The Work of the Revolutionary: Alfredo M. Bonanno

It is not easy to grasp the various aspects of revolutionary activity. It is even more difficult to grasp everything in terms of a complex project that has its own intrinsic logic and operative articulation. That is what I mean by revolutionary work.
We all, or nearly all, agree as to who the enemy is. In the vagueness of the definition we include elements from our own experience (joy and suffering), our social situation, our culture. Everyone is convinced that they know all that is required to draw up a map of enemy territory and identify objectives and responsibilities.
Times change of course, but we don’t take any notice. We make the necessary ajustments and carry on.
Obscure in our manner of proceeding, our surroundings also obscure, we light up our path with the miserable candle of ideology and stride ahead.
The tragic fact is that things around us change, and often rapidly. The terms of the class clash are constantly widening and narrowing in a contradictory situation. They reveal themselves one day only to conceal themselves the next as the certainties of yesteryear precipitate into the darkness of the present.
Anyone who maintains a constant though not immobile pole is not accepted for what they are: honest navigators in the sea of class confusion, but are often taken to be stubborn chanters of out of date, abstract, ideological slogans. Anyone who persists in seeing the enemy inside the uniform, behind the factory, at the ministry, school, the church, etc., is considered suspect. There is a desire to substitute harsh reality with abstract relations and relativity. So the State ends up becoming a way of seeing things and men, with the result that, being an idea, it cannot be fought. The attempt to fight it in abstract in the hope that its material reality, men and institutions will precipitate into the abyss of logical contradictions, is a tragic illusion. This is what usually happens at times like this when there is a lull both in the struggle and in proposals for action.
No one with any self-respect would admit to the State’s having any positive function. Hence the logical conclusion that it has a negative one, i.e. that it damages some to the benefit of others. But the State is not simply the “idea State”, it is also the “thing State”, and this “thing” is composed of the policeman and the police station, the minister and the ministry (including the building where the ministry has its offices), the priest and the church (including the actual place where the cult of lies and swindling takes place), the banker and the bank, the speculator and his offices, right down to the individual spy and his more or less comfortable flat in the suburbs. Either the State is this articulated whole or it is nothing, a mere abstraction, a theoretical model that could never be attacked and defeated.
Of course, the State also exists within ourselves and others. It is also therefore i d e a. But this being an idea is subordinate to the physical places and persons that realise it. An attack on the idea of the State (including that which we harbour within ourselves, often without realising it) is only possible if we attack it physically in the destructive sense, in its historical realisation standing before us in flesh and blood.
What do we mean by attack? Things are solid. Men defend themselves, take measures. And the choice of means for the attack is also prey to confusion.
We can (or rather must) attack with ideas, opposing critique to critique, logic to logic, analysis to analysis. But that would be a pointless exercise if it were to come about in isolation, cut off from direct intervention concerning the things and men of the State (and capital of course). So, in relation to what we said earlier, attack not only with ideas but also with weapons. I see no other way out. To limit oneself to an ideological duel would merely increase the enemy’s strength.
So, theoretical examination parallel to and at the same time as practical attack.
Moreover, it is precisely in the attack that theory transforms itself and practice expresses its theoretical foundations. To limit oneself to theory would be to remain in the field of idealism typical of the bourgeois philosophy that has been feeding the coffers of the dominant class for hundreds of years, as well as the concentration camps of the experimenters of both Right and Left. It makes no difference if this disguises itself as historical materialism, it is still a question of the old phagocytic idealism. Libertarian materialism must necessarily overcome the separation between idea and fact. If you identify the enemy you must strike, and strike adequately. Not so much in the sense of an optimal level of specific destruction, as that of the general situation that constitutes the enemy’s defence, survival and increased dangerousness.
