“The Saints …who preach martyrdom most often… hang about down here. To die for ideas, it’s true to say, is their reason for living. They won’t deprive themselves of it…. you can see some who will soon supplant Methusela in longevity. From this I conclude they must tell themselves, privately: let’s die for ideas, OK, but not too soon”Georges Brassens, “To die for ideas”
With the US election concentrating the minds of millions, perhaps billions, of people, some, particularly amongst those in the USA, seem to be valorising an ideology of martyrdom for the cause of anti-fascism and/or anti-Trumpism. But martyrdom is inevitably something bestowed on people by those who live on afterwards to bestow it. Like some radical equivalent of awarding someone a posthumous George Cross for gallantry on the field of battle. Fuck that! A dangerous development if it begins to be pursued and adopted by those genuinely furious and fearful about the progress towards totalitarianism, and certainly not dangerous for this frightening future but for those who would like to fight it.
This “Martyrdom” ideology is now being applied to Michael Reinoehl, the guy who killed a fascist in Portland. The following is a critique of this perspective as exemplified in Idris Robinson’s “Letter to Michael Reinoehl” – though it has relevance to other situations and to the whole notion of martyrdom.
Idris R. begins writing to Michael Reinoehl after his murder with: “I must begin by apologizing for not writing to you sooner. That is, I need to say sorry for not getting this letter to you before it was all over—or better, before they took it upon themselves to end it, and had subsequently finished you off in the process. However, if there is any consolation that we can hold onto in all of this, then it is, as you and I both know very well, that it is never really over.” And ends with “if all this too overwhelming, don’t feel compelled to hurry in writing back—even when I don’t hear from you, I know that you’re still around.”
With the Day of the Dead approaching one may have thought that, despite his ostensible fears that Michael Rheinoehl wouldn’t write back, privately IR hoped he would.
What a ghoulish way of honouring someone who certainly did the right thing but whose death and its significance is not at all clarified by this morbidly bizarre letter. Such moralist invocations of responsibility and duty to the dead (why not the unborn as well?) lead us up the blind alley of striving for an image of being a Good Human without seriously confronting the obstacles to genuinely becoming human. In fact, adding to those obstacles in the form of such tasteless opportunism. Writing to someone who’s dead may, to some, seem stylistically curious and thus seductive – perhaps that’s IR’s main intention – to parade his humaneness and thus gain admirers. But such a mannered form of expression, whether the reader is enticed and dazzled or just finds it inappropriate and squirmingly embarrassing, hides a disconcerting underlying injunction. Given that Michael Reinoehl can’t read this letter, what it in fact does is encourage the living to imitate him and to look for some posthumous glory. They can imagine that their lives will achieve meaning by seeking a celebrity status following a heroic sacrificial act, a fame that they will no more know about than George Floyd, but, unlike George Floyd, is something which they can imagine before indulging in revolutionary suicide to embolden them as they bravely stick their heads above the parapet regardless of an assessment of the risk involved.
To call those who died on the battlefields of the class war “martyrs” confuses things rather than clarifies them. For the living to sanctify those who have died as martyrs, to define the risks they took or take in such a manner, endangers the development of any revolutionary movement. In revolutionary warfare, the point is to do your best not to die for your class, or for a future society without classes; the point is for the other bastard to die for his or her class, or for class society in general.
Is Idris Robinson prepared to follow Michael Reinoehl to an Honourable Martyrdom or is he just hoping to bathe in a reflected glory that Reinoehl almost certainly never sought, whilst apologising for not having saved him from the summary execution that Trump seems to have ordered [ i ]? Style dominates this letter because style is almost all he’s got – the content of IR’s take on things in this text seems to be largely reactive to those few who seem to have disparaged MR for various reasons, some possibly partially pertinent [ii], some apparently contemptuous and contemptible.
