Monday, November 3, 2008
Guy Fawkes, Liberation and Terrorism — A few thoughts
November 5th blasts once again onto the calender with annual fireworks displays, renewed calls for fire bans and of course, those terrible Warehouse ads for cheap exploding goods. And while most of us have a vague understanding of the occasion's history (something about a guy ages ago who got caught trying to blow up parliament) — it is the symbolism and interpretations of Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and revolutionary acts in general which I find quite interesting. Throw in the recent motion picture ('V for Vendetta' — which managed to totally ruin a great anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore) and the images get even muddier.
So, what I want to explore is not so much the history of November 5th, but how Guy Fawkes has been used symbolically by radical movements, the implications of that imagery, and what that means for revolutionary acts. It is by no way comprehensive and it's not meant to be — it's simply a collection of recent readings I've come across, as well as some of my own thoughts.
The cloaked assasin, holding a bomb, ready to destroy, demonic, masked, criminal — it's an image readily associated with anarchism, the propaganda of the deed, and the definition of 'anarchy'. Guy Fawkes reincarnate, ready to sweep away opressive government in one foul and violent swoop — it's something the majority of anarchists would rather not be associated with. Yet, it's unavoidably a part of our political past, and is still embraced by factions within the wider revolutionary movement.
The imagery of Guy Fawkes (including the above poster) has often been used by anarchist groups. The Scottish Socialist Party even revived the classic anarchist poster in order to give themelves some kind of libertarian credibility, distancing itself from Bolshevik tradition (while, unfortunately embracing the failed politics of social democracy). So, does the image of Guy Fawkes properly represent libertarian ideas — or on the contrary, detract from the constructive elements of anarchism and place emphasis on insurrectional ideas, or 'the propaganda of the deed'?
The period of 'propaganda of the deed' around the turn of last century, managed to cause more damage to anarchist ideas and it's relation to the working class than the actual bombs did to their respective targets. Instead of inspiring the masses into general revolt, anarchist insurrectionists were easliy painted with the 'chaos' brush of the ruling class and by those who supported them — the media. And while most anarchist thinkers of the time, such as Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta quickly realised the errors of these methods, the remanants still linger today.
So what are the errors, if any, of this method? Should anarchists embrace the distorted imagery of Guy Fawkes — libertarian, revolutionary, insurrectionist? ...Terrorist?
Around the world the word “terrorism” is used indiscriminately by the state, politicians and police, with the intention of arousing hostility to any ounce of resistance or preparedness for armed defence against their own terroristic acts. The accepted definition of terrorism is 'distinguished by the systematic use of violence against people for political ends'. Within this definition a distinction can be made between attacks on the public and those on individuals in power, without implying approval in either case. Clearly attacks on the innocent are worse than those on people guilty of some crime.
One must also be careful to differentiate between terrorism and the damaging of property. Although it is clear that intimidatory activity and property damage are not usually as serious as terrorism, anarchists should recognise the ease with which a preparedness for such activities can lead to worse consequences. This is not to argue that revolutionaries should have a reverent attitude to private property — merely that they should see that there is a vast difference between, say, the destruction of a nuclear facility building site by a mass occupation and the blowing up of that site by a few individuals.
Just as the rulers prefer the word “terrorist”, terrorists prefer the description “urban guerrilla”, as it lends them a rather romantic air. The only problem with a movement grounded in this approach of 'guerrilla strategy', is that emphasis is placed on destroying the current order first and foremost, often with thought on what would replace it being a hazy or a secondary event. It essentially fetishises the collapse of will in the ruling class to produce the social crisis out of which revolution occurs, often whether the majority favours it or not.
Any reading of guerrilla strategists reveals that it [guerrilla-ism] is a philosophy of impatience, of vanguardism, and of minority will. There are problems with this approach on many grounds, the most obvious one being the link bewteen means and ends — the historical fact being that the means we chose to employ in our struggle for radical change, more often than not, becomes the ends.
While a collapse of will in the ruling class is surely a vital element in any revolution, unless a mass movement with democratic structures of organising is in place beforehand, then an elite could take power. It is fractured thinking to identify the essence of revolution as illegality or as armed confrontation with the repressive instruments of the state. This totally obscures the essence of our objection to the current system, which is not simply disgust with state violence — the uses of gaol, brutality, torture, murder etc. — but with hierarchical relationships among people, with competition instead of co-operation. The “very act of taking up arms” may defy the law but it says nothing about what is being fought for.
The essence of revolution is not armed confrontation with the state, but the nature of the movement which backs it up, — and this will depend on the kinds of relationships and ideas amongst people in the groups, community councils, workers councils, etc. that emerge in the social conflict.
The job for revolutionaries is not to take up the gun, but to engage in the long, hard work of publicising an understanding of this society, as well as self-emancipation and direct action. We should build a movement which links the many problems and issues people face with the need for revolutionary change, which attacks all the pseudo-solutions — both individual and social — offered within this society; which also seeks to demystify those solutions offered by the authoritarian left and instead to place the total emphasis on the need for self-activity and self-organisation on the part of those people willing to take up issues. We need to present constructive ideas about a socialism based on equality and freedom, self-management and direct action, federalism and anarchism.
You can’t blow up a social relationship. The total collapse of this society would provide no guarantee about what replaced it. Unless a majority of people had the ideas and organisation sufficient for the creation of an alternative society, we would see the old world reassert itself because it is what people would be used to, what they believed in, what existed unchallenged in their own personalities.
Proponents of terrorism and guerrilla-ism are to be opposed because their actions are vanguardist and authoritarian, because their ideas, to the extent that they are substantial, are often wrong or unrelated to the results of their actions (especially when
they call themselves libertarians or anarchists), because terrorism cannot be justified, and finally because their actions produce either repression with nothing in return or an authoritarian regime.
From what's been noted above, a few points can be made about some methods of insurrection — 1) that means determine ends - the use of horrifying means guarantees horrifying ends; 2) that urban guerrilla-ism almost always leads to repression and little else — which makes it very difficult to engage in constructive political work such as organising and education; 3) that “successful” urban guerrillaism inevitably leads to authoritarian solutions; 4) that these results are determined by the nature of guerrilla-ism. Guerrilla-ism relies upon the capitalist media for much of its impact, which often provides the corporate-controlled media with a perfect opportunity to frighten the public into the “protective” arms of the State. To put it another way, guerrillas attempt to act for the people — attempting to substitute individual acts for mass actions — thus perpetuating the division between leaders and followers (in this case, spectators).
While personally, I think we should reject terrorism, propaganda of the deed, and guerrilla-ism, it should be emphasised that this does not imply political passivity. I am not arguing against the many forms of direct action that form an essential part of any mass movement for fundamental social change — examples of such direct action which include wildcat strikes, factory occupations and civil disobedience. Neither should we discount the quieter but equally essential efforts of those doing educational, community and workplace agitation. Finally, it should be noted that this text doesn't embrace pacifism — situations may arise in which armed self-defence of the gains of a mass, radical and social revolution becomes necessary.
So, until the image of Guy Fawkes (or characters like him) are distanced from the constructive and libertarian ideas of anarchism, unfortunately for us, the paint may never dry...
Note — some parts of this text was freely paraphrased from 'You Can't Blow Up a Social Relationship' which originally was an Australian zine, reprinted by Zabalaza Books.