An Interview with Andre Moncourt and J. Smith
By Gabriel Kuhn
Gabriel Kuhn has interviewed André Moncourt and J. Smith, the editors of Projectiles for the People, about their book, the RAF, and armed struggle. The complete interview is reposted here; a slightly abbreviated German version of this interview will appear in the German journal Arranca!, No. 41, December 2009. A Swedish version is up on the activist website Motkraft.
1) The amount of work that has gone into this project must have been enormous. What motivated you to do this?
André: Several things, really. For myself, no small part was the fact that I lived in Germany for various periods of time during the 80s, and as a result developed friendships and working relationships with people in both anti-imp and autonomist circles, giving me access to documentation and to a variety of points of view. The North American left has always had a keen interest in German far left politics, reflected by the overwhelming amount of space devoted to the RAF, the RZ and Rote Zora in the two magazines dedicated to urban guerrilla politics that were published in Canada from the early1980s to the mid-90s, Resistance and Arm the Spirit. Armed with my originally quite rudimentary German and a big ass dictionary, I became one of the translators for both of those projects, producing some fairly low quality translations of RAF texts, a number of which, for better or worse, have found their way onto the excellent website Ronald Augustin maintains. When the idea of collecting the texts into a book arose, it became obvious that the translations needed to be seriously reviewed and reworked, and as I was responsible for many of the problems existing in the original translations, the task of fixing them logically fell to me. There is much about the RAF that makes it unique and much that makes it archetypical of the western guerrilla in the First World during the Cold War, and both of these aspects provide lessons best learned by firsthand experience with the RAF’s unparalleled written output.
J. Smith: Initially i expected my contribution to this project to be quite minor: looking over some translations and writing some brief introductory texts to help contextualize them – i had hopes of perhaps finding some movement history of Germany and summarizing the key facts. But as i soon discovered, no such movement history existed (at least in English), and so in order to properly explain the RAF, we had to do the research ourselves.
We really had no choice, because the RAF’s story is so deeply enmeshed in the history of the West German revolutionary left, and its own intellectual output is so thick with references to the politics of its time and location, and also to the ongoing communist project, that to give the group and its ideas the respect they deserve requires a through explanation of what was going on at the time.
In retrospect i suspect that when not due to outright bad faith, many of the slanders directed at the RAF from the left – that the guerillas were “crazy” or “rigid” or “authoritarian”, or that their texts simply “do not make sense” – may stem from an ignorance of their political and intellectual context. The RAF’s project was based on positions that had emerged from the New Left, not only in West Germany but internationally. Their strategy was likewise predicated on the existence of a revolutionary left and international circumstances that no longer exist in anything like the same form. If one fails to grasp this, then their actions and ideas certainly must seem incomprehensible.
2) André, you mentioned that the North American left has always had a keen interest in German far left politics. Can you name the reasons for this?
André: Some of the reasons are, I think ideological, and some are practical. Broadly speaking, one can divide armed struggle in the First World during the period to which we are referring to into four tendencies: national liberation struggles, such the IRA or the ETA; struggles against fascist or extremely authoritarian regimes, such as those waged by the PCE(r)/GRAPO or FP25; working class based struggles, such as the BR; anti-imperialist or social revolutionary armed actions within the metropole, such as those carried out respectively by the RAF and the RZ in Germany.
In Canada, outside of Québec (and, unfortunately, space doesn’t permit us to discuss the relatively complex national liberation politics of Québec, or its armed expression in the 60s, the Front de liberation du Québec), the first three forms of struggle had limited resonance. National liberation outside of Québec had no application, and was often perceived negatively, even on the left. Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government, which ruled the country from 1968 until 1984, with the exception of one brief 10-month period, was in fact, in bourgeois terms, and extremely liberal government, particularly with regards to individual rights. While there was a large unionized and fairly militant working class in Canada in those years, left-wing political activity in that milieu was restricted to what Germans would call K-group activity, while the unions supported the New Democratic Party, Canada’s social democratic party.
