Gabriel Kuhn - Turning Money into Rebellion: The Unlikely Story of Denmark’s Revolutionary Bank Robbers-PM Press (2014)
The Danish communist KAK/M-KA group, christened the “Blekingegade” group by Danish media in reference to the location of their safehouse, is one of the most interesting Western “New Left” groups to emerge out of the radical 60s. Many U.S. radical groups of the same period were part of the “New Communist Movement”, a movement which was characterized by infighting and theoretical disagreements but still had some strategic ideas largely in common between groups. For the most part, the NCM believed in the short-term possibility of working class revolution in the U.S., and many organizations sent their members into factories and coal-mines to get rooted in the working-class and prepare for struggle. Then there were the armed, “underground” groups, in both the U.S. and Western Europe, groups like the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and Red Army Faction. These groups aimed to wage, on some level or other, “war on the state”. The Blekingegade group took a different approach. While starting from the same Maoist perspective as many of their contemporaries, they quickly came around to a hard-headed view of the situation in their country and in the West more generally - seeing that revolution was not around the corner, that the popular classes in the imperialist countries would not support armed struggle, and that simply organizing Western workers around “claims to greater consumption” was a revolutionary dead-end. In the words of one member, “you just had to take a good look around you”. Instead of relying on leftist common-sense at the time, they opened their eyes and looked around.
Seeing the immense vitality of Third World liberation struggles, they found the existing forms of Western anti-imperialist solidarity with these struggles (street protest, symbolic action, etc.) lacking. Solidarity had to become something “you could hold in your hands”, something material. And what better to hold in your hands than money? So they became, in essence, a “fundraising organization” for Third World revolution, over the course of decades sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to revolutionary organizations across the world but particularly in Africa and the Middle East. They got this money from robbing banks, conducting mail fraud, and other swindles, not out of a particular romanticization of criminal activity, but because that was the only way they saw of acquiring the amounts they wanted to send. Throughout their practice, they maintained above-ground organization (for example a public-facing effort to gather and ship clothes to refugee camps run by revolutionary organizations), travelled extensively, and thought strategically about which groups to support. This book, a short compendium of articles about, essays by, and interviews with KAK/M-KA members, details the history of the group, their ideas and development, and what key members think of the group now, in hindsight.
Reading through these documents, there are a few contradictions that seem to come up again and again. One is between “going with the people you have” versus attempting to grow a mass movement. This group believed that building an anti-imperialist mass movement in the West was impossible, and even granting that, it begs the question of where the line is between individuals and movements. The group’s initial cadre was, after all, composed of many people drawn in by the movement against the Vietnam war, and they also recruited people through front organizations. Conducting public, “movement” work is a necessary condition of finding people who are willing to contribute to other types of work. “Political solidarity” has to precede “material solidarity”. So is it just a matter of finding the right balance? Is “movement work” solely an instrument for bringing people into other work, or does it have other political possibilities? Why did the Blekingegade group put less and less focus on recruiting new members and growing the organization? Could they have scaled their model of simultaneous aboveground, public work and “undercover” work to an organization of 100 or even 1000 people scattered in chapters across other European cities?
The question of revolutionary “impact” also surfaces in some of the books’ discussions. As a support organization, the KAK/M-KA never saw themselves as a group directly making revolution, so the question of failure or success in their work is harder to evaluate. When comparing their ideology and practice to that of NCM groups, or the Red Army Faction, you could say they had a more realistic ambition - while NCM participants might have dreamed of spurring on the revitalization of the American labor movement, and RAF members of “waking up” the West German masses, the Blekingegade group had more modest aims, and they never expanded their group beyond the fifteen or twenty people it quickly grew to. You could say they “adapted to reality” instead of trying to make reality adapt to them. But was their contribution more “modest” than these other groups? This group of 15-20 “average Danes” supported revolutionary groups around the world with much-needed financial and other resources over a period of decades. From this perspective, they were punching above their weight, by finding a practice that allowed them to maximize their revolutionary “leverage” as a small group of ordinary people.
Combining these questions about impact with our earlier ones about recruitment and scale of the group, we can ask more generally if the group ever went beyond revolutionary “Red charity”. This isn’t intended as a pejorative, but rather an objective description of their work. Were there other possibilities for growing their work, either quantitatively (a bigger “Red charity” operation or an attempt to evangelize their approach to other Left groups) or qualitatively (”Red charity” plus some new form of practice)? Certainly, this must have been a topic of debate within the group, but there isn’t much discussion of it in these materials.
Regardless of how the KAK/M-KA answered these questions, or the reasons they had for retaining their original form and practice for so long, what they have left behind, and what is documented in this book, is an admirable material practice of anti-imperialism. If we want to move beyond a symbolic, “ceremonial” anti-imperialism on the Western left, we should take their slogan to heart: “Solidarity is something you can hold in your hands.”
Craftsmen of World Revolution (Klaus Viehmann)
This short opening essay helps put the group in historical context and asks questions about how applicable their theory of change and politics are today.
Viehmann raises some interesting points here related to the personal and psychological aspects of membership in a group like KAK/M-KA, acknowledging the challenge of building an organization that requires so much personal commitment, sacrifice, and risk, as well as the positive effects of this personal dedication.
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.
Viehmann here seems to suggest that more experimentation could have been done with organizing workers directly. The history of New Communist Movement and other groups which “went down to the factories” shows persistent limitations that KAK would have probably run into as well, but the last question posed here, on organizing migrant workers, is a hint towards a broader one: even if we view the core popular classes as mostly politically inert, are there specific class fragments or groups, like migrant or undocumented workers, who have a different relation to imperialism and a different set of political possibilities?
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?
Following along the lines of trying to find “outcast” class fragments, are there other “axes” beyond the strictly material/economic that can be used to rally some sections of the popular classes to anti-imperialism?
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?
Key political point of KAK brought up to the present day: “We can see some sparks at the precarious margins, but there is no prairie fire”:
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.
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.
Thinking about where the metropole is headed, are Global South solidarity efforts enough? What about the need to fight fascism? How can anti-imperialist work contribute to building a “strategic defense”?
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 first point here is key - social support determines the “fragility” of a particular group or strategy - whether it can continue on or will disappear after the first big mistake. But “sabotage” of imperialism in some way is still the order of the day.
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.
Anti-imperialism Undercover: An Introduction to the Blekingegade Group (Gabriel Kuhn)
A brief history of the group that offers good practical background and context for the rest of the book.
KAK’s origin is in the popular anti-Vietnam War struggle, but crucially that popularity was among students and youth, not the working class:
The Vietnam War served as empirical evidence for Appel’s theory, and in February 1965 KAK organized one of the earliest European protests against the U.S. aggression. The fact that workers remained largely absent from the demonstration—despite strong mobilization efforts at some of Copenhagen’s biggest factories—seemed to confirm Appel’s analysis of a corrupted and complacent Danish working class. Yet he found numerous recruits among young radicals who were drawn to KAK by the Vietnam Committee (Vietnamkomité) that the organization had established, its militant stance, its uniqueness among the Danish left, and not least by Appel’s compelling personality.
Interestingly, it was always a small group, and, from Kuhn’s telling, never attempted to grow significantly beyond this size:
KAK never had more than twenty-five members and was mainly considered a training ground for elite revolutionaries ready to seize the revolutionary moment in the imperialist world when it came.
What were the consequences of this? Crucially, why was the growth of the group still constrained if not everyone was clued in on the illegal work? Could the group have grown larger while maintaining the same numerically small illegal practice, or would this have been too dangerous?
Only a few selected KAK members were involved in the illegal practice. The rest of the membership was not informed. Essentially, this created an inner circle within the organization that consisted of people involved in illegal activities.
After some internal drama, the M-KA forms as the main spin-off, but with similar structure and size as before:
M-KA remained small, never extending to more than fifteen members. Material support for Third World liberation movements remained a priority. After the turmoil during the last months of KAK, the M-KA members managed to regain the PFLP leadership’s trust and reestablish contact with the other liberation movements they had collaborated with. The illegal practice continued. Once again, it was confined to an inner circle, without the rest of the membership being involved.
