How Does It Hurt? - Re-imagining violence outside of capitalism by Hannah Levene

15th March 2019

Last month I visited a friend in New York. In the bookstalls along the streets by Washington Square Park I found a copy of ‘Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist’ by Alexander Berkman. It is a 1972 reprint of the 1970 edition, published by Schocken Books in New York City itself. The same city Berkman came to from Russia, bought on a street he probably walked down. Berkman was imprisoned for 22 years for the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, the man who sent an army of 300 Pinkerton men to quash the Homestead Steel Company strike in Pittsburgh, 1892. Berkman travelled by train from New York to Pittsburgh, walked into Frick’s office and shot at him in cold blood.

He believed the act would send a clear message of what the People can do in the face of oppression. It would be the greatest piece of propaganda the cause could have, worth not only Frick’s life but his own. He will kill Frick and he will be hung, all for the cause. In actuality Frick doesn’t die and far from providing a clear message Berkman’s act incites discussion amongst the prisoners, the workers and the anarchists on the use violence in the name of the People. Believing he will be hung and not caring a bit, what Berkman actually gets is 22 years in a penitentiary to think.

The Kate Sharpley Library’s May 17 newsletter includes a review of Berkman’s memoirs. It says: “[Berkman] doesn’t decide that victory will come if the anarchist movement is more fierce or more cunning. Berkman’s achievement is to know that it has to be more human – we need not only persistence but also “hearts that grow not cold”.1 Let ferocity and cunning be the tool of the oppressor, come the revolution from hearts that grow not cold.

On seeing a public execution by Guillotine in Paris during 1857, Tolstoy remembers “the cold, inhuman efficiency of the operation.” More horrific than any scenes of war, Tolstoy sees the guillotine as a “frightful symbol of the state that used it”. Tolstoy, like Berkman comes to realise, knows it is not cruelty that we should be using, but care. Violence isn’t the job of the People it is the dirty work of the State.

In ‘An Anarchist Guide to Violence’, Ruth Kinna’s article in the 2016 summer issue of Strike! Kinna reminds us that it is not that black and white: “we must understand the boundaries between violence and non-violence as blurred”. To begin with, Kinna states, anarchism is not in general “understood as a condition directed towards the eradication of violence”. Instead, Kinna says, “historical anarchists who called for the abolition of capitalism and the state had their sights set on the destruction of the monopoly of violence, something they believed states held, and not the abolition of violence.” It isn’t the abolition of violence then, but the “destruction of the monopoly of violence,” the idea that violence, like everything else, should be communised.

The communisation of the States monopoly on violence is not translatable as the American right to arms. The rights to arms is upheld by structural, systematic mistrust. That each man has the right to defend himself and his family from another man reifies the fallacy that violence is already dispersed equally amongst the people (and that those people are men). Being allowed to own a gun is founded on and perpetuates the idea that the people are violent, unruly, and not to be trusted. This is naturalised and thus unshifting; all they can do is give a gun and grant you the right to shoot your neighbour. But the dissembling of the monopoly of violence is not simply handing out guns or tweeting nuclear codes. Such actions continue to ascribe to current capitalist system which is predicated on us not trusting each other.

Rather, like any reclamation, reclaiming violence involves redefinition. The question is, once violence is everybody’s what is it? What does the communisation, of violence look like? What does the decentralisation of violence look like? What does our violence look like? If centralisation is a part of violence in its current form, then decentralising, dispersing violence re-forms it. What is that, or, what are those forms? It isn’t that we either support or reject violence, but rather we must ask what does violence look like outside of this system, in our hands? When is it necessary? How does it hurt? How does it interact with autonomy and mutual aid? And what is the use of violence in a society based on trust?

The Curious George Brigade’s ‘The End of Arrogance: Decentralization and Anarchist Organizing’ says:

Mutual aid has long been the guiding principle by which anarchists work together. The paradox of mutual aid is that we can only protect our own autonomy by trusting others to be autonomous.

Mutuality and autonomy are inextricable. Autonomy within a capitalist system is cast as the freedom to be better than, it requires having the means, the money to be left alone. But autonomy has nothing to do with isolation or individualism and everything to do with trust. That is, trusting yourself which includes trusting yourself to trust others.

The Brigade continues that super-structures, like capitalism do the opposite of this. They seek to limit autonomy and work based on affinity in exchange for playing on our arrogant fantasies and the doling out of power. Decentralization is the basis of not only autonomy (which is the hallmark of liberty), but also of trust. To have genuine freedom, we have to allow others to engage in their work based on their desires and skills while we do the same.

Being able to own a gun pacifies some, plays on our arrogant fantasies, it is the irresponsible “doling out of power”. The same irresponsible doling out of power which each vote becomes inside of a democratic system that fails to teach its children or engage its adults in the democratic process. We are told implicitly that things are too complicated for us to understand fully, there is an expert for that, and no doubt, it is someone who is a different age to us, a different gender to us, a different class to us, has a different colour skin to us. We cannot be trusted. In ‘The Conquest of Bread’ Peter Kropotkin discusses the proliferation of early socialist writings which appeared after the 1830 July revolution in France. These writers, he explains, planned intricate socialist schemes based on collectivist ideals yet, he says,

“writing during the period of reaction which had followed the French revolution, and seeing more its failures than its successes, they did not trust the masses, and they did not appeal to them for bringing about the changes which they thought necessary.”

