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Is ‘Direct Action’ the answer?
19th June 2003
During the recent anti-war campaign much controversy surrounded the idea of direct action as the way forward for activists and for the campaign as a whole. Some put it forward in a rather crude and simple way, as the only way in which the war, or Irish collaboration with it, could be stopped. Many complained, with some legitimacy, that the left organisations heading the anti-war campaign were all too ready to disassociate themselves from those engaged in direct action, to the point of facilitating its repression. These organisations on the other hand stated, correctly, that direct action was not a strategy for winning the objectives of the campaign, although they signally failed to put forward such a strategy themselves. The views of Socialist Democracy on what such a strategy should have been were put forward in our anti-war bulletins issued during the campaign.
What is it?
In the present article I want to look at some arguments for direct action put forward in a leaflet distributed at one of the major demonstrations by the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM) –‘Anarchist News’ February 2003.
It states that ‘Direct action means using one’s personal capabilities to have a direct effect on events where and when one believes or can see that one can make a difference. Usually it involves those affected by it e.g. a workers strike for higher wages.’
It says that it makes no sense to state that direct action is writing letters to your local TD and this of course corresponds to everyone’s general idea that direct action is something militant. Unfortunately if we read closely the definition we can see that writing to the local TD can be defined as direct action, however ineffective most of us can agree it is. So also can peaceful demonstrations or holding public meetings. In fact any activity can be viewed by its actor as having a direct impact on events and making a difference, however small.
So the definition is inadequate, but we will run with it, since any definition of our own, and criticism of it, would be open to the objection that we were putting words into people’s mouths and making it easy for us to demolish an opponent’s argument.
In any case this doesn’t matter since our objection to the concept of direct action does not directly revolve around this aspect of the definition. Our objections begin from the individualistic starting point of this strategy/tactic which inevitably, and ironically for anarchists, involve elitist conceptions of struggle. The starting point for any discussion on strategy is not what individuals can do but what the movement can do, this raising the debate to a political level.
By starting at the level of what an individual is prepared to do we inescapably get bogged down in the situation that some must be regarded as more militant, effective and/or personally more courageous than others. Because the real point of direct action is to take what may, on the face of it, seem more militant and confrontational action, those not prepared to take part in this sort of activity can only, if its advocates are to be honest, be viewed as less effective and therefore second class oppositionists.
If we set the tasks as those of the movement, embarking on a political strategy that does not boil down to particular types of action, we avoid categories of first and second class activists since in a process of building a movement it becomes impossible to separate out individual moments completely even if it is possible to set people individual tasks. However big or small these tasks they are all necessary.
Advocates of direct action may object that they are fiercely opposed to such ideas of first or second class activists but what I am doing here is drawing out the logic of their position whether they accept it or not. It is obviously better if they do not but political practice has a logic beyond individual motivations and purposes - another reason for not starting at the level of the individual.
Direct action devotees may also object that each person can have a role to play and that no one role is more important than another but this would really be an unsustainable argument. Are they really saying that those who refuse to rush a fence are as effective as those who do not?
Of course this could be thrown back at me. Am I saying that they are both as effective? I would have to answer – it depends, and this ‘depends’ hinges on the strategy within which any particular action has meaning and significance.
Too many direct action activists have argued, for example, that stopping US planes refuelling at Shannon rested on enough activists being able to physically enter the airport and physically obstruct and/or damage the aeroplanes. With this assumption the direct action activist would have no alternative but to see those unprepared to join such an attack as, by and large, irrelevant to the task.
For those who see the task of preventing the use of Shannon as a task of the movement those attempting to do so physically are no better that those who seek to build a movement in other ways, so that either (1), the government feels compelled to close the facility to the US military or (2), the airport workers themselves take action to do so.
For those who wish to say that this latter proposal is a form of direct action we would not want to engage in a false debate. If this is their primary objective then that is fine; except that the task is then to debate how this can come about, and this is a task requiring strategic discussion by a movement – not the sum of individual choices.
This means that in certain circumstances we can say that direct action can be harmful, by minorities leaving the rest of the movement open to political or physical attack. It is all very well for the WSM leaflet to say that ‘If you see a direct action taking place and don’t want to get involved or are even opposed to it – respect others choices – the time for the political debate is afterwards….’ This is dead wrong. The time to decide the character of an action is before and behind the rhetoric of choice is the arrogance that some have the power to change the character of an action without the debate and democratic decision beforehand.
This latter argument assumes of course that we have a democratic movement and does not preclude independent direct action by those who support it. Even in the latter case however it is incumbent on activists to look at the ramifications of their actions for the wider movement.
Behind the ideas of direct action lie political conceptions that are barely made explicit. The WSM leaflet says that ‘the politicians continue to ignore the popular anti-war sentiments, direct action is a way we can bypass them and start to bring this war to a halt.’ This is directly opposed to our own conception that the politicians cannot be bypassed but must become the target of any anti-war movement. It is they who must be made accountable and a casualty of the war through their unpopular stance. The task is not to think we can ignore them but to make them pay the price so that the broader workers’ cause is advanced through the anti-war campaign.
