Last Edited March 14th 2013, 5:45 pm: Cleaned up some ideas on Lenin’s soviet revolution; Gramsci’s War of Position. Nothing that changes the structure/weight of the argument, but corrected some errors that were made by my incomplete study of both figures.
In an interview with the Irish Left Review this past December, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical-left Synapismos party in Greece, credited mass sympathy for the left as a product of a particular tactic.♦ He described the response of the left to the debt crisis as originating in two distinct places: a square below and a square above. Physically, these squares were two equal strategic meeting points within Athens. Philosophically, they represented two divergent notions of resistance:
“The square below was always more politicised,” wrote Tsipras, “with themed assemblies, with different talks. Many young people took part. They practised direct democracy. But the important thing is that these demonstrations were completely peaceful with great mass participation, with very many people taking part.”¹
In contrast, the square above was “less participative”; it focused on the destruction of physical bourgeois instruments of finance – burning banks, smashing windows, wrecking cash machines – to engage the symbolism of resistance. As these two squares operated simultaneously, responses sounded. Media reported only the destruction, only physical violence. Of course it would be wrong to blame the Above faction for monopolizing protest coverage – that is the prerogative of modern media, which competes for viewers with the most shocking, most violent, least-contextualized content. Nevertheless, there were strategic implications for Above actions.
“Burnt out banks and burnt out small properties did not produce political results. It is very simple: where you had fires, big business could find some small business owner to cry.” Simply, “Wrecking strengthened the system.”²
Not all mass-movements of resistance are peaceful or non-violent. The on-going Arab revolts have been incredibly destructive; death has followed peaceful marches in strict parallel. But in global north countries who tend toward active democracy (i.e. those countries whose elections are not widely understood to be fraudulent), violent protest is often met with an outpouring of support for owners of private property; Above tactics are met with sympathy for crying business owners. To what end should a protest action take responsibility for the commentary that follows it?
This, of course, is a question of tactics, not theory. In the world-perfect, destructive action would produce an inspiring result. The symbolism of breaking a tool of capital, of smashing the windowed-modes of production that enslave the tertiary-based proletariate class, would resonate with the public. These actions whose main proponents are likely (still) the Black Bloc, are meant to question the overwhelming presence of capital in daily life. Proponents of Diversity of Tactics – the idea that protest actions should originate within an individual’s own sense of criticism – who do not take issue with black bloc tactics, might claim that the minimal violence against inanimate property is but a whispered reply to the violence done against working people’s bodies and spirits every day. They might suggest that the police cars engulfed in flames are beacons of opposition for the productive class, motivating an internal dialectic in the individual worker. These maneuvers may in fact be quite theoretically apt, in the world-perfect. But if our protest is to be broad, which must be if it is to be legitimate and successful, we must think critically about the starting point of the working mass. Can inspiration be derived from violence if the violence has not been made recognizably different from sports riots?
In his first prison notebook, Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci characterizes three modes of military warfare as such: a war of Movement, a war of Position, and a war of Underground Action. All three modes have various applications: Movement implies attacking an enemy along a broad front, Position is a capture-fight from a strategic vantage, and Underground Action is secretive stockpiling of techniques and technologies to be unleashed in well-calculated moments.³ Historically, war has pivoted along these points depending on the scale of the conflict and the necessities of battle. Wars of colonization have employed Movement and Position, resistance has used Position and Underground Action. These terms are general and therefore mouldable to even the most minute campaign for power. But within these modes of war, there are also certain barriers to operation. Pure Movement requires a standing infantry of great size to be effective; to sweep a territory and clear it. Position less so in the immediate, but definitely in the long run. Position is a tactical project that flounders without support and backup from a mass. A space can be occupied with effect only for a certain period. Underground Action presupposes a large enough network of subterranean links in order to accommodate the hidden buildup and deployment of technology. More flexible in form than Movement or Position, it nonetheless demands an underpinning of some mass. All forms therefore must utilize a large-scale infantry, official or unofficial, in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.
