Resistance is a simple concept: power, unjust and immoral, is confronted and dismantled. The powerful are denied their right to hurt the less powerful. Domination is replaced by equity in a shift or substitution of institutions. That shift eventually forms new human relationships, both personally and across society.
Most of the population is never going to join an actual resistance. We’re social creatures; by definition, it’s hard to stand against the herd. Add to that how successful systems of oppression are at disabling the human capacity for resistance. As Andrea Dworkin said, “Feminism requires precisely what misogyny destroys in women: unimpeachable bravery in confronting male power.”91 The pool of potential resisters is going to be small. Conformity brings rewards and privileges; fighting back brings punishment and alienation. Most people are not psychologically suited to the requirements of resistance. The sooner we accept that, the better.
Personally, we can stop wasting time on conversations that will never produce anything but frustration. Politically, we can make better strategic decisions based on a more realistic assessment of our potential recruits. We all need to make our choices about personal risk. And there’s a role for everyone. There are people who agree with the goals of a cause but for a variety of legitimate reasons can’t undertake frontline or underground actions. Therefore, most recruits, by circumstance and by character, will be part of a culture of resistance.
Resistance movements require two things: loyalty and material support. Acquiring them are the two main tasks of the culture of resistance, although there may be others depending on the scope of the resistance at hand. Those others would include building alternative institutions for egalitarian, participatory governance; installing systems of justice for settling disputes; creating economic networks that can provide for basic survival needs apart from the injurious system; and socialization processes for both children and adults to reclaim and defend an indigenous culture under assault or create a new culture for those escaping the dominant culture. In real life, all these projects may not always be distinct, but instead form a reinforcing series of activities.
What ties them all together is an underlying set of values that include a self-conscious embrace of political resistance. This means first and foremost understanding what political resistance is and what it isn’t. Without that understanding, all we will have is the same withdrawalist alternative culture, which will be content to coexist alongside injustice in all its horrors, no matter how repelled we are by those horrors. I don’t know if it’s a failure of courage or, as Adrienne Rich said, “the failure to want our freedom passionately enough,”92 but it’s a failure that haunts too many radical movements. Gene Sharp is worth quoting at length on this point (the people I call “withdrawalists” he calls “utopians”).
Utopians are often especially sensitive to the evils of the world and, craving certainty, purity, and completeness, firmly reject the evils as totally as possible, wishing to avoid any compromises with them. Instead, utopians assert an alternative vision of the world which they would like to come into being. Their visionary belief may be labeled “religious” or “political”—it matters little for this discussion. They await a “new world” which is to come into being by an act of God, a change in the human spirit, by autonomous changes in economic conditions, or by a deep spontaneous social upheaval—all beyond deliberate human control. These believers are primarily concerned with espousing the “true” understanding of the evil and the principles by which people should live, gaining converts, living with the least possible compromise until the great change arrives. They may deliberately seek to establish ways of living and communities which exemplify their principles and which may inspire others to do likewise.93
The most serious weakness of this response to the problem of this world is not the broad vision, or the commitment of the people who believe in it. The weakness is that these believers have no effective way to reach the society of their dreams. Condemnation of social evil, espousal of an alternative order of life, a deep personal commitment, and an effort to live according to it, are all good and necessary, but unfortunately alone they do not transform human society and institutions. To do that, an instrumentally effective program of achievable steps for dealing with the evils of existing society and for creating an improved social order is required.94
One historian calls the Spanish Anarchist movement—a movement more serious than anything in the contemporary left by an order of magnitude—“secular millennialism.”95 Those two words could stand in for my entire youth. Among true radicals, there is a tremendous strain between a strategy of withdrawalist purity and a strategy based on an emotional need to act (which is essentially a compilation of undirected tactics). Neither of these are actually strategic; they’re both usually stances based on a desperation and, with apologies to Rich, a collective failure to plan for our freedom passionately enough. Both tendencies can fall back on liberalism: we’re going to change the world by “personal example.” That example may be our permaculture garden and its attendant bike commute or it may be our brave, but useless, attacks on property at the bottom of the oppressor’s food chain. We have these vague notions that these actions will inspire others, and then even more vaguely accumulate into a societal transformation or kickoff a spontaneous insurrection. But it will happen because it must: because either the “Great Turning” type narrative of progress says it must or the fires of our righteous rage will make it be so. But millennialism is a poor substitute for a real resistance movement. And given that victory is not, in fact, inevitable, we would be well advised to understand the basic principle of resistance: dislodging injustice requires organized, political resistance. Power will only change when it is forced to. Whether that force is applied violently or nonviolently is a discussion that comes later. Too many leftists refuse to face the nature of power, the nature of systematic oppression, and the nature of the social psychology we are up against.