This is raised later on, but it points to a key challenge in our external circumstances today. Even funds obtained “legitimately”, when routed to certain organizations, become highly dangerous legally, and the “terrorism” label can be used to throw the book at activists:
Today, things would be different. Since the former Danish prime minister and current secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, emerged as one of Europe’s staunchest supporters of the “War on Terror” in the early 2000s, Danish antiterrorist legislation has undergone dramatic changes.
It Is All About Politics (Niels Jørgensen, Torkil Lauesen, and Jan Weimann)
In this essay, three key members of the illegal practice attempt to clarify the groups strategy, aims and history, in light of recent, bourgeois journalism on the group in Denmark.
“You just had to take a good look around you”:
It was crystal-clear to us that the Western European working class was not revolutionary in the 1960s— you just had to take a good look around you. This realization became our starting point.
Maoism becomes less of a north star as the group evolves, partly due to China’s optimistic view of the Western working classes. Similar lines could probably be heard today from some socialist and communist groups in the Global South, but does that necessarily undermine collaboration?
When the CPC held its Ninth National Congress in 1969, some of its declarations sounded as if the revolution in Western Europe would break out any minute. Its description of the Western European working class as “revolutionary” was a complete delusion. KAK criticized this in a special issue of Kommunistisk Orientering. As a result, the official ties to the CPC were cut.
As the group broke with orthodox Maoism and came to a more sensible “realpolitik”, they developed a clearer view on Soviet Union:
We had completely different perspectives on the Soviet Union: while we saw the Soviet Union as a tactical ally in the fight against imperialism (even if we didn’t see eye to eye with them on everything, especially not the political implementation of socialism), the CPC saw the Soviet Union as the most dangerous imperialist power of them all.
More detail on the divergence with China:
Basically all of the Third World movements we supported were criticized by the CPC and the Maoist organizations in Western Europe. Most Maoist organizations supported other movements; movements we had no sympathies for whatsoever. In Angola, for example, we supported the MPLA, while China supported UNITA and FNLA. UNITA was a group of anticommunist bandits who terrorized the civil population. By supporting them, China formed an alliance with the U.S., South Africa, and Israel. Later they also collaborated with the FNLA, which was known for murdering everyone when attacking white farms: the white owners as well as the black workers and their families. In the Middle East, the Chinese approach was also different from ours. The PFLP never received any support from China other than a box full of Mao books.[…]It was important that we were not Maoists, because we fundamentally disagreed with China’s foreign policy. Our reference points were the unjustified exploitation and oppression of the Third World and the sympathies we had for the revolutionary movements emerging there as a consequence of this.
The authors summarize the liberation movements in the 70s as taking place along three axes:
There were many possible reasons for a liberation struggle emerging in a particular place. The wish for national independence—the national aspect—was one. The wish for food on the table and for breaking the power of a foreign ruling class as well as the exploitation of resources and labor by foreign corporations—the economic aspect—was another. The wish for fundamental changes to power relations and the distribution of resources within the country—the socialist aspect—was a third. Often, two or all three of them were interrelated.
The group saw the Panthers and Weather Underground as signs of possible further unrest in the U.S.:
None of this meant that a revolution in the U.S. was waiting around the corner. But it showed that even the U.S. was fragile. It seemed that if the flow of wealth from the poor countries to the U.S. could be stopped, the country would experience a crisis that would not be solved by a few simple reforms.
With the lack (at least for now) of the same “window” for radical change, how can organizations build similar levels of commitment from members?
In short, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there was a real possibility—a “window”—for radical global change. We saw the combination of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in many parts of the Third World and the anti-authoritarian youth revolt in Europe as the objective conditions for such a change to not only be possible, but probable. This contributed to our radicalization and commitment as militants. We were not just pursuing a dream. It seemed possible for us to be a small wheel in a big revolutionary process.
The group’s practice placed an emphasis on deep study and material analysis (of current circumstances, not old theory), and using travel as a part of this:
We also conducted economic analysis as well as in-depth political studies of various countries, and examined the liberation movements we considered collaborating with. In all of this, a purely theoretical perspective was never enough. KAK members embarked on many travels in the early 1970s to get a better understanding of what life was like in different parts of the world. Each journey lasted up to a few months. The experiences were summarized in reports about economic conditions, power relations, living standards, imperialist dependencies, etc. The reports were then discussed at KAK meetings. The countries we visited were India, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Western countries of Portugal, Germany, Northern Ireland, the USA, and Canada.
The KAK decision to focus exclusively on Third World Solidarity and not working-class organizing did not come from a position of inexperience. Like many New Communist Movement groups in the U.S., they experimented with sending members into the factories. The last point here differentiates KAK from the “substitutionist” label people often apply to underground or guerrilla Global North groups - KAK did not see themselves as a vanguard or stand-in proletariat, but as a simple support organization for revolutionary organizations elsewhere in the world:
The Western European working class desired higher wages and stronger welfare. It did not desire radical change. This implies no moral judgment. It was a simple matter of interests. Our analysis corresponded to our own experiences. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many KAK members worked at big companies: B&W, FLSmidth, Tuborg, and others. In the mid-1970s, four KAK members also worked in Germany for a year to get an impression of the situation in a different Western European country.Today, we believe that history has proven our analysis right. Since the 1970s, the Western European working class has not shown any desire for revolutionary change. We were not the dreamers; we were the realists. It wasn’t us but the DKP and KAP who wrote socialist programs for Denmark.In Marxism, one distinguishes between a revolution’s object and subject. The object is the economic and political conditions you wish to change. The subject is the oppressed and exploited social groups that can make this change possible. In traditional Marxist theory, it is the working class that occupies the role of the revolutionary subject. However, we did not see the Western working class as such, since its situation was not defined by exploitation and oppression, at least not primarily. On the contrary, Western European workers had much to lose: their living standards were high; many working-class families owned a house and a car. There was no desire for revolution. The situation was entirely different for workers and peasants in Third World countries. It is wrong to say that we substituted ourselves—or a small group of militants—for the working class. The people we saw as the revolutionary subject were the ones active in Third World movements with popular support.
On their purported “isolation” from the left, they emphasize that this was true for much of the traditional Danish/European left, but not true on a global scale:
We discussed politics with liberation movements whenever we visited them or whenever some of their representatives came to Denmark. We also had contacts to Western political groups that shared our perspectives and political priorities, such as the Liberation Support Movement, LSM, in North America and like-minded groups in Norway and Sweden. In Denmark we had contacts with solidarity projects supporting the PFLOAG/ PFLO in Oman and movements in the Philippines, the Western Sahara, and El Salvador. Through Tøj til Afrika we were in contact with Ulandsklunserne and other organizations providing practical help for refugee camps, among them WUS (the later Ibis) and Mellemfolkelig Samvirke. We felt in no way isolated.
KAK (perhaps not M-KA later) held out long-term hope for a radical change in circumstances in Denmark, hence the additional long term goal of building disciplined organization:
In its political practice, KAK had two goals. The first one was to create a disciplined and effective organization able to work both legally and, under certain circumstances, illegally. The second one was to exercise political and practical solidarity with Third World liberation movements.[…]Today, we are convinced that for the KAK leadership the actions themselves were at least as important as their results. They wanted members of the organization to gain experience in illegal activities.
Summarizing Tøj til Afrika, a completely above-ground project started by KUF (KAK front group essentially), that served as the introductory project for many members:
TTA mainly collected used clothes and sent them to refugee camps in Africa administered by liberation movements where they were distributed according to need. Many KUF and KAK members, as well as sympathizers, became involved in practical work through TTA: clothes needed to be collected, sorted, packaged, and shipped. Soon, the Copenhagen TTA activists were joined by local chapters in Odense, Løgstør, and Holbæk.
The authors start to discuss the illegal work, which may have started as an “experiment”. Also note escalation of action, the group did not go to illegal work immediately:
The KAK leadership wanted answers to the following questions:
- Was it possible to acquire significant economic means by illegal activities?
- Did the organization have members that could engage in such activities?
- Could the members engaged in these activities hide them from other KAK members as well as from people outside of the organization?
