On a Saturday in the main square two men arrived carrying a folding table. They stood around for a while, perhaps to see if anyone else would turn up. Eventually they erected the table and pinned some worn and faded looking posters to it. One held copies of their organisation’s newspaper and the other had a petition form on a board. They just stood there somewhat forlornly and made no attempt to actively engage with people passing. This is a routine the members of this organization have engaged in for many years. Within the hour they had packed up and gone.
For over fifty years I have been involved in left-wing political activity in Britain. As a result of this experience I have in recent years become increasingly questioning and critical as to the effectiveness of the methods used by leftists to promote their political aims and objectives. It seems to me that many of the activities engaged in have little, if any. positive impact on the target groups. Instead of having clearly thought out the objective of a particular activity and its likely outcome, people typically do something because that is what they have always done before. It’s a habit which is repeated in an unreflective way. I have come to call such behaviour dead left rituals.
I shall list and review some of these types of political activity, ask why people carry on with them and try to suggest alternatives.
Public meetings and rallies
Left organizations frequently try to hold public meetings and open air rallies in public places. Very often, even with much advance publicity, attendance at such events is usually small and typically consists of familiar faces, the “usual suspects”. Also most, if not all, of those present generally agree with the political line being put forward by the organisers. It is not often that significant differences are aired on such occasions so they are often rather dull. The general standard of presentation by platform speakers is not very good. Indeed, the art of public speaking seems to be in decline in Britain.
The only times when there are large turnouts, extending beyond the usual participants, at public meetings and rallies is in times of crisis. During the run-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and after it was possible to hold meetings and rallies at which hundreds and even thousands of people turned out in urban areas. But in more normal periods this does not happen. Even so, people go on trying to stage such occasions when long experience should make them realize that it is usually not worthwhile. A century ago, attending public meetings on all sorts of topics was a popular pastime but with the rise of the newer mass media more attractive and effective sources of information became available. On the whole, the public resolutely refuse to attend political public meetings.
Left wing organisations believe that it is essential to have a regular newspaper or magazine as a means of communicating their political ideas. This belief often derives from the view put forward by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? (1902) where he argues that establishment of a newspaper is an essential means for uniting the scattered and disparate social democratic revolutionaries in Russia at that time. A lot of leftists think that to have a proper Marxist organization it is essential to publish and sell a paper.
Quite apart from the fact that conditions in Britain today are very different from Russia over a century ago, the leftists – Trotskyites and fragments of the old Communist Party of Great Britain – overlook the fact that the main thrust of Lenin’s polemic was to attack ”economism”. He used this term to describe fellow revolutionaries who thought that trade unions were the key organizations for bringing about revolution. These people thought that workers forming and participating in trade unions would spontaneously develop a revolutionary class consciousness and thus bring about revolutionary insurrection in favourable conditions. Lenin argued, basing himself on experience in other countries, that this was unlikely to happen. Only if a highly organized revolutionary political party agitated and propagated revolutionary socialist ideas among the working class would they rise above a reformist trade union consciousness to embrace a political class consciousness and thus be in a position to make revolution. Developing political class consciousness was to be one of the main tasks of the revolutionary newspaper.
It is ironic that publications such as Socialist Worker and The Socialist which claim to take their cue from Lenin in reality propagate the same ‘economist’ ideas that Lenin so fiercely opposed. These papers devote a lot of space to industrial disputes and are always calling upon the trade unions to make bold challenges to employers and the capitalist state. Given that the unions never do make any serious challenges of these kinds, these papers are continually expressing their frustrations with the union leaders who are accused of “betraying the working class”.
Most of the information in these publications is already available in the mainstream media and thus barely rates as “news”. This is hardly surprising given the way in which the mass media have developed during the last century. When Lenin produced Iskra and smuggled it into Russia, political newspapers for workers were a novelty in that country and thus attracted attention. Conditions in Britain today are very different. Indeed, the reading of newspapers, both national and local, is in sharp decline.