If you strike it is necessary to destroy part of their structure, thereby making their functioning as a whole more difficult. All this, if considered in isolation, runs the risk of seeming insignificant It does not succeed, that is, in converting itself into something real. For this transformation to come about it is necessary for the attack to be accompanied by a critical examination of the enemy’s ideas, ideas that are part of its repressive and oppressive action.
But does this reciprocal conversion of the practical into theoretical and the theoretical into practical come about as something that can be imposed artificially? For example, in the sense of carrying out an action, then printing a fine document claiming the latter. The ideas of the enemy are not criticised or gone into in this way. They are crystallised within the ideological process that are massively in opposition to the ideas of the attacker, so transferred into something that is quite ideological. Few things are as hateful to me as this way of proceeding.
The place for the c o n v e r s i o n of theory into practice and vice versa, is the p r o j e c t. It is the project as an articulated whole that gives practical action a different significance and critique of the ideas of the enemy.
It derives from this that the work of the revolutionary is essentially the elaboration and realisation of a project.
But before discovering what a  r e v o 1 u t i o n a r y  p r o j e c t might be, it is necessary to agree as to what the revolutionary must possess in order to be able to elaborate this project.
First of all courage. Not the banal courage of the physical clash and attack on enemy trenches, but the more difficult one, the courage of one’s ideas. Once you think in a certain way, once you see things and people, the world and its affairs, in a certain way, you  m u s t have the courage to go through with it without compromise or half measures, without pity or illusion. To stop half way would be a crime or, if you like, is absolutely normal. But the revolutionary is not a “normal” person. They must go beyond. Beyond normality, but also beyond exceptionality, which is an aristocratic way of considering diversity. Beyond good, but also beyond evil, as someone once said.
They cannot wait for others to do what needs to be done. They cannot delegate to others what their conscience dictates to them. They cannot peacefully accept what others, itching to destroy what oppresses them like themselves, would do if only they decided to, if only they woke up from their torpor and from letting themselves be swindled. Away from the chatter and confusion.
So they must set to work, and work hard. Work to procure the means necessary to give some foundation to their convictions.
And here we come to the second thing: constancy. The strength to continue, persevere, insist, even when others are discouraged and everything seems difficult.
Only with constancy is it possible to procure the means one requires. The revolutionary needs c u 1 t u r a 1 means, i.e. analyses and basic common knowledge. But studies that seem far from revolutionary practice are also indispensable to action. Languages, economy, philosophy, mathematics, the natural sciences, chemistry, social science and so on. This knowledge should not be seen as sectarian specialisation, nor should it be dilettante exercises of an eccentric spirit nibbling here and there, desirous of knowledge but forever ignorant due to the failure to possess a method that allows it to learn. And then the technics: writing correctly (and in a way that is able to point to one’s objective), speaking to others (using all the technics on the subject, which are not easy to learn and are very important), studying (this is also a technic), remembering (memory can also be improved, it does not have to be left to our more or less natural disposition), the manipulation of objects (which many consider a mysterious gift of nature but which instead is technical and can be learned and perfected), and others still.
The search to acquire these means is constant work that never ends. It is the revolutionary’s constant task to perfect these means and widen them to other fields.
Then there is a third thing, creativity. There can be no doubt that all of these means would be useless and would simply be specialisation as an end in itself were they not to produce new experiences, continually producing modifications in the means as a whole and the possibility to put them to use. And it is here that it becomes possible to grasp the great force of creativity, i.e. the fruit of all the preceding efforts. Logical processes become no more than a basic, unimportant element, whereas a whole, different, new one emerges: i n t u i t i o n.
So now the problem comes to be seen differently. Nothing is as it was before. Numerous connections and comparisons, inferences and deductions are made without our realising it. All the means in our possession now vibrate and come alive. Things of the past along with new understanding, old concepts that had not been understood, ideas and tensions, become clear. An incredible mixture, itself a creative event, which must be submitted to the discipline of method in order for us to produce something, limited if you like, but which is  immediately perceivable. Unfortunately the destiny of creativity is for its immense initial explosive potential (which becomes something miserable in the absence of the basic means mentioned above) to be taken back to the realm of technics in the narrow sense of word, to become word, pages, figures, sounds, form or objects again. Otherwise, outside the scheme of this prison of communication, it would remain dispersive and abandoned, lost in an immense, bottomless sea.
