After Strasbourg: On dealing with violence in one's own ranks
“The more violence, the less revolution,” Bart de Ligt wrote in The Conquest of Violence in 1936. If we accept this, then there was very little revolution in Strasbourg, despite all the romantic revolutionary rhetoric from certain groupings. I put this first in order to make it clear that this is a critique from a revolutionary perspective, and not a criticism of violence from a Green or Left-Party state-reformist point of view which accepts the state's monopoly on the use of force.
But as grass-roots revolutionaries, as nonviolent anarchists, we must also deal with violence from the ranks of social movements, for this violence is counterproductive from our perspective on revolution.
It is clear that there was a great deal of unprovoked violence on the part of the police in Strasbourg: for example, tear gas was used against peaceful demonstrators without any prior warning, including at some of the blockades by Block NATO. It is also clear that there were numerous agents provocateurs in action. There were at least two independent observations of people disguised as “black bloc” types sitting in police vans. And it is also clear that there are still numerous open questions regarding the burning down of the Ibis Hotel and other buildings. But despite all this it is undeniable that in Strasbourg, there was a problem of violence on the part of the movement, a problem which the movement has to deal with constructively. And this applies not just to April 4th.
Problematic forms of action and interaction in the camp
As “NATO-ZU” – a coalition of nonviolent groups with the goal of blockading the NATO summit nonviolently, which War Resisters' International helped to initiate (see Graswurzelrevolution nos. 336 and 337) – we had our base in the camp on the Rue de la Ganzau in the south of Strasbourg. The camp itself had been organized by a coalition of German and French groups, with the objective of providing a common infrastructure for actions during the NATO summit.1 Which was fine, as far as this goes.
What was problematic were some of the actions that started from the camp, and how the consequences of these actions were dealt with in the camp. Some examples:
- On Thursday, 2 April, there was an anti-repression demo starting from the camp. In the course of this demonstration, not only were many windows in a French barracks smashed (an action which it could be argued was justifiable, although I doubt that it made any tactical sense at that time and in that form), but also bus stops and other public facilities and garbage containers were destroyed or set on fire at random.2 As a result of the demonstration, the police pursued some demonstrators up to the vicinity of the camp, which caused some people to fear an impending attack by the police on the camp. Barricades were erected, and there were confrontations with the police, with tear gas being used, at the northeastern exit of the camp. In this case, NATO-ZU, together with the International Coordinating Committee “No to NATO”, made efforts at de-escalation – NATO-ZU inside the camp, and the Coordinating Committee intervened with the police.
On Friday, 3 April, a confrontation with the police occurred on the Rue de la Ganzau, after a group of the Clowns Army had been detained by the police for a lengthy period to check their identities. Barricades were erected on the Rue de la Ganzau, and the first barricade was set on fire. Attempts by individual Clowns, by NATO-ZU, and by others to get the people to return to the camp failed. In this case, there was no further escalation, since the police had no interest in one.
A problem in both cases was that a few people more-or-less imposed a militant “defence” of the camp on the camp participants. Apart from the basic question of the use of force, a discussion about whether this militance at this time and place made sense tactically was not possible in effect. But just as problematic was that a large part of the camp did not seem to care, and people continued eating calmly while the situation around the camp was escalating. Only a few took responsibility for what was happening in and around the camp. While only a few joined in the escalation themselves, it was often supported by the presence of others, who in effect provided silent support.
After the successful nonviolent blockade by NATO-ZU, we were not able to reach the demonstration. We were stopped by the police at the Pont d'Anvers, the bridge linking the city to the port district. So I do not have first-hand reports on the demonstration itself.
Without wishing to downplay the massive and often unprovoked attacks by the French police (the police strategy was clearly a strategy of escalation), it is clear that there were also massive attacks on the police and considerable destruction at or in the vicinity of the demonstration. The burnt-out Ibis Hotel is only the most visible symbol of a violence that in part also randomly destroyed things that were of importance to the local residents of a district that is underprivileged anyway: a pharmacy, bus stops, etc.
Regardless of whether agents provocateurs were involved here, too, this confronts us with numerous questions.
Violence as a result of “structural violence”?
A reason commonly suggested for the use of violence is that “structural violence” in our society more-or-less compels violence. It is certainly true that violence often represents an impotent response to structural violence in our society. Violence in underprivileged districts of our cities is only one example of this. The police response to this violence produced by social problems is part of the problem, and only leads to an escalation of violence which can then erupt on other occasions, as well. As the crisis of capitalism intensifies, this problem will tend to get worse in the future – including at demonstrations.
In connection with the events in Strasbourg, I see three related and mutually reinforcing sets of problems:
a strategy of “autonomous” groups which relies on anonymity and on militant confrontations. In the process, other activists are used, unasked and against their will, as a mass offering cover and support;
the violence in impoverished French suburbs, which can become mixed with actions by “autonomous” groups, but contains little in the way of political objectives or tactics;
the use of agents provocateurs by the organs of the state, made easier by the anonymity and the mishmash described above.
