To start off with, a brief look at the big picture: on the whole, we’re losing. There’s nothing new or unusual about this – after all, the history of all existing society is the history of our failure to get rid of hierarchy, oppression and exploitation. Right now, open social struggle is almost non-existent in the UK, and across the world, where open conflict is taking place, it’s almost always between rival elite groups, not a struggle against all elites and for a world of freedom and solidarity. The horrific massacre in Syria is just the latest example of the kind of atrocities that rulers and their followers will continue to inflict on us for as long as states exist. But while our defeats may be constant, they’re never total: along with other under-reported struggles like those of Bangladeshi garment workers, the student revolt in Quebec continues to provide an inspirational example of what is possible. Just as the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak caused sleepless nights for dictators across the Arab world, so the explosion of rage in Quebec must be haunting the nightmares of all the liberal democratic administrators of austerity.
When mass movements adopt principles of rank-and-file control and direct action, it scares our rulers, and so it’s safe to say that our enemies will be working on ways to try and stop similar movements emerging anywhere else. A key part of that has to be isolating and repressing those elements, such as anarchists, who attempt to intensify and push forward the most radical and disruptive aspects of social movements. The US state has chosen its strategy for dealing with anarchists: we’re to be attacked as terrorists and branded as suitable targets for the War on Terror. Of course, there are other, equally important aspects to this strategy, such as co-opting “moderates” and “realists” to support the most left-wing elements of the acceptable political spectrum, but the identification of anarchism with terrorism is definitely a tactic the American state is investing in. Homeland Security Today’s ludicrous attempt to blame anarchists for starting World War I functioned as a warning shot in this regard; the FBI’s manufactured bomb plot in Cleveland was a sign that things were getting serious. The FBI like inventing terrorist plots, and they’re good at it; since the FBI plot in Cleveland seemed to go pretty well for them, it makes sense to assume they’re going to carry on creating similar “conspiracies”. In short, the American state wants anarchists to start making bombs. This isn’t a wild conspiracy theory of the type promoted by people who see undercover cops behind every black mask; it seems to me to be the only reasonable conclusion it’s possible to draw from the FBI going round offering explosives to anarchists. The Strategy of Tension pursued in Italy is a grim example of how far the state is willing to go when fabricating terror plots to use against us. When the FBI and similar organisations try to smear us with made-up plots, we need to stand in solidarity with those individuals who are vulnerable enough to be manipulated by undercovers, while placing the blame for such plots where it belongs: on the security services who have to invent monsters in order to justify their own existence.
This is the context in which we have to see the recent war of words between the Anarchist Federation and supporters of armed struggle*. No matter how sincere the Informal Anarchist Federation and similar groups may be, when they pick up the gun or the bomb, they’re adopting the tactics that the state wants us to use. I don’t see other anarchists who use different tactics as our enemy, although I can see how people injured by letterbombs, or cut off from seeing friends, family and lovers by arson on the trainlines, might disagree; but when people choose tactics that play into the hands of the state, we owe it to them to be honest about it. And we also need to stand in solidarity with other anarchists suffering the consequences of the IAF’s actions – knowing what we do about the sensitivity, humanity and intelligence of the state and media, how reasonable is it to expect them to differentiate between the Federazione Anarchica Informale and Federazione Anarchica Italiana, or between Bristol Informal Anarchist Federation and Bristol Anarchist Federation?
To reject armed struggle and these kind of small-group actions is in no way to reject militancy and attack: the student movement in Quebec, recent struggles on the West Coast of the US, and the last general strike in Barcelona have all inflicted dramatic damage on property and blocked the flow of capital, but they have little in common with the kind of isolated attacks carried out by the IAF and similar groups. By all means, let’s go on the attack, but let’s attack using anarchist methods and tactics, not those promoted by the state. If we’re to see more movements like the Quebec student strike, we need to get on with spreading anarchist ideas by working with and talking to people who don’t already think like us, not retreat into closed-off conspiracies.
* these people are often described as “insurrectionists”; I’ve avoided doing this, because I don’t think it’s useful to throw the names of approaches to anarchism around like political swearwords. I don’t claim to be an expert on insurrectionism, but I’m fairly sure that not every insurrectionist supports small-group armed struggle any more than every platformist supports nationalism or every syndicalist glorifies work and wants us all to go back to self-managed call centres and nuclear power plants after the revolution**. In my opinion, something along the lines of “vanguardist anarchism” would be a much better description for the likes of the Informal Anarchist Federation and Conspiracy of Cells of Fire.
** actually, I’m not sure that any anarcho-syndicalist goes in for that nonsense, but it seems to be a fairly common slur.