- Was it possible to engage in such activities without using excessive violence?
- Was it possible to engage in such activities without drawing the attention of the authorities?
- Could the activities be defended politically and morally?
- Would the members engaged in these activities answer these questions in the same way as the leadership?It is important to remember that we did not go directly from collecting clothes to robbing cash-in-transit trucks. Members had partaken in violent demonstrations and direct actions before, such as the petrol bomb attack against the Bella Center. This made the step to robbery easier.It did not take long before KAK’s leadership considered the experiment successful. This, however, demanded some structural changes within the organization. In particular, security was tightened. As a result, socializing was not a big priority within KAK from 1972 to 1976. Contacts between members focused on the political work. One member close to the leadership was excluded because he was considered a security risk.
On the group’s opinion of the Red Army Faction in West Germany (however, even if the org never took credit for their illegal work, they did continue to put out above ground anti-imperialist publications - what was the purpose of this if not to attempt building an “anti-imperialist” front?):
Furthermore, the RAF wanted to support the struggle in the Third World by building an anti-imperialist front in Western Europe. We considered this utterly impossible. We never sent out a single communiqué to explain our actions precisely because of this. For us, there was no feasible revolutionary perspective in Western Europe. The change had to come from the Third World, and therefore the most important thing to do for Western anti-imperialists was to support Third World liberation movements materially.
They maintained an important day-to-day distance from more visible anti-imperialist groups:
Therefore we developed procedures with the PFLP that ensured us not having contact with other Europeans during our visits. We did not want an arrested RAF member mentioning a secret Danish group involved in robberies as a means to support Third World liberation movements. For the same reason, we avoided contact with Palestinian activists in Denmark. Only once, after we had lost contact with the PFLP during the breakup of KAK and the subsequent founding of M-KA, did we decide to get in touch with PFLP members living in Denmark. We instantly paid a price for this: the PFLP members were under surveillance by PET agents, who consequently also took an interest in us. We never repeated that mistake.
This section, on the reasons they decided against working with the PLFP break-away Special Ops / Wadi Haddad group, gives insight into KAK thinking process on who they wanted to support:
- The most important one was that Haddad’s actions had little to do with mobilizing the Palestinian people. Instead of creating popular resistance against the Israeli occupation, as for example the Intifada did, Haddad chose elitist actions, that is, actions that required a high level of training and sophisticated equipment. The effect was that the actions pacified rather than mobilized the Palestinian population because ordinary Palestinians could not partake in them. It was militant demonstrations and throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers that inspired widespread resistance.
- We were puzzled by the fact that Haddad had opened the first of our meetings by asking what we could do for him and by explaining what he could do for us. Practical collaboration seemed more important to him than common political ground. This went against our principles. We always discussed politics first.
- Haddad’s operations simply became increasingly unsuccessful. When he had organized hijackings and similar high-profile actions as a PFLP member, his intention was to put the Palestinian question on the map. With this, he succeeded. After his split from the PFLP, however, all of his actions were fiascoes, both practically and politically.
- We thought that the PFLP had the right political analysis of the situation in Jordan after the so-called Black September of 1970: In the late 1960s, the Palestinian organizations in Jordan decided to be very open. They carried weapons in refugee camps and also on the streets of Amman. Jordan was also used as a base for operations against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Palestinians comprised 60 percent of Jordan’s population and King Hussein began to perceive them as a threat to his rule. In September 1970, he ordered a military attack on the refugee camps. The result was that the Palestinian organizations were forced to leave the country and move to Lebanon. George Habash and Wadi Haddad had different answers to this. Haddad concluded that the resistance movement had to go underground since it was not strong enough for an open, and therefore vulnerable, presence in an Arab country. Habash concluded that the resistance movement had to stay above-ground and be visible, since this made popular support more likely. Besides, one needed to defend the refugee camps in Lebanon, especially in light of the right-wing Christian forces active in the country.The reason why we decided to continue our collaboration with the PFLP under the leadership of George Habash was that it had the popular base that we always saw as a precondition for supporting any movement.
- *The authors take some time to discuss a Danish anti-fascist group called the Wollweber League, active before WWII (this seems to have relevance in combining anti-fascist work with the approach KAK took of being “undercover” and not “underground”):
Was it justifiable to use illegal means to damage Danish property and to even endanger innocent people when you had the option to work legally within the democratic framework? As shown by their actions, their answer was yes.
Just like the Blekingegade Group, the Wollweber League had no desire to make it known that it stood behind these actions. In order for their fight against the fascists to continue, they had to remain invisible.Another parallel between the Wollweber League and us was the massive disapproval both groups met. Parts of the left called us “Maoists,” “lunatics,” “terrorists,” “anti-Semites,” and so forth. When the Wollweber League blew up the Spanish trawlers in Frederikshavn, the left reacted no differently. In an article published after the event in the DKP’s journal Arbejderbladet [Workers’ Journal], the party’s central committee had the following advice for its readers: “Watch out for provocateurs consisting of Trotskyists, informers, Gestapo agents, and Nazis! ... Beware of these elements and their kingpins, who we will soon expose.”
Returning to group history, authors’ describe the transition to the M-KA - dropping long term focus on building a revolutionary cadre group, and instead focusing entirely on material solidarity:
M-KA’s organizational goal was different from KAK’s. Even if Gotfred Appel considered revolutionary development in Denmark to be highly improbable, he intended to build an organization that had the resources, the knowledge, and the discipline to act once a revolutionary situation in the country would occur.[…]For M-KA, supporting liberation movements was a revolutionary end in itself. Any possible revolution in Denmark was too far away and too abstract to even consider. Rather, we saw three things as being crucial: to develop political analysis and theory; to spread our analysis and theory; and to continue with the illegal and legal practice. We wanted to provide material support for liberation movements as an organization with a solid independent analysis. The Danish perspective moved further and further into the background and gave way to a thoroughly global perspective. One could say that M-KA was a reflection of “globalization” before the term was invented. Our logo combined a globe with a five-pointed star.Establishing a new organization set an enormous amount of energy free. We had been in the doldrums for almost a year. The authority of Gotfred Appel and KAK’s internal discipline had been hindering independent initiatives and developments even longer. Now there were new possibilities. It was time to act again.
The group’s new structure, with some key differences to KAK:
M-KA was a small, but hard-working group. People were either “full-time activists” on unemployment or they dedicated all of their free time to the organization. Some people left, others joined. The membership was always around twelve to fifteen people. Because of the illegal work, new members were only fully included after a year, once we had gotten to know them well. There was a bigger circle of sympathizers and volunteers who helped with the legal solidarity work. Our journal Manifest had about two hundred paying subscribers.The way M-KA was organized marked a rupture with the centralism and closedness of KAK. We had a democratically elected leadership and, all in all, a horizontal structure. We wanted to form an organization able to develop its politics by way of internal as well as external discussion. Holger was a driving force in the early days of M-KA, but solely because of his dedication—he had no formal leadership role. His death in 1980 was a hard blow to us. However, the following years proved that M-KA had become strong and grounded enough to continue its work nonetheless. Administrative, theoretical, legal, and illegal tasks were assigned on the basis of mutual agreement. This gave the organization stability and made it effective.It is clear that the illegal practice set limits as to how open M-KA could be. Only those involved in the illegal practice knew the details. But the decision about which liberation movements to support was taken by the entire organization. We had also established an offset print shop and a publishing house in the northwest of Copenhagen. There we printed journals of liberation movements, information material for Tøj til Afrika, and, eventually, a series of pamphlets and books. The expenses were paid for by member contributions, which depended on the individuals’ means. In some cases, those were quite high.
Returning to need for “concrete analysis”:
We were convinced that in order to develop an effective practice we needed to study economic and political relations and to have a concrete analysis of where and how to get involved in people’s struggles. Our practice was always informed by strategic and tactical reflections that we dedicated much time to. An important factor was the discussions we had with liberation movements and the experiences we shared with them. We developed our political perspectives together.We also resumed our travels. M-KA members went to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Botswana, the Philippines, and different countries in the Middle East. The entire M-KA membership visited the PFLP in Lebanon in 1981, both to discuss politics and to give members who had never been to Palestinian refugee camps an opportunity to see them.
