Direct action and class struggle: continuing the debate on tactics

Submitted by AWL on 18 April, 2011 - 11:17

Understand the relationship between ends and means

By Anne Archist
(Anne Archist is an activist who contributes to the Great Unrest blog.)

The relationship between our political goals and the means we use to achieve them is fraught with difficulty, and there’s good evidence of this in the recent debates about “direct action” and the “black bloc” (which has largely been conflated with the act of rioting itself). On the one hand, we can fixate on one particular way of doing things to the exclusion of better possibilities; on the other hand, we can valorise “diversity of tactics” as if it were an end in itself. When people have forgotten what should be self-evident truths it’s often necessary to straighten them out by reminding them of seemingly banal ways of looking at the topic.

With that in mind, we need to stop thinking in terms of tactics as a singular - or else infinitely diverse - way of achieving a singular goal. The left needs to incorporate appropriate tactics depending on the challenge that we face in a particular situation. We need to ensure that our line of march on one front doesn’t contradict our line of march on another front. Activists need to think in terms of winning immediate struggles and in terms of their long-term political objectives (be they bringing down the current government, ensuring socialist revolution, smashing the state, or whatever).

All of this should hopefully mean more dialogue about ends, rather than the recent fixation on means. I get the impression that a lot of political friction derives from a misunderstanding of the relationship between means and ends and the nature of those means and ends.

Take the example of good-hearted workers or students who ask class-struggle militants why they don’t take up a career in politics; the naïve assumption is that the official political channels can be turned to whatever ends one would desire, that they don’t contain built-in biases and limitations. The question sounds faintly absurd to those of us who think that the problems of British politics are systemic and class-based, and that the state serves largely to further the interests of the capitalist class, because it is this perspective that reveals the misfit between intentions and methods in this instance.

The problem is to explain our political objectives in the long and short term, and our understanding of the relationship between different available means and the ends we seek, to those who don’t share our perspective in the anti-cuts movement, the student movement, or whatever. It would be fair to say that the AWL have a good record on this relationship (and I speak as a non-member), and they’re not the only political organisation who do, but I don’t want to encourage complacency or let other Marxist groups off easily.

This puts us on a better footing to critique each other as comrades, serves us in setting reformists straight when we enter into dialogue them, allows a better grasp of our strategy and tactics to the people we work with in broader coalitions, and finally forces us to come to grips with a relationship that is important even just for the sake of us developing the right approach and realistically assessing our ideas. You have to wonder, for instance, if other left groups would be as keen to fetishise general strikes if they had to explain how a one-day stoppage in the public sector would relate to stopping the cuts, bringing down the government, or whatever it is they seem to think this would be an integral part of - could it be detrimental to this goal if it was a flop, for instance?

The AWL's open letter was insulting and laughable: anarchism means working-class power

By Bobi Pasquale
(Bobi is an activist based in London)

“A riot is the language of the unheard” (Martin Luther King).

Currently ‘direct action’ seems to be used mechanically for any action outside the once standard, ignored, tedious and silent marches (“Why are peaceful demonstrations ineffective? Because they are easier to ignore”). There is an important differentiation between vandalism and violence – neither of which ought necessarily be condemned, but the argument differs slightly.

On the question of direct action – as in occupations, strikes, civil disobedience and yes, sometimes property damage; I find it difficult to comprehend the arguments against this method to stop the cuts that will rocket child poverty, homelessness, unemployment and severely threaten many students’ access to education.

Many, and rightly so, are furious about the coalition’s plans and in actuality – who suffers the greater cost? The multi-billionaire capitalist who needs to replace his window, or the 15 year old who has lost all their EMA and is expected to pay £27,000+ for a degree? Who is the violent perpetrator? The student who refuses to be bullied and stands shoulder to shoulder with everyone fighting for the same cause; or the armoured policeman who clubs children and hospitalises people refusing to accept injustice? Who is the threat? The masked student, or the police; hard hats, shields, batons, cuffs?

Those who retaliate “policemen are just workers in uniform” or “they’re just doing their job”: contemplate this... Ian Tomlinson. Smiley Culture. Jean Charles de Menezes. Kingsley Brown. The police have proven time and time again, they do not protect us. They protect the richest, whitest politicians of the world and breed murderers rarely brought to trial. Do not swallow the lies of the papers declaring the police to be innocently containing a violent mob. If you don’t believe us, join us on a demonstration and when you find yourself nose to nose with a baton; you may stop condemning us.

