If we know who the enemy is, and how to recognise an enemy when we see one, who are our friends?
This question has been inadvertently raised by a couple of people on the Web lately, and while both are people who should be viewed with a degree of suspicion, both are experienced people whose mistakes show how even people who know better can be fooled into misguided decisions thanks to their own prejudices.
A classic recent example is Chris Hedges, who is a mildly liberal weblogger and Net journalist in the United States who sometimes writes things which read almost radical. (But not often.) Hedges has issued the first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of anarchist hoodies. His complaint is that this group — the “black bloc” of anarchists wearing balaclavas and vaguely Goth outfits — is discrediting the Occupy movement. With the tact and restraint so characteristic of Internet journalism, Hedges calls them the “cancer of the Occupy movement”.
The “black bloc” is a small clique of ninnies playing at revolution under the auspices of an even smaller clique of anarchist nincompoops imagining that by getting their followers to join in the Occupy movement and behave like arseholes, they will somehow take charge of the movement. They are wrong, and if they were right, the Occupy movement would collapse even faster than it is collapsing. There is thus very little positive to be said about the “black bloc”.
Do they really pose a threat to Occupy? They say not — naturally. Hedges claims that they make it easy for the police to deploy agents provocateurs in black. Their response, quite accurate, is that the police have no need of a black bloc to attain this end. Hedges also claims that the minor damage to property which the “black bloc” sometimes conduct discredits Occupy; that their support is weakened by the fact that some people associated with the movement are breaking windows and overturning garbage cans.
If this is the case, then the support for Occupy is rather insignificant. After all, nobody said that the regrettable lack of respect for property rights displayed by the Sandinistas in 1979 was grounds for supporting President-for-life Somoza instead; everybody just went ahead and backed the rebels, overturned garbage cans, broken windows and all. Why shouldn’t Occupy continue gaining support in spite of any apparent misbehaviour which is in any case only a question of ill-discipline, and a trivial sequence of episodes in comparison with the goal of overturning society and breaking the control of the financial services industry over the national democratic government?
The answer seems to be that Occupy is terrified of losing what little support it possesses. Therefore it is reluctant to take coherent stands which require any ideological analysis, and it is reluctant to set up a clear internal structure including a leadership structure. In a sense this is wise, since structure can easily be seized control of and leaders can be banned, jailed or murdered. However, it means that all that Occupy can do to win support is to establish a presence in an area on the basis of hostility to injustice, and then wait for sympathisers to show up. Therefore it cannot afford to repudiate those sympathisers. However, obviously the sympathisers will necessarily be people who already support Occupy, or the goals which Occupy is endorsing. These sympathisers are likely to be organisationally involved already and therefore their support for Occupy will be necessarily tinged with opportunism; we want a piece of this bandwagon. In the case of anarchists, Maoists and Trotskyists, that opportunism amounts to about 101%.
So Hedges’ complaint is twofold; his complaint that the “black bloc” are doing things which allegedly discredit Occupy amounts, really, to a complaint that they are not in any way under Occupy’s authority — which would be a valid complaint if Occupy had any authority. And his complaint also amounts to the complaint that Occupy lacks discipline, structure and coherence — which is true, but is not the fault of the “black bloc”, who have never claimed to have any intrinsic approval for Occupy. In short, Hedges’ protests are valid only if directed not at the anarchists but at Occupy itself. Which means that Hedges and “black bloc” are both enemies of Occupy; in fact, Occupy is its own enemy. Which, in turn, means that one ought to be very careful about whom one allows into an organisation, and that simply proclaiming an organisation’s automatic support from 99% of the population means, in effect, opening the door to fools, charlatans and enemies.
And that leads us to another player on the Net, the majestic “Unrepentant Marxist” (what is there to repent of in Marxism?), Louis Proyect the renegade ex-Socialist Workers Party activist and, more recently, cheerleader for NATO intervention in Libya. (Lots of left-wingers supported NATO’s aggression there; all made fools of themselves and betrayed their causes, but this in itself is not a reason to be more than suspicious of their good sense.) Proyect has discovered that a lot of people are being very suspicious of the “Arab Spring” and the machinations of the self-styled liberal opposition to Putin in Russia.
Some of the people who are suspicious are the Egyptian military intelligence and the Russian Federal Security Service, who have been monitoring and sometimes rounding up Western imperialist agents in their countries working for alleged “democracy promotion” organisations. These organisations have been working closely with some of the Egyptian and Russian anti-government activists. Therefore, some people have been saying that this serves to discredit the Egyptian and Russian anti-government activists, for since they are working with Western imperialist agents, they are becoming imperialist agents themselves, or worse still, agents, or hired tools, or dupes, of such agents.