And now one last thing, materiality. The capacity, that is, to grasp the real material foundations of what surrounds us. For example, we require suitable means in order to understand and act, and that is not so simple. The question of means seems clear, but always leads to misunderstanding. The question of money, for example. It is obvious that if we do not have money we cannot do what we want. A revolutionary cannot ask for State financing to develop projects aimed at its destruction. They cannot both for ethical reasons and a logical one (that the State would not give it to them). Nor can they seriously believe that with small personal subscriptions they will be able to do everything they want (and consider necessary). Nor can they simply continue to complain about lack of money or resign themselves to the fact that some things just can’t be done due to that lack. Even less can they take the stance of those who, being penniless, feel their conscience to be at rest and, stating they have no money, do not participate in the common effort but wait for others to do so in their place. Of course, it is clear that if a comrade does not have any money they are not held to pay for what they cannot afford. But have they really done everything they can to procure some for themselves? Or is there only one way to procure money: going begging for it, letting oneself be exploited by a boss? I don’t think so.
In the arc of the possible ways of being, including personal tendencies and cultural acquisitions, two kinds of behaviour polarise, each of which is limited and penalising. On the one hand there are those who accentuate the theoretical aspect, on the other, those who close themselves up in the practical one. These two poles hardly ever exist in the “pure state”, but are often sufficiently accentuated as to become obstacles and impediments.
The great possibilities that theoretical study gives the revolutionary remain dead letters and become obstacles and elements of contradiction when exasperated to infinity. There are some who can only see life in theoretical terms. They do not have to be men of letters or scholars (for the latter this would be quite normal), but could be any proletarian, an emarginated person who has grown up coming to blows in the streets. The search for a resolution through the subtlety of reason transforms itself into disorganic anxiety, a tumultuous desire to understand what invariably transforms itself into pure confusion thus lowering the primacy of the brain they want to hold on to at any cost. Such exasperation reduces the critical possibility to put order in their ideas, widening the individual’s creative capacity but only in the pure, one could say wild, state, supplying images and judgement that are quite devoid of any organisational method that could make them utilizable. This person lives almost constantly in a kind of “trance”, eats badly, relates badly to others. They become easily suspicious when not anxious to be “understood”, and for this reason accumulate an incredible hotchpotch of contradictory thoughts with no guiding thread. The solution for getting out of the labyrinth would be action. But according to the model of polarisation we are looking at, this would have to be submitted to the dominion of the brain, to the “logic” of reason. In this way the action is killed, put off to infinity or lived badly because not “understood”, not brought back to the pre-eminence of thought.
On the other hand endless doing, passing one’s life away in things to be done. Today, tomorrow. Day after day. Perhaps waiting for a particular day that will put an end to this putting off to infinity. But in the meantime, no or almost no search for a moment’s reflection that is not exclusively linked to things be done. Devoting all one’s time to doing kills, just like devoting it all to thinking does. The contradictory moment of the individual is not resolved by action as an end in itself. For the revolutionary things are even worse. The classic flattering that individuals develop to convince themselves of the utility and completeness of the action they wish to undertake is not enough for the revolutionary. The only expedient one can have recourse to is that of putting off to infinity, to better times when it will no longer be necessary to dedicate oneself “exclusively” to doing and one will be able to think. But how can one think without the means to do so? Perhaps thought is an automatic activity that one slips into when one stops doing? Certainly not. In the same way as doing is not an automatic activity one slips into when one stops thinking.
The possession of a few things then, courage, constancy, creativity, materiality, can allow the revolutionary to bring the means they possess to fruition and build their project.
