June 2020

Complementary Tactics: Connecting Counter-violence and Militant Nonviolence

Militant nonviolence is not only an instrumental complement of counter-violence, it is also an ethic by which one organizes for egalitarian ends.

by Adam Tomasi

Rosa Luxemburg is known by many readers as an icon of early twentieth-century socialism, especially as a critic of Bolshevism, but only in recent years have scholars looked at her thoughts on the topic of violence. Luxemburg and her contemporary, Karl Liebknecht, were assassinated by a right-wing paramilitary unit during the German Revolution in January 1919. The two were targeted as founding members of the Spartacist League; the Spartacists were revolutionary socialists who called for governance by workers’ councils and opposed the Social Democratic Party for its support of German participation in World War One. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned for their political activities soon after the war began, until November 1918, when Prince Max von Baden gave amnesty to all political prisoners. Upon release, the two revolutionaries became central figures in the German Revolution, and their lives became a case study of the dangers of right-wing violence. Luxemburg’s intellectual productions before that tragedy have contemporary significance, especially her thinking on capitalist imperialism, workers’ counter-violence, and democratically-led movements. From Luxemburg’s thought, and historical pathways from the sixties, this essay argues that counter-violence and militant nonviolence are complimentary tactics in participatory movements that respond to the masses.

Rosa Luxemburg was a victim of right-wing violence, but she was also a theorist of violence. Luxemburg’s arguments at critical junctures suggest a unique perspective: mass movements, not intellectual vanguards, should decide the forms that militant resistance to right-wing violence will take.[1] Violent insurgency may have been the historic backdrop of many revolutions, but so has “militant nonviolence,” in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Neither tactic implies a reactive passivity, but instead takes an assertive position that indicts bourgeois elites and the state as responsible for violence against marginalized groups.

Because radical movements, violent or nonviolent, challenge the systems of domination like policing, the state will resort to propaganda, slandering radicals as terrorists. “Antifa” is a contemporary example of an essentially nonviolent movement being deliberately mis-characterized by the state. Trump and his security state call Antifa a violent organization of “professional anarchists,” which misunderstands that Antifa, a loose banner and not an official group, does not propose offensive (as opposed to defensive) violence. But anti-fascist organizers understand the value of counter-violence, such as when one demonstrator sucker punched Richard Spencer, a vehement Nazi.

I agree with Natasha Lennard that the presence of fascists, because of their violent ideology and goals, constitutes a “background state of violence” that merits counterviolence.[2] Lennard argues that the clash between systemic violence and counterviolence is “history’s unbroken dialectic,” but I emphasize that the dialectic is never the same: interpreting the analyses of Luxemburg, Dr. King, Frantz Fanon, and Huey Newton reveals how militant counter-violence—and militant nonviolence—each require a different shape and substance depending upon the original violence to which militants respond.

The January Uprising set the stage for the political assassinations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. After Germany’s defeat, a mutiny of sailors in the navy at Wilhemshaven sparked a country-wide uprising that provoked the Kaiser’s abdication and the founding of the Weimar Republic. The following January, Luxemburg and Liebknecht co-founded the Communist Party of Germany, comprised mostly of Spartacists. Conflicts arose between the MSPD (Majority Social Democratic Party), led by Friedrich Ebert, and USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party); the latter united Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and others who rejected the moderate SPD officials’ aversion to revolutionary socialism and previous support for German militarism as ‘national self-defense.’ Workers’ councils, or soviets, spread across the country, yet they did not yet have political power.

German sailors in front of Wilhemshaven’s prison in 1918. Image via Libcom.

With self-organization from below, one hundred thousand armed workers in Berlin began a general strike in January 1919. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were not its organizers, but they supported the uprising and became convenient targets for Ebert, who repressed the rebellion. Ebert utilized the Freikorps, or volunteer para-military units of soldiers returning from the war. Many were right-wing anti-Semites who blamed Jews and socialists for sealing Germany’s defeat from within. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and questioned at Hotel Eden, escorted in separate cars, and murdered by the Freikorps, who killed many other left-wing organizers.[3] The SPD’s mobilization of right-wing nationalists to commit targeted killings of political dissidents was a precursor to the fascist violence of the Nazi regime.

