyllie is another example ignored by many historians and teachers. Arguably, these revolutionaries did more for the people of India, despite their absence in history books. Ghandi only had sway over British authorities because they were worried about real revolutionaries like Singh and Dhingra actually capable and willing to use violence. They were, in fact, targeted for State repression with the help of Ghandi.
Gandhi above all was a hypocrite and a sycophantic bootlicker happy to collude with his country’s colonizer. He went to school in Britain, his country’s colonizer, organized a volunteer effort to support the British in the Boer war of 1899 and Zulu war of 1906 in South Africa, and won a Boer and Zulu war medal. These were hardly “defensive wars” either. The Zulu war began when the Zulu rebelled against the British attacks on their population and the British enslavement of the Zulus in South Africa’s diamond mines. And the Boer war began after the British plotted to overthrow the the Boer government to mine its gold.
Indian independence from Britain arguably didn’t lead to any major changes in India either. Gelderloos explains “The government of India continued to mete out humiliation, exploitation, beatings, and killings after the victory of the supposedly nonviolent independence movement.”vi Leaders were killed off as well. The same is true of the government of South Africa after independence. Both are still very capitalist and exploitative.
Most proponents of nonviolence seek recuperation with the State as Ghandi did. They negotiate and look for common ground with the very same oppressors they claim to be “fighting.” Most are reformers, not revolutionaries, and they encourage radicals to fight for reform instead of revolution and turn their social movements into money makers palatable to the powers that be.
The Efficacy of a Diversity of Tactics Vs. Strict Nonviolence
Another lie purported by most pacifists is that nonviolence is more effective than violence. But if nonviolence was truly more effective than violence, the State would use it. Almost all State borders were drawn up via violent conquest and those borders are patrolled with armed guards ready to harm or kill those who cross them without government permission. Almost all coup changes were violent and states grant themselves the “right” to use force whenever they deem it fit. Every law is enforced via the threat of violence or incarceration, which is itself violent. Governments and violence are inseparable.
Many pacifists also argue violence against the State increases repression of the public but the criteria for a successful movement ought not to be the level of repression that comes with resistance. Both nonviolent resistance and violent resistance both provoke increased repression. For example, there was a large increase in white supremacist bombings and lynchings after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Nonviolent activists are also frequently labeled “terrorists” by the government and media along with combative activists. As another example, the ACLU revealed that under the guise of “counterterrorism efforts” the FBI has monitored the peace group, School of Americas Watch, which researches the Orwellian U.S Army School of the Americas, now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation that trains death squads in South America. The FBI has also monitored the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based peace center, the Quaker American Friends Service, the National Lawyers Guild, and freelance journalists who covered the FTAA protests in Miami in 2003 like Dave Lippman, calling them “terrorist sympathizers”. Further, the Pentagon monitors other anti-war activists, including a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Forth, Florida that holds counter-military recruiting meetings and activists who staged anti-nuclear protests in Nebraska on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki. vii Even when there is no resistance of any kind, there is repression because the parasitic corporate State subsists through the subjugation of the public. Many pacifists argue that by resisting government tyranny with violence, we only “perpetuate cycles of violence.” But this view is entirely contrary to the historical record. Violence generally beats people into submission and“police shoot and torture people not because they have had rocks thrown at them, but because it is their job. Politicians rule and make decisions that kill thousands not because they were beaten as infants but because institutions of power manufacture their own interests and impose them on what might be considered human or biological interests. Cycles of violence do not explain oppression. The State is pyramidal and accumulative, not cyclical.”viii
It is absurd for pacifists to blame combative protesters for increased police repression (as many do) as if it makes sense for police to beat up peaceful protesters because combative protesters elsewhere broke some windows. Doing so legitimizes, normalizes, and attempts to justify police terror. Pacifists should be blaming police instead of combative protesters as we don’t get to chose the police response. There are also many instances wherein combative, violent, forceful, or illegal resistance resulted in less repression (since states are motivated by fear and hate and they often only do something positive like indict a cop for murder when they fear public upheaval and riots for not doing so) and nonviolent resistance has resulted in greater repression. Among the most obvious examples are Ghandi and MLK often touted as the heroes of nonviolent method who were killed for their efforts. They exemplify the fact that the use of the nonviolent tactics is not without serious consequences. Speaking broadly, Peter points out in his book that despite the recent rise of combative tactics used by activists in Greece, France, and Spain, police repression has not increased significantly in these countries as a result, whereas the UK and the Netherlands have seen far greater police repression and surveillance despite their more pacified and peaceful residents.