And this concerns both analytical and practical aspects. Again a dichotomy appears that needs to be gone into in its inconsistency, i.e. as it is usually intended by the dominant logic.
No project can be just one or other of these aspects. Each analysis has a different angle and development according to the organisational proposal, which is only valid if it comes to be assisted by a similar analysis.
The revolutionary who is unable to master the analytical and organisational part of his project will always be at the mercy of events, constantly turning up after things have happened, never before.
The aim of the project in fact is to s e e in order to f o r e s e e. The project is a prosthesis like any other of man’s intellectual elaboration in order to allow action, make it possible, not let it be extinguished in pointless discussions and improvisation. But it is not the “cause” of action, it contains no element of justification in this sense. The project, if correctly intended, is itself action, while the latter is itself a project, becomes a full part of it, makes it grow, enriches it, transforms it.
Not understanding these fundamental premises of the work of the revolutionary often gives rise to confusion and frustration. Many comrades who remain tied to what we could call r e f 1e x interventions often submit to backlashes such as demotivation and discouragement. An external fact, (often repression) gives the stimulus to act. Often this ends or exhausts itself and the intervention has no more reason to exist. Hence the frustrating realisation that one has to start all over again. It is like digging away at a mountain with a spoon. People do not remember. They forget quickly. Aggregation does not occur. Numbers decline. Nearly always the same people. The comrade who can only act as a “reflex” often survives by going from radical refusal to shutting off in disdainful silence to having fantasies of destroying the world (human beings included).
On the other hand, many comrades remain tied to what we could call r o u t i n e interventions, i.e. those involving periodicals (papers, reviews, books) or meetings (congresses, conferences, debates, etc.). Here again the human tragedy does not fail to show up. Usually it is not so much a question of personal frustration (which also exists, and you can see it), as the transformation of the comrade into a congressional bureaucrat or editor of barely readable pages that try to hide their inconsistency by going into daily events, explaining them according to their own point of view. As you can see, it is always the same story.
The project must therefore be p r o p o s i t i o n a l. It must take the initiative. First operatively, things to be done or seen in a certain way. Then organisationally: how to do these things.
Many do not realise that the things to be done (in the context of the class clash) are not established once and for all, but take on a different significance through time and in changing social relations. That leads to the need for a theoretical consideration of the things to be done. The fact that some of these things go on for a long time as though immobile does not mean that they are. For example, the fact that there is a need to organise to strike the class enemy necessarily involves duration in time. Organisation and means tend to crystallise. And in some respects it is well that it should be so. That means that it is not necessary to re-invent everything each time one reorganises, even after having submitted to the blows of repression. But that does not mean that this “resumption” must be an exact repetition. Preceding models can be submitted to criticism even if they remain basically valid and constitute a considerable starting point. Here one often feels one is prey to misinformed critics and preconceived ideas, wanting at all costs to avoid being accused of being an “irreducible”, which in fact sounds quite positive but also implies an incapacity to understand the evolution of social conditions as a whole.
So is it possible to use old organisational models so long as they are submitted to a radical critique. But what could this critique be? One mainly. A denunciation of the uselessness and danger of centralised structures, the mentality of the delegate, the myth of the quantitative, the symbolic, the grandiose, the use of the media, etc. As we can see, it is a question of a critique aimed at revealing the other side of the revolutionary horizon, the anarchist and libertarian aspect. To deny centralised structures, organisation charts, the delegate, the quantitative, the symbolic, entrism, etc., means to fully adopt anarchist methodology. And anarchist proposition requires a few preliminary conditions.
