Strong Toward the Powerful: A Warrior Path for Radical Pagans
The Issue of Violence
In my article “Praxis,” I briefly mentioned my commitment to never initiate the use of force. Despite the plain language I used to express myself, my words were willfully misinterpreted by a critic of Gods and Radicals. Before I go any further with a discussion of pagan warriorship, I want to express my position on this topic again.
I have made a personal commitment to fight only in self-defense or in direct defense of another person. If someone attacks me physically, I will defend myself. If I see someone being physically assaulted in front of me, I will jump in to help the victim. As an anarchist, I pay attention only to right and wrong and I consider the law to be irrelevant. However, it happens to be the case that the circumstances under which I will fight are exactly those circumstances allowed by law – to protect myself or another from a violent assault. I also happen to believe that nonviolent mass resistance is a more effective strategy in most circumstances than the use of force, as it avoids the huge strategic error of pitting weakness against strength in a direct confrontation.
However, I also refuse to condemn people who fight back against violent oppression, as in the heroic struggle of the Rojava Cantons against Daesh or the Zapatista uprising of 1994. Real life is complicated, and sometimes people have little choice but to fight back. This article will address radical pagan warriorship in the context of both strategic nonviolence and actual fighting, but I remain committed to nonviolent protest actions.
Our myths and legends tell fascinating though often tragic stories of great warrior heroes. Many pagans find these stories inspiring, and some look for ways to recreate a “pagan warrior path” in the modern world.
Some pagans treat the concept of the warrior entirely as an archetype, and use phrases such as “peaceful warrior.” Others reject this as inauthentic, and insist that no one can claim the name of warrior without being “initiated” through violent conflict.
Both perspectives treat the word “warrior” as something special, a myth to live up to, a status to earn. I’d like to examine the relevance of these ideas for pagan radicalism, and explore how we might be able to make these concepts work for us. I’m going to be looking at several different aspects of what warriorship might mean to us – including the definition of the word “warrior,” the benefits of focusing on victory, the importance of strategic decision-making and tactical discipline, the potential danger of treating warriorship as an archetype and the usefulness of building a martial mindset through martial training. I’ll wrap it all up at the end by looking at a pagan warrior code from Irish lore, and adapting it to our purposes as modern radicals.
What is a Warrior?
Anti-capitalist pagans are committed to seeking radical social change. Many of us are also uncomfortable with the whole concept of the warrior, associating it with violent masculinity. Unfortunately, some pagans do make a simplistic connection between the “warrior archetype” and the “sacred masculine,” ignoring the reality that these are two separate concepts.
The revolutionary women defending the Rojava cantons from Daesh are obviously warriors by any definition, yet they are also fighting for gender equality in their own society. The peasants who marched on Versailles with their pikes in 1789 were mostly women, and there are many other examples. The concept of warriorship doesn’t really have anything to do with masculinity. Of course, the existence of warrior women in ancient pagan Europe is especially relevant to us. If we reject the idea that warriorship is an expression of masculinity, then what exactly is it?
Can “pagan warriorship” be something real and practical, not just a symbol or an archetype? To answer that question, we have to define the word “warrior,” knowing that the definition we settle on will have implications for our own lives and actions as radicals.
In the most down-to-earth terms, a warrior is a person who fights in a war. To define what a warrior is, we have to define what a war is. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a number of different definitions, of which the first naturally refers to armed conflict in the literal sense.
Two of the other definitions are more relevant to our current situation: “A sustained effort to deal with or end a particular unpleasant or undesirable situation or condition” and “A state of competition, conflict, or hostility between different people or groups.”
Most anti-capitalist pagans would probably see themselves as being in a state of conflict with the capitalist system, and would see themselves as being part of a sustained effort to put an end to it. Therefore, our struggle against capitalism can be seen as a war in the broad sense, although we are not engaged in armed struggle and many of us would reject the idea of armed struggle for moral reasons.
Activists with roots in the anti-war tradition might be uncomfortable describing our struggle against capitalism in terms of war and conflict even symbolically. However, many pagan activists already worship warrior deities or feel themselves to be on a warrior path.
If a war is a state of conflict to end an unacceptable situation, then you could say that a warrior is a person who engages in conflict with the goal of achieving victory.