As another example when the IWW renounced sabotage and violence the State actually increased repression of the group, taking advantage of their weaker position. Many pacifists practice nonviolence because they believe it is safer but this is just not the reality. And even if a violent uprising is crushed, it can inspire more to follow suit. Beyond being inspiring, it is also more psychologically liberating to resist, even if it ends in failure. As has been said before, it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
The nonviolent argument that police and federal repression will be worse if we fight back is the most sycophantic, obsequious, cowardly argument one could make. What if no one had risen up against the Nazis because they were worried they would hurt Jews and other targets more if they did? We would probably live in a world still dominated by the Third Reich. Of course, this isn’t an argument or an attempt to justify the Allies’ war crimes like the bombing of Dresden, Fukushima, or Nagasaki, but armed resistance was absolutely necessary. Delusional pacifist Mark Kurlansky actually wrote of WWII “if they wanted to save the Jews, the best chance would have been not going to war.” In fact, there was nonviolent resistance to WWII and it was ruthlessly exterminated while many of those who took up arms made it out alive. Lithuanian Jews who carried out sit-ins against deportation were subsequently forced into cattle cars and Jewish councils refusing to comply were executed. Denmark, which did not resist violently during WWII also served as “an important source of food, armaments, and raw materials for the war machine” and the Nazis took over Denmark in “one of the shortest ground campaigns in history” according to Gelderloos. Let’s compare these examples to the violent rebellions of 1943, which shut down Sobibor and Treblinka death camps during WWII.
Soviet-Jewish POW Alexander Pechersky from Minsk led the Sobibor uprising on October 14, 1943, killing 11 SS officers who were discovered prematurely, forcing the rest to make a run for it. 107 were murdered fleeing but 58 survived. Former Jewish captain of the Polish Army, Dr. Julian Chorążycki, and former Polish Army officer, Dr. Berek Lajcher, organized the Treblinka uprising. 100 former prisoners managed to escape after the revolt at Treblinka on August 2, 1943 after stealing an arsenal of weapons and setting fire to most of the infrastructure in the camp. Partisans of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) helped the escapees reach safety. Many were also saved by Catalan anarchists and Yugoslav partisans.
Similarly, prisoners who revolted at Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7 1944 managed to blow up the crematoria though most were killed. And about 150 survived the Białystok Ghetto Uprising led by the Anti-Fascist Military Organization (Antyfaszystowska Organizacja Bojowa), a branch of the Warsaw Anti-Fascist Bloc. These weren’t isolated incidents either. Let’s examine some more specific examples of the failures of strict, dogmatic nonviolence and successes of a diversity of tactics.
Examples of the Failures of Nonviolent Movements
The overwhelmingly peaceful protests of the war in Iraq on February 15, 2003 were perhaps the largest nonviolent movement of all time. The BBC estimated 6 to 11 million people worldwide (other estimates were as high as thirty million) protested in 600 cities, including three million in Rome alone, yet they failed to stop the war. The size of the protest was enough for pacifists to declare victory, despite the fact that the protests did nothing to stop the war. What was actually effective was sabotage of military recruiting centers and infrastructure of war along with blockades of the ports of Olympia and San Francisco to stop shipments of military equipment.
The Falun Gong movement is another devastating example. Falun Gong (literally, “Dharma Wheel Practice” or “Law Wheel Practice”) is a spiritual practice rooted in compassion, self-control, and honesty that combines meditation and qigong. By 1999 the number of Falun Gong practitioners was estimated by the government to be around 70 million and was viewed as a threat to the State as its nonviolent tenants did not involve the government. In April 1999, 10,000 practitioners peacefully gathered by Beijing’s central government compound to ask for legal recognition and independence from the State. In July 1999, the government began to persecute practitioners in response, initially by blocking access to websites that mention the practice. The government’s prosecution of practitioners then sharply escalated with arbitrary arrests, forced labor, torture, psychiatric abuse, and even organ harvesting of practitioners. According to the Kilgour–Matas report written by Canadian MP David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas, 62,000 practitioners have had their organs harvested for profit from 2000-2008.
