Today is the Ides of March, a day of repercussions for tyrants of all kinds. Starting in 1997, people in Montréal and elsewhere around the world have observed March 15 as an International Day Against Police Brutality. For our part, we have long sought to lay bare the function of the police in imposing racialized power imbalances and to encourage people to question their authority. But as partisans of neutral journalism, we also believe in giving both parties the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Today, we let police officers speak for themselves about what they are trying to do and why. And as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
One hundred years ago in Russia, thousands of workers were on strike in the city of Astrakhan and at the Putilov factory in Petrograd, the capital of the revolution. Strikes at the Putilov factory had been one of the principal sparks that set off the February Revolution in 1917, ending the tsarist regime. Now, the bosses were party bureaucrats, and the workers were striking against a socialist government. How would [the dictatorship of the proletariat respond?
Following up on our book about the Bolshevik seizure of power, The Russian Counterrevolution, we look back a hundred years to observe the anniversary of the Bolshevik slaughter of the Putilov factory workers who had helped to bring them to power. Today, when many people who did not live through actually existing socialism are propagating a sanitized version of events, it is essential to understand that the Bolsheviks meted out some of their bloodiest repression not to capitalist counterrevolutionaries, but to striking workers, anarchists, and fellow socialists. Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
If you find any of this difficult to believe, please, by all means, check our citations, consult the bibliography at the end, and investigate for yourself.
A note on the artwork: the artist, Ivan Vladimirov, was a realist painter who participated in the Russian Revolution, joining the Petrograd militia after the toppling of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a style of documentary realism to portray scenes from the Revolution and Civil War. Afterwards, he continued to work as an artist in good standing with the Soviet Union—such good standing that he lived into the 1940s and died of natural causes!—although he was compelled to shift to making fluff pieces lauding Soviet military triumphs and social harmony.
In March 1919, the Bolsheviks had uncontested power over the Russian state, but the revolution was slipping from their grasp. As self-styled pragmatists and realists, they believed that revolution had to be dictated from above by experts. Who can better understand the needs of the peasants and the proper means for communalizing the land and sharing the harvest than a revolutionary bureaucrat in an office in the city? And who knows more about the plight of the factory workers than a party official who worked in a factory once and now spends all his time going to committee meetings and interpreting the dictates of the Fathers of the Proletariat, men like Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Sokolnikov, and Zinoviev who never worked in a factory or toiled in the fields in their lives?1 And who better to protect the interests of the soldiers than the political commissar who stands at the back of the line during an offensive, pistol in hand, ready to shoot anyone who does not charge into enemy fire?2
Bolshevik realism made it clear that the only way to execute a real revolution was to take over the state, make it even stronger, and use it to stamp out all their enemies—who were, by definition, counterrevolutionaries. But the counterrevolutionaries must have had secret schools in every town and village, because by 1919 more and more people were joining their ranks, especially peasants, workers, and soldiers.
The “dictatorship of the proletariat” would have to kill a whole lot of proletarians. Not everyone could make it to the Promised Land.
Enemies, Enemies Everywhere
The dastardly anarchists had corrupted the age-old revolutionary slogan, the liberation of the workers is the task of the political commissars—get back to work, it’s under control. They had replaced it with a dangerous revisionist lie—“the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves”—and more and more people had come to believe this lie. In April 1918, the Bolsheviks unleashed a terror against the anarchists, who were becoming especially strong in Moscow. In September, they instituted a general Red Terror against all their former allies, killing over 10,000 in the first two months and implementing the gulag system.
They also had to turn their guns against the peasants, who were in open rebellion against the policy of “war communism” by which the Red Army and party bureaucrats could steal whatever food, livestock, and supplies from the peasants they saw fit.3 Evidently, the uneducated peasants didn’t have the vocabulary to understand that this theft was a “requisitioning,” that their starvation was a form of “communism,” and that it was being supervised by incorruptible men who had their best interests at heart. In August 1918, Lenin directed the Cheka and the Red Army to carry out mass executions in Penza and Nizhniy Novgorod to put an end to the protests. But dissent only spread, and the peasants gave up on protesting in order to arm themselves and fight back. Many formed “Green Armies,” localized peasant detachments that often fought against both the White and the Red Armies.
There was also a shortage of realism in the Red Army. Arguably, the most effective fighting units in the war against the tsarists and the capitalists of the White Army were the localized, volunteer detachments that elected and recalled their own officers; granted no special privileges to officers; defined their goals, general strategies, and organizational principles in assemblies; relied on the goodwill of local soviets to supply them; and were intimately familiar with the terrain they operated on. Such detachments included Marusya’s Free Combat Druzhina, the Revolutionary Insurgent Army, the Dvinsk Regiment, and the Anarchist Federation of the Altai. Few other detachments were able to inflict critical defeats on tsarist forces even when they were overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned.4 The fact that the combatants fought for a cause they believed in, were led by strategists elected on account of their abilities, and were wholeheartedly supported by the local peasants and workers enabled them to use the terrain to their advantage, fight more bravely than their opponents, innovate creative and intelligent strategies in response to developing circumstances, and transition between guerrilla and conventional warfare in a way that confounded the enemy. Such groups were instrumental in defeating General Denikin, Admiral Kolchak, and Baron Wrangel, ending the three major White offensives—not to mention capturing Moscow at the beginning of the October Revolution.
But all of these groups suffered a fatal defect. These fighters often prioritized listening to local peasants and workers and their own common soldiers over the wise dictates of the Fathers of the Proletariat emanating from the capital. Even worse, sometimes they did hear those dictates, yet still disobeyed them. And when the Party leaders, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it was necessary to massacre peasants or workers for the sake of the revolution, the detachments led by those very peasants and workers simply weren’t up to the task.
In order to increase the efficiency of the Red Army, the wise masters of the Bolshevik Party decided to take lessons from the great militarists of history, starting with the Tsarist army. By June 1918, they had abolished all the anti-realist policies that revolutionaries had wrongheadedly introduced into the Red Army: they discontinued the election of officers by the soldiers who would serve under them, reinstituted aristocratic privileges and pay grades for officers, recruited former Tsarist officers accustomed to those privileges, and brought in political commissars to spy on the soldiers and root out any incorrect thinking. After all, rebellious idealist soldiers had toppled one regime in 1917—and without a sufficient dose of realism, they might well topple another.
The Bolsheviks had also learned from imperialist armies throughout history that sent soldiers from one end of the empire to fight rebels at the other end of the empire. This was a sentimental kindness on the part of the Bolsheviks. Psychologically, it was much easier for Korean-speaking soldiers to avoid fraternizing with Ukrainian peasants and workers near Kharkiv—and on occasion to massacre them—and for Ukrainian-speaking soldiers to avoid fraternizing with Korean peasants and workers near Vladivostok (and occasionally to massacre them, too). This strategic practice also helped keep soldiers from getting lost. A Red Army soldier from Ukraine, fighting counterrevolutionaries in Irkutsk, would be hard-pressed to obtain support from locals or find his way home without leave. That ensured that he would know to stay with his regiment rather than deserting in a fit of anti-realism. And if he did get lost, a blond, round-eyed Ukrainian would be easy to find among the locals, who could return him to the proper authorities. Good organization: this is how a successful revolution is waged!
Yet the soldiers of the Red Army weren’t educated enough to understand. A million desertions took place in a single year. Many Red Army detachments took their weapons and joined the peasants who were forming independent Green Armies. Later, huge groups would join Makhno, who was naïvely defeating the Whites without installing a dictatorship of his own. So the Bolsheviks had to be cleverer than their tsarist and imperialist mentors. They shot tens of thousands of deserters, but this age-old tactic wasn’t enough. In a burst of inspired realism, they improvised a new tactic: taking the family members of soldiers hostage, and executing the family members if deserters did not turn themselves in to be shot.5
While so many of the Red Army’s bullets were ending up in the bodies of Red Army soldiers or in the uneducated brains of anti-realist peasants, too few were being fired at the White Army—and the White Army was growing, threatening the revolution on every side. The Red Army was slowly pushing back the Northern Russian Expedition of British and US troops on the Northern Dvina front, but intense fighting over the winter had failed to dislodge General Denikin from the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, a French expeditionary force had landed in Odessa, the White Army had cemented its hold on the Caucasus, and at the beginning of March, Admiral Kolchak had begun a general offensive on the eastern front, quickly capturing Ufa and continuing to gain ground.
The anarchist Black Army held the line in southern Ukraine, but their clever Bolshevik allies were starving them of weapons and ammunition, hoping the White Army would finish them off. This was an effective economization of resources on the part of the Fathers of the Proletariat. They would not have to spend time debating anarchists or making propaganda against them if the anarchists were all dead, and it was much easier to present themselves as the alternative to the confused tsarists and liberals of the White Army than it was to debate the anarchists, with their insidious lies about people being capable of liberating themselves.
The stratagem of denying resources to the Black Army was to backfire in summer 1919. After Denikin broke through the lines, he advanced so far against a helpless Trotsky that he threatened Moscow, and only a resounding success by anarchists at the Battle of Peregenovka in September 1919 cut off White supply lines, ultimately forcing Denikin to retreat. But after all, that was why the Bolsheviks had allies: it was easier not to put all the people they wanted to kill on their “enemies” list all at once, in hopes that they would first kill each other in ways that would be advantageous to the Bolsheviks.
Worker Resistance to the Soviet State
Let’s rewind to early 1919, when, facing so much resistance, the Bolsheviks needed more allies. They had legalized the Mensheviks after a few months of the Terror, and gotten the various anarchist detachments to focus their energies on fighting the Whites, but they still needed more support. After half a year of killing and imprisoning members of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party (SRs), the Bolsheviks legalized the SRs; to be fair, the previous year, the SRs had tried killing and imprisoning the Bolsheviks, after the Bolsheviks had tried to monopolize all the instruments that would allow them to kill and imprison people. The Bolsheviks had won those monopolies now, but a revolution can’t defend itself if too many of the participants are dead or in prison. They still needed help getting the common people in line working for and fighting for the Bolsheviks. The SRs had been good propagandists and considerably more popular than the Bolsheviks. Besides, it was easier to keep the SRs under their thumb when they were out in the open, with public offices in Moscow, than when they were operating underground.
The SRs decided to trust the Bolsheviks, hoping that they could regain control of the soviets or win over other revolutionary forces. But once they came out of hiding, the Cheka began periodically arresting the SR leadership, accusing them of conspiracy, and hustling them off to the gulags. The organization never regained the strength to oppose the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the legalization of the SRs and Mensheviks had reduced the number of enemies the Communists had to fight, and set more forces to work putting out propaganda in favor of the revolution.
The Bolsheviks still had plenty of problems. If it wasn’t bad enough that so many peasants and soldiers were rebelling, the factory workers also began to rebel. In the city of Astrakhan, the workers went on strike. Even worse, many Red Army soldiers joined them, and similar strikes began to spread in the cities of Orel, Tver, Tula, and Ivanovo. Then strikes broke out at the giant Putilov factory in Petrograd, the capital of the revolution.
The Putilov factory had built rolling stock and other products for the railways, before branching out into artillery and armaments for the military. Later, they would also manufacture the tractors that would become essential to the industrialization of Russian agriculture, after Lenin ordained the transition from war communism to the “state capitalism” of the New Economic Policy. A strike at this factory was especially embarrassing for the Bolsheviks, because the Putilov factory had been one of the origin points of the revolution. The revolution of February 1917 had sprung from four groups: rebellious military units at the front, women protesting government food rationing, sailors stationed at Kronstadt and Petrograd, and striking workers at the Putilov factory. Strikes at the Putilov factory had also been one of the sparks that caused the 1905 Revolution.
The Bolsheviks had already dealt with the Dvinsk Regiment—heroes of the revolution and a symbol of the refusal of soldiers to fight in an imperialist war—by assassinating their commander, Grachov, and disbanding the regiment. They had managed to do this quietly and out of the public eye. Later, in 1921, they would explain that in the course of the revolution, the Kronstadt sailors had somehow gone from being the staunchest defenders of revolution to become petty bourgeois individualists infiltrated by White agents. No one really believed Trotsky when he said this, but it didn’t matter.6 What was really at stake was not truth, but power; the Bolsheviks had already crushed all their other enemies, and they resolved questions about the politics of the Kronstadt sailors not by presenting facts, but by slaughtering them, as well.
But the crushing of Kronstadt was still two years in the future. In March 1919, the Bolsheviks still had plenty of enemies, and everyone was watching. The Putilov workers had some simple demands: increased food rations, as they were starving to death; freedom of the press; an end to the Red Terror; and the elimination of privileges for Communist Party members.7 What would the Bolsheviks do? Was it possible to have a revolution without starving the workers, shutting down critical newspapers, disappearing revolutionaries of other tendencies, and elevating Party members as a new aristocracy?
The Bolshevik Response
What a silly question! The Bolsheviks were realists, and their strategy relied on making the revolution by gaining control of the State. The State was the Revolution, as long as it was a Bolshevik State. They couldn’t make the State stronger without eliminating their rivals, squeezing the workers and peasants for every last drop of sweat and blood, and divvying up the wealth among themselves. Who in their right mind would become a Bolshevik unless that meant obtaining a bigger paycheck, guaranteed food rations, and a chance to move up in the world? The Communist Party needed realists. The idealists would starve. Those who were willing to say that the State was Revolution and obedience was freedom earned a chance to contribute their talents to building the new apparatus.
As for the suckers who remained workers rather than becoming Party officials, the Bolsheviks knew that the role of workers was to work. Workers who did not work were like broken machines. As any realist can tell you, when a machine breaks the only thing to do is take it out back and put a bullet in its brain.
Between March 12 and March 14, the Cheka cracked down in Astrakhan. They executed between 2000 and 4000 striking workers and Red Army deserters. Some they killed by firing squad, others by drowning them—tying stones around their necks and throwing them in the river. They had learned the latter technique from Lenin’s heroes, the Jacobins—enlightened bourgeois revolutionaries who massacred tens of thousands of peasants who weren’t educated enough to know that the commons were a thing of the past and land privatization was the way of the future.8
The Bolsheviks also killed a smaller number of members of the bourgeoisie, between 600 and 1000. The smartest of the bourgeoisie had already joined the Communist Party, recognizing it as the best way to profit in the new situation. But the stuffier bourgeois conservatives were staunchly opposed to the Bolsheviks, the anarchists, and the aristocrats, as well, though they weren’t against allying with the aristocrats. Any political system in which they could not do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted, they called “tyranny.”
The bourgeois conservatives would also have crushed the striking workers, perhaps with hunger instead of bullets, if they had been in charge. Despite this, the Bolsheviks claimed that the striking workers had to be agents of the bourgeois order. Curiously, when anarchists had expropriated the bourgeoisie in Moscow in April, 1918, the Bolsheviks had called the anarchists “bandits” and returned the property to the bourgeois. Now, they killed bourgeois dissidents as well as striking workers—but they reserved the vast majority of the bullets for the workers.
Two days later, on March 16, the Cheka stormed the Putilov factory. They arrested 900 workers and executed 200 of them without a trial. These were pedagogical killings meant to “teach them a lesson,” educating the workers by executing their peers. The workers did not understand yet, but they would have to learn: workers were meant to work. If they had to starve, it was for the good of the proletariat.
The workers did not learn this lesson right away. At first, state repression only intensified worker opposition. According to intercepted Bolshevik cables, 60,000 workers were on strike in Petrograd alone in June 1919, three months after all the executions at the Putilov factory.9 The poor Bolsheviks had no choice but to kill even more workers and expand their gulag system to the point that it could reeducate not just thousands, but millions.
Many later Marxists unfairly blamed Josef Stalin for the USSR turning into a massive machinery of murder, but we can see the origins of that macabre evolution right here in the need of the Bolshevik authorities to kill workers in the name of workers. The entirety of the Party apparatus, from Lenin all the way down, dedicated itself to liquidating all opposition; and the entirety of this monstrous venture was ordained from the moment that the Communists decided that they were the conscious vanguard of the proletariat, that economic egalitarianism could be achieved through political elitism, and that liberatory ends justified authoritarian means.
The Economic Policy of the Communist Party
Other revolutionary currents had conflicting ideas regarding the demands of workers and their instruments of self-organization. Some favored the factory councils that spontaneously arose around the February Revolution. Others favored the workers’ unions that had grown immensely in the course of 1917. Only the Bolsheviks had a realist position, changing their relationship with these structures according to which way the wind blew. As documented by Carlos Taibo,10 the Bolsheviks alternated between promoting the soviets and unions, attempting to capture them within larger bureaucratic structures controlled by the Party, eroding their powers, and suppressing them outright. Their approach varied wildly according to whether they believed that they could use these organizations to prop up their own power or feared, instead, that these organizations threatened Bolshevik supremacy. All power to the Party was their only consistent principle.
Throughout 1917, the Bolsheviks gained immense popularity by making all the right propaganda. They promised to redistribute the land directly to the peasants, to end the war without allowing imperialist Germany to annex territory, and to give the workers control of their workplaces. We have already seen how they broke the first two promises. As for their promise to the workers, they pitted different workers’ organizations against each another as they steadily strengthened their bureaucratic control.
In 1917, factory councils had sprung up in hundreds of factories throughout Russia, while membership in trade unions grew from tens of thousands to 1.5 million. At first, the Mensheviks dominated the unions and used their influence to get the unions to support the pre-October Kerensky government. According to a Trotskyist account, “As they were preparing for the seizure of power, Lenin and his followers tried to approach the trade unions from a new angle and to define their role in the Soviet system.” Promising them greater power, the Bolsheviks hoped to win union support for their project of seizing control of the State—or at least acquiescence to it.
According to two other pro-Leninist scholars, Lenin “essentially abandoned the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’” when he “convinced the party that the time was right to seize state power.”11 This is a fairly literal admission of fact. If the soviets were to have all the power, the Party could have none.
In November 1917, immediately after taking power, the Bolsheviks decreed that the factory committees must not participate in the direction of the companies, nor take on any responsibility in their functioning; instead, each committee was subordinated to a “Regional Council of Workers’ Control” which answered to the “All-Russian Council of Workers’ Control. The composition of these higher bodies was decided by the Party, with the trade unions receiving the majority of the seats.12
“The Revolution has been victorious. All power has passed to the Soviets… Strikes and demonstrations are harmful in Petrograd. We ask you to put an end to all strikes on economic and political issues, to resume work and to carry it out in a perfectly ordinary manner… Every man in his place. The best way to support the Soviet Government these days is to carry on with one’s job.”
-Bolshevik spokesmen at the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, October 26 [Old Style calendar], 1917 (quoted in Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917-1921)
“It is absolutely essential that all the authority in the factories should be concentrated in the hands of management… Under these circumstances any direct intervention by the trade unions in the management of enterprises must be regarded as positively harmful and impermissible.”
Referring again to the Trotskyist account, “The Bolsheviks now called upon the trade unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet state and to discipline the factory committees. The unions came out firmly against the attempt of the factory committees to form a national organization of their own. They prevented the convocation of a planned all-Russian congress of factory committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the committees.” At the end of 1917, the Bolsheviks forced the factory committees to incorporate themselves within the trade unions, in an attempt to curtail their autonomy.
From the moment they were in power, the Bolsheviks treated workers’ councils as a threat. Why? Many Leninists, as well as the aforementioned Trotskyist, claimed that the councils were only conscious of their interests at the level of individual factories; they could not take into account the interests of the entire economy or the entire working class. This is contradicted, though, by the many examples of solidarity between soviets and workers’ councils across the country beginning already in 1917, and the fact of material support by peasants and urban workers for the anarchist detachments fighting against the White Army in the anarchist zones of Ukraine and Siberia, where idealist revolutionaries allowed workers and peasants to organize themselves. The simple fact that the factory councils were trying to coordinate at a countrywide level at the end of 1917 shows that they were in the process of developing what one might reasonably call a universal, proletarian, revolutionary consciousness; it was the Bolsheviks themselves who cut that process short.
From the Bolshevik perspective, what was most dangerous about factory council consciousness was that it might not lead to the particular kind of working-class consciousness that the Bolsheviks desperately needed to stay in power. Self-organized factories would support revolutionary armies of workers and peasants, but they probably would not support the Red Army in suppressing workers and peasants, nor would they support Lenin’s highly unpopular cession of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics to imperial Germany.
The councils were dangerous for another reason as well. Not only were they an organ of workers’ autonomy and self-organization that rendered any political party obsolete, they also tended to erode party discipline. Workers within the councils who were affiliated to the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, or any other party tended to act in accord with their common interests as factory workers rather than maintaining party interests.13
As Paul Avrich pointed out,14 the Bolsheviks made use of a nuanced distinction between two very different versions of workers’ control. Upravleniye meant direct control and self-organization by the workers themselves, but the Communist authorities refused to grant this demand. Their preferred slogan, rabochi control, did not denote anything beyond a nominal supervision of factory organization by workers. Under the system implemented by the Bolsheviks, workers participated in workplace decision-making together with the bosses, who could be the pre-Revolution capitalist owners or agents of the Party and the State, depending on Soviet policy at the moment.
