After Strasbourg: On dealing with violence in one's own ranks
more violence, the less revolution,” Bart
de Ligt wrote in The Conquest of
1936. If we accept this, then there
was very little revolution in Strasbourg, despite all the romantic
revolutionary rhetoric from certain groupings. I put this first in
order to make it clear that this is a critique from a revolutionary
perspective, and not a criticism of violence from a Green or
Left-Party state-reformist point of view which accepts the state's
monopoly on the use of force.
grass-roots revolutionaries, as nonviolent anarchists, we must also
deal with violence from the ranks of social movements, for this
violence is counterproductive from our perspective on revolution.
is clear that there was a great deal of unprovoked violence on the
part of the police in Strasbourg: for example, tear gas was used
against peaceful demonstrators without any prior warning, including
at some of the blockades by Block NATO. It is also clear that there
were numerous agents provocateurs in action. There were at least two
independent observations of people disguised as “black bloc”
types sitting in police vans. And it is also clear that there are
still numerous open questions regarding the burning down of the Ibis
Hotel and other buildings. But despite all this it is undeniable that
in Strasbourg, there was a problem of violence on the part of the
movement, a problem which the movement has to deal with
constructively. And this applies not just to April 4th.
Problematic forms of action and interaction in the camp
“NATO-ZU” – a coalition of nonviolent groups with the goal of
blockading the NATO summit nonviolently, which War Resisters'
International helped to initiate (see Graswurzelrevolution
nos. 336 and 337) – we had our base in the camp on the Rue de la
Ganzau in the south of Strasbourg. The camp itself had been organized
by a coalition of German and French groups, with the objective of
providing a common infrastructure for actions during the NATO
Which was fine, as far as this goes.
problematic were some of the actions that started from the camp, and
how the consequences of these actions were dealt with in the camp.
On Thursday, 2 April, there was an anti-repression demo starting from
the camp. In the course of this demonstration, not only were many
windows in a French barracks smashed (an action which it could be
argued was justifiable, although I doubt that it made any tactical
sense at that time and in that form), but also bus stops and other
public facilities and garbage containers were destroyed or set on
fire at random.2
As a result of the demonstration, the police pursued some
demonstrators up to the vicinity of the camp, which caused some
people to fear an impending attack by the police on the camp.
Barricades were erected, and there were confrontations with the
police, with tear gas being used, at the northeastern exit of the
camp. In this case, NATO-ZU, together with the International
Coordinating Committee “No to NATO”, made efforts at
de-escalation – NATO-ZU inside the camp, and the Coordinating
Committee intervened with the police.
On Friday, 3
April, a confrontation with the police occurred on the Rue de la
Ganzau, after a group of the Clowns Army had been detained by the
police for a lengthy period to check their identities. Barricades
were erected on the Rue de la Ganzau, and the first barricade was set
on fire. Attempts by individual Clowns, by NATO-ZU, and by others to
get the people to return to the camp failed. In this case, there was
no further escalation, since the police had no interest in one.
A problem in
both cases was that a few people more-or-less imposed a militant
“defence” of the camp on the camp participants. Apart from the
basic question of the use of force, a discussion about whether this
militance at this time and place made sense tactically was not
possible in effect. But just as problematic was that a large part of
the camp did not seem to care, and people continued eating calmly
while the situation around the camp was escalating. Only a few took
responsibility for what was happening in and around the camp. While
only a few joined in the escalation themselves, it was often
supported by the presence of others, who in effect provided silent
successful nonviolent blockade by NATO-ZU, we were not able to reach
the demonstration. We were stopped by the police at the Pont
d'Anvers, the bridge linking the city to the port district. So I do
not have first-hand reports on the demonstration itself.
wishing to downplay the massive and often unprovoked attacks by the
French police (the police strategy was clearly a strategy of
escalation), it is clear that there were also massive attacks on the
police and considerable destruction at or in the vicinity of the
demonstration. The burnt-out Ibis Hotel is only the most visible
symbol of a violence that in part also randomly destroyed things that
were of importance to the local residents of a district that is
underprivileged anyway: a pharmacy, bus stops, etc.
of whether agents provocateurs were involved here, too, this
confronts us with numerous questions.