Gramsci developed the idea of a War of Position as a strategic model for communists in advanced capitalist societies. The essence of his argument is that societies that function with a capitalist base of producing life must develop well-positioned counter-institutions to the existing structures that reinforce elite ideology; schools, cultural centres, media, political parties need to be encouraged by a cadre of ‘organic intellectuals’ who emerge from within diverse subaltern (productive or marginal) classes, thus incorporating the idea of underground action to tactics of position. These ‘organic intellectuals’ may be linked to what Gramsci referred to (albeit several years earlier and ambiguously connected) as the arditi, or rather arditismo militarism. Historically, the arditi were specialized Italian volunteer forces formed by Colonel Giuseppe Bassi in the summer of 1917 for use against the Austro-Hungarians. Their purpose was similar to that of the German Sturmtruppen of the Second World War, which was quick tactical assault to obtain preliminary Position and influence in a zone of combat. The way Gramsci used the concept was as a descriptor for capitalist political tactics. Gramsci articulates the bourgeois use of the arditi thus:
“the arditi, that is, private armed organizations, enter the field with a double task: to use illegality while the state appears to remain within legality, and as a means to reorganize the state itself.”¼
Arditi tactics within the political sphere are inherently concerned with state management. They are special technical forces that operate on the prerogative of the state to suppress dissent and neutralize threats. One cannot help but write arditi into the narrative of repression executed during the G20 protests in Toronto. Arditi tactics are also operating in disembodied channels: the hacker war on anonymous and Obama’s drone war against high-value targets. These tactics throw power between state departments, giving the newest instruments to oligarchic formations that exist quietly within the broader bureaucracy (an officially sanctioned war of Underground Action?). What of the left’s capacity to wage such wars? Are anonymous, wikileaks, and The Pirate Bay arditi forces, and if so, do they belong to a class?
“Class characteristics lead to a fundamental difference [in tactics]: a class which must work regular hours every day cannot have permanent and specialized assault organizations, unlike a class with abundant financial resources whose members are not at all constrained by regular jobs.”½
For Gramsci, effective arditi cannot be wielded by independent or non-hegemonic powers. Using the Fenians in Ireland or the comitadjis rebels in the Balkans as examples, he argues that effective ideological warfare flounders when it begins with a specialized, technical force. Instead, potent resistance must begin with the creation of a general seat of legitimacy and power that eventually emerges as a strong class subconsciousness. From within this popular subconsciousness – what Gramsci later develops as a working-class hegemony or central source of validated authority – a type of symbolic shock troop can be forged. I would therefore argue that whistleblowers like Wikileaks, or anarchist hackers like Anonymous, or The Pirate Bay, operate outside the space of class warfare. And though their status is difficult to truly define, I see their function as being predominantly information generators and disseminator. They work independent of, and uncoordinated with, general left projects. In this sense, we might view them as types of militias that deal randomized blows through critical reports and necessary linkages, yet serve no particular network or command. They are an army-less arditi fighting a war of Underground Action. Given the need for a broad and legitimating infantry, what is current status of the army? What is its consciousness?
Western European-decendent countries with active democracies have been built on the basis of liberal property rights. The right to ownership and disposal of property is the philosophical companion to the bourgeois mode of organizing production. It was the discourse of liberalism that brought a formality to production in Anglo society in the 18th and 19th centuries: everyone would be equally free to do what they willed with what they owned. For the peasant classes, dispossessed of land and the informal networks of power they once belonged to, their ability to labour became their property. To sell labour-power for its equivalent value in the universal commodity of the day – gold, silver, paper, etc. – was the exercising of the rights and freedoms of property ownership, same as the bourgeoisie. That this relation of production-consumption still exists, based as it is on the ever-sharper divide between those who sell their bodies and souls and those whose accumulated capital maintains an always-quickening pace of production, is a testament to the resiliency of the structure. About two centuries have passed since England became the minister of the bourgeois mode of production, sermonizing the world into a repentant posture, the sin being its guarding of land and life from the clutches of capital.
