Return to contents menu
Questions and Answers on Direct Action
1st July 2003
On the pages of the Workers Solidarity paper the writer James O’Bian takes up the question of Direct Action in the context of the demonstration on March 1st 2003 against US aircraft using Shannon airport and the debate and controversy it aroused.
He uses the device of questions and answers to bring out the significance of Direct Action as a tactic which allow readers to form an opinion of its effectiveness.
The first question, logically enough, is ‘What is Direct Action?’ He answers in the following way: ‘Direct Action simply means acting for yourself without intermediaries.’ The example is given of thousands of people occupying the runway at Shannon as opposed to writing to your TD to ‘plead with the cabinet to plead with the US authorities to move their operations to Germany.’
Of course the fruitlessness of the latter approach is clear – the general interests of the representatives of capitalism in Ireland, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael etc., are the same as those of the US, which is a main support of the Irish capitalist economy and its State.
On the other hand, through Direct Action militants and workers can gain a sense of their own power and its advocacy can be a means of educating them that the type of society they need can only be the result of their own efforts. Freedom is won not handed down.
Of course it is immediately apparent that one person, or one group, cannot act directly themselves in every situation where action is required. This is why it is necessary to build movements and parties so that like minded people can unite to advance activities as a group that they cannot themselves undertake individually, or at least not undertake every time it is needed. For example those that work could not have taken part in all the actions at Shannon and nor would it have been reasonable to expect those from the North to travel to each and every action at the airport.
So the tactic of Direct Action is limited by this alone. It must also be limited by the democratic discussion of all those in the movement or party who must as a collective discuss and decide the type and nature of Direct Action to be attempted. Otherwise we have two alternatives.
One – that only those that turn up at an action need decide its character, thus robbing the rest of the movement of the opportunity to decide the direction and strategy of the movement they belong to or we limit our understanding of the movement to those who turn up on the day. In the latter case we necessarily restrict the movement’s scope and size and severely restrict the capacity to debate. Second that the movement, even those who do not turn up, have the right to determine action on the day on the basis that they are equally part of the movement and will take other action as part of the movement, so earning their right to have their views stated and counted (through votes).
We would favour the latter approach since it anticipates the democratic society of the future we wish to build. In the future socialist society everyone will not be able to decide or take part in every decision or action but this will not be seen as an obstacle to our own freedom to the extent that we view our fellow human beings as the means to our freedom and not, as in the liberal concept, as obstacles to it.
The next question asked is ‘Is Direct Action always Violent?’ to which the answer given is No, with the assertion that violence usually emanates from the State. The authors approach, that ‘each use of violence needs to be justified on its own merits’ is correct if understood mainly in terms of general strategy and tactics, as opposed to a purely individual, case by case basis, where one can easily get effectiveness conflated with general justification.
The next question asks ‘Why publicise a Direct Action?’ and notes that after the February 15th demonstrations, when in Dublin over 100,000 people demonstrated against the Iraq war, ‘it was reasonable to assume that a couple of thousand would show up at Shannon.’ Publicity would increase the numbers participating in Direct Action. This did not happen. The author then points out that while publicity can allow people to make an informed decision on whether to participate in a Direct Action ‘it could fairly be argued that direct action instigated by a few can be more successful than a pre-planned one.’ He concludes ‘I think there’s merit to both positions.’
This rather unsatisfactory conclusion, in which neither approach can be whole heartedly endorsed, is an inescapable product of the limits of Direct Action itself. Publicity does indeed allow people to make their own choice but it obviously warns the State and thus, in the real circumstances of the time, renders the objective of the action (to close the airport to US planes for whatever time -or does this even overstate the objective?) impossible. Spontaneous attacks that are unplanned are themselves only likely to catch the State out on very few occasions. The real limitation of the concept of Direct Action employed here is that even if a few thousand activists did turn up the State would in all likelihood be able to deal with them.
Behind the ideas of Direct Action are general political conceptions and the next question helps reveal these, demonstrating their limited and inadequate character.
The question asks ‘Does Direct Action frighten people off, particularly those new to political activity?’ The answer given is that ‘this argument is often connected to the cry “let’s build the movement first.” There are hundreds of thousands of people against this war. The movement is built. The question is what to do now?’
The question what to do now that motivates the author was legitimate given that the leadership of the Irish anti-war campaign had no answer except to call another demonstration and then another. The search for a way forward that went beyond this was absolutely necessary.
