Anarchists and communists debate the Black Bloc

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“I think we were allowed to organise two futile forms of protest - one, a boring same-old march from A to B, and two, a little set-piece 'drama' of revolutionary 'violence' (of course, I don't really see it as violence) that will be used to scare people with 'thuggery'[1].
The capitalist media were, predictably, only too happy to focus on the actions of the ‘violent minority’ who ‘hijacked’ the otherwise peaceful, responsible march organised by the proper representatives of working people, the TUC. The term ‘anarchist’ was used very widely to describe the throwing of paint, smashing of windows, and spraying of graffiti on the walls of banks and posh shops by young people dressed in black and wearing masks.
As a matter of fact, by no means all the people taking part in these actions would describe themselves as anarchists. Some were probably Maoists or other leftists. A larger number were probably politically unattached radical students or youth aiming to revive the militant spirit of last autumn’s demonstrations and occupations.
But there’s no doubt that the core of this minority was made up of a ‘black bloc’ which is certainly inspired by anarchism, and which many anarchists would defend as a valid tactic in demonstrations. But what really refutes the media’s lazy labelling of the ‘violent minority’ as ‘anarchist’ is the existence of real disagreements between anarchists and libertarian communists about what happened at the 26 March demo specifically, and about black bloc activity in general. A very clear example of this controversy is provided by the thread ‘Hijacked by anarchists’ on the internet discussion forum
The post starting out this thread, by GuyDeBord's Optician, poses the question from the standpoint from the needs of the anarchist movement:
“It seems, unsurprisingly, that the 'hijacked by anarchists' line is once more being propagated in most media establishments regarding yesterday's protest.
The effect - judging by my conversations with lefty-liberal sorts and poking about on Twitter - is to successfully split the movement into the useless A > B marching tools, and the terrifying spectre of the bomb-throwing anarchist, locked in mutual condemnation forever.
Again, should anarchists try to express themselves? Obviously we all know the media belongs to the ruling-class etc but if AFED or someone sent a letter we could - forgive the phrasing - enter the argument”. (AFED or AF is the Anarchist Federation, one of the main organised anarchist groups today)
This concern to answer the propaganda of the bourgeoisie is taken up in various ways. A number of posters argue that whatever revolutionaries do will meet with a hysterical response by the ruling class and its media. Some posters – and they include comrades who are involved in the libcom collective and may also be members of the AF and Solidarity Federation, the other main anarchist (‘anarchosyndicalist’) group - feel that the actions in Oxford Street and Piccadilly were a direct continuation of the militancy we saw in the student demonstrations and actually pulled in a fairly large number of people who were not content to passively follow the union march. Some of these posters were involved in setting up the Radical Workers Bloc which began the march from Kennington Park and had, prior to the demonstration, set itself the task of providing a presence at the 26 March demo as a “distinctive and critical part of a labour movement, as a counter movement to the tried, tested and discredited strategy of the trades unions to bargain with the state in our interests. This bankrupt approach is exemplified by the TUC’s summoning of a ‘March for the Alternative: Jobs, Growth, Justice’, misses the points about what is wrong with capitalism. It cannot be fixed by the state; it is caused by the collaboration of the state and capitalism that the trades unions do nothing to undermine” (statement by the Anarchist Federation).
These posters saw no contradiction between the propaganda work they did towards the march as a whole (e.g. giving out leaflets and papers of the AF and Solfed) and what happened later in the day, when the Radical Workers Bloc seems to have dispersed to take part in what was happening in Oxford Street. One poster, Raw, who played a key role in the formation of a separate ‘Militant Workers Bloc’ which set off from Malet Street in the company of the more militant students, was extremely positive about the actions of what in effect became the black bloc and largely absorbed the two blocs formed by anarchist/libertarian groups and elements, concluding that “at no cost did people want another large passive demo with nothing else, it was a bold political move in forming the black bloc, whether it can or should happen again needs to be discussed but I for one think it was politically the right thing to do on the day”.
However, what for us is most interesting about this thread is the fact that so many of the posters were extremely critical of the kind of ‘spectacular’ minority action that the black bloc embodies. Some are ‘new’ posters whose politics are further away from the mainstream of this forum (anarchist communist/anarchosyndicalist/council communist/left communist etc); and in one case (union- activist) the arguments put forward openly defend the trade unions and is very close to the official TUC line about the legitimate march versus the illegitimate anarchists. But the majority of those questioning the black bloc tactic would situate themselves in the anarchist tradition and in some cases are part of organised groups like AF and Solfed.
The poster Cobbler, for example, wrote:
I'll stick my neck out and say that I don't think the greatest part of the violence achieves much, and is probably counter-productive.
I carried the red and black flag yesterday, though made a point of not dressing in black, and was asked loads of times what the flag stood for. Each time I was able to talk to one more person about anarchist ideals and aims. But when they go home and see the flag as synonymous with black clad people smashing windows and other acts of violence then a lot of the sympathy will be gone.
The same has already been true with members of my family who know my political views and allegiances: all they want to talk about is the violence.
I know that simply walking from point A to point B waving banners and making noise achieves nothing much except perhaps a raising of awareness, and there's definitely a case for taking the fight directly to the capitalists' front door, but I think we need to be wiser how we do this”.
Although Cobbler felt he was sticking his neck out, around 10 other ‘anarchist’ posters expressed similar misgivings, and not from the standpoint of outraged pacifism or legalism.