One need only look closer at those who condemn us; even ‘our leaders’. Careerist, Labour wannabes who slip through the crowds whilst we are hit, and drink tea with MPs and negotiate their futures.

Really though, we can be the threat. Direct actions requires mass participation to be truly effective. Ultimately we are the majority, and working together, we can become ungovernable. We didn’t even vote for this despicable Government; why should we accept these punishments we have done nothing to deserve? When we are imprisoned, beaten and continuously oppressed by a state clearly against us – we must fight back. Direct action is a key way to do this.

Most groups are not focused on smashing windows – in fact, the smashing usually occurs after police provocation or as a result of other methods. For example, Millbank windows were initially smashed as a part of the occupation. Occupations are important as it empowers individuals and groups to reclaim the spaces that belong to us. We should have the control and power over public spaces, lecture theatres etc. Money is the only language capitalists understand; so when we occupy their department stores (Fortnum & Masons, vodaphone etc), we shut down their business, and they lose profit. We also bring solidarity between groups and enable communication and conversation between those to be hit by the cuts. We can provide the safe spaces needed to organise.

When the workers strike, they stop production, and stop the work the Government continuously exploits. To build a successful movement we must stand in absolute solidarity with these workers, lecturers and students. Some forms of industrial action such as wildcat strikes, go slows etc are methods of direct action which workers can engage in without relying on official Union approval.

With closer examination of the implementation of the cuts, we see that, yet again, the most underrepresented, oppressed communities of our society are harder hurt; the black and LGBT communities, and women. We would not condemn the direct action of the suffragettes who often ran with the motto of ‘deeds, not words’ and were regularly imprisoned and slandered. Fighting the cuts is a question of liberation. Liberation from capitalist exploitation; and for this goal and emancipation, spraying “Fight Sexism” on Anne Summers is a tiny part of a wider movement, and justified.

We should recognise however, that many bureaucrats, who supposedly represent us, concentrate far too much on pen pushing and pointless negotiation rather than allowing us to self organise and make decisions amongst ourselves. Strikes for example are often at the expense of leaders agreeing to it. Whilst many socialists call for a general strike, they do not seem to understand that this is only possible by overpowering the so-called representative structures, including in their much loved unions. As Emma Goldman said; “Organisation, as we understand it, however, is a different thing. It is based, primarily, on freedom. It is a natural and voluntary grouping of energies to secure results beneficial to humanity.”

Unions are often based in an HQ distant from the actual working place. Its leaders and representatives of the members are paid a significant wage, and often hijacked by careerists or patronising academics who think they have an authority to speak on behalf of their members. When, actually, they are probably on sabbatical and no longer do the same work as everybody else, and spend more time in meetings negotiating with managements, than on the ground empowering the workers. My point being, to cite the current Unions as the only way for the movement is simplistic and not viable.

For AWL to then publish such incorrect articles such as “Open letter to a direct-action militant”, is insulting but also laughable. To talk of anarchists (and let’s be clear; the article is clearly aimed at anarchists), as elite, unhelpful and merely symbolic is concerning.

“Smashing up some ostentatious symbols of capitalist excess certainly makes a more immediate impact than plugging away within most trade union branches to democratise and radicalise them.” Firstly, the author has clearly failed to read SolFed’s open letter to UK Uncut. This article directly states that we must go further in our direct action, whilst not condemning action taken. Secondly, whilst many anarchists openly criticise the roles and structures of the union, socialists are often merely reformist. Reformism is inevitably going to fail as Emma Goldman clearly puts it; “Good men, if such there be, would either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support, or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good”. This is applicable to overtaking any institutions currently failing to support us. Further, anarchists recognise the limitations of unions, the bureaucracy and in-fighting that is detrimental to the organisation and action of its working membership. Indeed, any dictating is oppressive, whether well intentioned or not.

The author of the AWL piece even recognises this; “The labour movement is frequently a politically dull and conservative place to spend your time.” So why use it to control our movement rather than creating a labour movement of accessible, transparent and self-organised groupings, to enable us to respond to these cuts as effectively as possible and in genuine solidarity.

“But, conversely, you “need” the labour movement. Your revolutionary anti-capitalist instincts cannot become a political reality without an agency capable of giving them meaningful content. That agency is the working class.” What anarcho-syndicalist is dismissive of the working class? This does not make any sense and is highly patronising. The working class is not the same as Leninist tactics. If anything, it is anarchism that militantly supports a mass movement of the working class and reclaims the power. "You should become — or, if you are already, more consistently see yourself as — a labour-movement activist”; this too is utterly dismissive of the fact that most anarchists are labour activists, whose priorities lay differently to the repetitive aim of moving through elected positions.

