Conflict Resolution and Revolutionary Justice


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Revolutionary Justice

The legacy of revolutionary justice in the US is an inherently political phenomenon, as it has always been situated in reprisals against the State, the slave-holding planter class, capitalists and their institutions, and the broader forces of bondage, from colonial to patriarchal oppression. It is impossible to speak about resolving social conflicts in the US without addressing the agents of the State and reactionary, racist forces, and their consistent use of terror to maintain their social and political position.

Revolutionary justice may just as easily be called self-defense. In fact, the oppressed are often left with no other option: given the brutal, methodical, and continued nature of their subjugation. Their only choice for survival is to strike back. This distinct mode of defensive attack is epitomized in the legacies of Nat Turner and John Brown. After rallying a formidable group of rebels, Nat Turner’s armed formation went from plantation to plantation, killing plantation owners and freeing slaves. With his militant band of abolitionists, John Brown put up a valiant armed resistance to pro-slavery militias in Kansas before launching his famous assault on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry from which he intended to get weapons to distribute to slaves for their rebellion. These actions were selfless attempts to free people, and were conducted explicitly on the side of the oppressed. The profound level of violence universally used by the slaveholders meant that only an equivalent level of violence would suffice for liberation.

Revolutionary justice was administered in a more organized fashion by maroon communities in their targeted attacks on the planter class. For example, the maroon called the Great Dismal Swamp became the epicenter slave emancipation. Some 2,000 fugitives fled to the swamp including debt fugitives, ex-slaves, and refugees from the brutal wars on the indigenous populations, creating autonomous communities of resistance. The maroon societies were not satisfied with just their own liberty; they rose up to fight for others as well. Their numbers grew as they attacked plantations and liberated slaves. Their original attacks took place in the regions bordering the swamp. However, as intercepted communications show, the maroon communities intended to attack entire towns to destroy the system of power that sustained the slave system. [9]

Every prison uprising from Attica* to Lucasville**, is an example of revolutionary justice. Every group that goes underground to launch clandestine attacks against bondage and oppression, like the Black Liberation Army or the United Freedom Front***, engages in acts of revolutionary justice. The uprisings of the 1960s in Watts, Newark, and Detroit, to the Los Angeles riots, and the recent insurrections in Ferguson and Baltimore sparked by executions from police are manifestations of revolutionary justice.

No platform, no dialogue, no inch of territory, and certainly no concern can be ceded to those who either threaten or unleash authoritarian, white supremacist violence. As the Italian anarchist, Alfredo M. Bonanno has eloquently put it, “The life of someone who oppresses others and prevents them from living is not worth a cent.”[10]

When a person chafes under the subjugation of violent oppression, and breaks away from it, whether as part of a revolutionary group, an organized society, or simply as a lone actor, this is an act of revolutionary justice. The methods of this justice are a far cry from the methods we reserve for those within our revolutionary groups, and our own communities. This line is clearly demarcated by the division between the oppressed versus the oppressor. For the oppressor, we have nothing but antagonism and struggle; for the oppressed, we have nothing but understanding and compassion.

Conflict Resolution in a Revolutionary Society

The entire council-based system, as in Spain, Chiapas, or Rojava, is predicated on the health of the social fabric. All pragmatics, education, and values are collectively organized so that the individual can overcome alienation and powerlessness by personally shaping the conditions of their lives through discussion and decision-making. The ability to shape all the facets of society confers upon each individual a far wider scope than the mere satisfaction of personal needs, as it also includes the well-being of the entire community. With the invisible wall between politics and community broken down, this focus on community health becomes the driving force behind the process of resolving conflicts. If we intend to resolve the conflicts between parties instead of simply finding fault and applying punishment, the solution is mediation. In Rojava, conflict resolution is implemented in several, slightly different ways throughout the society that the participants are actively involved in constructing.

The Tekmil

The Tekmil is a foundational process that begins with self-reflection and analysis based on revolutionary principles. In fact, it’s important to note that this practice is what led to this region’s transition from a hierarchical national liberation struggle to its current ground-up structure.

