By Gabriel Kuhn
This is Klaus Viehmann’s preface to the upcoming PM Press/Kersplebedeb book Turning Money into Rebellion: The Unlikely Story of Denmark’s Revolutionary Bank Robbers. Klaus Viehmann is a former member of the 2nd of June Movement, a German urban guerrilla group, who was arrested in 1978 and spent fifteen years in prison. In 2009, PM Press and Kersplebedeb published his pamphlet Prison Round Trip.
The essence of the Blekingegade Group was international solidarity. (1) A solidarity that “you can hold in your hands.” Concretely, money. Lots of money. Acquired in robberies in the metropolitan North and passed on to the tricontinental South. (2) For many years. Respect!
Many have had the idea of taking money from the rich, revolutionaries among them. Indeed: amid palatial banks and abundant wealth it is easy to wonder why analyses of capitalism fill miles’ worth of bookshelves while big money is still flowing from the bottom to the top. Besides, an action to acquire money might be less humiliating than sending out yet another grant application. And wouldn’t it feel good to relieve a project in Latin America or a group in Southeast Asia from the eternal hunt for funds? Wasn’t there a man in Catalonia who took a big loan and passed the money on to political militants? Wasn’t there an anarchist who channeled millions to the movement by mastering the art of forging checks?
Unfortunately, among the side effects of “expropriation forte” are repression and prison sentences. A sustainable redistribution of funds needs solid craftsmanship if it wants to rest on golden floors. People engaging in such activities must have answers to a few questions: What do you want from life? Self-realization? Personal happiness? The happiness of others? Who are these others? How far away are they? Does solidarity end with your family, your friends, your country, or your continent? Is your aspiration to make a revolutionary commitment or to temporarily join a working group? Do you want to grow old with your political practice? The existential framework required for illegal practice is not always comfortable: organizational discipline instead of personal self-realization, continuity instead of spontaneity, a bourgeois facade instead of subcultural havens, solid convictions instead of discursive formations, secrecy instead of openness, selflessness instead of identity politics, and so on.
The individual motivation—perhaps also the precondition—for the craft of acquiring money is the hope that you are able to contribute to a new world, to effectively harm the powerful, to overcome capitalist alienation, to create meaningful ways of living instead of “being lived.” This might sound terribly existentialist, but social being and political consciousness—in other words, thinking and acting—have never been one-way streets. To sever the dialectical relationship between practical experience and analytical reflection leads to a dead end, the consequence being either academic inaction or spontaneous actionism, neither of which provides a solid ground for organized solidarity. Inaction produces nothing that “can be held in your hands,” and spontaneous actionism might be beautiful, but the struggle for liberation is long and not always exciting. The history of many movements suggests that each political generation only has the strength to rebel once, even if this strength lasts a long time in some individuals, probably because they are socially organized in a way that allows for extended collective reflection.
In an abstract sense, (international) solidarity means to establish a relationship between political subjects, people, and organizations. It is not based on projecting your visions of revolution onto objects of charity. In a proper relationship of solidarity, no one is stuck in awe worshiping “leaders,” and no one allows others to make decisions for them. Discussions happen on a level playing field, and people give according to necessity and conviction without cutting deals. It is a relationship based on basic human interaction, not on formalities. Solidarity, in this sense, doesn’t mean searching for a new struggle every few years when you have become disillusioned with the last one; it doesn’t mean looking for the next best place “where things are happening,” or for new “heroes,” as soon as the former ones are gone or have proven themselves corrupted.
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The Blekingegade Group was a child of the late 1960s. Its members were Marxists-Leninists, even if of a special kind. The persistency with which they supported “national liberation movements” and refugee camps for almost twenty years distinguished their practice from the kind of solidarity whizzing across the globe: Vietnam, Palestine, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Chile, Portugal, Spain, Nicaragua … The group’s members were more determined than the proletarian impersonators of the 1970s who soon retreated to the “alternative middle class.”
As far as we know, no other Marxist-Leninist group has maintained a clandestine infrastructure for illegal actions and the acquisition of money for so long. And no other has propagated the so-called “parasite state theory,” which, essentially, brought together two theses: first, the (“Maoist”) one expressed in Che Guevara’s speech at the Tricontinental Conference, with the “Third World” being the engine of world revolution and “villages encircling cities.” This view became particularly popular following the period of decolonization and the defeat of the USA in Vietnam. The second thesis contended that the working class in the metropole had been “muted” and pacified by the imperialist bourgeoisie, which handed to the metropolitan workers a portion of the superprofits from the exploitation of human and natural resources in the tricont. This resulted in a “labor aristocracy” (Lenin) that had already rallied around the concept of the “nation” during World War I and showed the same reaction in the global context of the 1970s. “Social Partnership” was more important than solidarity with working-class peers in the tricont.
