On the Failures of the Northwest Detention Center Attack and the Importance of Mass Organizing

Opinion Editorial by the Incendiary Board

Activist circles on the internet have wasted no time celebrating the lone wolf attack on the Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center that took place early Saturday, when self-proclaimed anarchist 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen allegedly threw incendiary devices at the jail and vehicles in the parking lot before being shot and killed by police. This praise has come despite the obscurity which the bourgeois media has cast around the action, the culprit, and his political convictions.

With the publication of Spronsen’s “manifesto,” a portrait of his ideology has begun to emerge as well as certain facts about his person that lend themselves to analysis and understanding.

Many are swayed by the emotions surrounding the case of migrant detention centers, the concentration camps run by imperialists on US soil, and for these people Spronsen became an instant icon, as he himself was motivated by such emotion. Marxists, however, do not and cannot succumb to the luxuries of romanticism. We have another obligation, that of the social scientist. Our commitment to the people’s struggles demands nothing less.

In the final analysis, after all the romantic urges subside, we must insist upon a clear return to Lenin, who illuminated the matter. When the petty bourgeois become aware, often for the first time, of the immense suffering of the innumerable masses, they respond most typically with hysterics, impetuousness, impatience, and abandon.  Their station, mode of thinking, and mode of living predispose them to recklessness. This is how we must view the actions of Spronsen, no matter how much a similar contempt for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might burn within us.  Anarchism is itself petty bourgeois idealism, and like the anarchists of Lenin’s time, their actions must be exposed as such. This is a matter of politics, of ideology, and not just a disagreement on tactics, but a disagreement on principles.

It is again Lenin, and the traditions which sprung from his teachings, that we must rely on when seeking to confront and destroy ICE and similar institutions.  It is not a question of individual decision, but one of mass action and most importantly the organization of such action. With this in mind, we must insist that lionizing the individual Spronsen, as well as lone-wolf tactics so popular among anarchists (historically) and fascists (contemporarily), have an anti-masses affect.

We must defend, apply and uphold the principles that it is the masses who are the real heroes, the masses who make history, and the Communist Party which leads them. On this basis the struggles against anarchist idealism are ongoing and mustn’t subside for any momentary romanticism. To cease in struggle would be to cave to opportunism, to reverse the great historical verdict announced by the defeat of anarchism and the victory of Bolshevism.  Such struggles are principled they cannot take time off for mourning, and they cannot be set aside. Revolutionary success depends on such principles and it is essential to keep politics in command.

This principled Marxist position should not be confused for defending or excusing murders committed by the police. The police in service to the state are indefensible, regardless of our disagreements with the anarchists, when the police shoot anyone it cannot de defended.  However, our views are nothing like those of Spronsen, and we must insist on clarity of the state as an armed administrative wing of one class to suppress another, and hence we do not oppose laws and regulations universally but conditionally when they are in service to the bourgeois class. With this principle we must oppose libertarianism in its “left” and its right dressing; it can only serve the long-term interests of reaction.

Specific Problems with the Actions of Spronsen

It is not too much to demand that revolutionaries set aside childish sentimentality and begin immediately analyzing the facts of the matter. The bourgeois media has reported (and we must take these with a healthy skepticism) that Spronsen was throwing “incendiary devices” at the detention center. It is confirmed by multiple accounts that some ICE vans were targeted and burned out in the parking lot, anarchist and anarchist-sympathetic sources have said this was Spronsen’s main target.

The action has been called brave by some and suicidal by others. No matter what you call it, the action ignored the masses and ignored the need to mobilize and organize them, to turn their disorganized clamor for rebellion into war. Spronsen, like most of those in his anarchist tradition, took to shortcuts, lacking faith in the masses of people. In the end, his action was a denial of participation in the patient and prolonged struggle of the most oppressed and exploited people. It was not an action defending those detained; it was an action of escaping a world of detention, with only one escapee, Spronsen.

