On the left, the vibrant militancy of the 1960s collapsed, partly under the weight of state oppression and expanded consumerism but also from a persistent failure to take viewpoints beyond those of the white male proletariat seriously.
The failure of the old left in the 1970s can be traced to the rising prominence of movements for black and women’s liberation, environmental justice, and an end to nuclear weapons.
Each of these had roots going back to the 1950s and earlier, but the 1970s was a period of conclusive breaks between the old left and the so-called “new social movements” of the post-Vietnam period.
It was also the era of political terrorism on the left.
This was most prominently the case in Germany and Italy, where the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades were responsible for numerous acts of political violence.
These campaigns were objectively counterproductive, both in terms of politics and for the working class.
Violent incidents, from the RAF’s kidnapping and murder of the industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer to the Red Brigades’ killing of Aldo Moro, and many other atrocities of lesser note, were undertaken by groups with no discernable connections to the working masses that they claimed to represent.
What the RAF and Red Brigades did was give security forces an excuse to persecute leftists, irrespective of whether they were connected with terrorism or not.
The abduction of Hanns Martin Schleyer in September and October 1977 was a particularly egregious case.
Schleyer, who at the time was the German Employers’ Association president, had been a Gestapo member during his youth. He served in the SS bureaucracy in Bohemia and Moravia.
Certainly, Schleyer ought to have been prosecuted for membership in a criminal organisation. It might have led to a further examination of his connections to Reinhard Heydrich, which were asserted but not substantiated in the German press.
The question that arose after he was kidnapped and executed by the RAF’s Siegfried Hausner Commando was how the RAF justified appointing itself as judge, jury, and executioner of Schleyer.
The relationship between political violence and leftist politics was a crucial concern for the left in the 1970s. It arises with particular poignancy in Agitated: Grupos Autónomos and Armed Anticapitalism in Spain, 1974-1984.
Written by longtime activist Joni D., Agitated tells the story of the various formations of the anarchist left, which arose in the last days of Franco’s regime and after. It’s a story of young activists pursuing an armed struggle against capitalism and trying to live in ways consonant with their principles.
The results were mixed. Spain was in a peculiar position in Europe at the beginning of the 1970s. Except for Portugal, it was the only country in the region where 1930s fascism retained its political hold.
Although support for the regime was flagging in the early 1970s, the transition of power from Franco to a designated successor might still have taken place had it not been for the ETA’s spectacular assassination of his heir apparent, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in December 1973.
It was only a matter of time before the fascist regime collapsed. From Franco’s death in 1975 to the re-emergence of Spanish democracy, in the years that followed, power in the Spanish state was the subject of intensive horse-trading among various political factions.
While Franco’s former supporters worked to ensure they would not be prosecuted after the transition to (some form of) democracy, the Spanish left sought to reestablish influence after years spent in the wilderness of fascist repression.
This was especially notable in the case of Santiago Carrillo’s heavily Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, which readily accommodated King Juan Carlos in return for power in the managed elite democracy under Adolfo Suarez.
Agitated recounts how young people took up arms in the Iberian Liberation Movement (MIL) in the early 1970s to the final exhaustion of the armed anarchist struggle in the mid-1980s. While Franco’s dictatorship was characterised by intense violence, the execution of the MIL activist Salvador Puig Antich in 1974 was a particular flashpoint.
Antich had been involved in a shootout during a bank heist in which a guard had been killed. There was little evidence to suggest that Antich himself had been the shooter. Still, he was subjected to execution by strangulation, an act of barbarism that gave rise to a wave of anarchist agitation and violence.
Young people responded by trying to revive the radical left, creating a series of ephemeral and shifting groups dedicated to armed struggle. It is a story that must arouse a certain degree of ambivalence.
On the one hand, one can hardly help but be impressed by the courage and dedication of young people willing to risk life and limb to oppose a brutal and repressive system.
On the other hand, much of the story as it is told raises essential questions about the nature of the tactics involved.
Much of this book reads like a litany of actions (bombings and the like) and bank jobs undertaken to fund them by small groups whose connections to any broader patterns of struggle were minimal.
To their credit, the various autonomist groups in Spain in the late 1970s and early 1980s showed a marked disinclination to engage in shootouts with security forces and undertake assassinations.
In this respect, they differed from the RAF, whose propensity for political murder and wholly deficient political analyses led them to actions that wrought irreparable damage to the German left.
The question might be asked what this accomplished. Spanish autonomists were never associated with a mass movement. They formed small groups of comrades, coming together for several actions before disbanding and (eventually) getting rounded up by the police.
Firebombing a bank branch might, in some sense, be satisfying. But there is a world of difference between that and the creation of a movement likely to have any ameliorative effect on the power of capital.
Agitated contains numerous stories of intense dedication and courage, often undertaken in the face of merciless, violent repression by the state and its proxies. But the overall effect begs the question of whether actions undertaken without a clear understanding of an achievable goal are worth the cost.
The Spanish anarchist groups’ actions were not as pernicious and misguided as those undertaken by the RAF, the SPK, or the Roaming Hash Rebels. They certainly didn’t have that sort of “if we bomb it, they will come” delusion that the Baader-Meinhof crew evinced.
However, their commitment to small scale and ephemerality, as well as their almost total lack of connection to the exploited classes they were meant to be fighting for, vitiated their project and made their sacrifices as much futile as tragic.
Activism and organisation are complex and often tedious. They lack the romantic cachet or emotional satisfaction of making something burn.
Real opposition to capitalism has to be fought out in the trenches. One must give respect to fighters and martyrs. But a struggle that creates martyrs without effecting change makes only more tragedy.
Photograph courtesy of Agneta Aisaider and Bernardo Perez. Published under a Creative Commons license.