Fire and Flames, Black Blocs, and Militant Resistance

On KPFA’s Letters and Politics show featured an interview with Gabriel Kuhn, on the subject of the West German Autonomen, and the book Fire and Flames (which Kuhn translated into english). i have mirrored the interview here; it is well worth listening to. i found his comments on the evolution of the Black Bloc to be of particular interest, and so i have transcribed the relative passages here:

GK: The history of militant resistance is a long one; i think the particular form that the Black Bloc took on in Germany during the 1980s was determined by the conditions of political conflict at the time, the level of policing, the level to which you could take militant resistance as protest in the streets. i mean what is also interesting if you look at it, what we understand as the Black Bloc tactic has also changed in the course of the last  thirty years. Because today very often we see smaller groups that, kind of guerilla-tactic-like, move from place to place, who act quickly, who do a direct action maybe also making use of an area that at that point in time has no security forces and then you try to disappear before the security forces arrive and get to the next point where there are none. So its a kind of cat and mouse kind of thing.

Whereas in the 1980s for the Autonomist movement, it was the opposite. The Black Blocs were formed actually as a force that could confront the security forces head on. So it was a sign of showing strength in street battles, of showing the strength and the will to take on the security forces. Now there are several reasons why this has changed over the years, but as i said, i think it was a form of militant protest that was suitable to the conditions in Germany at the time.

Q: And the importance of taking on the security forces?

GK: Partly it was to demonstrate strength. State power and the security forces as the agents of State power were seen as a major factor in upholding an order than the Autonomist activists saw as problematic in many ways. So there was this symbolic aspect to it. But at times it was also very concrete. The squatting movement was big then1980s it was a very big part of the Autonomist movement. Squats were threatened by eviction and were ready to defend themselves militantly. So if you in a very concrete way demonstrated that it wasn’t that easy to evict Auomomist squats because there was a militant tactic of resistance that was ready and able to take on police assaults, that of course influenced the decisions by politicians and by the people calling the shots within the police whether such an assault would be undertaken or not.

Q: Do you think tactics then over the years changed in part just because of the weaponry that police have now?

Yeah, i definitely think that is one aspect. If you look at the equipment police had in the 1980s in Germany for example compared to what they have now, also the weaponry and things that the police is allowed to do and is now allowed to do, it has become harder in many ways to have this head on confrontation because i think the differences in the resources and the use of power have become even bigger. So this is one factor i think why Black Bloc tactics have changed a little but, from this head-on confrontation to this more guerilla tactics and trying to find the right place at the right time where you can do your direct action. So this is certainly one of the reasons.

Fire and Flames:
A History of the German Autonomist Movement

The timing of Kuhn`s interview is fortuitous for this little blog, as i was just about to post the following talk that i gave earlier this week as part of the book launch that we held for Fire and Flames, at the Belle Epoque anarchist space. Here it is:

Hello everyone, and thanks for coming – we’re here tonight to launch and discuss this book, Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement.

This is a movement history, in two sense of the term. It is written by a guy under the pseudonym “Geronimo”, a longterm Autonomist and who was involved in many of the events he describes. And it is a history of a movement, not so much of the debates and theory within it. This may even make sense, as the West German Autonomists were famously hostile to political theory, but it is also unfortunate, because there were ideas behind the tactics and campaigns described in this book. Luckily, while Geronimo does focus on actual campaigns and actions, he does also tell us about the debates and discussions that surrounded them, so it’s not as if theory is completely absent, more like it comes through incidentally rather than being at the center of our story.

Reading this book has been an educational experience, not only in terms of the subject-matter itself, but also in terms of the process of reading history. The last time i read the book prior to its publication was in February, and at that time it seemed like an incredibly inspirational but also otherworldly story, about a movement and a conflicts that far surpassed anything i had ever seen. Now, rereading the book over the past weeks since i received my box from the publisher, it is a completely different experience. The kinds of battles may be different, but the tactics, and the scale and intensity of struggle, no longer seem out of reach. In fact, reading some of the accounts of riots and resistance in Germany in the 1980s, i now find myself thinking, “Huh, we’re doing better than that.” i had never expected to feel this way. [For those out-of-towners who are not sure what i am talking about, check out this Report on Quebec’s Student Strike.]