Throughout the States – and elsewhere – the ideas behind this intellectual adoration of Michael Reinoehl’s humanity and integrity encourages the most Christian kinds of sacrifice on the part of – in particular – whites who, rather than recognise their responsibility to oppose and struggle against racism and its basis in class society, are meant to feel caught up in such contortionist acrobatics as “whiteness is to be measured by the degree to which a person clings to the last vestiges of this dying and doomed country. It is to maintain a faith in the same constitutional protections that your summary execution again proved empty. It is to nurse feelings for that one racist family member who still manages to elicit affection and love. It is to believe that a job is actually deserved at a firm where the darker employees can only cleanup. In short, it is the extent to which a person embodies life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is worthwhile to note that, according to this standard of evaluation, it follows that many of the people who are called “black” must instead be judged as white.” To use “white” as meaning complicity with racist hierarchical relations does nothing to clarify these relations but because it’s hiding behind a fog of semi-metaphorical language which tends to make whites feel, without being really sure about it, like they’re being attacked simply because they’re white, tending to narrow their focus on their whiteness as the essential element of their complicity with this society. It’s an elaborate stylistic conjuring trick that by sleight of hand distracts from a simple critique of complicity, a critique that doesn’t need such identifications with being white or black. Which is certainly (and hopefully obviously) not to pretend, by any means, that the black and white working class is equally alienated in equal ways. Though the question of race in the USA is fundamental to an understanding of the limits of class struggle there, reducing everything to Black=Good, White=Bad (even if he uses these as kind of metaphors for “against complicity with racist society” and “complicitous with racist society”) as an inversion of traditional racism obscures the class question. But then seeing things in terms of class is something IR seems to have an ideological aversion towards. If seeing the world in black and white is normally a way of over-simplifying reality without untangling it, IR has managed to reduce reality to black and white terms to add to tangled confusion. If you were to substitute “female” for “black” and “male” for “white”, how would that do anything to clarify and struggle to overcome a complex relation and its histories? “Maleness is to be measured by the degree to which a man clings to the last vestiges of this dying and doomed mysogeny…It is to nurse feelings for that one male family member who still manages to elicit affection and love. It is to believe that a job is actually deserved at a firm where the female employees can only cleanup. In short, it is the extent to which a person embodies life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is worthwhile to note that, according to this standard of evaluation, it follows that many of the people who are called “female” must instead be judged as “male”. Clearer? Some people think the more they write in obscurely esoteric terms the more profound what they’re saying is. Writing as a form of aesthetic rather than as an attempt to attack what is suffocating about social relations, writing as something to be appreciated rather than something that tries to influence changes in people’s actions and discussions.
To say “Ol’ Brown who manifested himself through” Michael Reinoehl is projecting a meaning that, without any evidence, seems to express and reinforce an alienated use of MR just to back up IR’s fixation on John Brown. According to the prevalent narrative, Michael Reinoehl, without much time to think about it, killed a fascist because the fascist was about to kill a friend of his. To make a connection with something that happened over 150 years ago, a plan that went wrong in significantly different circumstances and with very very different consequences, is just instrumentalising Michael Reinoehl’s death as a function of IR’s fixation on John Brown’s history. It’s a way of using history to justify a pre-existing argument even if this argument adds to the fog. Though it comes over as utterly sympathetic to Michael Reinoehl there’s something distasteful in IR’s attempt to wear his heart on his sleeve in this manner and at the same time intellectually fitting Michael Reinoehl’s death into a pre-conceived framework that could have had any other future white person’s name slotted in in place of Michael Reinoehl’s, using him as a means to a pre-set “analysis”.
“…it is becoming increasingly evident that civil war is inescapable. It is not up to anyone. Rather, it is a play of forces that does not need to make any excuses for itself—once the tiger has been let out the cage, it doesn’t go back in without trying to turn its former captors into prey. In other words, it doesn’t look like black people are going to sit down anytime soon, unless Mister Charlie figures out a way to strap us back down into his chair. Therefore, the strategic question is, then, not so much how to stop it, but how to win a civil war.”Idris Robinson
What is “civil war”? It’s obviously no more civil than civilisation is civilised. But, weak jokes apart, in the context of the USA it evokes the Union versus the Confederacy – the war of 1861 – 1865, a war between the more modern form of capitalism of the Northern states against the cruder form of exploitation and accumulation of the Southern slaveholders. Arguably, Lincoln’s side had something positive about it, especially after the blacks forced Lincoln to grant equal pay to black soldiers and other concessions to those he never regarded as the equals of whites (see “Blacks in the American Civil War”). But, at base, the 1860s was a bloody battle for different forms of hierarchical power and to want to take sides in such a future battle (in an age where, apart from all the other crazy futures awaiting us, ecocide is the inevitable result of all competing forms of political economy) is to submit to externally-defined false choices. Particularly with the historical experience of reconstruction and Jim Crow being that anything gained was clawed back in the form of prison slavery, the KKK and other horrors. So civil war in the American context should not be something seen as positive in the slightest. In an epoch when no faction of the capitalist class is capable, through their own inherent commodified logic, of doing anything (or is willing) to stem the future demise of life, let alone sanity, on the planet, it’s an unthinking and dangerous connection to invoke. Regardless of whether he intended it or not, American’s notions of history would inevitably associate the term “civil war” with that conflict. Only the naive judge people by their ostensible intentions.
