Violence has always been an integral part of the successful revolutionary movements on some level or another, this is undeniable. From the 26th of July Movement to the Bolsheviks, we have been looking at a continuous history of struggle which has been incredibly violent in its successes as well as its failures. However, our job now is not to understand whether or not violence is necessary or if non-violence is by virtue of being itself, better. Our task now is to understand what is “Revolutionary Violence” and how do we utilize it? To answer this question we must first understand systemic violence, and how we are to respond to systemic violence in order to change, qualitatively, the world around us.
Systemic Violence and Resistance to it
Systemic violence is of course violence that we experience on a daily basis, violence against the oppressed segments of society which are beaten, brutalized, and forced constantly into an uphill struggle in order to preserve themselves. When understanding why our movement is essentially violent, the understanding of systemic violence must be hammered out. The violence against oppressed people is not always done with a gun to the head; violence against women encompasses everything from the abrupt and abusive behavior of men, to the coercion of society as a whole to set a “place” for them in the home, as well as in the workplace. An understanding of this kind of violence reveals that it erupts from the necessity of capitalism to maintain and reinforce these divisions, hierarchies, and social orders. Violence exists in the system even where it is not recognized by society at large. No one recognizes the violence of the oppressor, that which exists all around us, to be violence at all; that is, no one but the oppressed.
However, calling back to the “abrupt and abusive” violence mentioned previously, we can all see a dimension which is ignored by the oppressing orders, or which is propagated by them; even in some of its most vile and disturbing forms, violence of this type is almost never combated by any part of the oppressing order. The lynching of black people in the amerikan south by mobs of white people, the sexual assaults of women by men, and the assaults and murders of LGBTQ+ folk by cis/heterosexual society are clear examples of the naked face of systemic violence when simple coercion isn’t enough. It has been observed everywhere from San Francisco to Birmingham, this violence is produced anywhere the oppressed rub shoulders with the oppressors, the middle of the 20th century bringing about the greatest explosions in our recent historical memory. In 1972 Angela Davis had spoken on violence in the revolutionary movement, and in society as a whole, at this time in the swing of one such explosion.
“When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society’s organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions. If you are a black person and live in the black community all your life and walk out on the street everyday seeing white policemen surrounding you… when I was living in Los Angeles, for instance, long before the situation in L.A ever occurred, I was constantly stopped. No, the police didn’t know who I was. But I was a black women and I had a natural and they, I suppose thought I might be ‘militant.’ And when you live under a situation like that constantly, and then you ask me, you know, whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.” – Angela Davis, California State Prison, 1972
This description is very useful to us, primarily because it illuminates not only the violence of the oppressor but also without endorsement, understands the response of colonized and oppressed peoples to their conditions, even beyond that of organized resistance. This describes very well the relative “lashing out” of the colonized peoples against their oppressors and structures of their society in response to their conditions. As well, it highlights the fact that one cannot expect to bring about change in a system which enforces violence as total and horrific as the institutions of patriarchy and of colonialism, without an organized resistance to these forces. When the tools and structures put in place by a civil society are then expired, the oppressors can resolve the situation only through the escalation of violence. In a measure of last resort, class society will be guarded with any and all tools at their disposal. This is how one can measure the success or failure of the state to do so, when in times most agreeable to them, you may see the use of a generally accepted legal system and the negotiation to quell resistance against the state. However, in times most desperate, not only will you have the full repressive forces of the state unleashed, but violence which erupts across the board by the reactionaries of the conscious oppressor strata, even in the form of independent organizations to this end. Such as in South Afrika with the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and the KKK in amerika, both of which have appeared and resurged periodically to combat oppressed liberation and to reclaim or protect the status of the oppressor nation.
By Any Means Necessary
Given our understanding of oppression and its presence in society as a force which is omnipresent, one which cannot be escaped or avoided wherever you have contact from oppressor to the oppressed. We understand that our violence is, in the last analysis that which seeks to put an end to violence as a whole. Although, I think that we can all agree that “by any means necessary” is most definitely the phrase of the day, we cannot see all violence against the state apparatus as revolutionary, simply by virtue of its alignment with a perceived political goal. Our ultimate goal, in what I suppose would be the most basic frame of things, is for our revolutionary violence to be that which stands in opposition to systemic violence. By this I mean, that our actions of militancy are in both their immediate and long term-goals, that which is used to protect the oppressed people from the aggression of the oppressors.