How can you write and develop plans for a collectivist way of organising at the same time as distrusting the masses? They made it impossible in doing so, with this disparity at the heart of it, it was doomed to fail.

It is obvious, too, that these thinkers did not plan for the socialisation of everything, having such little faith in the people they were certainly planning on keeping violence for themselves. And as such, keeping violence as it is: a monopolised, central legitimated cruelty which is doled out from above or a criminalised reflection of or reaction to that cruelty when exercised from below. It is, again the inherent structural distrust of the capitalist system we are living in which currently frames our definition of violence. In an anarchist communist (with a small c) society, there will be a different violence. Decentralization of everything, including the decentralisation of violence relies on autonomy and trust.

How to build a society based on trust? A decentralised system where we each have a slice of everything and are responsible for that slice. A system which requires new understandings of trust outside of contracts and laws. A definition of trust which includes tenderness and care and understanding. A system which doesn’t simply hand us “power” we are not adept to deal with, that same system that ensures we are not collectively adept at it, yet hands it out nonetheless. Which casts power as something we can earn within a capitalist system, based on money and means.

In Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Art of Cruelty’ she says: “the mainstream thrust of anti-intellectualism as it stands today, characterises thinking itself as an elitist activity.” A society based on trust must dispel the idea that education is a privilege we do not deserve. The capitalist usurpation of education has translated into a cultural prejudice that those who cannot afford it do not deserve it, that it is not for them. That thoughts are something you purchase, that some ideas most people simply cannot afford to know. This is bullshit.

Being able to understand is not a privilege. The ideas you have do not make you higher or lower than you are. You are where you are and your ideas are there with you. And when you move your ideas will come too, and they can be passed on, they can be given and shared. Ideas are not linked to status. Thinking is ours to do. Ideas are ours to form. Ideas do not differentiate us from each other, those who think and those who do not think. Ideas are not the opposite of action, it is not a choice between being the worker who works and does not think, or the thinker who thinks because they do not need to work. Thinking is the common denominator, the ideas we have are what we share. That isn’t to say that the ideas are all the same but that we can all think, that we can all form ideas, the power to think is ours. Learning is not elitist, it is everybody’s. Not only do we deserve it but it is integral to building a society built on autonomy and mutual aid, on trusting yourself enough including trusting yourself enough to trust others

This is the history of thought in anarchist culture. The autodidact is the self-taught scholar who wants to know, to find out, and to share in ideas. I think of Jose Peirats, the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary writer, who “stressed the role of education in founding a counter-hegemonic revolutionary consciousness – an alternative culture that, in order to flourish, had to be rooted in everyday life.” Not just the importance of education, as if it were a separate space outside of everyday life, but the idea that education is a part of what we do. Not what we do in order to get a job, but in order to a be autonomous, when to be autonomous is to feel that you know, that you have the right to know, the ability to know, that are you are able, that you can help.

The process of turning a centralised system which relies on some people knowing more than others, and on everyone not knowing enough, into a system where everything - knowledge, violence, property - is decentralised, in short, the shift from a capitalist system to anarchism is not a simple process. It is not a switch like the day we switch from a Tory government to Labour government. And, I believe, it is not a coming insurrection, a violent revolution after which everything will be altered. Rather, it is the building of a culture of resistance. The Anarchist Federation defines a culture of resistance as a set of bonds, “connections of trust and common purpose [which] work against the everyday logic of capitalism” They continue “A culture of resistance is the school in which we learn how to be free, how we become through the fight against capitalism everything we will be after it.”

Here is your portion of bread. Here is your portion of violence. But I don’t want your violence, not as you have used it. Then, who am I to reject violence? As someone who has had the privilege of never having to fight, I’ll side with Kinna. “The rejection of non-violence as a primary anarchist commitment is merely a decision to reserve judgement on the use of violence and a refusal to automatically condemn those that resort to it.” Meanwhile, there is work to be done towards building a society in which there is no use for it. That no one is hungry enough, or downtrodden enough. That the rubble of the monopoly of violence once toppled will pile up around us for us to make something else out of. So we can imagine what the communisation of violence looks like, what it feels like in our hands and how we can now forge it freshly. In a society based on trust violence as we know it will be a redundant technology, something we once thought we needed, now rendered obsolete. ■


1.Kate Sharpley Library Bulletin, May 2017, p.2

2.Anarchism, George Woodcock, (Penguin, 1977), p.209

3.Strike! Summer 2016, ‘An Anarchist Guide to Violence’, Ruth Kinna, p.9

4.‘The End of Arrogance: Decentralisation and Anarchist Organising’, Curious George Brigade, NYC, 2002, p.5


6.‘The Conquest of Bread’, Peter Kropotkin, p.6

7.The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson

8.Living Anarchism: Jose Peirats and the Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalist Movement’, Chris Earlham, (AK Press, 2015) p.71

9.‘A Short Introduction to Anarchist Communism’ by The Anarchist Federation, 2015, p.30


11.Kinna, p.9

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