What Black Bloc Bashing Can Tell Us About Left Intellectual Culture

In the past several months, there has been a renewed interest, both on the part of regime media and on that of left media outlets, in black bloc tactics. No doubt this is due in very large part to the (frequently successful) attempts by antifascists in the US to shut down fascist and white supremacist organising efforts. With honourable exceptions, the commentary has been characterised by ignorance and irresponsibility, and those who have shown these qualities in the greatest measure have been given the best platforms from which to misinform the public at large and distort the debate on the left.

Chief amongst the misconceptions promoted by commentators – who disqualify themselves from commenting either by knowing better or by not knowing better – is the notion that there is such an organisation as The Black Bloc. According to one Dunning-Krugerian masterpiece from a few years ago by Chris Hedges (and fiercely defended after its debunking by Louis Proyect), this ‘organisation’ is even made up of the followers of ‘anarcho-primitivist’ John Zerzan! This codswallop has been so thoroughly discredited by now that detailed refutation is redundant. Suffice it to say that there is no such organisation, and that, where we speak of a ‘black bloc’, we are speaking of a tactic used by a diverse and ever-changing group of people who see the need for confrontational tactics and the utility of concealing their identity to safeguard against reprisals.


The A-B March: A Symbol of Despair

Much more interesting are the attempts at detailed discussion – often in movement media – of the tactics used by black blocs. These merit more thorough examination because they reveal one of the greatest weaknesses the modern left must overcome: the dearth of informed strategic and tactical thinking. The left, and none more than those who fancy themselves the intellectual vanguard of the revolution, has become fossilised in its tactical and strategic imagination. The outer limits of the tactical and strategic thought of much of the organised left are found in the decision of whether to have a static rally, a march from point A to point B, or a combination of the above, all thoroughly coordinated with the authorities so as to ensure minimum disruption to business as usual, and thus, maximum irrelevance (the recent emergence of tactics such as roadblocks, port shutdowns, and airport protests is hopefully the start of a departure from this limited model). Fundamentally, these are tactics of symbolic protest, in that they consist of registering objections or expressing demands without imposing any cost on the ruling class to whom these objections and demands are addressed.

In essence, this notion of symbolic protest not as one part of a balanced tactical diet, but as the entire diet from which no deviation is permitted, is an outlook of unadulterated revolutionary despair. It brings to mind a prisoner who, seeing no way to resist or escape, decides to make as much noise as possible ‘so at least no one will think I went willingly.’ The prisoner, however, at least understands the reasons for this tactical decision. I am not convinced that those who treat ‘a march and a wee paper sale’ as the tactic of first, last, and only resort have such insight. Indeed, many of them seem quite convinced that this alone is the way to bring about The Revolution, although they often have a sufficiently detailed knowledge of, say, Russia in 1917, Vietnam, Ireland, and Palestine throughout the 20th century, and so many other examples that they could reasonably be expected to know better. In the words of James Connolly, whose writings offer an excellent model of sound tactical and historical thinking, ‚they seem in some strange and, to me, incomprehensible manner to have detached themselves from the everyday struggles of the toilers and to imagine they are doing their whole duty as interpreters of Socialist thought.’


When ‘Senseless’ Means ‘I Never Really Thought About It’

This, it seems to me, is the intellectual wellspring of so many superficial condemnations of militant, confrontational, and disruptive ‘black bloc’ tactics. These ‘critiques’ are frequently accompanied by open admissions that their authors do not comprehend the tactics they presume to critique. From these professed revolutionaries, we hear of ‘senseless property damage‘, or that it is impossible to know what point there could possibly be in breaking street lights or turning over cars, setting up barricades, etc., often accompanied by the unsupported – and dangerously irresponsible – assertion that those engaging in such tactics work for the police. I refrain from offering individual examples, because the point here is not to single out individuals for criticism, and because anyone who has been involved in these maddening debates knows that this sort of thinking is ubiquitous.

What is clear from these ‘critiques’ is that those expressing them, whilst frequently able to speak at length of the working-class insurrections of the past, have never truly attempted to imagine themselves in the place of the ordinary working-class people who fought those battles, let alone dared to participate in the smaller confrontations that we see regularly throughout the world today. They’ve read – and sometimes written – volumes about the great barricades of history, but have never considered what is involved in holding down an intersection with nothing but improvised weapons in order to give others a chance to escape from what promises to be a brutal charge of armoured cars, water cannons, and cops dressed like Saracens with limbs. And if they’ve ever had the opportunity to see for themselves, they’ve run the other way (a sensible thing to do if you’re not prepared for a fight, to be sure, but it does constitute an obstacle to understanding their dynamics). What seems like senseless destruction when all you see is the wreckage on the morning after, makes perfect sense when you’ve got heavily armed goons advancing in front of you, unarmed protesters retreating behind you, and all that stands between the two is your good self and a few comrades.