Members of leftist organizations put a lot of time and effort into trying to sell their newspapers. They attempt street sales and at workplace entrances but they attract few takers. Copies are sold to members’ fellow workers, friends and relations. Many of these sales are not because the buyers are really interested in the content but because they don’t want to turn down, for the sake of a small amount of money, a friend or relation. Also quite a few copies are sold to members of other leftist organisations, rival paper-sellers. It’s a case of taking in each others dirty washing. In some of these organizations the members are allocated quotas of papers they are expected to sell. Very often members appear to reach their quota by paying out of their own pockets for unsold copies. Many copies remain unsold as is testified by the heaps of yellowing papers littering members’ homes. Given the minimal revenue generated from sales, the costs of production of papers have to be heavily subsidized by the organization. Thus there are never-ending appeals to the readers for contributions to a “fighting fund” and the organization of fund-raising events.
The efficacy of these publications in politically influencing, organizing and mobilizing people is highly doubtful. Yet very often an organization’s whole activity is organized around selling the paper. This is not to deny that there is a need for various printed materials in political work. But just how useful is the standard leftist newspaper? As someone once said, “Man was born free but is everywhere found in chains, except in Britain where he is imprisoned in small circulation newspapers.” The left newspapers are available on the internet. A better approach might be to leave them there and have brief, downloadable and topical bulletins which could be printed off locally as required
Another ploy of leftist organizations and campaigns is the petition. People are approached, often alongside paper selling, and asked to sign a petition protesting about something or other. The Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party always have a petition to hand. Usually the objective of these petitions is not to actually pressurize someone or some organization to do or not do something. Rather it is a way of getting into conversation with people, selling them the paper and collecting their personal contact details. Then, if the members can find the time, they go around to people’s homes trying to sell the paper and to persuade them to come to a meeting. Usually the petitions are not presented to anyone but disappear into the bowels of the organization.
This sort of behaviour is dishonest and is treating people with contempt. People sign petitions because they assume it will be presented to an appropriate body or person and in the hope that this might have some positive effect. Their personal information should only be used for other purposes if those signing the petition have given their consent.
It is not difficult to get people to sign petitions. On the contrary, many people of a generally progressive outlook are eager to sign petitions if the opportunity arises. Very often they do not even look at the wording on a petition but go ahead and sign it, rather like people sign without reading the terms and conditions statement on internet programmes. People do so because they vaguely hope that somehow or other the petition will do some good. The truth is that even when petitions are presented to persons and bodies, such as government ministers, they usually have no impact and are probably passed on to MI5 to key in the personal details into its data banks before the petition is binned. Examples of these sort of petitions include those of the Stop the War Coalition to the government demanding an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and ones against NHS privatization. A problem with this sort of petitioning is that it can sustain illusions as to the responsiveness of the state and other powerful bodies to popular demands. Petitions can be useful as part of some campaign but usually on a smaller, local scale, e.g. against the closing of a school. Government and big corporations rarely change their policies as a result of being petitioned. In recent years online petitioning by organizations such as 38 Degrees has emerged and this may have some utility as part of a wider campaign.
Street stalls and leafleting
During the last couple of decades leftist political organizations and campaigns have engaged in setting up stalls in public places and giving out leaflets. This has been facilitated by the increasing pedestrianisation of urban shopping areas. Also local authorities and the police have become less willing to prosecute people engaging in such activities on the grounds that they are breaking local by-laws.
Running stalls can be a good way of engaging with the public at large. It enables a few people in a limited amount of time to reach out to large numbers of other people. However such activity can easily become unreflective and ritualized. Very often stalls are held in the same places at the same times on a regular basis even though they achieve little response in making positive contacts. It becomes a habit and gives members and supporters of an organization something to do. Also the impact of leaflets given out is not usually subjected to critical assessment. In my experience in the town where I live the Stop the War Coalition used to give out thousands of leaflets urging people to go on coaches to anti-war demonstrations in London. Usually there were only a few, if any, positive responses but this did not deter supporters from carrying on with this unproductive activity on future occasions.
An action that can be carried out by a small number of people is the picket. The entrances of industrial plants, commercial offices, government buildings and military bases are typical locations. The aim is to draw the attention of people and the media to some issue. The people being targeted may be those using the location or people passing by or both.