A member of AF, Axiom, was unhappy about the fact that, from what he saw, those who were into smashing shop windows made no attempt to discuss with the workers inside the shops they were attacking. A member of Solfed, Rum Lad, felt that there was a significant difference between what had happened at Millbank at the beginning of the student movement and what happened on 26 March: “between the self-satisfying bravado of the black block and the liberal-reformist passivity implicit in the overall tone of the TUC march, I think we have one hell-of-a long way to go.
What was exciting about the student demonstrations in November/December was the dynamism of lots of disparate social strata who were unified together and, in some sense, actually fighting together on the protests. When it was claimed that Millbank was the act of a minority group of anarchists, it was clear to say that that was a load of crap. I really didn't get that feeling yesterday. Every different group was really acting out their pre-ordained social roles and I think every group left feeling like they had achieved something when they really hadn't.
The winners yesterday were the police, the state and the union powers”.
In a later post, he offers an interesting analysis of police tactics on the TUC demo:
“What happened on Saturday was I think partly a result of very intelligent policing (perhaps from lessons learned last year?) and partly something else I'm not so sure about. The police wanted to make absolutely sure that there was no trouble from the TUC march, like there was from the student body. This is illustrated in the effort placed in stewarding the march. I think the police were happy to let a smaller group smash up some shops because it would be divisive and affirm the rebarbative idea of peaceful protest as something valid and positive. I think later in the day, the police were actually overrun by a smart and active black block. It is clear that the size of the black block has grown and that there were probably a lot of new and younger participants. Yet I do think the radical left need to have a lot of discussion about what our objectives are and how we organise. That doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as pandering to some abstract conception of 'the working class' or what our media image might be. It means that if we truly believe that wage labour needs to be abolished, because it causes human suffering, how do we help harness and actualize the latent desire for social change that exists as a result of that suffering?
I don't think having a bigger, better and more effective black block is commensurate with the actualisation of radical principles”.
The ICC’s posters (Miles and Alf) and a poster close to our positions (Slothjabber) echo this feeling of being offered a false choice on 26 March. We had initially supported the formation of the Radical Workers Bloc because of its stated aims of providing a focus for all those who were in favour of working class methods of struggle in opposition to the methods of the unions. But we had already expressed our unease about the lack of public discussion to prepare for the demo and of any real clarity about the concrete goals of the Bloc during the demo. This led, rather logically, to the Bloc simply peeling off and going to where ‘the action’ was rather than emphasising the need to engage with the vast mass of workers who continue to follow the union line. Of course a revolutionary minority always has to relate to a wider radical stratum which is ready to challenge union or other forms of authority. The problem is that the black bloc’s guerilla methods, rather than offering an opening for large masses of workers to participate – which is the case with strikes, occupations, assemblies and the like – merely widened the gap between the ‘radical’ minority and the huge majority still under the sway of the unions and the official left. This view was echoed by a poster who identifies himself as a libertarian communist or council communist, Harrison Myers: “I do however think it would much much better to strengthen the strand of protest that doesn't bloc up, but aims more to make contact with others and motivate the masses into action and autonomy (not just recruiting like SWP), just as Alf said the Radical Workers Bloc and Militant Workers Bloc were intended for”[2]
In response to a previous post which tried to make a distinction between ‘mass social anarchism’ and the ‘minority vanguardist insurrectionary’ approach, Raw responded that “what needs to happen is a political justification to what happen rather than splitting the movement. "Mass social anarchism" vs "minority vanguardist insurrectionary" is a false division, especially when it was the black bloc who clearly were the mass representation of anarchist politics on the day and were anything but minoritarian in that context.
If libertarian communists want to enter the debate then they will have to do from inside rather than outside. Defend those that took action and propose a what next strategy. Economic blockades and actions during strike action may be the next phase that will need many who were attracted to the black bloc to be involved in”.
The first paragraph expresses very precisely the problem with the black bloc. Even if hundreds did get drawn in to the black bloc’s actions, they remained ‘vanguardist’ in the worst sense, an example of ‘propaganda by the deed’ which made no attempt to relate to the mass of proletarians who had come to express their anger with the policies of the state, no attempt to explain to them why following the unions can only lead to a dead end.
The second paragraph however can open up a more fruitful debate: first of all, we agree that we have to defend proletarians who are facing state repression even if we disagree with their actions and consider them to be counter-productive and even irresponsible. More importantly, we have to begin a very wide ranging debate (and not just online) about what happens next. As we explain in the current WR, the tactic of ‘economic blockades during strike action’ can often conceal the same substitutionist logic as the black bloc actions we saw on 26 March. But to the extent that comrades like Raw are aware that it’s necessary to discuss more widely in preparation for the next phase of the class struggle, and are open to the idea that we cannot simply go through an endless round of repeating the ‘tame procession or widow smashing’ dilemma, a fruitful debate can begin to take place.
Amos 2/4/11

                [1] Slothjabber, a poster on the forum discussed below:
                [2] The same poster also rejected a call to ‘ban the ICC’ by a poster who tends to repeat the same demand with monotonous regularity. It was not clear what we were charged with on this occasion, although there were one or two other attempts to accuse us of echoing the propaganda of the mass media in our criticisms of the black bloc. This attack made no headway precisely because we were expressing sentiments shared by a number of other comrades who are not necessarily close to us politically.

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