As for other historical examples…
Insofar as the Russian Revolution was overwhelmed by the civil war it meant that anarchists such as Makhno layed down their fundamental differences with Bolshevik state capitalism to fight the common White enemy, only to find that they’d sided with their future executioners – the Red Army and Trotsky.
Though Spain in the 1930s had a far more developed libertarian culture and community, the compromise with Stalinism of the majority of Spanish anarchists, and especially their leaders, also meant disarming their radical critique only to side with their future executioners: insofar as it became a civil war for the defence of the republican state, the revolutionary class war that also developed within it lost out to those who wanted it to remain within classical bourgeois or bureaucratic capitalist means and ends.
As a French shop worker said three days ago to me, a customer, with reference to the situation in France – “They’re pushing us to a civil war, each section against each section. I want a revolution – not a civil war”. [ iii ]
In the above Letter, and in his talk on the riots, IR is content to use extreme sounding statements that might seem exciting and attractive to undiscerning minds brought up on soundbites. But the employment of the concepts of civil war and obligation to the dead further contribute to self-fulfilling prophecies of an inescapable clash of unremittingly painful false choices that not only ignore anything that’s not just about armed conflict, but also ignores the aims of such use of arms. Though there are hints that the author might intend something else, something different, the use of the expression “civil war” and the “splitting in half of American society” (from his talk ) for many can only call to mind the bloody images of ex-Yugoslavia and Syria [ iv] Unless we want to imagine a modern re-run of the 19th century conflict which would certainly be even more vicious, traumatic and eventually betrayed than it was over 150 years ago, a “liberatory revision” of the notion of “civil war” requires us to completely redefine what those words mean to such an extent that it makes far more sense to just use other words for what we want. Right now the biggest divisions in American society are cultural and political. If a civil war comes soon it will be along those lines. And that’s not something anybody with a bit of sense of what this means in terms of the intensification of the horrors of daily life should feel the least bit excited about. This is unlikely to be a project that a survivor of a historic civil war would willingly undertake (just as those who lived through the experience of state communism might find its contemporary employment by Western academics and those attached to the 19th century connotation of the word “communist” somewhat grating). Instead of fighting a pointless semantic battle over the meaning of “civil war”, it is simply better and easier to use different, more detailed and descriptive words to explain what we might like to see happen. Social war, class war, anti-hierarchical struggle in all their complexities. The prospect of a second American Civil War is something that a revolutionary movement should work against, not promote (and the events in Kenosha, Wisconsin that happened after I.R.’s talk, partly shows what a civil war might become). Part of such a revolutionary movement could involve discovering what rural and urban communities have in common and their relation to a highly industrialized exploitative system rather than endlessly repeating the chant “Fuck Trump!”. Sure, a revolution also could mean massacres, but from the counter-revolutionary side, and any genuine revolution would aim to reduce unnecessary killings to the minimum. A revolutionary effort should certainly not aim for an end goal of reconstituting the geographic and political entity that is the US, even under some version of the Leninist vision of a worker’s federation or state, but rather avoiding a politicized bloodbath where possible. The expression “civil war”, in addition to unleashing truly terrible violence that should be the goal of no one, has invariably implied a war for control over land, sea and air and an inherent nationalism. Where there is no nation – no property-based and/or territorially-based exploitation – to preserve there is no citizenry or community to fight amongst itself. There is, therefore, no civil war. Social war, class war, anti-hierarchical war involves arms but is far from exclusively an armed struggle and should no more fetishise guns than it should fetishise ideas separate from practice.