In our anti-war bulletins we stated that it must be obvious that when it comes to direct action, which inevitably boils down to force, (whatever appeals there are for non-violence), the imperialists and their supporters, including the Irish State, deploys much more. Their direct action will inevitably be more powerful. Even the Irish State, when a few direct action attacks had success in causing damage to planes, were able to mobilise the army to defend the airport and effectively bring an end to the damage.
Our strength lies in political, social and economic power that receives fullest expression in revolution. Anarchists will accept this but it should also be understood that this power can only be employed effectively through the active and conscious activity of the vast majority of the working class and the task is to win them to this. Only within this context can workers mass action defeat the greater force of imperialism.
This is not a recipe for pacifism. The task of persuasion is not simply one of passive education, propaganda and agitation. It can, and indeed must, involve action – we prefer to call it mass action to separate it from action divorced from such concerns. Thus action by comparatively small groups, even by individuals, is not ‘substitutionist’ if it is expressly designed to be followed and imitated. Thus we wholeheartedly agree with the WSM leaflet when it points, as we did ourselves, to the example of the two Scottish train drivers who refused to transport munitions. Certain direct action, such as occupations, can be carried out so that it highlights an aspect of the campaign in such a way as to move the whole movement forward.
What action is substitutionist, i.e. action by groups or individuals that substitutes itself for actions that must be the task of the movement, and what action is exemplary, is a matter of debate; but if and only if such a distinction is accepted. Where no such distinction is accepted then the debate must begin around what is wrong with substitutionist actions. We must note that the Shannon actions were explicitly substitutionist since they, and the WSM leaflet, did not ask for the action to be taken by the whole movement, but was simply a choice for individuals.
The WSM leaflet correctly states that ‘If Shannon workers decided to boycott all military related work at the airport then the US would be forced to go elsewhere, whatever Bertie and co. want.’ This we entirely agree with. Unless, however, the Shannon workers had a particularly advanced political consciousness and confidence, it was not enough for the anti-war movement to ask them to take action which no other group of workers had done. But in such a situation it shows a lack of confidence in these workers if the task of closing Shannon to the US military is taken up by, at most, some hundreds of direct action activists.
Let us assume that it is very unlikely that the Shannon workers will take action, what do we do then?
Firstly we should say that we could only accept this judgment with some confidence if we had taken all the steps that would have supported and facilitated such action by the Shannon workers. This means building popular opinion that would support such action and give some expectation of political protection in the event of victimisation. This would also involve winning the workers’ unions to a commitment to support them. This then gets us into the whole question of the anti-war movement’s orientation to the trade unions and Socialist Democracy has explained in some detail elsewhere what such an approach should have been, as well as taking very modest initiatives to illustrate such an approach. What it did not involve was the illusion that hundreds of activists could have closed it by themselves.
But what if the union bureaucracies succeeded in preventing action? This of course cannot be excluded and it would be wrong to limit ourselves to what we can win against union bureaucrats in their own backyard where the rules are stacked against us. Then it may well turn out that a mass invasion of the Shannon airport was the only way to stop the US military.
But this begs all the questions. How would we have built a movement where thousands would have been prepared to invade Shannon with confidence? Obviously only if through a mass movement the general pacifism that characterised many of the protests and protestors had been overcome. The movement would have had to have been bigger and more political. It would had to have been able to rest on mass sympathy that would have supported, or at least not objected to, a direct challenge to the law and order functions and ideology of the State. A much higher level of political consciousness in the general population would had to have been created.
Also the movement would have had to confront, and a significant sector of the population reject, existing political leaderships, another reason why we cannot go round them. These political leaders will use all their political resources to oppose a radical movement against the war. A more radicalised movement would have been able to carry out such a task and it may have been that it could have forced the State to take action itself because the government wanted to ward off further radicalisation.
Thus the cost we attempt to extract from the Irish State for supporting the war is not in terms of money or ‘bad publicity’, as the WSM leaflet puts it, but in terms of the loss of their political leadership to an emerging, or the potential emergence of, an anti-imperialist alternative. This had to be the strategy of socialists involved in the anti-war movement.
This task of building such an alternative, a socialist movement, in any struggle is what Marx meant in the Communist Manifesto when he said that ‘The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.’ And later: ‘The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.’ (See the final section of the Communist Manifesto.)
The WSM argued in their leaflet that if enough damage was done to US planes then the US military would simply have stopped using Shannon and would presumably have used some other base in some other country. Perhaps this is so, some evidence certainly exists for it. Perhaps Shannon wasn’t that important to the logistics of the US war effort. This would mean that the task of expelling the US military from Shannon was easier, although it is doubtful if it would still be as easy as that which could be achieved by the activity of the direct action activists. The WSM would have been right that such a victory would have encouraged activists in other countries where perhaps the logistical needs of the US were more pressing. But then the demands on the movement in that country would also have been greater and a more powerful movement required.
In any case the task of opposing the Irish State’s political support for the war would have remained and the strategy of building a mass anti-imperialist opposition would have remained. If the Bush administration gets its way we will face another imperialist war. Direct action, as it is often posed by anarchism and those inspired by it, is not the answer. It is superficially attractive because it is so simple an idea but the overwhelming problems facing activists opposed to the war were the lack of political consciousness, dishonesty of the larger and traditional reformist organisations and the opportunism of the left. The significant numbers who looked to direct action could have made a real difference had they engaged in the political fight on these issues instead of believing that their own actions were itself the answer.