However, in any war there are many different roles, and not everyone is on the front lines or exposed to high levels of personal risk. The term “warrior” does seem to imply that you have accepted a higher level of personal risk. If we factor that concept into our definition, what we get is this:
A warrior is a person who takes significant personal risks in a conflict, with the goal of achieving victory.
The risks will vary. In some protest actions we risk being hit in the head with a nightstick or choked by teargas or arrested and sentenced to prison time. Depending on where we are and who we are and when it happens, there is sometimes the risk of live ammunition being used on the crowd as at Kent State – or more recently, in Minneapolis. A protest isn’t usually much like a literal war, but in the worst case scenario it’s exactly like one. If we’re thinking about being at the front of the line, we need to ask ourselves why.
What Would Victory Look Like?
The risks we take are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The purpose of taking a risk is to contribute to victory. If we’re serious about the warrior path, we should give some thought to victory – what it is and how to achieve it.
To figure that out in any specific situation we need to distinguish between tactics and strategy. Tactical issues are the small picture and strategic issues are the big picture. In any specific case, we should be able to articulate what a strategic victory would look like, what a tactical victory would look like and how the tactical victory will contribute to eventual strategic victory.
For instance, let’s say your strategic goal is to prevent a neofascist candidate from becoming President of the United States, and your tactical goal is to expose the violent nature of his campaign and alienate mainstream voters who might have otherwise voted for him. So you attend his campaign rallies and call him out on his racist statements. When he verbally encourages his followers to attack you, you win a tactical victory. When these incidents convince a majority of voters that he is not presidential material, you win a strategic victory.
My strategic goal is to help create a radically egalitarian, democratic and ecological society. Since this is my goal, any specific tactics I choose should always support this long-term goal. Any action I take can be judged on the basis of this goal. Either it contributes, or it doesn’t.
Whatever your strategic goal might be, the reality we have to face as radicals is that we lack the tools to win a direct confrontation with the powers that currently rule our world. The conditions for victory in the short term simply don’t exist. Historically, revolutions that happen very rapidly often result in mass murder and the creation of new totalitarian regimes. As an anti-authoritarian, I would be totally opposed to that type of revolution.
Revolutionary situations sometimes develop unexpectedly due to a “black swan” or highly unanticipated event. For instance, no one expected a mass protest movement against the Assad regime in Syria, and no one expected it would result in a civil war and the breakdown of centralized authority. That breakdown made the Rojava revolution possible.
By definition, no one can really plan for a black swan event. No one with any compassion for human suffering would wish for something as terrible as a civil war just to create the conditions for revolutionary change, although I think the Rojava revolutionaries were right to seize the opportunity when it came up. As the contradictions of global capitalism continue to worsen, we may see other such opportunities at any time or in any place, and we should do our best to be ready for them.
Although we should aim to be ready for anything, we can’t realistically plan for a short-term victory. Victory in the long term should be the basis of our strategy.
Once we’ve decided to seek a long-term victory, this strategic decision has to inform all of our smaller tactical decisions. Strategy informs tactics, not the other way around. If our long-term goal is to contribute to a revolutionary transformation of society without making everything worse for everyone, then all of our daily tactical decisions should also contribute to this long-term goal in a tangible way.
In my opinion, the reason we can’t challenge the ruling powers directly is that the people most affected by capitalism don’t have solidarity with each other. Therefore, the one indispensable precondition for long-term victory is to establish solidarity. Solidarity in the real and practical struggles regular people actually face, building power from below until no power from above can stop it.
The old paradigm of the vanguard has largely been rejected by the revolutionary movements that most inspire me personally. In his farewell address, former Zapatista spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos said that the Zapatistas had moved “from revolutionary vanguardism to ‘ruling by obeying;’ from the taking of Power from Above to the creation of power from below; from professional politics to everyday politics; from the leaders, to the peoples.”
If we agree with this approach, then all of our actions and all of our decisions should be based on creating power from below, helping people win in the everyday politics of their daily lives and centering our efforts on regular people, not political leaders. In practice, this means lending our numbers and our courage to any action or cause that promotes solidarity and builds power from below.
If our long-term goals depend on building solidarity between all people and groups affected by capitalism, then anything we say or do that damages solidarity is self-defeating. Solidarity does not mean group-think. You don’t have to agree with every detail of what other people say or do in order to hold the line with them. However, you do have to make a serious attempt not to do anything that would alienate them unnecessarily, because no one who doesn’t trust you is going to want to stand with you.
