Back in Black

May68

On Fri­day, May 3, 1968, sev­er­al hun­dred rad­i­cal stu­dents stared down a con­tin­gent of fas­cists out­side the Sor­bon­ne, in Paris. The day before, the neo-fas­cist group Occi­dent torched the offices of a left­ist stu­dent orga­ni­za­tion, leav­ing behind their call sign, the Celtic Cross. In respon­se, rad­i­cal stu­dents called for a demon­stra­tion again­st “fas­cism and ter­ror,” steel­ing them­selves for a fight.

Brawls between rad­i­cals and fas­cists had become a com­mon fea­ture of the Parisian polit­i­cal scene since the Alge­ri­an War, when fas­cists turned to ter­ror­ism, assas­si­na­tion, and bomb­ings in a last-ditch effort to pre­vent Alge­ri­an inde­pen­dence, demol­ish the left, and seize state pow­er. After the war, para­mil­i­tary groups like Occi­dent con­tin­ued to wage war on the left. In this con­text, many stu­dent rad­i­cals began their polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion in antifas­cist orga­niz­ing, where they learned how to fight fas­cists in the streets, con­front the police, and orga­nize swift, mil­i­tant actions. As one rad­i­cal explained, “I was antifas­cist. That was how I was social­ized. Oth­ers wield­ed the dialec­tic – I wield­ed the matraque.”

The rad­i­cal youth groups of the 1960s devel­oped para­mil­i­tary wings known as the ser­vice d’ordre (SO). As its name sug­gests, the SO took respon­si­bil­i­ty for main­tain­ing gen­er­al order. They act­ed as parade mar­shals dur­ing demon­stra­tions, pro­tect­ed ral­lies and meet­ings from raids, defend­ed mil­i­tants hawk­ing news­pa­pers from fas­cist attacks, and lat­er han­dled secu­ri­ty at occu­pa­tions. But the SO also played an offen­sive role, dis­rupt­ing lec­tures dur­ing stu­dent strikes, storm­ing fas­cist meet­ings, and con­fronting police dur­ing demon­stra­tions. For those in the move­ment, there was no con­tra­dic­tion between the­se func­tions, so long as the SO answered to the larg­er strug­gle.

That Fri­day, both sides came pre­pared. When Occi­dent thugs marched towards the uni­ver­si­ty, sport­ing hel­mets, clubs, and smoke bombs, rad­i­cals fas­tened their hel­mets and smashed fur­ni­ture to fash­ion weapons for the inevitable melee. Pan­ick­ing, the chan­cel­lor called the police, who made mat­ters worse by raid­ing the demon­stra­tion and mak­ing indis­crim­i­nate arrests. Stu­dents quick­ly retal­i­at­ed, sur­round­ing police vans, rip­ping up cob­ble­stones, and throw­ing mis­siles at police.

The were 574 arrests that day. Stu­dents across Paris were rad­i­cal­ized by the crack­down, and took to the streets demand­ing that the police lib­er­ate their com­rades. Protests cli­maxed a week lat­er, on May 10, when rad­i­cal youth, led by the bat­tle-hard­ened SO, fought police into the night. Rad­i­cals cut down trees and over­turned cars to erect bar­ri­cades, stretched wires across the streets, rolled auto­mo­biles into police lines, set fires to halt police advances, and unleashed salvos of cob­ble­stones. When the plumes of tear gas final­ly cleared, 200 cars lay in ruins, at least 400 were injured, and over 500 arrest­ed.

Remark­ably, despite the van­dal­ism, vio­lence, and prop­er­ty destruc­tion, polls indi­cat­ed that 80 per­cent of Parisians sup­port­ed the youths. In fact, res­i­dents of the Lat­in Quar­ter pro­vid­ed pro­test­ers with food, water, mate­ri­al for bar­ri­cades, and refuge from police. On May 13, the unions called a strike. Stu­dents occu­pied the uni­ver­si­ty, fac­to­ry work­ers fol­lowed suit, and by the end of the mon­th, some nine mil­lion work­ers were on strike. As life in the cap­i­tal ground to a halt, Pres­i­dent de Gaulle left the coun­try to con­sult with the army. Though de Gaulle soon reassert­ed con­trol, the May events over­turned French soci­ety. Fac­to­ries became ungovern­able for over a decade, diverse social move­ments pro­lif­er­at­ed across the coun­try, and de Gaulle him­self was forced out of office in 1969. 

