Editor’s Note: this piece on the Art of Rebellion was published anonymously under the name “Seaweed” in 2008. We don’t agree with every detail (most notably, although we support autonomous localized uprisings, we don’t believe that these will be sufficient to halt the murder of the planet. We call for a more coordinated form of militant resistance to destroy industrial capitalism and save the planet). But this essay provides an excellent overview of the importance of martial traditions and developing a culture of militancy.
Image: Asia Ramazan Antar, a member of the YPJ, the all-female military force in northern Syria. Antar was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in 2016, at the age of 19 years. YPJ is leading the fight against ISIS and Turkey as part of an ecological, feminist revolution in the heart of the Middle East. She is considered a hero of the Rojava revolution. Photo by Kurdishstruggle, CC BY 2.0.
Even those of us in apparently open and peaceful countries are deeply involved in a war. It is a social and a political war. It is a war of ideology versus freedom of thought. It is a war of industrialism against healthy environments. It is a war between the included and the excluded.
The vast majority of the world’s population consists of defeated peoples in this war. And in fact, we are more than just defeated. We are kept. Kept in fear, kept in awe, kept out of touch with each other and the earth that gives us life. It has been said that our chains are long and our cages big, yet this still implies that we are prisoners. Coercion is everywhere, including the necessity to sell our labor for a wage, forced obedience to laws, conscription in imperial armies and compulsory moralities and schooling.
The occupying physical forces are essentially the police and the army. Over the centuries we’ve internalized much of the values and ideas of the conquerors. Most of us have now been assimilated into the ways of the obedient and the domesticated. But I’d like to explore our physical occupation, not the various skins that we must shed and the fears we must lose. If people want to claim space then they have to be prepared to fight and defend it. This space could be permanent (a liberated region or village) or temporary (squats, wilderness camps, legally and illegally built shelters or autonomous neighborhoods). It could be based in village or regional secessionist movements, access to land by popular movements or indigenous assertion over traditional territories.
Those of you familiar with the events in Kahnesatake for instance, a Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal, in which the cops were physically chased out of town a while ago, are aware of how successful an organized martial action can be. Canadian anarchists and other insubordinates have an incredible amount of insight and inspiration to glean from that event. People can claim space if they get organized and aren’t afraid to lose a few teeth.
With this in mind, perhaps a look at history generally will help us discover how others in this predicament have successfully organized themselves martially, because there are countless examples of rebels organizing themselves along martial lines and winning.
Official history is written by the conquerors. Their self-congratulatory folklore is that we (rebels) have always lost because the conquerors were superior (and thus had superior weapons). Most of us assume that this is true, so we might as well not even try a martial approach, because we’re sure to lose. But this isn’t the case. In North American history for instance, the dishonest image of the technologically advanced Europeans overrunning primitive savages needs to be re-examined. All over this continent the indigenous peoples rose up and used martial skills to repel the invasions. In most instances, at least initially, they had some success.
Let’s look at an example from one of the very first invasions. In 1521, in what is now called Florida, the Calusa and Timucua defeated experienced conquistadors under Ponce de Leon and Hernandez de Cordoba. In fact, both of these conquerors died of wounds inflicted by the Calusa! For half a century the indigenous tribes repelled the Spanish in that region. The invasion by de Leon and de Cordoba was in fact the fourth invasion by Spaniards repelled successfully by local tribes-people.
Throughout the successive invasions, there were countless examples of success. Furthermore, Europeans would not have ultimately won without adopting some native technology and skills while throughout the centuries the indigenous peoples also adapted European technology and tactics. For instance, in his excellent book, Warpaths, author Ian Steele explains that: “Spanish crossbows had failed to compete with Amerindian longbows that were six to seven feet long, thick as a man’s arm, and very accurate at two hundred yards. Although Spanish armor had been effective against most arrows encountered on three continents, these… arrows penetrated six inches of wood and even Spanish breast-and back plates.” In many instances the indigenous successfully defended their territory for decades, some even succeeded for generations.
