On July 23, 1892, Ovsei Osipovich Berkman entered the offices of Henry Clay Frick, the manager of a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Frick had just finished presiding over the shooting of several locked-out members of the Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers by 300 armed Pinkerton strikebreakers.
Berkman shot Frick three times, stabbed him in the leg with a file, and was beaten unconscious by workers in the vicinity. He was later sentenced to twenty-two years in prison, of which he served fourteen.
The working class across the country was not ignited by this spark of revolutionary violence. Ordinary workers and anarchists alike condemned the action. And nothing improved on the local front. The factory resumed operations after 8,500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were ordered into Homestead. The locked-out unionized workers were almost entirely replaced by non-union immigrant labour.
Life went on much as before--except that fears of domestic terrorism were now freshly fanned among the population.
Fast-forward to May 18, 2010.
At approximately 3:30 this past Tuesday, an anarchist group calling itself FFFC-Ottawa firebombed a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in Ottawa's upscale Glebe neighbourhood. The group then posted a record of the event on YouTube.
FFFC-Ottawa has promised more of the same, and claims that it will be a presence at the upcoming G20 summit in Toronto.
No one can doubt the sincerity of Berkman and other violent anarchists in the US during a period of massive labour strife. Their theory was a simple one, based on a delusion: workers were ready for revolution. All they needed was a decisive action to galvanize them.
But such actions, again and again, simply frightened people and gave public moral authority and sanction to the very forces of law and order that the anarchists were confronting.
Theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer say of "the people" in whose name the anarchists presume to speak: "immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them. The misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them is a greater force than the cunning of the authorities."* That's hegemony, in a word: and you don't overcome it by random acts of terror--you energize it.
Why do the latter-day anarchists--the Black Blocs, FFFC-Ottawa--pay no attention to history? Perhaps, in fact, they do. It appears that the attentat theory--that a bold act of violence will activate the revolutionary potential of the masses--has been (thankfully) abandoned. Instead these political street-urchins are inflicting minor flesh-wounds on capitalism, and getting high on feeling like revolutionaries as they commit their acts of vandalism.
But the establishment now has the excuse to push its own agenda. Articles and editorials have already appeared in the press that attempt to draw predictable "lessons" from the unthinking, unstrategic actions of a few.
Here's one, by Tom Quiggin, described in today's Ottawa Citizen as a member of the "council of advisers for Canada's Global Brief magazine and...a senior research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Carleton University." It's a frankly jejune piece of analysis, of which this extract will give the flavour:
[T]he recent RBC attack demonstrates an escalation in the level of violence on the part of a small core group. Furthermore, over the past several years, we have seen an ongoing convergence between the "extreme left" in Canada and various radical Islamist groups. The most visible manifestation of this "convergence" could be seen at the Cairo conferences in Egypt from 2002 to 2007. The presence of Canadians from a variety of "peace and social justice" groups was a regular occurrence. The Cairo Anti-War Conference was started by the British Socialist Workers Party (Trotskyites and Fourth Internationalists) and it was attended by Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist organizations. Why Canadian organizations felt the need to spend their money by sending individuals to this conference is a question all Canadians should be asking.
From the Glebe to Cairo in the blink of an eye! Squeezing the dread "Islamists" into the mix is a propagandist's master-stroke. Note, too, the reference to mysterious "Canadian organizations" with money, and the conflation of anti-war organizing with Islamist terrorism. This is the standard rhetorical trickery of the Right, and it hasn't changed much since Frick took his bullets: define the act as international in scope; tar "the left" as a clear and present danger to right-thinking, peaceful people everywhere; and proceed to fan the flames of local and national paranoia.
Just as a few undisciplined hooligans in Vancouver endangered thousands of peaceful protesters there, you can bet that security at the G-20 will clamp down hard on peaceful protesters in Toronto next month--if not by the unskillful use of agents provocateurs, quite possibly with a wild police overreaction like the one seen here in Ottawa in November, 2001.
Thanks for nothing, FFFC-Ottawa. These childish, self-indulgent acts of violent individualism do nothing but help our enemies. You're an affront to the values that motivate us, and to the ideals that we share.
You speak and act for no one but yourselves. Turn yourselves in before someone gets hurt.
*Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. "The Culture Industry," in Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso, 1979, 8.