All final decisions were made by the Supreme Soviet of the National Economy (the Vesenkha), an unelected, bureaucratic body established in December 1917 by decree of the Sovnarkom and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. All of these bureaucratic bodies were controlled at all times by the Bolsheviks, meaning that no worker could have a final say in workplace decisions without becoming a full-time party operative and climbing to the very highest ranks of the bureaucracy.
Already in March 1918, an assembly of factory councils in Petrograd denounced the autocratic nature of Bolshevik rule and the Bolshevik attempt to dissolve those factory councils not under Party control.15 Such autocracy only increased when the Bolsheviks finally went ahead with the nationalization of the economy in the summer of 1918, increasing Party control and running the factories with the help of “experts” recruited from the old regime.
Though there was initially an ambiguous continuum between the economically oriented factory councils and the politically oriented town or village councils, the Communist Party quickly homogenized and bureaucratized the territorial soviets, starting with codes governing elections to the soviets in March 1918 and finishing by the time of the Soviet Constitution of 1922. Even more quickly, they got rid of the councils comprising all workers in a factory or other workplace, replacing them with symbolic worker representatives completely subordinate to a director appointed by the Party.
The Communists did all of this while paying lip service to their slogan and key campaign promise of 1917, “All Power to the Soviets.” They eventually got around the contradiction of simultaneously promoting and suppressing the soviets by declaring that councils of representatives of representatives, and even those of representatives of representatives of representatives, were also “soviets.” In fact, the committee furthest removed from any actual soviet of real-life peasants, workers, and soldiers was the “Supreme Soviet.” Since the Bolsheviks tightly controlled all these higher, more bureaucratic organs of government, which they had decided should also be called “soviets,” they could say “All Power to the Soviets” with a straight face—because now all they were saying was, “All Power to Us!”
This ingenious trick was very similar to the one used by the Founding Fathers of the United States, when an assortment of wealthy merchants and slave-owners established a government “of the People, by the People, and for the People.” Slave-owners qualified as people; slaves did not.
The Bolsheviks crushed the factory councils first, though they did not wait long to sink their teeth into the unions and drain them of their independence. It is noteworthy that they moved against the unions preemptively, preventing a possible threat to totalitarian rule even before the unions had offered any sign of resistance. At the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in January 1918, the Bolsheviks successfully defended their position that the trade unions should be subordinated to the Soviet government, in the face of opposition by Mensheviks and anarchists, who argued that the unions should remain independent.
The Bolsheviks were able to dominate the unions using the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. By 1919, under the pretext of the extraordinary measures required by the Civil War, the Central Council had been fully incorporated into the bureaucracy that was now completely controlled by Party leadership.
Of course, as we have already shown, the Communist Party’s “extraordinary measures” preceded the Russian Civil War; they may have been the primary cause of the opposition and outrage that fueled the multiple and conflicting factions that fought in the Civil War.
In 1921, with the Civil War all but over and Bolshevik dominance indisputable, Lenin and his followers could do away with “war communism.” There followed more excuses about exceptional circumstances, delaying yet again the repartition of the pie in the sky that supposedly awaited the workers in paradise. The result was the New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin himself described as “a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control” together with state enterprises operating “on a profit basis.”16 Anarchists may have been among the first to level the accusation of “state capitalism,” but Lenin accepted the label as an objective fact.
In conclusion, the Bolsheviks seesawed from November 1917 to the NEP in 1921, changing their economic policy multiple times. Throughout these changes, they entrusted control over the workplace to capitalist bosses with symbolic worker oversight, to Party lackeys, to bureaucratic supreme committees, and to nepmen, the economic opportunists of the NEP era. It seems the only people the Bolsheviks were not willing to trust were the workers themselves.
Anti-colonial Marxist Walter Rodney, who was sympathetic to Stalin and wholly supportive of Lenin, nonetheless acknowledged that “The state, not the workers, effectively controlled the means of production.”17 He also showed how the Soviet Union inherited and furthered the Russian imperialism of the earlier tsarist regime—though that’s a topic for a future essay.
A realist knows that the best counterargument to all these sentimental complaints is the indisputable fact that, in the end, the Bolshevik strategy triumphed. They eliminated all their enemies. The idealists were dead—and therefore wrong. What better positive evidence can we find for the correctness of the Bolshevik position?
The End of Resistance to Bolshevik Realism
Things immediately got better. The workers no longer had to toil for the enrichment of the capitalist class. Now they reaped the fruit of their own labors. (Except, of course, for all the workers in the free-market enterprises permitted under the NEP, and the millions of peasants who quite literally had to give away the fruits and the grains they grew.) To make things simpler, all the social wealth they reaped was kept in a trust managed by the intellectual workers. The intellectual workers worked a lot harder and required more compensation, better food, and bigger houses—but they also made sure that most of that wealth went to fielding an army of 11 million (shy by just a million of being the largest army in world history). And a damn fine opera. And one of the most extensive secret police apparatuses ever seen, too, to make sure the people stayed safe.
During Stalin’s Five Year Plans, the Soviet economy grew faster than the contemporary democratic economies and steered clear of the Depression that was ravishing much of the rest of the world. Idealistic anarchist critiques of “state capitalism” have long pointed out that the Communists were able to bring capitalism to the countries where the capitalist class had largely failed—they did capitalism better than the capitalists. But this naïve complaint misses out on the fact that a strong State, and thus a strong Revolution, requires a robust economy producing huge amounts of surplus value that can be reinvested as the Fathers of the Proletariat see fit.
Alongside all these exciting developments, the workers eventually got housing and healthcare, if they worked hard and kept their mouths shut. Provided, of course, that they weren’t among the millions of victims of the systematic famines designed to break the peasantry.
And that’s why these are such important days to remember.
On this, the one-hundred-year anniversary of the massacres of striking workers in Astrakhan and Petrograd, workers would do well to remember who has their best interests at heart, and keep in mind that obedience is freedom. To celebrate the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution, which continues to shine as a beacon to oppressed people everywhere, workers should obey their elected union representatives, prisoners should heed their guards, soldiers should obey the command to fire, and the people should await the directives of the government. Anything else would be anarchy.
Paul Avrich, “Russian Anarchism and the Civil War,” The Russian Review. Vol.27 No.3: 296–306. July 1968.
Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists. Oakland: AK Press, 2006.
Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917-1921. 1970.
Vladimir Brovkin, , “Workers’ Unrest and the Bolsheviks’ Response in 1919”, Slavic Review, 49 (3): 350–73. (Autumn 1990)
Nick Heath, “Bolshevik Repression against Anarchists in Vologda,” libcom.org October 15, 2017.
Robin D.G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin, “Introduction,” in Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. London: Verso, 2018.
Piotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.
Nadezhda Krupskaya, “Illyich Moves to Moscow, His First Months of Work in Moscow” Reminiscences of Lenin. International Publishers, 1970.
George Leggett. The Cheka: Lenin’s Political Police. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
V.I. Lenin, “Telegram to the Penza Gubernia Executive Committee of the Soviets” in J. Brooks and G. Chernyavskiy, Lenin and the Making of the Soviet State: A Brief History with Documents (2007). Bedford/St Martin’s: Boston and New York, p.77.
V.I. Lenin, “The Role and Functions of the Trade Unions under the New Economic Policy”, LCW, 33, p. 184., Decision Of The C.C., R.C.P.(B.), January 12, 1922. Published in Pravda No. 12, January 17, 1922. Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, first printed 1965, Volume 33, pp. 186–196. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/cw/pdf/lenin-cw-vol-33.pdf
Mário Machaquiero, A revolução soviética, hoje. Ensaio de releitura da revolução de 1917. Oporto: Afrontamento, 2008.
Igor Podshuvalov, Siberian Makhnovschina: Siberian Anarchists in the Russian Civil War (1918-1924). Edmonton: Black Cat Press, 2011.
James Ryan. Lenin’s Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence. London: Routledge, 2012.
Alexandre Skirda, trans. Paul Sharkey, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack. Oakland: AK Press, 2003.
Carlos Taibo, Soviets, Consejos de Fábrica, Comunas Rurales. Calumnia: Mallorca, 2017.
Various, A Collection of Reports on Bolshevism in Russia. London: HMSO, 1919.
Voline, The Unknown Revolution, 1917-1921. New York: Free Life Editions, 1974.
Dmitri Volkogonov, Shukman, Harold, ed., Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, London: HarperCollins, p.180. 1996.
Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Beryl Williams, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 1987.
Of the seven members of the first Politburo—Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Kamenev, Sokolnikov, Zinoviev, and Bubnov—all but Zinoviev had received elite educations and become professional activists immediately after their education. Stalin was the only one of the seven who came from a less-than-middle class background. His father was a well-to-do shoemaker who owned his own workshop, though he lost his fortunes and became an abusive alcoholic. Young Stalin was able to receive an elite religious education thanks to his mother’s social connections. His first job was as a meteorologist; he later worked briefly at a storehouse in order to organize strike actions there.
Lenin and Sokolnikov were from families of professional white-collar workers; Bubnov was from a mercantile family; Kamenev was the son of a relatively well-paid worker in the railroad industry. Trotsky and Zinoviev were the children of landowning peasants, or kulaks—the very people they identified as the class enemy in the countryside in order to justify the murder of millions, both actual kulaks and poor peasants who opposed Bolshevik policies.
Most anarchists do not believe that a person’s class background determines their beliefs and attitudes, nor that it grants or denies them legitimacy as a human being. We recognize that how we grow up affects our perspective, but we tend to place more importance on how someone chooses to live their life. A few anarchists, like Kropotkin, came from elite backgrounds, whereas many more, such as Emma Goldman and Nestor Makhno, came from working-class or peasant backgrounds.
It is nonetheless significant that practically every single anarchist who was influential in the course of the Russian Revolution or who was chosen to lead a major detachment in the Civil War was a worker or a peasant. This exemplifies the slogan of the First International, “the liberation of the workers is the task of the workers themselves.” (The only exception was Volin, who came from a white-collar background.) It is also significant that, while the Bolsheviks recruited heavily among industrial workers, their entire Politburo was 0% working class.
Given both Marx and Lenin’s systematic use of their adversaries’ class identity—real or perceived—to delegitimize them or even justify murdering them, the fact that neither Marx nor Lenin nor the rest of the Communist leadership were working class is hypocritical to say the least. ↩
On the “blocking units” that did this, see Volkogonov, Dmitri (1996), Shukman, Harold, ed., Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary, London: HarperCollins, p.180. ↩
Brovkin, Vladimir (Autumn 1990), “Workers’ Unrest and the Bolsheviks’ Response in 1919”, Slavic Review, 49 (3): 350–73 ↩
Alexandre Skirda, trans. Paul Sharkey, Nestor Makhno: Anarchy’s Cossack. Oakland: AK Press, 2003 ↩
Beryl Williams, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 1987. ↩
Even before Stalin, the Bolsheviks spread lies not so much to convince people of them as to force them to repeat the lies. This was an effective loyalty test: anyone who insisted on speaking the truth was clearly a dangerous counterrevolutionary, whereas those who called starving peasants “kulaks” or denounced principled revolutionary sailors as “White agents” had accepted Communist realism. ↩
“We, the workmen of the Putilov works and the wharf, declare before the laboring classes of Russia and the world, that the Bolshevik government has betrayed the high ideals of the October revolution, and thus betrayed and deceived the workmen and peasants of Russia; that the Bolshevik government, acting in our name, is not the authority of the proletariat and peasantry, but the authority of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, self-governing with the aid of the Extraordinary Commissions [Chekas], Communists, and police.
“We protest against the compulsion of workmen to remain at factories and works, and attempts to deprive them of all elementary rights: freedom of the press, speech, meetings, and inviolability of person.
Immediate transfer of authority to freely elected Workers’ and Peasants’ soviets.
Immediate re-establishment of freedom of elections at factories and plants, barracks, ships, railways, everywhere.
Transfer of entire management to the released workers of the trade unions.
Transfer of food supply to workers’ and peasants’ cooperative societies.
General arming of workers and peasants.
Immediate release of members of the original revolutionary peasants’ party of Left Socialist Revolutionaries.
Immediate release of Maria Spiridonova [a Left SR leader].”
Piotr Kropotkin, The Great French Revolution. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989. p.454-458 ↩
Document no. 54, “Summary of a Report on the Internal Situation in Russia,” in A Collection of Reports on Bolshevism in Russia, abridged ed. Parliamentary Paper: Russia no. 1 [London: HMSO, 1919], p.60 ↩
Carlos Taibo, Soviets, Consejos de Fábrica, Comunas Rurales. Calumnia: Mallorca, 2017 ↩
Robin D.G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin, “Introduction,” in Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. London: Verso, 2018. ↩
Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917-1921. 1970. p.65
“Once power had passed into the hands of the proletariat, the practice of the Factory Committees of acting as if they owned the factories became anti-proletarian.” -A.M. Pankratova, Fabzavkomy Rossil v borbe za sotsialisticheskuyu fabriku (Russian Factory Committees in the struggle for the socialist factory). Moscow, 1923 ↩
Mário Machaquiero, A revolução soviética, hoje. Ensaio de releitura da revolução de 1917. Oporto: Afrontamento, 2008. p.144. ↩
Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists. Oakland: AK Press, 2006. p.147 ↩
Carlos Taibo, Soviets, Consejos de Fábrica, Comunas Rurales. Calumnia: Mallorca, 2017. p.58 ↩
V.I. Lenin, “The Role and Functions of the Trade Unions under the New Economic Policy”, LCW, 33, p. 184., Decision Of The C.C., R.C.P.(B.), January 12, 1922. Published in Pravda No. 12, January 17, 1922. Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1973, first printed 1965, Volume 33, pp.186–196. ↩
Robin D.G. Kelley and Jesse Benjamin, “Introduction,” in Walter Rodney, The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World. London: Verso, 2018. p.lvi ↩
Emma Goldman le savait. Mikhail Bakounine a prévenu tout le monde à ce sujet un demi-siècle avant la révolution russe. Les ancien·ne·s combattant·e·s du Black Panther Party et de la Black Liberation Army AshantiAlston et KuwasiBalagoon ont tiré la même conclusion. Il n’y a pas de gouvernement révolutionnaire. On ne peut pas utiliser les instruments du gouvernement pour abolir l’oppression.
Depuis le milieu du 19e siècle, les anarchistes ont affirmé que la clé de la libération ne consistait pas à s’emparer de l’État, mais bien à l’abolir. Pourtant, de Paris à Saint-Pétersbourg, de Barcelone à Beijing, les unes après les autres, les générations de révolutionnaires ont dû apprendre cette leçon à leurs dépens. Changer les politicien·ne·s qui sont au pouvoir impacte peu. Ce qui compte, ce sont les instruments du pouvoir — la police, l’armée, les tribunaux, le système pénitentiaire, la bureaucratie. Que ce soit un roi/une reine, un·e dictateur·trice ou un Parlement qui dirige ces instruments, l’expérience subie en bout de chaîne par la population reste à peu près la même.
Cela explique pourquoi l’issue de la révolution égyptienne de 2011-2013 ressemble à celle de la révolution russe de 1917-1921, qui ressemble à celle de la révolution française de 1848-1851. Dans chaque cas, dès que les personnes ayant fait la révolution ont cessé d’essayer d’instaurer un changement social de manière directe et ont tourné leurs espoirs vers des représentant·es politiques, le pouvoir s’est consolidé entre les mains d’une nouvelle autocratie. Que les nouveaux·elles tyran·ne·s soient issu·e·s de l’armée, de l’aristocratie ou de la classe ouvrière, qu’iels aient promis de rétablir l’ordre ou de personnifier le pouvoir du prolétariat, le résultat final était à peu près le même.
Le gouvernement lui-même est une relation de classes. On ne peut pas abolir la société de classes sans abolir l’asymétrie entre dirigeant·e·s et gouverné·e·s. L’économie n’est que l’un des nombreux domaines dans lesquels des différences de pouvoir codifiées sont imposées au moyen de constructions sociales ; la politique en est un autre. La propriété privée du capital est à l’économie ce que le pouvoir d’État est à la politique.
Marx et Lénine ont créé une confusion énorme en promettant que l’État pourrait être utilisé pour abolir la société de classes, pour après disparaître à son tour on ne sait trop comment. En d’autres termes, « les travailleur·euse·s » — c’est-à-dire un parti se déclarant les représenter, comme le fait tout parti politique au pouvoir — pourraient conserver la police, l’armée, les tribunaux, le système pénitentiaire, la bureaucratie, et tous les autres instruments de l’État, mais ceux-ci commenceraient magiquement à produire de l’égalité plutôt que de l’inégalité. Cela pose la question : qu’est-ce que l‘État ? Avant tout, c’est la concentration de la légitimité politique dans des institutions spécifiques, par opposition aux individus qu’elles dirigent. C’est la définition même de l’inégalité, dans la mesure où elle privilégie celleux qui détiennent le pouvoir par le biais de ces institutions vis-à-vis des autres. Alors même que les marxistes et les léninistes ont réussi à s’emparer du pouvoir au cours de dizaines de révolutions, aucune d’entre elles n’a réussi à abolir la société de classes — et au lieu de disparaître, l’État n’en est devenu que plus puissant et envahissant. Comme il est dit dans la circulaire de Sonvilier : « Comment pouvons-nous espérer qu’une société égalitaire et libre émerge d’une organisation autoritaire ? »
Lorsque les révolutionnaires tentent de réparer les inégalités de classes créées par la propriété privée du capital en donnant un contrôle total du capital à l’État, la classe détentrice du pouvoir politique devient tout simplement la nouvelle classe capitaliste. Le mot pour décrire cela est capitalisme d’État. Partout où vous voyez une représentation politique et une gestion bureaucratique, vous trouverez une société de classes. La seule véritable solution aux inégalités économiques et politiques consiste à supprimer les mécanismes qui créent des différences de pouvoir — non pas en utilisant des structures étatiques, mais en organisant des réseaux horizontaux d’autodétermination et de défense collective rendant impossible l’application des privilèges de l’État ou de toute élite économique ou politique. C’est le contraire de la prise de pouvoir.
Les gouvernements de toutes sortes s’opposent à ce projet. La première condition pour que tout gouvernement détienne le pouvoir est de parvenir à avoir le monopole de la force coercitive. En luttant pour obtenir ce monopole, les despotismes fascistes, les dictatures communistes et les démocraties libérales se ressemblent. Et pour y parvenir, même le parti apparemment le plus radical finit généralement par s’entendre avec les autres acteur·rice·s du pouvoir. Cela explique pourquoi les bolcheviks ont employé des officiers tsaristes et des méthodes de contre-insurrection ; cela explique pourquoi iels ont maintes fois pris le parti de la petite bourgeoisie contre les anarchistes, d’abord en Russie, puis en Espagne et ailleurs. L’histoire dément le vieil alibi selon lequel la répression bolchevique était nécessaire pour abolir le capitalisme. Le problème avec le bolchevisme n’était pas qu’il utilisait une force brutale pour pousser un agenda révolutionnaire, mais bel et bien qu’il utilisait une force brutale pour l’écraser.
Ce n’est pas particulièrement populaire de reconnaître cela aujourd’hui, alors que le drapeau de l’Union soviétique est devenu une toile obscure et lointaine sur laquelle les gens peuvent projeter ce qu’iels veulent. Une génération qui a grandi après la chute de l’Union soviétique a renoué avec le rêve selon lequel l’État pourrait résoudre tous nos problèmes si les bonnes personnes étaient aux commandes. Les apologistes de Lénine et de Staline ont exactement les mêmes excuses que celles des défenseur·euse·s du capitalisme, en soulignant les avantages dont bénéficiaient les consommateur·rice·s sous leurs règnes ou en affirmant que les millions de gens qu’ils ont exploités, emprisonnés et tués, le méritaient.
Dans tous les cas, un retour au socialisme d’État du 20e siècle est impossible. Comme le dit une ancienne blague du bloc de l’Est, le socialisme est la douloureuse transition entre capitalisme et capitalisme. De ce point de vue, nous pouvons voir que l’ascension temporaire du socialisme au 20e siècle n’était pas l’aboutissement de l’histoire mondiale prédite par Marx, mais bien une étape dans la propagation et le développement du capitalisme. Le « socialisme réel » a servi à industrialiser les économies postféodales pour le marché mondial ; il a stabilisé les mains-d‘œuvre mécontentes pendant cette transition, à l’instar du compromis fordiste conclu en Occident. Le socialisme d’État et le fordisme étaient tous deux l’expression d’une trêve temporaire entre le travail et le capital que la mondialisation néolibérale a rendu impossible.
Aujourd’hui, le capitalisme sans entrave du libre marché est sur le point d’engloutir les derniers îlots de stabilité sociaux-démocrates, y compris la Suède et la France. Partout où les partis de gauche ont pris le pouvoir avec la promesse de réformer le capitalisme, ils ont finalement été contraints d’appliquer un programme néolibéral comprenant des mesures d’austérité et de répression. En conséquence, leur ascension au pouvoir a vidé les mouvements populaires de leurs dynamismes, tout en permettant aux réactionnaires de droite de se faire passer pour des rebelles afin de tirer profit du mécontentement populaire. Cette histoire s’est répétée au Brésil avec le Parti des travailleurs, en Grèce avec Syriza, au Nicaragua avec l’administration Ortega.