Other key topics the group researched:
We examined the historical origin of the world’s division into rich and poor countries; we looked at why some former colonies—in South America—remained poor, while other for- mer colonies—in North America—developed and became rich; we studied crisis theory and capitalism’s ability to adapt and transform; we studied the Soviet Union’s development in the 1980s; we looked at U.S. military strategy in the Third World after the Vietnam War.
On choosing movements and groups to support:
We had four criteria for deciding which movements to support:
- a socialist perspective
- broad popular support
- strategic significance for the struggle against imperialism
- a tactical consideration: we wanted our limited means to be used in ways that made a difference. This is why we often supported movements during the earliest phase of their struggle, when they did not yet receive much other support.
Note this strictly practical consideration on acquiring what they needed, and how they brainstormed other ways to make money as well. There was no particular “fetishism” of armed actions:
The reason for continuing the illegal practice was first and foremost that it allowed us to provide much bigger quantities of material support than our legal activities.
We always discussed options other than robberies. We thought about making money through investments—but no one in KAK (or M-KA, in later years) knew anything about investments. We had one member who knew about IT, but his knowledge did not allow for great moneymaking schemes.
On a one-time kidnapping plot for the rich heir of a Swedish company, which ended up not happening:
In the end, we were simply appalled by the idea of kidnapping someone, and this feeling only became stronger with time. This was probably the most important reason.In hindsight, it was idiotic to even consider this kind of crime. It would have been way too harsh on the victim and it went beyond our capacities. When the time came, we simply weren’t able to do it. Therefore, once the plan had been abandoned, we all concluded that we would never consider anything like this again. We decided that we should return to what we knew instead, which was robbery.We thought that we could get away with the most spectacular coups, as long as the planning was right. However, it is difficult to be active for almost twenty years without making small mistakes. A single small mistake might not get you caught, but the mistakes add up and make you vulnerable. In retrospect, it wasn’t the actual robberies that made PET suspicious of us. It was the mistakes we had made in our communication with the PFLP and an increasing carelessness regarding security.
Remarkably, some of the key activists in the group were long under police/intelligence service surveillance, but this still did not uncover link with the illegal work!
Niels and Holger were observed when they came home from the U.S. in 1979. It was basically revealed to them during a stopover in London. They were searched and questioned about their journey. When they asked for a reason for the interference, they were told, “We know very well what kind you are.”Our homes were also searched. Sometimes, the agents didn’t return things to their proper place, or they were forced to leave in a hurry. We were convinced that our phones were tapped, and always used them carefully. When Torkil applied for a job at the Foreign Ministry, he was told that he could not be cleared. We knew that PET had an eye on us.Our analysis was that PET knew about our contacts with the liberation movements, especially the PFLP, and that this was what made us interesting. They probably also knew that we were involved in illegal activities, but they didn’t know the details. When we were arrested in 1989, it became obvious that PET’s knowledge was limited.
The authors spend quite a bit of time here addressing the morality of their practice:
If the motto of the end justifying the means implies that you can use any means you want (without any consideration for the consequences for others) in order to achieve any end you have decided to pursue, then the Blekingegade Group has never followed such a motto. At the same time, we have never followed the motto that the end never justifies the means either. After all, there is a third option—which, in fact, is much more realistic than the other two: not all ends justify allmeans, but, depending on the circumstances, some ends justify some means.[…]It is hard to say where exactly the legitimate use of violence begins. In the case of the Danish resistance movement, the lines were drawn by the individual resistance groups and the individual resistance fighters. It was them who had to live with the decisions for the rest of their lives. This is the simple core question of each political dilemma: What do I do?
“Our conclusion was that we had to act”:
What was our personal situation like in the late 1960s and early 1970s? We witnessed a global uprising on the one hand, and lived privileged lives in a Western country on the other. Our conclusion was that we had to act. We felt that there existed incredible injustice in the world and we wanted to contribute to a profound political and economic change. We also felt that we were in a position that allowed us to act, and that it would have been inexcusable if we didn’t.We find it difficult to share the perspective of the “voice” in PØK’s book when it states that “one can never compare different forms of suffering.” To begin with, the quest for a better and more just world does not begin with a cost-benefit analysis. It begins with a simple statement: “Enough!” Reflections about what you can achieve, and at what price, come later. Secondly, if you want to act politically, you cannot escape such reflections. That was true for us, and it has been true for anyone who has ever been involved in political struggles. Why bother with global economic justice, social welfare, or health care if you do not want to alleviate suffering? How can you fight an occupying power, resist oppression, and rise up, if you’re not affected by certain forms of suffering in a particular way? We all are affected by certain forms of suffering in a particular way in our everyday lives. We care more about people who are close to us than about people we don’t know or who we count among our enemies. That is human. Everything else enters the realm of divinity.
They take an interesting view of their own prosecution:
In this world of inequality, we lived and acted in a country in which there was no desire for revolutionary change. That’s why we did not send out communiqués explaining our actions, in contrast to organizations like the RAF, the Red Brigades, and others we have been associated with. In the Danish context, our activities were simply criminal. That was also the reason why we never felt that the legal system was treating us unjustly and why we never saw ourselves as political prisoners. In the context of the Danish state and legal system, we were criminals, pure and simple. We had answered the questions we were facing in a particular way, and we had to accept the consequences— even if the motivations for our criminal activities were rooted in an analysis of the global political system.
“It is a story about doing something, since doing nothing was not an option for us”:
The story of the Blekingegade Group is a story about political action as a reaction to the political action of others. It provides an example of how to connect national and international politics. It is a story of anger at injustice and a will to change the world. It is a story about doing something, since doing nothing was not an option for us. It is a story about political analysis and about reflections on what is true and what is not.Global exploitation and inequality were the main causes of our political actions. As we know, global exploitation and inequality still exist. But so do the movements trying to end suffering and oppression. The struggle continues.
Solidarity Is Something You Can Hold in Your Hands (Gabriel Kuhn interviews Torkil Lauesen and Jan Weimann)
Jan was radicalized from KAK publications (did they take full advantage of their publications as a recruiting tool in later years? Seems they stopped recruiting after the initial cadre):
Reading those articles was a revelation to me. They described convincingly why the class struggle had no perspective in Denmark and why it was necessary to support revolutionary movements in the Third World instead. As a consequence, I went from moral opposition to the war to theoretical study and activism.
Again, on the use of more-open, action-oriented organizations as a recruiting ground and filter:
KUF was sort of a recruiting ground for KAK. While KAK focused on theory, KUF was more action-oriented. KUF always had more members, too, and at times there were modest attempts at challenging the dominance of KAK—but Gotfred Appel always kept things in check.How did the Anti-imperialist Action Committee fit in?Torkil: It provided an arena for direct action. It was quite open and a testing ground for potential KUF and KAK members.
Same theory as NCM groups, but realized limitations of factory work sooner than NCM groups (”everything seemed pretty damp”). They still felt the need to put their Marxist faith in the working class to the test first:
What led to the theory?Torkil: In the 1960s, Gotfred had a Maoist perspective. Many KAK members were sent to work at big companies such as the shipyard Burmeister & Wain, the machine manufacturer FLSmidth, and Tuborg Breweries. The intention was twofold. First, KAK members should study the living conditions of the workers. For example, was it a problem for them when their children needed new shoes or had to go see the dentist? Second, KAK members should try to mobilize the working class on a “nonrevisionist and anti-imperialist” basis. This proved extremely difficult. There was no “single spark that could start a prairie fire”—everything seemed pretty damp.[…]Jan: KAK was still a Marxist organization and the industrial proletariat is central to the Marxist concept of revolution. You didn’t want to count out the working class that easily. So, instead of just drawing the obvious conclusions from our analysis, it still needed to be put to test. I would say that the infiltration of the factories was a final attempt to establish a politically productive relationship to the working class. But that didn’t happen. It even proved impossible to get workers involved in the Vietnam solidarity movement.