For those of us who can’t be active on the front lines—and this will be most of us—our job is to create a culture that will encourage and promote political resistance. The main tasks will be loyalty and material support.
Loyalty is sorely lacking across the left. First, and worst, is the out and out betrayal. Most of the Green Scare victims were turned in by former friends, in one case by an ex-husband. In any serious movement, snitches would be treated seriously. This is because snitching means that your people—your comrades, your friends—will be arrested, tortured, and killed. As a Deep Green Resistance movement becomes more serious, and hence the consequences in state repression become more serious, our collective response to snitching will be forced to keep pace. This will not be a fun moment; it is in fact likely to be permanently traumatizing. Our best hope is to instill the value of loyalty in our culture of resistance now, to stop snitching before it begins. Christabel Pankhurst wrote of the culture of the militant suffragettes:
The spirit of the movement was wonderful. It was joyous and grave at the same time. Self seemed to be laid down as the women joined us. Loyalty, that greatest of virtures, was the keynote of the movement—first to the cause, then to those who were leading, and member to member. Courage came next, not simply physical courage, though so much of that was present, but still more the moral courage to endure ridicule and misunderstandings and harsh criticism and ostracism. There was a touch of the “impersonal” in the movement that made for its strength and dignity. Humour characterised it, too, in that our militant women were like the British soldier who knows how to joke and smile amid his fighting and trials.96
Everything we need for a culture of resistance is in her description, and indeed played out across the suffrage movement. Over a thousand women endured “solitary confinement, hard labor, brutality, broken health and ultimately death.”97 Even more women committed acts of physical courage that didn’t result in arrest, ranging from confrontations with police to stealth property destruction. And then there were the foot soldiers engaged in constant, daily tasks like fund raising, educating, public speaking, printing newspapers, door-to-door lobbying, organizing rallies, and prisoner support. All of these women supported their militant comrades. There were also between 500 and 600 non-militant women’s suffrage societies across Britain, and it’s interesting to note that the increase in militance by the WSPU resulted in a reinvigoration of those groups as well. Writes historian Midge MacKenzie, “The controversial tactics of the WSPU and their widespread news coverage revitalised the question of votes for women and the non-militant suffrage societies became stronger and more powerful.”98
The first priority of their movement was loyalty, both to their cause and to those who were leading. Therein lies one of the major problems with modern radical groups. We tend to destroy our leaders with criticism, often personal and vicious. The antihierarchical stance of radicals leads to an adolescent reaction against anyone who rises to a public position. Writer after writer gets accused of “selling out,” although not a single one can even make a living—let alone a killing—as a writer. This charge is also leveled at dedicated people who run small presses, bookstores, and, indeed, anyone with the temerity to actually get something done. It’s a combination of petty jealousy and “rooster battling.” Though the same attack-the-leader default is occasionally present in women’s groups, the demands of masculinity make this way more of an issue for men. We must call it what it is when we see it happening. If the offenders refuse to stop, they should be shunned until their behavior improves. Attacking our leaders is painful and destructive to both individuals and movements. The younger members can’t be expected to be able to identify and take a stand against this behavior; they don’t have the life experience, and they’re naturally inclined to be “combatants” at that stage of life. It is up to the middle-aged and older members to set the tone and behavioral expectations, to guide the community norms. People decades too old for this particular behavior publicly engage in it with glee. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking, because no individual except the most resilient can survive those kinds of sustained personal attacks. And no one can hurt you like your own.