I’ve seen more than one movement-building conversation knocked off the rails by toxic suspicion and distrust, especially between people split by differences such as race, sex, class or gender. We live in a sick society and have all been affected by this sickness, but if we want to make the situation better we have to exercise self-discipline and avoid destroying solidarity.
The burden of this shouldn’t fall on people who are already expected to put up with too much. They shouldn’t be expected to silence themselves to avoid making me feel uncomfortable. I can keep my mouth shut sometimes when I am uncomfortable, if it will help me win the changes I want to win. Yes, I’m a white guy who grew up in poverty. No, it is not likely to help my cause to bring up that fact every time anyone mentions white privilege. Self-disciplined behavior is an important aspect of the warrior mindset.
Self-discipline is especially important in the actions we take on the street.
The Mask of the Warrior
When a myth helps you stay strong in the face of adversity and danger, it’s helping you and helping your cause. When a myth leads you to make destructive choices that merely feed your own ego, it’s hurting you and hurting your cause. Myths are powerful magic, and we have to decide carefully how we use that magic.
The idea of being a warrior can become a dangerous daydream, leading us to make decisions that don’t serve our broader goals but do feed the archetypal self-image we want to nurture – such as recklessly fighting with the police when there is no necessity for it.
From my perspective as an anti-authoritarian leftist, I would much rather we not think of “warrior” as a title to be earned. A free and egalitarian society with a warrior elite is obviously a contradiction in terms. Even if a free society saw the need to create such an elite to meet a temporary crisis, it most likely would not remain free for long.
The model that works best with our political principles is that of the ordinary person who takes up arms only when the community is directly threatened. Warriorship as something you do when needed, not as an intrinsic identity. There are plenty of myths about that as well, and there’s a simple magic behind the transformation. We can think of warriorship as a role or a mask, to be taken up in certain circumstances and put down in others – something like the Guy Fawkes mask worn by many protesters around the world.
You can easily turn this into a powerful ritual, putting your mask on before an action along with prayers and offerings to the gods you worship. By taking the mask off again when you return, you reverse the magic and go back to your everyday frame of mind. Even if you don’t choose to wear a mask when protesting, you can still use the mask ritual in a symbolic sense.
“Putting on the mask of the warrior, I ask the gods and ancestors to bless my actions and to grant me the courage of true conviction. Removing the mask of the warrior, I ask the gods and ancestors to bless my actions and to grant me peace of mind until I take the mask up again.”
You don’t always have to play the same role. If I’m able to take significant risks at one action and not at another, then I am in a warrior role in the first action and a support role in the second. It’s important for us to be flexible about this, and encourage people to play any role that works for them on a particular occasion.
Whenever you are in the warrior role, you will be most effective if you adopt a martial mindset, a way of thinking that is different in several ways from a regular everyday attitude. The martial mindset includes the acceptance of risk and discomfort, resolution in the face of danger, loyalty to comrades and tactical awareness. Stoicism, courage and loyalty are common among many radicals from what I have seen, but tactical awareness is much less common.
Tactical awareness is a state of alertness, in which you are constantly aware of all potential threats in your environment even while pursuing your other goals.
In my experience, most participants in a protest march have no tactical awareness. They simply march straight forward, and when the police begin closing side streets off they don’t usually seem to notice. This is the first stage in a police tactic called the “kettle,” where they trap the protesters in the smallest possible space and then hold them there. At this point, the police can make mass arrests if they want to. The other thing I’ve seen the police do is to kettle all the side streets and the road ahead, then attack from behind before the protesters realize there is nowhere to run.
I’ve seen Black Blocs with the tactical awareness and group cohesion to avoid being kettled, but they’re definitely the exception. If you’re at a particular protest action as an individual and are not participating in the Black Bloc, tactical awareness can still help you avoid being kettled or attacked from behind. You can also use it to help your friends and comrades. For instance, if you think a particular person is likely to be targeted by police you can direct them into a store or down a side street before the trap is sprung. If you see the police attacking before anyone else does, you can shout a warning and possibly help a few escape.
Occupy the Midwest used this tactic at several protest actions, designating some activists as “nonviolent bodyguards.” Every media person was assigned a bodyguard whose sole job was to protect that person from arrest or assault by police. This is a good example of the “mask of the warrior,” because bodyguards only retained that role for the duration of the action. Once the action was over, the bodyguard would go back to being just another pair of jazz hands at the General Assembly.