Le seul autre modèle de gouvernement « révolutionnaire » est le capitalisme d’État à visage découvert représenté par la Chine, dans lequel les élites accumulent des richesses au détriment des travailleur·euse·s, tout aussi effrontément qu’aux États-Unis. Comme l’URSS avant elle, la Chine confirme que l’administration publique de l’économie n’est pas un pas vers l’égalitarisme.
L’avenir sera peut-être marqué par la misère néolibérale, par des enclaves nationalistes, par des économies totalitaires ou par l’abolition anarchiste de la propriété elle-même — il inclura probablement tous ces éléments — mais il sera de plus en plus difficile de préserver l’illusion qu’un quelconque gouvernement puisse résoudre les problèmes du capitalisme si ce n’est pour quelques privilégié·e·s. Les fascistes et autres nationalistes souhaitent ardemment tirer parti de cette désillusion pour promouvoir leurs propres marques politiques basées sur un socialisme d’exclusion ; nous ne devrions pas leur faciliter la tâche en légitimant l’idée que l’État pourrait servir les travailleur·euse·s si seulement il était correctement administré.
Certain·e·s ont fait valoir que nous devrions suspendre les conflits avec les partisan·e·s du communisme autoritaire afin de nous concentrer sur des menaces plus immédiates, telles que le fascisme. Pourtant, la peur généralisée du totalitarisme de gauche a donné aux recruteurs fascistes leurs principaux sujets de discussion. Dans la course aux cœurs et aux esprits de celleux qui n’ont pas encore choisi de camp, cela ne pourrait que contribuer à distinguer nos propositions de changement social de celles avancées par les stalinien·e·s et autres autoritaires.
Au sein des luttes populaires contre le capitalisme, la violence d’État et le fascisme, nous devrions accorder un poids égal à la lutte entre différentes visions de l’avenir. Ne pas le faire, c’est présumer à l’avance que nous serons vaincu·e·s avant qu’une de ces visions ne puisse porter ses fruits. Anarchistes, mencheviks, socialistes-révolutionnaires et autres ont appris à leurs dépens, après 1917, que ne pas se préparer à la victoire peut être encore plus désastreux que ne pas se préparer à la défaite.
La bonne nouvelle est que les mouvements révolutionnaires ne doivent pas nécessairement finir comme la révolution russe. Il y a une autre voie.
Plutôt que de rechercher le pouvoir étatique, nous pouvons ouvrir des espaces d’autonomie, en retirant toute légitimité à l’État et en développant la capacité de répondre directement à nos besoins. Au lieu de dictatures et d’armées, nous pouvons créer des réseaux rhizomatiques mondiaux pour nous défendre mutuellement contre quiconque voudrait exercer un pouvoir sur nous. Plutôt que de faire appel à de nouveaux·elles représentant·e·s pour résoudre nos problèmes, nous pouvons créer des associations basées sur la coopération volontaire et l’entraide. À la place des économies gérées par l’État, nous pouvons établir de nouveaux communs sur une base horizontale. C’est l’alternative anarchiste qui aurait pu réussir en Espagne dans les années 1930 si elle n’avait pas été piétinée par Franco d’une part et Staline de l’autre. Du Chiapas et de la Kabylie à Athènes et au Rojava, tous les mouvements et soulèvements suscitant l’inspiration de ces trois dernières décennies ont incorporé des éléments du modèle anarchiste.
Les partisans des solutions étatiques prétendent qu’elles sont plus efficaces, mais la question est de savoir en quoi sont-elles plus efficaces ? Il n’y a pas de raccourci vers la libération ; elle ne peut pas être imposée par le haut. Si nous voulons créer une véritable égalité, nous devons nous organiser de manière à refléter cela, en décentralisant le pouvoir et en rejetant toutes formes de hiérarchie. En construisant des projets locaux capables de répondre aux besoins immédiats via l’action directe et la solidarité, en les reliant à l’échelle mondiale, nous pouvons avancer sur la voie menant à un monde dans lequel personne ne peut gouverner qui que ce soit. Le type de révolution que nous souhaitons ne peut se produire du jour au lendemain ; c’est un processus continu de destruction de toutes les concentrations de pouvoir, de la sphère domestique au Palais de l’Elysée.
À mesure que les crises de notre époque s’intensifient, de nouvelles luttes révolutionnaires vont forcément éclater. L’anarchisme est la seule proposition de changement révolutionnaire qui ne se soit pas ternie dans une mer de sang. C’est à nous de la mettre au jour pour le nouveau millénaire, de peur que nous ne soyons tou·te·s condamné·e·s à répéter le passé.
Oui, la mort, — ou bien le renouveau ! Les États mis en pièces, et une nouvelle vie recommençant dans mille et mille centres, sur le principe de l’initiative vivace de l’individu et des groupes, sur la libre entente. Ou bien, toujours l’État écrasant la vie individuelle et locale, s’emparant de tous les domaines de l’activité humaine, amenant ses guerres et les luttes intestines pour la possession du pouvoir, ses révolutions de surface qui ne font que changer de tyrans et, inévitablement, au bout de cette évolution — la mort !
J’écris depuis le Rojava. Soyons francs : je n’ai pas grandi ici et je n’ai pas accès à toutes les informations dont j’aurais besoin pour vous dire avec certitude ce qu’il va se passer maintenant dans cette partie du monde. J’écris parce qu’il est urgent que vous entendiez des gens en Syrie du Nord vous dire ce que le « retrait des troupes » de Trump signifie vraiment pour nous – et qu’on ne sait pas trop combien de temps il nous reste pour en parler. Je m’attelle à cette tâche avec toute l’humilité dont je peux faire preuve.
Je n’appartiens formellement à aucun groupe présent ici. Cela me permet de parler librement, mais je dois insister sur le fait que mon point de vue ne représente aucune position institutionnelle. Dans le pire des cas, cela devrait être utile comme document historique indiquant comment certaines personnes percevaient la situation, ici et en ce moment, au cas où il deviendrait impossible de nous le demander plus tard.
La décision de Trump de retirer ses troupes de Syrie n’est ni « anti-guerre », ni « anti-impérialiste ». Elle ne mettra pas fin au conflit syrien. Au contraire, Trump donne en pratique le feu vert au président turc Tayyip Erdoğan pour envahir le Rojava et procéder à un nettoyage ethnique du peuple qui s’est le plus battu et le plus sacrifié pour stopper l’ascension de l’État Islamique (ISIS). C’est un arrangement entre hommes de pouvoir pour éradiquer l’expérience sociale du Rojava et consolider les politiques nationalistes et autoritaires de Washington, à Istanbul et Kobane. Trump a l’intention de laisser à Israël le projet en apparence le plus libéral et démocratique de tout le Moyen-Orient, fermant la porte aux opportunités que la révolution au Rojava avait ouverte dans cette partie du monde.
Tout cela se fera à un coût terrible. Aussi sanglante et tragique que la guerre civile en Syrie a déjà pu être, cela pourrait mener, non pas à un simple nouveau chapitre du conflit, mais bien à une suite.
Ce n’est pas une question d’où les troupes US sont stationnées. Les deux mille soldats US en jeu ici sont une goutte d’eau en terme de nombre de combattants armés en Syrie aujourd’hui. Ils n’étaient pas présents sur la ligne de front comme l’était l’armée américaine en Irak.1 Le retrait de ces troupes n’est pas la chose importante ici. Ce qui importe est que l’annonce de Trump est un message pour Erdoğan lui signalant qu’il n’y aurait aucune conséquence si l’État turc envahissait le Rojava.
Il y a beaucoup de confusion à ce sujet, lorsque des activistes supposément pacifistes et « anti-impérialistes » comme Medea Benjamin soutiennent la décision de Donald Trump, apposant joyeusement un tampon « Paix » sur un bain de sang imminent et expliquant aux futures victimes qu’elles auraient dû s’y attendre. Cela n’a aucun sens de reprocher aux gens ici, au Rojava, d’avoir dépendu des Etats-Unis quand ni Medea Benjamin, ni personne comme elle n’a rien fait pour leur procurer aucune autre forme d’alternative.
Même si les autoritaristes, quel que soit le drapeau qu’ils saluent, cherchent à brouiller les pistes, donner à un membre de l’OTAN le feu vert pour envahir la Syrie est bien « pro-guerre » et « impérialiste ». En tant qu’anarchiste, mon objectif n’est pas de dire ce que l’armée américaine devrait faire. Il est de traiter de comment la politique de l’armée américaine affecte les gens ici et comment nous devrions réagir. Les anarchistes visent l’abolition de tous les gouvernements étatiques et la démobilisation de toutes armées étatiques au profit de formes horizontales et volontaires d’organisation ; mais, lorsque nous nous organisons en soutien de populations spécifiques comme celles qui subissent la violence d’ISIS et des différents acteurs étatiques de la région, nous rencontrons souvent des dilemmes cornéliens comme ceux que j’expose plus loin.
Le pire scénario maintenant serait que l’Armée Syrienne Libre (ASL), supportée par la Turquie, avec l’aide de l’armée turque elle-même, envahisse le Rojava et y réalise un nettoyage ethnique à un niveau que vous ne pouvez probablement pas imaginer. C’est ce qu’elles ont déjà fait, à une plus petite échelle, à Afrin. Au Rojava, cela prendrait des proportions historiques. Cela pourrait ressembler à la Nakba palestienne ou au génocide arménien.
Je vais essayer d’expliquer pourquoi tout cela arrive, pourquoi vous devriez vous en soucier, et ce que nous pouvons faire ensemble à ce propos.
Avant tout : à propos de l’expérience au Rojava
Le système au Rojava n’est pas parfait. Ce texte n’est pas le bon endroit pour laver mon linge sale, mais il y a de nombreux problèmes. Je ne vis pas le genre d’expérience qu’a connu ici Paul Z. Simmons il y a quelques années, quand sa visite au Rojava lui avait donné l’impression que tout y était possible. De nombreuses années de guerre et de militarisation ont laissé des marques qui ont pris le pas sur les aspects les plus enthousiasmants de la révolution ici. Néanmoins, ces gens sont en grand danger à l’heure actuelle et la société qu’ils ont bâtie vaut la peine d’être défendue.
Ce qui se passe en Rojava n’est pas l’anarchie. Pour autant, les femmes jouent un rôle majeur dans la société ; une liberté basique de religion et de langage est respectée ; une population diverse ethniquement, religieusement et linguistiquement coexiste sans signes majeurs de conflits ou de nettoyage ethnique ; c’est très militarisé, mais ce n’est pas un état policier ; il n’y a ni famine, ni précarité alimentaire de masse ; les forces armées ne commettent pas des atrocités massives. Chaque faction dans cette guerre a du sang sur les mains, mais les Unités de Protection du Peuple (YPG/YPJ) se sont conduites de manière bien plus responsable que n’importe quel autre camp. Elles ont sauvé un nombre incalculable de vies – pas seulement kurdes – au Sinjar et en d’autres lieux. En considérant les conditions impossibles et la quantité incroyable de violence que les gens ont subies de la part de chaque camp en présence, c’est un exploit extraordinaire. Tout ceci contraste clairement avec ce qui se passera si l’état Turc envahit la région, sachant que Trump lui en a donné le feu vert en échange de la conclusion d’une vente massive de missiles.
Je ne pense pas avoir besoin de dire que je ne suis pas pour perpétuer une « guerre contre le terrorisme » sans fin à la George Bush, encore moins de participer à une forme de « choc des civilisations » entre l’Islam et l’Occident que fantasment les bigots et les fondamentalistes des deux camps. Au contraire, c’est très exactement ce que je cherche à éviter ici. La plupart des gens que Daesh (ISIS) a tué ici sont musulmans, la plupart des gens qui sont morts en combattant Daesh sont musulmans. A Hajin, où j’étais stationné et où se trouve le dernier bastion d’ISIS, un des internationaux qui a le plus longtemps combattu Daesh est un musulman pratiquant – sans parler des combattants arabes de Deir Ezor, dont la plupart sont probablement eux-aussi musulmans.
Par besoin de concision, je vais simplifier à l’extrême et dire qu’il y a en gros, aujourd’hui, cinq factions dans la guerre civile syrienne : les loyalistes, les Turcs, les djihadistes, les Kurdes,2 et les rebelles.3 En conclusion de ce texte, je fournis un appendice qui développe les narratifs caractéristiques de chacun de ces camps.
Chacun d’entre eux a sa manière de se positionner par rapport aux autres. Je liste ici les relations de chaque groupe avec tous les autres, de celui considéré comme l’allié le plus proche à celui considéré comme le pire ennemi :
Cela peut être utile pour mieux distinguer quels groupes pourraient être capables de faire des compromis et lesquels sont irréversiblement en guerre. Je le précise encore : je généralise vraiment beaucoup.
Soyons clairs : chaque groupe est motivé par un narratif qui contient au moins quelques bribes de vérité. Par exemple, sur la question de qui est responsable de l’ascension d’ISIS, il est vrai que les USA ont « préparé le terrain » pour ISIS avec l’invasion et l’occupation de l’Irak et son dénouement dramatique (narratif loyaliste) ; il est vrai aussi que l’État Turc a tactiquement et parfois ouvertement collaboré avec ISIS parce qu’il affrontait l’adversaire principal de l’État Turc (narratif kurde) et que la réaction brutale d’Assad au Printemps Arabe a contribué à une escalade de la violence dans un cercle vicieux dont l’ascension de Daesh est le point culminant (narratif rebelle). Et même si j’ai moins de sympathie pour le point de vue des djihadistes et de l’État Turc, il est certain que tant que le bien-être des arabes sunnites en Irak et en Syrie n’est pas assuré par un accord politique, les djihadistes continueront de se battre, et que tant qu’aucune forme d’accord n’est conclue entre l’État Turc et le PKK, la Turquie va continuer de chercher à éradiquer les formations politiques kurdes, sans hésiter à recourir au génocide.
L’on dit que les kurdes « sont des citoyens de seconde zone en Syrie, de troisième zone en Iran, de quatrième zone en Irak, et de cinquième zone en Turquie ». Ce n’est pas un hasard si, quand des officiels Turcs comme le ministre des affaires étrangères Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu listent les « groupes terroristes » qui les inquiètent le plus dans la région, ils placent les YPG avant ISIS. Peut-être que cela peut aider à expliquer la réaction prudente de bien des Kurdes envers à la révolution Syrienne : d’un point de vue kurde, un changement de régime en Syrie effectué par des djihadistes soutenus par la Turquie sans changement de régime en Turquie pourrait être pire que pas de changement de régime en Syrie du tout.
Je ne vais pas refaire toute la chronologie, depuis les Sumériens antiques jusqu’au commencement de la guerre du PKK en Turquie, puis à l’invasion de l’Irak en 2003, les Printemps Arabes et l’ascension d’ISIS. Passons tout ça pour aller directement à l’annonce de Trump le 19 décembre : « ISIS est vaincu en Syrie, c’était ma seule raison pour être là pendant la présidence Trump ».
Qu’on soit clair : Daesh n’a pas été vaincu en Syrie. Il y a à peine quelques jours, profitant d’un beau ciel bleu et dégagé, ils ont tenté un tir sur notre position avec un lance-missiles et ont raté leur coup d’à peine une centaine de yards.
C’est vrai que leur territoire est seulement une fraction de ce qu’il a pu être. En même temps, d’après toutes les sources disponibles, ils ont toujours des milliers de combattants, beaucoup d’artillerie lourde, et probablement une bonne part de ce qu’il reste de leur domination sur la poche de Hajin de la vallée de l’Euphrate et sur les déserts environnants, entre Hajin et la frontière Irakienne. En plus de ça, les combattants d’ISIS ont une grande expérience et un large éventail de stratégies défensives sophistiquées – et ils sont parfaitement déterminés à mourir pour causer des dommages à leurs ennemis.
S’il est vrai que le territoire d’ISIS a été drastiquement réduit, Trump profère un mensonge éhonté quand il essaye de s’en créditer. L’exploit qu’il prétend sien est très majoritairement le travail des gens dont il signe l’arrêt de mort en les laissant aux mains de la Turquie.
Sous Obama, le Département de la Défense et la CIA ont poursuivit des stratégies dramatiquement différentes quant au soulèvement en Syrie et à la guerre civile qui s’en suivit. La CIA s’est concentrée sur le reversement d’Assad, usant de tous les moyens possibles, à tel point que des armes et de l’argent fournis par ses soins se sont retrouvés dans les mains d’al-Nusra, d’ISIS, et d’autres. A l’inverse, le Pentagone s’est plus focalisé sur la destruction d’ISIS, et, par conséquent, a commencé à se concentrer sur le soutien des Unités de Protection du Peuple (YPG/YPJ), majoritairement Kurdes, pendant la défense de Kobane en 2014.
En tant qu’anarchiste qui souhaite l’abolition complète de tout gouvernement, je n’ai aucun amour pour le Pentagone, ni pour la CIA, mais si je dois juger ces deux approches au regard de leurs objectifs affichés, la tactique du Pentagone a plutôt bien marché, alors que celle de la CIA a été un désastre total. De ce point de vue, on peut dire que le gouvernement Obama a à la fois contribué à la croissance d’ISIS et à sa suppression. Trump, de son côté, n’a fait ni l’un ni l’autre, excepté à travers l’effet de l’espèce de nationalisme islamophobe qu’il promeut, qui aide par symétrie au développement d’un fondamentalisme islamique.
Jusqu’à Décembre, Trump a maintenu la stratégie du Pentagone héritée du gouvernement Obama. Il y a eu des signes d’extension des objectifs initiaux de la mission de la part du Conseiller à la Sécurité Nationale US John R. Bolton et du Secrétaire d’Etat Mike Pompeo, qui espèrent au final saper les ressources de l’Iran et sa capacité à fournir du pétrole à la Chine. Dans cette mesure – et pas plus – je comprends les préoccupations des pseudo-pacifistes « anti-impérialistes » : une guerre avec l’Iran serait un cauchemar de l’ordre de la catastrophe provoquée par la guerre en Irak. Donc, oui, dans la mesure où les YPG et YPJ ont été forcées de se coordonner avec l’armée US, ces dernières travaillaient avec des personnages peu recommandables dont les motivations étaient très différentes des leurs.
Pour résumer, ce qui a amené à la quasi-totale reconquête du territoire auparavant occupé par ISIS n’est pas sorcier. C’est la combinaison d’une force terrestre courageuse et efficace et d’un support aérien. Dans cette sorte de guerre de territoire conventionnelle, il est très difficile pour une force terrestre sans soutien aérien de battre une force terrestre qui dispose d’un tel soutien, et ce, peu importe si la première se bat avec vaillance et acharnement. Dans certaines parties de la Syrie, il s’agissait de l’YPG/YPJ au sol supportée par l’armée US dans les airs. Ailleurs en Syrie, on peut dire qu’ISIS a été repoussé par une coordination du support aérien russe et de l’armée loyaliste (SAA) combattant aux côtés des milices supportées par l’Iran.
Il aurait été extrêmement difficile de reprendre ce territoire à ISIS par n’importe quel autre moyen. La coopération de l’YPG/YPJ avec l’armée US reste controversée, mais le fait est que chaque camp dans le conflit syrien a été renforcé et soutenu par des puissances extérieures plus importantes, sans lesquelles il se serait effondré.
Les gens utilisant les narratifs Turcs, loyalistes et djihadistes soulignent souvent que Kobane serait tombée et que l’YPG/YPJ n’aurait jamais été capable de reprendre la Syrie de l’Est sans le soutien aérien US. De la même manière, le régime syrien et le gouvernement d’Assad étaient très proches de l’effondrement militaire en 2015, au moment où la Turquie a très obligeamment abattu un avion russe et où Poutine a décidé que la Russie allait soutenir le régime d’Assad à tout prix. Les rebelles, de leur côté, n’auraient jamais pu ne serait-ce qu’espérer renverser Assad par des moyens militaires sans un soutien massif du gouvernement Turc, des États du Golfe, des services secrets US, et probablement d’Israël à un certain degré, même si les détails sont flous de là où je me trouve.
Et les djihadistes – Daesh, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda et les autres – n’auraient jamais pu prendre le contrôle de la moitié de l’Irak et de la Syrie si les américains n’avaient pas été assez inconscients pour laisser aux mains du gouvernement irakien du matériel militaire ultra-moderne permettant d’équiper toute une armée, équipement lui-même abandonné par l’Irak. Ils ont également été aidés par la captation d’une quantité effroyable de ressources fournies par les soutiens étrangers (déjà mentionnés) des rebelles. Aidés, aussi, par le fait que la Turquie a laissé ses aéroports et ses frontières ouverts aux djihadistes du monde entier souhaitant rejoindre Daesh. Ils semblent aussi avoir reçu un soutien financier, sous une forme ou une autre, de la part des États du Golfe, que ce soit formellement ou à travers des moyens détournés.
L’État Turc a son propre agenda. Il n’est, en aucune manière, un satellite des États-Unis. Mais, au final, il reste un membre de l’OTAN et il peut compter sur un soutien à 100% du gouvernement américain – comme l’illustre la vente de missiles US à la Turquie faite quelques jours avant le tweet annonçant le retrait des troupes.
