The State and Repression
For those of us active in social movements, I’m often surprised at our surprise when the State acts in a repressive or oppressive fashion. It teaches us that the cloudy dreams of Western liberalism have pierced and permeated consciousness, often against our own stated perceptions or ideological persuasion.
We have seemingly forgotten, it seems, the fundamental nature of the state as held by Marx and Engels over 100 years ago in The Communist Manifesto, where the state is described as but “the executive committee” of the bourgeoisie.
As such, there are hardly limits to the repression it will utilize to serve the rulers, especially in the stark absence of an effective counter-force.
That force must be—must be—an organized, resistant people, who will fight for another way; a way out of the trap of the state—as presently conceived.
As a man born in the West, (specifically the U.S.), I am actually quite ignorant of the vast scope and breadth of European history, but some years ago, I read a book covering over 500 years of Europe’s revolutionary history. Although perhaps little known today, that history is vibrant, insightful and inspiring.
It should inform and inspire us today as we face this new empire of neo-liberalism, the latest expression of capitalism, which is a force which exploits not only external, but internal targets.
Thus, societal resources are mobilized to attack foreign subjects (usually in the so-called developing world) while denying social services to the domestic population, like healthcare, education, housing and other such necessities.
Indeed, the very notion of “social” is attacked by the rulers, and their corporate media, as the business model is raised and reified as the only reasonable structure upon which society is organized.
In truth, for more than half a millennia, figures arose in Europe, and as part of sometimes huge social movements, to challenge the powers and hierarchies, which ruled, because they were too repressive, too exploitative or fundamentally unfair. And while many of these leaders and movements were brutally suppressed, their efforts cast long shadows through time, which we may excavate for the struggles of this hour.
These historical resistance figures, many from religious, dissenting groups, or small political opposition formations, did not, of course, prevail. Yet, like isles on the face of the ocean, they were tips of social mountains that were unseen, mostly unheard, yet were there nonetheless.
From the late 1200s to the early-mid 1300s, arose several figures who rocked their societies with new, radical ideas. Among them, were the German monk, Meister [Johannes] Eckhart, the Florentine protester, Giano della Bella, and the Flemish Jacques van Artevelde.
Of these, perhaps best remembered is Eckhart, a Dominican theologian and mystic, who raised the quite radical suggestion that man created God, and not the reverse, for which he was forced to recant. In 1329 Pope John XXII condemned his writings.
Of della Bella, he put forth the Ordinances of Justice, based on radical republican ideas. Van Artevelde was a leader of several successful worker revolts in Flemish towns.
These figures were followed by people like the Czech priest, Jan Hus, who, influenced by the English theologian John Wycliff, opposed the doctrine of papal infallibility; John Ball of Kent County, England, called “the crazy priest” for his popular outdoor speeches, called for an end to rule of the rich over the poor, who were but “slaves,” and, Bohemian Martin Huska was a revolutionary, a free thinker and a 15th-century communist.
Of course, the German priest Martin Luther, was a religious revolutionary (at least in his earlier days) who rocked the Church and state by his opposition to indulgences. He was excommunicated, after which he both married and founded his own church, which still exists today. There are over eight million Lutherans in the U.S. today.
Some of these rebels fought wars against the powers of their day, Like Bohemian Hussite, Jan Zizka, who fought in some 12 battles against the Holy Roman Empire, and was considered the “Cromwell of the Bohemian Revolution.” Or Prokop Holy (Veliky), a Czech Hussite successor to Zizka, who was part of a Hussite militia called “Warriors of God,” which swept across Europe for a decade.
These figures would be succeeded by English revolutionaries like Gerrard Winstanley, John Lilburne, and Abiezer Copp, who were generally more concerned with the crown than the church. Winstanley was considered an early socialist, who opposed royal and landlord ownership of land, which he considered the common property of all mankind. Lilburne, similarly was called a “Leveler,” who was whipped in 1638 for distributing anti-clerical literature. Some time thereafter he was a Lieutenant Colonel in Cromwell’s New Model Army, the force that usurped, imprisoned and later beheaded an English King, Charles I, in 1649.
Of course, to most of us, this sounds like ancient history, and we’ve not even rapped about François “Gracchus” Babeuf, the French revolutionary journalist, or Marx, or V. I. Lenin; or Rosa Luxemburg, for that matter.
I say all this to say, revolution is in your blood. You are the great grandchildren of revolutionaries who fought across the vast expanse of Europe to try to live in freedom and equality.
You may not remember them, it’s true.
But when you study them, they can almost come alive again, to enrich and inspire your tomorrows. For a revolutionary tomorrow! I thank you.
[Source: 500 Years of Revolution: European Radicals from Hus to Lenin by Charles H. George]
—Recorded speech at Prisonradio.org, October 2010