It seems clear to me at least that any successful resistance needs to be organized in a broad way, it needs to be organically self-organized based on entire communities. We should be aiming for a period of regional and village-like secessionist movements. Centralized authority can not control a veritable multitude of rebellious regions, villages, reserves and neighborhoods, each with its own focus, its specific expression of anti-authoritarian self-organization. Also, by collaborating with or at least acknowledging indigenous actions for autonomy and territory, we can be part of something much larger, something quite close generally to what many insurgent communitarians, radical ecologists, anarchists and other rebels are aiming for.
As mentioned earlier, we still have to shake off the chains that we ourselves willingly carry, like crucifixes, because we are believers. Part of breaking out involves shedding all those ideological skins grafted onto us through schooling, the mass media, living in nuclear families, etc. But my involvement with rebels over the past 20 years tells me that we already know that this is important. What we don’t seem to inventory is the means available to us to counter our physical occupation. We know that it is only by ridding ourselves of organized coercive authority that we will truly begin to have real opportunities to profoundly transform ourselves. Can a local area succeed against this coercion and against the imperialism of the market? If so, what are some of the first steps?
Part of being an insurgent today could involve acquiring martial skills. Martial traditions include everything from fighting techniques, military theory, group cohesion and earth knowledge to skill with a weapon. Weapons include rifles, shotguns, handguns, sling shots, knives and various bows and arrows, among others. These could be used for acquiring food as well as for self-defense or to chase away adversaries. This isn’t a call to “armed struggle” but for inclusion of a neglected aspect of a holistic approach to rebellion. Most simple weapons are also useful tools and we should make use of them in that context, for instance by learning hunting skills, then bringing home some wild meat to share with friends so we can stop relying on dumpsters and food banks and jobs. The bonus is that our possession and familiarity with them could be extremely useful in a crisis situation or during a popular revolt.
The war rages on. The prisons are full. The factories and mines are full. A small class of people calls all the shots. A wave of extinction is denuding the planet, a tsunami caused by a system that is imposed from above. Entire populations are on anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pills. We need to regroup and strategize. Encouraging individuals and groups of rebellious people to get some training in survival and martial skills seems like common sense at this time. These various individuals and groups would help create a new anti-authoritarian culture that includes a widespread acceptance of a martial component. Rhetoric and politeness have ruled us for too long. A more martial approach should be given an opportunity to contribute significantly to attempts at creating imaginative, healthy cultures.
The support for martial skills could translate into anti-authoritarian “warrior societies” or “militias”, semi-formal groupings that exist over time, or it might manifest itself spontaneously and informally when the need arises. Either way, the intention is that there are groups of individuals able and perhaps willing to help their neighbors, comrades and friends claim space to express anger, resist the plundering of their habitat and help various grassroots initiatives to fight back through the practice of martial approaches. They would likely practice survival and martial skills. When a squat is about to be evicted or a wilderness camp burned by authorities, they might show up to give moral and physical support with their training and ability to act strongly as a group. Whether groups form or not, by being inclusive and encouraging as many friends, neighbors and comrades as possible to explore martial ways, an exciting new culture will be given the opportunity to emerge.
Canadian rebels can take advantage of the relative freedom and openness of our society and get these skills and tools before the chains shorten and the cages shrink. The reaction to the September 11th events in the USA proved just how quickly an open society will bring in draconian laws to protect the elite, the system they depend on and the values that allow such a system to exist in the first place.
We are all occupied peoples. The occupation is partly maintained militarily and our response should therefore be, in part at least, a military one. But I don’t want a warrior ethic to be the central aspect of my community. I want the wisdom of the elders, the spontaneity, playfulness and brutal honesty of the children, the careful chiding and questioning of the fools and pacifists to also be essential aspects of my resistance, otherwise we’ll end up with martial societies rather than societies with martial skills, or worse, warrior aristocracies. I’m not suggesting a separate warrior class, but an anti-authoritarian culture that values martial skills and tactics. Community wide training in self-defense, widespread use and knowledge of weaponry, popular study of conflict and confrontation, general encouragement of fighting back and standing up, etc. would all be central. I’m encouraging a grassroots acceptance of martial skills and approaches.
