Since the media storm over March 26th hasn’t quite died down yet – my new favourite piece of journalism is the Evening Standard’s stunning revelation that anarchists sometimes take their masks off and wear normal clothes – I thought it was worth saying a little more about the widespread condemnation of the “violent majority”, and particularly about the fact that you can only have a conversation with someone who’s prepared to listen to you. That might sound obvious, but I think it’s been ignored in much of the discussion that’s happened over the last few days.
The criticism of the black bloc tactics that were used on Saturday can be put into several distinct categories. First of all, there’s the idea that a peaceful march might have had some impact on government policy if it hadn’t been undermined by the violence. As Vince Cable himself has been polite enough to explain, that is nonsense: “No government – coalition, Labour or any other – would change its fundamental economic policy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind.”
Following on from this, but making a slightly stronger case, some critics of the black bloc have acknowledged that peaceful protest on its own won’t change anything, but said that the violence on Saturday will have scared off working-class people who’d otherwise be attracted to the movement. There are numerous problems with this. Not least the fact that everyone – pretty much everyone, from the cops to the Tories right through to the TUC themselves – has been at pains to stress the difference between the main march and the violence that took place outside, as part of an attempt to paint anarchists as mindless thugs with no real political grievances. Granted, I’m sure some people will ignore all that and continue to hold the entire anti-cuts movement responsible for the violence. But anyone who completely ignores what the movement’s leadership says was never likely to actively become involved in the movement, so I don’t think anyone’s actively been alienated from the movement on that count. It’s also the case that this argument rests on two very problematic assumptions, that ordinary working-class people are attracted to peaceful protests and put off by violence. The first one is easily disproved: how many people do you know, other than people you met through activism, who went on the march? Obviously, where you work will have a big impact on this, so public sector workers and students will probably know quite a few whereas private sector workers may not know any (benefit claimants and pensioners are a different story again). But even for students and workers in the best-unionised parts of the public sector, I imagine it’ll be possible to think of a lot of your co-workers or fellow students who didn’t go. Clearly, there’s a large number of people who just aren’t that interested in the style of demonstration offered by the TUC. On the other hand, when considering all these claims about how violence alienates public support, it’s worth thinking about all the people who get in fights when they go out drinking, or watch boxing matches, or horror films, or action films, or listen to 50 Cent, or play violent computer games. There are an awful lot of people out there who, at least on some level, find violence attractive. That isn’t to say that they’ll form their political opinions based on their interest in violence, and nor should they; it’s just to say that they’re as likely to sympathise with violence as they are to be put off by it.
Finally, there’s the criticism that’s come from within the anarchist movement itself, from people who share our goals but believe the property destruction was an own goal that’s made us more unpopular within the movement, and so we should have concentrated our efforts on attempting to communicate with other people on the march. I have some sympathy with this line of argument. Clearly, trying to get our ideas across is vital, and it’s not as if we made no attempt to do this: I personally saw Anarchist Federation comrades out on the day giving material away, and I know people from the Solidarity Federation were doing the same. But I think to argue that we shouldn’t have broken off to engage in disruptive action, and everyone should’ve just concentrated on trying to give our propaganda out instead of doing anything that might upset people, is a fundamentally mistaken position. It’s worth thinking about the responses that those comrades giving anarchist material out will have got (I wasn’t doing this myself on the day, but I’ve given out anarchist leaflets at enough lefty demos to be able to generalise here): most people offered something will have ignored it, either out of hostility to anarchists or just because they didn’t want to be weighed down with any more bits of paper. Of the minority that took something, some proportion will have stuck it in their pocket, forgot about it, and eventually thrown it away; others will have read it and thought it was rubbish; others still, mostly those who’re already close to our politics, will have read it and agreed with it; and a tiny minority of those will have read it and agreed with it will have become more sympathetic to the idea of becoming involved in anarchist politics as a result.
Now, let’s think about what would’ve happened if the violence hadn’t taken place. Maybe a few more people would have been willing to give our ideas a sympathetic hearing, but not many. Almost all the people who are now angry at us were not willing to listen to us before the violence happened, so nothing has really changed in that respect. And, in exchange for the price of annoying people who weren’t prepared to listen to us in the first place, hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people, had an exciting and empowering experience that left them feeling more confident about their ability to change the world, and all those people who don’t like what the government’s doing, but don’t want to line up behind the TUC leadership and Ed Miliband, got the message that the anarchist movement is a visible, viable and vibrant alternative. The two largest class-struggle anarchist organisations got free publicity in the mass media, from the Independent to Stroud News and Journal, reaching far more people than we usually can. It’s impossible to say how many people may take an interest in our ideas as a result of that.
I think it’s important to try and communicate our ideas, but we shouldn’t have any illusions about the fact that, a lot of the time, it’s just not possible for this to happen. The ruling ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class, so, most of the time, most people will not be sympathetic to anarchist ideas. Of course, this differs from situation to situation, so more people in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are willing to take part in radical action than in most other countries, more people in Wisconsin are prepared to fight for workers’ rights than in the rest of the USA, and in Britain it’s suddenly become possible to put together what might be the biggest black bloc we’ve ever seen, but these situations are exceptional ones.
If you ask most people what they think of anarchists, they’ll probably tell you that we’re a bunch of violent nutters – but if you asked them the same thing last week, they’d have given you the same reply, so there’s no change there. Outside of a revolutionary situation, revolutionary groups will be minority ones, not mass organisations. Recognising this should never stop us trying to build the biggest, best, most effective minority organisations that we can, it just means we shouldn’t try and chase after a fluffy populist image that we’ll never be able to pull off anyway.