The recent suicide bombings by young Palestinians inside Israel remind me of something written about by Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party in the 1960’s. Newton coined the term, “revolutionary suicide,” referring to the need for Black people oppressed by racism and poverty to risk their lives for the people, for positive change, by standing up to the police and repressive government. He positively contrasted this with the behavior of those who essentially chose what could be called “reactionary suicide” through drug addiction, criminal activity and the like.
Newton and his compatriots in the Black Panther Party tried to build a national organization based in part on this concept. For a variety of reasons, particularly severe government repression, this effort eventually died, as did Newton in 1989 in less than revolutionary circumstances.
I don’t support suicide bombings or other organized attacks directed solely against civilians. I don’t believe such actions are “revolutionary,” in the best sense of the term, in the sense Newton was using it.
I also am very aware that I am in a privileged position as a white, North American man from a middle-class background. It is easy for me to take this position. If I had experienced all that the people of Palestine have experienced for so many decades, I could very well see things differently.
Does this mean that I, that we on the Left should be quiet and refuse to speak to this issue publicly?
Some on the Left do take this position. They say that the choice of tactics on the part of Palestinians fighting for their freedom should be left to them, that we should have no words of criticism for suicide bombers. We should instead just focus our attention on opposing the United States and Israel in their carrying out of a brutal and violent, terroristic occupation of what should be an independent Palestinian state. This is not a majority position on the Left from what I can tell, but there are some who hold it.
There is no question that our major focus must be on opposing U.S. support for Israel’s occupation. But not to be critical of armed actions of any kind directed against unarmed and innocent civilians is to make a mockery of what we say are our principles and beliefs. And ultimately, if we truly want to see change in this violent, brutal world, holding fast to those principles and beliefs is essential.
This is not coming from a pacifist position. Although I believe in the need to be as non-violent as possible both in our personal relationships with others and in the tactics we use in our struggle for a new world, I believe, as with Gandhi, that armed resistance against oppression is preferable to inaction and that there have been and are certain situations where people serious about justice have no choice but to take up arms.
The key question, always, is whether or not a particular tactic has a chance of making progress in building a mass movement for fundamental change, in advancing a revolutionary process, while being consistent with our principles.
I think of another example of what could be called “revolutionary suicide,” of the conscious use of a tactic knowing it could well lead to death but believing it was the right tactic for the right time and that the risk was justified.
James Connolly was a labor organizer, a socialist and a prominent Irish nationalist. He was a leader of the April, 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland and was executed by the British in May of that year because of it. In his last written statement just before he was killed he said, in part, “We succeeded in proving the Irishmen are ready to die. . . I personally thank God that I have lived to see the day when thousands of Irish men and boys and hundreds of Irish women and girls were ready to affirm that truth, and to attest it with their lives, if need be.”
According to Carl and Ann Barton Reeve in their book, “James Connolly and the United States: The Road to the 1916 Irish Rebellion,” Connolly knew that the odds were against the Irish revolutionaries in the spring of 1916. He knew that they were taking a big risk in launching their uprising. But he also believed that, if they were unsuccessful in a military sense, there was a much better chance they would be successful politically in rousing their countrymen and women to carry the struggle for Irish independence forward because of the examples, the willingness to die, he and others would be displaying. And he was right.
This evil system will not be changed without sacrifice. More of us will be hurt, imprisoned or worse as our movement unfolds in the coming years. Our tactics will shift and change. Let’s show by the example of our lives, by the strength of the movement that we build, by the risks we are willing to take, as the non-violent International Solidarity Movement has been doing in the West Bank for the last two weeks, that there is hope from within the heart of the corporate beast. Ultimately, this is the greatest contribution we can make to the building of an international movement that presents a viable alternative to suicide bombings directed against unarmed civilians.