There were those who were infected with romantic hopes that this was somehow an undocumented brown person fed up with the endless reformism who went to liberate her people. In reality, the immigrant was an aging white man from Holland, who, other than his immigrant status, basically fit the profile of most lone-wolf types: a self-aggrandizing, aging, desperate white man convinced that he alone can take on the world that he feels alienated from.

Lone-wolf actions are not capable of being in any way truly revolutionary, they cannot bring about revolution nor can they enrich the revolutionary movement. Aside from this major shortcoming, they also do not serve the people and cannot be confused with self-sacrifice in that sense. To serve the people, one must stay rooted in the struggles of the people. Extreme individualism is at the core of all lone-wolf actions and extreme individualism is a capitalist principle, not a socialist one. Emotional, frustrated violence is not to be confused with revolutionary violence any more than suicide by cop is to be considered martyrdom. Spronsen’s action was at best a futile gesture, a waste of his life. Not only did he reject revolutionary principles and revolutionary leadership, he was opposed to them.

This extreme individualism is exposed in Spronsen’s choice quote in his manifesto from anarchist and counter–revolutionary Emma Goldman: “it’s not my revolution if I can’t dance.” How fickle, how fair-weather these so-called revolutionaries are. It is and remains our revolution even if we can’t dance, can’t feed ourselves, can’t breathe, etc.

We read Spronsen’s idealization of the Kurdish YPJ (Women’s Protection Units). With much of the western liberal world, Spronsen was moved by the pictures of women with rifles. It is trivial to them that these women are also being used as a propaganda piece for western values against the Arab “other,” and it is totally ignored that these women at times have been the useful ground troops for US imperialism in the region. This is all lost on those who think that “overthinking” is something to be cautious of. It is anathema to them that we ask them to think through their emotional state at all.

He identifies “empty pursuit and endless yearning” as contemporary conditions in the US, yet instead of resisting these conditions with faith in the masses and relentless struggle beside them, he capitulates to these conditions, fully and totally surrendering to the empty pursuit of a poorly planned and poorly executed lone-wolf  action spurred only by his own endless yearning. This is the real tragedy of the Spronsen case.  His rejection of the scientific approach to transforming the world and defeating US imperialism left him with nothing but a swell of conflicting emotions evident in his last recorded and written words. His response to the camps could be nothing less. No detainees were freed, and no agents of oppression were annihilated. This is the reality of the matter and it must be brought into cold focus so that no more lives are wasted on such vainglorious acts.  Revolutionaries without exception must dare to die, but they are considerate of victory and defeat, of what serves the people, they do not rush into combat all alone with no practical chance at winning.

His severe and terminal individualism is perhaps most apparent in the raw form of anti-communism, when he goes out of his way to mention that, “rich guys (who think you are really not all that good) really dig government, (every government, everywhere, including ‘communist’ governments,) because they make the rules that make rich guys richer. It’s that simple. Don’t overthink it.” At the risk of overthinking it, we Marxists must emphatically reject such infantile analysis. It is the mode of production, not the existence of government, which allows the propertied class to accumulate more wealth via exploitation. Anarchists rely on maintaining a mystical veil around political-economy so that they might swindle more followers.

Anti-communism notwithstanding, he goes on to sign the first part of the manifesto with the revisionist slogan of “all power to the people,”  a mutation which denies the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the faulty class liquidationist position of all the people having all the power. The slogan of the Russian revolution was “all power to the Soviets.” The people, unlike the Soviets, are not an organized group. People as such, at least in Spronsen’s use, has no definite class character, whereas “all power to the soviets” means one thing only—state power, a government literally controlled by the Soviets. In the context of Spronsen’s “manifesto,” people and power have become empty slogans, devoid of all content, falling as short as the actions which were to follow them.

