The intra-anarchist debate over the black bloc in the wake of the March 26th London demonstrations is the latest stage in a debate that has characterised anarchism - and indeed the radical left in general - since the mid 1800s. One hundred and fifty years on, the controvery is still raging. Where this disagreement has been comradely, it has shown a great strength of anarchism - the belief that a wide variety of tactics can be used to confront the enemy.
When the French anarchist Paul Brousse first coined the term 'propaganda by the deed' in 1877, he was referring to the Paris Commune - where workers took over the running of the French capital - and other mass uprisings. But very quickly, the phrase was being used to encompass individual acts of what the ruling class would describe as vandalism, terrorism, and even murder.
The insurrectionist Johann Most, who was an early influence on Emma Goldman, advocated a strategy whereby convinced revolutionists would substitute themselves for the working class in acts of violence against state and capitalist targets. He believed that this violence would instantly stir the collective power of the working class into action.
There are echoes of this stance in the statement published in The Guardian last week, where the self-identified black bloc activists proclaimed that "Only actions count now", and that they were giving "uncompromising opposition to capitalism an appropriate image on the streets". The idea is apparently that smashing a bank window is symbollicaly the same as 'smashing' the power of the banks. But then, how can the great mass of people learn to literally 'smash' the power of the banks, except through their own struggle?
Emma Goldman's position on propaganda by the deed shifted in the years after her lifelong companion, Alexander Berkman, unsuccessfully tried to kill Henry Frick, the boss of Carnegie Steel. Berkman had dreamed that following the shooting, "labor would realize the significance of my deed", and would "be roused to strong protest, perhaps to active demand." Unfortunately for him and for us, that was not the case. Berkman and Goldman could only watch in despair as the expected uprising failed to materialise, and Berkman was "buried alive" in prison for sixteen years.
A decade later, when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz killed US President William McKinley, Berkman argued:
"Now, I do not believe that this deed was terroristic; and I doubt whether it was educational, because the social necessity for its performance was not manifest. That you may not misunderstand, I repeat: as an expression of personal revolt it was inevitable, and in itself an indictment of existing conditions. But the background of social necessity was lacking, and therefore the value of the act was to a great extent nullified."
It is worth applying Berkman's quote to the context of the 'violence' against symbols of wealth in London last month. With class tensions at incendiary levels, it could certainly be argued that the "social necessity for its performance" was indeed very clear to large numbers of people in the general public, even despite the mass media's attempts at demonisation. But was it "educational"? My answer has to be a no. It did not teach anyone anything, because it did not take back any products of working class labour. In that way it differed from the fleeting occupation of Tory HQ last year, and does not represent a way forward in the class struggle, even if it were to be taken up on a massive scale. Neither was it an act of genuine resistance. Instead, it polarised opinion along already existing lines.
That said, just because I wouldn't do it myself, I certainly wouldn't want to condemn it either. In fact, based on my own experience, I believe Goldman's position on Czolgosz also holds true here:
"It is, therefore, not cruelty, or a thirst for blood, or any other criminal tendency, that induces such a man to strike a blow at organized power. On the contrary, it is mostly because of a strong social instinct, because of an abundance of love and an overflow of sympathy with the pain and sorrow around us, a love which seeks refuge in the embrace of mankind, a love so strong that it shrinks before no consequence, a love so broad that it can never be wrapped up in one object, as long as thousands perish, a love so all-absorbing that it can neither calculate, reason, investigate, but only dare at all costs."
The smashed bank windows were a result of the TUC leadership's predictably traitorous embrace of the Labour 'opposition', and mildly critical partnership with those determined to push working class living standards back to the levels of the 1930s. When largescale grassroots struggle does emerge, the 'need' for acts of destruction as adverts for anarchism will disappear. In the meantime, it is the union bureaucrats who are the true enemies within.