In Idris Robinson’s talk on the riots -“How it Might Should Be Done”, given in Seattle on July 20th 2020 (transcript here) – IR calls the people that died in the riots martyrs. As I’ve already said, such talk evokes traditional notions of war, of armed guerrilla conflict, of jihad, etc. People who are looking for martyrs are also looking for heroes. The guerrilla leader who said that he did not want his fighters to be heroes, but rather astute cowards who chose the terrain and timing for their attacks so they always had the advantages of surprise and numbers, always had the terrain and weather working for them, and always had multiple escape routes and were ready to use them when things looked like they were going sour, was right, (though “always” is a bit optimistic). Preparation beforehand is vital even if there’s a moment when chance may be for or against you and you have to take a leap into that margin of risk, those few seconds when we overcome our own fear and see the matter to a finish one way or the other. Fineness of judgment counts when it comes to reducing the margin of that gamble and the quality of that judgment can be developed by experimenting with smaller risks over a period of time beforehand. Sometimes it’s useful even making what may seem excessive preparations considering the minor risk one be may be taking as a practical and mental experiment in preparing for something far riskier. The preservation of one’s force is more important than virtually any other consideration, especially in social wars that are most transparently “politics by other means.” It’s essential to take a regular inventory of any situation including its potential and its limitations when making decisions about how to act. Both in a broad long-term sense and in the often rapid evolution of a social movement.
IR’s evocation of John Brown – probably the most well-known martyr/hero of the abolitionist movement – doesn’t help dispel traditional notions of war or even of jihad. Sure, we shouldn’t want to detract from John Brown’s integrity, courage and commitment. But his “martyrdom” before the American Civil War was due to failure (partly because of the hesitations of some of his team). In the attempted attack on Harper’s Ferry, despite his constant religious references, his Christianity, he didn’t aim to become a martyr – he hoped to succeed. If today his soul goes marching on it should not be as a model for whites contributing to the struggle against a fundamentally racist barbarism – everyone who’s committed to the destruction of the current horror has to take their own path, within their own margin of choice and in very different circumstances from John Brown. Once again, if you look to external role models you tend to fuse with an ideology of sacrifice to a cause, and certainly give up on developing your own capacities over time. Funny how Christianity and its glorification of sacrifice, the white imperialist bourgeoisie’s means of inculcating and taming the minds and lives of undomesticated blacks with “civilised” self-sacrificing theology-cum-ideology, is now being seen as something positive amongst intellectual blacks. This is not to say that a simplistic attack on “sacrifice” helps towards the supercession of the false choices of altruistic other-directedness and egotistical individualism, but constant valorisation of martyrdom is thoroughly Christian at its base.
Graffiti on outside of church, mid-70s
John Brown apparently relied on his faith (in himself, his righteousness, and most importantly the intervention of his god) instead of relying on a realistic assessment of his chances, opportunities and capabilities. Brown thought that because his cause was morally correct, God would ensure its success. Such religious devotion which obscured both the terrain on which he fought and his proposed methods is clearly not something to emulate in present circumstances, and even in the future. Certainly in his actions before Harper Ferry, there was an element of substitutionism in his actions – he was fighting to free the slaves on their behalf, believing himself to be God’s representative, chosen by God to overthrow slavery. Such theological justifications have nothing to do with a struggle to consciously determine our lives with neither Gods nor Masters, nor of the self-organisation of slaves and wage slaves against their slavery. Which is certainly not to imply in the slightest that those not directly implicated in a specific misery shouldn’t contribute to and help those fighting it, just that helping people and substituting yourself for their own initiative are two very different things, the difference between the professional Leader and those fighting for themselves and for what they recognise of themselves in the struggles of others. It seems that a significant number of slaves who were liberated by Brown chose not to join his military venture because they did not fancy their chances. You could put that down to any number of things including fear and hesitation, but it’s just as possible that some didn’t share Brown’s conviction that the bearded white man in the clouds would come to their aid and they chose to live and struggle in other ways instead.
