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.