Surrounded by the corpses of fallen allies and enemies alike they climb above the barricades; rifles and flags clutched tightly in hands they scream appeals to liberty and curses of death upon their enemies. This is the provocative imagery of emancipatory struggle which has bewitched the minds of countless radicals for centuries. It is that moment which encapsulates the honesty in struggle, where the implicit coercion of daily life progresses from the dagger smiles and gentle nudges of unspoken relations betwixt slaves and masters into a terrifying explosion of explicit violence.
Historical moments such as the American and French revolutions, the Spanish Civil War and even the ‘Battle of Seattle’ have become almost worshipped ‘events on a pedestal’ within the ‘movement canon’ of self-described radicals of many different stripes. It is of little wonder as to why such actions are so popular among so many radicals; they are fundamentally romantic notions which hold great symbolic energy. However the question one must ask is: Have these actions ever achieved a voluntary, violence loathing autonomous society? The answer is certainly not and I argue that such events have led to the complete destruction of such noble goals.
Much of the criticism of emancipatory war and revolution from a radical perspective has arrived from critiques of the reactionary effects of such actions. The violent response of ‘states’ and the beneficiaries of state largesse to threats against political monopoly, and the resultant passage of increasingly authoritarian and intrusive laws have remained the most prevalent arguments against revolution and total war against the system. I take no issue with these kinds of arguments however there is another, deeper argument which rather than being centred on the reactions of authoritarians hits much closer to ‘home’.
The problem with a strategy of total war for anyone seeking radical liberation is what occurs during the process of war and what is required to ‘win’ it. A clear red flag for this approach to liberation arises from historical understandings of societal development. Historically, societies became increasingly complex, coercive and hierarchical because of the effects of violence and war and the requirements to wage it. Taxation in so many societies was borne of the desire to fund war and concurrently military slavery or ‘conscription’ as it is commonly referred to today became institutionalised. War brought many rewards to those most willing and capable to fight it sucessfully, with gold, land and slaves being three of the most sought after resources available as prizes. Thus those most capable within the venues of violence attained the greatest prestige and those committed to non-violence were marginalised as ‘craven’ social pariahs at best or butchered beyond recognition at worst.
It is clear that the core cultural values of most societies have involved the glorification of war and violence simply because the very individuals who hold hegemonic positions in those societies have supported the values of violence themselves. They hold hegemonic positions because they are rewarded for their system supporting acts of committing violence or proselytising for violence. The circular relationship between cultural cause and effect or ‘reflexivity’ is clear here; the standards of values by which an individual is valued influences an individual to attain those standards and values and is rewarded with power for that attainment. Put simply, a societal culture which promotes violence develops violent people and they in turn support the continuation of that culture of violence. Is it not clear then that undertaking total war against the system merely supports the paradigm of violence and offers little else? Whilst such romantic notions appeal to deluded dreamers the bare effects yield nothing but more of the same violent oppression.
It is little wonder why the American, French and a myriad other revolutions which proclaimed emancipation led to military leaders taking control of their respective states; the former involved a man who conducted genocide against a native populace and owned slaves and the latter who performed much of the same and both in the name of safeguarding revolutionary liberty. These are the kinds of people who excel within a war environment and are certainly not the kinds of people someone committed to the growth and preservation of voluntary association would ever wish to associate with, let alone place upon either literal or metaphorical thrones. Violence-comfortable murderers are the people who triumph in situations which call for violent murder.
To provide a more modern example the Spanish Civil War as told through the personal experiences of George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia is a story of a failed struggle for liberty and autonomy. It becomes all too apparent that through the process of war, the self-proclaimed liberators of the nation became increasingly authoritarian in their aims, hierarchical in their associations and desperate in their actions. They could never win a war against an ideologically fascist enemy zealously worshipful of the glory of violence. Even if by some miracle they managed to realise victory, they would find themselves entirely changed and their forces controlled by the most authoritarian and violence-comfortable individuals amongst their ranks. Is it not then the case that the cause of the anarchists in that war was lost the moment the used uniforms, rusted rifles and antique artillery was requisitioned?
I see no change in outcome for the would-be soldiers of liberty today who shall lie if they try in the ground with their countless dead comrades of the past. The process of war and the status of violence promoted to a state of highest virtue will only recreate the violent relations which support a paradigm of coercion.
Do not be tempted to ascend the barricades of broken salvation in such deathly dreams lest tomorrow you become the very enemy you fight today.