The mass movement as a recruiting ground but also further proof of the lack of anti-imperialist sentiment among the working class proper:
The Vietnam War seems to have played an important role for KAK. How did your experiences from organizing protests against the war influence yourpolitics?Torkil: The protests confirmed where the Danish working class stood. Those who came to the demonstrations were young people and students, not workers.[…]Torkil: The DKP, for example, controlled the Sømændenes forbund, a seamen’s union. During the Vietnam War, the union was quite happy to ship supplies to the American troops in Saigon, as long as its members had their wages doubled for sailing into high-risk zones.
Interesting de-personalization of their theory, and recognition of possibility for minority support for anti-imperialism. Question is, how big can that minority be? Can it have any real social importance? Note at the end here, they do not hide from their own class backgrounds or see themselves as completely “leaving” their own conditions:
On a psychological and social level, the workers never were our enemies, though. Most individuals follow their objective interests.So, how come some don’t? Like, apparently, you?Jan: Of course there is always a difference between the situation of an individual and the situation of a class; or, between psychology and sociology, if you will. There is a possibility for individuals to act against the objective short-term interests of their class. But these individuals will always be a minority and even for them it needs special circumstances.Torkil: The special circumstances in our case were provided by the unique situation at the end of the 1960s. Social protest movements in the imperialist countries, liberation movements in the colonized countries, and a widespread belief in a better world opened a window for us. And then there was KAK right here in Denmark, which provided a concrete possibility for revolutionary organizing. This was a strong cocktail.But to be clear: as an individual you can never completely leave the objective conditions of your life behind. In 1974, we published a book, in which guerrilla fighters from Angola told their stories. It was called “Victory or Death.” That was not our reality. We could always make choices. Your socialization always catches up with you. Today I like to say that I can feel neo-liberalism running in my blood, too ...
The group recognized that underground struggle in their context would be futile, and that also allowed them a legal, aboveground practice that provided many benefits:
To go underground and openly declare war on the state would have been a lost cause. The state would have crushed us within six months.Jan: To have a legal anti-imperialist practice was also important for recruiting sympathizers. We never looked for mass membership, but we still needed a support network and tried to find the right people.
Again the emphasis on discipline and commitment (in common with NCM groups of Maoist lineage):
What was life like as a KAK member?Torkil: We were a very disciplined and hard-working group. Politics came before your personal career or your personal interests, often enough your family. During long periods of time we were “voluntarily unemployed” in order to entirely focus on political work. Those of us who were active in Tøj til Afrika, like myself, collected clothes, sorted and packed them, and drove around to collect things for the flea markets. In the summer holidays, we also organized two-week Tøj til Afrika camps, which introduced new people to the organization. With KAK, we had a study circle once a week to discuss theoretical problems. Personally, I wrote articles and formulated drafts for position papers. There was also the publishing and printing work, and not least the illegal practice, which was very time-consuming. It was not just about planning and executing different actions, but it also included numerous trite tasks: paying rent, moving cars, organizing equipment, etc. And during all of this you had to make sure that you weren’t under observation. Yet, as stressful as it was, after a few years it became a part of everyday life—although the stress always returned before a bigger action, that was never just routine.All in all, though, I have good memories of the time in KAK. It was satisfying to be engaged in a practice that corresponded to your theory.Jan: Commitment was crucial—you were available for the organization around the clock. If your contribution was needed, you didn’t hesitate and went to work. I remember that I once got home after midnight on New Year’s Eve. Understandably, my wife wasn’t happy. She was a Tøj til Afrika member but not part of KAK. She didn’t know about the illegal work, and so I couldn’t explain to her that we had been out for shooting practice.
On not focusing on many of the big debates of the day:
Jan: However, as Torkil said, we did not take any side in the Sino-Soviet conflict as such and stayed away from the ideological debates and polemics[…]We were primarily concerned with the conditions for the liberation struggle in a specific country, not with ideological subtleties or postrevolution development strategies. Our discussions with liberation movements focused on the analysis of the current political and economic system and the possibilities to attack it.
Researching groups on paper first and then making direct contact with some of them:
Can you tell us more about how you decided to support particular movements? You have made your criteria clear, but how did you get the information required to make the relevant decisions? Did you meet with representatives of all the movements you were interested in supporting?Jan: Not at first. There were so many liberation movements, it was impossible to have direct contact with them all. We began by looking at what they had written about their theory and practice.
More on the selection process:
We always tried to have a good understanding of a particular movement before we considered supporting it. Even if we weren’t that concerned with ideological subtleties, common political ground was crucial. Everything else followed from there.Another aspect that was important was the degree of support that a particular movement already had. One of the organizations we supported, the PFLOAG/PFLO in Oman, was small and did not get much outside support, so for them a million Danish crowns really made a difference.
Methods/levels of support provided:
One could say that we had three different ways of supporting movements: some we supported legally through Tøj til Afrika; some we supported illegally; and some we supported both legally and—to a smaller degree—illegally, but without telling them. The PFLP knew what we were doing, but none of the other movements did. ZANU, for example, got resources that we acquired illegally, but they were unaware of it. Many liberation movements were infiltrated by intelligence services, and we did not want to take any risks.
Supporting the PFLP in particular had knock-on effects due to it’s well-practiced internationalism:
In general, the PFLP had a strong internationalist outlook. It allowed liberation movements from around the world to use its facilities. During my visits, I saw Kurds, Turks, Iranians, South Africans, and Nicaraguans. In other words, supporting the PFLP meant to support many liberation movements. Finally, the PFLP was a well-established organization with a lot of potential. It had a proper army with training camps, it ran clinics and children’s homes, even a pension system.
Another group they could have supported, but did not due to lack of mass support:
Did you have contacts with DFLP members as well? It seems that their line would have been close to yours, with a strong focus on popular uprisings and reservations towards high-profile actions.Torkil: In theory, you are right, but in practice they were a small and intellectual group. We perceived them as akin to many left-wing groups in Europe. They did not have the mass base that the PFLP had. So although there was some contact, there was no close collaboration.
Another RAF comparison, interesting point Torkil makes here about the RAF’s “rebellion on the private level” (could be seen in the WUO/other Sixties radicalism as well) and how KAK/M-KA did not put much emphasis on this:
Torkil: We had different politics and a different practice. We also had different backgrounds. The youth rebellions of the late 1960s, which seemed important for the formation of many of the urban guerrilla movements, were of little importance to us. It seems to me that for RAF members, the rebellion on the private level was very central. Politics and private life, including the relationship to your family, your living arrangements, etc., were considered to be closely linked. In KAK, we didn’t see things that way. We were strongly rooted in Marxist-Leninist cadre politics. This was an aspect that Gotfred Appel had brought to the organization from his long experience in communist parties. Discipline was key—and so was patience. Many of the urban guerrilla movements wanted revolutionary change here and now. We pursued a long-term strategy.Furthermore, our practice was “invisible” with regard to Danish society. We were not at war with the Danish state and did not send out communiqués after our actions. We used illegal means that looked like ordinary crime to support Third World liberation movements. That’s very different to the urban guerrilla groups, which attacked European states head-on. We saw that strategy as suicidal, because, according to our analysis, there was no chance of winning. There was no mass base. If we had tried something similar in Denmark, we would have been finished very quickly. Instead, we wanted to be an ally to Third World liberation movements for many years. We managed at least twenty. That also meant that we were still supporting liberation struggles at a time when most urban guerrilla groups had vanished or were entirely on the defensive. They were underground revolutionaries and anti-imperialists, we were undercover ones*.*
As example of the group’s discipline, an early “spontaneous” action catches heavy criticism from KAK leaders:
However, one thing led to another, and suddenly we were caught up in heavy streetfighting, Molotov cocktails were thrown, etc. When Gotfred and Ulla returned to Denmark, they were furious. They called us immature and adventurist. We were summoned to the school bench, so to speak, and told to read Marx’s Capital, Lenin, and so on.It seems to me that many of the people who joined the urban guerrilla movements were very action-driven and never had any such experience. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we were action-driven, too, but we had someone who challenged us when our actions weren’t productive.