Māori nonviolent resistance to the government of New Zealand’s theft of their lands in the village of Parihaki in Taranaki is another example. Te Whiti o Rongomai III, a Māori spiritual leader and founder of the village of Parihaka led the resistance and insisted Māori not fight but instead passively resist. As a result Whiti was arrested by the British colony of New Zealand and all the lands were stolen. However, Maori resistance (aside from Te Whiti) was and is mostly combative and violent, and this is arguably the sole reason they have survived at all. Similarly, peaceful Aboriginal Tasmanian resistance to British colonialism in Australia could be considered another example. Aboriginal Tasmanians did fight in the Black War of the early 19th Century to protect their land and themselves from colonist rape and violence but as they faced a far better equipped and numerous enemy, the Tasmanians surrendered on December 31, 1831 and the government did not honor the conditions of the surrender but instead exterminated them.
Successful Examples of Combative and Forceful Resistance
The Spanish and Ukrainian Revolutions are perhaps the most inspiring examples of armed resistance against government tyranny. In both revolutions radically new relations were formed from the bottom up. Shops were collectivized in Spain, large tracts of land were collectivized and shared among those who actually worked the land, money stolen from the masses and held in massive banks was expropriated, women enjoyed greater positions of equity, cops and hitmen who had killed workers were offed, Churches that had facilitated the exploitation and murder of peasants were destroyed, and freedom reigned until the Revolution was crushed by the fascists. There were pacifists in the Revolution as well whose fate was very different: “In Zaragosa the anarchists were mostly unarmed and decided to organize a larger unions to win gradual improvements whereas in Barcelona the anarchists were armed and decided to be more combative. The differences in the outcomes are painfully plain. The anarchists of Zargoza, lacking a means or will to defend themselves were promptly all shot by a firing squad in the first days of the coup, whereas the anarchists of Barcelona were able to implement their vision of a new world for several years before being defeated militarily,”ix
“Part One: Nestor Makhno: Anarchist Warlord and Book Club Afficionado”
— Behind The Bastards (@bastardspod) December 22, 2020
Much of the same type of egalitarianism of the Spanish Revolution was created by the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921 during the First World War when Russia, Great Britain,and Germany all sought to conquer more and more land. The authoritarian Russian Bolsheviks set their sights on Ukraine in 1917 and established their own government there, invading a number of Ukrainian cities in January of 1918 in attempt to gain control over the State. In February they took control of Kiev and committed war crimes against the civilian population. In September 1918 Nestor Makhno, a native of Huliaipole, sought to defend his home and formed the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, also called the Black Guard or Makhnovshchyna (Махновщина), consisting of Ukrainian peasants and workers. Makhno took weapons and equipment from the Austro-Hungarian and German forces that retreated from Ukraine during the war. The Black Guard fought both the fascist, antisemitic “White Guards” and the despotic Russian Red Army until 1922. At the Black Army’s peak, they drove off all of the White Guards from Southern Ukraine. They also expropriated land from the greedy aristocracy in Ukraine that claimed ownership of vast tracts of unused land, which they then redistributed among Ukrainian peasants. Their black flags read “Liberty or Death” and “The Land to the Peasants, the Factories to the Workers.” The army didn’t have officers as in traditional armies. Instead, all leaders within it were elected, assemblies were called to decide policies, soldiers were self-disciplined, and all joined voluntarily. None were forced via conscription. Much of this structure was copied by the anarchists of the Spanish Revolution.
The same year Makhno formed his army, he helped create and guard stateless libertarian communes, which they called Makhnovia or the “Free Territory” in Huliaipole. Makhno wrote that the Free Territory had “equality and solidarity of its members”x and “freedom of speech, press, assembly, [and] unions” xi All land in Makhnovia was shared and communally held and factories, railways, and farms were voluntarily collectivized. Compulsory education was abolished, schools were reconstructed and free courses were offered to the public. Some communities also eschewed the use of fiat currency altogether.