Everyone with any humanity is angered by state killings, but the word “martyr” tends to smother this anger with religious implications, a distasteful sickening iconography. And it tends to incite naive people trying to fill the emptiness within that’s imposed by this world to believe and console themselves by pursuing the possibility of some kind of imaginary after-life – the dream that after death they can feel some posthumous compensation for being murdered by the cops because they will live on in people’s minds as martyr-heroes. Something they can imagine will console their close friends and relatives. Which detracts from the only way people live on in people’s minds – the memory of what they did during their lifetime, and that such a memory – what they said, wrote, did – can help towards an affirmation of life for those who remember and an anger at a life cut short. People killed fighting the state in South Africa in the 70s or 80s, for instance, were generally not characterised as “martyrs”, except maybe by political rackets seeking to make political capital out of the deaths of their party members[ v ]. Anger towards such murders is different from an attitude that tends to sanctify and hero-worship such victims of state brutality. Clearly risking death (or prison) is part of a struggle for the liberation of humanity, but you don’t court death unless you believe in a heavenly after-life for yourself. It’s a risk you may take in certain circumstances because if you don’t take it you’re left with the feeling of self-betrayal, of being a coward, however much you may lie to yourself that your avoidance of pain was inevitable (and the niggling recognition of their cowardice may weaken people, pushing them onto a slow and self-recriminating road to death, more vulnerable to health problems [ vi ]). If you risk death you risk it for yourself and those you love, like and for the liberation of humanity, which seems to have been part of Michael Reinoehl’s motivation. But it’s not a cause for something external to oneself and one’s social relations: it’s a desire and necessity and, above all, the only meaning that may make sense in horrible circumstances.
The whole martyr thing, though, gives a “higher purpose” outside of the real misery of why and how a person is killed. It tends to deform and sometimes even tame anger, or harden and channel passionate fury into a cold militant role (according to W.E.B. DuBois, people who knew John Brown said they’d never seen him smile). It often distorts hatred into all-too-easy slogans glorifying martyrs – more Christ than Spartacus, giving the death a nicey nicey clear pure meaning above the reality of it, repressing a fury at the reality of being murdered because of resisting, and that it could have been us or a close friend or lover who’d been murdered by our enemies, repressing a fury because of the way such state killings remind us of how our own lives are so uncontrolled, at the whim of frighteningly anti-life forces.
A lot more could be said about IR’s talk, or at least about aspects of the topical reality he touches on. And these subjects will be developed later. But for the moment, I’ll end with this:
Where we agree is that the entity known as the United States cannot go on existing if we and the planet we inhabit are to be free. And that goes for all nation-states. Let us imagine other means of achieving this by not just focusing on what the guillotine or gun or whatever has to offer. Whilst we’d certainly like to see at least some of the rulers hanging from lampposts like Mussolini, reducing each battle to the final battle is no authentic way to proceed other than if you think winning people over with an exciting image of anger and revenge can lead to anything other than demoralisation, embitterment and resigned disillusionment. Such grandstanding substitutes for strategies that are more realistic and which are available to everyone who wants to make progress towards this final battle, who wants to take risks commensurate with the degree of consciousness and of activity that significant sections of the rebellious working class are ready for.
– Sam Fanto
Though I take full responsibility for this final version, this could not have been written without me having borrowed very heavily from friends – K, SK, T and X. My thanks to them. However, my use of what they’ve written to me is my sole responsibility.
For more on the USSA, see this
“Trump bragged about Reinoehl’s killing at a rally in North Carolina on Thursday, getting cheers for a description that sounded like a summary execution by the state.“We sent in the U.S. marshals, took 15 minutes and it was over,” Trump said. “They knew who he was, they didn’t want to arrest him, and 15 minutes, that ended.” Previously on 13th September he’d already said of this summary execution: ““That’s the way it has to be,” Trump said after U.S. marshals killed a man suspected in a deadly shooting in Portland, Oregon, last month….Trump also appeared to suggest that law enforcement officers take similar action against demonstrators suspected of committing violent acts. …“You can’t throw bricks at guys with shields on them,” he said. Reinoehl’s shooting death came the same day that Trump took to Twitter to call for Reinoehl’s arrest, calling him a “cold blooded killer.”…One witness told The Washington Post that he never saw Reinoehl pull out a gun. Nate Dinguss said he saw officers pull up to Reinoehl in two unmarked police vehicles, get out without identifying themselves and immediately start firing their weapons at him. But two other witnesses told The Olympian that they saw Reinoehl fire what they thought was an assault rifle at the unmarked SUVs after the vehicles pulled up to him… The American criminal justice system presumes that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Taking punitive action against a suspect before then would run counter to that system.”
