The following is a response by Don H. to the discussion. It goes beyond the specifics of PDX and looks more at the generalized meanings and risks of and for militant organizing, strategies and actions.
militant movements can have features that undermine its political base and contribute to its premature exhaustion. This potential is maximized by the very common tendency to justify actions and attitudes by treating any victims or complainants as political opponents and/or class enemies when that is not true or, at least, well before it has been convincingly established…
As the struggle becomes more intense, I think it becomes important to draw clear and operational lines between combatants and non-combatants. More crucially, it raises the need to actively work to recognize and limit any collateral damages that follow from the actions of our side – damages to bystanders and/or to fellow participants. I shouldn’t have to point out that such damages can’t be limited, if they are never acknowledged.
Broader implications for militant movements
Contribution by Don H.
I don’t have much to add on the specific points at issue in this discussion. However, I think some general issues lurking behind the discussion shouldn’t be lost as the immediate tactical questions lose their urgency.
I think the current movement confronts two important problems that must be dealt with simultaneously if there is any possibility to avoid a recurring mess of unproductive conflicts and contradictions.
A healthy and growing movement needs a leading edge characterized by a militant and systematic rejection and refusal of capitalist power and culture. Such a movement also needs a popular base that sees the movement as generally representative of its interests and that replenishes and expands purposive participation in it. The development and defense of both aspects of the movement are essential for a viable struggle. However, the relationship between them is seldom simple and self-evident over any substantial time.
I hope you’ll tolerate a couple of points about how these dilemmas have been operative in my very long, but not particularly noteworthy, political life. They are not ordered by chronology or by relative significance and will remain a bit cryptic to protect the guilty.
As STO (Sojourner Truth Organization) was reaching the end of its rope in the early eighties, a number of us had become increasingly concerned with developing a challenge to the pacificism and legalism that had dominated much of the movement in its fairly precipitous decline since the early seventies. The dual focus of our specific political work – production organizing and political support for clandestine armed groupings in this country and internationally – each produced major pressures in this direction. However, starting in the early eighties we began to consciously develop approaches that emphasized confrontational direct action outside the parameters of legally acceptable dissent.
Some who had been associated with our political tendency saw this changed direction as crazed while others, less friendly, called it ‘macho assholeist’. Nevertheless, very gradually and not really in any important way as a consequence of anything we did, the general approach became more broadly accepted – first in antifascist organization and later in anti-globalization efforts. Now the popular legitimacy of mass illegality is increasingly evident in every popular upsurge in this country. After having lived through multiple decades when it was virtually absent, I can’t overemphasize the importance of this factor and this inclines me to the side of those that prioritize the protection and promotion of the leading edge of the struggle – even where it includes mistakes that are real and serious.
However, militant movements can have features that undermine its political base and contribute to its premature exhaustion. This potential is maximized by the very common tendency to justify actions and attitudes by treating any victims or complainants as political opponents and/or class enemies when that is not true or, at least, well before it has been convincingly established. I think of the FALN’s (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) Fraunces Tavern bombing, where the four casualties were pictured as Wall Street operatives when they were actually clerks; and a number of occasions in my experience where mistaken charges of agent or provocateur produced them from less single-minded and committed cadres.
As the struggle becomes more intense, I think it becomes important to draw clear and operational lines between combatants and non-combatants. More crucially, it raises the need to actively work to recognize and limit any collateral damages that follow from the actions of our side – damages to bystanders and/or to fellow participants. I shouldn’t have to point out that such damages can’t be limited, if they are never acknowledged. Proper handling of such issues requires some self-discipline in the leading edge groupings. More important and more difficult, it requires that these groupings are actually receptive to criticisms from outside their organizational boundaries.
In this context, I don’t agree with the view of the relationship between leading militant activists, ‘front-liners’, and the rest of the movement and its potential base – not to mention the rest of the world – that has been presented in various anonymous reports from the George Floyd actions in Portland, Twin Cities, and elsewhere that we have all seen. Along with some useful insights, these tend to discount the importance of strengthening the links between the social base and constituency of the struggle and its “front-liners”.
Consider some implications of such issues in a different historical period – the late sixties and early seventies – that arguably has similarities with the current context. Perhaps that situation was closer to ungovernable; with rebellions in the Black urban cores, Black worker uprisings in basic industry, widespread high school and college walkouts, insurgent elements in the military, draft refusal, etc; although the failed state characteristics and the questions of the legitimacy of the capitalist order were more submerged then than they are presently. In any case parallel problems with relationships between leading elements and mass constituencies were certainly evident then.
I was close to the side of it that involved the fragmenting of SDS and the emergence and quick decline of Weather, that, I think, provides important cautions for potential problems of the present. In the late sixties, and particularly in that arena of protest, the overall outlook of the mass movements had shifted very rapidly towards radicalism and revolution. For SDS there was a brief hesitation at a ‘Revolutionary Youth Movement’ that had some parallels to the black bloc phenomenon (although the over-riding importance of global anti-imperialism was a significant element of difference). Then, in a remarkably short time, sectors of RYM developed a ‘front-liners’ mentality with a degree of hubris that merits Gramsci’s ‘imbecilic self-sufficiency’ charge. This led to Weather’s ‘custeristic’ Days of Rage that began a process that in a very few months reduced its membership exponentially and transformed it into an ineffectual clandestine quasi-military formation. This removed an important segment of ‘front-liners’ and their immediate supporting periphery from active struggle. When Weather re-emerged a few years down the road, its politics had become indistinguishable from CP popular frontism. The internal critiques and splits that began promptly led to Prairie Fire and May 19th with their very different, although equally crippling, problems. I don’t want to push this analogy too far, but it’s important to be see how easily a struggle framework can internalize and militarize when a renewed appreciation of the objective difficulties of the struggle are produced by some tactical defeats. When that happens, first we get the shopworn ‘Better Fewer, But Better’ rationale and then the Anna Mae Aquash and Freddy Mendes type casualties and cases; then we get the lurch to the right and, ultimately, one or another form of incorporation marked with a flowering of what the Italians called the penetentis (sp).
I don’t mean any of this to understate the primary strategic problem; capitulating to a posited mass backwardness to justify a lowest common denominator strategy with tactics and ‘optics’ that won’t ‘alienate’ some illusory base. This approach usually metamorphosizes into some preferred pathway of the ‘liberal’ component of the structure of oppression. Its rejection is what is healthiest about the current scene.