May-68001

It’s aston­ish­ing to see, then, the reac­tion of the lib­er­al intel­li­gentsia to the return of the “black bloc” today. Some crit­ics, like Eri­ca Chenoweth, claim that “his­to­ry” alleged­ly proves that “black bloc tac­tics” are inef­fec­tive. To begin with, accounts like the­se erro­neous­ly con­flate mil­i­tant street-fight­ing with armed strug­gles again­st dic­ta­tor­ships, mis­rep­re­sent­ing the black bloc as a mili­tia or guer­ril­la force, rather than a speci­fic tac­tic. Even worse, they’re his­tor­i­cal­ly inac­cu­rate. There’s lit­tle doubt among his­to­ri­ans that mil­i­tant street-fight­ing played a cru­cial, cat­alyz­ing role in 1960s France. There’s also agree­ment that the tac­tic proved effec­tive in many oth­er strug­gles – for an exam­ple closer to home, con­sid­er the Detroit upris­ing of 1967. Rather than end­ing in chaos, the riots not only rad­i­cal­ized unions, but actu­al­ly gen­er­at­ed long-last­ing and durable orga­ni­za­tions like the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers.

But let’s not make the oppo­site error as Chenoweth. The exam­ple of May ‘68 does not sug­gest that street-fight­ing will auto­mat­i­cal­ly call into being mass move­ments of the kind that rad­i­cal­ly over­turned French soci­ety in the 1960s and 1970s. The con­fronta­tion­al tac­tics of rad­i­cal youth before and dur­ing May 1968 det­o­nat­ed a high­ly com­bustible con­junc­ture, and the exact polit­i­cal sequence of the May events can nev­er be repeat­ed.

“His­to­ry,” then, does not provide us with mod­els to mechan­i­cal­ly fol­low or avoid. If the his­to­ry of mil­i­tant con­fronta­tion shows us any­thing, it’s that black bloc tac­tics may work in some cas­es and not in oth­ers: effec­tive­ness depends entire­ly on the con­junc­ture at hand. Evo­ca­tions of the past might shed light on a time when some­thing like the black bloc did play an impor­tant role in social move­ments, but can’t tell us whether the black bloc is appro­pri­ate today. Only a con­crete analy­sis of our con­crete sit­u­a­tion can deter­mine what role, if any, the black bloc can play in today’s move­ments. While many have right­ly ques­tioned the bloc’s over­all effec­tive­ness over the past decade or so, we are now in an objec­tive­ly dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture, which should force us to recon­sid­er the poten­tial role of the black bloc.

New Con­junc­ture

As I have argued else­where, the black bloc rep­re­sent­ed a speci­fic tac­tic that once enjoyed a valu­able place with­in the strat­e­gy of a cer­tain con­stel­la­tion of move­ments. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the­se move­ments col­lapsed, repres­sion height­ened, and rad­i­cal spaces were restruc­tured, under­min­ing the social bases that ground­ed black bloc tac­tics. The bloc man­aged to live on as a kind of “float­ing tac­tic,” but sur­vival came at a cost. With­out a broad­er strat­e­gy, par­ti­sans of the bloc found them­selves com­pelled to con­tin­u­al­ly repro­duce this sin­gle tac­tic in the hopes of spon­ta­neous­ly res­ur­rect­ing the strat­e­gy that once gave it mean­ing, trap­ping them­selves in a bad infin­i­ty of spec­tac­u­lar actions. Sep­a­rat­ed from mass organs, its mem­bers tend­ed to take on a dis­tinct cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty, some­times in out­right oppo­si­tion to move­ments. Through­out the 2000s, some black bloc mil­i­tants derid­ed oth­er demon­stra­tors for hold­ing them back, while less con­fronta­tion­al activists denounced the bloc for irre­spon­si­ble adven­tur­ism. It’s from this peri­od that the bloc’s rep­u­ta­tion dates.