This points to the importance of this book, not just as a historical account, but as a story of battles similar to those happening today, of a movement not unrelated to the ones many of you may belong to. In other words, this book should be useful. Not in terms of tactics so much – this is not a technical how-to guide – but rather in helping to prepare comrades for the arc that struggles are likely to travel, and for the political and organizational challenges that are likely to confront us in the months ahead.

Rather than going on about how useful this book is, i’m going to briefly go over the history it covers. And then we can watch a video and have a few readings from the book, to be followed by a discussion.

OK, first off, this is a book about the German Autonomen in the 1970s and 80s. Autonomen is the German word, one could also say the “autonomists” – i tend to use both terms. There were Autonomist movements in several European countries in the 1970s, and they often varied greatly from one place to another. To understand the differences, and the specificities, you really need to look at the context in each country, both in broad terms and also in terms of the left. To do so i’m going to backtrack a bit to the 1960s.

So in Germany, or actually West Germany at the time, the sixties were a time of revolt, much as they were elsewhere in the world, a revolt that hits its high-point in the unsurprising year of 1968. This West German revolt was known as the “extraparliamentary opposition,” and as in many countries, it was centered in the universities. This initial surge met a series of challenges in 1970: splits within the movement between anti-authoritarians and Maoists, a lot of dissatisfaction among women activists due to sexism in the movement, and the election of a Social Democratic-Liberal coalition government that passed an amnesty for over 5,000 student protesters who had been arrested in the previous years, and that also passed legislation responding to many of the students demands, ushering in a period of what has been referred to as “reform euphoria”.

The result was that the movement fragmented. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the Social Democrats. Of those who remained committed to more radical ideas, many found a home in various Maoist Communist parties. While in terms of numbers, this may have been the largest section of the radical left in the early 70s, it would really have no influence on the Autonomen, except as a negative example of the kind of politics they were not interested in. Meanwhile, other people remained committed to antiauthoritarian and anti-system ideas, most notably the Spontis, or spontaneists. For the Spontis, personal liberation, creativity and humour, as well as militant resistance, were all important themes. Many women formed groups and movements separate from the male left, most importantly in opposition to Paragraph 218, which criminalized abortion. There was also a tiny urban guerilla, with perhaps hundreds of people directly involved, but which had a support scene of tens of thousands, and which constituted an important political reference point.

Last but not least, about mid-way through the 1970s, there developed what was initially a very reformist anti-nuclear movement. Ironically, it was out of this movement that the Autonomen would emerge, though not immediately. Initially, various anti-nuclear protests appealed to members of all sections of the rest of the left for a variety of reasons, not least because it was “new territory” and provided a place where you could reach out to people and enjoy some popularity with so-called “ordinary folks”. Even better, pacifists and middle-class forces were unable to take complete control of the movement, which meant that it became a laboratory where different groups could try out different tactics. Militant battles with police, and attacks on nuclear plant construction sites, became a regular feature. If the older sixties-era left provided a lot of the infrastructure, what was most important was the political effect that this had on a new generation who became politicized through these protests.

As Geronimo explains, “Nonorganized activists—who would later form the bulk of the Autonomen—were an important element of the militant wing and emerged as a strong political force in their own right.” (87) and “The core principle of the nonorganized activists was “practical resistance,” by which they meant that each individual could partake in the struggle self-determinedly. For them it was crucial that the protest of the BIs was not purely rhetorical, but that practical steps were taken to meet the demands, even if this required breaking bourgeois notions of morality or the legal framework of the constitutional state. This approach was particularly popular since the decentralized character of the antinuclear movement provided a certain level of protection against state repression. It was in this context that the term “Autonome” began to signify a particular strain of activists.” (89)

So it was within the incubator of the antinuclear movement that the Autonomen developed as a potential movement. However, if they had not broken out of the confines of that one movement, it is unlikely that they would have developed the significance that they did.