Building a mass, multi-generational movement, Spanish anarchists created dual power alternatives in every facet of society. Then in 1936, a revolution broke out in the face of a fascist coup. We talked with @Mark__Bray on why this history still matters. https://t.co/ziKJdvizqN pic.twitter.com/xR87YGcwmZ
— It’s Going Down (@IGD_News) August 3, 2019
In February 1920, 20,000 soldiers of the Red Army invaded Ukraine, overwhelming Makhno’s army and terrorizing their sympathizers under Leon Trotsky’s orders. In June Russia’s secret police force, the Cheka, sent agents to assassinate Makhno but were unsuccessful. Trotsky tricked Makhno into believing he wanted peace by signing a treaty in October 1920, which the Bolshevik government initially refused to publish or even acknowledge, continuing their policies of mass arrests of anarchists. The next month several Black Army commanders and staff met at the Red Army Southern Front headquarters for a conference where they were arrested and immediately executed by the Red Army. The treaty delegation was also arrested. A massive force of 350,000 Red Army soldiers was then sent to completely destroy the Makhnovist movement, bringing it to an end in 1922. Part of the reason Makhno’s army was defeated was that they were never able to manufacture their own weapons or ammunition and they relied on weapons procured from their enemies in battle. While short-lived, much like the Spanish Revolution, the Ukrainian Revolution is an inspiring example of what the world can be.
A number of other inspiring examples of combative resistance are the countless slave rebellions in history. The revolt of slaves aboard the ship Creole in November 1841 is one such example. 128 slaves won their freedom as a result of the revolt. The UK had already outlawed slavery at this point and so the slave ship was illegal and the revolt was fortunately found to be legal self-defense. Similarly, a group of Mende people kidnapped in Sierra Leone and shipped on the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839 to be sold into slavery killed the captain and the cook and took over the ship. They then told the navigators to direct them to Africa but instead they sailed north where they were stopped by the US ships. In 1840, the courts found that the slave ship was illegal and that the kidnapped men acted in self-defense. They were all set free.
The Rojava Movement is another prominent, more modern example. Rojava, also known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. is an autonomous region with a population of four million located in West Kurdistan occupied by the Syrian government. (Northern Kurdistan is located in southeastern Turkey, Southern Kurdistan is located in northern Iraq, which has been autonomous since 1970, and Eastern Kurdistan is located in northwestern Iran. Kurdistan is split by so many different states as a result of changing hands from empire to empire over the centuries.) The Kurds of Rojava under Syrian rule have long faced policies of Arab nationalism and Arabization, which most reject. They have also faced laws that prohibit Kurds from owning property, driving cars, speaking Kurdish, or forming political parties, and they have also been subject to numerous land confiscations. In the beginning of the Syrian Civil War when government forces retreated from several Kurdish areas, the underground political parties, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD or the Democratic Union Party) and the Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdî li Sûriyê (or the Kurdish National Council) joined to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC) and created the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG or People’s Protection Units) militia to defend their lands (though they were apparently supported by the US Air Force and French bombers and “more than 500 American commandos are embedded with the YPG” according to Rolling Stone Magazine). The KSC dissolved in 2013 when the PYD abandoned it to form the polyethnic Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk, or TEV-DEM, which currently governs Rojava. The YPG are among the only forces in Syria actually fighting ISIL terrorists (as the Turkish and Syrian governments see Kurdish autonomy as a greater threat to their profits and are thus funding ISIL and bombing the YPG) whom they repelled in the Siege of Kobanî and in the Tell Abyad offensive. The Democratic Union Party has also formed the Asaish, a mixed force of men and women and the Women’s Defense Units for the sole purpose of defending women.
