Revolutionary Violence and Ted Rall


The Anti-American Manifesto
(Seven Stories Press)
Ted Rall

Lots of books collect all the low-hanging fruit in the abundant orchard of corporate state crime and arrange it into a more or less digestible feast, and then they all conclude with a ringing exhortation to elect more Democrats to Congress, or build a third party, or challenge the legality of war through the courts, or write well-reasoned letters of protest to The New York Times, or impeach whoever is president, or go to more demonstrations, or drip more snark on the ruling class.

The reader sits alone at night with the question, “Is that all there is?”

Ted Rall seeks to answer that question in The Anti-American Manifesto. At the beginning of chapter one (“Kill the Zombie Empire”), he quotes the U.S Criminal Code that advocating the overthrow of the government by violence is unlawful, and then he advocates the overthrow of the government by violence.

“Will you do whatever it takes, including take up arms?” he asks.

Which makes Ted Rall different from almost everyone else in public life who wants the corporate state to refrain from war crimes and destroying nature. He thinks violence is viable and the only real option on the table when the other choice is doom.

I admire Rall. He is prolific writer of good sentences. He is a prolific drawer of bitterly ironic cartoons. He is a serious reporter. He is honest about his own failings and wandering ideology. And he has dusted off the r-word at exactly the right moment in American history. He wants a revolution. And I agree with him. A revolution is exactly what the United States needs. The amount of cultural/economic/political change needed to save the world in the brief time we have left is unimaginable without a revolution. You can argue that the ruling class is evil, you can argue that the ruling class is incompetent, you can argue that the ruling class is both. But it has never been more clear that the ruling class is impervious to reform through established channels and the rest of us can look forward to incalculable suffering unless we get rid of it.

“Revolution doesn’t happen within the system,” Rall says. “Revolution is the act of destroying the system.”

Yup. But I wish Rall had been more thorough in his actual discussion of violence and non-violence.
Syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall on violence and revolutionSyndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall on violence and revolution

The question is not either/or. There is a huge smorgasbord of activities between the two poles that inflict varying degrees of pain on the system. In my reading of Rall and other advocates of revolutionary violence (like Ward Churchill), their basic argument comes down to: Non-violence doesn’t work and violence does work. I would argue that nothing works most of the time, that non-violence has eeked out the occasional partial victory, and violence usually backfires and makes things worse.

Part of the problem with discussing violence is that the word has a negative connotation and a foggy definition. It can mean anything from physical harm to vehemently angry speech. The corporate state habitually accuses anyone it doesn’t like of violence (witness Joe Biden calling Julian Assange a “terrorist”), just because the word is ugly and makes no distinction between harm to humans and harm to property. The corporate state likes keeping that distinction vague.

Let’s be less vague and look at bombs. For the left, is there any argument that big explosions have the desired effect on public opinon? Probably the best known bombing by the left in my almost 60 years on the planet was the destruction of Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin on August 24, 1970. Four young men who called themselves the New Years Gang set off a truck bomb filled with fertilizer and fuel oil at 3:42 am with the idea that nobody would be around at that hour to get hurt (unlike Timothy McVeigh). They managed to destroy the physics department, killed a post-grad researcher in low temperature physics named Robert Fassnacht, and mostly missed their intended target, which was the Army Math Research Center.

During the spring of 1970, the anti-war movement had tremendous momentum. Most of the colleges in United States shut down in protest when Nixon invaded Cambodia. There were massive demonstrations around the country and some rioting and burning of buildings. The government had massacred American students at Kent State on May 4 and Jackson State on May 14. The moral zeitgeist was all leftward. “Bring the war home,” went the chant.

After the bombing, the anti-war movement in Madison and the New Years Gang itself was distraught. The people of Madison were angry and in shock. Newspapers all over the country denounced it. The leftward momentum was gone in an instant. Three of the four members of the New Years Gang (Karl and Dwight Armstrong, David Fine) subsequently spent years in prison, and one (Leo Burt) is still in hiding. Bringing the war home didn’t have the desired outcome.

One could argue that the bombing of Sterling Hall was minuscule compared to the violence inflicted on Vietnam, and it was. But the “collateral damage” was a public relations catastrophe. Whenever I argue with war supporters, they always claim that the military bears no ethical responsibility for dead civilians if the intent was to bomb somebody else. The right and the center in American politics never grant that claim to the left.

So the problem with bombing is this: Nobody enjoys getting bombed. People in the vicinity of the bomb turn against the cause of the bomber. The military can’t understand this point because their job is to bomb people and, as Upton Sinclair and Al Gore have stated, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Hence, the military is always doing surveys to find out why it is loathed. The left shouldn’t need surveys to figure out that bombing makes you unpopular.

Another problem with bombs is that the bombers then have to go underground. If you’re an American bombing something in America, most Americans aren’t going to understand why you’re doing it. You have to explain yourself, and you can’t do that if you’re running from the law. Look at the Weather Underground. After the breakup of SDS, they bombed many targets including the Pentagon during the 70s, but got very little publicity and could not explain themselves because they were hiding. (At some point in the early 70s, word went out to the major news organizations that the left should be ignored rather than sensationalized, and now we have a generation of journalists who believe the left doesn’t exist because it’s never in the newspaper.) The Weather Underground indisputably did not ignite a revolution.

In retrospect, the New Years Gang should have found a way to sneak into the Army Math Research Center, trash it and then wait outside the building to get arrested. There still would have been howls of outrage, but they could have explained their case and Robert Fassnacht would still be alive. The teachable moment that Nixon created when he invaded Cambodia would have continued with all the moral force still on the left.

