The obsession over the black bloc in the past few months is a distorted reflection of the very real predominance of this tactic in contemporary struggles. This is somewhat odd, because in our current cycle of struggle, the black bloc has genuinely appeared in only a few areas, mainly the Northwest United States. But while the tactic’s geographic reach is somewhat localized, its presence in the movement’s collective imagination has grown to immense proportions. It seems like the black bloc is everywhere, a palpable reality, something everyone has to take a side on – even, and perhaps especially, those who haven’t actually seen it in action firsthand.
But it’s precisely the continued obsession with this single tactic that prevents us from seriously interrogating the necessary other term in this relationship: strategy. The discussions over the so-called “diversity of tactics” indicate the problem: by focusing all our energies on disputing the merits of a tactic, we end up neglecting strategy altogether. A “diversity of tactics” has little to do with strategy; in fact, it seems to replace strategy with liberal pluralism. The question isn’t whether to pursue a “diversity of tactics,” but rather: what kind of strategy allows us to effectively incorporate a diverse range of tactics?
It soon becomes clear that the hypertrophy of this tactic is actually a direct result of the atrophy of any corresponding strategy. As Alberto Toscano has recently written, “if something marks out the contemporary resurgence of theoretical interest in communism, across its various species, it is the almost total neglect of the question of strategy.” We might also add that since strategy and tactics can only exist in a reciprocal relationship, the deformation – or perhaps even absence – of former can only lead to a destabilization of the latter.
The symptom of this destabilization is the compulsion to repeat. The tactic of street-fighting is now being repeated obsessively, overcompensating for the shortage of strategy. At its crudest, this just means repeating the same thing over and over again in the hopes of forcing some kind of breakthrough; some claim that the repetition of a tactic will in itself generate a strategy.
After the “Free Republic of Wendland” – a liberated space in Gorleben – was violently dispersed in 1980 by the largest deployment of police in Germany since Hitler, and after a wave of systematic attacks on squatters in West Berlin in December of that year, it became obvious that if they were to survive, the Autonomen would have to protect themselves in more militant ways. Groups of armed Autonomen, whose power was rooted in the social centers, quickly emerged to defend these spaces. A necessary task, no doubt, but one which would eventually consume all the energies of the movement, polarizing the Autonomen and weakening their solidarity.
“As their militant actions became attacked even by their allies,” notes historian George Katsiaficas, “radicals became increasingly autonomous – some would say isolated – from mainstream protesters and came to constitute their own source of collective identity.” These militant groups, who now engaged in offensive strikes as well strictly defensive maneuvers, began to forge a collective identity through the monopolization of a single tactic: militant confrontation through street-fighting. By the mid-1980s, as repression continued to escalate, these militant groupings solidified their cultural identity, sometimes in opposition to the rest of the movement. “The black leather jackets worn by many people at demonstrations and the black flags carried by others signalled less an ideological anarchism than a style of dress and behavior,” Katsiaficas writes. Black clothes, black flags, ski masks, helmets, and punk became “symbols of a way of life.” It is here that the modern black bloc was born.
But it was precisely at this point, when the black bloc began to fuse itself into a distinct entity, that the autonomous movements that originated it actually began to decline. This was the historical reality underlying the ideology of the black bloc. The tactic, in fact, emerged in large part as a way to stop this internal disintegration. Many activists believed that their instability was purely the result of state repression, and they assumed that the organized defense of the social centers would actually reverse this process of decomposition.
In truth, the autonomous movements, in both Germany and Italy, were on the verge of collapse. As they developed a strongly internal and oppositional identity, they found themselves increasingly incapable of reaching beyond the hegemony of a single proletarian figure. They failed to link with different layers of the working class, and were unable to form a coalition with the broader masses. Earlier in the century, when soviets were first born, this had meant linking the proletariat to the peasantry. In the late 1970s and 1980s, it meant linking the “advanced” sector of the proletariat, in this case the “social worker” – or less contentiously, a kind of amalgam of students, youth, and precarious workers that drifted through a disintegrating welfare system – to the rest of the working class. Unable, or perhaps unwilling to link the different segments of the class together, the black bloc became nothing but the rudiments of a defensive military force.
The tactic was reborn, and in fact truly came into its own, only after being transplanted to the United States – specifically Seattle in 1999 – where a movement comparable to the German Autonomen had never existed.
It was really with the eruption of the anti-globalization movement, stretching from around 1999 to 2003, that the black bloc tactic, now totally disconnected from the very idea of the social centers, began to survive independently by refashioning itself into something other than just a tactic. The vast majority of those who formed the ranks of the black bloc in Seattle had no direct memory of the German Autonomen of the early 1980s, separated by a sharp generational divide, and so had little choice but to reconstruct a new identity for themselves. The rebirth of the black bloc came at a price: the insurmountable contradiction between its existence as a tactic and its existence as an identity. Though the defeat of the anti-war movement, the onset of the Bush years, and the decline of an organized Left, forced the black bloc to more or less disappear as a material tactic, it paradoxically consolidated its identity, granting it a mystical afterlife that is being resurrected and fetishized today.
Neither a liberalism of the present nor a communism of the past is adequate today. The only thing we’re after is a communist strategy for the present. Our task is to attempt to lay the foundations for an organization of proletarian self-activity, in a form that is historically appropriate. It means reinventing the “soviets” for our time, as the autonomists did for theirs; discovering, through a process of collective experimentation, a form of struggle that will resonate with the composition of our class, linking together the various layers of that class, and recomposing this disparate body into an antagonistic subject. Only then will we be able to determine the place in our struggle for the tactic of militant confrontation through street-fighting. Without that, without a coherent communist strategy, all we have is a zombie chasing its own shadow.
... full article at Viewpoint Magazine and, mirrored, at Kasama.