Sous cet angle, on peut comprendre pourquoi l’YPG/YPJ a choisi de coopérer avec l’armée US. Je ne cherche pas à défendre cette décision, mais à montrer que dans les circonstances, c’était la seule alternative concrète à l’annihilation. En même temps, il est clair que cette stratégie n’a pas apporté la sécurité aux gens du Rojava. Même si l’on met de côté les préoccupations éthiques, c’est un problème que de dépendre des États-Unis – ou de la France, de la Russie, de la Turquie, de l’Arabie Saoudite, ou de n’importe quel gouvernement d’état avec son propre agenda étatique. En tant qu’anarchistes, nous devons nous pencher très sérieusement sur la question de savoir comment nous pouvons proposer d’autres alternatives pour les gens pris dans des zones de conflit. Y a-t-il une forme quelconque de coordination internationale horizontale et décentralisée qui pourrait résoudre les problèmes qui se posaient aux gens du Rojava, de telle manière qu’ils n’auraient pas eu à dépendre de l’armée US ? Si nous ne trouvons pas de réponse à cette question en regardant la Syrie de 2013-2018, y a-t-il quelque chose que nous aurions pu faire au préalable ? Ce sont des questions extrêmement pressantes.
Personne ne devrait oublier qu’ISIS n’a été réduit à son état actuel de faiblesse relative que par un mouvement de résistance populaire multi-ethnique et radicalement démocratique, qui a impliqué dans le même temps des volontaires internationaux venus des quatre coins du monde. Devant l’ordre de Trump d’abandonner et de trahir la lutte contre ISIS, toute personne sincère qui voudrait réellement mettre un terme à l’expansion du terrorisme des groupes fondamentalistes apocalyptiques comme ISIS ou ses successeurs immédiats devrait arrêter de compter sur l’État et concentrer l’ensemble de ses ressources dans le soutien direct à des mouvements multi-ethniques, décentralisés et égalitaires. Il devient de plus en plus clair que ce sont nos seuls espoirs.
Je ne suis pas surpris que Trump et les américains « trahissent un allié » – je ne pense pas que qui que ce soit ici s’imaginait un instant que Trump ou le Pentagone comptait soutenir le projet politique du Rojava. Avec le recul, il était assez clair qu’une fois ISIS vaincu, les États-Unis laisseraient le Rojava à la merci de l’armée Turque. C’est l’une des raisons pour lesquelles les forces de l’YPG/YPJ ont traîné les pieds pour extirper ISIS de ses dernières places fortes.
Néanmoins, on peut être surpris et perplexe devant le fait que Trump s’empresse d’abandonner la tête de pont que les États-Unis ont réussi à établir dans la Russosphère – et que l’état-major des armées US le laisse faire. En terme de maintien de l’hégémonie militaire américaine dans le monde, cette décision n’a absolument aucun sens. C’est un cadeau gratuit fait à Poutine, Erdoğan et ISIS, qui pourrait en profiter pour se régénérer dans la région, peut-être, comme nous le verrons, sous une nouvelle forme.
Au passage, le retrait des troupes en Syrie ne veut pas forcément dire que le conflit avec l’Iran n’est plus à l’ordre du jour. Au contraire, certains faucons au sein du gouvernement américain pourraient le voir comme une étape vers la consolidation d’une position à partir de laquelle un tel conflit pourrait être possible.
Peu importe comment vous la regardez, cette décision de Trump est une nouvelle importante. Elle indique que le deep state américain n’a plus de pouvoir sur la politique étrangère de Trump. Ceci suggère que le projet néolibéral américain est mort et enterré, ou qu’au moins certains éléments de la classe dirigeante américaine le considèrent comme tel. Cela implique aussi un futur dans lequel des autocrates ethno-nationalistes comme Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, Bolsonaro et Poutine seront aux commandes dans le monde entier, coopérant les uns avec les autres pour maintenir leur pouvoir sur leurs domaines privés respectifs.
Dans ce cas, toute l’ère de l’hégémonie militaire américaine post-Guerre froide est terminée, et nous entrons dans un âge multipolaire dans lequel des tyrans vont régner sur des ethno-états autoritaires balkanisés : pensez à l’Europe avant la Première Guerre Mondiale. Les libéraux et néoconservateurs qui préféraient l’hégémonie militaire américaine portent le deuil d’une époque qui a été un cauchemar sanglant pour des millions de personnes. Les gauchistes (et anarchistes?) qui s’imaginent qu’une telle transition pourrait être une bonne nouvelle sont des idiots qui affrontent l’ennemi d’hier dans une guerre tardive, incapables de reconnaître les nouveaux cauchemars qui se mettent en place autour d’eux. La coalition rouge/brune de facto entre socialistes autoritaires et fascistes qui célèbrent l’arrivée de ce nouvel âge nous précipite à tombeau ouvert dans un tout nouveau monde dans lequel de plus en plus de régions du monde vont ressembler aux pires images de la guerre civile syrienne.
Et, depuis le point d’observation où je me trouve, ici et maintenant, ceci n’est pas dit à la légère.
Que va-t’il se passer ensuite ?
Malheureusement, en Turquie, le mouvement kurde et la gauche ont été décimés au cours des dernières années. Je serais très surpris s’il y avait quelque forme de soulèvement que ce soit en Turquie, peu importe ce qu’il arrive au Rojava. Ne ne devrions pas nous autoriser à espérer qu’une invasion turque ici déclencherait une insurrection au Kurdistan du Nord.
Sauf évènement réellement inattendu, il y a grossièrement deux issues possibles maintenant.
Dans le premier scénario, l’Union des Démocrates (PYD) arrive à une sorte d’accord avec le régime d’Assad, avec probablement des conditions moins favorables que ce qui était possible avant l’invasion turque d’Afrin ; les deux camps feraient probablement des concessions jusqu’à un certain degré et accepteraient de se battre dans le même camp en cas d’invasion turque. Si la Russie appose sa signature, cela pourrait suffire à empêcher qu’ait lieu l’invasion. Soit les YPG/YPJ, soit le SAA nettoieraient la poche d’Afrin, et la guerre serait basiquement terminée, à l’exception d’Idlib.
Jusqu’à maintenant, le régime d’Assad et les principales formations kurdes ont été extrêmement durs en négociation, mais peut-être que la menace qui plane à la fois sur le Rojava et le régime d’Assad sera assez extrême pour qu’ils choisissent cette option. Il est possible que ce soit l’un des objectifs des menaces turques, ou même du retrait des troupes de Trump : obliger le Rojava à céder leur autonomie militaire au régime d’Assad.
Le YPG, le PYD et les autres ne sont pas dans une bonne position pour négocier à l’heure actuelle, mais au moins le régime sait qu’il peut négocier avec eux, alors que si la Syrie du Nord devait être occupée par des djihadistes soutenus par la Turquie et des pillards du même ordre, il serait difficile de savoir ce qui arriverait ensuite. Le Rojava possède quelques-uns des meilleurs terrains agricoles syriens au nord, et des puits de pétrole au sud.
Je ne peux que spéculer sur ce que seraient les termes de cet accord hypothétique. Il y a beaucoup de spéculation en ligne : les kurdes pourraient obtenir la régularisation de leur citoyenneté, des droits pour leur langue, la prise en compte des années passées dans le YPG comme un service militaire, ce qui permettrait aux soldats qui ont combattu ISIS de retourner à la vie civile plutôt que d’être conscrits dans la SAA, une forme quelconque d’autonomie politique limitée, ou quelque chose du genre. En retour, le YPG et ses alliés auraient essentiellement à céder au régime le contrôle politique et militaire des zones du Syrian Defense Front.
Est-ce que l’on peut faire confiance au régime d’Assad pour respecter les accords ainsi passés une fois obtenu le contrôle de la région ? Probablement pas.
Pour être clair, il est facile, de ma part, de parler théoriquement du régime d’Assad comme du moindre de deux maux. Je suis informé de nombre d’atrocités commises par le régime, mais je n’en ai pas fait l’expérience moi-même, et je ne suis pas dans l’endroit de Syrie où ils ont fait les pires choses, donc j’entends plus fréquemment les histoires des locaux sur Daesh et les autres djihadistes, sans parler de la Turquie. Il y a très certainement d’autres endroits de Syrie où les gens envisagent le retour du pouvoir d’Assad avec la même horreur que celle qui est ressentie ici à propos d’ISIS et de l’armée Turque.
Dans tous les cas, il y a quelques signes que ce premier scénario pourrait tout de même être possible. Le régime a envoyé des troupes à Manbij, l’une des lignes de front où, à l’heure actuelle, les troupes turques et les TFSA se rassemblent massivement. Il y a des rencontres entre le PYD et le régime ainsi qu’avec les russes. Une négociation avec l’Egypte comme intermédiaire est prévue pour bientôt.
Ce premier scénario ne débouche pas sur un ensemble d’options très attirant. Ce n’est pas ce pourquoi Jordan Mactaggartt ou les milliers de syriens qui ont combattu et sont morts au sein de l’YPG/YPJ ont donné leur vie. Mais il est préférable au second scénario…
Dans le second scénario, le régime d’Assad envoie ses troupes avec la Turquie plutôt qu’avec l’YPG.
Dans ce cas, l’armée turque et les forces qui lui sont affiliées envahira le Nord pendant que le régime envahira par le Sud et l’Ouest. L’YPG se battra jusqu’à la mort, rue par rue, bloc par bloc, dans une tempête de feu rappelant le ghetto de Varsovie ou la Commune de Paris, utilisant toutes les tactiques défensives acquises en combattant contre ISIS. Un grand nombre de personnes vont mourir. A un moment, le régime d’Assad et la Turquie établiront une ligne quelconque entre leurs zones de contrôle. Dans les temps à venir, il y aura en Syrie du Nord une sorte d’État croupion turc-djihadiste du Chef-de-guerre-istan.
Les minorités survivantes kurdes, assyriennes, arméniennes, chrétiennes ou autres seront expulsées, nettoyées ethniquement ou terrorisées. Les TFSA et les milices qui leurs sont liées vont probablement piller tout ce sur quoi ils pourront mettre la main. Sur le long terme, la Turquie va probablement se débarrasser des réfugiés syriens actuellement présents en Turquie dans ces zones occupées, provoquant des changements démographiques irréversibles dans la région, qui pourraient déboucher sur de nouveaux conflits ethniques.
Nous ne devrions croire en aucune façon les assurances fournies par l’État turc ou ses soutiens que ce ne sera pas le résultat de leur invasion, puisque c’est exactement ainsi qu’ils se sont comportés à Afrin et qu’il n’y a aucune raison pour qu’ils se comportent autrement au Rojava. Pour rappel : pour la Turquie, les YPG/YPJ sont l’ennemis numéro un en Syrie.
Parlons maintenant de Daesh. Malgré la menace imminente d’une invasion, les SDF sont toujours en train de nettoyer la poche de Hajin de la présence d’ISIS. S’il n’y avait pas cette bouée de sauvetage que la Turquie leur lance en menaçant d’envahir le Rojava, Daesh serait condamné, puisqu’ils sont encerclés par les SDF, la SAA et l’armée Irakienne. Je me répète : Trump donnant à la Turquie le feu vert pour envahir le Rojava est pratiquement la seule chose qui peut sauver ISIS.
Trump a déclaré à plusieurs reprises que la Turquie promet d’achever ISIS. Pour croire à ce mensonge, il faut être ignorant politiquement, oui – mais aussi, il faut être incapable de lire une carte. Malheureusement, cela décrit assez bien les supporters de Trump.
Même si le gouvernement turc avait la moindre intention de combattre Daesh en Syrie – ce dont on peut fortement douter, vu comment la Turquie a facilité son envol – pour atteindre Hajin et la vallée de l’Euphrate, il faudrait que la Turquie roule à travers tout le Rojava. Il n’y a pas d’autres moyens pour se rendre à Hajin. Si vous ne connaissez pas bien la région, regardez une carte et vous verrez ce que je veux dire.
Le régime d’Assad tient les positions de l’autre côté de la vallée de l’Euphrate, faisant face à la fois aux SDF et à Daesh, et pourrait éventuellement nettoyer les derniers bastions d’ISIS. En ce qui me concerne, je préférerais voir ce dernier mener ces opérations pour y parvenir plutôt que de voir l’YPG prendre trop de risques et s’épuiser en continuant à subir de lourdes pertes. Mais ce qui est sûr, ici, c’est que quand Trump dit « la Turquie va achever ISIS ! », il envoie un message évident aux tenants de la ligne dure en Turquie, les informant qu’ils peuvent attaquer le Rojava et qu’il ne fera rien pour les arrêter. Cela n’a rien à voir avec ISIS et tout à voir avec un nettoyage ethnique au Rojava.
A la limite, même si les forces d’Assad s’allient avec le gouvernement turc, nous pouvons espérer que les forces du régime achèvent tout de même ISIS. Si la Turquie a le champ libre et fait ce que Trump prétend qu’elle fera, à savoir se tailler un passage à travers le Rojava pour aller à Hajin, ils vont probablement donner aux combattants de Daesh un moyen sûr de s’exfiltrer, des vêtements propres, trois repas par jour, et le village où je suis actuellement en échange de leur assistance dans la répression de futures insurrections kurdes.
Nous y sommes : en déclarant la victoire face à ISIS, Trump arrange la seule voie possible pour que les combattants d’ISIS sortent de cette histoire avec leur capacité de combat intacte. C’est Orwellien, pour rester poli.
La seule autre option que je peux imaginer, si les négociations avec le régime d’Assad échouent ou que le PYD décide de conserver une victoire morale et de ne pas s’associer au régime – qui n’est pas digne de confiance et a commis nombre d’atrocités de son propre chef – serait de voir l’entièreté des Forces de Défense Syriennes se fondre à nouveau dans la population civile, permettant à la Turquie et ses satellites de marcher sur le Rojava sans perdre les forces de combat de l’YPG/YPJ, et de lancer immédiatement une insurrection à partir de là. Cela pourrait être plus intelligent que de défendre désespérément leur dernière position, mais qui sait.
Regardons devant nous
Personnellement, je veux voir la guerre civile en Syrie se terminer, et que l’Irak soit, d’une manière ou d’une autre, épargné d’un nouveau cycle de guerre dans un futur proche. Je veux voir ISIS empêché de régénérer son réseau et de se préparer à un nouvel épisode de violences. Cela ne veut pas dire intensifier la surveillance et le contrôle par des forces extérieures de cette partie du monde – je veux dire développer des solutions locales à la question de comment des gens et des populations différentes peuvent coexister, et comment ils peuvent se défendre eux-mêmes de groupes comme Daesh. Cela fait partie de ce que les gens ont essayé de faire au Rojava, et c’est l’une des raisons pour lesquelles Trump et Erdoğan trouvent cette expérience si menaçante. Au final, l’existence de groupes comme ISIS rend leur autorité préférable en comparaison, alors que des initiatives horizontales, participatives et multi-ethniques ne font que montrer à quel point leur système est oppressif.
Le projet de renverser Assad par des moyens militaires est mort – ou, du moins, les choses qu’il faudrait faire pour rendre cette possibilité envisageable dans un futur proche sont encore plus horribles que ne l’est le régime lui-même. Si le capitalisme et la tyrannie de l’État sont le problème, ce type de guerre civile n’est pas la solution, même s’il semble probable que ce qui est arrivé ici en Syrie arrivera de nouveau dans d’autres endroits du monde au fur et à mesure que les crises générées par le capitalisme, le pouvoir étatique et les conflits ethniques montent les gens les uns contre les autres.
Que pouvez-vous faire, vous qui lisez ceci depuis un endroit du monde plus sûr et plus stable ?
D’abord, vous pouvez répandre l’information que la décision de Trump n’est ni un moyen d’apporter la paix en Syrie, ni la confirmation qu’ISIS a été vaincu. Vous pouvez dire à d’autres ce que je vous ai dit sur la situation actuelle vue d’ici, au cas où je ne serais plus capable de le faire moi-même.
Deuxièmement, dans l’éventualité d’une invasion Turque, vous pouvez faire tout ce qui est en votre pouvoir pour discréditer et entraver l’état Turc, Trump, et tous ceux qui auront mené à cette situation. Même si vous n’êtes pas capables de les stopper – même si vous ne pouvez pas sauver nos vies – vous aurez pris part à la construction du genre de mouvement social et de capacités collectives qui seront nécessaires pour sauver d’autres vies dans le futur.
De plus, vous pouvez chercher des moyens de faire parvenir des ressources jusqu’aux gens vivant dans cette partie du globe, qui ont tant souffert et qui vont continuer à souffrir à mesure que se joue le nouvel acte de cette tragédie. Vous pouvez aussi chercher des moyens de soutenir les réfugiés syriens disséminés partout dans le monde.
Pour finir, vous pouvez réfléchir à comment nous pourrions faire en sorte d’avoir de meilleures options à notre disposition la prochaine fois qu’une insurrection comme celle en Syrie éclatera. Comment pouvons-nous nous assurer que les gouvernements tombent avant que leur règne ne mène au règne de la force pure, dans lequel seuls les insurgés soutenus par d’autres états peuvent prendre le contrôle de territoires ? Comment pourrions-nous offrir d’autres visions sur la façon dont les gens peuvent vivre et subvenir à leurs besoins ensemble, et mobiliser la force nécessaire à s’implanter et à se défendre au niveau international sans l’aide d’aucun état ?
Ce ne sont pas des questions simples, mais j’ai confiance en vous. Je n’ai pas d’autre choix.
Appendice : Narratifs rivaux
En m’appuyant sur cette bonne synthèse, voici une revue des narratifs que nous retrouvons souvent chez les différents camps en présence dans cette guerre :
Narratif loyaliste :
L’accent est mis sur comment les États-Unis et d’autres pays ont soutenu et financé les rebelles dans la poursuite de leurs propres intérêts géopolitiques, ce qui est vu comme la raison principale de l’escalade du conflit.
-L’existence d’ISIS est principalement attribuée au fait que le soutien apporté aux rebelles s’est retrouvé dans de mauvaises mains et, plus profondément, aux répercutions de la guerre en Irak de 2003.
L’accent est mis sur la coopération entre les rebelles dits modérés et les groupes comme Hay’at Tahir al-Sham (HTS) dans le but de pouvoir dire qu’ils font tous partie du même problème.
Les vues varient quant aux Forces Démocratiques Syriennes (SDF) et à leur légitimité. Cela semble différent d’un loyaliste à l’autre, certains d’entre eux les jugeant comme presque aussi mauvais que les rebelles traditionnels, et les autres les voyant comme des alliés contre ISIS et les rebelles soutenus par les turcs.
Narratif occidental, rebelle, et du golfe :
L’accent est mis sur le Printemps Arabe et sur comment la répression brutale de manifestations (relativement) pacifiques a mené à l’escalade du conflit, la rébellion armée et, éventuellement, à la guerre civile totale.
L’existence d’ISIS est principalement attribuée à l’action d’Assad. Il est souvent affirmé que, par ses actes brutaux et en s’appuyant sur des milices sectaires, il a créé un environnement dans lequel ISIS pouvait se développer et établir des soutiens. De plus, il est établi que l’armée d’Assad a délibérément ciblé d’autres rebelles plutôt qu’ISIS, et par conséquent, le régime est à blâmer, en grande partie, pour son ascension.
L’accent est mis sur une distinction claire entre les rebelles modérés et radicaux, et sur le fait qu’il faille distinguer les deux si l’on veut analyser honnêtement la situation.
Le regard porté sur les SDF varie d’inamical à ouvertement hostile. Il se traduit souvent par une emphase sur les cas où les SDF et l’Armée Arabe Syrienne (SAA) ont travaillé ensemble. Dans ses formes plus modérées, ce narratif critique ce qui est perçu comme une trop grande dépendance envers les kurdes dans des zones majoritairement arabes, tout en reconnaissant leur légitimité dans les zones majoritairement kurdes.
Narratif turc :
Le narratif turc est pratiquement le même que le précédent sur la plupart des sujets, à l’exception notable que l’hostilité envers les SDF est intensifiée à l’extrême. Dans ce narratif, l’accent est mis sur les liens entre les SDF et le PKK, et les SDF sont décrits comme une organisation terroriste illégitime qui est une menace pour la Turquie et qui oppresse et réprime les Arabes locaux.
Narratif occidental et kurde :
Le conflit est vu comme une opportunité historique pour les kurdes en quête d’une nation. L’accent est mis sur les discriminations dont les kurdes ont souffert avant le conflit et sur comment ils peuvent prendre les choses en main eux-mêmes aujourd’hui.
L’existence et l’expansion d’ISIS est principalement reprochée à la Turquie. L’inaction de la Turquie pendant la bataille de Kobane est principalement mise en avant, tout comme des accusations de soutien direct à ISIS et d’importation de son pétrole.
Au sujet des rebelles, le point de vue tend à se rapprocher de celui des loyalistes. Les rebelles (au moins dans les régions où c’est pertinent) sont vus soit comme des satellites de la Turquie, soit comme de dangereux extrémistes sur lesquels la Turquie ferme les yeux. La ligne séparant ISIS et les rebelles est parfois floue, même s’ils ne sont pas associés aussi fortement que dans le narratif loyaliste.