          At first all this might seem (and in certain aspects is) less effective. Results are more modest, less evident, having all the aspects of dispersion and of not being reducible to one single project. They are pulverised, diffused, i.e. they concern minimal objectives that cannot at first sight be related to a central enemy, at least as it comes to be presented in the iconography elaborated by power itself. Power has an interest in showing its peripheral ramifications and supporting structures it in a positive light, as though they had purely social functions that are indispensable to life. On the other hand it effectively conceals, given our incapacity to expose them, the connections that pass from these peripheral structures to repression then to consensus. This is the considerable task that awaits the revolutionary who should also expect incomprehension at first concerning his or her actions when they begin to strike, hence the consequent need for “clarification”. And here lies another trap. To supply these clarifications in ideological terms would be to reproduce the exact terms of concentration and centrality. Anarchist methods cannot be presented through an ideological filter. Whenever this has happened it has turned out to be no more than a juxtaposition of our methods to practices and projects that possess very little that is libertarian.
The concept of delegating is criticised because it is a practice which, apart from being authoritarian, leads to increasing aggregational processes. Refusal to delegate could possibly lead to building  i n d i r e c t  a g g r e g a t i o n,  an organisational form of reference not based on organisation charts. Separate groups then, united by methodology, not by hierarchical relations. Common objective, common choices, but  i n d i r e c t,  the whole thing coming about through the objectivity of common aims. Each does their own thing, not feeling the need to propose aggregational relationships that sooner or later end up producing hierarchical organisation charts (even if they are horizontal, claiming to remain within anarchist methods) that turn out to be vulnerable to any increase in the winds of repression. It is the myth of the quantitative that must crumble. The myth that numbers “impress” the enemy, the myth of “strength” before coming out into the struggle, the myth of the “liberation army” and other such things.
So, without wanting it, old things transform themselves into new. Models, objectives and practices of the past are revolutionising themselves. The final crisis of the “political” method is here without a shadow of doubt. We consider all attempts to impose ideological models on subversive practices to have disappeared for good.
In due proportions, it is the world as a whole that is refusing the political model. Traditional structures with their “strong” political connotations have disappeared or are about to do so. The parties of the left are aligning with those of the centre and the parties of the right are also moving in that direction so as not to remain isolated. The democracies of the West are moving closer to the dictatorships of the East. This yielding of the political structure correspond to profound changes in the economic and social ones. New requirements are emerging for those who have a mind to manage the subversive potential of the great masses. The myths of the past, also the one of the “controlled class struggle” are finished. The great mass of exploited have been drawn into mechanisms that clash with the clear but superficial ideologies of yesterday. That is why the parties of the left are getting close to positions of centre which basically corresponds to a zeroing of political distinctions and a possible management of consensus, at least from the administrative point of view. It is in things to be done, short term programmes, the management of public welfare that distinctions are arising. Ideal (therefore ideological) political projects have disappeared. No one (or hardly anyone) is available to struggle for a communist society, but they could be regimented once again into structures that claim to safeguard their immediate interests. Hence the growth in the importance of wider struggles and structures, national and supernational parliaments.
The end of politics is not in itself an element that could lead one to believe there has been “anarchist” turning in society opposing itself to attempts at indirect political management. Not at all. It is a question of profound changes in the modern structure of capital which is also happening at international level precisely because of the greater interdependence between the various peripheral situations. In turn these changes mean an impossibility of control through the political myths of the past and a passage to methods better suited to the present time: the offer of better living conditions in the short term, a higher level of satisfaction of primary needs in the East, work for all in the West. These are the new terms of the course.
However, no matter how strange the crisis of politics as a generalised phenomenon might seem, it will necessarily bring with it a crisis in hierarchical relations, the delegate, etc., all relations that tend to put the terms of class opposition in a mythical dimension. This will not be able to go on for much longer without consequences, and many might begin to see that the struggle cannot pass through the myth of politics, but must enter the concrete dimension of the immediate destruction of the enemy.
