'All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it/While we walk the street/Too chicken to even try it' - The Clash, White Riot
American anarchist Peter Gelderloos visited Liverpool's Next To Nowhere social centre last night, to discuss the limitations of nonviolence as a strategy for achieving social change, and sell a few copies of his book, How Nonviolence Protects The State.
Gelderloos - who is facing what looks like a politically-motivated prosecution on terrorism charges in Spain - spoke with a largeish crowd for a Friday evening, delivering a forty minute presentation, which was followed by a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and often heated discussion.
Peter explained how for him - and for other anarchists - the state itself is violence, both physical and mental, against everyone it governs. If anarchy would mean peace and fluffiness, the most important question is how do we get there? He then took on the 'false histories' and premises of nonviolence one by one.
Advocates of nonviolence often point to Gandhi and Martin Luther King as success stories who achieved their goals through entirely peaceful methods. However, Gandhi claimed that violent methods are better than using nonviolence to hide your passivity, whilst King was often protected by the Black Panthers. Neither had nonviolence brought an end to the war in Vietnam. Instead, a combination of Vietnamese resistance and US soldier mutinies had convinced the authorities that it was time for a tactical retreat. By extension, there was no way that exclusively passive tactics could end the Iraqi bloodbath.
He also examined the elitistist nature of nonviolence, a strategy which has little credence in the majority world (where direct physical repression is an everyday reality), but has many followers in the relatively comfortable imperialist nations. He painted a picture of mainly white protesters looking down on the non-whites for sinking to the level of the authorities. It's a moralising attitide which is powerless in the face of direct confrontation with the police and/or military, because it preserves the state's monopoly on force. The state and white liberals lay down the rules of the game, then reap the rewards. For Gelderloos, exclusive non-violence is controlling and therefore inherently hierarchical, especially when supposed 'activists' report their fellow activists to the authorities. My thoughts turned to Stop The War marches when I have seen orange bibbed Socialist Workers Party stewards point-out people taking direct action to the police.
After a short break, we began our discussion. Tempers quickly became frayed, as is inevitable when long-held beliefs are challenged. It was uncomfortable but fascinating to see people struggling to fight their ways through layers of indoctrination by the state and the media, to find out what they actually thought was the best strategy for change. That's not to say that everyone was convinced by the arguments, because they certainly weren't, but I think everyone gained a deeper understanding of the other's point of view. And the perspectives aren't really opposing, as long as we grasp that whatever our tactics, the real enemy is the capitalist state, and that revolution - an act of taking back what has been stolen from us - cannot be entirely passive.
Peter Gelderloos is at the Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House on Sunday, the Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle on Tuesday, the Common Place in Leeds on Thursday, and the Cowley Club in Brighton on Friday.