It was sometime between the night of May 28, when the 3rd Precinct station went up in flames in Minneapolis, and the police assault with tear-gas and truncheons on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington four days later that I began to see the posts and pronouncements all over social media from sectarians, tankies, and armchair anarchists. The Revolution was nigh, they proclaimed. The time had come, they said, to take up arms and storm the barricades.
My social media feed has been flooded with invitations to join the Socialist Rifle Association, or any of its affiliates, an organization that aims “to combat the toxic, right-wing, and exclusionary firearm culture in place today.” There are memes of guillotines, and selfies of radical-chic comrades toting assault rifles. It is not merely an exhortation to self-defense and resistance coming from the street. A small, but vocal constituency of middle class, white, and almost exclusively male activists have a clear message for the movement: this isn’t just about police brutality or social justice anymore. Grab a gun and rise up.
It would be suicidal, of course. “The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle,” George Orwell wrote in 1945, evoking revolutionary memories of Concord and Lexington and the storming of the Bastille. The people armed stood a chance at a time when the forces of liberation could face the forces of power on an equal footing, but times have changed. The stark evidence of Guernica, Hiroshima, and Aleppo is that, since the golden age of revolution, “every development in military technique has favoured the State as against the individual.”
The inevitable result of taking up arms against state power equipped not only with automatic weapons, but aircraft, helicopters, chemical weapons, and now, killer drones, and a surveillance infrastructure that peers into our private lives through the glowing screens in our pockets, is carnage on a vast scale; mass suicide. To some extent, however, that is the point.
It is not a question of whether or not the armed popular uprisings of history achieved their goals of liberation, social justice, or social transformation – some certainly did, at least in part. The point of the exhortations to storm the barricades in our current moment are to construct narratives of personal courage and commitment by evoking sacrifice rather than success. These narratives have a long history in radical left-wing rhetoric, which has tended to celebrate heroic defeats rather than victories that might be tainted by the realities of success.
As the poet A.E. Houseman said to his athlete who died before his time, the glorious dead never have to actually see their own defeat:
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
In the folklore of revolution, the pure, incorruptible sacrifice of the defenders of the Paris Commune in 1871, and Che Guevara’s glorious martyrdom in 1967 is far more significant than the dull, morally-compromised work of constitutional conventions and boundary commissions. Leo Meillet, a survivor of the Commune declared to his Irish hosts decades later that “without the shedding of blood there is no social salvation.” Padraig Pearse, the poet-ideologue of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, transformed that into the doctrine of the “blood sacrifice.”
Indeed, the image recalled most by the social media cry of “Aux Barricades” is of Marius Pontmercy in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, rushing to the rue de la Chanvrerie, determined to die a revolutionary hero for Cossette. I can almost hear the social media revolutionaries lustily singing as they type on their iPhones, “Damn their warnings. Damn their lies! They will see the people rise!” The barricade and the final armed confrontation with power and the state is a mythic place in revolutionary narratives and to rhetorically take up a position there along with Enjolras, Grantaire, Combeferre, and Courfeyrac, is to assume a place in the revolution.
These performances are very much what the historian Michael Denning calls “melodramas of commitment” in The Cultural Front, his study of political-engaged American artists in the 1930s. Denning notes that the public and often ostentatious political declarations of artists and writers like Marc Blitzstein, Dashiell Hammett, and Nelson Algren signified an alliance “of the moderns, the émigrés, and the plebeians.” But they were also moments of narrative self-fashioning, as when the poet Archibald MacLeish leapt to the stage after the guerilla premiere of Blitzstein’s agit-prop show The Cradle Will Rock, and informed the audience that they were all part of a revolution. In that moment, MacLeish indelibly inscribed the narrative of his personal commitment, even if he would later go on to be one of the founders of the CIA.
It might be unfair to the question their commitment, but the nature of these melodramas reveals a great deal about the lens through which many militant white radicals view the political moment and their role in it: they are the main protagonists of a Boys’ Own adventure story. Girls keep out, and all that.
I have seen it all before. One participant in a local resistance group that I helped organize after the 2016 presidential election made a great noise about his ability to field-strip an automatic weapon, and ultimately left the group in a dramatic flourish with a message to the mailing list. “We have girl scouts on line,” he said, explaining that we weren’t moving quickly, or radically enough for his tastes. “The obvious piss-water politics of those girls joining only highlights why I refuse.” Later, after berating me for allowing the group to “become a sewing circle,” he helpfully offered “you know where the safe house is when they kick down your front door!”
The valorization of militant direct action at the expense of any other praxis has long been a kind of masculine self-fashioning through violence or, more accurately, the fashioning of a certain kind of political masculinity through the rhetoric of violence. It is through political violence – and only through violence – that revolutionary masculinity produces itself. As Jean-Paul Sartre declared in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, violence “is man re-creating himself.”
The gendered language is no accident. Like many romantic revolutionary intellectuals, Sartre saw, in the moment of confrontation, a transcendence from existential deficiency to true authenticity. It is in that moment that the “native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms.” Only violence, Sartre wrote, is the solution to violence, and it is only through violence – conventionally, the means of the male hunter – that the revolutionary becomes authentically a man, “a different man; of higher quality.”
The gendered narratives of left politics are no secret; Casey Hayden and Mary King tore the veil from movement politics in 1965, when they noted that women “who work in the movement seem to be caught up in a common-law caste system that operates, sometimes subtly, forcing them to work around or outside hierarchical structures of power which may exclude them.” The men, who celebrated “putting their bodies on the line” had disproportionate political capital, and louder voices. They marginalized women activists and viewed their political work as, at best, auxiliary and, more likely, risible. “The usual response is laughter,” Hayden and King wrote. That spirit lives in the calls for revolutionary direct action from mostly white, male radicals today.
The movement that has brought hundreds of thousands of activists into the streets over the last few weeks has been mobilized largely by young women. Jacqueline LaBayne and Kerrigan Williams were the leading organizers of the demonstration in Washington; teenagers Jade Fuller, Mikayla Smith, Emma Rose Smith, Kennedy Green, and Nya Collins organized protests in Nashville. Indeed, Black Lives Matter itself was created by Patrisse Cullors, Elle Hearns, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
The voices rising from Black Lives Matter – as from the Women’s March of January 2017, the campaigns against Islamophobia and the Trump regime’s migrant detention policies, and even the left wing of the Democratic Party – and in the streets across the United States in the last few weeks have mostly been the voices of women. It remains to be seen how successful this iteration of the struggle will be, but it has already become the defining political movement of our historical moment.
It is a movement that seeks less glory, but perhaps more success, and that must come as a disappointment to those would-be revolutionaries whose fantasies have been pushed aside. So they disparage the ground yet gained and demand more action, more violence, and more opportunities to die like Marius on the barricades. Only, Marius does not die in Les Misérables. He lives, and gets the girl; and, as Paris returns to its status-quo, he remembers the comrades whom he led death in the rue de la Chanvrerie: “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.”