But the dawn­ing of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has changed the game. By unleash­ing a mas­sive assault on all sec­tors of the work­ing class, his pres­i­den­cy has raised ques­tions about secu­ri­ty, per­son­al safe­ty, and bod­i­ly auton­o­my. Trump’s uni­lat­er­al impo­si­tion of racist immi­gra­tion poli­cies has already thrown the lives of immi­grants into dis­ar­ray. Future actions will fur­ther imper­il the lives of the undoc­u­ment­ed. If passed, the Republican’s nation­wide right-to-work bill would gut unions, leav­ing count­less Amer­i­can work­ers even more vul­ner­a­ble than they already are. Mean­while, Trump’s for­ay into “health­care reform” could leave twen­ty mil­lion Amer­i­cans unin­sured, poten­tial­ly result­ing in 43,956 deaths annu­al­ly. Hate crimes have already spiked, as embold­ened fas­cists have tagged swastikas in cities across the coun­try, sent death threats to syn­a­gogues and mosques, and ver­bal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly harassed minori­ties. Just two weeks ago a Tump sup­port­er shot a pro­test­er at a Milo Yiannopoulos event in Seat­tle – the victim’s right to free speech saw none of the defense from civil lib­er­tar­i­ans that Richard Spencer was grant­ed for a non-lethal punch. In this con­text, it’s worth recon­sid­er­ing the role that mil­i­tant con­fronta­tion, and self-defense, might play in pro­tect­ing col­lec­tive move­ments.

There’s also evi­dence that the idea of con­fronta­tion is gain­ing wider accep­tance. Many of those orga­niz­ers who have not pre­vi­ous­ly adopt­ed black bloc tac­tics are grow­ing far more recep­tive, and in some places are seek­ing alliances with those who use them. Despite the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the event, it seems many Berke­ley stu­dents sup­port­ed the mil­i­tant tac­tics that pre­vent­ed Milo  from speak­ing at Berke­ley, where he intend­ed to launch a cam­paign again­st sanc­tu­ary cam­pus­es, and may have planned to reveal the names of undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dents. “My cam­pus did noth­ing to stand between my undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ty and the hate­ful hands of rad­i­cal­ized white men — the AntiFas did,” an undoc­u­ment­ed stu­dent wrote of the Milo event. “A peace­ful protest was not going to can­cel that event, just like numer­ous let­ters from fac­ul­ty, staff, Free Speech Move­ment vet­er­ans and even donors did not can­cel the event. Only the destruc­tion of glass and shoot­ing of fire­works did that.”

There’s even a grow­ing main­stream inter­est in the black bloc. With­in hours, the video of Richard Spencer get­ting punched in the face received near­ly a mil­lion views, and was set to music from “Born in the U.S.A.” to “The Boys Are Back in Town.” The black bloc is now dis­cussed at the din­ner table, fea­tured on cable tele­vi­sion, and addressed on the front page of the New York Times, chal­leng­ing some main­stream lib­er­als like Sarah Sil­ver­man to rethink their assump­tions. This chang­ing atti­tude is like­ly a reflec­tion of the rad­i­cal­iz­ing polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. Ani­mat­ed by Trump, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans who nev­er joined a protest before this elec­tion are now sac­ri­ficing their free time for polit­i­cal meet­ings, march­ing again­st traf­fic, shut­ting down air­ports, get­ting trained as orga­niz­ers, and even con­tem­plat­ing a gen­er­al strike. Many are com­ing to feel that the vio­lence of a bro­ken win­dow pales in com­par­ison to the vio­lence of Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion. In fact, it’s pre­cise­ly this sur­pris­ing open­ness to black bloc tac­tics that has sent crit­ics into such a deliri­ous state.

At the same time, black bloc mil­i­tants rec­og­nize the need to find ways to organ­i­cal­ly inte­grate street-fight­ing with­in a whole ecosys­tem of strug­gles. Let’s not for­get that in Berke­ley, the bloc’s actions were only one aspect of a broad­er cam­paign that includ­ed pub­lish­ing op-eds, buy­ing out tick­ets, work­ing with fac­ul­ty to pres­sure the admin­is­tra­tion into can­cel­ing the event, orga­niz­ing through the UAW, con­tact­ing local politi­cians, reach­ing out to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties in the area, and hold­ing pub­lic meet­ings.