To conclude, direct action is a necessary tactic that enables individuals to be at the forefront of their own movement, to make mass decisions in a safe space without being dictated to by a political party of any persuasion, and to ultimately, fight back against a cutting coalition government which exploits us, cheats us and lies to us. Anarchism is a tool to do this, despite the slanderous propaganda of most, on all sides.


Submitted by AWL on Mon, 09/05/2011 - 16:34

Much of Bobi Pasquale's response to our "Open letter to a direct action activist" is made up of statements no leftist could object to (workers and students in struggle good; the cuts, coppers and Labour careerists bad).

And while the Socialist Party, for instance, believes the police are "workers in uniform", and has as its "priority" in the labour movement "moving through elected positions" - these are certainly not accusations you can make at the AWL. They are not relevant to the debate between us and anarchists.

I'd urge everyone interested in this debate to read "Can we build a revolutionary workers' movement?", published in Solidarity in April, which discusses some of these issues at length. If Bobi had read it, she would not necessarily have been persuaded, but she might have engaged with our actual arguments a bit more.

What are the real disagreements?

1. Judging by what she writes here, I think Bobi fetishises direct action as such, essentially detaching it from class struggle. We should certainly support direct action by many different groups and social forces, but it is not necessarily the same thing as direct action by the working class, at the point of production and beyond that in a class movement whose 'base' is the organisation of workers in production. The point about a strike is not so much that it is the most effective way of making bosses lose money; what is crucial is the growth of workers' class organisation, class consciousness and ability to struggle as part of a class.

In her conclusion, what Bobi effectively counterposes to the notion of a class movement is "direct action [as] a tactic that enables individuals to be at the forefront of their own movement, to make mass decisions in a safe space..." Class and class struggle are blurred out almost completely.

On the other hand, direct action is only one element of working-class struggle, which takes place on many levels (direct action, organisation, representation; industrial, political, ideological). Direct action is not all the labour movement needs to do to organise workers and fight the bosses effectively. Supporting localised direct action by groups of workers, as Bobi urges, is far from the be all and end all of developing working-class struggle.

2. Bobi's piece reads as if she wants to start a new labour movement from scratch, instead of transforming the one we have. She does not state clearly whether she rejects completely working in bourgeois, bureaucratised trade unions, but that seems to be implied.

Without organising to resist its exploitation at the point of production, the working class would "be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches, past salvation" - and thus "certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement" (Marx). Like it or not, this resistance has, across the world, consistently taken the form of organising trade unions. Unions are not the whole working-class movement, and Marxists have explained why they cannot, by themselves, overthrow capitalism (ironically, this is one of our objections to syndicalism). Their bureaucratisation is not an accident, but an inherent tendency which has to be combated. Nonetheless, they are the core, the bedrock of the workers' movement as it exists, certainly in Britain. Any talk of "class struggle" without seeking to transform them is playing around with words.

Leave aside whether most self-defined anarchists take part in anything which could meaningfully be called class-struggle activity. Even members of organised anarchist groups (AFed, SolFed) which define as class-struggle anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist are mostly either hostile to working in the unions or, at best, do not see transforming them as a strategic task. We do.

Lastly, it is not clear whether Bobi opposes large-scale (national, international), structured organisations like unions as such - implied by her apparent hostility to the whole concept of "representation". In which case, how will we have workers' councils, which involve workers electing... representatives?

3. Bobi's argument also blurs out the question of politics, and the battle of ideas. One example she cites in passing illustrates this. She praises the direct action of the suffragettes. (By the way, does this mean that she doesn't share the usual anarchist objection to voting in bourgeois elections? And if not, what is the logic of citing them approvingly?) But she says nothing of the divisions which opened up in the suffragette movement immediately before, during and after the First World War. This split, which led to the expulsion of the working-class suffrage movement of East London, was not along the lines of willingness to take direct action or degree of 'militancy' (what could be more 'militant' than the bourgeois suffragettes' small-scale terrorism?) It was along the class/political axes of universal suffrage vs votes for rich women; class politics vs bourgeois feminism; and democratic mass mobilisation vs authoritarian elitism. Politics matters - direct action by whom, organised how and for what goals?

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 13/05/2011 - 12:37

Firstly, I think daubing "Fight Sexism" on Ann Summers is problematic. Is there anything particularly sexist about buying underwear? Is Ann Summers oppressing women by its hegemonic influence on the nation's sexuality? Should women and men boycott Ann Summers and treat sex toys as obstacles to sexual liberation? No - I don't think so.