Les SDF sont vus comme la seule force armée saine et morale parmi l’ensemble des acteurs de ce conflit. L’accent est mis sur les atrocités des rebelles et des loyalistes pour appuyer ce point de vue.
Narratif d’ISIS et islamiste :
Le début de ce conflit est vu comme le grand réveil des musulmans contre leurs tyrans apostats Alawites. L’accent est mis sur la solidarité des combattants étrangers qui viennent soutenir leurs frères syriens en souffrance.
Ce point de vue est celui d’ISIS lui-même, mais aussi d’Al Quaeda et d’autres groupes islamistes, qui voient ISIS comme des traîtres à la cause djihadiste.
Les rebelles sont vus comme des vendus naïfs qui servent les intérêts de gouvernements étrangers, établissant pour leur compte des idéaux non-musulmans. L’accent est aussi mis sur comment les rebelles négocient et forment des accords avec les loyalistes, pour être aussitôt trahis et perdre du territoire.
Les Forces de Défense Syriennes sont vues comme des apostats athées à la solde des États-Unis. La différence majeure avec la Turquie est l’emphase mise sur leur manque de religiosité plus que sur les connections avec le PKK.
A Hajin, où se situe le dernier bastion d’ISIS, la position américaine se trouve bien derrière la ligne de front, à portée d’artillerie mais hors de portée des armes dont disposent Daesh, ainsi les troupes américaines peuvent s’asseoir et pilonner sans relâche sans subir la moindre riposte, alors que les risques sont encourus par les troupes au sol des Unités de Protection du Peuple (YPG/YPJ) et les Forces Démocratiques Syriennes (SDF). C’est très précisément ce que l’armée turque nous ferait si la Turquie envahissait le Rojava ↩
En fait, il y existe deux principaux partis au Kurdistan irakien en plus du Parti des Travailleurs du Kurdistan (PKK). Ils ont chacun leurs propres armées et police ; et ont combattu une fois lors d’une réelle guerre civile. Ils ne s’apprécient pas du tout. Le Parti Démocratique du Kurdistan (KDP), la dynastie de la famille Barzani, est plus étroitement aligné sur la Turquie et les Etats-Unis ; il était précédemment plus proche de Saddam Hussein. Ils ont de mauvaises relations avec l’administration du Rojava ; ils sont vivement méprisés ici du fait qu’ils se sont essentiellement écartés et ont laissé la catastrophe à Sinjar se produire sur leur propre territoire alors que le PKK se précipitait pour s’engouffrer dans la brèche. L’Union Patriotique du Kurdistan (PUK) a de meilleures relations avec l’Iran, le PKK, et l’administration d’ici. Il y a au Rojava une milice liée au KDP appelée Rojava Peshmarga ; une fois de plus, ils ont une mauvaise réputation parce qu’ils ont passé toute la guerre à faire très peu de choses, alors qu’un grand nombre de membres du YPG sont morts en combattant ISIS. Tout ça pour simplement dire qu’il n’y a pas une seule et unique position Kurde, il y a aussi des groupes kurdes réactionnaires. ↩
Les rebelles syriens n’ont jamais formé un groupe homogène ; parmi eux, on peut trouver à la fois un individu aligné sur la Turquie et les djihadistes et un individu plus étroitement aligné sur les YPG/YPJ. Malheureusement, beaucoup de ceux qui étaient intéressés par des solutions plus « démocratiques » pour résoudre la situation en Syrie ont été obligé de fuir le pays il y a des années. ↩
For almost two years now, faithful Democrats have waited for special counsel Robert Mueller to file his report about collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian attempts to interfere in the US election, not to mention Trump’s involvement in obstruction of justice. Whenever Trump’s activity provokes them or a subterranean rumbling within the Justice Department emboldens them, the faithful take to the streets and social media with hand-held cardboard signs and internet memes to proclaim that Mueller Time is close at hand. Yet even if the Mueller investigation concludes with Trump’s impeachment, the spectacle of the investigation has served to immobilize millions who have a stake in systemic social change, ensuring that what comes next in the United States will be politics as usual—not liberation.
When you’ve fallen on the highway
And you’re lying in the rain,
And they ask you how you’re doing
Of course you’ll say you can’t complain
If you’re squeezed for information,
That’s when you’ve got to play it dumb
You just say you’re out there waiting
For the miracle, for the miracle to come
-The 20th century’s greatest messianic thinker, Leonard Cohen
Within weeks of the beginning of the investigation, there were already think pieces and t-shirts proclaiming “It’s Mueller Time.” Let’s take the t-shirts at their word: maybe it’s been Mueller Time all along. Maybe Mueller Time is not a specific date that is about to arrive, but the era we’ve been experiencing these past two years.
In that case, Mueller Time is not an hour on the clock, but a way of experiencing time, a kind of time—like crunch time or quality time or go time, but the opposite of all of them. It is not a scale of time, like geologic time, or a time zone, like Eastern Standard Time—Mueller Time is more like the End Times, perpetually anticipated.
To be precise, Mueller Time is the political suspended animation in which the Democrats have waited for a repeatedly deferred deus ex machina to deliver them from this unbearable pres(id)ent. This condition of waiting, itself, rather than any of the grievous injustices that have taken place during it, is the very essence of hell.
Dante, the Marco Polo of the Abyss, located Limbo, the residence of those who wait, in Inferno, not in Purgatory. Waiting is not transformative or redemptive—it is the sort of sin for which the punishment is the crime. “Limbo” shares a Latin root with liminal—it is homeland of those who tarry on the threshold, those who are on the fence.
If you can get people used to waiting, you can get them used toanything.
To understand Mueller Time better, we can begin with its namesake. “Miller time” is a time to take a load off, to ease our pain by drugging ourselves into oblivion. It’s a profound expression of despair—“I can only relax in this world by deadening my senses”—disguised not just as relief but as celebration. What is the glee with which Democrats invoke Mueller Time if not an admission of their own abject powerlessness and dependence? “Rejoice,” says the Democrat, “Justice will be done! And thank goodness, as usual, the FBI will take care of everything.”
Miller Time and Mueller Time are both chronotopes, to use the term popularized by literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin: they are specific relationships to time. You cannot understand a group of people without understanding how they experience the passing of time. Peering between chronotopes produces strange refractions, like looking through a glass of water. How different the world appears to a person whose activism consists chiefly of waiting, in contrast to how it appears to those for whom waiting and acting are opposites! It is the difference between spectator and athlete, between the consumer and the inventor, between those who suffer history as if it were weather and those who make history as a side effect of understanding themselves as the protagonists of their time.
And Miller Time and Mueller Time are both marketed chronotopes. Miller Time is the “5 o’clock somewhere” that unites wage labor and intoxication in a mutually reinforcing false opposition—but even more importantly, it is the branded colonization of that time. Likewise, Mueller Time is not just the “he’ll get his” which all people of conscience wish for Trump, but a particular deferral of responsibility. Both are successful advertising campaigns that concentrate capital in certain hands precisely by inducing people not to take their problems into their own hands.
“The politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their ‘mass basis,’ and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing.”
–Walter Benjamin on how Social Democrats permitted the Third Reich to come to power in Germany
All this is familiar to those who were raised as Adventists, believing that the outrageous sinfulness of the prevailing world order indicates the imminence of the Resurrection and the necessity of repentance before authority. Mueller Time is the redemption, the arrival of the Millennium, when the legitimate authorities will reassert their dominion and the obedient will be rewarded for their patience. Good Christians have awaited this for two thousand years; they have made a religion out of waiting. You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
To keep people waiting for salvation indefinitely, it helps to shift every once in a while from one source of dramatic tension to another. Some hoped Trump would run the country “like a business.” Now that the signature forms of evil associated with capitalism—nepotism, profiteering, corruption, race baiting, sexual harassment, misinformation—characterize the presidency, Democrats are proposing to return to the good-old-fashioned signature forms of evil previously associated with government: bureaucracy, clientelism, experts deciding the fates of millions behind closed doors. All the things that helped Trump come to office.
For the purposes of relegitimizing government, it is ideal that Robert Mueller is not just a “good” authority figure, but specifically, a white male Republican—an FBI director who first made a name for himself overseeing the killing of Vietnamese people. He is everything the average Democrat would oppose if Trump had not moved the goal posts by pursuing the same Republican agenda by potentially extra-legal means. Mueller represents the same FBI that attempted to make Martin Luther King, Jr. commit suicide, that set out to destroy the Occupy movement. Under Mueller’s leadership, the FBI determined that the number one domestic terror threat in the United States was environmental activism.
Mueller Time is a way of inhabiting the eternally renewed amnesia that is America. This is the real “deep state”—the part of each Democrat’s heart that will accept any amount of senseless violence and murder and oppression, as long as it adheres to the letter of the law.
“Definitions of basic historical concepts: Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity. Critical moment—the status quo threatens to preserve itself. Progress—the first revolutionary measure taken.”
What will be the fruits of Mueller’s labors?
Rank-and-file Democrats still don’t understand how power works. Crime is not the violation of the rules, but the stigma attached to those who break rules without the power to make them. (As they say, steal $25, go to jail; steal $25 million, go to Congress.) At the height of Genghis Khan’s reign, it would have been pointless to accuse the famous tyrant of breaking the laws of the Mongol Empire; as long as Trump has enough of Washington behind him, the same goes for him. Laws don’t exist in some transcendent realm. They are simply the product of power struggles among the elite—not to mention the passivity of the governed—and they are enforced according to the prevailing balance of power. To fetishize the law is to accept that might makes right. It means abdicating the responsibility to do what is ethical regardless of what the laws happen to be.
In the struggle to control the law-making and law-enforcing apparatus of the US government, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have secured a solid majority. They remain at an impasse. The most likely explanation for Mueller’s delays is that he has been biding his time, waiting to see if the balance of power in the US government would shift enough that there could be some consequences to his report.
-Killing Joke, “The Wait”
Ironically, the only thing that could guarantee that Mueller’s report will have an effect would be if this impasse were disturbed by forces outside the halls of power—for example, by a real social movement utilizing direct action. If millions of people were in the streets preventing the Trump administration from accomplishing its agenda, then the power brokers in Washington would consider sacrificing Donald Trump to preserve business as usual.
In standing back and waiting, affirming the authority of the FBI and Congress to take care of matters, Mueller’s fans make it less likely that his investigation will pose a serious threat to the administration. The rank and file Democrats are left gazing at their screens, watching the bureaucratic equivalent of the spinning wheel of death.
In this case, the more you clap your hands, the less Tinkerbell exists.
I’m in the waiting room
I don’t want the news—I cannot use it
I don’t want the news—I won’t live by it
But I don’t sit idly by
I’m planning a big surprise
I’m gonna fight for what I wanna be
And I won’t make the same mistakes
Because I know how much time that wastes
-Fugazi “Waiting Room”
The arc of history is long, but it curves towards—death. There is no excuse to delay. Tomorrow will use you the way we use today.
What would it mean to stop waiting?
It would mean to stop looking to others to solve our problems, no longer permitting a series of presidents, Speakers of the House, FBI directors, presidential candidates, and other bullies and hucksters to play good cop/bad cop with us.
It would mean figuring out how to deal with the catastrophes that Trump’s presidency is causing directly, rather than through the mediation of other authority figures. It would mean building up social movements powerful enough to block the construction of a border wall, to liberate children from migrant detention facilities and reunite them with their families, to feed the hungry and care for the sick without waiting for legislators to give us permission to make use of the resources that we and others like us maintain on a daily basis.
Remember when we shut down the airports immediately after Trump took office? It would mean doing more of that, and less sitting around waiting on politicians and bureaucrats. That was our proudest moment. Since then, we have only grown weaker, distracted by the array of champions competing to represent us—the various media outlets and Democratic presidential candidates—all surrogates for our own agency.
Let’s stop killing time. Or rather—let’s stop permitting it to kill us.
“We live the whole of our lives provisionally,” he said. “We think that for the time being things are bad, that for the time being we must make the best of them and adapt or humiliate ourselves, but that it’s all only provisional and that one day real life will begin. We prepare for death complaining that we have never lived. Of all the people I know, not one lives in the present. No one gets any pleasure from what he does every day. No one is in a condition to say On that day, at that moment, my life began. Believe me, even those who have power and take advantage of it are plagued with anxieties and disgusted at the dominant stupidity. They too live provisionally and spend their whole lives waiting.”
“Those who flee the country also spend their lives waiting,” Pietro said. “That’s the trouble. But one mustn’t wait, one must act. One must say Enough, from this very day.”
“But if you do not have the freedom to act?” Nunzio said.
“Freedom is not a thing you can receive as a gift,” Pietro said. “You can be free even under a dictatorship on the simple condition that you struggle against it. A person who thinks with his own mind and remains uncorrupted is free. A person who struggles for what she believes to be right is free. You might live in the most democratic country in the world, but if you are lazy, callous, and servile, you are not free—in spite of the absence of violence and coercion, you are a slave. Freedom is not a thing that can be begged from others. You must take it for yourself, in whatever share you can.”
Trump has announced that he will declare a state of emergency to fund his border wall. The proposed wall and additional security measures will be devastating for migrants and border communities. During the last shutdown, federal employees and federal contractors were forced to work without pay or to scrape by on furlough, while people relying on government assistance were forced to seek out limited community alternatives and refugees were trapped in bureaucratic limbo. Make no mistake—a grassroots movement ended the shutdown. Trump gave in only when air traffic controllers and flight attendants stopped clocking in and airlines across the east coast began to close down.
We refuse to choose between Trump’s openly racist wall and the Democrats’ implicitly racist “smart border.” The differences between Trump’s border wall and a soft-power smart wall are minor variations on the same deadly theme. We will block the border wall. We choose another way: freedom of movement, solidarity, and mutual aid. We can combat Trump’s policies that greet asylum seeking families with tear gas at the southern border, that leave Haitian people to die in boats coming to the United States and 58,000 Haitians in legal limbo, and that criminalize whole communities. We will uplift the inspiring work by black and brown migrant support organizers like the UndocuBlack Network, Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, NorCal Resist, and more, who defend black and brown migrant communities most targeted by ICE harassment, deportation and the police. Together, we can defend refugees, migrants, and government workers. We can re-imagine community safety, and support federal workers and communities under attack. We can demonstrate through solidarity and mutual aid that we can build a world without borders or state violence.
On February 15, we call for a movement from below. It is time to act courageously—together. We need a bold, positive vision of the future in contrast to Trump’s white supremacist fantasy. We need to create a world in which people can move freely, where families can find refuge from danger, and communities are brave enough to welcome newcomers and create a shared sense of belonging. Where refugees now find hostile border guards and black immigrants the dual threats of deportation and incarceration, they should find communities coming together to welcome them with food and shelter. Where federal workers and contractors find themselves unable to pay their bills, they should find communities acting in solidarity to meet their immediate needs.
We call for a “Block the Wall” mobilization on February 19th and 20th against the border wall and against the state of emergency. We can march, take over public space, and organize sick-outs in the nation’s capital. We can block every ICE detention center, field office, and ICE contractor around the country with the occupation of the public space around the facilities. Each of these offices are maintained by working class people in support staff, couriers, cleaning crews, tech services, and social workers. We invite all of these workers to call in sick and join the occupations in the sidewalks and streets.
We call for the organization of mutual aid to support the federal workers and sub-contractors who remain uncompensated for 34 days of unpaid labor, and to support those who rely on government assistance. We call for cooperation to pool and distribute resources immediately to ease the daily struggles of those most affected. We commit to taking care of one another as the state gambles with the lives of millions.
We call for direct support for migrants and border struggles. There are multiple initiatives already demonstrating hospitality to migrants and physically defying the border that separates the United States from Mexico, from autonomous kitchens in Tijuana to indigenous-led anti-border camps in Texas. We will build the capacity to undermine the border, welcome refugees, and demonstrate that free movement can be beautiful, safe, and beneficial for all — so long as the police and la migra stay out of the way.
Share your marches, actions, and mutual aid initiatives with the hashtag #BlockTheWall, or tweet updates to @BlockTheWall on twitter or BlockTheWall123 on Instagram
Central Ohio Street Medic Collective
The Breakaway Social Center
Like many contemporary anarchists, many anarchists of the 19th and 20th centuries maintained relationships with multiple romantic partners, or were involved with partners who did so. Just as it does today, this often precipitated gossip, heartache, jealousy, and interminable emotional processing. A complete history of anarchist polyamory drama would be nearly as ambitious as a comprehensive history of the anarchist movement itself. Here, we’ve limited ourselves to a few poignant anecdotes from the lives of a handful of classical anarchists. There is a great deal more to be told—for example, the love triangle involving Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Johann Most, or Voltairine de Cleyre’s writing about ownership and possessiveness in relationships.
Why revisit all this, you ask? Certainly not just for the salacious thrill of letting the skeletons out of the closet to dance a little on holidays. No, we return to these stories because our antecedents were just like us, flawed and fallible yet capable of greatness. They were responsible for both heroic acts and gross stupidities (let’s not forget Bakunin’s anti-Semitism). In studying their lives, we might recognize some ways to improve ourselves.
“We want freedom; we want men and women to love and unite freely for no other reason than love, without any legal, economic, or physical violence. But freedom, even though it is the only solution that we can and must offer, does not radically solve the problem, since love, to be satisfied, requires two freedoms that agree, and often they do not agree in any way; and also, the freedom to do what one wants is a phrase devoid of meaning when one does not know how to want something.”
One of the most influential anarchists of the 19th century, Mikhail Bakunin famously asserted “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free.” In his Revolutionary Catechism,1 he devoted a section to the abolition of compulsory relationships, marital or otherwise:
Religious and civil marriage to be replaced by free marriage. Adult men and women have the right to unite and separate as they please, nor has society the right to hinder their union or to force them to maintain it. With the abolition of the right of inheritance and the education of children assured by society, all the legal reasons for the irrevocability of marriage will disappear. The union of a man and a woman must be free, for a free choice is the indispensable condition for moral sincerity. In marriage, man and woman must enjoy absolute liberty. Neither violence nor passion nor rights surrendered in the past can justify an invasion by one of the liberty of another, and every such invasion shall be considered a crime.
There was a 24-year age difference between Mikhail’s father and mother; they had become engaged when his mother was 18 and his father was nearly 42. This was not particularly unusual in Russia at the time. Mikhail grew up surrounded by four sisters, from whom he learned a variety of intellectual pursuits and, above all, the importance of women’s autonomy and self-determination. He came of age fighting alongside them against pressure from their parents to get married to men who did not share their philosophical or artistic interests.
When Mikhail was living in exile in Siberia after being sentenced to death in three countries for participating in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, he met Antonia Kwiatkowki, the daughter of an exiled Polish teacher. When they married, she was 18 and he was 44.
A few years later, Mikhail pulled off a daring escape from Siberia, circumnavigating the globe to arrive in Western Europe, where there was not yet a price on his head. Antonia joined him, and the two lived together in Sweden, Italy, and Switzerland.
At this point, Antonia was in her twenties, while Bakunin was in his fifties, prematurely aged by years chained up in solitary confinement. Antonia began a tempestuous relationship with one of Bakunin’s young Italian comrades. In the following letter to his Russian friend Nikolaj Ogarev, Bakunin describes the considerable challenges that ensued. His complicated feelings will be familiar to anyone who has struggled to set boundaries regarding a partner’s volatile relationship or struggled to balance the demands of two very different relationships.
December 16, 1869
Antosja arrived. I went to meet her in Arona, the first Italian city at the end of Lake Maggiore, and I spent two and a half days in great anxiety, expecting her at any moment. Contrary to date on the telegram I had received from Naples, she arrived two whole days late, as a result of the storm in the Mediterranean. She traveled by sea, on account of the low price. The poor woman was quite shaken. Imagine yourself in this situation: alone at sea with an eighteen-month-old child, eight months pregnant and of an ideal disposition for seasickness. She spent days without moving on the boat until Gaeto, despite terrible sea turbulence. She arrived to me exhausted and sick. The child is also sick. I took them to Arona with great difficulty. Antosja took a little rest, the little one as well. But in four, three, or perhaps two weeks, she will deliver. You understand that in these conditions, my head is spinning.
Dear friend, I want once and for all to explain to you my relationship with Antosja and her veritable husband. I did a terribly stupid thing, even more than that, I committed a crime by marrying a young girl almost two and a half times younger than me. I could, to justify myself, invoke many extenuating circumstances, tell you that I pulled her out of a vulgar provincial dump, that if she had not married me, she would have become the wife of a monster, of a Siberian police chief. But a fact is a fact, a mistake a mistake and a crime a crime. Antosja is a kind person and a beautiful soul, I love her as much as a father can love his daughter. I managed to wrest her away from the world of trivial ideas, to help her human development and save her from many vulgar temptations and loves. But when she met true love, I did not believe myself to have the right to enter into a struggle with her, that is to say, against this love. She loved a man who is completely worthy of her, my friend and my son in social-revolutionary doctrine, Carlo Gambuzzi. Two and a half years ago, Antosja came to tell me that she loved him and I gave her my blessing, begging her to see me as a friend and remember that she had no better nor more sure friend than I.
