Alternatives to suicide

[In 1980 Cienfuegos Press published Towards a citizens’ militia: anarchist alternatives to NATO & the Warsaw Pact. Various politicians complained. An earlier article in Black Flag declared ‘to be attacked by these people is like having the Good House­keeping seal of approval.’ (v.6, n.3, June 1980) Here Albert probes the motives behind their fear of the idea of popular self-defence and speculates on what they would have done if Hitler had successfully invaded Britain. Would they really kill themselves rather than collaborate?]

Towards a Citizens’ Militia’ has stirred up a lively controversy: not since 1940 has the general subject been aired, and the climate has changed a lot since then. The furious reactions of the gang of would-be betrayers has already been commented on in Black Flag: it must always be remembered that times of military defeat may be times of setback in terms of nations as powers, but they are also times of opportunity in terms of politicians, and the seizing of initiative from politicians is something that they naturally regard with the greatest of abhorrence. It is no coincidence that excess of patriotism produces the most national traitors. 

In France in 1940 it was not the fascists who had knocked heads in the streets (and had their heads knocked in, too) who came to power. Neither Petain nor Laval were fascists. Petain was the arch-patriot, respected by all nationalists (which in France meant nearly everyone); Laval was centre MP and an opportunist. Looking from the vantage point of history, we can see why Winston Churchill MP, Ian Sproat, and Labourite James Wilson did all in their power to have Cienfuegos Press banned, and stigmatised its productions as “books of terror”. Though in theory these people are for the defence of the regime against foreign enemies, foreign conquest is something which they take into account in their personal plans for power. It is significant to note how, when asked what they would have done in the event of Hitler taking power in England in 1940, almost all British politicians (and every one on the right) said (a generation later) that they would have committed suicide, and presumably murdered all their families too. 

Enoch Powell put it, “The key question is the king”. If the king retained power, but the government moved to Canada, “we” could fight on. If the government had submitted, and the only alternative to foreign domination was illegal resistance, there was no alternative they could fairly state (a generation later) but suicide (and family murder). But it may well have been that they would have desired to live, or to spare their families, and the alternative then would have been collaboration, since illegal resistance was out for them. The present Churchill has underlined this well with his denunciations of a citizens’ militia, and distortion of self-defence as terrorism.

Mass Terror does not Terrorise?

Irrespective of the tactics and programme of such a citizens’ militia (and there is a wide variation in peoples’ ideas as to what they think of the tactics advocated in the manual: those with military experience viewing it as highly practical, those without military experience viewing it as quite naive and those with experience in Northern Ireland falling into the second category, about which more later), it cannot be denied that a citizens’ militia of one sort or another is essential if one is not to fall into line with the super-powers whose tactics and programme are instant death. 

It is a comment on those who speak of “books of terror” that they categorise this pamphlet as one of “terror”, yet the alternatives – NATO or the Warsaw Pact – allow only for mass death and genocide of the entire population with only the outside “Afghan” possibility of capitulation or minor localised resistance. 

An interesting comment was that made by a reviewer in ‘Tribune’ that those who opposed lining up with super-Powers in the pact with death had to consider citizens’ militias as a viable alternative: but pointed out that it involved the acceptance of conscription for all. This is not valid. One must bear in mind that the only basis for a citizens’ militia is trust. Any resistance to a super-power implies that it has won; and that resistance is therefore either illegal (the government having sold out) or technically legal but in practice illegal (the government having escaped and denied legal imprimatur to its successor); and for resistance to be effective it has to take place between people who can trust one another. 


Conscription is the diametrical opposite of this. Resistance must be of those with the will to resist. Those who “have no stomach to the fight” are better out of it, as they will be in practice anyway. It is a mistake to think that resistance to a dictatorship (whether it seized power as the result of a military coup, or is imposed by foreign powers) can only be of the whole people. Never will the vast majority voluntarily move to resist tyranny at one go: there are too many temptations to postpone, too many excuses to think it might get better, one might get overlooked and too many and too vicious means of repression. 

The left, on the whole, while talking about revolution, sees it as an open operation; if it can’t be done perfectly legally (as, by coincidence, the Spanish revolution, since the fascists were in rebellion against the government) or in a position where nobody is more illegal than anyone else (as in Russia 1917), then at least let it be by general spontaneity so that it legalises itself automatically. But things don’t necessarily work out that way. The rearguard has to take action against the oppressors, and then the tyrants call it terrorism. It is because none of the issues are clear-cut in this way in Northern Ireland that the booklet viewed from such a viewpoint looks unrealistic. Most of the population is going about its daily business in the normal way – subject to annoying body checks in the centre of the city and exposure to indiscriminate bombing or shooting. What has all this talk about uprooting trees and dislodging cars to do with urban fighting? Nothing in this context. 