The tactic proved to be successful. Citizen journalists protected by bodyguards were able to keep filming even while the protesters were being attacked by police right next to them. To be effective, nonviolent bodyguards had to be able to maintain tactical awareness in all directions for several hours at a stretch. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but some of the people who volunteered as bodyguards had the advantage of prior training.
The primary advantage of tactical awareness is to get yourself ready, so you are in a better position to adapt to a chaotic situation as it develops. No one can say ahead of time what shape this will take. A good martial arts program can greatly improve your ability to maintain this level of alertness. It doesn’t particularly matter which martial art, as long as it is an art that encourages this type of alertness and allows you to practice it till it becomes habitual.
The other advantage of practicing a martial art is that the training tends to strengthen your resolve and encourage you in the warrior role when needed. It doesn’t have to be a “street-realistic” art and it might even be preferable if it isn’t. If you’re committed to strategic nonviolence you aren’t going to be fighting anyone in the literal sense anyway. You need the inner strength and self-discipline to refuse to fight even when greatly provoked. Martial training can give you that.
Of course, some protest movements do escalate beyond that level. Antifascist streetfighters obviously expect to fight fascists in the literal sense, so they need to train in practical fighting techniques to do what they do effectively. You have to decide for yourself how you feel about that and what you would do in that situation, but tactical awareness is relevant in any scenario where you face the threat of physical attack by security forces or vigilantes.
A Radical Pagan Warrior Code
Warrior codes of honorable behavior are as old as the concept of warriorship itself, but again we should not confuse a means with an end. The end is not to fantasize and obsess about following some ancient honor code. The end is to win, to create a world that works for everyone. A code of behavior is nothing more than a means, a tool to help us achieve that end.
There have been as many different warrior codes as there have been different types of warrior. The bushido code of the samurai was obviously a different thing from the medieval knight’s code of chivalry, which was a different thing from the code of an ancient Irish Fianna warrior.
Ends define means, so we would have little use for a warrior code based on upholding feudalism. As pagans, most of us would be inclined to look to the pagan past for examples of warrior codes, and such examples do exist. However, a code based on Iron Age pagan society is not going to work for a modern radical without substantial revision. The circumstances are different and the fight is different. The underlying values are not always compatible. Any code a pagan radical could adopt would have to reflect these differences.
Here’s one example of what can be done to bridge the gap between ourselves and the warriors of the past. I have taken the Maxims of the Fianna and rewritten them for a modern context. If you compare them to the original version you’ll find many differences – but I think I’ve kept everything from the original that can be readily applied in our circumstances and with our values.
1- Save your courage for when you need it- don’t boast or bluster.
2- Never accuse anyone of anything without strong reasons.
3- Don’t get caught up in pointless arguments.
4- Don’t associate with anyone destructive or harmful.
5- Never bully.
6- Don’t exaggerate accomplishments or feed your ego through false bravado.
7- Never abandon your cause or your comrades.
8- If you are in a leadership role, do not abuse the trust placed in you.
9- Spread no rumors and start no trouble.
10- Don’t drink too much or abuse other substances that might cloud your judgment.
11- Be more inclined to give than to deny.
12- Don’t force other people to pay attention to you.
13- Never stop fighting until the struggle is over.
14- Always strive to be gentle.
This code puts the emphasis on behaviors that build and maintain solidarity and contribute to eventual victory. That is its only purpose. There are other examples of wisdom-literature associated with ancient pagan warriors, and I’d encourage anyone interested in radical pagan warriorship to create their own interpretations. One line I particularly like comes from the Counsels of Cormac, an ancient Irish warrior king:
I was weak toward the feeble, I was strong toward the powerful.
As I interpret this, “feeble” is not an essential state. It simply refers to relative power in any given situation. If I have any strength or any courage, let me direct it only against the powerful. That’s the warrior path, and it stands in direct opposition to the cowardly and vicious tactics of terrorism. Terrorists deliberately avoid targeting the powerful and instead direct their violence against people who have no effective means of resisting them. This is true of all kinds of terrorists, including some who wear police or military uniforms.
Whatever strength we possess, let us use it only to resist unjust power.
Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.
Christopher Scott Thompson’s will appear in A Beautiful Resistance: We Bring The Fire. You can order it here.