Let’s look again to the WSPU and the militant suffrage movement. Their use of both civil disobedience and property destruction landed many women in jail. As any political prisoner might, they went on serious, sustained hunger strikes. The government was forced to release the strikers for fear of their deaths. The militants, of course, went right back to political action once they recovered. The government found itself in a quandary and decided to force-feed the next prisoners who went on hunger strikes. Make no mistake: this is a form of torture. It backfired; the courage of the prisoners against government torture made a very stark and easy choice for the general public in deciding who to sympathize with.
Some members of parliament (MPs) argued that prisoners should be left to die of starvation and that would be the end of it. But the Home Secretary had the pulse of the movement: “It has been said that not many women would die, but I think you would find that thirty, forty, or fifty would come up, one after another.”99 First up would have been Emmeline and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, the beloved leaders of the movement. The government understood something that contemporary radicals tend to reject: movements without leaders are not movements, but random individuals incapable of waging a sustained campaign for justice. Emmeline Pankhurst had been to jail, gone on hunger strike, and been released too many times. The government wanted her broken or gone, without creating a dead martyr. The result was the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act in 1913, quickly dubbed the Cat and Mouse Act. A hunger striker would be tortured until half-dead, then released to recover. The prisoner was given a ticket of leave. The act stated that once the prisoner was deemed fit, she (the act used the female pronoun) would be required to present herself for reimprisonment. Wrote Emmeline Pankhurst,
Of course the act was, from its inception, treated by the Suffragettes with the utmost contempt. We had not the slightest intention of assisting Mr. McKenna in enforcing unjust sentences against soldiers in the army of freedom, and when the prison doors closed behind me I adopted the hunger-strike exactly as though I expected it to prove, as formerly, a means of gaining my liberty.100
Pankhurst was held for ten days, during which she went on a hunger strike. She writes of the day when, exhausted and half-conscious, she was about to be released under the Cat and Mouse Act:
The Governor came to my cell and read me my license, which commanded me to return to Holloway in fifteen days, and meanwhile to observe all the obsequious terms as to informing the police of my movements. With what strength my hands remained I tore the document in strips and dropped it on the floor of the cell. “I have no intention,” I said, “of obeying this infamous law. You release me knowing perfectly well that I shall never voluntarily return to any of your prisons.”101
Other suffragettes showed humor as well as fortitude in the face of the Cat and Mouse Act. Annie Kenney, another of the movement’s leaders, was released after three days of a hunger strike with a prison license to reappear. She escaped from her home, where she was recovering while being watched, under cover of night, and attended a suffrage meeting unannounced, where she auctioned her prison license to the highest bidder. She was immediately arrested.
Many of the hunger strikers released under the Cat and Mouse Act were protected in hiding by a network of loyal supporters who refused to give them up. And as a wonderful example of material support, one woman, Mrs. Brackenbury, gave the WSPU use of a large house in London where hunger strikers could recover as long as needed with appropriate nursing care. The house was affectionately named “Mouse Castle.”
The leadership was forced into another kind of cat and mouse game with the police when they were on medical leave. They were determined to do their job as leaders and equally determined to evade capture with its “slow judicial murder.”102 At public appearances, women bodily defended Emmeline Pankhurst against the police to try to keep her safe. She was rearrested on July 21, 1913, but released within three days as her health began to fail on a food and water fast. She was carried to the next public suffrage meeting, too ill to speak, but determined to appear. The auction of her prison license brought in ₤100, which she had promised the governor would be spent on “militant purposes.”103 She fled to the US to recuperate, and was arrested off the coast of Plymouth on her return, but not for lack of defenders. A pair of women in a powerboat attempted, unsuccessfully, to rescue her against two warships. On being taken into custody, she immediately began a hunger strike. All told, she was arrested six times under the Cat and Mouse Act, at the age of fifty-five.