The Blekingegade Group’s strategy derived from combining these two assumptions. Any attempt by a revolutionary minority to mobilize the “masses” in the metropole was considered futile as long as the superprofits were flowing in. Hence, the flow needed to be stopped, which required strengthening movements in the tricont and enabling them to win. This is the reason for the Blekingegade Group turning its attention to such movements in the early 1970s, particularly in the Middle East and in Southern Africa, and for supplying them with money and material for years. (The fact that the Palestinian PFLP became the group’s most important partner was likely due to the PFLP’s presence in Western Europe and its aggressive socialist/internationalist orientation.)
The Blekingegade Group always reflected on the political-economic conditions for their anti-imperialist money transfers, at times adopting notions that were uncharacteristic for Marxist-Leninist groups. For example, they felt that the relationship between the metropole and the tricont was defined by “unequal exchange,” and advocated the “delinking” of decolonized countries from the global market. Surprisingly, there was less reflection on crucial questions of revolutionary strategy, or at least this is how it appears in retrospect. For example, one of the conclusions drawn by members doing factory work in Frankfurt in 1974 was that workers in Western Europe weren’t interested in left-wing leaflets; this was taken as yet another reason for prioritizing the support of liberation movements. Fine. However, had the Blekingegade Group brought left-wing leaflets instead of money to Beirut or South Africa, would anyone there have been interested in them? Or, to put it the other way around: how would the group have been received in Germany had it provided money to the migrant laborers fighting both German skilled workers and bosses?
Regarding the “parasite state theory,” this is what we can state today: one determinant—the economic interest—cannot sufficiently explain the relative peace in the metropole. Is the (male) working class not also “muted” by the patriarchal exploitation of women? Are “white” workers not “muted” by the racist exploitation of migrant labor? Are techniques of domination, such as “cultural hegemony” (Gramsci), not too diverse to be determined by the economy alone? Is alienation (the psychological situation) not related to the material reality of the working class? Can people, considering all of the fears and the deception they are facing, even name their “objective interests”? Would they really sacrifice peace, health, and happiness for a second car? To make things even more complicated, most of these questions also apply to the conditions in the tricont; the old dichotomy of “metropole” vs. “Third World” was never more than a partial truth.
The socialist world revolution whose necessity the Blekingegade Group members were convinced of—as are many leftists today, even if they no longer dare say it—is only an imagined and idealized turning point, no concrete guidepost. A messianic project can never provide direction for—possibly illegal—everyday political action. Even if the global market determines our everyday life in many ways, concrete decisions cannot be derived from abstract laws; the contradictory conditions and multifaceted desires of people in their specific environments need to be understood and acknowledged. No one can escape the complex global web of imperialism/colonialism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, and racism; there are no simple and eternal truths, nor is there one main contradiction.
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Capitalism and the global market have developed enormously since the 1980s. The class struggle from above (some even speak of “refeudalization”) and the backlash against all forms of rebellion not exploitable by Google or Apple clearly have the upper hand. The metropolitan working class remains quiet; or it is kept quiet by means of hegemony and repression, particularly in places where “muting” it in a traditional Fordist manner ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We can see some sparks at the precarious margins, but there is no prairie fire. Superprofits keep on flowing from old and new sources, military capacities are increasingly asymmetrical, and the “villages” are full of contradictions. Some of them, such as China, have become “cities,” while the crisis threatens to turn some of the “cities” on Europe’s periphery into “villages.” “National liberation movements” such as the Nicaraguan FSLN, the PFLP, or the South African ANC have lost their emancipatory potential under the pressure of the balances of power and due to their own mistakes. Cuba and guerrilla groups such as the Colombian FARC and ELN still exist—not without flaws and with no prospect of victory, but they are here, which must count as a success in light of all the movements that have been destroyed or co-opted during the last thirty to forty years. There have been Pyrrhic victories against authoritarian rule such as the end of the apartheid regime and the “Arab Spring”; there have been emancipatory developments in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia; there have been new strike waves and new forms of organizing in India, China, and Bangladesh. For anti-racist groups, collaboration with transnational migrants and refugees has become commonplace. Visits to the Lacandon jungle are much easier today than travels to African refugee camps were in the 1970s. Current international meetings of social movements seem to be much less hierarchical than former “cadre contacts with foreign comrades.” Days of action such as Blockupy and anti-summit mobilizations from Seattle to Genoa to Heiligendamm mark transnational campaigns that were not possible thirty years ago.