There are occasions when pickets can be effective both in terms of influencing the people in a location and those passing by. For example, in Nottingham the small arms manufacturer Heckler and Koch have an unmarked plant on an industrial estate. Most people in the area, including those working in other firms on this industrial estate, were unaware of the existence of this plant and its assembly and distribution of firearms. A local campaign was started in order to make the public aware of what was going on and to bring pressure to bear to have the plant shut down. The focus of the campaign was monthly pickets at the entrance to the industrial estate where Heckler and Koch is situated. Attempts were made to try to get the local council and owners of the site to pressurize H & K to leave. These did not succeed but some level of public knowledge of H & K and its activities was brought about. The point was reached whereby the possible range of actions to bring about the shutdown of H & K had been exhausted. Yet token pickets once a month by a few people have continued. These are pointless but they have become a ritual for the few people involved.
Another example of ineffective picketing is the year long “blockade” of the Faslane Trident nuclear submarine base in Scotland organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For a full calendar year various groups and organizations took turns to picket the entrances to the base demanding it be shut down. These activities did not disrupt the operations of the base, attracted a very limited amount of media attention and had no impact on the military policy of the British state. A large number of people had put a lot of time, effort and funds into participating in this action but with no discernible outcome. Perhaps their energies could have been more effectively applied to other methods of opposing nuclear weapons.
A variation on the picket is the vigil. A number of people assemble in some public place to draw attention to and protest about some political or social issue. Placards may be held but usually it is a silent vigil. Instead of making speeches or shouting slogans the participants stand still with pious, self-righteous expressions on their faces and often holding lighted candles. The quasi-religious character of these occasions is fairly obvious. Many people passing by either do not see the vigil or take much notice of it. The main effective function of such events probably is to make the participants feel good because they are “doing something” but its impact on other people is very limited.
A national lobby of Parliament is when on a particular day groups of people from many localities travel to London in order to confer with Members of Parliament and members of the House of Lords on some matter. This is not usually very effective in achieving positive outcomes. The parliamentarians are usually aware that the people they meet are not very representative of the broad range of opinion among the people in their constituencies. Also the MP’s and lords are likely to already have a definite position on the matter at hand, one dictated by their own party’s policy, and are not likely to dissent from this position. Hundreds or even some thousands of people have taken the time and spent out on travel usually to achieve little or nothing in the way of any significant policy change. It would probably be just as effective, if not more so, if on a particular day groups of people arranged to meet MP’s in their constituencies to confer on the issue of concern.
One exception to this general pattern is when a major matter of concern arises which affects a lot of people in a particular locality. The failure of the Bombardier train-making works at Derby to secure a major contract is an example. Thousands of people in the Derby area were likely to lose their jobs as a result of the contract being awarded to the German firm Siemens. Thus local MP’s of all political parties were receptive to lobbying by their constituents because the stances the MP’s took up could have an impact on votes received at the next general election. Even so it was not necessary for trade union and other delegations to go all the way to London. A meeting with the local MP’s at a central location in Derby and supported by a mass demonstration outside might have made more impact on the MP’s and achieved better media coverage.
Demonstrations and marches
Perhaps the major type of political action taken by leftists in Britain is the mass demonstration, very often accompanied before and after by a march through the streets. These often take the form of a national mass demonstration held in London. Examples include the one million plus strong Stop the War demo in February 2003 and the TUC anti-public spending cuts march of several hundred thousand people in March 2011. There are occasions when such an action can have a positive political impact. Large national demos do attract significant media attention and thus public awareness of the issue in contention. Many of the people who participated in the above two major demonstrations had never taken any sort of political action previously and some of them would have gone on to further active political participation. However, neither of these two exceptionally large demos had any positive significant impact on government policy.
One problem with the tactic of the national demonstration is that those who organize and lead them get trapped in the numbers game. The measure of success they set up for such events is how many people participated. Thus in the course of a campaign, such as Stop the War, the leaders put out calls for the next demonstration to be larger than the previous one. This may work for a while but at a certain point people realize that large demos are not having the desired impact and less participate. The leaders now find themselves in a fix because on their own criteria of success the campaign is faltering. So very often, as happened with Stop the War, the leaders start to exaggerate and even outright falsify the numbers demonstrating. This leaves them open to exposure and ridicule by the media and their political opponents. There have been calls for the TUC to hold another national anti-cuts demo but, given the lack of impact on Government policy of the previous one, this would be likely to attract smaller numbers and thus be a display of weakness.