An official bodyguard, trained in jujitsu, was organized specifically to protect Emmeline Pankhurst from the police. The police were so nervous about confrontations that in one instance a platform at Victoria Station was commandeered and the whole station surrounded by “battalions of police” to take Mrs. Pankhurst into custody. All this to keep Emmeline’s defenders from protecting her against rearrest.
Her daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst, also faced potential rearrest and further torture, yet continued to speak in public. At one event, a “Women’s May Day” in Victoria Park, twenty women chained themselves in a tight group around Sylvia, in an attempt to thwart the police. They were not successful—the police isolated the whole group and broke the locks with their truncheons—but even in the blurry photographs of the “chained guard,” their expressions of stalwart loyalty shine through. An entire street in London’s working-class East End was offered money by the police so that they could arrest Emmeline Pankhurst on her way to a rally; not a single household would take the money.
Real movements require leaders. Despite all the contempt that contemporary radicals heap on anyone who rises to a public position, leaders emerge. A collection of individuals, no matter how angry or inspired, will remain inchoate without language and ineffective without direction. Movements are easily destroyed by imprisoning or killing the leaders; that’s why governments do it. The Spanish Anarchists never recovered from the assassination of their beloved Buenaventura Durruti, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death left a hole in the heart of the civil rights movement. Successful movements are always training new leaders because they recognize their critical functions. The British government hoped to break the suffrage movement on numerous occasions by arresting the leadership, but the women had a chain of command in place, from Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to Annie Kenney to Grace Roe and on down, with each woman preparing her replacement. We can reject the concept of leadership all we want, but that will not eradicate its necessity.
Of course, small-scale and aboveground groups should be democratic whenever possible, but that does not change the fact that leaders must emerge nor does it change the fact that underground groups engaged in coordinated or paramilitary activities require hierarchy. Combatants, especially, need leadership. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence explained the nondemocratic structure of the WSPU: “The very fact that militant action involved individual sacrifice imposed heavy responsibilities upon the leaders of the campaign. Individuals who were ready to make the sacrifice that militancy entailed had to be sustained by the assurance of complete unity within the ranks.”104
If we accept the reality of leadership, we can trade protection for expectation. Loyalty works both ways. Clarity of ideas, explication of goals, and personal courage can elevate an organizer, a teacher, a writer, or a minister to a leadership position. In exchange, those agreeing to be led have a right to expect sterling personal ethics, self-sacrifice, and the leaders’ prioritizing of the movement. Charisma and status can be used in very ugly ways, and individuals who use power for personal gain or sexual exploits should, of course, be rejected from a leadership position. But a wholesale rejection of leadership means a movement will be stuck at a level of ineffective small groups. It may feel radical but it will change nothing.
Loyalty to each other, especially to frontline actionists who are taking serious risks, is just as important as loyalty to leaders. That loyalty requires those of us who work aboveground to declare our support for direct action at every opportunity. We need to use words like “resistance” and phrases like “culture of resistance”; we need to reject personal consumer choices as a solution and explain why to anyone who listens; and we need to defend whatever degree of militance we’re comfortable with plus one.
Loyalty also implies material support. Time, money, and other resources are always needed by actionists. Think of what it took for the Underground Railroad to operate. Yes, it took leaders like Harriet Tubman to be militant, brave, and committed despite the serious consequences; we remember her name, and well we should. But it also took Quakers repeatedly opening their homes to fugitives and themselves to risk; it took people willing to sing a song about trains as they made their way through the slave quarters. It took communities of free blacks and white sympathizers who were willing to support escaped enslaved people with food, housing, and employment. Those people had to have absolute loyalty to the conductors and to the enslaved people risking their lives for freedom. It took people willing to say in front of family, friends, and congregations that the Underground Railroad was a fine and worthy project. We now accept the necessity and morality of the Underground Railroad, but at the time it was seen as a radical fringe project by many abolitionists. It was successful in part because activists published newspapers, arranged lectures, petitioned Congress, and even moved to Kansas to fight for the broad structural change that surrounded and explicated the Underground Railroad. All these people worked in concert, despite profound differences in ethics and strategies, taking what risks they could.