The warriors we want to encourage are partly motivated by a concern and caring for others in their community. They aren’t based in small sanctimonious cliques. However, they care about others because they care about themselves, about life generally, about freedom. Our fighter exists to claim space for herself and others. In this newly freed up space genuine living can have an opportunity to express itself.
Part of preparing ourselves for secession and revolt includes the study of military history, the principles and ways of warfare, mostly because our adversaries are well schooled in it, but also because these offer insights and principles valuable to anti-authoritarian rebels as well. Many of us are familiar with some of the classics: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, Che Gueverra’s writings, Mao’s musings and analysis and the works of Clausewitz for instance. But these are only some of the works, many from an authoritarian or vanguardist perspective, and clearly inadequate for an emerging martial culture wanting to resist or to claim and defend space.
We could also look at the history of anarchists, like the Makhnovchina or the Durruti Column, for instance, at how they got started, how they were organized as well as at some of their specific battles and how these were won or lost. We can learn from the mistakes of countless past attempts. Anti-authoritarian rebels don’t have an elitist leadership and aren’t centrally organized. Federations of independent camps could be encouraged, but these alliances should be fragile agreements. Ultimately it is in not becoming too formally linked that we will succeed in permanently breaking the existence of political monopolies and large-scale infrastructures that tend toward congealing into authoritarian organizations. The notion here is to be a small part in helping create a world of free individuals, of healthy ecological environments where self-organized groups of free humans can live.
This new focus of rebellious people on military history and strategy would obviously be well complimented by also including the struggles of indigenous and other insurgent groups. In this respect we could also look at the Metis rebellion around the Red River Valley and the Society of the Masterless Men in Newfoundland, for instance. Of course we’d benefit as well from a study of the battles of war leaders like Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Chief Joseph, Pontiac and Geronimo, as well as events like John Brown’s attempted seizure of the armory at Harper’s Ferry and countless other examples.
A study of the military attempts of anti-authoritarian and indigenous rebels that focuses on specific battles and the strategies that either won or lost them the fight, can lead to many useful insights of the art of revolt. A look at the struggle of the Potawatomi for instance, a people who lived according to open and free principles, to survive while caught up in the conflicts between the French and English colonial powers, reveals secrets of successful warfare. Here is just one example. In the spring of 1755, Major General Braddock assembled a large army under the British flag. He was leading colonial militia and regular troops from Virginia to destroy French forts on the Ohio River. His guide and adviser was a young colonel, George Washington. Here’s a description of what transpired from James Clifton’s book The Potawatomi:
“On June 8 the British were approaching Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania, site of present day Pittsburgh. Seeing that the British were camped and on the alert, the Potawatomi war leaders persuaded the French not to attack. Instead, they planned to attack the British troops the next day while they were on the move, stretched out in mile-long files along a narrow, forest-shrouded trail. Their surprise attack was a complete success. Colonel Washington tried to…counterattack in Indian style…but was defeated. They suffered nearly 1000 dead and wounded out of 1500 on the trail that morning. They abandoned most of their equipment and supplies… Braddock was mortally wounded. Washington barely escaped with his life. He learned a life-saving military lesson from this disaster, one that he would regularly give as advice to his own generals when sending them against British and Indian forces: “Beware of surprise!”
In military theory, surprise is one of the most potent weapons available. We should keep in mind that a study of historical combat shows that surprise increases the combat power of fighting forces. It is the greatest of all combat multipliers. Surprise, combat effectiveness, defensive postures, these are all multipliers that can help. Shouldn’t this knowledge be generally available and understood among anti-authoritarians?
The following are just a few examples of using martial tactics to succeed in present day struggles.