Yet another problem with bombs is that the guy in your group who is offering dynamite and vociferously arguing to go ahead is often a provocateur working for the FBI. Witness the fate of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali immigrant who got arrested last November in Portland, OR, with a bomb given to him by the FBI. Read the history of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s campaign to disrupt the left in 60s. It was and is standard operating procedure for the FBI to find someone they don’t like and give them a bomb and then make an arrest. If you’re non-violent, you eliminate that problem.

As for assassinations, all the same arguments apply. It’s unethical, because you’re engaging in the same behavior that you’re trying to stop. It discredits whatever cause you’re placing above human life. And it almost always doesn’t work. Nobody, including professionals in the military, is good at violence. It always causes death and suffering to people who bear no responsibility for the supposed wrong being addressed. All weapons are weapons of mass destruction in that sense. The recent events in Arizona are completely sickening, whatever the apparently schizophrenic assassin’s cause. Even if he was sane and had some worthy cause in mind, the end would not have justified the means.

It is also completely sickening that 70,000 Americans die every year from air pollution, according to the EPA. It would be more accurate to say that 70,000 people die every year from a system that values profit more than life. We could clean the air. The technology mostly exists. The system won’t allow it. It chooses to kill 70,000 people every year from air pollution. How would it be possible to stop this continuing atrocity through violence? You can’t assassinate a system. It doesn’t care who gets killed, even those who support the system, because there’s always a ready supply of replacements. The system values money, not life.

So, if you want to attack the system, you attack money, not individuals.

Riots are another issue. Because unions, the civil rights movement and the official anti-war movement all crawled into bed with the Democrats, they are now part of the system and effectively dead. That’s what the Democratic Party is: the graveyard of change. Poor and working people remain unorganized, so when the next spark hits the tinder, it will explode nihilistically like the 1992 riot in Los Angeles that expressed an opinion about the repressively stupid rule of police chief Daryl Gates. The left had done no organizing, so the riot degenerated into a race war. Similar explosions are entirely predictable. I’m not saying they’re desirable, just that that they’re coming, like the next hurricane. The Pentagon is preparing for them. Why not the left? In a collapsing economy and dying ecosystem, riots are not a matter of choice, even if they are a form of political violence. You can either prepare for them by organizing, or you can live with indiscriminate explosions of anger.

In Europe, they have way better riots than the United States does. Workers in France and Greece, especially, have some class consciousness, so they take over factories and threaten to destroy equipment if their demands aren’t met. When they riot, they try to cost the system money, even kidnap the boss, so they get very little publicity in the United States. The corporate media in the US don’t want to give anyone ideas. If the people of France and Greece were killing people, they’d get a lot of publicity here, and it would all be terrible.

That leaves traditional forms of civil disobedience, which can include property damage if you take legal responsibility for it. Over the decades, Plowshares has shown enormous courage when they break into missile sites and warships, denting weapons with hammers and pouring blood on electronic equipment. They’ve done that a lot, and they’ve gone to prison a lot, and the corporate press ignores it. Zen koan: Is it civil disobedience if nobody hears about it? More blog publicity, please, for actions on the left. And less snarking, please, about the latest stupid thing that Sarah Palin says.

Julian Assange has invented a whole new form of resistance, gets plenty of publicity, has committed no crime, and has embarrassed the corporate state by knocking a hole in the wall of public relations that it lives behind. He’s even figured out how to get the corporate press to expose the corporate state. Every decent bank employee, every decent teacher or student at a university where there is military research, every decent government worker should be looking to do the same thing. The more people do it, the harder it will be for the corporate state to charge anyone with an actual crime.

Shaming the system, as Julian Assange has done, is not, however, revolution. A step in the right direction, but not the goal.

In his January 7 column about the public health disaster caused by wealth inequality, Rall says, “No matter how nicely we ask, why would the rich and powerful give up their wealth or their power? They won’t—unless it’s at gunpoint.”

Giving Rall full credit for having the balls to say that in a syndicated column, as well as in his book, I see two further problems with his reasoning: 1) The ruling class controls the military, the police, all the mercenaries, and all the big weapons; and 2) the ruling class controls television, so the average American gun owner thinks Muslims or illegal immigrants or the unworthy poor or liberals or commies are the source of his problems. This would lead to a gunfight with 99% of the guns pointed at the left, which would be unlikely to make the rich and powerful surrender much.

So is that indeed all there is? If violence doesn’t work, does everyone have to supplicate before power? Beg Obama, the stooge of Wall Street, to please just meet with a progressive now and then?

No, we can have a general strike. Withholding labor hurts money. Take over factories, take over office buildings, threaten to destroy expensive machinery, refuse to work at home. Join the workers in Europe who are doing the same thing. (Ya know, “Workers of the world, unite!” and all that.) If you get enough people, violence is irrelevant. Tell the boss his money is a social construction, and the rest of us refuse to grant its power or even existence any more. We’re going to try a new way of doing things. It would take a lot of organizing, but probably less organizing than a successful violent revolution would take. Either way requires a lot of organizing. Neither way is doom. And right now it’s a pleasant dream that tens of millions of bankrupt, foreclosed Americans have not even considered. They could even start the revolutionary ball rolling by refusing to leave their foreclosed homes. What could the police do if the million families who are expected to be evicted this year got together and became a million squatters?

When the time comes, even if I don’t want to pick up a gun, I’d still like to be part of Ted Rall’s Autonomous Guerilla Group. Alternatively, I’d be proud to be tortured with him and Julian Assange at Guantanamo.