Responding to a question on why the group didn’t train in PFLP camps, they point out that the skills involved in their “undercover work” were much different from “guerrilla” work - and part of any “undercover work” is building a “detailed knowledge of the society” one operates in:
We have visited such camps, but we never went through any training there. Why should we? What was it that that we could learn at a camp in Lebanon? We wanted to do illegal work in Denmark. Of course, they can teach you how to dismantle a gun and how to put it back together, but you can learn that in Denmark, too. Most of the other things you could learn in those camps were irrelevant to us. We didn’t need to cross desert borders in the middle of the night, we needed to know how to rent safe apartments, how to protect ourselves against surveillance, how to stake out targets for possible actions, how to do robberies without leaving a trace, and so on. Undercover work requires a detailed knowledge of the society you operate in. We had to learn these things ourselves.
When speaking about the RAF and other urban guerrillas, Torkil and Jan do not make any moral judgement, but instead highlight strategic differences and the different measures of “impact” each group had:
It is important to note that we in no way want to condemn or discredit the German comrades, even if we might have seen certain things differently. They fought under specific conditions and did what they considered right. And some of their actions we could get behind fully, such as the attacks on U.S. army bases during the Vietnam War. This was a concrete interference with the imperialist war machine. We might have considered similar things—however, there were no U.S. army bases in Denmark.Torkil: Another important difference is that due to our “invisible strategy” we lacked the fairly wide circles of sympathizers and supporters the German groups had. We were small and weren’t able to engage in high-profile actions. Hence, our impact was smaller, too.Jan: Well, it depends on what you mean by “impact.” As far as an impact on the state or on European society is concerned, yes, our impact doesn’t compare to theirs—I still remember the “Wanted” posters at every German gas station I stopped at in the 1970s. The German groups were looking for a confrontation with the state, and the state responded accordingly.
On the Liberation Support Movement in North America, a similar org they had contact with:
Both organizations also had the same practical focus, namely the material support of liberation movements. The LSM made a huge contribution to spreading information about liberation movements in North America, especially by publishing Life Histories from the struggle, which opened the eyes of many North Americans.
More on their relationship the with movements they supported:
I think it’s also important to differentiate between learning something about movements and demanding something from movements. We always tried to learn about them, but we never made demands. Once we gave them a million crowns, it was entirely up to them to decide what to do with the money. They knew best what they needed it for. Whether it went to medicine, plane tickets, or machine guns was none of our concern.
On making the choice of which movements to support, and how hard it is to do this “strategically”:
When you chose the movements you supported, how important was the strategic factor? You have said that you were particularly interested in struggles that were of strategic significance for the overall fight against imperialism. One could argue that this easily leads to an instrumentalization of movements: it is not so much their struggle per se that is of interest, but whether it fits in with the revolutionary master plan of Western vanguardists.Torkil: To a certain degree, you are right. In this respect, our deterministic world view didn’t help much. We were know-it-alls who thought we could make very general assessments. After 1978, things changed, however. Our personal connections to people active in the liberation movements and our knowledge about their situation and the conditions of their struggle also increased. We became less abstract in our understanding of the world and overall more humble.
LSM / Carroll Ishee’s critique of the WUO is followed by what LSM saw as more effective anti-imperialist action:
As an exemplary action, Ishee mentions the attack on the army headquarters in Lisbon by the Portuguese Revolutionary Brigades in April 1973: the brigades took many valuable documents with them and sent copies to the liberation movements in Portugal’s African colonies.
On why none of the members volunteered directly for armed struggle:
There was a group called “Volunteers for Vietnam.” Holger was somewhat involved with them. They were ready to go fight with the Viet Cong and traveled to the Vietnamese embassy in Prague to present themselves. However, the ambassador basically asked them, very politely, to go home. Some of them took that hard. But of course the ambassador was right. How are ten youths from Denmark going to help the Viet Cong in the jungle? They don’t know the environment, they are unfamiliar with the culture, they can’t speak the language. When they’re finally down with malaria, they are nothing but a burden. For us, it was more important to build a strong organization in the metropole, where we were based, in order to provide useful support. We discussed many forms of support, but the conclusion always was that providing money and other material supplies was most useful.Torkil: When you are twenty years old, it is easy to see yourself as a heroic freedom fighter in the Third World. But those glorious images quickly fade once you really see the reality of the liberation struggle. Besides, the more we got to know about liberation movements, the more we also got to understand that there was no lack of manpower. In the 1970s, millions of people were ready to die for socialism. There were many Europeans ready to join the PFLP. That’s why providing money seemed more useful to us. And I’m sure for the liberation movements, too. They wanted ten million crowns more than a few extra fighters. The only exceptions were people with special skills. Marc Rudin, for example, played an important role for the PFLP because he knew a lot about graphics and radio communication.
Kuhn asks the interviewees to respond to a Ted Allen piece accusing other radicals of writing off white workers for reasons of convenience (if you instead see potential for changing their attitudes, that takes a lot more work):
Torkil: Allen presents the position he is criticizing in very moralistic and voluntaristic terms. This was not our approach. We were much more structural. Well, maybe in the late 1960s we held positions close to the one criticized here. At that time, we did use terms like “bribery” to describe the relationship between the capitalist class and the working class. But from a Marxist perspective, that was the wrong approach. The problem is not that anyone is consciously led astray, the problem is that the material conditions create specific economic interests and forms of consciousness, which in turn lead to specific forms of social relationships and institutions. So, white workers were not “evil” or “guilty,” it was simply not in their interest to radically change the global economic order.Regarding the statement being “wrong”: in a formal sense, the labor aristocracy has nothing to do with skin color but with wages and living standards. At the same time, racism of course played a crucial role in the U.S. in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its height. In our analysis, poor Americans were not considered part of the labor aristocracy as a whole. But most white workers were.
This bit helps explain why M-KA did not take the same bombastic positions on the Sino-Soviet split as other Western groups:
Once you were in close contact with liberation movements, there was little space for romanticization. The cynicism of realpolitik was very tangible, and you were constantly forced to compromise. We certainly did not live under the illusion that we were working with saints.[…]Torkil: One problem is that it is easy to be idealistic and principled in theory and very easy to judge the actions of others. But once you act yourself, it is very hard not to make your hands dirty.
Political solidarity vs. material solidarity, the key difference in the M-KA’s practice. However, weren’t many KAK initial members recruited/trained at “political solidarity” demonstrations? For example earlier, they discuss an action shutting down the screening of a U.S. propaganda movie during the Vietnam War. So clearly these “political solidarity” events have some utility:
You regularly used the slogan, “Solidarity is something you can hold in your hands.” Where did it originate from?Torkil: We used the slogan with regard to the majority of anti-imperialist groups in Europe. There was a strong focus on solidarity demonstrations and petitions and the like. They called it “political solidarity.” We just wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t enough. What really counted was material support. And I think the message is still important.
More on discipline, commitment, and the faith placed in members:
You have already stressed that KAK was a very disciplined organization. Did that help with the criminal activities? You ended up becoming Denmark’s most successful twentieth-century robbers.Jan: Discipline is important for building a strong organization, and it is important for effective illegal work. We learned early on from practical experience that a lack of discipline could mean less money, to put it bluntly. So, in that sense, there was a connection. At the same time, I would say that other factors were at least as important. For me personally, two things were crucial. First, a strong commitment to the organization: we had promised each other to make a difference, and I wanted to do my part. Second, an acknowledgment of the faith that the organization put into you: you were selected for a certain task and you didn’t want to let the organization down.
From KAK to M-KA, summarizing strengths and drawbacks:
Jan: I agree that the changes were overall positive. We became less dogmatic and prejudiced, and we enriched our theory by adding Arghiri Emmanuel’s analysis of unequal exchange. But we also encountered some challenges that we had no proper answers to. Perhaps most significantly, our circle of supporters and sympathizers decreased steadily. Partly, this might have been a consequence of general political developments, that is, of anti-imperialism becoming weaker. But we also had ourselves to blame.Torkil: That is true. We had difficulties mobilizing sympathizers. However, I think the problem dates back all the way to 1972, when KAK developed the illegal practice. Security was ever more important and it became difficult to integrate new members. Plus, it was clear that we would never gain mass support with our political ideas—they simply weren’t very popular in our part of the world.