Keeping in mind the statement of Trump ally Stone that Trump impose martial law if he is not elected, we can see an increasingly clear profile of one section of the US ruling class that has left bourgeois legality completely behind, which is not effectively challenged by the Democrat Party’s proponents of legality (principally because they must support a law enforcement that is already heavily disposed toward extra-judicial measures and composed largely of fascist sympathizers) in government or civil society, and is increasingly committed to an eventually unsustainable rule by means of state and vigilante/Freikorps terror. Trump’s speech here amounts to open advocacy of political murder of anyone who manifests a public physical opposition to the regime and who advocates self-defense against the state-sponsored domestic terrorism presently taking shape.
ii It seems that any criticisms of him have largely been made in private, or at least not made public on the internet. The most pertinent seem to have been around a critique of gun culture. But this article is not the place to go into all the complexities of this. For a critique of US gun culture from a revolutionary perspective, see “Touch the Sky”, 1 hour, 40 minutes, 42 seconds in.
This is not in any way to be confused with the liberal criticism of gun laws.
Of these liberal idiocies, X writes: Interesting how these avant garde of domestication types always remind us of the right-wingers who have guns, and only mention, without drawing the obvious implications, that the fascist sheriffs, cops, ICE, Bureau of Prisons’ Special Forces, etc. – all in Trump’s camp, all supporters of the right wing white’s/macho guy’s rugged individualism, are all heavily armed, and all protected by the state.
The only counter-balance to this is an armed citizenry, as was evident in Louisville – this was the only thing that kept the right-wing would-be murderers at bay. And that’s where things stand now.
The interviewee never mentions the times when armed workers fought to defend themselves against both government and mercenary gunmen, as they did again and again during the 19th and 20th centuries, at Homestead Steel in 1892 and Ludlow in 1913, and elsewhere. Without an armed population supporting the strikes and occupations back then, the toll of working people would have been far higher, and the hired gunmen of the companies and their friends in government would have been far freer in their brutal repressions. We should not for a minute forget that at the same time the militias of Max Holz and Karl Plattner were bravely fighting their rearguard actions against the rising tide of Social-Democratic sponsored proto-nazism, and the last protagonists of the Russian revolution were fighting their unequal struggles at Kronstadt and in the Ukraine, the redneck miners were marching on the mine owners and their backers at Blair Mountain in this country – and were being attacked, like their class siblings in Germany and Russia, with all the weapons of modern warfare.
The interviewee in this article, whether he says so or not, wants to see us disarmed, helpless and dependent on the slender reed of politicians like Biden, who make their livings lying to us, imprisoning us, and to overseeing our subjection and impoverishment.
This one-sidedness in the service of social pacification is service for the cause of slavery.
iii The English Civil War is one of the few exception to this – a conflict between the old monarchy and the new bourgeoisie, which then released the spirit of other more class-based threats to the dominant order – e.g. the Ranters, the Diggers and the Agitators. But this was so long ago that few people in the UK associate the term “Civil war” with that epoch and even fewer know much about its radical currents (see Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down”)
iv T. writes:
The support for the movement in Rojava by various anarchists tends to ignore the fetishisation of martyrdom there, as exemplified by this from an article in issue #5 (Fascism) of ROAR magazine, 2017 https://roarmag.org/magazine/dilar-dirik-kurdish-anti-fascism/?fbclid=IwAR17rxX9rehpgyRyCJr4F7PPtmbtZwIObNUiGTBwDs2D5vHhXJHgD9nUOBE
“It was Arîn Mîrkan, a young, revolutionary, free Kurdish woman, who would become the symbol of Kobane’s victory — the city that broke the myth of the undefeatable fascism of ISIS. A fighter of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), Arîn Mîrkan detonated herself in October 2014 near the strategically critical Mishtenur Hill to rescue her comrades and to capture the position from ISIS. This eventually shifted the battle in favor of the People’s Defense Forces (YPG/YPJ) and other co-operating armed groups, pushing ISIS onto the defensive. After months of tireless fighting, which moved the US-led coalition to provide aerial military support, Kobane was free… ISIS’ main enemies are precisely those who face it with a radically different way of conceiving of life. Defeating authoritarian extremism is only possible through radical democracy and women’s liberation. Within this context, the SDF constitutes one of the most important anti-fascist struggles of our time. It must be supported.