In later sections of the “manifesto,” what is perhaps the most telling is Spronsen’s call to rally “patriots” when he states the following: “this is a call to patriots, too, to stand against this travesty…” This aping of patriotism is nothing but opportunist. It relies on negating the fact that in an imperialist country, especially one founded on slavery, exploitation, genocide, and settler colonialism, there is no possibility for a progressive patriotism. It is actually simple: to love America is to be indifferent to or outright support the suffering of the vast majority of the world. Patriotism here is but a mere prop for US imperialism, which is the root cause of migration to the US and the subsequent suffering. US imperialism created both the abhorrent conditions that cause people to flee, the economic conditions which force them to flee here, and all the snares of death and entrapment that await them once they finally do arrive. There is only reactionary patriotism for this prison house of nations, and it is delusional and outright dangerous to entertain otherwise. The most pure expression of US patriotism is the concentration camp.

While we are correct to oppose such action as the one taken by Spronsen and promoted by anarchists through the ages, this opposition should be understood as from the left, we do not ever sanctify private property, and especially not the infrastructure of repression. Had ICE vans been surrounded and burned by the immigrant masses and their supporters, we would be right to defend and support it. Had even an affinity group snuck in, in the dead of night to torch the vans, this could inspire the masses in some way, but this was not the case. For the masses are inspired to live and to win everything, not to die and win nothing. When it comes time for dying, the masses and revolutionaries do not fear this either, because it is so that others might live, so that tribute is paid in blood that we might one day reach communism.  We oppose reckless individual action which can only result in death. Such tactics cannot be celebrated as revolutionary, they are liquidationist. Such actions do not accurately or loyally reflect the frustrations of the masses, least of all the world’s proletarians and peasants. They reflect only the ineptitude of the petty bourgeois and their desperate ideology.

The left opportunist rushes in to sanctify the action and canonize Spronsen, They foam at the mouth to do this before the ink dries on the first article and speak without investigation. They reject the teachings of Lenin when convenient. They do not care that the masses make history as long as the circus of adventurism and romanticism, no matter how ineffective, excites them.

There are Centrists who will cry “adventurism” over everything and anything, from combative marches to anti-police chants at protests, but who (true only to their opportunism) will be laying verbal wreaths for Spronsen. After all, it was not adventurism if it can get them a small audience.

Even worse are the right opportunists, who foam at the mouth equally and as quickly as the rest and begin crying out for legal process, for changes in laws, begging for the slow death that is reformism. They too, and in a more vulgar way, without any courage at all, reject Lenin. They reject the masses too—not by lone-wolf individualism, but by stale legalism—moving the goal post further away from mass organizing. Both left and right opportunism represent only two variations of a failure. Both stubbornly refuse to go lower and deeper among the most profound masses and educate them in revolutionary violence. One accepts impulsive violence, while the other accepts only state sanctioned violence and insists the rest bow ever lower before bourgeois democratic law.

Between the left and right opportunists, the revolutionary must cut and blaze a path clear through the middle. This means being politically attacked on all sides: the modern-Narodnik will insist we are too conservative because of our focus on the masses, while the reactionaries hiding behind red flags will call us “ultra-leftists” for our defense of revolutionary violence. We are impervious to their words, armed only with the science of revolution.

Worst of all, there are those despicable rats among the “left” who will blame the individual for the state’s response. If the state responds with draconian anti-terror laws targeting leftists, this is because of imperialist crisis making the state undergo reactionization and not the fault of any singular individual. The centering of the individual act reflects the same faulty logic of Spronsen, just without any defiance.


“Without a People’s Army, the people have nothing”- Mao

There is a correct and incorrect way of fighting: the use of petrol bombs, flares, or homemade assault rifles are not objectively objectionable. Sacrifice is not objectively objectionable, neither is a losing battle for the greater good objectively objectionable. These things are however, objectionable in this specific case. We should be steadfast in our insistence that only what furthers the organized struggle of the people should be used. If people are to die, and even more so, if they are to follow through with annihilating class enemies, this should be taken seriously; it must be measured and weighed. All efforts should serve the interest of giving the people something—their army.

