Today I more or less finished reading Peter Gelderloos' How Nonviolence Protects The State, the new release from South End Press that argues for an end to the ostracism of the violent left. The tactic of nonviolence, he says, is completely ineffective and must be left behind if we are ever to make real progress toward a stateless society. His arguments seem to have taken hold, because time and again, as I forced my way through this short book, I felt like slapping him silly.
As an anarchist, Gelderloos is all about dismantling the state and all other oppressive power structures, and this project, as one might imagine, is proceeding rather slowly. So, he wants to escalate. He talks about bombing things, for example. His argument is that the hegemony of nonviolent tactics neuters the left by taking all of our best options off the table.
When he and his anarchist buddies show up at a demo in their bandanna masks and black hoodies to take out some windows, they don't want to be seen as provocateur pariah assholes. They want to be embraced as allies who happen to be in the tactical vanguard.
And so, this book forcefully makes the case that nearly the entire left has already rejected. I found myself appalled at the holes in his logic, the shallow and selective grasp of history, and the contempt he holds for those who don't embrace violence as their primary tactic.
The IWW wasn't radical enough for this guy. Nether was the Weather Underground. Almost no one is.
Were Gelderloos to simply argue that nonviolence is not always the best tactic in all situations, I would have been right there with him. The IRA, for example, had popular support for armed resistance to an armed occupation. During the Vietnam War, it was not uncommon for campus ROTC buildings to catch fire at night. When I watch The Times of Harvey Milk, my pulse always quickens a bit at the sight of queers lighting fire to overturned police cars. Sometimes, it makes sense.
But this book sets out to discredit every single tactic short of sabotage, kidnapping, molotov cocktails, and bombings as ineffective, which is simply ridiculous. There are dozens of "throw this book across the room" statements such as this: "Activists using the lobbying approach fail to see that making demands to authority is bad strategy."
Gelderloos sets up straw man after straw man and then knocks the crap out of them. The logic of nonviolence, for example, prefers rape to self defense. Nonviolent activists also apparently think that all third world revolutionary movements should disarm. Who are these people? I've never met them.
To my amazement, Gelderloos argues that building public awareness of issues will forever be ineffective because state control of propaganda systems will always overwhelm our feeble efforts.
This same logic, obviously, is much more aptly applied to the use of violence. The State pretty much has the monopoly here. While Gelderloos romanticizes the Panthers, AIM, and the Weather Underground, his recall of how things turned out for those folks and their movements is highly selective. He sees what supports his argument. What doesn't, he ignores.
Some, I suppose, will find his arguments compelling, and that, I think, is unfortunate, but for most, his book is an opportunity to rethink why non-violence is such a given within the American left. Movement building is less about anger in action than the engagement of moral imagination. I found it interesting that Gelderloos completely avoids the nonviolence trump card: violent tactics, to the vast majority of Americans, are profoundly alienating and play directly into the hands of the state.
Earth to Gelderloos: Stop hanging out so much with your twenty-something anarchist friends who read Fanon for breakfast and go talk to some normal people once in a while, because to make a revolution those are the folks you need. Try not to scare them away, OK?