We talked to an Assyrian anarchist living in #Rojava about the recent invasion by the Turkish State, the role of various imperial powers in the conflict, the remaining threat of the Islamic State + day to day life in the autonomous cantons. #RiseUp4Rojava https://t.co/C7ESougixb
— It’s Going Down (@IGD_News) October 22, 2019
The Constitution of Rojava, also called the Charter of the Social Contract, was adopted on January 29 2014 by the Democratic Union Party, the leading party of Rojava. The Charter calls for the separation of State from religion, the recognition and protection of women’s and children’s rights, prohibition of female circumcision, a sustainable revolution organized from the bottom up, “freedom, equality, equal opportunity and non-discrimination, equality between men and women,” respect for prisoners (unfortunately the constitution doesn’t go as far as advocating for prison abolition), and the right to seek asylum. Residents of Rojava have also established autonomous agricultural and urban communes and committees for human and ecological welfare. Although there is hierarchy within Rojava, it is more horizontal than the US-backed Kurdish Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan. The main problem with the government of Rojava is that it is still representative, so for all their talk of autonomy, they still operate in many of the same ways as a representative democracy. They also still maintain prisons, hold private property, and trade fiat currency. However, they remain far more progressive and less authoritarian than any other government in the region, especially in terms of their treatment of women and minorities. And they have only achieved this measure of success because they have resisted State and terrorist tyranny with arms.
The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, (EZLN) or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the indigenous army of Chiapas Mexico is another modern example. Since 1994 they have been at war with the Mexican State, paramilitaries, and corporations seeking to exploit resources and civilians in Mexico. The war was triggered by the passage of NAFTA, which came into force on January 1st of 1994 as the “free trade” agreement resulted in the removal of Article 27, Section VII, from the Mexican Constitution that promised land reparations to indigenous groups throughout Mexico. The Zapatistas are not perfect as they have some hierarchy but they have liberated and brought a large measure of autonomy to villages previously under brutal government rule.
The Guadeloupe and Martinique General Strike of 2009 is yet another example. The strike was catalyzed by high living costs, unemployment, poor living conditions and wages, and institutional racism in the French colonies that are treated as a vacation destination for rich white tourists. Riots broke out, strikers fought with police, and after just three days, the French colony raised salaries by 200 Euros a month and met the strikers’ top 20 demands. The uprising also inspired strikes in other French colonies including Reunion and French Guiana.
A diversity of tactics has also worked for indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples who have forcefully resisted colonization are among the few who have survived the brutal genocide of colonizing nations. The Mapuche struggle is a good example. The Mapuche make up a horizontal, autonomous indigenous nation (consisting of 80% of the natives in Chile) that practices collective agriculture, collective ownership of land, and organization from the bottom up. They have also resisted Spanish colonization for centuries with fierce combat and their knowledge of the land. The Arauco War for Mapuche lands lasted 327 years. The Spanish were able to conquer some Mapuche cities within this period but the Mapuche won them back through their own raids. It was only until 1843 that the Chilean State was able to establish a colony at the Strait of Magellan and settle in Valdivia, Osorno, and Llanquihue. In 1861 the Chilean State was finally able to incorporate several Mapuche territories in Araucanía. The State of Argentina managed to occupy Mapuche lands the same year. In 1883 half of all Mapuches were murdered and many more died in the following years from hunger, disease, and continued attacks from Spanish colonists. Many Mapuche continue to resist colonization by sabotaging mining and logging equipment, protesting, blocking roads, rioting, hunger striking, and fighting with police to protect their ancestral lands from exploitation.
Some Mapuche have expressed “we are not poor. We are a society apart,” which is crucial to understanding indigenous struggle. The answer to monopolies and capitalism isn’t necessarily redistribution of capital; it is autonomy and redistribution of power that capital affords. Many don’t want to be apart of the economic system as it separates us from the natural resources we have deemed money can buy. Instead of valuing these natural resources, we value man-made money, simply a piece of cotton and linen that itself represents hierarchy and exploitation of the Earth. Mapuche resistance is branded as “terrorism” by the Chilean media and government but most remain undeterred. A counter terrorism statute introduced by the late notorious Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, is still being used against native Mapuches. The statute defines “terrorism” incredibly broadly and includes acts of arson intended to produce fear. The statute also allows prosecutors to keep evidence from the defense for up to 6 months. In August 2004, five Mapuches were sentenced to 9-10 years in prison for “terrorist arson” for burning a pine plantation on Poluco Pidenco estate, land that traditionally belonged to Mapuches but was stolen by the State and bought by logging company Mininco. Those convicted of ‘terrorism’ under the law are prohibited from holding public office for 15 years, becoming educators, joining a trade union, or engaging in journalism. Mapuches have achieved food sovereignty, retaken much land from large corporations, and are true stewards of the land.
