Strategy for bombers – a talk by Peter Gelderloos

All nonviolent activities and strategies are useless.

Unless they are carried out by people who are also bombing, shooting and rioting.

Hmmm. I’m not entirely convinced.


Last night, I travelled over to the Cowley Club, an exemplary anarchist social centre in Brighton, England, to hear US activist Peter Gelderloos talking about How Nonviolence Protects The State (title of his book, published by South End Press, Boston).

As I am very much committed to nonviolence, am the co-editor of Peace News, and so on, and have read his book, I thought the meeting would be interesting, intriguing and good for the development of my own thinking.

The most interesting parts of the evening were the contributions from the floor. Gelderloos reiterated his arguments in a well-formed and logical way for 45 minutes, we had a break and then we went to discussion.

Incidentally, Peter Gelderloos is facing a frame-up and unjustified ‘urban terrorism’ charges in Spain.

I read How Nonviolence Protects The State a long time ago – I read the strategy chapter on the way over to refresh my memory. It’s called ‘Nonviolence is tactically and strategically inferior’.

(Other chapter titles are: ‘Nonviolence is racist’, ‘Nonviolence is statist’, ‘Nonviolence is patriarchal’, ‘Nonviolence is deluded’. When I spoke up, I started by saying that as editor of Peace News [dedicated to nonviolent revolution] I was obviously ‘deluded’, ‘implicitly statist in my thinking’, and a little too privileged as a person of colour to have a valid opinion on the questions of violence and nonviolence.)

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve read a bit about strategy (but find it hard to actually make good strategies – that get done). The key thing to start off with is to work back from where you want to get to, and work out the steps needed to get there, while also understanding the environment you’re working in, and the resources you have to hand.

If you’re going to compare strategies, then you’ve got to make sure they’ve got the same aims (otherwise you can’t compare them), and then compare the effectiveness and acceptability of the ways in which they pursue that goal.

I’ve looked carefully, but the only time Gelderloos seems to try to carry out such a comparison in his strategy chapter is in the case of WWI-era anarchist-oriented groups. The Industrial Workers of the World, the Italian immigrant militants who carried out bombings of government officials, and the West Virginia miners who rose up in 1921 against police and company violence.

The three groups had quite different strategic goals, which is a problem. They had similar fates, in that all three groups were mauled by repression, and suffered heavy defeats in this era.

Gelderloos isn’t interested in comparing the strategies for effectiveness, however. He’s interested in comparing them for repression – to try to answer the charge that violence encourages repression.

The nonviolent strategy of the IWW did not protect them from repression. That is perfectly plain. But Gelderloos does not address the real question, which is whether, in general, the use of violence by grassroots movements and groups tends to increase the scale of repression launched against them, and the freedom of action enjoyed by repressive forces.

What Gelderloos’ discussion does not capture, is whether the use of lethal force by the Italian groups increased the repression of the ‘Red Scare’ era beyond what it might otherwise have been. My guess (without a historical investigation) is that the common sense of Western social movements is that the violence did increase the repression, and bombings would be likely to escalate repression today.

To labour this point: being nonviolent does not protect you from repression, but it can be an effective way of limiting the repression – which is of importance to the other social movements in your political space, and can be of enormous importance to the people who you are trying to assist.

The bulk of the ‘strategy’ chapter is devoted to dismissing nonviolent tactics and strategies.

Education is pointless because of the power of the media and corporate PR, and because of inequalities in education hampering people’s ability to analyze.

Protest and nonviolent direct action is pointless because they will never win over more than a tiny minority of the population. Such a movement will also ‘exhibit a mass authoritarianism and orthodoxy’, ‘will be particularly prone to factionalism’, and ‘will also be easily manipulated’. (91)

These kinds of strategies produce ‘at absolute best’, ‘an oppositional but passive majority, which history has shown is easy for an armed minority to control’. (92)

Lobbying is pointless because it involves compromise with those who hold power, and ‘the only way to use leverage against the state in pursuit of interests diametrically opposed to those of the state is to threaten the state’s existence’ – which cannot be done by nonviolent means.

Building alternative institutions is pointless because we cannot protect them from repression without the use of violence.

Generalized disobedience is pointless, because it ‘cannot stand up to a military that has been given free reign to use all the weapons in its arsenal’, and therefore will never to be able to deliver control of society to the people.

Pointless, pointless, pointless.

But, wait, education isn’t totally pointless.

It can be ‘explosively effective when integrated into other strategies’. ‘Because of its imperative principles, corporate media cannot ignore a bombing as easily as it can ignore a peaceful protest.’ (89)

And trying to lobby/leverage the state isn’t pointless. When you’ve got massive armed force.

Building alternative institutions is also not totally pointless. They’re good, when they are part of an armed revolutionary movement.

And so on.

Everything is constructive, if the activity is in the context of an armed movement. If not, it’s pointless.

In the final chapter, Gelderloos admits that ‘some of the major initial requirements of a liberation movement do not include "violent actions".’ (140) They are actually education, building alternative institutions, and so on. In fact, the programme for immediate revolutionary action, set out in his conclusion, does not specify any violent actions.

So education, alternative institutions and so on are pointless if you are committed to nonviolence, highly effective if you are bombing and shooting, and vitally necessary even if you are not bombing and shooting at the moment, so long as you are committed in theory to using such tactics whenever the need arises.

In the discussion phase of the talk last night, several times people pointed out that there had been massive arguments in the radical environmental movement about the use of force, but that after the arguments had died down (unresolved), the people involved had got on with doing the same actions using the same nonviolent tactics.

Another point that was made was that after groups such as the Red Brigades, the Weather Underground and the Red Army Faction carried out their campaigns, there had been a subsequent consolidation of state power.

It was also noted that police infiltrators had been seen to enter demonstrations to perpetrate violence against police lines, helping to justify police repression of events such as Reclaim the Streets actions.

The final point that was made in this line was that while in Palestine the use of force by popular movements has mass support, this is simply not the case in Britain (or the US). ‘Is this the right time to risk losing what popular support we do have, and to risk the small anarchist groups that exist being rounded up and crushed in an instant?’

All of these questions and comments came (from several different people) out of an audience that was overwhelmingly committed to Gelderloos’s overall critique of nonviolence. No one (apart from me) spoke up in favour of a commitment to nonviolence. The room, I would guess, was probably made up of among the most militant activists in the country (and quite a few police spies, no doubt).

These comments were offered not in anger, but in an open, wondering, questioning way. I think they probably reflect the common sense of the mainstream of the militant ‘theoretically-committed-to-violence’ strand of the popular movements.

From my perspective, I was impressed by this thoughtfulness and strategic caution.

Gelderloos, for his part, offered some rather unconvincing arguments in response, and urged constant efforts to promote the use of (intelligent, effective) violent tactics and strategies.

I think his audience was not entirely convinced, and I found that very heartening.

In the end, the burden of proof lies with those committed to nonviolence, not just to come up with logic, evidence and argument, but, much more importantly, to come up with actions and programmes of activity that are effective in addressing the crises that we face.

If we do not devise such actions (and such arguments), no one should be surprised if more people do not drift in frustration to the position that everything being done is pointless without the use of bombs and guns and riots in the streets.

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