Gunpowder, treason, and plot

Posted by Phil Dickens on November 5, 2009 · Leave a Comment

Four hundred and four years ago today, a band of provincial English Catholics attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and, with them, King James I and the aristocracy. Of course, the attempt failed, the conspirators were arrested, tortured, and executed, and the Gunpowder Plot passed into infamy;

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reasonWhy the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes and his twelve co-conspirators were, of course, Roman Catholic Restorationists. Their aim in blowing up Parliament was not to destroy the monarchy but to return it to Catholic hands.

The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Unlike his fellows, Guy Fawkes has passed into legend and now stands as a potent symbol of rebellion and revolution

However, in the four centuries since, Fawkes has entered not only history but also legend. He has become, in the popular imagination, a symbol of rebellion and revolution, evolved from the “romantic caped figure of such evil villainy” his contemporaries viewed him as.

This shift in perception is evident in many ways, such as his appearence at number 30 on the 100 Greatest Britons poll in 2002. The most powerful indicator of his power as a symbol is Alan Moore’s use of his visage in the comic book series V for Vendetta. In the comic, “V” is an anarchist revolutionary who dons the personna of Guy Fawkes to bring down a British fascist government. The film adaptation contains a speech by the protagonist which explicitly links the imagery of Guy Fawkes to the sprit of revolution;

More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you then I would suggest you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.

With those words in mind, then, the 5th November seems a perfect time to discuss the idea of revolution.

v-vendetta-wallpapers“Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition. The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.”

The ultimate aim of anarchism, of course, is the dismantling of the dominant political, social, and economic order in favour of communism from below. There are few who believe that such a massive upheaval could come without revolution.

Revolution, however, is a multifaceted word. It can conjure up many conflicting images. This is not surprising as revolution has had many quite different results. Look at the American Revolution, which produced the most powerful liberal democracy in the world, in comparison with Iran’s Islamic Revolution for one of the starkest contrasts.

But what would an anarchist revolution look like?

Fortunately, there is already more than one example in history that we can point to which might give us an idea. Although the most obvious one is Spain, I would instead like to look at Russia. There, as anarchist Piotr Archinov wrote in 1927, the “October [Revolution] has two meanings.” “The October of the workers and peasants is the suppression of the power of the parasite classes in the name of equality and self-management,” whilst “the Bolshevik October is the conquest of power by the party of the revolutionary intelligentsia, the installation of its ‘State Socialism’ and of its ‘socialist’ methods of governing the masses.”

The Bolsheviks “limited the boundaries of the Russian Revolution to the installation of a social-democratic regime.” Only “limited the boundaries of the Russian Revolution to the installation of a social-democratic regime,” did they think differently, laying the ground for their counter revolution. As Archinov puts it, “the party threw itself into infiltrating the factory committees and the soviets of workers’ deputies, doing its best to obtain in these organs of self-management the most mandates possible in order to control their actions,” with the goal to “to seize power and to subordinate all the revolutionary forces to the Party.”

However, before the Leninist coup, there was a vision of what a genuine workers’ revolution would look like;

The February Revolution caught the different revolutionary parties in complete disarray and without any doubt they were considerably surprised by the profound social character of the dawning revolution. At first, no one except the anarchists wanted to believe it. The Bolshevik Party, which made out it always expressed the most radical aspirations of the working-class, could not go beyond the limits of the bourgeois revolution in its aims. It was only at the April conference that they asked themselves what was really happening in Russia. Was it only the overthrow of Tsarism. or was the revolution going further – as far as the. overthrow of capitalism? This last eventually posed to the Bolsheviks the question of what tactics to employ. Lenin became conscious before the other Bolsheviks of the social character of the revolution, and emphasised the necessity of seizing power. He saw a decisive advance in the workers’ and peasants’ movement which was undermining the industrial and rural bourgeoisie foundations more and more. A unanimous agreement on these questions could not be reached even up to the October days. The Party manoeuvred all this time in between the social slogans of the masses and the conception of a social-democratic revolution, from where they were created and developed. Not opposing the slogan of petit- and grand-bourgeoisie for a Constituent Assembly, the Party did its best to control the masses, striving to keep up with their ever-increasing pace.

During this time, the workers marched impetuously forward, relentlessly running their enemies of left and right into the ground. The big rural landowners began everywhere to evacuate the countryside, fleeing from the insurgent peasantry and seeking protection for their possessions and their persons in the towns. Meanwhile, the peasantry proceeded to a direct re-distribution of land, and did not want to hear of peaceful co-existence with the landlords. In the towns as well a sudden change took place between the workers and the owners of enterprises. Thanks to the efforts of the collective genius of the masses, workers’ committees sprang up in every industry, intervening directly in production, putting aside the admonishments of the owners and concentrating on eliminating them from production. Thus in different parts of the country, the workers got down to the socialisation of industry.

Simultaneously, all of revolutionary Russia was covered with a vast network of workers’ and peasant soviets, which began to function as organs of self management. They developed, prolonged, and defended the Revolution. Capitalist rule and order still existed nominally in the country, but a vast system of social and economic workers’ self-management was being created alongside it. This regime of soviets and factory committees, by the very fact of its appearance, menaced the state system with death . It must be made clear that the birth and development of the soviets and factory committees had nothing do with authoritarian principles. On the contrary, they were in the full sense of the term organs of social and economic self-management of the masses, and in no case the organs of state power. They were opposed to the state machine which sought to direct the masses, and they prepared for a decisive battle against it. “The factories to the workers, the land to the peasants” – these were the slogans by which the revolutionary masses of town and country participated in the defeat of the State machine of the possessing classes in the name of a new social system which was founded on the basic cells of the factory committees and the economic and social soviets. These catch-words circulated from one end of workers’ Russia to the other, deeply affecting the direct action against the socialist-bourgeois coalition government.