Opening new fronts as solidarity with other rebels engaged in a confrontation or action. Encouraging defection within enemy ranks. Avoiding capture. Blockades. Unarresting a comrade. The ambush. Spying. Interrupting the enemies’ means of communication. The surprise. Raids on enemy stores of food and weapons. The siege. Physical battles that expand territory. Freeing captives from enemy prisons. Destruction of enemy arsenals. Destruction of enemy wealth. Regrouping. Hiding. Secret codes and other means of communication. Bolder actions. Creating clandestine camps in which to hide friendly fugitives. Insurgencies. Fleeing to areas outside the enemies’ control. Increased ability to fight as groups.
Like all strategies involving territory and occupation, the defeated have myriad choices in terms of how they live out their lives. But the choices are more limited if we agree on what our aims are, on what would constitute success, on what constitutes living. Were the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants who rose up against their Nazi tormentors ethically reprehensible for killing? Should they have continued to accept daily humiliation, suffering, violence and death? Yet at the time, there were those among them who argued against the uprising on various grounds, including moral ones. Oftentimes it isn’t a question of who was more successful, but agreeing on what success is. In the case of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, those who participated in the uprising felt it was more successful to stand up to their oppressors and die with dignity, than to continue to live in Nazi hell. For others success was measured simply by staying alive at all costs, even if that meant being a traitor or accepting defeat. For others still, success was measured by being morally superior, by never adopting the means and ways of the enemy, even if that meant suffering or death. All rebels who want to overthrow the present social order in favor of a more just and imaginative one, need to ask themselves what success means for them. I believe it means standing up to the bullies who run things. It means asserting some territoriality within which we can learn to live in harmony with each other and the world around us. To achieve this we need to listen to the hot headed, impatient and courageous warriors as much as we do to the cautious, negotiating and compromising survivors.
We are all damaged people who need to heal and not just fight. We partly do this with others with whom we share affinities and openness for intimacy. We also need to analyze civilization (or domination generally) and share our insights through debates, pamphlets, publications and discussion. And we need to help create communities and/or cultures of resistance by contributing to the various projects that fellow rebels are involved in. Yet personal healing, propaganda and putting our energy into community projects, no matter how worthy, still don’t acknowledge the military occupation we are presently living under. Even attempts at “re-wilding” are vain if we don’t push for a generalized, effective, long-term momentum against militarily protected centralized authority.
History is not only the story of imperial civilizations targeting and conquering others, it is also a chronicle of the resistance to that conquest. I have allies and kin that extend back millennia. They have won countless battles. There has been successful resistance in every area and every era. In order to honor our ancestors, and I use this term broadly in the sense of ancestors by blood or worldview, we need to give them thanks and keep up the fight. In military theory, it is said that for the conqueror to really succeed the losing population must accept defeat, otherwise the conquerors only win after every single person has been killed, which isn’t normally in the conquerors interest, because they need slaves and soldiers, etc. A very large part of our population unfortunately has accepted defeat. So I want to repeat that sharing our unique world-views and critiques and creating community are as essential as acquiring martial skills. A martial component is simply one part of a holistic approach. But we also must remember that a small band of rebels can accomplish a lot, even succeeding in leading relatively free lives away from capitalist civilization.
In Ireland, in the early nineteen hundreds, small local militias with not even enough rifles to go around succeeded in thwarting the designs of one of the most powerful empires on the planet for decades. They were successful partly because they used many martial skills, from spying to engagement in actual battles but also because they had widespread support. The fighters could melt back into the population. Disadvantaged fighters need widespread support to win. With this in mind, it’s essential that rebels stay put in one region and make strong bonds with the land and the inhabitants there. Perhaps, over time, the embers of authentic communities with martial skills will begin to glow and maybe these seemingly isolated embers will one day gather themselves into small local fires. And hopefully, you’ll be a rebel around one of those fires.
PDF for printing available here: https://ia801308.us.archive.org/19/items/OfMartialTraditionsTheArtOfRebellion/martial_traditions-imposed.pdf