A Reply to Kazi Toure and Ward Churchill
To Speeches They Gave at the We Are Resisting Anarchist Conference in Lawrence, Kansas, July 2, 2004
(To my everlasting shame, I failed to stand up in the meeting and confront these two holier-than-thou ‘revolutionaries’ in person. Here is what I should have said then, to their faces, not now, after the fact. My sincerest apologies to all those young people there who had a right to hear, and should have heard (but for my cowardice), my objections to the strategy Toure and Churchill were proposing.-- James Herod, July 7, 2004)
Have you both gone completely bonkers? It must be so, because your recommendation that we start a guerrilla war against the US ruling class is truly insane. I can’t imagine a worse mistake that we could make. There’s not a chance in hell that we could win. And even if we did win, what would we have? Nothing! The guerrilla army would simply become the new government. In the past, in the colonial world, guerrilla warriors were sometimes able to overthrow a government (I doubt if they can anymore). They cannot, and have not, and never will, get rid of states and capitalism. Not a single one of the many Third World Revolutions that came to power throughout the world over the past fifty years has come even close to dismantling their state, let alone getting out of capitalism. Guerrilla war was one of the strategies used in these Third World Revolutions, aimed at seizing state power. It was a variation of the Leninist Vanguard Party Strategy for revolution, a strategy that now stands discredited the world over. Even die-hard Marxists are abandoning it.
Moreover, the attempt to transplant the guerrilla strategy into the core capitalist countries in the 1970s was an unmitigated disaster. The Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Fraction (Baader-Meinhof Group) in Germany, and the Weather Underground in the United States, all went down in ignominious defeat. Have you learned nothing from history? Those wild-eyed romantic revolutionaries thought that they could, by their attacks, radicalize the populations of their countries and bring them into the revolution. Instead, the majority of people turned against them, and they remained isolated. Here, now, in the US, the government wouldn’t even have to hire a PR firm to spin such attacks into the opposite of what their perpetrators intend. The actions would automatically be seen as terrorist attacks on the whole country.
You say that we must fight them on their own terms. No! The minute we start fighting them on their own terms, we have already lost. You say that we must be secretive and go underground. No! We need a social revolution that is open and above ground. The minute we start working in secret we are doomed.
So here you are, a black man (an ex-Panther), and a Native American, standing in front of a predominantly white audience (of mostly young people), scolding us, telling us how to make a revolution, telling us that we are not militant enough, not radical enough, not serious enough, not willing to make the necessary sacrifices. You are encouraging these young people to go out and get themselves killed. And for what? Nothing! For a strategy that is a proven failure. Well by God you won’t talk down to me. I’ll not sit here and ask deferential questions, like I’m some student groveling in front of a professor. I don’t care how many books you have written, or how many years you have spent in prison. Do you think you are the only ones who have thought about how to make a revolution and fought for it, and devoted lifetimes to the struggle? I’m so sick of your condescension and arrogance. American history, indeed world history, is littered with white revolutionaries. Europeans and Euro-Americans (and Euro-Canadians, Euro-Argentinians, and Euro-Australians) have created massive anti-capitalist movements, over several hundred years. (While I’m at it, it is false to divide the world into indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, as you do, Ward Churchill. The struggle is between oppressors and oppressed, capitalists and the rest of us. Capitalists come in all shades and colors -- African in Africa, Asian in Asia, Latino in Latin America. Yet you explicitly reject class analysis, in favor of Indigenism. This is yet another gross error on your part.)
Of course you both did hedge things a bit, but not by very much. You said we had to be careful, that we had to know what we were doing, that each of us had to decide for ourselves what course of action to follow, and that armed struggle wasn’t for everyone. But your message came through loud and clear, in spite of this. You were saying that we should go underground, start blowing up buildings, and pick up a rifle. You also said that we should be careful not to kill any innocent civilians. Please! The minute you start blowing up buildings you are inevitably going to kill innocent people. The so-called guerrillas who blew up the Army Math Building in Ann Arbor were careful, and scheduled their attack for the middle of the night. They thought the building was empty. But it wasn’t, and an innocent young man lost his life. That was only one of the things that thoroughly discredited the Weather Underground and similar groups. Your attitude toward such deaths hardly differs from the Pentagon’s. You think that it is a price that has to be paid. You are horribly wrong. Indeed, in our situation, the only thing that will come out of the barrel of a gun is certain defeat.
The anarchist revolution suffered through one period of ‘propaganda by the deed’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an initiative supported even then by only a small minority of revolutionaries. That tactic of assassinations and bombings nearly destroyed the movement and set the revolution back by decades. We should make damn sure that we don’t repeat this mistake now.
There is a serious danger in romanticizing the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground. Although there were some admirable, even heroic, things about both groups, these were nevertheless fundamentally flawed political initiatives. The Weather Underground hated the working class, and thought the revolution would be brought to the United States from the Third World. All they were doing was trying to help this process along, by harassing the Empire "from the Belly of the Beast". Their entire focus was on Imperialism; capitalism was there only in the background, as an almost insignificant afterthought. And if a revolution did happen to get made here, it wouldn’t be by the majority of the people, but by the ‘movement’. Their seriously mistaken politics eventually got written up in their book Prairie Fire. We should read it, and be warned of mistakes not to make again.
As for the Panthers, they organized themselves like a damn army. They made no effort to work toward anti-authoritarian relations even within their own organization. Thus they played no part in making one of the great contributions of the New Left -- the struggle for egalitarian relations and participatory democracy. In relation to the rest of the movement, the Panthers assumed an elitist and arrogant stance. They regarded themselves as the vanguard of the revolution and literally scorned white revolutionaries, looking down their noses at us, in spite of all the support we were giving them.
It’s true that both the Panthers and the Weather Underground were serious, militant, committed, and willing to make sacrifices. But they chose the wrong strategy and the wrong battlefields, and they had a wrong analysis and the wrong politics. So they didn’t pick their fights wisely. The Panthers were hardly even socialist, let alone anarchist.
You have tried to shame us into taking up armed struggle. You say that if we don’t we are cowards and not serious about revolution. You say that the ruling class is unresponsive to moral arguments and that it only understands violence. You say that our failure to fight with guns and dynamite means that we practice the false doctrine of nonviolence. What is false is this dichotomy that you are forcing on us. It is not a question of nonviolence versus armed struggle. It is a question of where we choose to fight and how. Revolutionary militancy, courage, commitment, and determination can express itself in many ways other than armed struggle. Yet you conflate the two, whereas in fact, there is another option.
There is a way we can defeat the ruling class, dismantle states, and get out of capitalism. There is another force, besides armed struggle, that we can bring to bear against our oppressors, namely social organization. We can win only by rearranging ourselves socially, by creating new social forms through which we can take power away from the rulers and restore it to our communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces where it belongs.
Blowing up buildings has nothing to do with it! You should be ashamed for saying that it does, and for trying to persuade young revolutionaries to trod this mistaken path.