The far left in Canada at the time was, as was the case in West Germany, rooted in the countercultural New Left. As such, the kind of activity that the West German guerrilla groups engaged in caught the attention of Canadian activists in a way that BR actions, for example, didn’t. Although the book we are discussing is about the RAF, it was not the RAF that drew the greatest attention – ill-informed Canadian activists often wrote the RAF off as Stalinists with guns. It was the Revolutionary Cells and Rote Zora that intrigued Canadian activists the most. The decentralized structure, the often low-level nature of the actions and the populist rhetoric resonated with many young Canadian activists, most of whom fell somewhere on a spectrum running from countercultural anarchism to non-Leninist Marxists, like myself, at the time. We all considered ourselves part of a broad “anti-authoritarian” movement. Rote Zora added a quality of militant feminism to the mix that not only broadened the nature of the debate that existed at the time, but also helped bridge some gaps that otherwise would, I believe, have posed greater difficulties.
This element was practically reinforced by the fact that a number of young Canadian activists lived in Germany for extended periods of time in the late 70s and 80s, developing personal, as well as political, ties with their German counterparts in the anti-imp and autonomist movements, facilitating the flow of information.
3) Last year, Germany witnessed numerous events commemorating the “Deutsche Herbst 1977.” Most of the events were of dubious political nature. Is it mere coincidence that your volume appears now or did the 30-year commemorations have anything to do with this?
André: We first started talking about doing this book in 2004, and at the time, we were only thinking of one volume. I certainly didn’t see it growing into the four-year project it did. I’m not sure that had I known what I was getting into, I would have done so. First, as a result primarily of the excellent ID-Verlag book Rote Armee Fraktion:Texte und Materialien zur Geschichte der RAF(www.nadir.org/nadir/archiv/…RAF/RAF/raf–texte+materialien.PDF) and the International Association of Labour History Institutions’ website devoted to the RAF, on which former RAF member Ronald Augustin works (http://labourhistory.net/raf/), it soon became clear that many more documents than had previously been translated existed. Short introductions that I had prepared for the various sections of the book were also clearly inadequate, so J. set about researching and expanding upon these sections. The end result was a history of the RAF that could have stood as a short book in its own right. It is this work that turns the book from a collection of interesting documents into a compelling history that lets the reader see each of these documents in its historical context, something that is of course absolutely vital to really understanding them. If anything, the 30th anniversary of the “Deutschen Herbst” was useful to us because of the information we could draw from various newspaper and magazine articles published at the time, particularly interviews with former RAF members.
4) I think there exists a general scepticism among German-speaking radicals when it comes to outside analyses of “their” history. At the same time, outside perspectives can often prove very enlightening. What can be learned from the RAF experience, in your opinion?
André: As is the case with any such organization, there are both positive and negative lessons. The two years between the RAF’s formation and its 1972 May Offensive spent constructing its infrastructure and clarifying its ideological basis allowed it to survive the decimation of the organization and the arrest of its core leadership following that offensive. This painstaking work laid the basis that would allow the organization to reconstruct itself from the base up at least 4 times during its 30-year history. The RAF prisoners showed people how, even in isolation, trial statements and hunger strikes could be used as survival mechanisms and organizing tools. And, of course, the RAF proved that a small group of organized and committed individuals could deal substantial blows to the state apparatus and its personnel.
On the downside, the RAF’s decision to go completely underground, as opposed to the modus operandi of the RZ’s domestic wing, for example, left the organization isolated and cut off from the day-to-day developments in society and on the militant left, leading to a certain disconnect that could take the organization down the wrong road – the Pimental killing, which we will examine in Volume 2, is perhaps the most obvious example. The RAF’s decision from the 1972 arrests until the “Deutschen Herbst” to orient its rhetoric around a more-or-less traditional anti-imperialist line, while orienting all of its actions at gaining the release of the prisoners, is understandable, but arguably an error.
J Smith: Throughout the imperialist west, the 1970s saw the emergence of different armed organizations on the left. In the United States, there are still dozens of men and women behind bars for the parts they played in this experiment. But the rhyme and reason behind the different guerilla groups, not to mention their eventual trajectories, varied not only within each country, but also certainly between countries. Learning about how things played out in a different society, where comrades faced different challenges and opted for different paths, helps reveal what was exceptional and what was perhaps unavoidable here.