How Militant Tactics Can Help Keep Us Safe: A Case Study

An example from my own experience will hopefully illustrate the point. Some time ago, I participated in a night-time mass march in Santiago de Chile against military police repression and in support of a gravely wounded comrade. As I have already written elsewhere about it, suffice it to say that it was a truly moving and highly artistic and creative affair, and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere prevailed wherever I went in the crowd. Upon reaching the presidential palace of La Moneda (which was on our approved route!), we were immediately attacked without the slightest provocation by the ‘Special Forces’ division of the Carabineros (military police), who had been lying in wait in a side street next to La Moneda. Whilst the overwhelming majority of the protesters sought safety further down along the route, I briefly stayed behind at the front line to photograph our attackers.

As such, I was able to witness some of what is called ‘senseless destruction’ first-hand. Around me, I saw a black bloc (encapuchados) smashing illuminated advertisements and taking out high-up streetlights with truly remarkable skill. At first, like many of our esteemed intellectuals, I could not see the point of the exercise, but it became quite clear when I realised that they were systematically taking out light sources. This, it bears repeating, was a night march. Anyone who has ever been kneecapped by a coffee table when they get up for a late-night piss knows of the immense tactical value of light when the sun’s not out. By taking out stationary light sources, the encapuchados were depriving the Special Forces peelers of the ability to aim and to charge at speed without running into or tripping over obstacles.

If all I’d seen of this had been the broken glass on the morning after, rather than seeing one light after another descend into darkness that night, I might well have been inclined to believe this to be ‘pointless destruction’. But having been there that night, I was able to see how this action on the part of the encapuchados helped protect us all from a heavily armed gang of thugs who had just one week before demonstrated their willingness to kill unarmed protesters.

When, having done what I’d set out to do, I joined the (quite orderly) retreat, I saw another example of an entirely sensible measure that is often decried as ‘senseless’: flaming barricades. The barricades come in for constant condemnation in the Chilean media. Without fail, the leadership of the CUT (the local equivalent of the TUC or AFL-CIO) and the Communist Party (the local equivalent of a damp squib) come out to vilify the ‚ultras‘ and their barricades. Indeed, barricades have become a shorthand way of referring to these ‘ultras’ who are said to be ‘haciéndole la pega a la derecha’ (doing the right wing’s work for them).

When at last I’d reached breathable air and safety (or so I thought), I suddenly saw thousands of marchers running like hell in the opposite direction. When, seeking safety, we veered off on a side street, what was decried as senseless, once again, quickly proved quite sensible. As we walked back to the safety of the main university building, I saw burning barricades on numerous side streets. The barricades themselves meant that the peelers could not charge down the barricaded streets in columns without tripping, nor could the armoured cars intercept us without risking their fuel lines. This created a roughly 100 metre buffer zone that allowed us to walk (not run) to safety undisturbed. It took over an hour to put out all the fires, and even longer to clear the debris. Had those barricades not been there, I have little doubt that I (and many others) would now be telling of severe beatings and a night spent being tortured in jail.

I offer this example because it is the one most thoroughly etched into my consciousness, but examples of this sort are abundant, and have been discussed often enough that those who condemn the ‘senseless violence’ of ‘The Black Bloc’ could not avoid being aware of them if they bothered to look.


‘It’s No Substitute For Proletarian Mass Action‘ is No Substitute for Serious Strategic Thought

Another common refrain in these condemnations – particularly from authoritarian sects like the US-based International Socialist Organisation – that tactics such as those just discussed or, of late, physical resistance to fascist organising efforts, are ‘no substitute for proletarian mass action’. Ignorance this breathtaking, offered in the sagest tones, is truly worthy of ‘Marxists’ who take the work of someone who famously wrote that ‘the philosophers have merely offered different interpretations of the world; the point is to change it‘ (Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern), and can think of nothing better to do with it than sit around endlessly interpreting it. Badly.