Quakers developed an ethic and a practice of community support and care very quickly: persecution has a tendency to encourage that. In Bristol, England, so many Quakers were arrested—3,000—that prisoners died from suffocation in jail. The children were largely left in charge of the community, and they heroically carried on with Meetings for Worship. Some of them were tortured in turn—flogged and put in stocks. The culture of resistance carried into the community at large; some juries in Bristol refused to try Quakers. Other juries found them innocent and were punished by the judge, leading to the legal principle of a jury’s immunity from prosecution, a principle we take for granted now, but one that had to be won. And when three Quakers were sentenced to transport to America and the West Indies, Bristolian sailors refused to carry them.
Loyalty and material support are also evident in a story about the militant antiwar group the Weather Underground. After describing a close call in which a WU cell in the San Francisco Bay area was almost apprehended, one member remembers:
The narrow escape was due less to underground skills or harrowing Hollywood tricks than to the political context and the support the Weather Underground had. “While quick wits and fast maneuvers provide the most dramatic story,” Gilbert says, “the basic reason for our escape was the anti-state political consciousness that prevailed in youth culture, which meant that information did not flow to the state but flowed to us,” he says. Even people who weren’t directly aware of or in contact with the Weather Underground tended to resist police questioning and spread the word when the FBI was around. That support, Gilbert says, is what thwarted the FBI.105
Communities that are used to taking care of each other have a much easier time mobilizing those existing networks into a culture of resistance. Such established networks could be called a culture of survival. For instance, the men who worked as Pullman porters often found themselves stranded in southern towns where walking on the wrong street could get them killed. There were black women along the rail lines who would open their homes to porters. Even if all they had for a bed was a mat in the pantry, at least it was safe and there’d be a meal to go with it. Usually these women had a husband or son who was also a porter, and they understood firsthand the literal terrors in being a black man in an unknown segregated town. These women later became the heart, soul, and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.
In the heyday of its long battle for a union, the Brotherhood ran a series of labor conferences for the wider community, with as many as three thousand people attending. Each conference carried clear messages: blacks deserve full civil and economic rights, they need to be self-sufficient and free of white benefactors, and it is time to issue demands rather than make requests. The Brotherhood did not just precede the civil rights movement in Chicago; it planted the seeds for it. Rather than a conventional labor union, it had become a school for protest politics.106
It ran similar schools from Canada to Florida, creating a movement from building blocks of education, political consciousness, savvy strategy, and the existing culture of survival among blacks.
The Spanish Anarchists provide another example of a culture of survival that can be mobilized into a resistance. Murray Bookchin writes,
It is essential to emphasize that Spanish anarchism was not merely a program embedded in a dense theoretical matrix. It was a way of life: partly, the life of the Spanish people as it was lived in the closely-knit villages of the countryside and the intense neighborhood life of the working class barrios; partly, too, the theoretical articulation of that life as projected by Bakunin’s concepts of decentralization, mutual aid, and popular organs of self-management.… Spain had a long tradition of agrarian collectivism.… Spanish anarchism … sought out the precapitalist collectivist traditions of the village, nourished what was living and vital in them, evoked their revolutionary potentialities as liberatory modes of mutual aid and self-management, and deployed them to vitiate the obedience, hierarchical mentality, and authoritarian outlook fostered by the factory system.… The Spanish anarchists tried to use the pre-capitalist traditions of the peasantry and working class against the assimilation of the workers’ outlook to an authoritarian industrial rationality.… Their efforts were favored by the continuous fertilization of the Spanish proletariat by rural workers who renewed these traditions daily as they migrated to the cities.… Along the Mediterranean coastal cities of Spain, maybe workers retained a living memory of a non-capitalist culture—one in which each moment of life was not strictly regulated by the punch clock, the factory whistle, the foreman, the machine, the highly regulated workday, and the atomized world of the large city.107
The Spanish Anarchists were renowned for their loyalty. Workers’ strikes in support of comrades in prisons were larger than strikes to demand better working conditions.