A few months later, at the Congress of Geneva, after a long struggle not only on her part, but also on the part of Gambuzzi, a struggle in which furthermore I did not interfere in any way, that I deliberately ignored, Antosja found herself pregnant. Due to lack of confidence, she hid her pregnancy from me, she endured terrible torments, deceived everyone and, under the pretext of going on a trip, went to give birth in a village near Vevey, exposing herself, as well as the child, to great danger. Informed of this without my knowledge, Gambuzzi arrived and took the child with him to Naples. Antosja recovered; as for me, I still suspected nothing.
One year ago, in October 1868, an incident revealed everything to me. The fact that I did not learn this earlier is not the fault of Antosja but of Gambuzzi. From the beginning, she wanted to tell me everything, but he demanded of her and pleaded with her not to talk to me about anything. In this respect, as in many others, he showed himself to be below her. Raised in the bourgeois world of Italy, he still can’t free himself from the cult of propriety and from the point of honor, and often prefers small winding paths to the long straight road. I will say in his defense that the thought of aggrieving and offending me actually terrified him. He has a filial attachment for me and an undeniably warm friendship.
Anyway, having learned the essence of things, I repeated to Antosja she was entirely free and asked her to decide her own fate, without any consideration of me, in the manner that she believed best: to stay with me as a wife—a wife of course only insofar as the public is concerned—or to separate from me and live in Naples openly as the wife of Gambuzzi. She decided on the first option for the following reasons: above all, she is accustomed to me, and the idea of living apart seemed unbearable to her; second, she feared being a burden for Gambuzzi, feared to put him in a situation that he would not know how to extract himself from with honor, given his social prejudices.
So all three of us decided that everything would remain the same as before. The child would spend the winter in Naples (this decision was made in October 1868) and, in autumn, Antosja would travel to Italy, supposedly with a sick Polish friend who would “die” in the summer and entrust her son to Antosja. This fall, Antosja traveled to Naples with the child, and what happened was what was to be expected and what I had predicted: once again, she became pregnant.
She was in despair. So Gambuzzi proposed that she come to give birth in Naples and leave the new child entirely to his guardianship; renouncing him completely, she would return with me after the birth, with the son, our adopted child of the deceased Polish friend (of course a myth). Antosja rebelled against this proposal and stated categorically that for nothing in the world nor for any consideration whatsoever would she abandon her child. A fight began between her and Gambuzzi. They appealed to me as judge. I took the side of Antosja, of course, and wrote to Gambuzzi that his plan was monstrous, that a mother capable of abandoning her child simply for social considerations would be a monster in my eyes.
So Antosja addressed this entreaty to me: leave Geneva, come to Italy and recognize the two children as my own. I did not reflect on it for long and agreed. I felt obliged to accept, because I could see no other way to save Antosja; and having committed a crime against her, it was my duty to assist her. That took place in July or August of this year, precisely at the moment when I announced to you that I had to leave Geneva.
After the Congress of Basel, Antosja pressured me. I hastened to leave and, as agreed, I went down to Locarno, began looking for a home, a nursemaid, and telegraphed Antosja that she could come, that I was waiting for her. For over two weeks, I received no word of reply to my telegram, nor to letters sent after it. I realized that the struggle was continuing between them; I wrote them a synodic letter in which, while describing our mutual situation to them in its true light, I indicated two options for them and demanded that they choose one or the other, namely: either Antosja, renouncing once and for all the love of Gambuzzi and contenting herself merely with his friendship, return immediately to me with my son and my future child, or else she should remain in Naples as the wife, known to all the world, of Gambuzzi, with the two children of their relationship also recognized by him. I offered my stamp of approval for either decision, but I demanded they choose one or the other without delay and stated that I would only agree again to do the first provided that it come into effect immediately.
Antosja arrived. Gambuzzi offered to stay, but she declined the offer.
Friendly relations on my part, as well as on the part of Antosja, continue with Gambuzzi. Their romantic relationship is over. I adopted the children of Gambuzzi, without denying his incontestable right to take charge of and lead their education alongside Antosja. Life here is inexpensive. He will pay 150 francs per month into the common fund and I will do the same. We will stay together, Antosja and I, as long as the revolution hasn’t called me. Then I will belong only to the revolution and myself.
In fact, after this letter was sent, Antonia maintained a romantic relationship with Carlo Gaumbuzzi and gave birth to a third child with him. Mikhail and Antonia continued to live together, and Mikhail participated in raising all three children as if they were his own. Antonia stood by Mikhail even when political conflicts and financial mismanagement alienated him from many of his other comrades and created considerable difficulties for their household. After his death, she finally moved in with Gambuzzi, and the two had one more daughter together.
Errico Malatesta, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, and Giovanni Defendi
While still a teenager, Malatesta met Mikhail Bakunin and joined him in helping to organize the First International and other early anarchist efforts, including armed uprisings in 1874 and 1877. Targeted by the Italian police forever afterwards, he was compelled to spend a great part of his life in hiding or in exile, especially in London.
Around the same time that he met Bakunin, Malatesta had begun a romantic relationship with the anarchist Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli. Little is known about their relationship, but they likely began seeing each other as early as 1871,2 as Malatesta was involved alongside her brother in the Mazzinist student movement and then the Neapolitan section of the First International. Emilia followed her brother to London in 1879 and began working as a seamstress.
A comrade of theirs, Giovanni Defendi, had gone to France in 1871 to participate in the defense of the Paris Commune, for which he was imprisoned for eight years. After his release, in 1880, he moved to London. That year, he and Emilia announced that they were entering into a union libre:
The undersigned make it a point to announce to you that, on May 8, 1880, they will enter into a free union, in the presence of some socialist friends invited and gathered simply to receive communication.
The reasons that determined them to dispense with legal marriage, as well as religious marriage, are that they view them as bourgeois institutions created for the sole purpose of settling questions of property and inheritance, not offering any serious guarantee to proletarians of either sex, consecrating the subjugation of women, committing wills and consciences for the future, without taking into account the characters involved, and opposing the dissolubility which is the basis of any contract.
The question of children will be settled later in the manner most in accordance with justice and according to the situation that bourgeois society imposes upon them.
-Giovanni Defendi, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli
Malatesta had already been living with Emilia before this; he joined the couple at their residence in London in 1881. He lived with the Defendis for much of the next four decades. The British police, scandalized, reported that there were rumors that Malatesta was sleeping with Emilia despite her relationship with Giovanni.
The house and the business of the Defendi couple, where Malatesta lived, 112 High Street in Islington, was a convergence point for everyone that arrived in London. How many stormy and brotherly discussions were had in the little kitchen through the grocery store of the good Defendi family, which served as an Athenaeum!
Emilia had six children, some of whom she may have conceived with Malatesta—including her son Enrico, born in 1883, who accompanied Malatesta when he went to Italy in 1897, and her daughter Adele, born in 1892. When Emilia fell ill in the aftermath of the First World War, Malatesta stayed by her bedside for months, nursing her until she passed away.
In contrast to the dramatic difficulties that beset Mikhail and Antonia Bakunin and Carlo Gambuzzi, the relationships of Errico Malatesta, Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, and Giovanni Defendi appear to have been healthy and stable, providing a solid foundation for their decades of political activity. Knowing that Mikhail Bakunin mentored the young Malatesta, we can’t help wondering if the two ever discussed affairs of the heart. Could Malatesta’s graceful conduct in relation to his partner’s marriage have been informed by advice or anecdotes from Bakunin? We know they discussed the political and martial aspects of liberation, but we know less about their discussions regarding its personal aspects, which are just as fundamental to the anarchist project.
Likewise, though Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli was an important participant in the Italian anarchist movement in diaspora across several decades, we have little documentation with which to understand the substance of her contributions. On the basis of what we do know about her role in organizing, though, we know they were considerable.
“Let’s eliminate the exploitation of man by man, let’s fight the brutal pretention of the male who thinks he owns the female, let’s fight religious, social, and sexual prejudice. In any case, [in the anarchist future] the ones with bad luck in love will procure themselves other pleasures, since it will not be as it is today, when love and alcohol are the only consolations for the majority of humanity.”
-Errico Malatesta, “Love and Anarchy”
América Scarfó, Severino di Giovanni, and Émile Armand
If we don’t know as much as we might wish to about the perspectives of Antonia Bakunin and Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli, we have a full record of the thoughts of América Scarfó, an Argentine anarchist who began a romantic relationship with a married man while she was still a teenager.
Born in a middle-class immigrant family, América already shared anarchist ideas with her brothers Paulino and Alejandro by the end of her adolescence. Their family rented out a room to an Italian anarchist who had fled with his wife and three children to Argentina on account of the rise of Mussolini. He and América began a vibrant intellectual exchange that blossomed into romance. But then a police raid forced him to go into hiding along with Paulino and Alejandro.
Frustrated by the interference of the state, her parents’ opposition and, worst of all, the criticism of other anarchists, América wrote the following letter across the Atlantic Ocean to Émile Armand, an interanationally known anarchist proponent of “revolutionary sexualism” and camaraderie amoureuse. Armand had revived Zo d’Axa’s individualist anarchist publication L’En-Dehors, largely as a vehicle to promote what today we might call relationship anarchy.
In sending this letter, América was publicly declaring the legitimacy of a relationship not sanctioned by the church, the state, or her parents, just as Giovanni Defendi and Emilia Tronzio-Zanardelli had done before her. But more than that, she was taking revolutionary measures on the terrain that was available to her as a young woman in Buenos Aires: challenging the norms around intimacy, gender, and affective relations in society at large, in her birth family, and in the social circles of her fellow anarchists.
Revolution is not something that the party implements in the parliament or the workers carry out in the factories—it is a project that concerns every single aspect of life, and therefore, every single person, wherever she is situated.
Buenos Aires, December 3, 1928
To comrade E. Armand
The purpose of this letter is, first of all, to ask your advice. We have to act, in all moments of our lives, in accord with our own manner of seeing and thinking, in such a way that the reproaches and criticisms of other people find our individuality protected by the healthiest concepts of responsibility and liberty, which form a solid wall weakening their attacks. For this reason, we should act consistently with our ideas.
My case, comrade, is of the amorous order. I am a young student who believes in the new life. I believe that, thanks to our free actions, individual or collective, we can arrive at a future of love, fraternity, and equality. I desire for all just what I desire for myself: the freedom to act, to love, to think. That is, I desire anarchy for all humanity. I believe that in order to achieve this, we should make a social revolution. But I am also of the opinion that in order to arrive at this revolution, it is necessary to free ourselves from all kinds of prejudices, conventionalisms, false moralities, and absurd codes. And, while we wait for this great revolution to break out, we have to carry out this work in all the actions of our existence. And indeed, in order to make this revolution come about, we can’t just content ourselves with waiting, but need to take action in our daily lives. Wherever possible, we should act from the point of view of an anarchist, that is, of a human being.
In love, for example, we will not wait for the revolution, we will unite ourselves freely, paying no regard to the prejudices, barriers, and innumerable lies that oppose us as obstacles. I have come to know a man, a comrade of ideas. According to the laws of the bourgeoisie, he is married. He united himself with a woman as a consequence of a childish circumstance, without love. At that time, he didn’t know our ideas. However, he lived with this woman for a number of years, and they had children. He didn’t experience the satisfaction that he should have felt with a loved one. Life became tedious, the only thing that united these two beings were the children. Still an adolescent, this man came to know our ideas, and a new consciousness was born in him. He turned into a brave militant. He devoted himself to propaganda with ardor and intelligence. All the love that he hadn’t directed to a person, he offered instead to an ideal. In the home, meanwhile, life continued with its monotony relieved only by the happiness of their small children. It happened that circumstances brought us together, at first as companions of ideas. We talked, we sympathized with each other, and we learned to know each other. Thus our love was born. We believed, in the beginning, that it would be impossible. He, who had loved only in dreams, and I, making my entrance into life. Each one of us continued living between doubt and love. Destiny—or, better, love—did the rest. We opened our hearts and our love and our happiness began to intone its song, even in the middle of the struggle, the ideal, which in fact gave us an even greater impulse. And our eyes, our lips, our hearts expressed themselves in the magic conjuring of a first kiss. We idealized love, but we were carrying it into reality. Free love, that knows no barriers, nor obstacles. The creative force that transports two beings through a flowery field, carpeted with roses—and sometimes thorns—but where we find happiness always.
Is it not the case that the whole universe is converted into an Eden when two beings love each other?
His wife also—despite her relative knowledge—sympathizes with our ideas. When it came to it, she gave proofs of her contempt for the hired killers of the bourgeois order as the police began to pursue my friend. That was how the wife of my comrade and I have become friends. She is fully aware of what the man who lived at her side represents to me. The feeling of fraternal affection that existed between them permitted him to confide in her. And he gave her freedom to act as she desired, in the manner of any conscientious anarchist. Until this moment, to tell the truth, we have lived really like in a novel. Our love became every day more intense. We cannot live altogether in common, given the political situation of my friend, and the fact that I have still not finished my studies. We meet, when we can, in different places. Isn’t that perhaps the best way to sublimate love, distancing it from the preoccupations of domestic life? Although I am sure that when it is true love, the most beautiful thing is to live together.
This is what I wanted to explain. Some people here have turned into judges. And these are not to be found so much among common people but in fact among comrades of ideas who see themselves as free of prejudices but who, at bottom, are intolerant. One of these says that our love is a madness; another indicates that the wife of my friend is playing the role of “martyr,” despite the fact that she is aware of everything that concerns us, is the ruler of her own person, and enjoys her freedom. A third raises the ridiculous economic obstacle. I am independent, just as is my friend. In all probability, I will create a personal economic situation for myself that will free me from all worries in this sense.
Also, the question of the children. What do the children have to do with the feelings of our hearts? Why can’t a man who has children love? It is as if to say that the father of a family cannot work for the idea, do propaganda, etc. What makes them believe that those little beings will be forgotten because their father loves me? If the father were to forget his children, he would deserve my contempt and there would exist no more love between us.
Here, in Buenos Aires, certain comrades have a truly meager idea of free love. They imagine that it consists only in cohabiting without being legally married and, meanwhile, in their own homes they carry on practicing all the stupidities and prejudices of ignorant people. This type of union that ignores the civil registrar and the priest also exists in bourgeois society. Is that free love?
Finally, they criticize our difference in age. Just because I am 16 and my friend is 26. Some accuse me of running a commercial operation; others describe me as unwitting. Ah, these pontiffs of anarchism! Making the question of age interfere with love! As if the fact that a brain reasons is not enough for a person to be responsible for their actions! On the other hand, it is my own problem, and if the difference in age means nothing to me, why should it matter to anyone else? That which I cherish and love is youth of the spirit, which is eternal.
There are also those who treat us as degenerates or sick people and other labels of this kind. To all these I say: why? Because we live life in its true sense, because we recognize a free cult of love? Because, just like the birds that bring joy to walkways and gardens, we love without paying any attention to codes or false morals? Because we are faithful to our ideas? I disdain all those who cannot understand what it is to know how to love.
True love is pure. It is the sun whose rays stretch to those who cannot climb to the heights. Life is something we have to live freely. We accord to beauty, to the pleasures of the spirit, to love, the veneration that they deserve.
This is all, comrade. I would like to have your opinion on my case. I know very well what I am doing and I don’t need to be approved or applauded. Just that, having read many of your articles and agreeing with various points of view, it would make me content to know your opinion.
Her letter was printed in L’en dehors on January 20, 1929 under the title “An Experience.” Émile Armand printed his answer alongside it:
“Comrade: My opinion matters little in this matter you send me about what you are doing. Are you or are you not intimately in accord with your personal conception of the anarchist life? If you are, then ignore the comments and insults of others and carry on following your own path. No one has the right to judge your way of conducting yourself, even if it were the case that your friend’s wife be hostile to these relations. Every person united to an anarchist (or vice versa), knows very well that she should not exercise on him, or accept from him, domination of any kind.”
The lover that the 16-year-old América Scarfó refers to in this letter was, of course, the anarchist Severino di Giovanni, Argentina’s most wanted criminal. When she sent this letter, he was living underground, accused of carrying out a string of bombings targeting the Italian Consulate, the US embassy, the Ford Motor Company, and a monument to George Washington, among other targets. By the time he was captured in January 1931—along with América and her brother Paulino—he was also accused of the most dramatic robbery in contemporary Argentine history and the shootings of various police officers.
At that point, a military coup had taken place in Argentina, Hitler was headed for power in Germany, and the whole world seemed to be sliding rapidly towards fascism. In such a context, we can understand Severino’s actions as a rational attempt to carry out much-needed revolutionary measures on the terrain that was available to him, just as he and América were doing in their romantic relationship.
When the police captured Severino, they rushed him to a doctor to treat his wounds, so as to be sure he would die at precisely the hour they decreed, after the proper show trial. The police reportedly tortured Severino, but none of the arrestees cooperated with the state by informing against their fellows. After the trial, Severino’s lawyer was arrested, dismissed from his post in the armed forces, imprisoned, and deported.
The novelist Roberto Arlt witnessed the scene of Severino’s execution:
He looks stiffly at his executors. He emanates will. Whether he suffers or not, it is a secret. But he remains like this, static, proud.
Only after the execution did they call over a blacksmith to unfasten his fetters—and another doctor, this time to make sure he was dead. Then they executed Paulino Scarfó, too, for good measure.
They had released América, deeming her unfit to stand trial on account of her age.
On July 28, 1999, after 68 years, the Argentine government finally returned Severino di Giovanni’s letters to América Scarfó. América passed away on August 26, 2006 at the age of 93. Her ashes were buried in the garden beside the headquarters of the Argentine Libertarian Federation in Buenos Aires.
There are many different risks to loving fiercely and outside the prescribed lines. Perhaps the only thing worse than these terrifying risks is the deadly certainty that comes of not daring to love.
“For us, love is a passion that engenders tragedies for itself.”
The Knights Errant of Anarchy: London and the Italian Anarchist Diaspora (1880-1917), Pietro di Paola
Anarchism and Violence: Severino di Giovanni in Argentina, 1923-1931, Osvaldo Bayer
Daiana Rosenfeld and Anibal Garisto have produced a documentary about América Scarfó’s relationship with Severino di Giovanni entitled Los ojos de América (“The Eyes of América”).
Bakunin’s Revolutionary Catechism is distinct from Sergey Nechayev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, which is often mistakenly attributed to Bakunin. In fact, there were serious differences between the politics of the two Russian revolutionists, as Bakunin set forth in this letter to Nechayev. ↩
See Errico Malatesta da Mazzini a Bakunin, la sua formazione giovanile nell’ambiente napoletano (1868-1873) by Misato Toda. ↩
Two and a half decades ago, some of the first people to collaborate on CrimethInc. projects met via the international networks that had developed in the zine underground associated with the hardcore punk scene. We’ve finally scanned the last five issues of one of these zines, Inside Front, to add to our archives. Bear in mind, these are relics from a very different time. We hope, in putting them at your disposal, to offer new generations of anarchists—and punks?—some context for what came before. We’ve also added the hardcore compilations that came with issues of Inside Front to our music page for free downloading.
Once upon a time, in another century—
When only doctors and lawyers had cell phones, and long distance calls were so expensive that punks used hacked phone dialers to trick pay phones into letting them place calls free of charge;
When zinesters secured freedom of the press by scamming photocopies on a scale today’s social media users cannot imagine;
When traveler kids sneaked onto freight train cars to ride for free, watching mountains and oceans whizzing by as the earth rumbled past beneath them;
When the singer of every hardcore band spoke earnestly to introduce each song, if only to entreat audience members to cause each other serious injury;
When punk itself was not an ossified tradition, but a living challenge to corporate aesthetics, in a process of constant challenge and change;
When DIY bands traversed a network of squatted social centers from Trondheim to Santiago, and you could play a hundred shows in a row without ever performing in a venue that was legally owned or leased;
In those days, without the internet, how did people discover and pass on anarchist ideas and tactics?
By embedding these values in rebellious subcultural milieus such as the punk scene—by reading dogeared books about the Yippies, the Situationists, and the Spanish Civil War—and by having adventures.
These three elements—subculture, reading, and adventure—came together in the hardcore journal Inside Front, one of the first projects to bring together people who still collaborate on CrimethInc. projects today. We invite you to explore its pages, as if holding a candle up to the dusty walls of the past.
You can download the CD compilation that came with the final issue of Inside Front here.
You can download the CD compilation that came with Inside Front #13 here.
You can download the CD compilation that came with Inside Front #11 here.
That was the morning we overslept—Friday, the twentieth of January, 2017. It was every activist’s greatest fear: our cell phone alarms blaring in unison, our friends running around us scrambling to get ready, while we just lay there, arms thrown haphazardly across our faces, dead to the world.
How could we sleep with Marius Mason in prison, the polar ice caps gushing into the ocean, and Donald Trump entering office?
For months, reality had hung on us like a bad dream; riding into DC was like entering its epicenter. Every Nazi troll on the internet was promising to gun us down in cold blood. Newspapers were reporting that two million bikers had promised to form a wall of meat between us and the motorcade of the President-elect. We were all going to prison—if we made it out of surgery. If you want a picture of the future, imagine Pepe the Frog stamping on a human face, forever.
