If He Can’t Lie, It’s Not His Revolution: Chris Hedges vs. Emma Goldman

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by L. Raymond

Most people I know who actively work for social justice make an effort to ignore Chris Hedges.  When he puked up a nasty little screed demonizing militancy in the Occupy movement last year, Hedges –  in the words of Occupy Wall Street organizer Amin Husain – “almost derailed us” [1]  (Sadly, Amin was wrong about the “almost” part).  But it’s hard to look the other way when Hedges drags the name of several generations of anarchists through the dirt, as he did in a recent column; and it is perilous to ignore the fact that he represents a powerful network of liberal recuperators who have been undermining resistance in this country for years while claiming to promote it.

A few weeks ago, Hedges wrote a column entitled “Sparks of Rebellion,” which was one of his periodic forays into Grand Movement Strategy. [2]   He opens with a shallow intellectual history of modern radicalism in which virtually none of the statements are true, particularly in regards to anarchists: Kropotkin was not a gradualist but a revolutionary – hence his autobiography is called Memoirs of a Revolutionist; Bakunin did not elevate déclassé intellectuals above the proletariat (or anyone else), but envisioned all oppressed classes making the revolution [3] –  and so on and so forth.  Hedges clearly believes his Pulitzer prize gives him entitlement to stuff a book’s worth of assertions into a paragraph without any supporting evidence.

Equally disconcerting is that once Hedges gets to introducing his own propositions about revolution, none of them are coherent:  We’re told that a modern revolt must not be “reliant on the industrial or agrarian muscle of workers”, but will rely on “the dispossessed working poor”, but “It is not the poor who make revolutions.”, but “service workers and fast food workers…will be one of our primary engines of revolt.”  Does anyone have any questions?

In the end, all this name-dropping and sophomoric analysis is a bait-and-switch for what Hedges really wants to talk about: the importance of pacifism – which he finally gets to in paragraph six.  Hedges evokes the much-touted and under-scrutinized Harvard study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan which “examined 100 years of violent and nonviolent resistance movements and concluded that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often as violent uprisings.”  To judge how accurate this study is, one might want to note that the authors omitted all civil rights and labor struggles from their data set. [4] Even more problematic is Chenoweth’s meaninglessly amorphous criteria of nonviolence which has no relationship to the strictures that Gandhi, Gene Sharp or Chris Hedges would impose on us: One of the study’s featured cases is the Philipine revolt of 1986 which originated as an armed coup, and climaxed with a bomb dropped on the presidential palace. [5] In the wake of the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Chenoweth took to publishing commentaries praising the Egyptian rebellion for its nonviolence even as hundreds of police stations firebombed by protesters were still smoldering. [6]

But the foulest aspect of Hedges’ scribble is the attempt to divide the present generation of militant anarchists from their respected classical forebears.  The liberal journalist has never retracted a word of his “Cancer in Occupy” meltdown, and takes another passing shot at “the Black Bloc” in this article.  In contrast to the cancerous youths, Hedges holds up a mature, mythologized Emma Goldman who “came to be very wary of…the efficacy of violence.”

The tendency of pacifists to co-opt every conceivable radical icon into their ideology never ceases to amaze; thus the new school of pacifist history portrays the Russian Revolution as nonviolent[7]  – even though at least as much property was destroyed there as in Egypt [8] - and now Red Emma is assimilated as an apostate from militancy.  How Goldman could also have been, in the last decade of her life, a key information officer for anarchist militias which executed fascist commanders with regularity isn’t explained. [9]  Her correspondence during the Spanish Civil War shows distaste for the bloodshed, but it also records her explicitly rejecting Gandhian strategy as hopelessly naive.[10]  Goldman was as nonviolent as Sherman was when he lamented that “war is hell” just before he burned down Atlanta – a common sense human impulse, not a strategic analysis; she was wary of every aspect of force except the efficacy of it.  But if Hedges can’t lie, it’s not his revolution.