More on the M-KA structure and organizational culture:
The leadership of M-KA consisted of three to four people who were appointed in an informal process based on consensus. They coordinated everything, so that different activities wouldn’t clash with one another: the legal and illegal practice, theoretical studies, the publishing work, etc. They also called for meetings, paid the bills, and took care of other administrative tasks. About every other month, the whole group—about fifteen people— had a full-day meeting, where important decisions were made, also based on consensus.You mentioned Arghiri Emmanuel: I read that in the 1970s he calculated that if the world’s wealth was distributed equally, everyone could afford the living standard of an average Portuguese. Apparently, you took this as a guideline for how to live your own lives. Is that true?Jan: No. In KAK, the political and the private were clearly divided. No one had a moral investment in how others lived their lives. This was also true for M-KA, although the political and the private overlapped a bit more. There was overall a stronger social dimension in M-KA.
Another attempt to make money above board:
That’s why you opened Café Liberation in 1987. I was wondering what the clientele was like, especially since you weren’t that popular among the Danish left.Torkil: The clients were just regular folks. It wasn’t a particularly political crowd, although we organized some political events in the café.How did it go financially?Jan: Unfortunately, we didn’t make much money. I think we were just a bit ahead of our time, to be honest. These days, places like Café Liberation— what we call “café latte places” in Denmark—have become very popular. Back then, this was a new concept. Hip urban coffee shop culture wasn’t born yet. We would have made more money with a traditional pub.
What mistakes led to getting caught?
Mainly careless communication with liberation movements—even if their European representatives were to blame in many ways. Their security standards often differed from ours. But there were other mistakes, too. For example, we regularly used the same methods for stealing cars, the same types of fake documents, etc. We were aware of the problem and tried to use as many variations as possible, and we also planted false evidence to deter the police. But in the end, the way we operated tied our robberies together. Still, it took the police nearly twenty years to connect the dots.
It was not possible to indict us for terrorism, because the Danish laws weren’t written that way. Today, this has changed. Recently, Anton Nielsen, the seventy-two-year-old chairman of the Horserød-Stutthof Foreningen, an antifascist organization founded by Danes who fought against the fascist European regimes in the 1930s and ’40s, was sentenced to two months in prison because his organization had collected money for the PFLP.
The subject of the conversation returns to morality:
The problems in the world aren’t black and white. If you get involved in conflict, it is hard to keep your hands clean, even if you fight on the side of the oppressed. Today, certain forms of civil disobedience and extraparliamentary action are morally accepted. The criminal means we used are not. It is up to each and any individual to judge them. Personally, I sleep well at night knowing what I have done.
Torkil on surviving prison:
Torkil: Resistance is crucial in the prison environment. We are talking about an extremely controlled space. The authorities try to break prisoners in order to make their incarceration easier. The ideal prisoner is quiet and passive and detaches himself from society. If you don’t want to be broken, you must remain active—physically, psychologically, intellectually, and socially. You need to engage with your surroundings, inside prison and, as much as possible, outside of it. However, if you do this, you will inevitably come into conflict with the prison system. Being active in prison is synonymous with resisting in prison. It is the only way to retain your identity, dignity, and self-respect.[…]Since the authorities try to take control over your space and your time, you have to try to reclaim your space and your time. I managed to maintain relationships with my family, my friends, and the outside world, I did my studies, and when I was released I was in better physical shape than ever. I managed to turn the theft of space and time into something positive. That’s why I don’t look back at my time in prison with bitterness. It was not a traumatic experience, but an extreme one that allowed me a very close insight into the functioning of state power.
The basis of your theory has to be material reality. This hasn’t changed. If your theory is not based on material reality, you become a dreamer, and fantasy replaces theory. As a dreamer, you can proclaim whatever you want. But transforming society has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Useful theory must be based on the analysis of the actual material conditions.
Torkil still sees world-system change as necessary for metropole working class revolution, but he also emphasizes the need to reconstruct a positive vision of socialism:
Once our profits and living standards are affected, that is, once we can no longer buy goods as cheaply as we have become used to, we will no longer be able to ignore this and things will start moving. Plus, there are other factors to consider: global warming, overpopulation, migration, etc. It is even possible that production in the Third World will collapse. That would be a huge problem for capitalism. Look at what seemingly small things can do: a simple real estate crisis can cause serious unemployment.But crises do not necessarily lead to progressive change. Often, reactionaryforces benefit. How can that be avoided?Torkil: Socialism has to be seen as an attractive and realistic solution to people’s problems. Considering the historical track record of real socialism, that is not a given. To say that some mistakes have been made and that we should just try the same experiment again, won’t help. I don’t think that’s possible, and I believe very few people do. It is mandatory to formulate new and concrete ideas of what a socialist economy should look like. These ideas have to be based on people’s experiences. Again, the organization of democratic socialism must appear both attractive and realistic.
Migration is a key flashpoint that increases the ranks of those living “below” the labor aristocracy:
Migration is another important issue. In Denmark and in other European countries, most migrants are quickly integrated into the labor market, but in the U.S., for example, you have millions of illegal immigrants who work for very low wages and whose living standards can’t be compared to those of the old U.S. working class. This creates tensions that will inevitably lead to widespread social conflict.
This positive view of the progress made by previous waves of struggle is refreshing:
In addition, the old struggles haven’t disappeared. Of course it’s easy to point out the failures of the liberation movements. The PFLP does not hold power in Palestine. But if you always look at things from the most negative angle, you might as well stop doing anything. Even if Mugabe has “betrayed” the revolution in Zimbabwe, it was still a step forward when the country got rid of the white colonialists’ regime. The same is true for FRELIMO taking power in Mozambique and for many similar cases. The struggle in Palestine continues as well, even if socialist ideas have taken a backseat.
On answering “What Can Communists in the Imperialist Countries Do?” today, both political and material solidarity are needed:
I still like the slogan, “Solidarity is something you can hold in your hands.” This can always be a guiding principle for political action, even when you lack answers to the big questions. Solidarity is always needed, and there are always possibilities to express it in concrete ways. However, analysis, theory, and propaganda are also needed to encourage solidarity, so this aspect of political activism doesn’t lose its importance.
Do you have any concrete examples for how to express solidarity today? Orfor which movements to support?Torkil: In China, I think it’s important to support left-wing currents within the Communist Party, independent working-class movements, and all initiatives that fight for a global instead of a national perspective in union politics. In the Middle East and in North Africa it is crucial to support the progressive forces that remain. I hope that the Islamist wave will subside, but liberal democracy will not help the poor farmers and the unemployed in the region either. If the left manages to reorganize itself and to formulate ideas for fundamental changes in property relations, I think that socialist politics can be revived. The situation is very fragile and seemingly small things can have a great effect. Finally, I think we must support what is left of the movements from the 1970s in Palestine, in the Western Sahara, in Colombia, and certainly in Mexico. Some other questions need more investigation: Is it, for example, possible to connect the struggle in Greece with anti-imperialist politics and a broad global perspective? In any case, none of these struggles can be fought successfully without an understanding of global capitalism’s class structures and a commitment to a global equality in living standards.
Socialism and the Bourgeois Way of Life (Gotfred Appel, 1968)
You can see that Appel still emphasizes preparing for a future in which the world-system changes such that Danish masses cannot continue living in the same way:
But nevertheless when that time comes we shall find ourselves in a situation, where we shall have to build our socialist Denmark with diligence and thrift. The glare of advertising and the whole of the gigantic industry behind the noise, will stop. The hurlyburly of fashion will come to an end, the status symbols will lose their importance and their value—and no longer will there be such a difference in the standard of living from country to country that it will be cheaper for Danes to go by jet-plane to Mallorca than have one’s holiday on the [Danish island of ] Bornholm!
Should communists fight for more “benefits”? Appel asks, who decided what these “benefits” are?