Arîn Mîrkan’s heroic death was a hymn to life, to freedom, to women’s emancipation. Her selfless action out of solidarity with her people and the freedom of women in particular was a heavy blow not only to ISIS, but to the very mentality that underpins global capitalism’s profit-fetishizing individualism. In a world that sexualizes and objectifies the woman, Arîn Mîrkan used her body as a final frontline against fascism.”
The reification of this death, especially when saying that when a woman fighter bombs herself to pieces in order to free prisoners she is “using her body” as a frontline against fascism and sexism, is pretty sickening. This is not to say that sometimes people rightly feel, in terrifying circumstances, that they have to do something like this, but the martyr-ideologisation of such horrors is repulsive. How is this different from the glorification of death practiced by more obvious enemies, such as the Islamic State? In both cases the martyr-fetish on behalf of the surviving comrades and the martyr status they give to those who died (which even amounts to a sanctification of the gruesome way in which they found their death) seems to pardon them for any responsibility for that loss of life.
An article by Crimethinc on Rojava has an interview with a participant which, amongst other dubious aspects, contains this:
“……Our Şehîd — our comrades who fell—are a big inspiration for us and when we speak about this topic…”
Though Crimethinc are almost certainly unaware of it, the word “ Şehîd” is the concept of martyr (Shaheed in Arabic) – not comrade. The word means literally “witness” in Arabic, but its designation as martyr is given to both combatant and “civilian” casualties. For example, the Palestinians designate anyone who is killed by the Israeli occupation as “Shaheed” – whether they were fighters or children killed in an airstrike.
Unlike civil war, social war is not a single event. It started a long time ago and will likely continue to lurch in fits and starts towards no certain conclusion. A certain momentum seems to be gathering in the direction of a forceful eruption of some kind, more generalised and
intense than what we´ve seen for quite some time, but who knows what that might be, really? …our actions are informed by our understanding of the opportunities and threats presented
to us in a given moment. If we see the present as part of an inevitable march towards some sort of singular day of reckoning, our actions may well contribute towards nudging reality in an apocalyptic direction — though of course, in real life everything continues even after the most catastrophic climax, more or less drastically altered as the new circumstances may be.
I thought this observation from the anarchist comrades in Syria was interesting in the light of all this talk of civil war — since they are actually living through a real civil war as we speak:
A civil war is necessarily a mess, and it is not necessarily a
revolution. A civil war is something that we fight in order to defend
the revolution, but winning a war does not liberate a society from
colonization, patriarchy, and capitalism. That work is a constant
struggle within ourselves and within society, and it’s an
all-hands-on-deck situation. Honestly, I worry about the way that
revolution is often understood where I come from—as a thing that is
glorious, violent, and singular. A revolution is a process of healing,
something that is made much more difficult by constant attack. In
times when there is a ceasefire, the advances we make in the
revolution are massive, and in times of great threat and violence, we
experience the most setbacks and find ourselves compromising some
pretty important things. I would recommend that comrades get as
excited about building up things that are worth defending as they are
about the aesthetics of armed struggle. The truth is that war can wear people down, and when it goes on long enough, people get increasingly tired and will accept things that they wouldn’t have accepted before in hopes that the war
will end. There are people here who think about leaving simply because
they want their children to live without war for some part of their
childhood. It takes strong social connection and a deep ethical
foundation for a society to face the enemy and refuse to accept
domination. This is what we have been learning about civil war.