To articulate what is meant here, an example would be the defense committees formed in black communities in the 1960’s to defend against the attacks by the KKK in Alabama and elsewhere in the south. These committees were established not to hunt down and to kill racists in general, nor were they established to bomb white communities, they were instead formed in a broad attempt to defend the black community from the racist violence of the KKK. To expand on that point, that does not mean we must always wait for the attack to come against us to respond to it. Another example of this would be the Cuban revolutionaries attacking the barracks in the Sierra Maestra Mountains in order to move the army out of the region so as to end their terror in the region and give space to the revolutionary movement and allow it to grow. All revolutionary attacks seem to follow this general line of thinking, our goal in using revolutionary violence in the long term is to end systemic violence, and in the short term it is to deflect, preempt, and dismantle systemic violence against the oppressed people.
However, that is not to say this is particularly limiting in how one is to struggle, it merely pushes revolutionaries to accept responsibility and discipline in understanding when and how violence and militancy is effective and appropriate. Careless acts of individual terror and so called “Propaganda of the Deed” have shown little effectiveness in the past at producing widespread consciousness at all and can and have had adverse effects on the organized resistance movement as a whole. For instance, Che details in his work on Guerrilla Warfare, that when the revolutionary army was to capture soldiers who had surrendered, it was never a good idea to simply execute them all summarily. Of course this may be a tad far from the reality of first world struggles in North Amerika and Europe, but its overall message resonates. He says generally, that it is unwise to carry out such an action because it not only sends a message to soldiers from then on not to surrender to you, but as well it begins to create a gap between what you are doing and what you hope to achieve. To rephrase, if the goal of the revolution in Cuba was to liberate the Cuban people, what could be gained by arbitrarily killing all those they came into conflict with? To draw this into our own perspective and into our own program here in the first world the same question must be asked, what real good can we achieve with hyper-violence? That is, we could deal with violently all those with reactionary ideas we encounter, we could attack every sexist, every racist, every transmisogynist, and heterosexist, though we have to beg the question of who might that NOT entail? The reactionary and bourgeois ideology has very well penetrated most oppressed people; if we are to treat every person displaying it as an enemy to be attacked, rather than to be rehabilitated and to be educated, we are failing at our jobs as revolutionaries. This kind of hyper-violence would succeed only to alienate from the very people we seek to protect and to liberate from our cause– to become the perceived enemy of the politically backwards, who are still among the most abused by the capitalist system.
On one hand you have those attacks which I have previously described in talking about Angela Davis’ thoughts on the matter, where she talks on the inevitability of such violence of the oppressed erupting in the face of violence already present from the oppressor, violence which has its roots in the feelings of hopelessness and despair of the colonized people trapped and pressured into their smaller and smaller enclosures. Then, you have the opportunistic violence, and hyper violence, of those who would paint themselves as saviors of the oppressed themselves. We must understand the violence of the oppressed as being an irrational outgrowth from the body which is imperialism, it is their response to the conditions they are placed in. Their violence against the oppressor in the unorganized fashions which it sometimes manifests is an understandable occurrence whose blame falls most heavily on the colonial system as a whole. However, on the other hand you have the individual terror of individuals acting on either the principle of the “Propaganda of the Deed”, or the concept that with action you can inspire consciousness in its wake, which has proven to in many cases resulted in little to no consciousness, and in fact shown to disgust and alienate the population.
On the issue of individual terror, acts of these type would be described as individual or small-group-acts of violence against the powers at be which occur outside the context of a movement or organized resistance. To this effect, you also have the encouragement of such attacks by opportunistic segments of the revolutionary movement, which places them as effective replacements for actual organized resistance against the colonial, patriarchal, and capitalist structures. The proponents of such attacks are themselves engaging in a form of opportunism which puts the desires of themselves individually over that of the health of the movement. These attacks are detrimental for a list of reasons, first being their potential to incite state repression before the movement is secure enough to deflect or absorb such a blow. An attack before an organization is prepared to withstand the next step in the revolutionary process could paralyze or even undo, partially or fully, the revolutionary movement before it has reached a certain stage. As well, these attacks also have the threat of alienating the population who themselves are not yet at the level of consciousness to understand the motivation and causes of the attack itself. The third is that the attack in itself may not have any alignment at all with revolutionary ideals, yet is coupled with the revolutionary movement in its propagation. One example of this would be with Émile Henry, who in 1894 detonated a bomb in a Parisian café in an attempt to demonstrate the ability of the Anarchists to use violence and explosives, in the hope it would spur consciousness. However, this attack was upon normal people in a café, it had wounded twenty people and killed one person and totally alienated the Parisian population from the Anarchist movement in Paris as they were disgusted with the attack. Individual terror has been shown, historically, to be nothing more than the opportunist and individualist actions of those who forsake the revolutionary movement and organized resistance for their own ends. What we need instead, is an organized resistance, a mass movement whose militancy is disciplined and follows the logic of a revolutionary struggle for total liberation.
