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DIRECT ACTION: An Introduction
During the campaign against the war in Iraq no issue appeared so divisive, and generated so much heat as opposed to light, as the use of direct action tactics by the campaign. This in itself should be surprising because all sides in the debate recognised that what was being discussed was the campaign’s tactics, not its strategy or perspective. That is, we were not discussing what the war was about or in general terms how the objectives of the campaign might be achieved, and thus how particular types of action might further our strategy. We weren’t discussing the balance of forces of the various political actors and how realistic our objectives might be, or how long we might expect for them to be achieved. One would therefore think that the anti-war movement, understood in its broadest sense, was united in its strategic understanding of the way forward.
This however seems rather unlikely. Were the Greens, leading figures in ICTU, various left organisations, anarchists etc all agreed on the way forward and only differed on tactics? Why then did the debate, in so far as there was one, become focused so much on direct action?
Partly this was because the tactic of direct action was put forward as the key to success by its proponents. ‘March 1st at Shannon was the last pre-war chance to stop refuelling there (Shannon). I have little doubt that if other sections of the anti-war movement had argued against the media ‘that there will be violence’ hype instead of repeating it then sufficient numbers of people would have taken part to simply walk round the Garda as planned.’ So spoke Andrew Flood of the Workers Solidarity Movement about the demonstration at Shannon airport which caused the Green Party , Labour Party and Sinn Fein (of all people!) to stay away from the planned anti-war march at the airport because of the possibility of violence. The left organisations who did organise a march at the same time as direct action activists attacked the airport perimeter fence appeared to act as if they would fall down with some horrible disease should they have the least association with it.
The exaggerated claims for direct action by its advocates were not however the reason for the prominence of the issue; after all while calling for others to join them, as above, they disclaimed any intention of trying to win the majority of activists to the tactic: ‘It is not the case that everyone needs to agree to do the same thing. It is the case that we need to respect the diversity of tactics argued by different groups…’ (Workers Solidarity no. 75) (http://struggle.ws/wsm/2003/ws75/shannon.html)
The reason that it came to so dominate what discussion there was about the way forward was because there was no debate about strategy within the campaign. The campaign itself was no model of democracy, it never sought to organise in its ranks those thousands who demonstrated against the war and those who favoured direct action explicitly favoured a multiplicity of movements (see above quote) which meant that there was really no need for a debate at all – each movement could do its own thing. The lack of political debate on strategy and perspective explains why tactical considerations loomed so large.
This however doe not make tactical questions unimportant, especially so if they are promoted as substitutes for strategy. The purpose of this short pamphlet is to look at the arguments for and against direct action because of the importance they had in the discussions of the anti-war campaign, their own intrinsic significance and because they will undoubtedly be raised in a similar way in future struggles and campaigns.
It may be possible to address the question in a general way by emphasising its participatory and empowering nature; and above all the tactic emphasises action. For any self respecting socialist these are undoubtedly positive aspects. As Leon Trotsky wrote about the Russian Revolution: ‘The difference in level and mood of the different layers of the people is overcome in action. The advanced layers bring after them the wavering and isolate the opposing. The majority is not counted up, but won over. Insurrection comes into being at exactly that moment when direct action alone offers a way out of the contradictions.’ (History of the Russian Revolution)
It may also be possible to address in a general way the question of violence that is often raised. For example while supporters of direct action disclaimed violent intentions on March 1st what was clear was that the hype around violence was not a threat from protestors but a threat from the state. The response of the state to any particular direct action is not within our control so any discussion around violence involves a judgement on its likely reaction. This also raises questions of self-defence. These issues can be discussed as abstract propositions but, it should be apparent immediately, can only be evaluated as tactics by thinking of concrete situations and practical application.
That direct action can play a critical role in revolution does not imply that revolution can be reduced to direct action. The Russian Revolution involved a long history of complex political struggles culminating in insurrection, but only the most superficial and ignorant observer could reduce what happened in 1917 to the military events of October. Opponents of George Bush’s ‘war on terror’ have pointed out that you cannot make war on a tactic. Many appeared to believe that the war could be stopped by a tactic.
The following two articles were written as a response to arguments put forward in defence of direct action in the hope that a real debate will be generated. To this end we have included the three contributions from supporters of the Workers Solidarity Movement to which these articles are a response.