The grotesque irony here is that Emma Goldman rejected this game of demonize-and-assimilate whenever it was applied in her own time.  Hedges claims to be “reading and rereading the debates among some of the great radical thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries,” but somehow he missed the debate between Goldman and V.I. Lenin during the Russian Civil War.  In her autobiography, Goldman recounts how she and Alexander Berkman went to the Kremlin to protest the mass arrests of anarchists during the Bolshevik terror.  Lenin dismisses the objections saying responsible anarchists like her are respected in Russia, and he only attacks “bandits” and “Makhnovtsy” (supporters of militia leader Nestor Makhno).  Goldman recognizes the psychology of counterinsurgency immediately -

Imagine,” I broke in, “capitalist America also divides the anarchists into two categories, philosophic and criminal. The first are accepted in highest circles; one of them is even high in the councils of the Wilson Administration. The second category, to which we have the honor of belonging, is persecuted and often imprisoned. Yours also seems to be a distinction without a difference. Don’t you think so? [11]

Reading this passage, it’s striking how little has changed.  It isn’t difficult to imagine, say, Rebecca Solnit – “philosophic” anarchist and Obama campaigner [12] – being feted at the White House in reward for her work bashing radicals, while at the same time “criminal” anarchists like Marie Mason and Oso Blanco rot in prison.

The revolution may not start tomorrow, and we hope it won’t be a bloodbath when it does.  But diverse tactics are needed to end the assaults on the water, the air, the climate, on all our lives and dignity.  The moribund pacifism of the establishment left has failed, and the failure is so terminal that they must stoop to falsifying history in order to even make a case for themselves.

Notes:

1. Democracy Now, “No Work, No Shopping, Occupy Everywhere”, May 1, 2012 – http://www.democracynow.org/2012/5/1/no_work_no_shopping_occupy_everywhere

2.  https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/09/30-6

3.   As Paul Avrich has noted, Bakunin had a “conception of an all-encompassing class war.”  This definitely included “fervent, energetic youths, totally declasse, with no career or way out,” but they were only one part of an ” ‘all-embracing’ revolution… including, besides the working class, the darkest elements of society…the unemployed, the vagrants and outlaws…the instinct of rebellion was the common property of all the oppressed classes of the population.”  Avrich also writes that, “While entrusting the intellectuals with a critical role in the forthcoming revolution, Bakunin at the same time cautioned them against attempting to seize political power on their own…On this point Bakunin was most emphatic.” Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (1967)  – http://www.ditext.com/avrich/russian/1.html

4. Note 35 of Chenoweth, Stephan “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”  International Security, Vol. 33, Issue 1, Summer 2008 - http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/isec.2008.33.1.7

5. Monina Allarey Mercado, Francisco S. Tatad, People Power: Eyewitness to History (James B. Reuter, S.J., Foundation, 1986) p202-209

6. Erica Chenoweth, “Give Peaceful Resistance a Chance” The New York Times, March 9, 2001-  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/opinion/10chenoweth.html?_r=0  ;  David D. Kirkpatrick, “Mubarak orders crackdown with revolt sweeping Egypt” The New York Times, January 28, 2011;  Lorenzo Dubois, “PEACE AND FIRE: Diversity of Tactics in the Egyptian Revolution (Jan-Feb 2011)” -http://boston.indymedia.org/feature/display/214110/index.php

7. Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (Metropolitan, 2003) p169-170

8. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams : Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution  (Oxford University Press, 1988), p67

9. David Porter, editor, Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution (AK Press, 2006) p226 – http://zinelibrary.info/files/Goldman%20-%20Vision%20on%20Fire%20-%20Emma%20Goldman%20on%20the%20Spanish%20Revolution.pdf

10. Goldman wrote to a young US anarchist in 1936: “…the organized force used against the followers of Gandhi has finally forced them to use violence, much to the distress of Gandhi…Most important of all is that mechanized warfare and violence used by the state make non-resistance utterly futile.  What do you think non-resistance could do during bombardment from the air – a daily occurrence in Spanish cities and towns?”  She concludes that “…as a method of combating the complex social injustices and inequalities, non-resistance cannot be a decisive factor.”  David Porter, Vision on Fire, p239-240;  Goldman also attributes the collapse of the social revolution to the CNT “suddenly turning pacifist” when it came to resisting internal repression from the Stalinists.  “Gandhi could not have done better,” she notes with bitterness. Vision on Fire, p228 – -    http://zinelibrary.info/files/Goldman%20-%20Vision%20on%20Fire%20-%20Emma%20Goldman%20on%20the%20Spanish%20Revolution.pdf

11.  Emma Goldman, Living My Life (Alfred K. Knopf, 1931), p766 – http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/goldman/living/living2_52a.html

12. http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175598/

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