As was explained above, the workers and peasants had already worked towards the entire reconstruction of the industrial and agrarian system of Russia before October 1917. The agrarian question was virtually solved by the poor peasants as early as June – September 1917. The urban workers, for their part, put into operation organs of social and economic Self-management, having seized from the State and the owners the organisational functions of production. The October Revolution of the workers overthrew the last and the greatest obstacle to their revolution the state power of the owning classes, already defeated and disorganised. This last evolution opened a vast horizon for the achievement of the social revolution putting it onto the creative road to socialist reconstruction of society, already pointed at by the workers in the preceding months. That is the October of the workers and the peasants. It meant a powerful attempt by the exploited manual workers to destroy totally the foundations of capitalist society, and to build a workers’ society based on the principles of equality, independence, and self-management by the proletariat of the towns and the countryside.

Of course,”This October did not reach its natural conclusion. It was violently interrupted by the October of the Bolsheviks, who progressively extended their dictatorship throughout the country.” It does, however, offer us a radical and interesting perspective from which to begin. We know the shape that an anarchist revolution may take, but what of methods?

Anarchy and revolution are both, in the popular perception, violent to the extreme. Even Moore’s V, perhaps the most sympathetic interpretation of anarchism offered in pop culture, is a violent character. Indeed, the entire premise for this article is a man who wished to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing all inside them.

However, as Alexander Berkman argues in ABC of Anarchism, anarchism is in fact the repudiation of violence. “Anarchism means that you should be free; that no one should enslave you, boss you, rob you, or impose upon you.” It is, then, a movement for “no war, no violence used by one set of men against another, no monopoly and no poverty, no oppression, no taking advantage of your fellow-man.”

Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-DelacroixA highly romanticised image of the French Revolution. The Revolution held up as its values “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” but they soon fell by the wayside as this revolution gave way to reaction and the old order was supplanted by an equally unjust new one

As such, in the Hypnotisers,  Mikhail Bakunin made the point that anarchists “wish not to kill persons, but to abolish status and its perquisites,” because anarchism “does not mean the death of the individuals who make up the bourgeoisie, but the death of the bourgeoisie as a political and social entity economically distinct from the working class.”

This does not mean that revolution will be utterly non-violent. The majority of anarchists are not pacifists, and will not stand idly by in the face of oppression and persecution. Ghandi’s suggestion that, during the Holocaust, “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife” as “it would have been heroism” is an obscenity to anyone who genuinely stands against the worst injustices of our world. Faced with such a sentiment, I am more inclined towards Guy Fawkes’s assertion that “a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.”

Thus, returning to Berkman;

We know that revolution begins with street disturbances and outbreaks; it is the initial phase which involves force and violence. But that is merely the spectacular prologue of the real revolution. The age long misery and indignity suffered by the masses burst into disorder and tumult, the humiliation and injustice meekly borne for decades find vents in facts of fury and destruction. That is inevitable, and it is solely the master class which is responsible for this preliminary character of revolution. For it is even more true socially than individually that ‘whoever sows the wind will reap the whirlwind;’ the greater the oppression and wretchedness to which the masses had been made to submit, the fiercer the rage [of] the social storm. All history proves it .

In no way, however, does this justify acts of terrorism or indiscriminate violence against civilians. A revolution founded upon war crimes is, by definition, not an anarchist one. Our uprising cannot be based on a single moment in time, or an act of violent upheaval, but on the collective organisation of the people and the building of a tradition of rebellion and direct action.

In the words of Errico Malatesta;

To bring about a revolution, and especially the Anarchist revolution[, it] is necessary that the people be conscious of their rights and their strength; it is necessary that they be ready to fight and ready to take the conduct of their affairs into their own hands. It must be the constant preoccupation of the revolutionists, the point towards which all their activity must aim, to bring about this state of mind among the masses . . . Who expects the emancipation of mankind to come, not from the persistent and harmonious co-operation of all men [and women] of progress, but from the accidental or providential happening of some acts of heroism, is not better advised that one who expected it from the intervention of an ingenious legislator or of a victorious general . . . our ideas oblige us to put all our hopes in the masses, because we do not believe in the possibility of imposing good by force and we do not want to be commanded . . . Today, that which . . . was the logical outcome of our ideas, the condition which our conception of the revolution and reorganisation of society imposes on us . . . [is] to live among the people and to win them over to our ideas by actively taking part in their struggles and sufferings.

Today, the resources available are much greater than those during the Spanish, Russian, or any other revolution. In the past, activists could not communicate and organise via email, the internet, and social netowrk as well as face to face, as is occuring ever more frequently today. However, the resources available to states and reactionary movements are also necessarily much greater, and we face new challenges and dangers. A greater rebellion comes with greater repression.

In light of which, we must remain steadfast not only in our core values but in our core methods. As much as the image of Guy Fawkes may excite the imagination, and as much as the final scene from V for Vendetta may send goosebumps running along the arms, we cannot simply cry “revolution” and expect it to happen. That is why I am not going to simply ask that everyone “stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.”

Organisation, not invocation, is the key to succesful revolution.

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