what is ‘militancy’?

by Nathan Coombs

The word militancy’s usage generally refers to non-state military groups pursuing an ideological programme. In the way in which the term is deployed in the media, it is thus used as an ambiguous half way house between more legitimate terms such as, say, activist group, and the more loaded term extremists, or terrorists.

But that said, what I want to do is to examine the aspects of militancy which are not necessarily based on violence, even if they do not preclude it. Let us use an accessible example, during the RMT-led tube strikes in 2009 it was a consist motif in the press to label the union, and particularly its leader, Bob Crow, as militant. Obviously this did not imply that they were using coercive violence to achieve their means—not even at the picket lines where historically there is usually tension between strikers and strike breakers. At the same time, the militant aspect cannot be reduced solely to action, because that also seems to miss what is unique about it. Here I think we need to consider the modality and the ends of the action to understand whether or not it can be considered militant.

First of all, we have to primarily see militant action as an act of self-interested self-assertion. It transcends mere bargaining over pay and conditions, which is the mainstay of the union bureaucracy and management, and involves a fight for something more—and I would say that something more is the balance of power itself. Whilst the balance of power is always a factor in union negotiations, or even actions when they break down, the action becomes militant precisely when power itself comes into dispute. This appears to be what is being missed in discussion regarding the BA dispute also: the fact that what is at stake cannot be reduced down to a mere tussle over pay and jobs, but the question of who and how those decisions are made: the fact that union members see themselves as having a stake in the company and not just as disposable units of labour. So my first thesis is that militancy fundamentally privileges power. Militant action fights for power, not simply through it. Which is also why it is frequently locked in antagonism with authority—to stay with the union theme, think the miners strike and the way tens of thousands of police were directed against them, the way Thatcher defined them as ‘the enemy within’, and so forth.

Another part of this we can think through Carl Schmitt’s idea of the political. Militant action renders redundant ‘critique’ and liberal triangulation of arguments and forms of dispute resolution that stop short of self-assertion. The militant decision, because it fights for power is directly political; it establishes clear friend/enemy distinctions, and can operate only along those faultlines to start with: management/employees; Islamists/secularists etc. etc.

A militant action does not seek to accommodate itself within the prevailing consensus, but rupture the consensus itself. If successful it changes the objective situation through its action, and defines the very terms of discourse which follow from it. Alain Badiou’s idea of a militant truth procedure seems right on this point. And remembering some comments by Slavoj Žižek, thinkers such as Freud and Marx can also be considered militant, in that they subtracted their thought from all consensus, and their followers (Freudians and Marxists) concretised these through discourses which were held to no other authority except the words of Marx or Freud themselves.

So my second thesis is that a militant action has to not only fight for power, but to equally at least aim to change the objective situation and terms of discourse. In a minimal interpretation of this second thesis, it seems that al-Qaeda have been remarkably successful in changing the entire global situation: from the way we travel, to the erosion of privacy, drawing the United States into ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and so on. Whether or not their fight for power is successful—it generally seems to be fought indirectly through proxy in any case—they obviously demonstrate at least some of the traits of militancy. But perhaps this is only the case because today rival forms of militancy seem so few and far between, and so weak. This is probably more appropriate to consider in the next section however.

2  Is transnational militancy possible?

To begin to answer this question I think we should taking Frederic Jameson’s demand to ‘always historicize’ as our first point of departure. Even twenty years ago we might have been talking about internationalist militancy, but with the defeat of the global revolutionary movement—roughly coinciding with the end of the Cold War, although perhaps as far back as the late 1970s—militant Islam has come to define the terms we use. And with these national, internationalist movements defeated the theoretical spectrum has tried to recreate the space for thinking a global movement in the transnational terms rather than international terms—take Hardt and Negri’s work for one example.