The Tekmil is implemented in all organizations from the YPG/YPJ militias to all revolutionary organs in civil society. The main point is that each person ‘criticizes’ those they care the most about because they want to see them improve and become better people. To begin on a serious footing, the participants step into another room, and act as if those fallen in the struggle are there with them. Thus, people are expected to act respectfully. There’s typically a person that leads the Tekmil and writes down the criticisms, who starts by opening the floor up to anyone that has something to say. If a person feels the need to express themselves, they ask if they can speak, stand up and give their observations. If they’re speaking about someone else, that person cannot reply to their criticism. In fact, they are not even supposed to bring it up after the Tekmil. They are just supposed to accept it and think about it. Once no one has anything else to say, the person leading the Tekmil summarizes what was stated.

For the newly enlisted, there is a general Tekmil held every three days in addition to a session conducted after every military training and political education class This allows the potential for hierarchy between the trainers and trainees to stop from forming, as trainees are constantly given the opportunity to criticize them and their approaches to instruction. In addition to summarizing their observations of what occurred during the Tekmil, the trainers also conclude by stating how they can make certain desired changes and improvements. This is intended to be a harmonizing process, a reminder of what the revolutionary horizon is, and how everyone can work on themselves to stay on point.[11]

The Peace and Consensus Committee

In Rojava conflict resolution is handled in a bottom-up manner and integrated into daily life as opposed to exclusively institutional settings. At the level of the neighborhood, participation in the commune or committees is already a preventative measure. People generally are already invested in the well-being of their counterparts, due to the process of working through social issues locally. When a conflict occurs, people are more invested in finding a solution due to the organizational process. The more developed the revolutionary project becomes, then, the more successful conflict resolution will become.

The Peace and Consensus Committee is composed of a few neighbors who are invested in finding a reasonable outcome to conflicts. The “office” where they meet is a neighbor’s house. The family might be at home, other neighbors may pop in, and in the middle of this familiar environment, the participants talk over the issue they are trying to resolve. According to Ercan Ayboğa, “The goal of Peace and Consensus Committees…is not to condemn one or both sides in a proceeding but rather to achieve a consensus between the conflicting parties. If possible, the accused is not ostracized through a punishment or locked away but rather is made to understand that his or her behavior has led to injustice, damage, and injury. If necessary, the matter is discussed for a long time. Reaching consensus among the parties is a result that will lead to a more lasting peace.”[12] This means that every party must be committed to enacting the solution, rather than merely agreeing heartlessly to it, or worse, being bureaucratically, and indifferently, coerced into compliance.

Work of the Council

Another good example of how these methods work is in the councils of Bakur, or Southeastern Turkey, which preceded the revolution in Rojava. Here there is a dual-power situation: revolutionary councils exist even though the State has not been abolished. “When we talk about judicial matters, you have to understand that we’re trying to organize a society without a State. Many people who have legal disputes or other problems that need solving don’t go to the Turkish courts anymore-they come to the city councils.” [13]

Council members will sit down with people in the midst of a crisis and talk it through with them. According to one council member, “We work with conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and when necessary, criticism and self-criticism. When someone does something wrong, the party who perpetuated the harm has to make it up to the people he injured…There’s no death penalty, we don’t put perpetrators in prison or penalize them financially.” Even in cases as serious as murder, the solution is to help the perpetrator develop into a better person, using the help of psychologists or others.

There is an extraordinary precedent set by this situation. A council-member’s priority is not a bureaucratic process of instituting law, but instead, personally working with those who need it.

The exact format and process of such solutions vary, as they should, depending on the needs or relationships of each neighborhood. What they have in common is that those who will be affected by the decision are always the ones who propel the process, and there is a wholehearted commitment to mending the social fabric rather than punishment.

