Neither Broken Nor Crushed

The “mask of the warrior” I wrote about in Strong Toward the Powerful is no longer hypothetical. All over the United States, people determined to resist the Trump regime and its fascist allies are masking up and taking to the streets.

The black mask of antifascism scares some people, but that doesn’t make it wrong. When you’re faced with a threat as serious as this one, there is no ethical option except to fight back. “Fighting” can mean many different things, and in any conflict throughout history most participants are not in frontline roles. This struggle needs everyone, not only those who are prepared to personally put a mask on and punch a Nazi leader in the face.

There are some highly effective and disruptive nonviolent tactics available for those who are simply unwilling to throw a punch no matter what. The heroic water protectors at Standing Rock have repeatedly put their own bodies on the line without harming their opponents. However, there is also a type of “pacifism” that is far less admirable, because it mostly consists of lecturing other protesters about nonviolence while refusing to take any risks or carry out any effective action at all.

In its most extreme form, pure pacifism is a false value system, a self-serving attempt to maintain one’s own moral purity even if it means allowing torture, murder and every other atrocity to go unchallenged. It is also extremely rare, because hardly anyone who claims to be a pacifist is truly a pacifist. Most of the liberals who condemn anti-fascist and Black Bloc activity and claim to support only non-violent methods are simply being hypocrites.

If you have supported any military intervention anywhere for any reason, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. (Not even if the president who sent the troops into battle was a Democrat!) Bombs, missiles and bullets do the same thing to human bodies no matter who pulls the trigger, pushes the button or gives the order.

If there are any circumstances under which you would call the police, you cannot call yourself a pacifist. The police carry batons, stun guns, pepper spray and firearms and they will use any or all of those on anyone who resists them. When you make the decision to call the police on a person, you are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve your objectives in the situation — even if those objectives are perfectly noble. Violence does not magically become less violent when you contract it out.

When people condemn “violent protests” but support the police and the military, they are not taking a pacifist position at all but an authoritarian one. Right now, as you read this, there are Antifa volunteers fighting with the YPG against Daesh in Syria. The YPG has American support, so they are widely seen as heroes of the “War on Terror.” When Antifa shuts down a Nazi rally here in the United States, our enemies on the Right denounce us as terrorists and some liberals go along with them. Antifa fights against fascists all over the world, the only difference between one situation and the other is that they have our government’s blessing in one case and not in the other. That is not a coherent moral stance. Simply put, the people complaining about Antifa have bought into the State’s claim to hold a monopoly on the use of violence. That’s all the State really is, after all — an armed organization that has successfully claimed a monopoly on violence within a certain territory.

The State has a vested interest in obscuring this fact, so it defines “terrorism” not as an attempt to terrorize but as any political violence carried out without government permission. When Al Qaeda blows up a wedding party with a suicide bomb, it’s committing terrorism. When the CIA does the exact same thing with a drone strike, it’s fighting terrorism.

Not surprisingly, anarchists do not consider this distinction to be legitimate. If violence is always unjustifiable it remains unjustifiable when committed by the agents of the State. If violence is sometimes necessary, it remains so regardless of whether the fighters are wearing the right uniform or not.

If pacifism is often an incoherent and hypocritical position, what about its opposite? Some people romanticize armed struggle without asking themselves how well it really works in practice or under what specific circumstances it would be justifiable or necessary. Anyone who has studied the history of armed struggle knows that it rarely achieves the intended results. Just because a tactic is more destructive does not mean it is more effective. It would be far better to never get involved in radical politics at all than to simply ruin lives and destroy things while leaving society as unjust and oppressive as you found it. My personal opinion is that people should only take up arms when they have no other choice. How do you know when you have no other choice? I can’t answer that riddle for anyone; it depends entirely on your real circumstances. Study the history of armed uprisings and you will not find yourself eager to try it if you don’t have to.

Among the anarchist philosophers, Godwin rejected revolutionary violence because coercion of any kind was against the principles he stood for. Bakunin embraced it, because he thought the oppressive power of the State could be broken only through a cataclysm. I don’t exactly take either position. When it comes to anarchism, I am content to spread my ideas by writing and talking about them, like Godwin. When it comes to resisting tyranny and fascism, I believe in fighting back. However, I don’t think that “fighting back” means nihilistic destruction. There’s a scene in the Tain where the hills and plains of Ulster literally turn gray from all the pulverized brains. I think we can all agree that this is not the outcome we’re going for! It’s not as simple as saying that you are either for violence or against it. When it comes to punching Nazis, I am for. When it comes to coating the landscape with random brains, I am definitely against.