Which is a fairly vague way of saying that the RAF’s story, while certainly unique, can be helpful in thinking about the history of revolutionary struggle in other countries, too. Not only in the obvious ways – the parallels between the psychological warfare the movement faced in the FRG and the COINTELPRO dirty tricks in the United States, or the development of isolation-torture on both sides of the Atlantic – but also in terms of the issues grappled with: how a small armed group can intervene in struggles, how it can relate to the aboveground left, the challenges of operating in a society where much of the proletariat has become a labor aristocracy, adopting the ideology of the petit bourgeoisie… these realities have never been specific to any one imperialist society. So we can certainly learn a lot from how our comrades in different countries have dealt with these questions.
5) Is it possible to draw any parallels to armed resistance in North America in the 1970s and 80s?
André: Between the armed resistance on the white left in the US and that in West Germany, certainly. In both cases the armed organizations were based in the youth revolt, the student movement in particular. In both cases, murderous attacks by the state’s military apparatus spurred the movement forward, the Ohnesorg shooting in West Germany and the Kent State and Jackson State shootings in the US. And, of course, in both cases, resistance to US aggression in Vietnam was the fundamental unifying factor at the outset. Likewise, in the 80s there was resurgence of militant armed resistance in both countries around a more diffuse anti-imperialism, addressing developments in the Middle East, Central and South America and Southern Africa.
J Smith: The revolutionary movement in North America was marked by national divisions, between oppressed and oppressor nations that exist within the same countries, and this was obviously not the case in West Germany. While the RAF was oriented around traditional anti-imperialist struggles, their relationship to concrete Third World struggles was really limited to training they received in various Palestinian camps in the 1970s. Their opposition was to imperialism-as-a-system, and their base was clearly in their own society. Questions of how to relate to organizations based in the oppressed nations, and what they needed to do in order to remain accountable to the masses of people who suffer under imperialism – questions that seriously challenged many white armed organizations in North America in the 1970s – seem to have been dealt with on a more abstract level in West Germany. This is not really surprising given that there is no basis for national liberation movements from within the borders of Germany, i.e. no internal colonies or oppressed internal nations.
Because of this, when one compares the RAF to North American groups, for instance the Weather Underground, one can be blinded by the glaring differences of scale and intensity, and (depending on your political sympathies) the RAF either appear as fanatical killers, or else Weather ends up looking like some half-assed bunch of hippy dilettantes. Neither judgment is really fair, though. The young people who first formed the RAF had grown up in a post-fascist society, the teachers and cops and judges and even their parents were often tainted by their personal collusion in the Holocaust, and so for them there was a greater appreciation of what the stakes of struggle might be than one might expect to find amongst most middle class white Americans.
So one ends up with the curious situation that in terms of their seriousness and the means they were willing to use, the West German comrades seem to have much more in common with a group like the Black Liberation Army – i.e. a group based in an oppressed nation – than with a group like Weather, despite the fact that Weather (like the RAF) were facing the challenge of being based in an oppressor nation..
6) Not everyone in the German-speaking world is familiar with the Weather Underground and its tactics. Could you give us a very brief overview of the group and explain why it might look like “half-assed bunch of hippy dilettantes” compared to the RAF?
J. Smith: Weatherman was a faction that took control of the broad-based Students for a Democratic Society – the SDS, the main U.S. antiwar organization – in 1969, and as such pretty much precipitated the SDS’s falling apart. Their founding statement, from which they took their name, was cribbed from a Bob Dylan song: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
Based in the student and hippy counterculture of the day, Weather sought to form a white counterpart to revolutionary groups based in the oppressed nations, such as the Black Panther Party. Becoming the Weather Underground Organization, the group established a clandestine mode of existence, and began carrying out armed attacks.
Very early on, though, some comrades putting together bombs intended to be used against a U.S. military dance crossed their wires and ended up blowing themselves up. The trauma of having several members die in such circumstances, while preparing an action that many in the WUO were clearly not comfortable with, led to Weather rejecting “militarism,” meaning attacks against individuals. All would now be limited to attacks causing property damage.
In retrospect, this retreat from “militarism” appears to be a real retreat from political responsibility. The state was not de-escalating, Black and Indigenous comrades were being gunned down on streets across the country, but these self-styled leaders of white youth felt they should reign themselves in, concentrating on purely symbolic bombings and that’s all.