There are also those who, basically not wanting to know what the work of the revolutionary must necessarily be in the face of the above social changes, come to support “soft” methods of opposition, claiming they can obstruct the spreading of the new power through passive resistance, “delegitimation” and such like. In my opinion this is a misunderstanding due to the fact that they consider modern power, precisely because it is more permissive and based on wider consensus, to be less “strong” than that of the past based on hierarchy and absolute centralisation. This is a mistake like any other, deriving from the fact that in each one of us there is a residual of the equation “power equals strength” that the modern structures of dominion are dismantling piece by piece in favour of a weak but efficient form, perhaps worse still than a strong, boorish one. The former penetrates the psychological fabric of society right to the individual drawing them into it. The latter remains external, makes a lot of noise, bites, but basically only builds a prison wall, which sooner or later can be climbed.
The many aspects of the project also make the prospective of the revolutionary task multiple.
No field of action can be excluded in advance. For the same reason there cannot be privileged fields of intervention that are “congenial” to the particular individual. I know comrades who do not feel inclined to undertake certain kinds of activity—let’s say the national liberation struggle—or certain revolutionary practices such as specific small actions. The reasons vary, but they all lead to the (mistaken) idea that one should only do the things that please one. This is mistaken, not because it is wrong that one (the sources of action- must be joy and personal satisfaction), but because the search for individual motivation can preclude a wider and more significant kind of research, that based on the totality of the intervention. To set off with preconceived ideas about certain practices or theories means to hide—due to “fear”—behind the idea, nearly always mistaken, that these practices and theories do not “please” us. But all preconceived refusal is based on scarce knowledge of what one is refusing, on a refusal to get close to it. The satisfaction and joy of today comes to be seen as the only thing that matters, as we shut ourselves off from the perspective of the future. So, often without wanting to, we become fearful and dogmatic, resentful towards those who do manage to overcome these obstacles, suspicious of everyone, discontented, unhappy.
          The only acceptable limit is that of our capabilities. But these limits should always be seen during the course of the event, not considered to exist beforehand. I have always started off from the idea (obviously fantasy, but good operatively) of having no limits, of having immense capabilities. Then day to day practice has taken on the task of pointing out my actual limits and those of the things that I do, to me. But these limits have never stopped me in advance, they have sometimes emerged as insurmountable obstacles later. No undertaking, no matter how incredible or gigantic, has seen me to refuse to start off. Only afterwards, during the course of particular practices has the modesty of my capabilities come to light, but this has never prevented me from attaining p a r t i a 1 results, the only things that are humanly attainable.
But this fact is also a problem of “mentality”, i.e. of a way of seeing things. One often remains too attached to the immediately perceivable, to the socialist realism of the ghetto, city, nation, etc. One is internationalist in words but in reality prefers other things, things one knows better. One refuses real international relations, relations of reciprocal comprehension, of overcoming barriers (also linguistic ones), of collaboration in mutual exchange. But one even refuses specific local relations, their myths and difficulties. The funny thing is that the first are refused in the name of the second, and the second in the name of the first.
The same thing happens concerning the specific preparatory activity of finding revolutionary means. Again, delegating this to other comrades is often an automatic decision. One bases oneself on remorse and fear which, if gone into carefully, have little to say. The professionalism that is flaunted elsewhere is not welcome in anarchist methodology, but neither is outright refusal or preconceived closure. The same goes for what is happening concerning the mania for experience as a thing in itself, the urgency of “doing”, personal satisfaction, the “thrill”. The two extremes touch and interpenetrate.
The p r o j e c t sweeps these problems aside because it manages to see things in their globality. For the same reason the work of the revolutionary is necessarily linked to the project, identifies with it, cannot limit itself to single aspects. A partial project is not a revolutionary one, it might be an excellent work project, could involve comrades and resources even for long periods of time, but sooner or later it will end up being penalised by the reality of the class struggle.
(Published in “Anarchismo” n. 59, January 1988, pp. 45-52 entitles “Il lavoro del rivoluzionario” and inserted in Anarchismo insurrezionalista [1999], II ed., Edizioni Anarchismo, Trieste2009, pp. 166-188.)
Translated to English by Jean Weir

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