In uttering these words of wisdom, these avowed intellectuals demonstrate that all their endless reading and re-reading of the Marxist canon has been utterly in vain, for they have managed neither to understand what ‘proletarian mass action is’, nor how it is born. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the contrast they seek to create between individual skirmishes with cops and Nazis and ‘proletarian mass action’ makes about as much sense as saying (in the tone of one who is imparting Wisdom for the Ages to an audience of fools) that taking the ball off the other side is no substitute for winning the match, or that scoring a goal is no substitute for winning the World Cup, or that 1. e4 is no substitute for 20. Qe6#, depending on what sporting analogy one finds most appealing. Of course they’re not equivalent! But you’ll have a hell of a time achieving the latter if you don’t attempt some version of the former.

If you think you might be about to compare something unfavourably to ‚proletarian mass action‘, stop, take a breath, and consider whether you can get any more specific than that, particularly as concerns how that mass action gets started in the first place and why whatever you’re comparing ‚proletarian mass action‘ to is incapable of kicking off the process. If, after a count of ten, you haven’t actually got anything concrete, go run cold water over your face and wait for the impulse to pass.

The thing about proletarian mass action is that it’s a victory in and of itself, and like any victory that matters, it doesn’t happen on its own. Working-class people don’t just wake up one morning and all simultaneously say ‚you know, I think I’m going to go have an epic battle with fascism today‘.

That sort of mass action is inevitably preceded by lots of smaller fits and starts that begin to convince people that taking action is (a) possible, (b) capable of getting a desirable result, and (c) they’re not going to be alone if they do it. And, chances are, even those who are involved in those smaller fits and starts will be utterly clueless as to which attempt is the one that actually catches on.

To those who cannot think beyond symbolic protests, and for whom revolutions just emerge fully formed (at some time and place safely removed from now and here) because some self-appointed vanguard (with whom they invariably identify) gives the signal, these elementary points are gibberish. A pitched battle with the cops – even if the cops start it – is an unfortunate interruption to what was otherwise a smashing afternoon out. Success or failure in this view is not determined by whether the stated objective (‘Stop the War’, ‘Impeach Trump’, etc.) was met, but by how many people showed up and how the whole thing was received by the regime media. If the protesters are vilified in the media as violent, unkempt, and impolite, these great revolutionaries wonder what went wrong and write impassioned condemnations of the ‘bad protesters’ who didn’t keep the nonexistent peace. If the protest receives favourable coverage from the ruling class media, they will bask in the glories of their imagined victory even years after everyone else has noticed that it was a crushing defeat.

Why Revolutionary Victory Is Also Psychological

Agnostic as they are to the processes by which ‘proletarian mass action’ takes shape, these commentators miss what else is going on. They fail to recognise, for example, that the path to the mass uprising they claim the right to lead is as much psychological as it is political, physical, and economic.

The ruling class avail themselves of extensive means of deception and indoctrination, and a whole array of intimidation tactics, ranging from loss of livelihood to loss of life and much in between, to discourage anyone who might challenge their dominion over us all. Form a union or go on strike, and you might not have a job to come back to tomorrow. Refuse to do unpaid work and insist on decent employment with wages you can live on, and you might find yourself queuing at a food bank to survive after your benefits have been sanctioned. Stand in the way of your estate being demolished, your neighbours being evicted, or a pipeline being built in your ancestral land, and you’ll have to take it up with goon squads so heavily armour-clad that they’re barely recognisable as members of the human species. For the most part, there’s no need for these threats to be acted on, because the fear of retaliation is enough to discourage the oppressed from claiming what’s rightfully theirs.

There is no hope of changing this state of affairs unless that fear is overcome, and few (if any) ways of overcoming it better than confronting the source of it with others who have languished under the same fear. Indeed, this fear feels most insurmountable before it is confronted, when it is a diffuse, menacing presence. By confronting n defying those who would intimidate us into inaction, we can begin to get a close look at the threat and the fear that emanates from it. In so doing, we can begin to analyse the fear and separate that which alerts us to real danger from that which serves no useful purpose, and to separate the fear of what might happen to us from our fear of being incapable of coping with the situation.

When, for example, the state presents itself to protesters in the form of armoured cars and tanks and guns and hundreds of armour-plated gobshites marching along side them, the image they are seeking to project is unmistakable: We are invincible and inescapable. You cannot handle us. Obey or be crushed. The message is so effectively transmitted that few dare to put the threat to the test, preferring instead to curse the bastards under their breath or work through the impotent rage by watching riot footage on YouTube. To face such an intimidating display of potential violence, especially for the first time, and to defy it openly and get away with it is an epiphany: You discover that you are capable of more than you’d given yourself credit for, and that the state’s armed enforces – whilst certainly daunting – aren’t nearly as invincible as they’d have you believe. It is these sorts of experiences, whether it’s holding one’s ground against the boss and winning or surviving a confrontation with riot cops, that build the confidence that begins to make mass action possible.