This, says Proyect, is unfair. These people, says Proyect, are crass conspiracy theorists. Just because one is working with imperialist agents doesn’t make one an imperialist agent. Nor, indeed, is it right to act against imperialist agents. If you cut imperialist agents, do they not bleed? Grant them their human rights, set them free, says Proyect, they are harmless.
No, they aren’t.
Proyect’s problem is, in essence, that he still wants to believe in the “Arab Spring”, and he hates the Putin administration in Russia because it is essentially conservative, authoritarian and nationalist. Therefore he is happy to see Western imperialist agents pouring funds and advisors into Arab and Russian opposition movements. That, obviously, could have the effect of strengthening those movements. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is that Western imperialist agents are not offering money for nothing, and they are not offering neutral advice. What the West badly wants is to overthrow Putin and replace him with a Yeltsin clone, and if they can do this behind a screen of liberals or even Trotskyites, they will happily do so. What the West badly wants is to secure docile governments in Arab countries which will do the West’s bidding, and therefore they wish to ensure control of any political force likely to become significant.
If you accept money for your activism, you become dependent upon money for activism. This has hollowed out the spirit of voluntarism in South Africa, where virtually all NGOs are now entirely dependent on funding — and the bulk of that funding goes on salaries for the “activists”. Therefore, the “activists” do what they are told, and if the funding is cut off for any reason, as is currently happening with the AIDS treatment organisations now that there is no longer a political need for them (Big Pharma having got everything it wants) then the organisations will wither on the vine. This is more or less what is going to happen in Russia and Egypt — has, probably, already happened. It doesn’t mean that there is no groundswell of hostility to the Egyptian military dictatorship, or (less coherently) to the dubious political machinations of Medvedev and Putin (though it is probable that these machinations still command majority support, despite the hostility of the West and much of the media).
But there is no point in having a groundswell of support if the leaders exploiting that groundswell are bought by foreigners, and this is where Proyect is wrong. Like the “black bloc”, he wants the appearance of a revolution — demonstrations, slogans, preferably blood in the streets — but he doesn’t want the actuality of a revolution — ideas, projects, revolutionary leadership committed to a programme of radical change. This is because such a leadership would not benefit the kind of politicians whom Proyect likes or the “black bloc” represents; such a leadership would have its own ideas about what should happen next.
What this plainly shows is that the problem is not the “black bloc” or any other kind of opportunism. Nor is the problem the agents of global imperialism, or any other force seeking to use capitalism to undermine democracy (which is the standard operational proceedings, after all). The problem, instead, is with trying to run a revolution without a structure, without discipline, without an ideology, and without effective leadership.
If Occupy were a real organisation, then the “black bloc” would be either in or out, according to the organisations principles, and if it were in, it would misbehave only insofar as Occupy permitted it to. If it stepped out of bounds, it would be out, and there would be no need to call it a “cancer” or any other collection if silly names. If the Russian or Egyptian protesters were real revolutionaries, they would be appalled at the very idea of taking money from Western imperialists, let alone listening to the technical advice of Western imperialist agents, because essentially all of the problems in Russia and Egypt have arisen out of Western imperialist domination of the governments — under Yeltsin in Russia, and since Nasser’s death in Egypt. Only a revolutionary completely ignorant of history and politics could possibly take a different line.
In other words, what is happening in those countries is not revolutionary at all. It is, in all cases, a mass public upsurge of resistance against misgovernment. However, that mass public upsurge has no real leadership. As a result, the upsurge either leaks away in chaos and disorder, or it is appropriated by fake leaders hired by the same forces responsible for the misgovernment in the first place. (Whether these are the Western imperialists themselves, or the nominal agents of Western imperialism such as the military juntas or political circuses in the Arab world and Eastern Europe, is almost neither here nor there.) What we have to acknowledge is that the problem is an absence of agency on the part of political radicalism — the symptom of which is ludicrous claptrap like the writings of Hardt and Negri (who believe that you don’t need political leadership, and who are enthusiastically cited by many Occupy partisans and supporters of the “Arab Spring”). The reality is that political radicals have lost faith in political radicalism precisely when such radicalism is needed, and therefore are no longer fighting for it.
But who are we, and how will we fight?