v SK writes:
When my mother was in her twenties she was at a burial in the Muslim cemetery in Cape Town -I’m not sure who the dead person was or how they died, but I guess it must have had something to do with the anti-apartheid struggle in some way — when people in the crowd identified a cop surveilling the scene — I think he might have been undercover — and killed him on the spot in an eruption of anger. In South Africa at that time people were not considered martyrs, but burials and funerals often became highly charged events — and were frequently banned. Even when the dead were not killed by cops but of causes that would be considered “natural” today, the system that allowed — compelled — the unnecessary deaths of black people was recognised and denounced as the “social murder” (to use a Chartist term that has sadly fallen into disuse) that it is. That kind of generalized anger directed against the systemic violence of this world is undermined, in my opinion, by the sort of attitude that hierarchically valorizes certain explicitly politicized deaths at the expense of all others (much like the valorization of political prisoners tends to limit any generalized perspective of prison abolition).
For me one of the most valuable uses of critical theory is to direct attention away from the sensational violence of the headlines and the sort of narratives dominated by those who have adopted specialized militant roles to which most people can only relate as spectators —
whether as cheerleaders or hecklers — and back towards the violence of everyday misery that is this society´s biggest public secret. Every death by suicide, every casualty of drug addiction, of mental illness, of rape, of violent crime, of pollution, of malnutrition, of infant
mortality, of preventable disease, on the road, in the workplace, in the home, in the streets — all are casualties of the social war waged by those who benefit from the dominant social relations against those who are its victims. The positive side of martyrdom is that it confers a
sense of agency and active resistance — martyrs are not passive victims but fighters who died for their cause. There are, on the other hand, all sorts of fighters and all sorts of ways to fight — _and to lose_. To die standing makes for a good slogan but it is not in fact the only good
way to die. Just because someone does not die fighting does not mean that did not _live _fighting. It is not always dishonorable to concede defeat. By the same token, just because someone dies fighting does not mean that their lives or their fight was exemplary.
vi But an avoidance of risk, even risk of death, can be almost as self-destructive as the anti-fascist equivalent of running out onto a 6-lane highway to prove you’re superior to machines.
Here’s an example of someone that shows how recognition of your own cowardice may weaken you: Bertolt Brecht. It’s fairly well known that when the steelworkers rose up in East Berlin in 1953 and went to Brecht’s theatre to ask for help in supporting them he refused. Maybe it was nobler in his mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune rather than take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. Perhaps what he feared most was losing his precious theatre. Perhaps he preferred to sleep, perchance to dream of his next play – preferring to bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the insolence of office and the patient merit of the unworthy.
What’s not well known is what my dad, who knew him a bit, told me about him: he felt so guilty and ashamed after the steelworkers were crushed by the tanks of the Stalinist leader, Ulbricht, that his health suffered, and it led to his death in 1956, at the age of 58. Apart from anything else, this shows how a cultural form of proletarian subversion usually has very little to do with a current practice of subversion, and that those who consider ideas and art as something separate from real life risk are at best useless when it comes to any genuine struggle against this world. Fear had little to do with his failure to support the steelworkers: Brecht’s international reputation put him in the unique position of having relatively little to worry about. And certainly a lot less to worry about than the workers who rose up – at least 55 were killed, including 15 and 16-year-olds. His only response to the uprising was to write a brief poem, that later became well-known, after it was all over – “The Solution” – which, though written in verse form, I reproduce here as a statement, because the verse form adds nothing to it: “After the uprising of the 17th June, the Secretary of the Writers Union had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee stating that the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”. Neatly put, but not only too little too late – it was only published posthumously, perhaps because he may have recognised that it was a bit of an all-too-easy cop-out. Or maybe for fear of the repressive consequences of even merely writing something kind of jokey-satirical after the right moment had passed. Certainly no use in stemming that dreadful feeling of self-betrayal, betrayal of everything he’d apparently held dear to him, that must have torn and worn away at him until death. It’s never better to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of with a conscience that makes us cowards, resolution sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, the currents of enterprises of great pitch and moment turning awry, losing the name of action.
[Apologies to Shakespeare who clearly needs to be apologised to]
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