The black bloc mil­i­tants I’ve spo­ken to at recent demon­stra­tions in Philadel­phia have stressed the impor­tance of work­ing with larg­er mobi­liza­tions, not again­st them. That means trans­form­ing the bloc from an iden­ti­ty to an inte­grat­ed tac­tic. The way for­ward, then, is to cre­ative­ly artic­u­late street-fight­ing not only with a wider range of tac­tics, but with wider mass move­ments, which will like­ly mean putting the bloc to a range of uses, as French rad­i­cals in the 1960s did with the ser­vice d’ordre.

Dur­ing Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion, black bloc tac­tics helped Black Lives Mat­ter activists shut down a check­point, chas­ing away neo-Nazis. What oth­er uses can the bloc serve today? Shut­ting down air­ports? Pro­tect­ing abor­tion clin­ics? Help­ing to stop depor­ta­tion raids? Defend­ing the autonomous sur­vival pro­grams we’ll need to devel­op in the com­ing years?

Chal­lenges

The ques­tion, then, is whether Trump’s pres­i­den­cy has cre­at­ed the con­di­tions to restore the black bloc to its his­tor­i­cal func­tion as an inte­gral ele­ment of mass strug­gles, rather than as a float­ing tac­tic. It seems the pos­si­bil­i­ty exists, but mak­ing this encoun­ter take hold will no doubt present many chal­lenges.

First, there’s the hypocrisy of Amer­i­can con­ven­tion­al wis­dom on vio­lence. Dur­ing May ‘68, the Parisian pub­lic thought lit­tle of the dozens of cars that went up in flames. The police, whom the major­i­ty dis­re­spect­ed, were clear­ly in the wrong. In con­trast, although it’s clear that thou­sands of Amer­i­cans are com­ing to rethink mil­i­tant con­fronta­tion in the streets, the ide­ol­o­gy of law and order remains strong. Even among some who oppose Trump, the police are often pre­sumed inno­cent, and their vic­tims guilty. For the black bloc to find a firm place in today’s move­ments, this ide­o­log­i­cal def­er­ence to legal author­i­ty has to change.

This is not at all to say, as the lib­er­als do, that this atti­tude is so ingrained that we should throw our hands in the air and police our move­ments so they appeal to lib­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ties. If there’s one thing we’ve learned this past year, it’s that the people’s atti­tudes can change rapid­ly. We can expect Trump to do some of this work for us. But we can also make an effort to wage a fierce cam­paign of polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly with­in the mass demon­stra­tions draw­ing in tens of thou­sands a week, that insists we approach con­fronta­tion not through moral­is­tic judge­ment but tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion.

Sec­ond, there’s the chal­lenge of for­mal­iz­ing the link between the black bloc and oth­er strug­gles. To be effec­tive, the black bloc requires a cer­tain degree of auton­o­my, espe­cial­ly given the legal risks of con­fronta­tion. On the oth­er hand, if the bloc is to ampli­fy move­ments, rather than work at cross-pur­pos­es, it must be trans­par­ent and account­able. In the past, the bal­ance was achieved through for­mal orga­ni­za­tion­al uni­ty. The ser­vice d’ordre, for exam­ple, exist­ed with­in, and took gen­er­al direc­tion from, a larg­er orga­ni­za­tion. In this way, those engaged in bloc tac­tics and those involved with oth­er actions could coor­di­nate their efforts to achieve max­i­mum effec­tive­ness. To make the link work today, we need to find ways to recre­ate this for­mal­ized rela­tion­ship, which means invent­ing new forms of uni­ty and build­ing col­lec­tive orga­ni­za­tions. In fact, in the cur­rent con­text, the very ques­tion of uni­ty makes lit­tle sense with­out orga­ni­za­tion.