Some fanatics on the Right — including Steve Bannon — have been fantasizing for years about an apocalyptic civil war to cleanse the nation of people like you and me. No individual person can have much effect on whether a civil war happens or not, but the fact that it’s even being talked about should terrify you. You could make a case that we should be getting ready for a worst-case scenario, but anyone who would try to make it happen is not your friend.

If you agree with my analysis, neither pure pacifism nor its opposite are justifiable positions. So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a nuanced position, in which we acknowledge that conflict is a reality while also respecting the sanctity of life.

That’s not an easy answer, because it doesn’t present a clear and unambiguous script for every situation. It leaves the moral complexity of conflict in place and forces you to make decisions contextually, based on what’s really happening in that moment. It requires you to do everything in your power to minimize harm—sometimes by not fighting, sometimes by fighting, and sometimes by choosing one tactic instead of another in the middle of a fight.

As it says in The Instructions of King Cormac:

If you are too hard, you will be broken
If you are too feeble, you will be crushed.

The bombers and bank robbers of the ‘70s were broken; Occupy was crushed. If we don’t want to be broken or crushed, we need to embrace the ambiguity of the situation and wage our struggle in a way that is neither too hard nor too feeble.


Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword.


Christopher Scott Thompson is the author of Pagan Anarchism, available from Gods&Radicals.

Frith, Peace, and Protest

Within my Druidic practice, there are three key properties that sit at its heart. Awen, the force of poetic inspiration, engenders creativity and nourishes charisma. Imbas, or life-force, brings health and prophetic vision. The third principle – Frith – is harmony and liberty. Each of these terms is rooted in a different language from my own ancestry; awen is Welsh, spoken by my mother’s family, imbas is from Irish, once spoken by my father’s family, while frith is from Old English – the language ancestral to that which I speak daily. Although the roots of Druidry in Welsh and Irish culture are well known, the ancient Druids practiced right across the British Isles, and the landscape and culture of England continues to speak to Druidic themes – frith being a part of this ongoing conversation. A conversation, I suggest, that speaks to our present duress.

Druids have a longstanding concern for peace. We have old stories of Druids striding out between opposing armies, helping them to reconcile, and during the Druid Revival in the 17th Century, Iolo Morganwg integrated a strong pacifist streak into druidic teaching. But there are certain problems with the concept of peace – and pacifism – as we understand them today. Pacifism is often used as a justification for inaction, or the condemnation of fellow activists. Although notable pacifists are often extremely qualified in their advocacy of nonviolent resistance, such nuance is all-too-often ignored by those who believe that true pacifism means all violence is always wrong. Often coming from positions of class or racial privilege, such advocates of pacifism ignore the structural nature of violence, and instead use the principle as a stick to beat other activists of whom they disapprove, or as a prop for personal cowardice or self-interest. Making a principled stand not to fight back is one thing; ignoring the nature of the violence to which you are opposed is quite another.

It is helpful here to consider the origins of the word “peace” itself. Descended from the Latin pax, the meanings are what we’d expect – tranquility, reconciliation, silence, and agreement. However, such meanings cannot be disentangled easily from the broader social structure of the Roman Empire, under whose terms pax was sustained. The Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – was created and guaranteed through extreme and often genocidal violence; committed against any who refused to accept the authority of the Roman Senate and, later, its Emperors. Indeed, one can note that as soon as a Pax is invoked as a nation’s gift to the world – such as the Pax Mongolica in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Pax Britannica that held from 1815 until 1914, or the Pax Americana under which we now live – it is more or less guaranteed that the nation concerned has achieved imperial hegemony, backed up with a vast military. “Peace” therefore has a history of concealing a backdrop of institutional violence; silent assent in the face of coercion.

FRITH IS A RADICALLY different sort of concept, because unlike pax, it directs our attention not just to the state of harmony itself, but to the wider sort of relationships that best engender it. Although frith has not survived into modern English as a synonym for harmony, the word does survive in both the words “friend” and “free”. Whereas peace is maintained through treaties, there is a sense with which frith is founded upon kinship – it is the state of harmony that should, ideally, exist between close relatives and friends. It is the active sense of safety that we work towards, ensuring that we are secure in each other’s company. It is only in such a state – wherein we are safe from harm or disturbance, due to our good relations with others – that we can be truly said to be free. It used to be the case that any enclosed sacred space would be termed friþgeard – “frith-guarded”; a place of sanctuary or asylum, where those within were free from attack. In this sense, frith is not just a social, but a sacred property – a blessed state that unites both humans and divine beings. While peace is always enforced with the stamp of a boot, frith can only be managed with friends.