Demonstrators in Berlin in 1988, honoring Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Image via People’s World.

Against the repressive violence of the capitalist state, Luxemburg argued for revolutionary violence as a last resort. In 1902, she wrote that “Violence is and remains the ultima ratio (the last resort) even for the working class, the supreme law of the class struggle, always present, sometimes in a latent, sometimes in an active form.”[4] Whether violence is a latent capacity or an active campaign has everything to do with whether conditions are hospitable for class struggle or democratic engagement. When all other legal channels are blocked, a collective, by its strength in numbers and willpower, may have the capacity and willingness to employ force.

Luxemburg applied the metaphor of violence in her 1916 pamphlet, “The Crisis of German Social Democracy,” in her insistence that only “a long chain of violent tests of strength between the old and the new powers” will achieve socialist emancipation. She did not believe that senseless killing, especially against workers, was morally acceptable. Her famous declaration of ‘socialism or barbarism,’ originally stated by Engels, was about the indiscriminate destruction of World War One: “A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means.”[5] The oppression and death produced by imperialism, the expansionist stage of capitalism, meant that capitalism could no longer bear the mantle of historical progress. A more humane, socialist society must take its place, but the working class had to “take the tiller of social life and become the pilot to the goal of its own history.” Violence was a means to an end, and renouncing it entirely meant that socialists would be vulnerable to “the unbounded rule of reactionary violence,” as Luxemburg wrote elsewhere. Luxemburg and Liebknecht could not have predicted their fates when they were escorted out of the hotel, but workers armed themselves in case their general strike was violently crushed by the state.

Luxemburg’s skepticism of leaders or parties as prime movers was rooted in her critique, from 1904, of Vladimir Lenin’s model of ‘democratic centralism.’ She argued that centralization depended upon an imposed unity, not one occurring naturally, which she critiqued as “blind obedience” and “mechanical subordination,” which would devolve into an ossified, bureaucratic shell of a movement. Vanguards were “conspiratorial circles” which had the “sterile spirit of the night-watchman,” restricting party activities instead of positively supporting a diversity of spontaneous actions.[6] Luxemburg concluded that the working class “everywhere insists on venturing to make its own mistakes and learning historical dialectic for itself.” Because revolution will not succeed overnight, or simply because of the right message or formula, workers should have the right to experiment in their unique conditions in order to ‘move the needle’ and make fundamental change thinkable. These decentralized initiatives are what Luxemburg called, in a 1918 pamphlet about the Russian Revolution, the “thousand concrete, practical measures, large and small, necessary to introduce socialist principles into economy, law and all social relationships,” which cannot be measured by a “key in any socialist party program or textbook.” There is no single playbook for radicals, and case studies of the sixties demonstrate Luxemburg’s ideal of tactical evolution and flexibility in a mass movement.

Violence in a revolutionary situation is a response to originally violent or repressive conditions. In the middle of a war that turned the world upside down—when violence was in the air—socialists in Russia and Germany saw armed uprising as an option against nonresponsive governments. But the decisions made by movements are a response to their conditions, which they did not choose in advance. Recall Marx’s point in the Eighteenth Brumaire that we do not make history “under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Many circumstances will merit militant resistance, necessarily so, but whether the character of that resistance is nonviolent or violent depends upon the will of the masses when they make history. Frantz Fanon understood that counter-violence, and complimentary nonviolent actions, were effective depending upon one’s proximity toward larger, unfolding events.

Fanon, the psychoanalyst who wrote The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Black Skin, White Masks (1952), was not just an intellectual but also an active participant in the Algerian War of Independence. He originally treated both sides of the conflict as the chief of staff of a psychiatric ward, but later resigned because he could no longer work at a French-owned hospital in good conscience. Fanon later joined Algeria’s National Liberation Front and edited its newspaper, El Moudjahid.[7] He is known to students of history as a strong advocate for the counter-violence of the colonized against their colonial oppressors.