How conflict resolution works:

Towards Our Struggle

Revolutionary justice is an unpredictable, yet inevitable, element in revolutionary struggle. As we move towards liberation, there will be spontaneous eruptions, moments to support and side with, as well as alliances to create. The more power tries to suppress the population, the more defiant the acts of revolutionary justice become. No one can bear an oppressive situation forever. Both the riot and the lone attack have recently become common. Both are expressions of a need for a radically different social arrangement, but neither has the capacity to deliver long-term solutions. Like the rebellions of Nat Turner and John Brown, these can easily be subdued and crushed without infrastructure, support, and connections to revolutionary political movements.

When police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, the town erupted in riots. No sooner had they begun this act of defiance, when non-profits and faith “leaders” descended upon the town to induce people to protest “peacefully” and attempted to de-escalate the situation. On the other hand, riot police and armed right-wing militias surrounded the rebels, cornered them in a sea of “illegality” by declaring curfews, and then swept people up with brutal arrests and long jail terms. Without revolutionary objectives, or the foundations for a sustained revolutionary conflict, everyone had to, eventually, reconcile living with the oppressive State that they were just rebelling against when the riot subsided.

The most essential tasks are to create the ideological underpinnings for revolt and the necessary infrastructure that can sustain action and long-term forms of organization.

There is a big difference materially in what an organized and fortified hamlet versus a mass in revolt can accomplish. With a base of operations impenetrable to outsiders, the maroons were able to provide a serious challenge to the practitioners of slavery. Tactically, they leveraged the advantage of attack from a free area outside the jurisdiction of hegemonic power. However, it was not only their territorial integrity, but a commitment to the autonomous nature of their societies that allowed for the maroon’s perseverance. The maroons refused to give up their freedoms, maintained regional decision-making and fluid fighting formations, and continued traditional practices. Outsiders looking for liberation saw that the people involved in maroon communities weren’t struggling to grab power, but to fight for liberation itself.

In this regard, an overarching political objective is also absolutely necessary. In order to go on the offensive, groups need a foundational reason to act, to liberate individuals, to liberate new territories, or weaken the State. Revolutionary communities must exemplify the new socio-political relationships that they seek to create in society at large. The Black Liberation Army articulated a compelling political perspective which made its actions legible to a broader community, and situated revolutionary justice within a political tradition.

Where the BLA was hampered by not having an aboveground organization to bring people in, anarchist activity during the Spanish Civil War provides a great example of how a public organization combined with defense forces can better integrate oppressed populations. After storming a barrack, anarchists freed all the prisoners. Political prisoners were locked up there and had been talking with other prisoners about the revolution. Many of these captives had already been radicalized by their abusive jailers and saw the ideas presented as a transformative option. Upon release, these newly politicized prisoners were ready to participate in the political model of their rescuers. Many of them joined the movement as part of the Iron Column, putting into practice revolutionary relationships and organization, while fighting against oppressive forces. Their militia had a fluid and egalitarian nature, which was itself an active example of the organizational forms it fought for.

Through this example, it is possible to see how building upon revolutionary relationships and political objectives can add weight and longevity to inevitable eruptions against oppressive forces. Were it not for the strength of the relationships between militia members, it would have been difficult for revolutionaries to face a powerful external enemy during the Spanish Civil War. Maintaining internal social cohesion and building revolutionary organization turns sporadic revolutionary justice into a comprehensive political force. By laying proper political frameworks both in terms of practice and ideology, revolutionary groups today have the capacity to turn the tide of spontaneous revolt into something that can sustain itself. If successful, we will inspire others to acts of revolutionary justice and self-liberation, initiating participation in building the political foundations of the future. The revolution will build the revolution.

There are four important ways revolutionary groups can contribute to such moments:

Next: Towards Abolition of Gender


* During the Attica Prison Riot in 1971, about 1,000 of the Attica prison’s approximately 2,200 inmates rioted and took control of the prison, taking 42 staff hostage for 4 days.

** The Lucasville Uprising was a rebellion against oppressive and racist policies at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, OH in 1993. Nine inmates and one guard died during the uprising. Many people are currently serving time or condemned to death by the State of Ohio in relation to the uprising.

*** The United Freedom Front (UFF) was a small Marxist organization active in the Northeast in the 1970s and 1980s. They targeted corporate buildings, courthouses, and military facilities.