So far, so good? Are the questions raised above, questions of individual commitment and definitions of solidarity, now answered? Are we still trying to “overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence”? Do we live or “are we lived”? Is revolutionary transformation in the metropole a precondition for global justice? What does a contemporary revolutionary strategy look like? Is the notion of (world) revolution outdated? Perhaps people simply no longer ask these questions after they have so often been, quietly and shamefully, removed from the agenda of a left defeated by hostile social conditions and overwhelming repression? Perhaps the urgency of these questions has been psychologically repressed? But psychological repression is no substitute for political discussion, especially when it is impossible for the metropolitan left to escape questions that inevitably surface in other countries and under different historical circumstances.
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The Blekingegade Group was no urban guerrilla. Its revolutionary subject was located in the tricont, not in the neighborhood or the factory. The group did not attack the state, it issued no communiqués, and it disguised its robberies as criminal actions. It never had to justify its political practice to the left or to the wider public. It wasn’t looking for, and didn’t need, a broad base. Going public would have only meant danger; it had no propagandistic value. The group’s members never went completely underground, and for a long time there were no prisoners. All of this differentiated the Blekingegade Group from urban guerrillas active in West Germany or Italy. The Blekingegade Group consciously avoided contact with the Red Army Faction, the Second of June Movement, and the Red Brigades in order not to become a target of “anti-terrorist” repression. Some parallels can be drawn to the Revolutionary Cells in Germany. Members of the Revolutionary Cells also lived relatively secure lives aboveground, engaging in an action every year or two. We can only speculate if the Blekingegade Group would have ended in a similar way, with activities slowly subsiding. Likewise, we can only speculate whether the group would have turned to a different political practice in the 1990s, when politics in Denmark turned sharply to the right and Danish troops were soon deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this book, Blekingegade Group members mention the Wollweber organization, a network of anti-fascists that operated without the official consent of communist organizations, smuggling weapons to Spain in the late 1930s and bombing ships ordered by Spain’s Republican government from Danish shipyards when it looked like they would fall into the hands of Franco. The logistical framework of the Wollweber organization (the Soviet secret service) has become historically obsolete, but referencing a militant minority engaged in international anti-fascist sabotage gives us an idea of the political trajectory the Blekingegade Group members consider themselves a part of.
Among other things, the experience of fascism has taught us that at least some of the “masses” can be won for counterrevolutionary, imperialist, anti-Semitic, and racist objectives. An imperialist war in the tricont to secure superprofits or important raw materials might find support in the future as well. The left must be prepared for this and ready to act. In traditional jargon, the left needs to “organize its strategic defense.” After all, the (revolutionary) left will remain a minority in the metropole for the foreseeable future.
In a certain way, the Blekingegade Group attempted to turn this necessity into a virtue. Yet, any minority sabotaging the metropolitan machinery raises important questions, too: What is at stake? (Counter)power? Hegemony? If not, what else? How high is the price? Who wins today, who tomorrow, who in a year from now? Who organizes whom? How can a social division between cadres and vanguards and “the rest” be avoided? How can protracted social isolation be prevented?
The logistical possibilities of our activities cannot be separated from the social support they enjoy. The history of the Blekingegade Group is yet another example confirming the following: when repression hits, due to errors of practice or due to a changed raison d’état, a small mishap can turn into a political disaster, namely the loss of the capacity to act. Yet, those who don’t insist on denying it know that there can never be an end to global exploitation without the weakening of the imperialist metropole and the “sabotaging” of its economic, financial, and military resources. Nobody can escape the challenge posed by global necessities, despite the limited options we have.
Berlin, August 2013
- To keep things simple, the name “Blekingegade Group” will be used in this preface as a rough synonym both for the political organizations KAK and M-KA and for the illegal structures they contained. The book will provide a detailed history of these organizations and structures and of their internal dynamics. —Klaus Viehmann
- In 1966, the Tricontinental Conference in Havana, Cuba, brought together representatives of political organizations from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Following the conference, the radical and anti-imperialist left in Germany adopted the abbreviation “Trikont” as a common signifier for the three continents. Despite there being no similar abbreviation commonly used in English, the term has been translated as “tricont” in this preface, since the closest alternative, “Third World” (Dritte Welt in German, on occasion also used in the preface and translated accordingly), has both different origins and connotations. The opposite of the “tricont” is the “metropole,” that is, the industrialized nations in the global North. —Gabriel Kuhn