Yet given the way I present what militancy is, there seems to be a paradox at the heart of the idea of transnational militancy. Because if militancy is the fight for power, what then is the objective of transnational militancy? That is, where is the transnational power it could wrestle with? Although we know there are forms of transnational organization, compared to the very determinate military and police apparatuses of national states, or even very locally situated power complexes, they appear weak, second order assemblages, which are for the most part totally unaccountable. The global justice movement, and experiments such as the World Social Forum, obviously fail to count as a militant movement not simply because they involve no taking up of arms, but moreover because it is not altogether obvious who they are fighting against and on what level. What power can they fight for? Providing an alternative space to institutions such as the WTO, IMF etc. is not the same as taking power from those institutions, which would have to involve withdrawl of national governments from these institutions. Since at the national level this is where the decision of withdrawl would foment the most antagonisms (between say political-financial elites and the poor majority), it is here that the action would take on its militant modality. If the movement coordinated itself with movements in other countries, this would be an internationalist movement, not a transnational one. Transnational movements such as the WSF and global justice movement thus face no imperative to take up arms, since there is no one who would oppose them to the extent that would compel its necessity in the first place.

This analysis I think points to the fact that transnational militancy, as things stand today, is a contradiction in terms. Certain transnational movements can seek to shift the consensus, but this is a long way from the self-interested, self-assertion for power which I associate with militancy. In this sense, al-Qaeda is an odd phenomenon; they are not directly fighting for power—they are not seeking to take over national governments or even quasi-autonomous regions like the Taliban in Pakistan—but at the same time they are fighting power: national armies, the U.S. military, etc. The asymmetry of their form of warfare—terror—is matched by the asymmetry of their militancy.  Perhaps this is the only sense in which today we can meaningfully talk about transnational militancy: as a shadowy double of local, national and international militant struggles. Transnational militancy roams about in the background exacerbating those antagonisms for its own ends.

3  Militant organizational forms?

Today horizontal organizational forms are thought of as the future—this is aligned to a number of factors which I want to list here. First, is the anti-statist, anti-authoritarian imaginary which now seems to dominates radical politics, which frames its thought generally within the remit of negative freedoms. This is combined, second, with the sense that technology—the internet, blogs, peer to peer networks, etc.—are democratising both the flows of information and how movements and projects are constructed. And finally, both these two factors assist and are reciprocal with the idea of the transnational movement, which cuts across borders and identities. And as supposed transnational militants, al-Qaeda epitomize this: with their emphasis on self-sufficient and self-organizing cells linked through generally amorphous jihadist websites and media sharing respources.

However, the preceding discussion on how al-Qaeda do not seek to affect change by claiming power points to the problem of the network as a militant model. Let us take the Iranian ‘green movement’ –itself with some level transnationality behind it. It has been praised for making use of all these democratic, horizontal internet technologies to organise its protests without a clear central node determining all its actions. But this is not strictly true; there is a leadership behind the greens—presidential candidates Mousavi and Karroubi; with the dealmaker Rafsanjani making moves in the background. These are all, of course, hardcore proponents of the Islamic Republic, who have had in one way or the other their part to play in the suppression of the very horizontal pluralities in the country about which the movement is now praised. So it seems that these networks ultimately default to falling in behind establishment figures in a tacit interplay between activist and regime insider. In the same way, although in a much less explicitly political situation, Ed Miliband’s repeated calls for more climate change activism to force the hand of government plays off the same logic. Considering our criteria of self-assertion and the battle for power, in no way can these be considered as examples of militant politics. There is thus a large gap opening up between the imaginary of the type of politics many people want to engage with in this new century—horizontal, networked, multitudinous—and their ability to effectively engage with effective power. Part and parcel of this process seems to be an ever-growing scepticism and disengagement from the democratic processes of national politics, whilst the totally undemocratic and unaccountable bodies such as the United Nations and World Health Organization become held up as the authoritative bodies to which national governments are held.

4. Militant demands?

To begin, I want to draw your attention to one of the more interesting analyses of the Greek December uprising 2008/09: the fact that the despite the protesting, riots, and running street battles with the police there was little effort to attempt to articulate anything like a set of demands. At the same time, neither was there any attempt to take the state and seize power in the revolutionary sense. It was almost like a replay of May 1968, except this time failure was preordained from the start. There was nothing inevitable about this – immigrants were protesting, the unions were threatening to hold a general strike, and too late, after typical institutional communist party procrastination, the Greek Communist Party (KKE) came out in support of the movement. At the very least there was a large potential leverage on the state, but instead nothing more than a diffuse dissatisfaction was exhibited. Students and young people occupied public buildings, universities, and held them for only a short time. In any normal political analysis it would be hard to read the uprising as anything other than simply a momentary emancipatory opening (following Fanon, I don’t think we should deny the proximity of a certain destructive violence to emancipatory movements) leading into something akin to political disaster—a sharp cultural swing to the right wing, the siege of the semi-autonomous Exarchia district of Athens, and the election of a principleless centre-left political dynasty. In terms of concrete results—whether redressing police brutality, or measures to change the situation of the 700 Euro generation—the uprising has basically nothing to show for its efforts.

