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Our History

Mike Sweiven
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The Battle of Seattle: The New Challenge to Capitalist Globalization
Eds. Eddie Yuen, George Katsiaficas, and Daniel Burton Rose
Soft Skull Press 2002

In the wake of the Seattle demonstration Naomi Klein wrote an article in The Nation where she argued that it was a positive attribute of the new movement that it had no coherent ideology. “Perhaps its true challenge,” she said of the movement, “is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly.”

While that article is included in this new collection from Soft Skull Press, this book is exciting in that it is one of the first and most ambitious attempts to fully articulate the new movement’s theories, strategies, and history. “The contributors throughout the book offer a return to theorizing,” writes co-editor Eddie Yuen in the introduction, “the task is seen as framing the right questions and seeking answers both on the ground and through an engagement with movement’s past.”

The movement since Seattle has rightly created a tremendous excitement that there can be new and different ways to change the world. This book, however, recognizes that the movement has a history, both in the years since Seattle and the decades proceeding it, from which we can learn a great many lessons.

Articles trace the history of non-violent civil disobedience back through the Quaker inspired Movement for a New Society, which emphasized consensus decision making and played an important role in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. “Some of the actual political and ideological trends, and a great deal of the spirit that was so central in Seattle, were already manifesting themselves in the anti-nuclear campaigns that emerged in the mid to late 1970s,” writes David Kubrin.

Although “written out of the history books,” as Quaker non-violence trainer George Lakey observes, this was a movement that through mass trespasses and occupations effectively stopped the building of nuclear power plants in this country.

At the same time as this movement was winning successes in the U. S., another, less explicitly non-violent, movement was making its own gains through the tactics of direct action in Europe.

The militant Autonomen (or independent radicals) helped build a mass demonstration of 75,000 people against the IMF and World Bank in Berlin in 1988. This book describes the focal point of Autonomen success, which was a set of houses in Hamburg’s Haffenstrasse that squatters occupied in 1981.

Although city authorities attacked the eight houses repeatedly over the years, including an invasion of the squats with 4,000 armed police in 1987, the militants mounted a successful defense each time. The squats were eventually legalized in Hamburg and in many other cities throughout Europe. These successes provide the basis for much of the militant wing of the anti- capitalist movement in Europe.

Most importantly the book places the true roots of the movement where they belong, in the global south. Thousands rose up against IMF austerity in Venezuela in 1989, where “the police and army shot to death more than three hundred people.” Many hundreds of other demonstrations have also taken place throughout the world in what one commentator has called “the largest international social movement in human history.”

Some of the movement’s ideas also have roots deeper than the last few decades. “The extraordinary emphasis on democratic process,” writes Yuen, “has its roots in the civil rights movement and early new left... it also resonates with much older currents of anarchism and council communism, particularly the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets of Petrograd and Kronstadt in the Russian revolution, the affinity groups of the Spanish revolution and the worker and student councils of Paris 1968 and Italy 1969.”

This is certainly not a history book, but it is refreshing that the book seeks to identify historical traditions, because they can inform the current debates in the movement. The primary focus of the book is on the events of the last few years, and it is also refreshing that those events too are used to gain lessons about which way forward.

The book does not take a side in the debate between the different trends in the movement that it so excellently (although briefly) historicizes.

This collection is unique among many recent works in that it attempts to give voice to militant and even sometimes “violent” tendencies like the “black block“. “It is one of the goals of this volume,” Yuen states, “to open up a dialog between militants and the broader movement, rather than denying that articulate militant politics exist.”

Some of those articulate militant politics are on display in the book, but one is struck by how pointed and numerous the attacks on property destruction are here. George Lakey, predictably, denounces the lack of a true commitment to non-violence in the movement to the point of saying about police repression at R2K “as much as we would like to blame the police, in all honesty we have to look at how we set ourselves up.”

Jay Griffiths writes of recent violence at the Reclaim the Streets Mayday protest that it is the “sad end of the beginning” of a once joyous, carnival-like movement. The festive atmosphere of the protest was ended when “the black bloc arrives ... like a cloud hiding the sun.”

Geov Parrish’s take may be the most pointed as he claims “the Seattle property damage was, at best, one of the great tactical mistakes in U. S. protest history; at worst a tragic intentional act of sabotage that knowingly did the work of the corporate state more effectively than the state itself could have ever done.”

These articles are not one sided but they are, for the most part, honest in attempting to deal with the real debates people have been having for the last two years. Out in the open in collections like this is where these debates belong, so activists new and old can make educated decisions about which way forward.

Those decisions should be based on a real understanding of the recent, past, and ongoing history of the movement. This volume should be applauded for beginning to bring that history to light.