I think Bobi is trying to shoehorn some "diversity of tactics" theory into her/his article rather than actually think through the issues. Most feminists I was with on the 26th were appalled by this action. How did it relate to any of the liberation campaigns of the unions? Not at all.

However, that aside, there is little in the main body of the article that I would disagree with. I am generally in favour of direct action and class struggle, and I share the class analysis of the union bureaucracy. Where we differ is that Bobi has a utopian conception of the "working-class", which leads to sectarianism. This is not said as an insult but as an attempt to be politically clear and precise.

It is not clear from the article because Bobi does not spell it out, but Bobi appears to want to build a "red union". With over 7 million workers organised into TUC affiliated trade unions, Bobi has decided that the most effective use of energy is to build up "a labour movement of accessible, transparent, self-organised groupings" that can take "forms of industrial action such as wildcat strikes, go-slows etc [that] workers can engage in without relying on official union approval." This sounds very militant but it does not relate to reality. It is not a strategy that relates to the concrete workers movement as it really exists in the here and now, but it is a theory about a mythical "working-class" that exists in Bobi's head.

Wildcat action is not simply spontaneous movement of the class - it requires very high levels of organisation. We obviously strive to create this level of organisation through rank-and-file initiatives within the existing unions, but we can not wish it into existence. We build this level of organisation and militancy by rooting ourselves in the movement, doing all the slow and sluggish work and then organising through the experience of struggle. WE believe that levels of militancy and organisation can shift very quickly. But even the poorly organised 7 million union members are better organised than the remaining unorganised workers. We cannot write them off as a dead-end.

When the union bosses call a one-day protest strike against pension reforms next month there will be many things that we would criticise about their tactics and strategy. This type of action is far from adequate given the level of the attack. However, that day of strike action will be significant and it will help to give people an experience of class struggle from which we can build the kind of rank-and-file organisation that is necessary. We cannot stand aside from it simply because the bureaucrats will be trying to sell us out.

Workers Liberty is probably one of the most successful groups on the British left at intervening in the trade unions, building rank-and-file organisation and attempting to reform the unions to make them effective organisations of class struggle. Contrary to your suggestion that we are simply interested in winning union elections, most of our activists operate at the shop-floor level of the movement. We fight the bureaucracy for maximum self-organisation and democratic control. We do not do this by standing outside the unions and criticising the bureaucracy, we engage in a direct struggle with the bureaucracy, exploiting the contradictions in the movement. We believe that there is some benefit in taking positions at all levels of the movement provided that our leading activists are held to account by the democratic decisions of the tendency.

You have a problem with "Leninist tactics" by which I suppose you mean, democratic centralist ways of organising. Unfortunately for you, it is a simple fact that workers organise in democratic centralist organisations. Sometimes there is a democratic deficit within these organisations - you could argue that outside of revolutionary epochs, there is always democratic deficit. However, even at their most bureaucratic, the unions are by far the most democratic organisations on the planet. We organise for maximum involvement and democratic participation. We believe that people have the right to form tendencies and intervene in the movement and fight for different political platforms. This is entirely healthy. Your sectarianism lies in the fact that you want the workers to organise in a different way and you don't like democratic centralism. On this basis you are willing to snub 7 million organised workers on the basis they have been duped by evil "Leninists". Moreover, by having such distain for the democratic structures of the unions, you fail to see how the autonomous actions of a small minority could be perceived in a negative light. AWL defends the smashing windows actions on the 26th against witchhunts by the right-wing, but we have to recognise that they were unilateral actions taken with little regard for the traditions of democracy and accountability that we are trying to build in the movement. We believe in taking responsibility for the whole movement with all its inadequacies and that means any autonomous action needs to be considered very seriously. These actions were essentially sectarian.

Lastly, there is the question of direct action. Both the anarchist movement and the official trade union movement seem to have forgotten the true meaning of the words "direct action". In the past, direct action was taking things into our own hands. Direct action against tax dodgers would involve robbing them and handing the money to the treasury. Neither oneday protest strikes, nor painting slogans on shop windows, constitutes direct action in this traditional sense. Both actions will cause some small amount of pain to the bosses, but essentially these actions are symbolic. To use some of the language from the situationists, the left is stuck with producing "spectacles" rather than creating real class conflict. We will be fighting to make the actually existing labour movement fight a war of attrition with the government.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.