Demystifying Strategic Thinking: The Science Of Actually Fucking Winning


Seen in this way, every action that directly challenges the authority of the ruling class potentially helps to expand the participants’ and witnesses’ concept of what can be done, thus helping to build the skills and confidence needed to go on to bigger and better things. It is this approach that, rather than focussing on what supposedly can’t be done under the present conditions, asks what effective action can be taken given the means currently at our disposal, what we need to be able to do in order to achieve our ultimate goal of overthrowing capitalism, and what we must do in order to keep narrowing the gap between the two. If the goal is clear, then the only real question is what we need to do to achieve it, and every tactical decision we take – whether it’s to do with our organising efforts, strikes, protests, or to do with developing skills and resources, etc. – must be measured against that standard.

Measured against this standard (an actual standard, where previously there really wasn’t one), for example, the condemnations of physical resistance to fascism appear particularly ridiculous. Clearly, the Antifa actions that are already occurring fall within what can be done with the people, skills, and resources currently at our disposal, because otherwise they wouldn’t already be occurring (whether there are ways within our reach to improve on the existing approach is another matter). Because fascists’ entire reason for existing is to murder marginalised people and crush any movement seeking to challenge capitalism, and they are largely given a free pass by police, who frequently share their outlook, resisting them by all means at our disposal is clearly necessary. Likewise, it is both appropriate and necessary to do it now, when they are still relatively weak, rather than later when they might be too strong to handle. Furthermore, given their current numbers, organisation, and capabilities, they are a beatable adversary, and, as such, defeating them not only removes a threat that we would have to deal with sooner or later, but allows us to develop skills and confidence that will hold us in good stead in other struggles. It offers a clear, measurable objective for which we are not relying on help from on high, but on our own individual and collective capabilities; as such, a successful outcome will tend to show not only that there is a point to actually getting out and resisting (rather than just bandying about the word ‘resistance’ and not actually doing anything of consequence), and that we don’t need benevolent members of the ruling class to fight our battles for us. All these are valuable lessons that help to hasten the day on which really large-scale, mass action becomes a real possibility.

At this point in the discussion, it is hard not to think of all the sage counsel on the hopelessness of seeking to defeat the ruling class, who now possess an arsenal capable of exterminating all life on Earth with enough left over to sort out a few additional planets if the need should arise, by main force (as if anyone were seriously proposing that force alone could do it). Our rulers, they say, are far too well armed to even think of ever confronting them militarily. Despite its superficial appeal, there are a number of problems with this argument. First, the implied assumption here is that the ruling class won’t use violence against us unless we start it. Tell that to the Standing Rock water protectors, or Philando Castile’s grieving family. State violence is ubiquitous even when those challenging the state do nothing that even vaguely smacks of violence. Indeed, people of colour and many others can’t even simply go about their lives without having to factor in the possibility of extreme state violence.

This gets this argument off to a decidedly suboptimal start, even before we take it all the way to its logical conclusion, i.e., that we should simply give up any hope of replacing the capitalist system with something decent and conducive to dignified human survival altogether.

It may not be clear at first glance why surrender is the only logical conclusion to flow from this advice; after all, it is not explicitly barring any other means of struggle, merely those that rely on force. Surely, that leaves numerous avenues open?

But consider this: Let’s say we take this advice and ensure that we conduct our revolutionary activity in a way that not even Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr could find fault with. Hell, let’s say we follow the tactical prescriptions of our eager vanguard-to-be in the ISO and the SWP to the letter. Let’s further say that we actually manage, though a steady diet of tithing a huge chunk of our incomes to the ISO and the SWP, selling their newspapers, and marching up and down the street every few months, we actually manage to get to the brink of revolution (I’m buggered if I know how this could ever happen, and our would-be vanguard have yet to let the cat out of the bag, but let’s just assume for the sake of argument).

So there we are, the working class, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, organised with one sole demand, which our delegates duly bring before the rulers of this world. Politely but firmly, our delegates then say ‘After much deliberation, we’ve decided we’re really going to have to ask you to go ahead and fuck off so that we can set about fixing this repugnant mess you’ve made of society and the planet. And do remember to leave the surplus value along with the keys to the castle.’

Then what?