The liberal rights paradigm also proposes the freedom of individual choice, or agency. Agency, to a worker and capitalist alike, functions as the freedom to convert money back into commodities. For the worker the composite of this conversion amounts to, in a greater or lesser degree, a subsistence. Collecting the property that makes up this subsistence is a right that is carefully guarded. As an arena of choice, the market provides a worker with a means for social expression. The capacity to consume is a dispensation of power in public, of private autonomy within the social body.* And for this reason, commodities do not appear at the outset as the objectified exertions of labour and spirit that they really are. They appear rather as pure potential; they are things that fulfill a vacancy or void known or newly-created. That commodities are sold using tactics that detach culturally-significant knowledges of feeling and belonging from their motive bases, offered instead in consistent object forms – a form universally accessible to money – rarely has a bearing in the mind of the person who reaches to buy. Aspiration is incorporated in the physical, where a transaction of intimate values and money takes place: private ownership results. The fetishism of the market, of commodity ownership, which is the result of centuries of refinement in production (headed always toward full saturation), pervades social relations in deep levels. Even informal interaction has, to at least some degree, become mediated through networking applications that reward users via metrics – numbers of likes, friends, profile ‘optimization’ – as though people were generating abstract content for others to consume in exchange for social capital. Marxist theorist György Lukács termed this process of raising object-consciousness ‘reification’. Yet it is this working class of producer-consumers that must form the interior ranks of the infantry of opposition. Sheer size and shared exposure to the worst storms of bourgeois production make it the target for enlistment.
Moving outward from this particular point where commodity exchange is the most dominant (but far from only) expression of autonomy and control for working people is really the strategic problem for the ‘massification’ of the left. Lenin’s solution to this problem (massification) was to create a watchful revolutionary class of proletarians that would invoke a consciousness of struggle on a diverse subaltern people – a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, as it were. Marx pre-determined Lenin’s failure to bring Western-style communism to Russia, claiming that the country, with its still semi-feudal (read: non-capitalist) class structure, was unready for it. Rather than dodge the bullet of capitalism through a uniquely-Russian solution (which Marx argued was necessary this piece), the Leninists led a veritable coup in the wake of defeat on the Eastern Front. Of course Lenin’s particular Bolshevik project, which encouraged radical worker-led organizations (soviets), was headed in a very encouraging direction. Contra Marx, the Bolsheviks pre-1923 had developed autonomous, proletarian radicalism in the worksites and was well-positioned for deep organizational growth. However Stalin’s usurpation of Soviet leadership in 1924 brought the project to completion, and he began to reorganize the party into dictatorial form. Theorists like Mimmo Pocaro or Charles Post, the former drawing on the French thought of Louis Althusser, have recently suggested the value of revisiting Lenin-style political organizing. This type of organizing necessitates a revolutionary bloc of thinkers and intellectuals whose practice is firmly class oriented and ‘evangelical’. But there is no doubt that we must also go beyond Lenin.
Employing Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectualism’, a new critical pedagogy must emerge that learns as it teaches. Rather than look to an arditi of intellectuals and theorists to be disseminators of a knowledge about working conditions to people actually being eviscerated by capital, the left must understand that the working class experience itself serves as the strongest basis of education. Instead of categorizing workers and intellectuals as separate groups, the two should work symbiotically – the function of the left being limited to an organizing role, eager to provide space for creative and daring actions. Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber raises an interesting question when he asks why it is that, in this era of neoliberalism where capital has so effectively maintained its dominance over productive-class ideology, the people most attracted to even the faintest whiff of radical opposition are “artists, musicians, writers, and others involved in some form of non-alienated production?”¤ Perhaps there is something to the idea that fortune builds an internal conservatism. Expressing a beyond-market agency where labour is a spiritual act, given but not taken, is a fortune to be protected at all costs. But beyond that also: it must be shared; to see others take the value of their labour and dispose of it truly for their own benefit is to revel in human capacity. The left must continually learn about the divergent experiences of beings under capitalism, assisting workers in meaningful ways to forge new tools of analysis. In the collective investigation, there can likely be found intersections: patriarchy, racism, dispossession, alienation, deskilling, sickness, austerity, etc. These points of mutual understanding must be the way by which a class consciousness is formed. Only through this platform can a profound, subconscious and intimate knowledge of alienation and exploitation percolate through the ranks of productive labour and a desire to participate and fight can be fostered.