It would be unfair to discount Weather, or write them off as unimportant or uncommitted. Given the incredibly corrupt and privileged society from which these young white communists emerged, their attempt to push things to the next level was certainly laudable. But within the mythology of the sixties, it has been exaggerated. Not hundreds, but thousands of armed political actions were carried out in those years, only a small minority of those by Weather. Within a few years of going under, the leadership was organizing to emerge, to seek amnesty, to become a legal left-wing force – and very quickly thereafter the entire organization was consumed in internecine feuding and factional splits.
7) Books about this have been published in English, most notably “Bringing the War Home” by Jeremy Varon. What do you make of his analysis?
J. Smith: Varon’s book is a very interesting meditation on the morality of political violence, from a liberal progressive point of view. Unfortunately, not only did he do no real original research on the RAF, relying almost solely on the work of Stefan Aust for his facts, but he also managed to let a number of errors slip in. Most are fairly minor – for instance dates or names – but in at least one case, when dealing with the way in which during the 1980s Peter-Jürgen Boock denied responsibility for the part he played in the actions of 1977, Varon does not even realize that Boock was no longer a member of the RAF but rather a state asset at the time! So he concludes that with this state asset’s lies “the RAF reached a new ethical low”, which is really turning things on their head…
But more seriously, Varon’s exploration of the question of political violence is marred by the way in which he excludes the violence of imperialism from his analysis. He judges the guerillas’ violence in terms of the realities existing within West Germany and the United States, comparing it to the State’s counter-measures, but nowhere does he factor in the incredible violence that was (and is!) being done by countries like the United States and Germany around the world. This leads to bizarre assertions, for instance that the U.S. servicemen killed during the RAF’s 1972 May Offensive bore no direct responsibility for U.S. aggression in Vietnam. While Varon is incisive about the “politics of location” – the way in which one’s own personal place in society can distort one’s views of what is happening – he concludes that the emergence of a violent underground was simply the result of activists’ “isolation”, whereas i would argue that the really egregious isolation is that which allowed more privileged activists to ignore the situation of the most oppressed, and thus allowed them to justify to themselves their decision to work “constructively”, within the system.
This bias, one might call it an imperialist bias, leads Varon to present the RAF as a foil to Weather: again and again he points to the former as a case of good people having embarked on an immoral path, while Weather is applauded for their early decision to de-escalate and to pressure other armed groupings to engage in only non-lethal forms of violence. We are left to imagine that without this “ethical” turn, Weather would have ended up “as bad as” the RAF.
8) So far, Tom Vague’s “Televisionaries: The Red Army Faction Story” has been the only book in English exclusively dedicated to the RAF. What are your thoughts on this work?
J. Smith: Actually, Vague’s Televisionaries is not the only such book in English– Stefan Aust’s The Baader-Meinhof group: the inside story of a phenomenon, first released in English in 1987, and then re-released again last year, has been the standard “serious” reference work about the RAF until now. Also worth mentioning, Jillian Becker’s 1977 book Hitler’s Children, a counter-insurgency work dripping with right-wing bias and bitterness, remains seen by many as a valid piece of “real crime” reporting. While both these books have a bad rep amongst those who are sympathetic to the guerilla experience, and both are certainly biased against the RAF, they deserve to be mentioned simply because they are the main sources of information that everyone else has drawn on when discussing the RAF.
Indeed, Vague’s book – a very accessible and at-times humorous piece of writing, which originally appeared as a series of articles in the fanzine he produced in the 1980s – draws almost exclusively on Aust’s work for its information. And i should mention that we too, in our book, have relied on Aust for many details, though less heavily and i think with more caution than most others.
9) Your volumes are called a “Documentary History.” Is documenting history their only purpose, or do you hope to stimulate debate about armed resistance today? What are the current perspectives of armed struggle in the metropolis?
André: Certainly, if there is to be a debate about armed resistance in the metropole at this juncture, the experience of the RAF is one that warrants examination. It is my personal perspective, however, that there are two essential factors that must be in place before armed resistance can be seriously considered: there must be a mass movement in which the armed activity can have some meaningful resonance, and there must be some clear objective served by this armed activity in the context of such a movement. I think that there’s a lot of movement-building and theoretical work needed before any practical consideration of armed resistance would make sense.
J Smith: The books are documentary histories in that they are primarily a collection of documents, writings by the RAF guerillas themselves. For myself, an important goal in publishing these documents is to simply allow comrades to understand who these people were, these comrades who certainly belong to our tradition (the revolutionary left), but who not only acted but also thought in terms very different from those that most leftists today would ever consider.