Does anyone think that that would be the end of it? That the ruling class, who have used their awesome arsenal to bring war to every inhabited continent, who have laid waste to an entire region just to gain control of strategic resources, the butchers of Fallujah, Gaza, East Timor, Vietnam, and so many other places, will simply yield to our democratically expressed will? Will they fuck.

The people of Chile democratically expressed their will to break the bonds of dependence on the US and begin building socialism. The response was a military coup, hundreds of thousands exiled, and thousands murdered, tortured, and ‘disappeared’. The people of Ireland overwhelmingly voted in 1918 to leave the British Empire and form a republic in which, according to the republican proclamation, the whole of the country was to be collectively owned by the people of the country. Britain, with its values of democracy and fair play, sent troops to terrorise the population, and threatened worse unless they backed down. In order to prevent a democratic left-leaning mass independence movement winning a fair election, the United States pounded Vietnam and its neighbouring countries to dust for fourteen long years, killing millions. But we’re really meant to believe they will meekly accede to our request that they give up the lot? That does not seem particularly likely.

If we have followed the prescriptions of so many movement intellectuals, we will be utterly unprepared to face what comes next, and so we will just have to accept that it’s not to be and pack it in. By making the outcome we are fighting for ultimately dependent on the benevolence of our adversaries, we are pledging our lives to a cause that we recognise from the start to be futile. If, on the other hand, along with all the other means of struggle we develop and deploy, we develop and perfect the capability and the will to defend ourselves and our gains by force if necessary, we may ultimately lose, but at least we’ll have some chance of victory in case the ruling class are not receptive to our proposal to make them redundant.

An Intellectual Culture of Verbose Surrender

In the preceding paragraphs, I have at times made quite harsh remarks about fairly broadly defined groups of people (e.g., intellectuals, purported vanguards). Those who feel they may be included within those broad categories, but who do not match the descriptions I’ve provided, are, of course, not included within my critique of those groups. Those who have been specifically identified are merely individual examples of a much more generalised problem.

I’ve focussed my criticism on movement ‘intellectuals’ for quite simple reasons: Intellectuals, both in capitalist society as a whole and in the movement culture that arises within that society, claim and receive deference as ‘intellectuals’ not because of intellect, nor because of the quality, clarity, or originality of their thought, but because of their socioeconomic position within capitalism, which allows them the leisure to read and interpret the works some segments of the left have come to regard not as tools of analysis, but as Scripture. Their knowledge of what Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky wrote is encyclopaedic (though they seem to have overlooked what Trotsky said about how to combat fascism), but their knowledge, and thus their interest and their writing, on how to actually revolutionise society is nil (this latter quality makes them ideal partners for supine trade union bureaucrats). Were it not for their penchant for censorship, they would make excellent movement librarians (and we could use good librarians, because their work makes the rest of ours easier).

Due to their elevated platform, their interests and preoccupations become the interests and preoccupations of a large segment of the movement (going well beyond the negligible membership of their sects). Because so many comrades lack the confidence in their own intellect to treat these talking helium balloons the way they’d treat any bellend talking shite down the pub, we end up with a revolutionary culture not worthy of the name. Instead of a culture that helps to develop the capabilities of comrades so that they are as fully equipped as possible to trust their own critical faculties, and to help build a revolution in accordance with their own particular talents and inclinations, this culture incubates generations of revolutionaries who want to defeat capitalism as fervently as a priest wants to beat Beelzebub, but who are no more able to explain how to engineer that victory than the priest is to explain the molecular basis of transubstantiation. Those who claim the right to mould the culture of a movement must be willing to be held to high standards, and expect to be dealt with harshly if they fail to measure up. Alas, as in the society at large, few of these intellectuals do measure up.


We Can Do Better

We have to do better than this depressing intellectual culture. Fortunately for us (and for posterity!), it is entirely within our reach. With all the world’s knowledge (and, alas, all the world’s bullshit and all) at our fingertips, there is nothing immovable standing in the way of building a revolutionary culture that nurtures all our critical faculties, that develops the ability of each of us to analyse all that comes before us (and, above all, to have well-founded confidence in our capacity to do so), and in which strategic thinking is demystified as the basic analytical process it is rather than some sort of alchemy, a culture where we are all capable of defining objectives and working out how to achieve them (not that this is all that needs to change, but the rest belongs to different – but equally important – categories).

It is within our reach to build a revolutionary movement that does things, rather than just talking about them, and that helps others to learn how to do them as well (which would be a hell of a lot more attractive to those we are fighting for than endless debates on primitive accumulation and the commodity fetish). We have the capability to build all this and more.

But do we have the will?

One bloody well hopes so!