In order to establish a dictatorship – either because a foreign enemy can only rule that way or because an internal group has made a coup – exceptional methods are needed. The population cannot go about its business in the normal way: if it were allowed to do so, it might by industrial action bring the whole society to a standstill and prevent the coup. What must be done by the dictators are spectacular actions, massacre being the most obvious. The Nazis did not fill up trains with Jews just out of malice: they did it to impress the rest of the population into subservience. The Spanish falangists – who were faced with the problem of wiping out social revolution – went to the factories and shot one in ten; or rounded people on the streets and for years filled the railways with prisoners – travelling from one jail to another – for precisely the same reason: to impress the population and dominate. Such terror tactics have to be countered by more spectacular actions than can be, or need to be seen, in anything other than a dictatorship. Occupation over the years, even accompanied by police repression, does not amount to a dictatorship: nor does it evoke the same responses which amount to those of war. 

This is why those with Army training can recognise elements of basic survival skills in the book, and those with experience of Ireland find themselves, on this issue, as sceptical as those who have no military experience at all. 

Who should take up arms?

Finally, it should be recognised that the basic right of self-defence is implicit in a democracy: this was recognised in America from the beginning to distinguish itself from the monarchical principle that only the privileged could bear arms. However, in most modern capitalistic states, and in all feudal states up to the present, there is an acceptance of the monarchical principle, caused by an understandable fear that if the people have arms, they will not tolerate the government.

The left finds itself confuted with its own logic on Israel, when it tries to say it is a fascist state: it is basically a democratic state which can allow its citizens to have free access to arms and to take the arms for a conscript army home with them. Fascism, as in fascist Spain, is frightened to let even conscript soldiers learn too much and relies on an “old guard”, select-SS, Praetorian guard or the like. Of course, saying that a country is democratic is not to say that it lacks aggression against others, or is a free society, least of all that it lacks police repression: all these things exist in Israel as in other democracies. What distinguishes a democracy from a dictatorship so much is not freedom – that is only achieved by a libertarian society – but voluntary acquiescence. Fascist countries cannot allow people to take arms home with them. South Africa can allow it to its white population only; like Israel its democracy is one-sided. Britain retains the monarchical principle against the bearing of arms but at a pinch, in 1940, could allow home defence if it came to it. (Of course it never did).

Does Revolution need arms?

Social Revolutionary change is to do with a change in the industrial relationships: it means an alteration in the way the property system works, and an anarchist revolution means an abandonment of the idea of enshrined property rights. Industrial relationships can only be altered by people who are concerned with them. It is a matter of occupying the places of work, of changes in the way society is run, of an alteration in the way power is directed from above so that it is levelled and control comes from below. Libertarian social revolutionary change means a widening of conceptions so that such attitudes spread to all social relationships and prevent authoritarian tendencies developing in the way people relate to one another.

This has nothing to do with taking up the gun and nothing to do with sabotage or “violence”, notwithstanding the media-induced image. Such resistance is needed not in order that a libertarian social revolution would take place but to prevent authoritarians from outside (or inside) the country, from destroying the revolution or taking it over.

As conventional war means mass murder, let the discussion on Citizens’ Militias continue!

A.M.[Albert Meltzer]


As a postscript to the saga of ‘Towards a Citizens’ Militia’ (now in its second edition), We had a report from a comrade travelling the bookshops in Scotland and getting a somewhat frosty reception. In the Hope Street, Glasgow, bookshop of the Workers Revolutionary Party he was told flatly that they didn’t want to have anything to do with Cienfuegos titles because “the police were out to get Cienfuegos and if I didn’t realise that I was a fool” and that “stocking the titles would establish a pretext for a raid on the bookshop”.

This attitude to threats is reminiscent of that adopted by some minority ethnic groups who in doing so yield their enemies a position of power which they have not yet legally acquired. All that has happened with Cienfuegos press titles is that certain reactionary MPs have demanded that this book be banned and the press closed down. Immediately a civil liberties lawyer (an NCCL official) advised PDC to stop distributing the book! Yet these are the people they call on us to oppose. However, when the same book was advertised – with quotations from these self-same MPs – numerous orders were received, from all over the country and elsewhere, from shop stewards and others, all saying to the same effect: “If these people are against it, I’m for it”. Yet the so-called “vanguard parties” are afraid to cater for their demand – an obvious lesson. It may be mentioned that as regards “closing down” the press or banning it, notwithstanding the media, no legal machinery for this exists. A publisher can – rightly or wrongly, successfully or unsuccessfully – be prosecuted for publishing a book. The penalties do not include “closing down” the press. The people who are calling for this are too stupid to know their own stupid business.

From: Black Flag v.6, n6, January 1981.