Or should we, as the revisionists want us to do, carry on the efforts to lead the working class in the direction, which we know to be wrong? Should we assist and lead it in the efforts to get still more of the “benefits”, which the bourgeoisie has succeeded in making the working class consider “benefits”? Should we lead it to satisfy still more of the “needs” which the bourgeoisie has imposed on it through the glare of advertisement of the consumer’s society? Should we be really “revolutionary”, even, and help the working class invent new needs of exactly the same kind?
Trade-union struggle as simply winning the rights to more consumption?
Should we not openly say that the whole of this struggle for the fulfillment of bourgeois needs is leading the working class directly away from a socialist way of thinking? That the trade union activity at the present level of development of the parasite state is directly harmful and a hindrance to the struggle for socialism?
Appel sees a “gradual” process in which the “bribery” of the working class fades away, after which communists will have more of a role to play. Is this gradualist view correct, or would changes in living standards come in more precipitous shocks? In either case, do we see changes like this happening today, and if not, on what horizon?
In the course of this development more and more people will have their eyes opened—if revolutionary communists prove able to conduct their ideological, political and organizational struggle correctly, and if they are able constantly to sum up experience, correct mistakes made, and deepen their understanding together with the changes in this reality and through this to create close links with these increasing numbers of people.
What is KAK? (1974)
More on their “bribery” concept:
This bribery should not be understood in such a way that one can actually calculate how large a part of the wage-packet’s contents is payment for the value of labour, and how large a part is bribery. It should be understood as meaning that the whole of the imperialist world’s economic, industrial, technical, cultural and social development in the last analysis is based upon robbery and plunder in the former colonies and dependent countries, now the “Third World”.
Explaining the dual focus of KAK in more detail, still maintains vanguard aspirations:
KAK could of course have changed its name long ago to that of “party”— the ideological-political unity of the organization has long made this possible. However, we consider it at best meaningless to undertake such a change of name, since in our view the creation of a revolutionary party must be inextricably linked with an objective social necessity if it is to have any value. In our view, there must be a movement, a considerable movement, in society as a whole and especially in a large section of the working-class before a revolutionary party becomes a necessity and thereby has the possibility of playing an important part in the development of society.When the economic situation, and with it the political situation, has changed to such a degree that the bourgeoisie begins to force the working- class to revolutionary struggle, a struggle for power in society, a struggle to determine the form of society, then the time will be ripe. Then the working-class will need a well-organised, close-knit vanguard. People who beforehand have mastered Marxist theory will be able to play an important role when a spontaneous movement breaks out amongst the workers and when they “succeed in gaining control over it”—to quote Engels once again. “To gain control over” means in this connection to prove capable of putting forward the correct slogans, of providing the correct leadership. Only those who gain this “control” will at that time constitute the vanguard of the working-class, and they will therefore be the party. The name of the organization is of no avail.Through this short account of KAK’s fundamental view, the tasks at hand have in reality already been formulated. They consist in giving political and practical support to people and to organisations which in one way or another are already fighting the plunder by the Western hemisphere and which thereby are helping to undermine the foundations of the parasite state. They consist in building an organization with political-ideological unity, through this work and through continued investigation and studies of the course of development of the whole world, and with as high a degree of discipline and self-sacrifice as is possible at all times—an organization which will gradually become better and better equipped to discover and determine the turn of events “that will lead the masses to the real, decisive and final revolutionary struggle” (Lenin), and which—when the day comes—can place itself at the head of this struggle and lead it to victory.
Manifest–Communist Working Group: A Short Introduction (M-KA, 1986)
interesting explanation here for the divergence between socialist bloc support for Third World struggles and the expectations those struggles had for support. This is a less moralistic approach than many radical groups have taken, by stating that there is “nothing directly treacherous” in the fact that the socialist bloc had a more defensive posture:
The fact that the socialist countries and progressive movements in the Third World face a common enemy and have the same goals makes them potential allies. They both have the strategic goal of conquering imperialism and replacing capitalist exploitation with a socialist world order. For the Third World, this is a necessary prerequisite for a solution of the enormous social problems with which they are faced—and the socialist countries cannot feel secure, and their economic development will be hampered, as long as imperialism exists. But the developed socialist states and the movements of the Third World often adopt differing tactical positions in their confrontations with imperialism.One might speak of a tactically offensive and a tactically defensive position. The liberation movements and the socialistically oriented movements in the Third World are in the frontline, in a strategic and tactical offensive. They have everything to win and nothing to lose. The socialist countries, on the other hand, occupy a tactically defensive position. As long as the imperialist system retains its present strength, they must constantly defend their dearly won independence. There is thus nothing directly treacherous in this defensive policy, though on occasions it might appear somewhat opportunist.
Re-summarizing the evidence for KAK’s view:
One would have great difficulty finding an example of the English working class having supported the anti-colonial struggle that took place within the Empire. By and large, it has supported the changing governments’ colonial policies throughout the past 100 years, from Ireland to Southern Africa, from India to the Falkland Islands. Nor indeed can the French working class boast of having supported Vietnam’s, Algeria’s or Syria’s struggle for independence—far from it. Generally speaking, the working class of USA has also rallied around the imperialist and anti-socialist policy of this country throughout the world. When the people of USA nevertheless did eventually turn against the Vietnam War, they did so not in solidarity with the Vietnamese people, but because the war was beginning to cost too many U.S.-American lives. Generally speaking, the workers of the Western World are pro-Israeli and consider the Palestinians to be terrorists. The working class of the imperialist world does not favor Apartheid, yet they certainly do not wish to have a socialist South Africa either. Anti-communism has increased in the Western World in recent years. The microscopic Left, which does after all exist in the imperialist countries, has never wished to face these facts, but has instead always excused the working class.
What Can Communists in the Imperialist Countries Do? (M-KA, 1986)
An anti-imperialist mass movement does not exist, but is it worth attempting to create this mass movement?
In the richest imperialist countries there are no classes today which are objectively interested in overthrowing the imperialist system, because all classes in these countries profit by this system. Any social movement in the rich imperialist countries must be seen in the light of this fact. A mass movement has only a socialist perspective if it is directed against imperialism. Such a mass movement does not exist in the imperialist countries.
On “crisis” in the West, M-KA takes a view opposed to the traditional left instinct for “stabilization” of the situation:
The revolutionary perspective of the crisis has been completely forgotten. From a revolutionary point of view, crises are necessary. When the crisis is really felt, the Communists must oppose chauvinism, racism and hatred towards immigrant workers, and support anti-imperialist movements and progressive states in the Third World.
Again, political/propaganda support of liberation movements has not been matched with material support:
During this period the left wing devoted quite some time to liberation movements all over the world, but there was a striking disproportion between the often very militant and uncompromising slogans and the minimal value it had to the liberation movements and their struggle. The majority of the left wing did not concern themselves with the liberation movements with the primary aim of supporting them, but rather because they hoped to mobilize more people.
Value of material support:
Talks with representatives of the liberation movements and visits to the movements have confirmed that it is of use to offer material support, as they often lack the most elementary things to be able to carry on their struggle and to be able to mitigate the hardships of the masses.
To begin struggle for socialism here, imperialism must be destroyed:
It is our aim to gather anti-imperialists in order to support the struggle against the suppression and exploitation of the Third World. As things are now it must be a matter of individuals, as there is no objective basis for mass movements with anti-imperialist views in Denmark today.The solidarity for which we work is not based on pity or bourgeois humanitarianism, but on the awareness that the emancipation of the proletariat in the exploited countries is a condition of the destruction of the imperialist system and the introduction of socialism in Denmark.
The M-KA did not hesitate to pass their analysis on to people in the movements they supported:
We shall communicate our views to the anti-imperialist movements and states in the Third World and to anti-imperialist groups and organizations in all countries. In particular, we shall discuss our opinion of imperialism and the economic and political conditions in Western Europe. For a long time the left wing has passed on its illusions about the conditions in Europe and the solidarity of the working class with the liberation movements. We shall continue to tell the liberation movements not to count on an active support of their struggle on the part of the labour aristocracy. On the contrary, they must expect opposition, and this is not due to ignorance or lack of information about the struggle, but to the position of the working class of the imperialist countries as a labour aristocracy—a global upper class.
By The Department of Northern Affairs