All night, we’d discussed the situation, speaking one by one, weighing our options, going around the living room in circles the way one passes one’s tongue over a broken tooth again and again. If Trump entered office with the mandate of an acquiescent population, deporting ten million people would be the new normal. But if we tried to interrupt the spectacle, they would mass-arrest us, put all our names on a list, and our parents and partners would never be allowed to fly again. Would they surround us as soon as we assembled? Would the Nazis shoot us? It was a nightmare from which slumber offered no respite.
And there we were, asleep at our moment of truth. Downtown was filling up with Secret Service agents and crimson-hatted know-nothings as our friends shook us by the shoulders and called out our names. Protesters were already lining up to blockade the checkpoints to the parade route when they resorted to flinging cups of cold water in our faces. It was no use: we were a thousand floors below, wandering the foggy land of Nod.
They wheeled the bed out through the broad double doors of the bedroom, down the narrow hallway, across the living room strewn with backpacks and sleeping bags. They carried it down the steep front steps, bracing themselves against the iron railing. Shoulders to the headboard, they rolled us up the hill past the row houses, through alleyways and intersections and shopping districts into the very heart of the nation’s capital.
The streets were ominously tranquil: a jogger here, a couple pushing a stroller there. There was no indication of the forces massing downtown. The branches of the trees sailed past us overhead, their shadows briefly fingering the bedclothes crumpled across our chests.
Then the buildings opened around us and we were in Logan Circle—the convergence point for the anti-capitalist march, a vortex drawing in all the rage and courage within a thousand miles. Hundreds of our friends had gathered already, their faces concealed beneath bandannas and balaclavas, a swirling maelstrom of anarchists and rebels. More were pouring in from the side streets every minute, pulling on masks and gloves, zipping up their sweatshirts, cinching their windbreakers tight around their wrists, unfurling the great black banners proclaiming NO PEACEFUL TRANSITION—FIGHT BACK NOW—JOIN THE RESISTANCE.
Our friends pushed us to the front of the throng and we set out, a dozen black-gloved hands on the headboard, our cheeks resting on silk pillowslips, our bodies cradled in gauzy silk sheets, the brocaded bedspread folded back beneath our splayed arms as the bed rumbled across the black asphalt. Behind us, the others poured into the street, linking arms, roaring out a full-throated call and response. Are you ready? Yes, we’re ready.
This was the notorious black bloc—bristling, if Trump’s Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense is to be believed, with “banners, shields, bull horns, noise making devices, gas masks, medical supplies, police scanners, spray paint, ladders, bolt cutters, handcuff keys, and code manuals for covert communications,” dressed in “steal toe boots [sic], body armor, face masks, helmets, military gear, sports equipment, and other such attire,” wielding “Molotov cocktails, mace/chemical spray, flares, bats, sign polls [sic], bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, brass knuckles, martial arts weapons, and bottles of waste.” A medieval monster in a modern fairy tale.
Picture the scene as it appeared to the helicopters thundering overhead: the amorphous black mass driving before it the white quadrilateral of the bed—like a Malevich painting, White Square on a Black Block. Ascending higher, the pilots could make out what awaited us a few blocks away: a lattice of metal fences and concrete barriers defended by 28,000 security personnel. It wasn’t the red-hatted fools we had to fear, but the full might of the state. Squads of National Guardsmen clustered around military vehicles at every intersection; fleets of mobile riot police circling on bicycles and motorcycles; vans packed full of armored officers fidgeting impatiently with pepper spray dispensers and bundles of zip ties. All the mercenaries within a thousand miles become a part of the hostile physical architecture of the capitol, become hostility itself.
Freeze the frame, here, as the march arrives at Franklin Square and the police move into action, rushing to flank us on their bicycles, to chase us with their zip ties, to shoot their less-lethal munitions at us. At the front of the march, the two of us lie in the bed, sunk in unconsciousness, limbs and hair intertwined, jolted by the motion of the wheels over the uneven pavement, our limp bodies without the dubious armor of sweatshirts or bandannas, beneath a hovering hailstorm of projectiles—percussion grenades and rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and frozen arcs of pepper spray. Our frail flesh on the chopping block of the state.
A hush falls. The police, the black bloc, the Trump supporters in their stupid red hats, the screwballs at Franklin Square demanding the legalization of marijuana, the photographers and spectators and passersby—all of them remain motionless. Only our friends continue forward, picking up speed, sneakers flying across the pavement as they charge the fortified lines of police, driving the bed like a battering ram before them. Finally, shoving the headboard in unison, they launch us into the void, remaining frozen in place behind us.
The police lines open before us like the Red Sea and we sail right through. Not on account of Molotov cocktails, pepper spray, flares, bats, bricks, rocks, glass, nails, padlocks, slingshots, or brass knuckles, mind you, not because of the polls or stolen toes—it’s very important that you understand this—but because of the dreaming.
On the other side of the columns of Kevlar and polycarbonate, we continue hurtling down the street, zigzagging between the roadblocks, through metal-fenced checkpoints, past detachments of callow Guardsmen and handfuls of stupefied bikers and gauntlets of snappily dressed pundits crowing in victory or wringing their hands. Our bed coasts by regiments of porta-potties standing at attention, marshaled to hold the excrement of a hundred thousand patriots—through the half-filled stands where bootlickers fresh from Rust Belt exurbs crowd together, mouths agape in a monosyllable—and we roll to a halt in the center of the parade route, blocking the way to the motorcade and the future.
The sudden stop shocks us awake. Starting from unconsciousness, we find ourselves in a petrified city.
Blinking, we take it all in: the bleachers dotted with imbeciles—the armored cars—the secret service agents caught midstride, their faces fixed as glowering masks. Behind them, a brass band blows soundlessly, cheeks bulging, sustaining a single inaudible note.
We rub our eyes in unison. But when we open them again, nothing has changed. Pushing back the bedclothes, we swing our legs over the sides of the bed and step from our brocaded barricade onto Pennsylvania Avenue. The air is absolutely still.
Moving in slow motion through this frozen phantasmagoria as if passing through a photograph, a flaming limousine appears trailing a column of smoke like a bridal train. The smoke extends a hundred feet in the air, blotting out the flags, darkening the asphalt, casting its shadow over the uniformed soldiers on parade. The windows of the limousine are smashed out so we can see that there is no one at the wheel. It pulls to a halt before us.
Should we get in? But what address would we give? Where would we like to go?
A mile north of the parade route, life continues as normal. Drivers enter their credit cards into parking meters; cashiers at kiosks dispense cigarettes and chocolate-covered monoglycerides beside panhandlers; waitresses and system administrators toil to placate creditors and absentee landlords. Carpenters refurbish drab box houses in someone else’s suburbs as amateur pundits tweet about someone else’s political party. All sleepwalkers in someone else’s dream, captives in never-never land.
This scene, not the White House, is truly the center of the nightmare, whence come all the other horrors. The police are not needed here—not in such numbers, anyway. The absence of an alternative does their work.
The dreamlessness itself is the police. It is what imposes the nightmare.
For the first time, we look at each other, you and I. What is our dream? What will transport us unscathed through the lines of riot police? Where do we want our burning limousine to take us? Where do we want to go?
Dream alone, it’s just a dream. Dream together, it can be reality.
To wrap up our series on the day of action on January 20, 2017 and the protracted legal struggle that followed it, we present this outside submission from a group including J20 defendants. In May 2018, at the opening of the second J20 trial, a call to action appeared entitled “Freedom for J20 Defendants,” encouraging people to take a more confrontational approach in the solidarity campaign. The following text begins where that one left off, functioning as a reflection, critique, and addendum. While this is not necessarily the way that we would put things, we consider it important that various dissenting viewpoints enter the historical record to inform future organizing. All charges have been dismissed for the J20 defendants. Congratulations to all comrades who fought against this attempt to escalate repression in the US. The prosecutors’ collusion with Project Veritas and their over-reaching approach to the case ultimately backfired. The dismissal of all remaining charges is a significant victory. This thwarts the state’s attempt to set new precedents in criminalizing association as organizational “conspiracy.” The prosecution wanted to crack down on both black bloc tactics and the politics of those who utilize them, transforming street protests and the forms of repression with which the state targets political ideas. Outside of a few plea deals, there were no convictions. The campaign has clearly demonstrated the value of working together and adhering to principles of collective solidarity. We developed new strategies, such as disrupting the prosecution’s evidential groupings and preferred trial order. We built solidarity initiatives that sustained hundreds of defendants’ trips to court. These efforts helped the defendants resist the pressure to cooperate with the state and the plea offers that the prosecution was banking on people accepting. We must celebrate our victories. Yet for some of us, this win tastes a bit bitter. Despite all our hard work, it is more the consequence of the errors and limitations of the authorities than of our own strengths. We feel that we did not effectively take advantage of the moment we were in to affirm our stances. Had we actively fought against repression, we would be in a better position for the struggles ahead. The fervor from Trump’s election, the counter-inaugural protests, the airport blockades—all that initial momentum has tapered off. This is to be expected; in our governed society, it is common for the population to swing between outrage and acceptance. However, we believe that the strategy that we chose in the J20 case has contributed to this inertia. Essentially, we presented ourselves as “innocent liberals” and kept quiet throughout the case, basing our approach in tacit restrictions and disempowerment. We feel this defensive posture has contributed to a collective limitation. This becomes especially clear when we reflect on how we could have used the case as an opportunity to propel ourselves. Instead, our movements and the relationships adjacent to them have been left on the back foot. From this weaker position, we must face today’s problems and try to expand on the revolutionary potential in each moment. After the inauguration, we failed to continue to declare a break from this world. Instead, we reified it. Many within this campaign believed that the conservative approach was the best way—or even that it was the only way. The primary aim of this critique will be to challenge that notion, identify its limitations, and propose alternatives. A Vision of What Could Have Been The J20 case directly impacted roughly 200 comrades across the country and exponentially more by proxy. This was a very large environment to play within and we were situated in a society agitated by Trump’s election and fascinated by us. Imagine a sensational solidarity campaign that made the case known everywhere: a campaign that broke with normalcy and moved forward with a revolutionary affect, building towards a departure from this presidency, presidency itself, global capitalism, white supremacy, rampant misogyny, and the logistics systems that keep them in place—consider the airport blockades against Trump’s Muslim ban. Looking at the international reach of the 2017 Women’s Marches and the longstanding tradition of international days of solidarity among anarchists, a sensational solidarity campaign could have resonated beyond national borders. Imagine if this case and its two hundred defendants had become a reference point for every disaffection. A voice that echoed across lecture halls, social centers, high schools, television screens, workplaces, in the streets, and everywhere else. A root system that overrode concerns for property or civility, insisting on tenacious power from below—a tear from which the fabric of our society began to fray. Imagine an effort that turned the J20 case into a national crisis for the state. What would it have taken to accomplish this? Imagine the momentum from a raucous situation demanding the freedom of two hundred comrades flowing into other social potentialities (e.g., anti-ICE occupations, the national prison strike, anti-fascist struggles). We failed to maximize on building new capacities and bonds and radicalizing and including new people. If our goal is to make governance untenable, we have to strategize expansively. What would increase the longevity of struggle? Along what vectors do struggles coalesce and spread? How do we plan for the next social movement, the next election, the next decade, the next uprising? We exist within a continuum of struggle. Accordingly, we must acknowledge our conditions to make each moment a step towards the next horizon. The question we face after this case’s conclusion is synonymous with the one we face at all times: What now? The question of possibility here is twofold. First, we have to speak about how to build the capacity to make such a vision possible. Perhaps it wasn’t possible at the time. But still, we believe there were a variety of restrictive dynamics within and around the case that limited what possibilities could have emerged. Posters that appeared around Philadelphia. Reflection: What Was We must contend with how the J20 campaign played into “good” vs. “bad” protester dynamics through silence. We maintain our previous position that the narratives established before the May 14 trial set up those alleged to have engaged in property damage to be thrown under the bus. What good is it to assert liberal narratives like First Amendment rights and innocence if there are not also perspectives and actions that advance militant protest and revolutionary politics? The former alone will not create a bolstered defense—nor do they articulate a vision that could take us beyond the prevailing order. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The discovery of the Brady violation was fortuitous, and ultimately led to the prosecution’s defeat. However, there was no guarantee we would discover this violation, nor that the judge would acknowledge it. Effective strategies must seek to counteract our enemy’s intentions while advancing our own. Luck must be factored in, but not made the backbone of a strategy; nor can we rely on the proper operations of the state. In a sense, it was a fluke that the Brady violation unraveled the case. In order for a Brady violation to win, one has first to acknowledge the authority of the court system and second to trust that the court will follow its rules and not create an exception (which is to create and follow a new rule). In this moment, when the state lacked legitimacy, it outmaneuvered us and chose not to protect the prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff. This move turned out to be an advantageous but limited outcome for us. The court found that she had violated the defendants’ due process rights to receive all potentially exculpatory evidence through discovery. After the cases were dismissed, the District Attorney’s Office promoted her. By finding a Brady violation occurred, the court minimized the consequences of the state’s mistake, but the DA reasserted its authority, by rewarding the prosecutor, free of compromise. What would it have looked like to use the court’s determination of a Brady violation to delegitimize the state itself? We should reflect critically on this. Why did we hand over so much power and legitimacy to the legal apparatus? Why did we indulge so much in the spectacle of the courtroom? Very little within defendant-led organizing was done to challenge our relationship with the law and its courts. Instead, much work narrowly examined the inanity of the case’s conspiratorial allegations, re-legitimizing the concept of innocence. As anarchists, we are against authoritarian and punitive methods that reinforce power imbalances. We are against prisons and the entirety of the legal system—not simply the nuanced absurdities and contradictions therein. We need to have more faith in what we actually believe in and strive for. By choosing to tread lightly, we compromised an attempt to spread our analyses, ceding significant ground to the authorities. In the sphere of action, things generally remained small. At what point would we have intervened? If things were to turn out negatively in the legal process, it seemed the plan was to “reduce harm” and bid our comrades farewell to prison while hanging onto the coattails of respectability. After the first trial, the state’s strategy seemed to be to isolate the case’s radical elements and drag the broader support efforts into exhaustion. In other words, divide and conquer. This was not a situation in which we were powerless or devoid of options. Within DefendJ20Resistance organizing, refusing to think critically, limiting ourselves, and appealing to civil liberties were dominant habits that went largely unchecked and unchallenged. While these critiques may seem harsh, we don’t wish to underplay the work that went into fighting the case. Our argument is that in the end, the work was politically unsound, qualitatively deficient, and strategically incomplete. “Going liberal” can be considered the “vanilla” of anti-repression; a fairly plain tried and true approach. But there are many other flavors to choose from. We want to take a moment to honor the complete re-imagining of “Jury Nullification” that took place in DC during the second trial. A juror read the words “Google Jury Nullification” written on a bathroom stall inside the courthouse. She looked it up and then proceeded to share the information with the rest of the jury. We are impressed. One person’s bathroom doodle accomplished so much—disseminating information about jury nullification to the jurors, creating scandal, revitalizing the case in the eyes of comrades, giving prosecutors yet another headache, and, of course, giving us all a good laugh. Bravo. Seemingly small actions such as these should not be underestimated. What else could have been done? Where else could we have looked for lessons and inspiration? Fighting repression should be understood as an opportunity to take the offensive. One does not always have to sacrifice substance for results. Looking back on this case, we’re particularly influenced by a few examples. During the Asheville 11 case, supporters called for solidarity actions ahead of court hearings. The “Yo Tambien Soy Anarquista” campaign against Operation Pandora in Spain fought the imprisonment of several anarchists using graffiti, speaking events, marches, and uncompromising political narratives. And the “To Libertarians” strategy from 20th century Spain presented a calculated call to action, leading to the release of more than fifty anarchist prisoners. Through this discussion, we ask that comrades and their respective networks reflect on this. How can we best mobilize support networks? How can we anticipate and combat burnout? How do we encourage each other to participate in the face of gloom? How do we win the support of those who choose to look the other way? How do we draw on historical lessons, generations of wisdom, and a diversity of perspectives? And then—how do we utilize them? The “Yo también soy anarquista” campaign exerted powerful leverage against a campaign of state repression in Spain. The Science of Opposition The case of the Asheville 11 shared some similarities with the J20 case. On the night of May Day 2010, 11 people arrested in the vicinity of a demonstration that involved property destruction were charged with vandalism, rioting, and conspiracy based on scant evidence. After a harrowing ordeal, the prosecution dropped most of the charges and a couple defendants took plea deals for “misdemeanor riot.” Years of stress and repression left the local community fractured and burned out. The elements we’re most interested in are the confrontational ones: the support crew’s call for solidarity actions ahead of hearings, the actions that accompanied them, and the visibility they produced. The call created a specific kind of power and a new angle of pressure because it asked us to extend our repertoire and kept us engaged. Comrades from the Asheville support crew pushed a clear narrative: innocent of all charges, police malfeasance, and the aggressive prosecution to suppress radical politics. The call for actions helped keep the case in the public eye. The police corruption, the controversy over the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room and the departure, indictment, and imprisonment of the chief forced the state’s hand in favor of the defendants. The fact that the case stayed public despite years of delay applied pressure to the prosecutor to drop the charges. The Asheville 11 case can be considered a worst-case scenario: very few people supported or understood the defendants and the state was well-positioned to depict them as mere criminals. Yet even then, solidarity actions did not further endanger the defendants. To be clear, we believe that it made sense for people to employ a cautious approach at the beginning of the J20 case. But we believe that there should have been elements such as these inside the overall ecology of resistance to the J20 case at later points. The J20 solidarity actions were mostly comprised of banner drops, press releases, fundraisers, and the like but generally failed to extend to more confrontational forms. Remaining conformist in narrative and action deprived the movement of dynamism and growth, consequently failing to keep the campaign’s participants and supporters engaged. A year into the case, energy for support efforts had tapered off—a problem in itself, given that criminal litigation often drags on for years. Yet it wasn’t just our side feeling the effects of its duration. At that same time, the state had failed in its attempts to convict defendants in the November trial, looking very bad in its pursuit, and had exhausted countless resources, leaving the lead prosecutor visibly worn. By entering into a new phase of solidarity and changing its nature, the campaign could have revitalized itself, taking advantage of its enemies in a fight they were already losing. At different stages of the case, there should have been shifts. Adaptation is key to survival. A movement that doesn’t develop and leaves its potential unrealized will die. The amount of burnout and fatigue among J20 defendants and supporters both after the first trial and now is indicative of this. The question of adaptation and survival permeates every aspect of our collective existence; we should continually strive to answer it. Imagine if after the first round of dropped charges, there had been a series of eruptions—widespread disruptions and marches expressing indignation at the remaining charges. A moment encouraging social fissure, a crisis: rabble-rousing at universities and workplaces, marches in the streets, interventions and direct actions everywhere. An effort to get more people behind the remaining J20 defendants without their having to adhere to our exact ideas, a reminder that we are all angry and all long to be free, and, importantly, an effort that brought the participants feelings of joy and power. But what was nurtured around the case wasn’t conducive to making any sort of effort like this possible, even autonomously. Everyone was paralyzed by the campaign’s physiology in narrative, atmosphere, and action. Two Accounts At some point after the first trial, there was a meeting in DC with defendants and supporters. During that meeting, someone proposed the idea of having a march that “went against traffic.” Hearing this, someone who does legal support, with a lot of social capital and movement experience, nervously interrupted, “I think this conversation has gone in a very bad direction.” and rushed out of the room. Everyone (including myself) was then forced to think that the idea was bad. Reflecting on this moment now, I don’t think the idea was. This kind of reaction was common around the case. It made discussion impossible, shut down possibilities, and suppressed the development of our resistance to the case. I saw a tremendous amount of initiative and capacity destroyed by attitudes and paranoia. We missed opportunities such as establishing a long-term collective house in DC for defendants and supporters and discouraged many comrades from wanting to be involved. The conditions around the case caused many people to become alienated or hurt. After a year, dozens of comrades wanted little to do with J20 stuff. After the majority of charges were dropped, there was a West Coast J20 speaking tour organized. The tour was an opportunity for people working on the case to raise support and reach out to regions who were less likely to be up to date or entangled in the case. There was a lot of opposition to this tour happening. Defendants and supporters who opposed it didn’t offer many reaons beyond insisting it was potentially harmful to defendants who were still facing charges. In my opinion, this was the result of bad faith and problematic power dynamics. The practice of hosting anti-repression events is understood all around the world. Such events are essential to overcoming isolation. The tour was ultimately able to go through but we were forced to eject a defendant who was still facing charges because others weren’t okay with them speaking. I’m sure that the tour would’ve been a source of empowerment and fulfillment for that defendant but it ended up causing them harm instead. I believe all of us who were on the tour regretted making this decision. But at the time, there was little room to breathe because of how unhealthy the atmosphere around the case was. There was a lot of paranoia in the air and the question of accountability was consistently difficult to address with such a wide pool of defendants. As a movement, we weren’t able to maximize the potential of the calls to action. There was an issue of capacity but there was also an issue of participants feeling dis-engaged, which adversely affected the capacity for actions. In our experiences in many conversations around action, people would severely limit themselves because they weren’t sure what was acceptable. After a year of mostly banner drops and fundraisers, many felt that supporting the J20 case meant dressing nicely and going to court or, at most, helping logistically. When this happens, a few people will stick around but most will turn their attention and energy elsewhere. Actions inform action. In order for actions to generalize, people have to think them up, carry them out, and publicize them so that they can spread. Within the J20 solidarity efforts, there were some fiercer actions, but people seemed hesitant to imitate or advocate for them and people doing work around the case were likely to discourage such things. It makes sense that people doing legal support would be tightly wound, but it doesn’t make sense for people to allow that trepidation to influence our politics and our work as