The state has prepared the terrain for repression very well. As we said in our articles on the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, the incredible reinforcement of police control and the state of emergency put in place created a situation, on the material as well as ideological levels, in which repression and police provocation can be used more easily, especially in exploiting the phenomenon of ‘casseurs’ (rioters/wreckers) as an important alibi for the police action.
The repressive nature of the bourgeois state
The state and its repressive forces are the product of irreconcilable class contradictions and are the instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed, exclusively at the service of the bourgeoisie. How is ‘order’ maintained? “... in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.” But “This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed people but also of material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds... A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” So, the reality of police violence is neither new, nor an accident of history, nor the product of an imperfect realisation of democracy; it is a clear expression of the profoundly oppressive nature of the state. The ruling class has thus always been extraordinarily brutal faced with any expression that puts its social order in question. The bourgeoisie has attempted to bury each challenge from the proletariat under a deluge of iron and fire. So today the police cosh the working class youth on the same pavements where in 1871 the armies of Versailles drowned the Paris Commune in blood.
From the start of the workers’ movement revolutionary organisations have been confronted not only with state violence but also with the question of the recourse to violence in the ranks of the proletariat. Violent actions in themselves have never been seen as an expression of the political strength of the movement, but have to be seen in a more general context. Even when directed against the forces of order, violent actions can often be no more than individual responses which contain the danger of undermining the unity of the class. This doesn’t mean that the workers’ movement is “pacifist”. It inevitably uses a certain form of violence: the violence of the class struggle against the bourgeois state. But here it is a question of a different, liberating, nature, which is accompanied by a conscious step which has nothing to do with the violence and brutality of ruling classes whose power is maintained by terror and oppression. So, the experience of a proletariat which little by little constituted itself as a distinct organised and conscious class, allowed it to gradually struggle against the immediate temptation of blind violence which was one of the characteristics of the first workers’ riots. For example in the 18th century numerous workers, nearly everywhere in Europe, rose up very violently against the introduction of weaving machines by destroying them. These violent actions, exclusively against the machines, were the product of the lack of experience and organisation in the infancy of the workers’ movement. As Marx emphasised: “It took both time and experience before the workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilises those instruments.”
‘Rioters/wreckers’, a phenomenon encouraged by decomposition
On the other hand, there were a number of political expressions which emerged during the 20th century and which have given in to blind violence in various forms. This was particularly the case after 1968, for example those in Italy inspired by ‘operaist’ ideologies, or in West Germany among the many ‘autonomist’ tendencies. These currents expressed a lack of reflection and orientation about the means needed for a political confrontation with capitalism. In Berlin, for example, since the 1980s, the 1st May has become a time of ritual confrontations between police and all sorts of ‘rioters’ who above all seek confrontation with the police, destroying shops and cars, mistakenly identifying this with the idea of ‘making the revolution’.
Today these ‘autonomist’ forces, which are more and more identified with ‘terrorism’ by the state, express the impotence and the political void left at present by the great weakness of a working class which, if it has been able to emerge from decades of traumatic Stalinist counter-revolution, has not yet succeeded in recognising itself as a social class, in affirming its authentic means of struggle, and thus its communist perspective. Disorientated, totally lacking in confidence in its own strength, the proletariat has not succeeded in recognising its own identity and still less its historic power. So it leaves the field free for all the impatience of an exasperated youth, deprived of political experience, and momentarily lacking any perspective for the future.
This largely explains the relative attraction among some of the young for the methods of the ‘autonomists’ and ‘insurrectionists’, or the success of hazy theories like those of the pamphlet The Coming Insurrection by a certain ‘Invisible Committee’. In it we can read “The offensive aiming to liberate territory from police occupation is already committed, and can count on inexhaustible reserves of resentment that these forces have united against themselves. The ‘social movements’ themselves are little by little won over by the riot”. This kind of discourse, more or less shared by a good number of autonomists regrouped under various changeable banners (black blocs, defenders of ‘autonomous zones’, some antifascists) has pushed them more and more to the front of the social scene. For some years more and more of the young, suffering the social violence of capitalism, of precarity and unemployment, express their anger and exasperation in revolt, sometimes violently. Fed up, subject to police provocations, they are easily led to confront the forces of order during demonstrations. Some of the young are thus exposed to the influences and actions of ‘casseurs’ or of ‘autonomist’ groups who distinguish themselves through sterile actions such as trashing property, breaking shop windows, etc, which can unfortunately fascinate the desperate.