Regardless of who exactly was responsible for what, this forces social movements – in the case of Strasbourg the anti-war and peace movement – into a militant confrontation with the police, a confrontation which they can only lose. And I am not concerned here with what Wolfgang Kraushaar has called the “militance trap”3, but with a more fundamental dispute about violence.
Against the logic of revolutionary violence
“We flatly deny that revolutionary acts of violence have any moral, socialist dignity. Violence, which is always an attack on people, is in absolute contradiction to the spirit of the socialist ideal. . (...) Nor is there any justification for violence in that it is employed in the name of the interests and sufferings of the majority of working and oppressed humanity.”4 This statement by the Russian Social Revolutionary Isaak Steinberg is relevant to the debate after Strasbourg, too.
Every evaluation of political actions and the means employed must develop its standards from the objective not only of the individual specific action, but of the political utopia involved – if there is one. Anything else leads to an arbitrary choice of means, to the empty phrase “The end justifies the means”, with which every form of cruelty has been justified by all sides throughout history.
To quote Isaak Steinberg again: “And the guardians of the goals, the temporary rulers of human history, have always though, often honestly, and repeated to themselves or others: ‘The end justifies the means!’(...)
But if the ‘technical’ point of view is based on this formula, the ‘moral’ point of view must possess another formula. I think that it can be grasped and specified without difficulty. It would be: It is not the end that justifies the means, but rather the end is justified by the means. Not everything is permissible, this formula says. It is not enough to determine the goal, to intellectualize and embellish it; it will remain empty words if the path leading to it is not deeply and intimately related to it. The goal is a master plan which is drafted by the creative human spirit, a far-off silhouette on the intellectual horizon, a wide vessel enclosing much, that awaits its creative fulfillment. The ‘means’ are the selected, sensitive hands related to the ends, which erect the building according to this plan, bring the true silhouette to life, fill the dark vessel to the brim. Only by selected and kindred means can the ideal outline of the goal be clothed in the flesh and blood of the idealistic deed and the embodied ideal. ‘The end justifies the means’ means: the implementation of the external framework of the task is possible by unscrupulous selection of the ways. ‘The end is justified by the means’ means: only by strict selection of the ways can the internal meaning of the task be implemented.”
Although “we ... [are] far from making non-violence another dogma” (Clara Wichmann), we must not simply cover up differences of opinion in the leftist and revolutionary movement, and by avoiding the discussion of violence wind up advocating a position of “everything is possible”. The “tolerance of forms of action” has its limits, too, and these are not reached only where people's lives are threatened, but also where the militance of a few pushes the entire movement into a militant confrontation that is wrong in my view.
It is to be hoped that the events of Strasbourg will lead to some reflection about forms of action and organization among the “autonomous” activists, as well. For me, there are clear preconditions for any future cooperation, even though I can already hear the charge of being a splitter. And to the charge of being a splitter, I respond that in fact, it is those who are forcing people and groups out of the movement by disregarding their forms and limits of action who are the dividers. After that Saturday, many participants in nonviolent actions had the feeling, that they would rather organize themselves in their own camp – and this is not splitting, but a consequence of the escalation around the camp in the Rue de la Ganzau.
I can envisage the following conditions for future cooperation:
self-criticism from the ranks of the autonomous groups about the events in Strasbourg;
clear agreements on any possible joint camp, and on handling escalations and the police, and the willingness to enforce these agreements, even against groups and individuals who were not party to the agreements;
clear agreements not to make use of demonstrations for a confrontation with the police.
This list is definitely not complete.
But regardless of this, the organizers of mass demonstrations are faced with the question of how escalation can be avoided in future. It is clear that this cannot be by collaboration with the police, or by their own “security service”. But the problem that is inherent to demonstrations is that, as an unorganized mass, they are usually not able to act. So perhaps one should think about trained affinity groups which could intervene rapidly to de-escalate, without excluding people, much less handing them over to the police.
Many questions remain open about future inclusive work in social movements for me after Strasbourg. I think that many of the problems that occurred in Strasbourg will tend to intensify in the future. A constructive debate about this is urgently needed.
War Resisters’ International
1I would like to express my thanks to the organizers of the camp for their work. Without you, our nonviolent actions would not have been possible, either.
2According to local residents, local youths, who did not come from the camp, also took part in these actions.
3 “Illusionen einer Protestbewegung” Frankfurter Rundschau, 3 April 2009, http://www.fr-online.de/in_und_ausland/politik/doku_und_debatte/?em_cnt=1709721&em_cnt_page=1
4 Isaak Steinberg: Gewalt und Terror in der Revolution. Berlin, 1931