Frantz Fanon, center, walking onto a ship with Rheda Malek, a journalist for El Moudjahid Image via Tricontinental.

Though he had reservations about the potentially negative effects inherent in the use of violence, Fanon never had “cold feet,” in the words of philosopher Nathalie Nya. Nya makes a persuasive argument about what Fanon believed to be the responsibility of intellectuals in a revolution, whether they directly join in the violence or not:

[Fanon] was aware, as the analysis of Charif Quellel shows, that to be a revolutionary (i.e., to have the right to convey a message to those fighting for their liberation), one must participate in the revolution. Quellel explains why Beauvoir reports that Fanon felt that she and Sartre, as left-wing intellectuals of the French empire, were not doing enough for the cause of Algerian liberation. Although he did not suggest that they should become violent, Fanon, I argue, wanted both Sartre and Beauvoir to act, think, and write like colonial intellectual revolutionaries, believing that their writings ought to call the French to action against the institution of colonialism.[8]

This dialogue reveals how Fanon believed that militant nonviolence could complement an anti-colonial war for independence. Algerians living under violent, oppressive French rule found that violence was instrumentally necessary for their freedom, but radicals in the metropole could employ militant nonviolent tactics, such as political writing, to compliment the war for independence. One could ask, in an ahistorical manner, “why not burn down Paris for its crimes?” But Fanon believed that violence by the colonized cleansed them of notions of inferiority inculcated by a violent system; white French intellectuals did not share the same situation, so militant nonviolence was still accessible to them as a viable, complementary tactic.

Militant nonviolence is not only an instrumental complement of counter-violence, it is also an ethic by which one organizes for egalitarian ends. When Luxemburg argued for ending the systemic violence of capitalist imperialism, she wrote in the spirit of militant nonviolence. Its militant nature questions the label of being “peaceful,” as King had interrogated when he distinguished between “negative peace” and “positive peace” in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963):

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” […]

“Peace,” like “law and order,” ordinarily entails the maintenance of an unjust social order against the militants who disrupt it. Negative peace is the absence of ‘divisive’ resistance, but militance is needed to achieve positive peace, or human emancipation that ends systemic violence (which, by its nature, is not peaceful). The Black Panther Party’s development in the early 1970s, specifically in its “survival programs,” offers another case study of militant nonviolence.

The BPP, known for its platform of community self-defense against police brutality, evolved toward militant nonviolence in its “survival programs.” Huey Newton, the BPP Minister of Defense, had a public conflict with Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information, because of Cleaver’s advocacy for linking the Panthers with anti-colonial movements abroad and guerilla warfare in Vietnam. Newton originally supported this idea, sending a letter to North Vietnam’s government with the offer of soldiers from the BPP, but he soon changed his perspective in the fall of 1970. This development was pivotal for the Party’s future, because it culminated in Newton’s decision to expel Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver from the BPP. At a speech at Boston College on November 18, 1970, Newton argued that community self-defense went beyond the tactics of either guerilla warfare or patrolling police, because:

The violence of the aggressor comes in many forms. The vicious service-revolver of the police is only one manifestation of violence. But it is equally violent for the State and the small ruling circle to deprive the people of housing, of medical care, of food, of clothing, those acts are acts of aggression when we live in such an affluent society. The Black Panther Party views those acts as very violent ones.

Militant nonviolence, by promoting the Black community’s survival, thereby complimented the counter-violence of community self-defense. Newton continued with an argument that resonates in the case of right-wing violence: “The gun itself is not necessarily revolutionary because the fascists carry guns—in fact they have more guns.”[9] This may seem like a stunning reversal from someone who popularized the idea of “revolutionary suicide,” or the willingness to die for the revolution, but Newton was responding to the will of Oakland’s Black community. The survival programs were widely adopted by BPP chapters all over the United States, a testament to the participatory calling of militant nonviolence.

Huey P. Newton at Boston College in October 1971. Image via UMass Amherst Special Collections.