There is no question of drawing a parallel between the violence of the state, through the good offices of the over-equipped police, and that of some demonstrators armed with a few feeble projectiles, as if the first were the ‘legitimate’ consequence of the second. The bourgeois press do this shamelessly. But the problem of this sterile violence, of these brawls with the police, is that the state can used them totally to its advantage. So, the government has wilfully pushed all these ‘casseurs’ and ‘autonomists’ into a trap seeking to ‘demonstrate the facts’ to proletarians as a whole that violence and revolt inevitably lead to chaos. The damage to the Necker Hospital in Paris is a perfect illustration. On 14 June the police charged with unusual violence a demonstration passing by a children’s hospital. Groups of rioters, probably incited by agents provocateurs, ended by breaking some hospital windows, under the impassive gaze of several companies of CRS riot police. That evening, the bourgeois press obviously had a field day, and we were treated to the scandalised declarations of the government which didn’t fail to use the occasion to pit the ‘radicals’ against the sick children. This is how the bourgeoisie polarises attention on the most violent elements on the margins of a whole damaged youth, victims of the bourgeois order, to justify the brutality of police repression. To better present the state and its institutions as the ultimate rampart against those who threaten ‘public order’ and democracy, the media highlight the symbolic destruction carried out by the ‘rioters’. This also has the effect of dividing the demonstrators, of generating distrust within the working class and above all of smothering the least idea of solidarity and of the revolutionary perspective. So, far from shaking the system, these phenomena allow the bourgeoisie to exploit their actions in order to discredit all forms of struggle against the state, but above all to better deform the revolutionary perspective. The manifestations of violence at present are both the reflection of a weakness of the class struggle and the product of social decomposition, of a general atmosphere which gives free rein to behaviour typical of social layers who have no future, who are incapable of opposing the barbarity of capitalism with another perspective, apart from blind and nihilistic rage. Other actions by rebellious minorities (such as the Molotov cocktail attack, on 18 May, against two police officers in their car, on the margins of a rally), which are clearly products of a spirit of revenge, are also exploited to the hilt by the state and its press in order to denounce ‘anti-police hatred’.
Throughout the existence of the workers’ movement it has been shown that the construction of a real balance of forces with its class enemy takes a completely different road and uses radically different methods. To take only a few examples: during the summer of 1980 in Poland, faced with the threat of repression, the workers immediately mobilised massively across sectors in the towns of Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot, making the government pull back. When the state threatened to intervene militarily to suppress them, the workers of Lubin, in solidarity, threatened in their turn to paralyse transport, the railways which connected the Russian barracks in the GDR to the Soviet Union. The Polish state ended by retreating. Faced with the past repression in 1970 and 1976, the workers’ response was not based on revenge, but on memory and solidarity. More recently in France, in a different context, at the time of the struggle against the CPE in 2006, the proletarianised youth of the universities took control of their struggles by organising general assemblies open to all to extend their movement. The Villepin government, fearing the extension, had to retreat. In 2011, at the time of the Indignados movement in Spain, the people were regrouped in assemblies in the street to discuss, to exchange experience and so to forge a common will to struggle. The Spanish bourgeoisie attempted to break this dynamic by provoking confrontations with the police and by unleashing media campaigns on the ‘rioters’. But the strength and confidence accumulated in the open assemblies allowed the proletariat to respond with massive demonstrations, particularly in Barcelona where thousands of people were able to resist police attacks courageously, several times.
So, it is not violence in itself, the spirit of revenge, isolated and minority action, which creates the power of a movement faced with the capitalist state, but on the contrary a dynamic of conscious action with the perspective of overturning and destroying it.
The strength of our class resides precisely in its capacity to oppose police provocation massively and consciously.