The correct way to fight ICE is alongside the masses that already rebel, to organize them into militias and organize them into revolutionary mass organizations, to train them to develop into Red Army Soldiers, where they can broaden and expand the mass work. “Abolish ICE” is vapid and hollow, without an army capable of meeting anti-people war with pro-people war, everything is hot air. It may sound good, but it will never open cages. If it is not working toward the initiation of People’s War it is not working.

Revolutionaries have put forward the slogan “fight ICE with fire,” and some would think this is exactly what Spronsen did. We should be clear that the revolutionaries intended the fire to be from the organized masses and did not direct this slogan at individual desperate anarchists.

The slogan of course has reached certain limits and is more clearly expressed in the slogan “combat and resist ICE and US imperialism.” This slogan calls for the masses to act and remains firmly with them while it reveals the underlying issue.

The mass outrage against the camps is real, and it must be taken seriously, not escaped or obscured by doomed and desperate actions. Spronsen and his supporters cannot hide behind the contempt the masses hold for ICE, when the rest of the time their ideology centers the individual over the masses. They cannot act as a stand-in or on behalf of the masses in the absence of the masses. Communists view their Party not as an agent in the stead of the masses but as a lever for mass revolutionary action.

Both the Democrats and Republicans find unity on the inhuman and reactionary laws that criminalize the undocumented, both are invested fully in the same imperialist system which makes the seeking of  low-wage jobs in the US preferable to the ravaged poverty at home. Both parties created these camps with their interest in profitable imperialism, and both helped to make Spronsen. Both parties killed him with their policies as much as the police did with their bullets.

This case is not heroic but sad, sad that there is such a defeatist, pessimistic attitude among certain sections of the left that this actually seems like a contribution to the ongoing struggles. This pessimism is only present in the most alienated, those who have disconnected themselves from the people, or the dubiously-fated petty bourgeoisie, the declassed intellectual etc. For those who carry out work among the masses, revolutionary optimism shines ever brighter.

Mass work and a strategy which relies upon it is what is a truly refreshing contribution. The importance of mass work, in contrast to lone-wolfism, comes into great clarity. The day-to-day struggles of the immigrant masses, and especially of their proletariat must be organized. The outrage must find its expression in war, and it is only the communist revolutionary who is capable of starting such a war. In these day-to-day struggles of working people, there are communists forged and leadership emerges. The Communist Party will be reconstituted.

Around itself, the Party will develop a mighty Red Army, which will carry out the majority of the Parties work among the masses and convert the masses into soldiers for the proletariat. Likewise, around itself the army will develop an iron clad united front of all oppressed and exploited people, unified by the Party and by war. This is the pathway for abolishing not just ICE but all institutions of the reactionary bourgeois state. Not though small isolated individual acts, but through strategic planning and the mobilization of millions.  Nothing else is enough; we have nothing and we want everything!

We must be clear what we mean when we asses success, which can in fact be gleaned from failure, but it always leaves an opening for strategic advance. Failure however, when it does not include successes, becomes nothing but a dead end, closed to the future, like anarchism and the fruitless sacrifice of Spronsen.

In this way, we only condemn the action; our contempt for ICE is not diminished in the slightest, because ICE is but a part of the state belonging to the class enemy, who we can only destroy to bring about communism.

We can only rely on our principles and the masses themselves. While standing against reformism as the greater threat, we cannot for a moment stand for adventurism, romanticism and the squandering of revolutionary potential into dead ends. We must affirm the following words of the great Lenin, and never relent:

Little is known in other countries of the fact that Bolshevism took shape, developed and became steeled in the long years of struggle against petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter and, in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle. Marxist theory has established—and the experience of all European revolutions and revolutionary movements has fully confirmed—that the petty proprietor, the small master (a social type existing on a very extensive and even mass scale in many European countries), who, under capitalism, always suffers oppression and very frequently a most acute and rapid deterioration in his conditions of life, and even ruin, easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but is incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness. A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another—all this is common knowledge.”- V.I. Lenin, Leftwing Communism an Infantile Disorder