Where the author goes very badly astray is his assumption that because hundreds of thousands demonstrated the movement is already built. That was exactly the problem – thousands demonstrated but did not join the movement. The movement never organised a fraction of those who demonstrated their opposition to the war. This was the central problem to be overcome, but of course it could only be overcome if it was noticed. The Direct Action activists who followed the author’s views were lost to the fight to build this movement because for them ‘the movement is built.’
The central problem was twofold – to turn the movement into one that could encompass and organise those who protested against the war and set them the strategy of working class action that could have won the objectives of the campaign. Secondly and concurrently to embark on the process of politicising the protestors, many of whose opposition never went beyond a variety of moral pacifism. It was necessary to build an anti-imperialist anti-war movement, and given the actions of the leaders of the campaign, it was necessary to politically fight against the campaign’s existing leadership.
At a deeper level the failure to appreciate that the anti-war movement hardly existed as a meaningful force reflects underestimation of organisation and an exaggerated view of purely spontaneous actions. Beyond this is a failure to appreciate the obstacles posed by the working class’s present leaders, the need to deal with them and the political struggle that this will require.
The author admits that Direct Action at that time might have been ‘both unpopular and a failure, but a start has to be made.’ Unfortunately a strategy that can as likely promise some success at the start, when the State is unprepared, as after a period of organisation, cannot use the argument that a start has to be made since further progress of the tactic cannot by its nature promise anything more likely to succeed.
‘If peaceful protestors are attacked by police then surely it’s the protesters’ own fault?’ This is a question raised because ‘In the run up to March 1st concerns were expressed that attempts to cause a security breach at Shannon would bring violent retribution from the security forces and therefore the action was inappropriate.’
The author attempts to address this objection by stating that this ‘highlights the degree to which some people, even anti-war protesters, are committed to the legitimacy of State violence, even if such violence is used to continue an unethical policy in the face of peaceful civil disobedience….It is they (the security forces) and their masters who ought to be called upon to desist from acting violently.’
This placing of responsibility for violence on the State is absolutely correct. Of course we must also take our own responsibility for protecting ourselves and our movement by choosing the wisest tactics and not opening ourselves up needlessly to repression. In this case however the action was so mild, as the author points out, that to do anything other than vigorously and unequivocally condemn the State was an abdication of an elementary duty by the so-called revolutionaries who led the anti-war movement.
‘Is DA a Distraction?’ is the next question. We have already stated that to the extent that it drew activists away from attempting to politicise the broad movement against the war and make the existing campaign an adequate vehicle for organising it, then yes, it was a distraction.
In part the resistance of the writer to this charge comes from the knowledge that many of those levelling it had nothing better to offer. ‘Not only is direct action not a distraction it has had specific positive results, namely the withdrawal of some of the airlines ferrying the hardware to the Middle East.’
Direct Action undoubtedly did play an important role in this success but the author himself notes that this was due in no small part to the fact that ‘Ireland’s role in the war is minor and no doubt dispensable.’ As we have said in an earlier article, broader tasks are ignored including building a long term and wider opposition to the present system and its rulers.
‘Aren’t workers strikes the best form of direct action?’ is the last question. The response in full is ‘True again, and while we should do our bit to encourage and support them there’s no reason to wait for them to do it. They mightn’t be agreeable to the anti-war case or they mightn’t have the confidence to risk going on strike. If we’re going to call for them to take a risk we should at least be prepared to take a few ourselves. Worker’s strikes and breaching security are not mutually exclusive tactics.’
We would concur with the acknowledgement that worker’s strikes are a very important form of direct action; although we would call it mass action we would not want to turn the debate into one of semantics. We would also agree that it is not a question of waiting for the workers to take action, particularly if there looks to be no immediate prospect of it, as was the case. The real question is that if strikes are the most effective weapon why is this, and what sort of movement needs to be built that could begin to make such possibilities appear on the agenda? The answer to both questions point not to Direct Action but to the effort to build a mass anti-imperialist movement by engaging in political debate, organisation and struggle with those who led the campaign and those who could be won to its ranks.
In isolation Direct Action and strikes are not ‘mutually exclusive tactics’ but the political conceptions and perspectives behind them do point in different directions. Such is the importance of the question of Direct Action and of getting correct its role in our struggle.