Last­ly, and most impor­tant­ly, if this reuni­fi­ca­tion is to work, we need a strat­e­gy. The black bloc, after all, rep­re­sents only a tac­tic. While Trump’s pres­i­den­cy may have cre­at­ed a new need for mil­i­tant con­fronta­tion, the larg­er strate­gic ques­tions that can give such a tac­tic mean­ing remain open. How can we col­lec­tive­ly artic­u­late diverse social forces into a last­ing polit­i­cal uni­ty that respects their dif­fer­ent needs, inter­ests, and desires? What forms of orga­nized self-activ­i­ty will res­onate with the par­tic­u­lar com­po­si­tion of the U.S. work­ing class­es? In what ways can the anti-Trump resis­tance tran­si­tion into a pos­i­tive move­ment for rad­i­cal social change, beyond cap­i­tal­ism and the state? Only by think­ing through the­se strate­gic ques­tions can we real­ly deter­mine the place of the black bloc, and not the oth­er way around.

1968_car barricades

Widen­ing our Hori­zons

On May 7, 1968, mem­bers of the UJCml, one of the rad­i­cal stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions of the time, met at the École nor­male supérieure to dis­cuss the stu­dent revolts. Robert Lin­hart, the group’s undis­put­ed lead­er, remained con­vinced that the entire affair was a ruse. Fas­tened to a crude work­erism, Lin­hart argued that rebel­lious stu­dents could not pos­si­bly lead the rev­o­lu­tion. In fact, their puerile street-fight­ing was not only a dis­trac­tion, but played right into the hands of the bour­geoisie by keep­ing them trapped in the Lat­in Quar­ter, away from the work­ers. As their flier, And Now to the Fac­to­ries!, explained, every­one should “leave bour­geois neigh­bor­hoods where we have noth­ing to do,” and “go to the fac­to­ries and pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hoods to unite with the work­ers,” the only class who could make the rev­o­lu­tion.

Yet the order to ignore the stu­dent demon­stra­tions did not sit well with UJCml activists who watched as the Lat­in Quar­ter went up in flames. “Robert,” Linhart’s wife declared, “the stu­dents are fight­ing out­side. It’s fool­ish to stay here, behind closed doors. It’s time to join in … The pro­le­tari­at wants to join the demon­stra­tions and, fol­low­ing the stu­dents’ exam­ple, to go on strike!” Lin­hart, how­ev­er, refused to budge. Trapped in rigid mod­els, refus­ing to assess the nov­el­ty of the sit­u­a­tion at hand, the UJCml missed the open­ing acts of May ‘68.

It’s not 1968, and nev­er will be again. The May events don’t give us a mod­el to fol­low. On the con­trary, they reveal the need to treat mod­els and received ideas with cau­tion, to remain polit­i­cal­ly flex­i­ble in the face of a new and unfa­mil­iar sit­u­a­tion. Indeed, this is the lesson French mil­i­tants drew after the energies of the insur­rec­tion­al peri­od sub­sid­ed. Many attempt­ed to con­fig­ure a his­tor­i­cal­ly ade­quate, effec­tive set of polit­i­cal prac­tices, through inquiry and “action com­mit­tees,” to set up relays between the strug­gles of work­ers, stu­dents, immi­grants, and the still-sub­stan­tial French peas­antry. We have to rec­og­nize that we’re in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent and quite unsta­ble his­tor­i­cal con­junc­ture. The play­book can only take us so far. We have to take inspi­ra­tion from the strug­gles around us, what­ev­er their con­tra­dic­tions, and broad­en our imag­i­na­tion.

It may be that the black bloc’s time is over, that it remains com­plete­ly inad­e­quate to our present con­junc­ture. But it may also be the case that we can find ways to rein­te­grate the bloc into today’s strug­gles, which might ulti­mate­ly make our move­ments even stronger. We will get nowhere by indulging in knee-jerk denun­ci­a­tions based in moral­ism, dubi­ous appeals to the author­i­ty of his­to­ry, or fixed ideas about what strug­gles ought to look like, as the real strug­gles rage out­side. We have to begin with a con­crete analy­sis of the con­crete sit­u­a­tion to see what kind of polit­i­cal exper­i­ments we need today, mak­ing sure we don’t miss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of unprece­dent­ed events. Instead of draw­ing con­clu­sions from behind closed doors, we should base our strat­e­gy on what’s hap­pen­ing in the streets.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.