Currently, the left in North America – outside of Quebec, which requires a careful analysis of its popular political culture – is operating a war of Position by an arditi of specialist theoreticians and utopian breakers. The Occupy movement, which had massive popular support in the United States, was unable to capitalize on its struggle. While it sought to engage the public, it did not adequately make the critical leap between acknowledging the value of its pedagogy and employing that curriculum in diversified working environments. Few new labour struggles were fostered by occupy forces. Recruits were not made, distances between occupiers and the working class were maintained. Another event, the G20 in Toronto, which was defended by a paramilitarized pastiche of local enforcement officers acting simultaneously as carrot and billy club, saw public attention instead turn to the actions of the Black Bloc. As alluded to earlier, the goal of the Black Bloc is to point out the discrepancy between property and life; they want to cast a shadow of drama over protest that mocks the brutality and repression of the state over people. The broken windows symbolic of broken bodies (broken not only in protest but also in wage-slavery), a comparison so thoroughly understated that one almost laughs in pity at the paradoxical reaction of a horrified public. But wait. Why does the public react this way?
Violence carried out by a force so disconnected from its foundation is an arditi without an army. To be appalled at a public for misunderstanding your action is but a failure to grasp ones own tactical blunder. Is it any surprise that the producing-consuming class reviles the destruction of property? The symbolism is not only lost but worse, it produces a counter effect. The bourgeois gain allies in the public, who do not accept the destruction of their very notion of daily life. To break the windows in the coffee shop they meet friends in is to directly attack the foundation of that friendship. Rather than enable the spirit of criticism and perception that belongs to everyone with working experience under capitalism, minds are hardened against yet another attack on their autonomy. To impose a view so forcefully without a critical infantry in reserve, regardless of the quality of the critique, is to do those struggling to build class consensus a great disfavour.
Importantly, this distance between the arditi and the infantry on the left is an historically-specific gulf. Perhaps it has existed for some time. In North America and in much of Western Europe it is at least as old as the Thatcher-Ragean-Mulrooney troika that ushered in the current class relations of neoliberalism. It is not an inevitable gulf, bridges can be built and in many cases, are being built. The Greek example of the Below square is a testament to the value in creating spaces that engender self-discovery and self-willed consensus. To want to belong is a choice whose influences remain subconscious. Building this subconscious or, in other words, positive coercive force, is the way forward. How this force takes shape is more or less dependent on how working people interact with the current left. If we are open, a new hegemony will have fertile ground to grow. If we impose theory before it has taken root, we will relegate ourselves to the margins of legtimacy. We, the arditi fighting our current war of Position cannot afford to continue down this path. A war of Movement, of mass action, must be our goal. And this requires us to think tactically, not just theoretically.
* Crucially, I am speaking here of the expression of a public agency. Autonomy and power obviously exist within the private spaces of life (the home, the family, the x community), and have an idodynamics dependent on the who, what, where, etc. But in the secular social body of today’s active democratic states, the ripples of agency cast by the majority are generally limited to market formations; its only other exertion being, of course, protest.
♦ I am deeply indebted to ‘Richard’ (whoever you are!) for this opening of the article. He wrote this great piece for the Irish Left Review. In it, he referenced Tsipras and the points Tsipras raised about the two squares, which (obviously) framed the way into my discussion.
¹Tsipras, December 30th, 2012, ILR
³ Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol. I, Note 134 ed. Joseph Buttgeig, 1992
¼ Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, Vol. I, Note 133
¤ David Graeber, The New Anarchists, New Left Review, Vol. 247, 04. 2002