Of course, it would be easy to inscribe this into an analysis of the lack of realism inherent to anarchism (the ‘vanguard’ of the movement were generally the more militant types from Greece’s multifarious anarchist collectives) but perhaps there is a more general problematic here? In any case, it was not long before governments in Western Europe were fretting about a repeat of the uprising. In France this translated into the witchhunt against the tiny anarchist collective based in rural town of Tarnac, whose text, The Coming Insurrection, was supposed to herald and provoke a return to autonomist Baader-Meinhof style violence on the continent. In the UK ahead of the G20 the police seemed to be actively seeking to provoke some sort of street clashes, with talk of the ‘summer of rage’ and telling protesters to ‘bring it on!’ Needless to say, the December uprising remained essentially a Greek phenomenon grounded in the particularities of their political situation: decades of network building amongst anarchist networks, a large section of the population subscribed to what would in the UK be considered ‘old fashioned’ ideological paradigms, and so on. Yet considering the uprising somewhat inevitably failed to spread, it is surprising that various autonomist communist and anarchist movements have found inspiration in the events. For instance, the text of the burgeoning Occupy California movement in California, The Communiqué from an Absent Future, endorses this strategy of rejecting demands as the only way to instigate a full scale, longer lasting insurrectionary movement against the state and capitalism. In the large student occupation movement in Austria there is not quite the same absolutism in regard to making demands, and interestingly in an interview I recently conducted with one of the activists they admitted that they are beginning to see the limitations of making utopian demands. Obviously this could go either way—in the direction of making the kind of horse trading compromise with the establishment indicative of most single issue campaigns, or the far more risky, and potentially pointless, absolute rejection of all demands by the Occupy California movement.

From this analysis I think we return to the contours of the very public spat between Slavoj Žižek and Simon Critchley. Slavoj gave a very critical review of Critchley’s book Infinitely Demanding; foremost for its advocacy of making infinite demands upon the state—demands which the state cannot fulfil. In this Slavoj sees an endemic cynicism he associates with contemporary ‘radical’ movements, where the militant is locked in a tacit relationship with the establishment. Against this he advocates making “concrete demands” that the establishment is given no choice but to fulfil; and I think his recent wading into the healthcare debate in the United States shows the extent to which this streak of realism (in the absence of a revolutionary Leninist party) determines his rejection of idealistic autonomist movements. But the elephant in the room in this debate is surely this growing posture of making no demands—a purely nihilistic resistance and ground holding, which seems to characterise many radical movements today.

7 thoughts on “what is ‘militancy’?

  1. Thanks Caroline and Vijak. As ever ‘the way forward’ is the big X we are all trying to grapple with.


  2. There is a good book called The Meaning of Militancy? by Gregor Gall, about industrial “militancy” among UK Royal Mail Workers.


  3. This article raises some key questions very well. A good example is where Nathan says “There is thus a large gap opening up between the imaginary of the type of politics many people want to engage with in this new century—horizontal, networked, multitudinous—and their ability to effectively engage with effective power.”
    So I wonder how the author and everyone else would place contemporary movements which have sought to make demands on power in an effective way. These movements can be very different ideologically but all address this and ‘engage’ people one way or another. They can range from the Citizens Organizing Foundation (London Citizens etc) with its civil rights and Saul Alinsky forebearers, through to the kind of ‘direct action casework’ which tries to collectivize individual problems, as practiced by eg London Coalition Against Poverty. The Workers Centres in the U.S. might be another important example – see the relevant chapter in Kim Moody’s book US Labor in Trouble and transition book; or his interview in International Socialism, to get a taste.

    I can’t really do justice to the article in a comment box – would be worth going through in parts at a meeting.

    But I certainly remember that one of the things that aliented me very early on from the ‘radical’ partyist left was the endless making of demands on everyone from the TUC through to the bosses – very disempowering. But as Nathan rightly points out its anarchistic equivalent is limited too, maybe serving as a catharsis but not always much more than that.


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