As for armed resistance, it will happen, whether one approves of it or not, and it will happen regardless of whether people know about the RAF or other past experiments in that direction. But i think that much can be gained from studying previous efforts, that perhaps some errors may be avoided, or at least mitigated. Here in North America, there has been an unfortunate tendency amongst those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of armed politics, and that is to not discuss the errors that were made by comrades operating on that terrain in the past. Blaming every defeat on the State and COINTELPRO really does a disservice to the revs of tomorrow, and is also pretty patronizing towards those who did put their lives and freedom on the line during the past wave of struggle. One of the advantages of looking at an armed organization in another society is that it allows us to examine some of the physics peculiar to this form of struggle in a more impartial light, without the ego and defensiveness that can often mark such conversations closer to home.
10) Why are you so sure that armed resistance will happen? Do you think this is true for North America as well? Is there a big difference between the situation in Canada and the one in the US?
J. Smith: What i suppose you are asking about is left-wing armed resistance – after all, since 2001 the world political scene has been focussed on the effects and potentials of armed struggle from other quarters. But from the left, we have only sporadic efforts – i.e. what is happening in Greece at the moment – but nothing of the scale or ambition of what occurred during the last cycle of struggle. Even when France was burning in 2005, there was no group able to back up their public statements of solidarity with that kind of action – and that was unfortunate.
History may not repeat itself, so seeing the exact same kinds of groups as the RAF re-emerge is unlikely. But the key contradiction remains – a system which condemns billions around the world to live one kind of life, full of misery, danger, and material want – while elevating a small minority to positions of comfort and wealth unheralded in human history. The contrast between “what could be” and “what is” just keeps on growing, and it galls.
Certainly, this contradiction cries out for change. Eventually – hopefully sooner rather than later – revolutionary movements will emerge as an answer to this cry. And some people will be frustrated by the limitations of those movements, so they will engage in covert, illegal, and violent acts. One does not have to go out on a limb to say this – it’s not that i am trying to be teleological, it’s just that capitalism is going to oblige and stick around until something gets rid of it, and i don’t see any other contenders.
Now this is not to say that armed struggle will always be the most appropriate or correct strategy. i think it will emerge regardless. But i must also say that i can imagine many situations in which it would be correct, where it would advance the struggle and be a healthy thing for our movements. When comrades are deported to countries where their lives are in danger, do circumstances not cry out for some kind of retaliation? When police attack picket lines, and workers are abandoned by the trade unions, doesn’t that put sabotage on the agenda? When women find the state unwilling and unable to reign in the male violence it engenders, doesn’t that beg certain questions that legality and non-violence cannot answer?
These are general observations, not limited to any one country.
If you are asking about specific initiatives in the United States and Canada, for years there has been nothing from the left but sporadic, one-off, non-violent symbolic attacks. More telling still, these attacks have not been carried out by organizations, but by ad hoc groups, or else by individuals operating under the aegis of some broad symbolic name. The Earth Liberation Front attacks of the 1990s, which led to the Green Scare arrests of the past years, are probably the best example of this. Or here in Montreal last year, some people torched a bunch of police cars. Good initiatives, but essentially non-violent, symbolic, and not necessitating any kind of clandestine structures – and without clandestine structures, there is only so much you can do.
Here in Canada things are more advanced in the Indigenous nations, where a tradition of armed resistance continues, and shows itself every couple of years in the latest confrontation with the state. But this is not at all the same thing as urban guerilla warfare, it is more along the lines of community self-defense, the establishment of no-go areas, etc., and often serves primarily as a bargaining chip to keep the state’s violence in check.
11) You are also planning volumes on the Second of June Movement and the Revolutionary Cells. How do you see these movements in comparison to the RAF? Why did you choose to work on the three groups in this order?
André: In these three armed groups and Rote Zora, which we will also deal with, you find the entire spectrum of New Left politics represented: the 2JM representing countercultural anarchism, the RZ and Rote Zora representing the autonomist impulse, with Rote Zora bringing a feminist subtlety to the table, and the RAF falling closest to an anti-Stalinist Marxist-Leninism. The order isn’t terribly important, but as it is, we will be dealing with the groups in the order they arose historically.