The rotting of capitalism on its feet generates a tendency to the fragmentation of the social tissue and devalues all effort at coherent thought and reflection, pushing towards ‘action for its own sake’ and to simple and immediate solutions, fed by an accumulation of dissatisfaction and resentment, a spirit of revenge, encouraging the upsurge of tiny groups which are the prey of choice for police provocation and manipulation. The most violent elements often come from decomposing petty bourgeois layers or from a declassed intelligentsia in revolt against the barbarity of the capitalist system. Their actions, marked by individualism, blinded by hate and impatience, are the expressions of immediate impulses, often without any real aim. So we find the same nihilist roots which push other young people to set out on jihad.
The bourgeoisie also uses the violence and destruction that accompany many demonstrations to push workers back towards the unions which, despite the distrust towards them, appear as the only force able to ‘organise and lead the struggle’. Such a situation can only further weaken consciousness by rebranding the main saboteurs of the struggle.
What is a revolutionary perspective?
An authentic working class movement has nothing to do with the false alternative between containment by the official unions and ‘riotous’ actions which can only lead those who truly want to struggle, especially the youth in the demonstrations, towards the political void and repression. By contrast, what characterises a real workers’ struggle is solidarity, the search for unity in struggle, the will to fight against capitalist exploitation as massively as possible. The essence of this combat is the unification of struggles, uniting all, unemployed, employed, young, old, retired, etc. And when the working class is able to mobilise on such a scale, it is capable of rallying all the other strata of this society that are victims of the suffering caused by this system. It is this mobilisation in large numbers, really taken control of by the workers themselves, which alone has the capacity to push back the state and the bourgeoisie. This is why the working class does not seek the badge of violence to create a balance of force against the ruling class, but bases itself first of all on its numbers and its unity. The proletarian struggle has nothing to do with the skirmishes filmed by journalists. Far from the instrumentalisation of violence that we see today, the historic and international combat of the working class rests on conscious and massive action. It consists of a vast project whose cultural and moral dimension contains in embryo the emancipation of humanity as a whole. As an exploited class the proletariat has no privileges to defend and only its chains to lose. For this reason the programme of the Spartacist League, written by Rosa Luxemburg, says in point 3 that: “the proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions...” The workers’ struggle, with its spirit of association and solidarity, anticipates the real human community of the future. Its way of organising is not that of a general staff which directs from the summit to the base but takes the form of a conscious, collective resistance that gives birth to innumerable creative initiatives: “The mass strike … flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving changing sea of phenomena.” This living, liberating momentum is expressed in the mass strike, then in the formation of the workers’ councils before leading to the insurrection and the world-wide taking of power by the proletariat. For the moment this perspective is not within reach for the proletariat which is much too weak. Although it is not defeated, it does not have sufficient strength to affirm itself and first of all needs to become conscious of itself, to reconnect with its own experience and history. The revolution is not immediate and inevitable. A long and difficult road, littered with pitfalls, still remains to be travelled. A veritable and profound upheaval of thought has to happen before it is possible to imagine the affirmation of a revolutionary perspective. EG/WH, 26/6/16
. Lenin, State and Revolution, including quotation from Engels Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Foreign Languages Press, Peking
. Marx, Capital vol.1, chapter 15, part 5, Pelican Marx Library. Our emphasis.
. Operaism is a ‘workerist’ current which appeared in 1961 around the magazine Quaderni Rossi, Mario Tronti and Toni Negri being its principle theoreticians. In 1969 the operaist current divided into two rival organisations: Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua. After 1972 the operaists have been involved in the autonomous movement extolling riots and violent, so-called ‘exemplary’, actions.
. This pamphlet has sold more than 40,000 copies in French.
. For example, this was the case for police unmasked in Spain by demonstrators themselves during the Indignados movement in 2011. In France, the infiltration of demonstrations by the police of the BAC (Anti-Criminal Brigades), who have the job of inciting the crowds, is well known.
. Among the workers’ demands was a monument to commemorate their dead, the victims of the bloody repression of the earlier movements in 1970-71 and in 1976.
. Like the slogans and chants “we hate the police” or “all coppers are bastards”.
. Rosa Luxemburg, Selected political writings, Monthly Review Press.
. Rosa Luxemburg, The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions, chapter 4, Merlin Press. Our emphasis.