In the late 1970s all the sections of the left that had emerged from the 1960s entered into crises. The Communist groups essentially imploded, largely due to the unbearable internal culture, both in terms of demands on the individual, and also in terms of authoritarian structures. The Spontis retreated into lifestyle politics, dubbed the Alternative Movement, when their militant forms of protest proved unable to cope with heavy police repression. The urban guerilla groups likewise went into crisis as they attempted to out-escalate the State on the military level, and failed. In fact the only movements that fared relatively well were the antinuclear and womens’ movements. Not coincidentally, each of these movements had developed their own understanding of the importance of “autonomy”, although the women’s movement was severely hampered by a strong pacifist wing. Also in this context, strong Autonomist movements in Italy, France, and Switzerland caught people’s attention, drawing on aspects of anarchism and anti-Leninist Marxism to make something new.

This was the context in which the West German Autonomen first appeared. In May 1980, an anti-military protest in the city of Bremen turned into a major riot, military vehicles were set on fire, cops were attacked with Molotov cocktails, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage was done. This inspired people, and was the first sign that things had broken out of the antinuclear shell.

Later on that year a militant squatters movement developed in West Berlin. Here too, it was not the sixties left that was in the lead, but young people, who had often cut their teeth in the antinuclear movement. Or, increasingly, were joining the movement for the first time. By 1981, 160 buildings were occupied, and over three thousand people were living in squats in West Berlin alone. Police attacks were often met with barricades and rioting. Beyond the actual numbers involved, the fact that West Germany was in an economic crisis with unprecedented youth unemployment, led to widespread sympathy with the squatters. The nature of the squats – where people were living collectively in illegally claimed spaces, having to organize defense against the police, but also developing physical structures out of which to base other forms of activism – all this was conducive to the politics of the Autonomen, who were clearly the political center of this movement.

At the same time, in the early 80s NATO and the united states were stationing thousands of nuclear missiles in West Germany, and so anti-war activism became a very important field of activity for the entire left. Here too, the Autonomen got involved, and were notable for their use of militant tactics during demonstrations. Notably, this is the origin of the Black Bloc. Also, this is a period when one of the urban guerilla groups, the Revolutionary Cells, succeeded in connecting to this new movement, and so you had a guerilla group that was carrying out numerous attacks – bombings and the like – as a complement to Autonomen campaigns.

Fire and Flames goes through this history, not in a seamless narrative arc, but in a series of reports on different aspects of the struggle, highlighting not only the tactics employed, but also the debates between different Autonomists groups about how best to bring the struggle forward. Very usefully, this book describes not only the high points of struggle, but also the dynamics that led to the defeat or at least neutralization of each of these forms of struggle. While repression often plays a part in defeat, repression always relies on our own weaknesses to do its work. As these weaknesses are difficult to identify beforehand, this kind of after-the-fact overview of what went wrong can be very useful in training us to see these kinds of problems while there is still time to fix them.

Of course no book is perfect, and this book in fact has some major weaknesses. George Katsiaficas, in his introduction, points out two of these. First off, as i mentioned earlier, there were Autonomist movements that emerged in a number of West European countries at this time, however Fire and Flames only really deals with the Italian movement, which in a sense is the “original Autonomist movement”. This is unfortunate. Secondly, and far more importantly, Fire and Flames ignores the women’s movement as a source for Automonist politics, and ever worse, ignores those Autonomist campaigns and debates that were centered on women’s politics and struggles. This is a really incredible omission, as according to everyone i have spoken to, women often formed the backbone of Autonomist scenes in various cities, and struggles around abortion, around sexual violence, and also around other issues – for instance war, and genetic engineering – are impossible to fully understand (or even notice) without taking women into account. Katsiaficas’s own book, The Subversion of Politics, is much better in this regard, however unfortunately it has its own problems, namely his hostility to militant resistance. So we are unfortunately left with this big gaping hole in our account.

Nevertheless, i think that this book can be helpful to us, especially in the context that presently exists here in Quebec. We are at the beginning of a political surge forward that might last for several years, and that is a wonderful thing. Checking out the lessons of others who have similarly tried to develop a culture of resistance without authoritarianism or reformism will prove well worth the effort.


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