The groundedness of frith in kinship and communal liberty reflects the fact that, in contrast to the Roman Empire, Anglo-Saxon England was a small-scale society; founded upon a clan-structure, and interpersonal relationships. But it would be a mistake to believe, because our society operates at a global scale, that we have nothing to learn from the concept of frith today. Indeed, I would suggest that frith transforms our understanding in two ways – both vital for the present moment.

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Oh. Dear.

1 – Freedom isn’t individual

Liberty is sometimes imagined to be a matter of absolute individual sovereignty. According to this view, each man is an island, and no institution should be created that goes against this fundamental principle. Such a euphoric vision owes much to a certain pioneer spirit; combining a scepticism towards the state with a spirit of resolute self-reliance. Everyone is responsible for their own destiny. Quite often, corporations are oddly exempt from this demand – despite the fact that they can be every bit as corrosive of individual freedoms as an oppressive government.

The concept of frith points to the limitations of such a view. Being free is not simply a matter of being on your own; indeed, being abandoned to live on your own wits at the edge of the world is more akin to being an exile or an outlaw – the very opposite of frith. Frith acknowledges that true calm and equanimity emerges not when you are totally on your own, vulnerable to the elements, wild animals, and hostile human beings, but when you are surrounded by those you love and trust, who can guarantee your safety and security in their company. Just as we are determined by our genes, our upbringing, and our experiences – in short, by our relationships with others – so it is through friendly relationships that peace of mind can be guaranteed. Living in a society with frith is king – a state of “freedom” in literal terms – means being able to trust, and be trusted by, all those whom you meet. In a truly free society, we are all one family.

Fr That’s your business, not theirs. Although you might be able to evade the State and other central authorities out there, you are constantly consumed by the struggle to preserve your own life, something that is your responsibility alone. Being an outlaw gives you individual autonomy, but that is not true freedom. This can only exist in the heart of the community.

In recent elections across the Anglophone world, people have voted to “take back control” from distant, sinister central government – be that in Brussels or Capital Hill. Support continues to be thrown behind right-wing parties like the Tories or the Republicans, who promise to cut taxes and restrict the reach of the state. Thinking of freedom more broadly – not simply as an absence of the state, but as freedom from fear, pain, and harm for everyone – demonstrates how hollow such rhetoric is. Though they promise freedom, what they will do is make us all into outlaws.

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Eric Garcetti Office, Los Angeles Women’s March January 2017 / Creative Commons

2 – The Importance of Friendship

Frith demonstrates another crucial consideration for the way ahead – the importance of friendship and empathy in sustaining freedom. With all the outrageous perpetrated by the Trump administration on a daily basis, any sense of harmony seems far away – and we have a long way to go to return to such a state. Getting there will be difficult, and will require a great deal of sacrifice and energy, put into building a social movement of many millions of people.  Returning to a spirit of friendship and common cause will be a fundamental part of that movement’s success.

Alicia Garza, special project director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, explains this principle eloquently. Reflecting upon her own scepticism towards the Women’s March, she points out that the organisers were clearly inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, yet failed to acknowledge this – wrongly appropriating the work of black people. But despite this, and the many legitimate criticisms she has of white feminism, she participated in the March anyway. Anger has great power that must be acknowledged, Garza argues, but it is insufficient to take power. For that, we need a mass movement: She writes:

This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us…

…We can build a movement in the millions, across difference. We will need to build a movement across divides of class, race, gender, age, documentation, religion and disability. Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you. Simply said, we need each other, and we need leadership and strategy.

The aim shouldn’t be to reject justified anger on moral grounds – the same error that lies at the root of the cod-pacifism I describe above – but a pragmatic acceptance of the need for all of us to demonstrate leadership and solidarity within the movement of which we’re part. As Garza points out, this does not mean letting privileged people off the hook; now is not the time for white, male, or upper-class fragility. If anything, this moment is an invitation to draw even more deeply on our reserves of empathy, and being prepared to shut up, listen, learn, to yield, to put ourselves on the line, and to be held to account. Part of being friends with someone, an alchemical combination of tolerance and honesty – an ability to speak the truth, while knowing that it is safe to do so. Maintaining this kind of friendship is a vital precondition for taking power.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


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