The Panthers’ free breakfasts for children were both popular and militant enough that the USDA felt compelled to institute a School Breakfast Program in 1975.[10] Whether one believes this reform was advancement or co-optation, the Panthers’ free breakfast program was militant, because it exposed the violence of a quasi-failed state that did not help kids who went hungry. Even though survival programs did not destroy the system, they illustrate the value of radical experimentation in circumstances where there is no single playbook for radicals.

From these historical examinations, there are three common threads with contemporary significance for movements against right-wing violence. First, counter-violence and nonviolence should coexist in movements, sharing the same aims and intellectual frameworks. Second, if a movement is to be participatory, and not revolve around an enclosed vanguard, tactics must adapt to the membership without fruitless insistence on a pure revolutionary stance. And third, activists reviving past revolutionary forms should understand why the masses of old chose nonviolence or violence. In the simplistic “nonviolence versus violence” debate, it is easy to say one is always preferable, or that both are just means to an end. Historical knowledge helps us connect motivations with circumstances to gain a fuller picture of human action, not just to interpret the world but to change it.

Adam Tomasi is a second-year PhD student in World History at Northeastern University. His research primarily focuses on the trans-Atlantic Left of the 1960s and 1970s, specifically its cultural-political production through the underground press. He is a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, besides being four years at Wake Forest University receiving a BA in History and Communication.

Further Reading

[1] Here I combine her disparate writings into a cohesive view.

[2] Natasha Lennard, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (London: Verso, 2019), 22, 42.

[3] Klaus Gietinger, “The Man Who Murdered Rosa Luxemburg,” Jacobin, January 15, 2020, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/rosa-luxemburg-murder-waldemar-pabst-germany.

[4] Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 69.

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, “The Crisis of Social Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet),” Paul Le Blanc and Helen C. Scott (eds.), Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism or Barbarism: Selected Writings (Pluto Press: 2010), 2014.

[6] Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism in Russia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 14-16.

[7] Charles Peterson, “Frantz Fanon,” Encyclopedia Brittanica, no date, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frantz-Fanon.

[8] Nathalie Nya, Simone de Beauvoir and the Colonial Experience: Freedom, Violence, and Identity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 49-50.

[9] Sean Malloy, Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism during the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017), 177.

[10] Erin Blakemore, “How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government,” History, last updated August 30, 2018, https://www.history.com/news/free-school-breakfast-black-panther-party.

3 comments on “Complementary Tactics: Connecting Counter-violence and Militant Nonviolence

  1. Very thoughtful review of this history. I agree with the framing when it represents the perspectives of social actors in the past. I disagree when the author implies it has strategic value in the current social movement, eg dismantling police. And I certainly disagree that political writing is an example of “militant nonviolence.” All of the strategist named here were first and foremost pragmatists for their cause. Today they would be engaging the best minds on effective strategy. They did not have the data or tools that we have now. Empirical data today strongly indicates that in broad-based social movements, “counterviolence” is counterproductive to the ends. It also indicates that “militant nonviolence” is a disciplined confrontational tactic and tool for erosion of the opponents power. It must be continually scaled up and the tactics constantly diversified to secure identifiable goals. We who are inheritors of the great leaders mentioned here must not “do as they did” but apply the same pragmatic lens they did with the much broader access to data and tools than they had available.


    • Adam Tomasi

      I actually agree with this a lot! The Chenoweth study about nonviolence succeeding more often than violence, and the unique ability of nonviolent confrontation to sap the legitimacy of the state (ex. what happens in an authoritarian state where people refuse to follow orders from a dictator’s police state, and the police realize they have no power once enough people do that). Also the civil rights movement is the quintessential example of this success in America, especially as it built a broad-based coalition to fill the jails (deplete the state’s resources) and expose the police for their one-sided brutality in defense of an oppressive system.


  2. Adam Tomasi

    Also re: writing as nonviolence, I would say then to your point that it’s a compliment to nonviolent direct action, even if it’s not the essence of militant nonviolence. I defined that term more broadly as forceful, political agitation that did not depend on self-defense or physical force for its efficacy.


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