revolutionaries. DefendJ20Resistance was mostly comprised of defendants. As political agents of change, we will not always follow in accordance with what would be considered “legally sound.” Isn’t that why we participated in the action on J20? Isn’t our conflict with the law and its courts the reason why so many of us put in support work against the case? Our solidarity efforts need to reflect our values, or else we risk not achieving meaningful enough goals; we risk inertia. Partisans of more conservative approaches managed to make themselves indispensable. For many defendants and supporters, this was their first bout against repression and they deferred to those with social capital, movement experience, and palatable defensive stances. What would be necessary for us to have other options next time? Folks of more militant inclinations who have just as much experience would have to do the same kind of work. We would have to nurture an environment of solidarity, hospitality, and autonomy. Radical outlets, such as CrimethInc. and It’s Going Down, co-published calls to action including strong narratives: “Make it clear that there will be personal consequences for taking the side of oppression.” “The best defense is a good offense! If there is a powerful movement against Trump and the forces he represents, defendants from the previous clashes will be more likely to receive the support they deserve. Keep organizing new efforts against Trump, police, nationalists, and the pipelines and profiteering from which they draw their power.” CrimethInc. also published a compelling piece after the conclusion of the first trial critiquing the state as a whole. This type of messaging was generally depreciated by J20 defendants and supporters. During moments of hardship, people can start to believe that revolutionary aims are too idealistic and naïve, and this can become infectious. We ask that people think twice about where those feelings and thoughts come from. There is no ignorance in unapologetically fighting for a freer world. If anything is naïve, it is the idea that liberalism will solve all our problems. We cannot rely solely on a few radical outlets to disseminate political narratives. We must come up with our own narratives and diffuse them in our efforts wherever we can, or else they are likely to remain limited to our own circles. We must challenge ourselves to advance our struggles. Our efforts should aim to multiply revolutionary possibilities, which means expanding on what’s already in place, not simply replicating existing modes. We need to do a better job of identifying these strengths and weaknesses in order to adjust our approaches accordingly. A multiplicity of narratives is expected. When have the people who comprise any political body been unanimous in their positions on direct action and resistance? These differences should be encouraged, not stifled. It’s important to create a diverse set of perspectives, complicating the ways in which reactionary forces seek to marginalize revolutionary gestures and their proponents. The J20 case saw some of that but ultimately too little. No tears indeed. We Are All Anarchists Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista. “I am also an anarchist.” In 2014, eleven anarchists in Spain were arrested on terrorism charges in a police action known as Operation Pandora. Seven were imprisoned; the other four were released with charges. After an extensive solidarity campaign and a couple years of court appearances, all of their charges were dropped. The solidarity campaign showed how sensationalized confrontational tactics, a diverse array of actions (e.g., graffiti, speaking events, marches), and savvy uncompromising narratives challenging innocence, guilt, and political targeting can succeed. Anarchists accurately saw the terrorism charges as a means to create fear and isolate the state’s enemies. The campaign was able to fight this and effectively garner broad support. Anarchists saw the danger of their politics being diluted by receiving such wide support. They created narratives that built broadly while maintaining their political integrity. Articulate and clear positions dignified their movement and politics while antagonizing and discrediting the state: “I too am an anarchist.” “Neither innocent nor guilty.” “The terrorist is the one who condemns us to a life of misery, not the one who rebels against it.” “Terrorism is not being able to reach the end of the month.” “The only terrorist is the capitalist state.” As is common in Spain, constant anarchist graffiti maintained an atmosphere of visibility and hostility around the case. Large marches disrupted the flow of normalcy. There were direct actions including blockades and property damage, speaking events that offered discussion and community building, and small-scale clandestine attacks. All of these applied pressure from different angles. “The Pandora solidarity campaigns included a large number of solidarity talks that gave information about the case and also talked about the importance of the practices of sabotage and insurrection that the state was trying to punish. And without a doubt, that made us stronger.” -An anonymous participant in the solidarity campaign against Operation Pandora If the state’s intention is to repress an action or political body, it can be powerful to bring the very topics it is targeting to light: to say what is happening and explain what you think it means. Generally, within the J20 solidarity campaign, discussions such as these were few and often very limited in scope. They often focused on Trumpism, the intensity of the charges, and the right to protest. This reactivity came at the cost of gaining qualitative strength. It even seemed to us that many comrades were actually unable to articulate why anyone would break a bank window or torch a limousine. Comrades near the case chose to forego discussion of why people participate in uprisings, allowing the State to keep the discourse about the more confrontational elements in the sphere of “senseless violence” and criminal activity. Whether this was due to inability or unwillingness, it reduced the overall quality of J20 solidarity. Think about Mark Bray explaining anti-fascism on the news or speaking events that discussed the uprisings in DC after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the 1991 Mount Pleasant riots. The final statement made was fine enough, but it was too little too late. An image from the 1968 Washington, DC riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination—the origin of the charges that were pressed in the J20 case. Lack of discussion of this historical link is an example of a lost opportunity. Broad support and the ability to work with others were key in the Yo Soy Tambien Anarquista campaign. In the US, however, we do not have the luxury of a strong historical memory of struggle nor the same anarchist movement. The efforts to connect with the DC Black Lives Matter chapter provide a good example of what it could look like to connect with others and their struggles in the US. At the time, this kind of work would have the most impact in Washington, DC, the main site of struggle for the case. This also offers an example of the kind of work anarchists can be doing right now to be prepared to combat isolation and repression in the future. [Insert Image: DC Black Lives Matter / Caption: “An example of how the everyday repression that marginalized communities face connects to the specialized forms of repression that activists face.”] The liberal defensive posture taken in the J20 case did garner the case media attention and superficial support from the likes of Democracy Now! But that support was rescinded as soon as “innocent” protesters, medics, and journalists were off trial and alleged breakers were up. Remembering that Democracy Now! participated in the initial media blackout of the case and the events that led up to it, we should have been prepared to shift directions when left-wing populists like them inevitably turned their backs on us. This type of betrayal is to be expected from the democratic left. It is a reminder to think about the lines we are taking and the directions for us to go at certain junctures. And it is precisely at this type of juncture that we are reminded of a saying: “Words divide—acts unite.” After the majority of defendants had their charges dropped, most people tuned out. Given the baseness of American public discourse, many of those who were reminded of the case were likely to be on the side of capitalists and their property. Again, this was the state’s strategy: divide and conquer. At this juncture, what good was appealing to notions of innocence or the right to protest? Accusing the government, the prosecution, and the police of injustice only reasserts the concept of innocence within this context. We prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the state’s logic. The authors are split on the issue of innocence. Some of us feel that narratives of innocence are useful for garnering wide support and that they should be complemented by stauncher narratives to broaden the discourse of the issues at hand. The others prefer to bypass the question of guilt or innocence completely, refusing to participate in the logic of the state. The latter position presents an interesting challenge for us on the question of innocence. In what ways can we boldly support those who engage in militant protest? How can we dignify black/brown youth who are accused of stealing cigarettes, fleeing, or resisting in other ways that are used to justify police violence without relying on narratives of innocence? How can we combat using the language of our oppressors to create a more liberatory one? There wasn’t a cohesive strategy to support alleged breakers at this point. The campaign had largely disassociated from their situation—for example, many people spread the narrative that defendants were being charged for a handful of windows that only a few were responsible for breaking. This narrative puts alleged breakers on the receiving end of perceived guilt; it didn’t help to spread any justification or support for those who did break the windows, nor for any defendant who might be found guilty of doing so. People acting on their own initiative accomplished some of the best work that came out of the J20 efforts. However, due to confining interpersonal and structural dynamics, much of the initiative that is vital to effective organizing was inhibited. Despite this, the efforts that did make their way through were often celebrated—but only after the fact. Remember, actions inform action. The common response to repression from the onset of this case was hesitation, often constricting the effort of others. We should consider how to hone our reflexes to such situations and the dilemmas they engender—whether that means working more collaboratively or knowing when to branch off. To Libertarians In Spain, in the volatile aftermath of the Franco regime, more than fifty anarchists remained imprisoned while the more reformist elements of the CNT recuperated the movement’s revolutionary gains. These prisoners were not receiving support due to the illicit nature of their accused crimes, which included bank robberies and bombings. Anarchists in the region reached out to Guy Debord in France for help. Debord drafted the text “To Libertarians,” a militant call to action demanding the release of the prisoners. Fully 25,000 people signed their names to the appeal; the text was widely circulated throughout Spain. At that time, the Spanish government was chiefly concerned with fascist threats, leaving it precariously positioned and unable to engage the anarchists. “To Libertarians” clarified for the state what the cost of continuing to imprison dozens of anarchists would be. Thanks to bellicose words, the threat of mass mobilization, and the thorough distribution of the text, “To Libertarians” pressured the Spanish state into releasing the prisoners. The state released them on the grounds of “insufficient evidence,” despite possessing incriminating evidence against many of them. This serves as a golden example of an anti-repression campaign. It retained political integrity, utilized creative ingenuity, and defended its subjects—even the innocent ones. Click the image above to access the PDF. Our aim was to emulate this success. We saw the need to intervene after the defendants’ victory in the first trial and the subsequent dropping of 129 charges. When the prosecution was focusing on defendants accused of more explicit criminality, it was important to defend them outside and against the structures of law and order. We decided to deploy an autonomous strategy. The “Freedom for J20 Defendants” text was circulated ahead of the May trial. The text detailed our dissatisfaction with the general orientation of defendJ20resistance, our analysis of the situation, and an intense opposition to the case, its employers, and the world they inhabit. In response, we advocated a militant call to action. The strategy did not solely rely on the internet; we acknowledge the limitations of today’s oversaturation of information. We figured it would suffice to release it on radical news outlets such as itsgoingdown.org, where our enemies were sure to look. In addition, we distributed physical copies in DC where the case was taking place. An alternate and more explicit version of the text was distributed inside the courthouse café, which was frequented by lawyers, legal workers, police, security guards, and various others. In addition, copies were scattered outside both of the courthouse’s entrances and the entrances of nearby metros. The text was both emailed and physically mailed to various people including the prosecutor, the lead detective, various members of the DOJ and USAO, the former judge, and local news outlets. The text reached various local venues and was handed out to press at a press conference. Alongside the text’s circulation, complementary actions took place to apply pressure. These actions took place immediately ahead of the May trial to maximize stress on our enemies, limit their time, and proactively take advantage of any unforeseen favorable developments. Actions that shifted the atmosphere in DC and vandalism created an air of hostility towards the case. A proposal for a series of anti-repression speaking events threatened to raise social consciousness. The events were to connect various social movements, identifying the state’s mechanisms of repression. The first event took an explicitly agitational tone. Another call-in campaign furthered our goal of making the USAO a living hell. Because these actions occurred as a consequence of the J20 case, they imposed a cost for prosecuting it further. These stickers were seen throughout DC and appeared at all the metro stops near the courthouse before and after trial hearings. Kerkhoff mentioned them at court, provoking only a shrug from the judge. We believe that whoever wrote “Google Jury Nullification” in the courthouse bathroom was inspired by the sight of these stickers throughout the city. The stickers were popular; people mentioned them with joy. There was also a video. It was to be disseminated diffusely, and was for a short time; until some, upon seeing it, contemplated including it in something more concrete. The lack of a customary place to host this video points to a need for more insurrectionary infrastructure in the US. Comrades abroad utilize platforms like Actforfree and 325.nostate.net, which American comrades today don’t generally use.
Perhaps this video can serve to help demonstrate what it could look like for our movement to mobilize revolutionary solidarity in the future. If the prosecution had attempted to use these materials against the defendants, it would only have further extended their overreach. At what point do prosecutors begin to feel hopeless about trying to prove an alleged criminal conspiracy? Does a scandal such as this give them strength, or create further difficulty and confusion? We know the process can become the punishment. When do they declare “Enough”? We did not fear adding to their allegations of conspiracy, as the prosecutors already believed in these allegations and were struggling to prove them. The formal DefendJ20Resistance network was well positioned to fight against a text and video coming out of left field. Again, an attempt by the prosecution would mean an extension of their overreach, engendering activity that could bring things to the public eye. We were anticipating that the materials’ release would create scandal. Some would say “the police obviously made that” and others would surely create distance. A minority may have felt emboldened and at least everyone was healthily challenged in their views. All in all, we were content with making noise and spreading our analysis. It’s hard to say exactly what kind of effect this strategy had. But we would argue that it did indeed have one. It’s telling that we heard nothing about the article despite knowing it to have reached the opposition’s hands. We’d argue that we have to assume all this activity to have been a factor in their decision-making around the time of the second trial and the acknowledgment of the Brady violation. Like a fly buzzing in the room during a focused staring contest, increasing its volume as the contest endures. We reveal this strategy because we desire not to have to rely on a bluff. We want to facilitate the construction of a force capable of triggering widespread waves of disruption in response to crisis or repression. We want to improve and expand on the forms of solidarity we can produce and to bring the “To Libertarians” proposal into reality. Perhaps our first goal should be to arrive at a point at which we can bluff more realistically—for example, by becoming capable of utilizing our collective networks and infrastructure to present a convincing threat of mobilization. From there, the next goal would be pose the same pressure as a reality, not a bluff. (Ideally, we would skip directly to the second goal.) We propose that we need to develop enough movement intelligence and strength to have a shared instinct about when to employ various forms of disruption. This would greatly aide us in fights like the ones against DAPL, against the J20 case, against ICE detention centers and the border—fights in which it is vital to collectively act in such a way as to conjoin our strengths and make such efforts more successful, tapping into tangential possibilities and sustaining a level of uncontrollability. We would love for comrades to critically elaborate and build on this proposal. James Baldwin offers us an American vision for revolutionary solidarity. When Angela Davis was incarcerated, Baldwin wrote an open letter to her in the New York Review of Books: “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.” Revolutionary Solidarity Our opponents have interests to maintain; they factor these in when they decide how aggressively to pursue convictions in a particular case. There are boundless forces in any given situation and several ways to engage them. Taking an offensive approach means trying to make the pursuit of such cases or the sustained incarceration of the imprisoned no longer worth it. We could call this the practice of price setting: building on fighting capacities and refusing to allow the state to kidnap our comrades without repercussions. Costs may include many things, such as a prosecutor’s mental health, convenience, the USAO’s functionality (which was disrupted by call-ins), the stability of an individual’s job or even of governance as a whole. The cost of breaking a window isn’t financial but social. As many emphasized, the J20 case was never about broken windows, but political dissent. The function of repression is to suppress. By bringing forth what the state seeks to remove or minimize, we could impose costs on the forces of repression. The state fears the potential that property destruction, both the practice and the meaning behind it, will spread as a social contagion. Some may denounce the logic of “solidarity means attack.” We disagree, advocating another sense of revolutionary solidarity. It is important to remember that certain actions could adversely affect the outcome of any political trial—so choices must be made intelligently—and it is of utmost importance that political actors exercise caution in their activities. But there is a difference between caution and inaction, and the latter is unacceptable. This type of solidarity acknowledges that for the exploited, repression is a continuous ongoing process, and that all of our struggles are intimately intertwined. It affirms that there is a connection between targeted repression like the J20 case and everyday racist policing, immigrant detention centers, and the counter-insurgency strategies developed abroad. It understands that capitalism and the state operate in similar ways in very different places. What methods can we borrow across difference? What instills worry? What creates scandal? What makes the state’s pursuit undesirable? A multitude of things can be done to support the accused and combat repression: street demonstrations, fundraising, public meetings, escalating struggle, attempting to radicalize and connect with current social struggles. We should interweave them all in such a way as to deepen our struggles. For fear of justifying the repression that was already in progress, we did not take a proper stance against this system. Even small gestures such as defendants rebelling against being misgendered in court or speaking out in the face of explicit racism were discouraged. This was a mistake. Repression is an inevitable consequence of conflict; therefore, it must be incorporated into any winning revolutionary strategy. Whether we’re talking about attacks, disaster relief, or a free breakfast program, repression is sure to result if it threatens the interests of capital and state power. We do not benefit from being too tame. Furthermore, additional repression isn’t always inherently negative. We should evaluate it in relation to our overall strategy, not in a vacuum. Additional repression can offer new opportunities in the overall fight. For example, an indictment for an incendiary speech could be leveraged to (re)gain popular support. We have a choice: we can run and hide or fight back. If we give the state an inch, it will certainly take a mile. All our clichés apply here: stand firm, throw down, take up the gauntlet, hold the line—to the barricades! Repression is being meted out precisely because the social situation is becoming more precarious and because the actions for which the defendants were accused threaten the state. This means that solidarity is not simply raising money for legal defense and pleading to the state for leniency. Instead, it is an attack on power, and choosing to attack is not only refusing to bow down, but also contributing to the wider atmosphere of social antagonism. In many countries, a single slogan abounds: solidarity is a weapon. Let’s put it into practice in the US. Towards a Future January 20, 2017 saw the ushering in of a new generation of the radical left, a defining moment in a neo-fascist era. In an epoch with few such entry points, we should not understate the significance of this moment. We will not reiterate the importance of fierce resistance at Trump’s inauguration, but choosing not to act was not an option. We affirm the actions taken that day. Part of what makes these revolutionary days of action effective is how they are followed up. How do we put into perspective the anger and urgency shown that day? How can that moment permeate its way into subsequent moments—to create new ones? What does it mean to understand what occurred from each of our respective localities—and how would it look to externalize these shared perceptions within a larger social framework, creating a subjectivity that can extend beyond activist minorities and radical milieus, beyond protest towards the synthesis of a new world? Using historically grounded black bloc tactics, the counter-inaugural protests of January 20, 2017 manifested a demandless metropolitan riot with an explicitly anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, and abolitionist orientation. The movement itself existed within a broader spectrum of resistance. Therein lies a strength with the capacity to grow relative to its ability to echo and resonate into the future. Perhaps January 20 can serve as a reference point for revolt in the years to come: an annual day of anarchist activity situated in a collective memory, with an emphasis on building power and expanding our abilities as a movement. In our present context, it feels especially important to intervene from an anti-electoral perspective, combating the next election cycle and the fallacious notion that we only need to get rid of Trump, not the system itself. Defining conflicts compel people to choose sides. There is strength in drawing lines in the sand and demonstrating that the institutions of misery we are forced to co-exist with are neither neutral nor impervious. Spreading signals of disorder can increase our tactical strength as we hone a practice of vandalism, property destruction, public occupation, and rowdiness. This interrupts the narrative of social peace and makes it indisputably clear that people are opposed to the present system and fighting against it. What better moment was there to do that than Trump’s ascendancy? As the failures of the prevailing order become ever more obvious, perhaps we should continue to force fractures of this kind. Some may scoff at insurrectionists who cite the Greek anarchist movement, but the situation in Greece is an accelerated version of our own here in the US. Comrades there have described how various sectors of the population took up the confrontational and combative tactics that had been used by anarchists in moments of crisis, such as after the police killing of Alexis Grigoropoulos. The contagion was so intense that even those who had previously decried these tactics joined in. In France, after years of riots in response to austerity measures, police brutality, and attacks on the ZAD, we are seeing disruption spread [countrywide].(http://ill-will-editions.tumblr.com/post/180774090884/next-stop-destitution-published-on-lundi-matin) “In opening up spaces free from state control, these ruptures offer an opportunity for liberation: an insurrection.” From Ferguson, Baltimore, and Standing Rock to J20, it is not a stretch to say we live in an era of increasing conflict in the US, as well. Like it or not, the future will involve social discord and revolution; things will not continue as they are forever. We would argue for agents of change to fight harder and sooner rather than later. Conflict can open up space for new perspectives, discussions, and forms of engagement while playing an important role in defending any revolutionary forms of life we create. The riot is the focal reemergence of rebellion in our era, when the relevance of the labor movement and the strike along with it has dwindled as global capitalism has expanded and adapted. The riot ascends at a time when our commonality, discontent, and strength aren’t primarily formed by our labor power but by our dispossession. This is a time of destitution, when broad antagonisms will continue to take shape against the state and the police. We ask that we be bolder in what we disseminate, plan, and do. That we begin to take ourselves and the freedom we aspire to more seriously. While acknowledging its limits, we ask that we start taking disruption more seriously. The disruptions that most prominently define our time are the riot, the blockade, the occupation, and, on the horizon, the commune. The decision to retreat from combative tactics should only come after we have gained significant strength. “The question of pacifism is serious only for those who have the ability to open fire. In this case, pacifism becomes a sign of power, since it’s only in an extreme position of strength that we are freed from the need to fire.” -The Invisible Committee In the past, there have been traditions of solidarity that meant continuing the struggles of those imprisoned or murdered by the state. Let us acknowledge the effects of repression from the J20 case as ongoing and strive to continue with the aims of revolutionary struggle as a practice of solidarity with the case’s defendants and supporters. For freedom! -Some comrades (ex-defendants and not) We Coming for Your Finger Sandwiches