Violence as a result of “structural violence”?
commonly suggested for the use of violence is that “structural
violence” in our society more-or-less compels violence. It is
certainly true that violence often represents an impotent response to
structural violence in our society. Violence in underprivileged
districts of our cities is only one example of this. The police
response to this violence produced by social problems is part of the
problem, and only leads to an escalation of violence which can then
erupt on other occasions, as well. As the crisis of capitalism
intensifies, this problem will tend to get worse in the future –
including at demonstrations.
connection with the events in Strasbourg, I see three related and
mutually reinforcing sets of problems:
strategy of “autonomous” groups which relies on anonymity and on
militant confrontations. In the process, other activists are used,
unasked and against their will, as a mass offering cover and
violence in impoverished French suburbs, which can become mixed with
actions by “autonomous” groups, but contains little in the way
of political objectives or tactics;
of agents provocateurs by the organs of the state, made easier by
the anonymity and the mishmash described above.
of who exactly was responsible for what, this forces social movements
– in the case of Strasbourg the anti-war and peace movement –
into a militant confrontation with the police, a confrontation which
they can only lose. And I am not concerned here with what Wolfgang
Kraushaar has called the “militance trap”3,
but with a more fundamental dispute about violence.
Against the logic of revolutionary violence
“We flatly deny that revolutionary acts of
violence have any moral, socialist dignity. Violence, which is always
an attack on people, is in absolute contradiction to the spirit of
the socialist ideal. . (...) Nor is there any justification for
violence in that it is employed in the name of the interests and
sufferings of the majority of working and oppressed humanity.”4
This statement by the Russian Social Revolutionary Isaak Steinberg is
relevant to the debate after Strasbourg, too.
evaluation of political actions and the means employed must develop
its standards from the objective not only of the individual specific
action, but of the political utopia involved –
if there is one. Anything else leads to an arbitrary choice of means,
to the empty phrase “The end justifies the means”, with which
every form of cruelty has been justified by all sides throughout
quote Isaak Steinberg again: “And the
guardians of the goals, the temporary rulers of human history, have
always though, often honestly, and repeated to themselves or others:
end justifies the means!’(...)
if the ‘technical’
point of view is based on this formula, the ‘moral’
point of view must possess another formula. I think that it can be
grasped and specified without difficulty. It would be: It is not the
end that justifies the means, but rather the end is justified by the
means. Not everything is permissible, this formula says. It is not
enough to determine the goal, to intellectualize and embellish it; it
will remain empty words if the path leading to it is not deeply and
intimately related to it. The goal is a master plan which is drafted
by the creative human spirit, a far-off silhouette on the
intellectual horizon, a wide vessel enclosing much, that awaits its
creative fulfillment. The ‘means’
are the selected, sensitive hands related to the ends, which erect
the building according to this plan, bring the true silhouette to
life, fill the dark vessel to the brim. Only by selected and kindred
means can the ideal outline of the goal be clothed in the flesh and
blood of the idealistic deed and the embodied ideal. ‘The
end justifies the means’
means: the implementation of the external framework of the task is
possible by unscrupulous selection of the ways. ‘The
end is justified by the means’
means: only by strict selection of the ways can the internal meaning
of the task be implemented.”
“we ... [are] far from making
non-violence another dogma” (Clara
Wichmann), we must not simply cover up differences of opinion in the
leftist and revolutionary movement, and by avoiding the discussion of
violence wind up advocating a position of “everything is possible”.
The “tolerance of forms of action” has its limits, too, and these
are not reached only where people's lives are threatened, but also
where the militance of a few pushes the entire movement into a
militant confrontation that is wrong in my view.
is to be hoped that the events of Strasbourg will lead to some
reflection about forms of action and organization among the
“autonomous” activists, as well. For me, there are clear
preconditions for any future cooperation, even though I can already
hear the charge of being a splitter. And to the charge of being a
splitter, I respond that in fact, it is those who are forcing
people and groups out of the movement by disregarding their forms and
limits of action who are the dividers. After that Saturday, many
participants in nonviolent actions had the feeling, that they would
rather organize themselves in their own camp –
and this is not splitting, but a consequence of the escalation around
the camp in the Rue de la Ganzau.
envisage the following conditions for future cooperation:
from the ranks of the autonomous groups about the events in
agreements on any possible joint camp, and on handling escalations
and the police, and the willingness to enforce these agreements,
even against groups and individuals who were not party to the
agreements not to make use of demonstrations for a confrontation
with the police.
This list is
definitely not complete.
regardless of this, the organizers of mass demonstrations are faced
with the question of how escalation can be avoided in future. It is
clear that this cannot be by collaboration with the police, or by
their own “security service”. But the problem that is inherent to
demonstrations is that, as an unorganized mass, they are usually not
able to act. So perhaps one should think about trained affinity
groups which could intervene rapidly to de-escalate, without
excluding people, much less handing them over to the police.
questions remain open about future inclusive work in social movements
for me after Strasbourg. I think that many of the problems that
occurred in Strasbourg will tend to intensify in the future. A
constructive debate about this is urgently needed.
would like to express my thanks to the organizers of the camp for
their work. Without you, our nonviolent actions would not have been
to local residents, local youths, who did not come from the camp,
also took part in these actions.
Isaak Steinberg: Gewalt
und Terror in der Revolution.