Yet another inspiring example of combative indigenous resistance is the Oka crisis. After Mohawks built a barricade on Kanehsatake/Oka & Kahnawak territories to prevent police from trespassing and removing the natives so that a golf course could be built, the police assaulted the barricade. The Mohawks responded with gunfire, killing one pig. 2000 police and 4500 soldiers with tanks, APCs, and naval and air support were then brought in. But news had spread of the conflict and the Mohawks received broad support, resulting in a victory: the golf course was never built.
A diversity of tactics can even be effective for prisoners. The Pendleton Indiana State “Reformatory” revolt is one such example. After prisoner Lincoln Love was beaten by guards and sprayed with tear gas, the guards responsible were stabbed by inmates and three staff members were taken hostage. The Department of Corrections agreed to all 22 demands the prisoners made to release the hostages, including the institution of minimum wage for inmate labor, ending censorship of letters and other media, and the launch of an FBI investigation into abuse by guards.
A Final Thought
This article shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a glorification of violent tactics or an attempt to encourage a full-scale, frontal assault on the corporate State tomorrow. Most people are too brainwashed to support something like that, much less join it, and though we shouldn’t base our actions on what the general public would think, we need more broad support for such a full scale assault to be successful and that support will more likely come with direct action that improves the quality of life for average people.
Action against the corporate State that is doomed to fail is just as useless as strict, dogmatic non-violence. That would only create more martyrs we don’t need. We must weigh risks versus rewards when formulating our plans, target the corporate State where it’s weakest, do it clandestinely and carefully with proper organization and planning, and retreat quickly, so as to increase the chances of success. In the lop-sided corporate-state war against us, guerrilla and anonymous tactics are vital. Anyone who thinks it’s better to “face the music” and get caught after making an attack so you can have your life destroyed by the State is brainwashed by the idea of martyrdom. This strategy takes you out of the fight and makes that one action perhaps the only one you can ever take against them. Instead, asymmetric tactics must be employed. Instead, of blocking a pipeline with your body or chaining yourself to drilling equipment, consider sabotage in the night, (without causing an oil spill or pollution), while not leaving a trace of evidence.
Revolutionary struggle is a long-term project but there are battles we can win right now. And of course, we don’t just need fighters. We need artists, writers, organic farmers, arboriculturists, conservationists, wildlife biologists, doctors, green builders, and so on who can help replace the hierarchical, capitalist empires we have with horizontal or circular, voluntary communities and mutual aid societies that address human and ecological needs. But everyone able has to be prepared to fight to survive.
A diversity of tactics means all tactics, including nonviolent ones. Nonviolent tactics can complement combative tactics so long as nonviolent protesters don’t interfere, condemn, or snitch on more combative and militant protesters with the same exact end goals. If only combative tactics are used, it is easier to convince the public that protesters are “destructive terrorists” and that greater police and military repression and reactionary force is needed. Conversely, if only nonviolent tactics are used, nonviolent protesters can be easily crushed. Truly, a balance is needed and some kind of alliance between nonviolent and combative protesters may be helpful. Nonviolent protesters must realize their form of struggle is not the only one and they should accept different tactics are needed for different situations. We need every tactic we can come up with if we truly want our dreams for a better world to become a reality. As Peter wrote:
“The lesson is clear, for those willing to face the music. In order to show people that we are serious, that we are committed, that we are fighting for our lives, it is better to express unambiguously that we are the enemies of the established order, that we negate their laws, their offers of dialogue, and their false social peace, it is better to attack (and to come dressed for the occasion) than to dress up as clowns, tote about giant puppets, playing up a theatrical conflict with the police, locking down and expecting them to treat us humanely, or wait for the cameras to give our witty protest signs a close-up….. Only because we do not frame this as a popularity contest, but as a revolution, as a struggle to destroy the present system and create something wholly new, do all the festive and creative aspects of our struggle break out of the usual cycles of loyal dissent and counterculture that are co-opted from the beginning.” xii