Affirmation of Organized Resistance
Now that we’ve expanded upon problems of individualist attacks and undisciplined militancy within the revolutionary movement; now that we can properly contextualize unorganized violence as that which erupts outside the revolutionary movement as responses to the oppression these victims face, we must now consider the principles of revolutionary militancy in greater detail. What does it do? What does it hope to achieve? We have already established the overall goal and mentality of revolutionary violence in the long and short term, but not its application, for which we must look at the two situations at which it arises:
- To defend a legitimate gain made by the revolutionary movement and the people as a whole
- To secure tactical/strategic objectives in order to advance the revolutionary movement
In this framework, we can begin to understand exactly when and where we must employ militancy in order to achieve or defend gains for the revolutionary struggle. This understanding I feel is entirely necessary to avoid the confusion of when and how militant solutions must be applied in order to advance or guard the struggle.
To explain in more depth what is meant when we are talking about defending the legitimate gains made by a revolutionary organization we can use an example. In Detroit many people will have their water shut off by the city due to their inability to pay for it, so one thing the neighborhood could do is to then take tools and find the valves and turn them back on. Once the water is back on, the city officials return to attempt to once again shut off the water, it would then be duty of any organization then operating in the community to by whatever means necessary prevent them from turning the water back off. This would be the defense of a legitimate gain, the returning of water to the people whom have had been denied it, and the subsequent defense of this achievement (however small it is in the greater scope of things) against those who would take it away. This notion can however be expanded to entire dual power institutions, and the own organization and leadership organs which would eventually be sought to lead a counter-hegemony built by the revolutionary organization. It is inevitable that such an organization or its dual power would come under attack by the state and the ruling classes, and it would be the task of the revolutionary organization to defend that gain or abandon it.
In a similar fashion, to explain the use of militancy to secure an objective that would advance the revolutionary movement and harm the hegemony of the ruling classes and the state, we can once again look back to our example in the Cuban revolution. The attack on barracks in the Sierra Maestra Mountains was a good example of this because it was an attempt secure the objective of harassing the Cuban military into their retreat from the area and open up space in which they could advance the revolutionary organization as a whole and more effectively assert themselves as a force in Cuba. The essence of achieving a tactical/strategic objective would be to win something for the struggle itself, or to strike a blow to the powers at be which allows for the growth of revolutionary counter-hegemony. One example of this in a contemporary setting would be an organization which could organize itself to attack or drive out the Klan from their community through various methods, which would then open up in the vacuum of their removal, space for the revolutionary organization to then fill with their own institutions. This is done in the components of individual actions however, all tactical objectives to achieve a greater one, which is to remove the Klan from a specific neighborhood, community, or area.
Revolutionary militancy in these fashions, and ascribing to the principles of the revolutionary movement and not simply acting on its behalf, is an essential and organic development of the revolutionary cause. These militant movements have a time and place where they must be raised and utilized, one cannot simply create a people’s army before there is a campaign for the army to engage itself in, and one cannot simply declare an armed struggle before there are objectives which are able to be secured and gains to be defended. The revolutionary must be disciplined, as a movement we must not succumb to tactics of hyper-violence and individual terror, which alienate the revolutionary organization from the people and ultimately our struggle from our goals. We must not only ascribe to our struggle the methods which will achieve our goals, but also methods which reflect the principles of our goals. The ultimate message here must be the individual and organizational discipline on the use of violence and militant action, knowing when and how to appropriately apply it. As well, to reaffirm that it is organized resistance which is needed to combat capitalism, not undisciplined adventurism and hyper-violence.