Another feature of the “national demonstration” is that they are almost always held in London. True, it is the political and business capital of the country but then demos are usually at weekends when the politicians and business leaders are not around – not that they usually take much notice anyway. Perhaps a more important reason for choosing London is that most left-wing organizations and campaigns are based in London and many of their leading members live in the London area. A lot of these people think that for radical political activity it is only London that really matters. They are most reluctant to hold any major event outside of London, say at another major city such as Birmingham or Manchester. If such a suggestion is made they tend to say things such as “Where is it?” and “How can we get there?” Another odd thing about this London-centredness is that the bulk of the working class in Britain are not located in London and the South East but are to be found in the Midlands and the North. But then the great majority of members of left-wing organizations and supporters of radical campaigns are middle strata elements rather than working class. Incidentally, it has been my own impression over the years of attending national demonstrations in London is that people from London are often proportionally underrepresented on such occasions. This gives the lie to the notion that the level of radical political consciousness might be higher in London than in the rest of the country.
Rather than trying to assemble a large national demonstration in London, very often it would be more effective for a campaign to hold a national day of action in which a variety of appropriate activities take place simultaneously in a large number of localities. Taking this approach can make it possible for more people to participate in political action than if they have to go all the way to London. Also it should be possible to reach out to more people rather than just those who happen to be in central London on a particular day. At the local level demonstrations and marches can be useful as part of a wider campaign. They can draw attention to an issue and bring people together so as to make contact with them and motivate them to engage in further actions. But care should be taken in using this tactic. One problem concerns the desire of local councils and the police to route marches and specify demonstration sites where few members of the public will see them. Also a poorly attended event may have a negative impact on those one wishes to influence.
In and by themselves the politicians know that they can ignore demonstrations and get away with it. If that is all people do then the State and the capitalist class it serves can sleep peacefully. The leaders of the Stop the War Coalition claimed that if only there had been more people on the February 2003 demo then the Labour Government would have changed its war policy. But why should it have done so? Already the Government knew from the opinion polls that the war against Iraq was a deeply unpopular policy.
As well as marches which are part of demonstrations there are marches of longer duration covering some considerable distance. The classic cases were the CND marches from the Aldermaston nuclear weapons establishment to London during the late nineteen fifties and early nineteen sixties. These took four days to cover the route and involved tens of thousands of people. When it became clear that such action was not changing government policy on nuclear weapons the numbers participating rapidly diminished.
There have been marches (or sometimes cycle rides) involving smaller numbers of people to draw attention to some issue. An example was the Youth Fight for Jobs March in October 2011. It was organized by the Socialist Party and over a period of several weeks a small group of young people marched from Jarrow to London. Its ostensible aim was to draw attention to the growing problem of youth unemployment and to demand that the government take effective action. Sceptics claimed that the real aim was to recruit young people to the Socialist Party but it does not seem to have been very successful in doing so.
Even so, it can be questioned just how effective the march was in highlighting the issue of youth unemployment. The marchers spent most of their time walking along roads in open countryside where there were few spectators. With such a small contingent many people in passing vehicles would have been unaware of what the marchers were doing. (With cycle cavalcades people have even less time in which to notice what the cyclists are trying to achieve.) There were support rallies in the towns and cities the march passed through and some of these were quite well-attended. However it can be questioned how well spent was the time of the marchers and their supporters as well as the financial resources spent on sustaining the marchers. The march did receive some media attention but it can be argued that the same amount of time and effort put into other ways of taking up the issue of youth unemployment might have been more effective.
Using the media
Leftist campaigners often hope to get their message across by means of the mass media, especially newspapers, radio and television. This is fine but this way of reaching out to people has definite limitations. Of course, the mainstream media have a strong bias towards presenting matters from a ruling class point of view. However they do at least pretend to be “impartial” so the system is a bit leaky and so there are opportunities for using the media to put over a radical message.
One error is to overestimate the significance of media coverage of a political occasion. The success of a national demonstration, usually in London, is often judged on whether or not it was covered in the national television news and newspapers. If media coverage is one of the main criteria of success for such occasions then it seems a rather inefficient use of a day’s time of thousands of people just to get a few minutes or less of time on television and a few column inches in the newspapers. This is especially the case when the organizers of such occasions afterwards complain bitterly that the media have misrepresented what happened. It should be remembered that ordinary people have many ways of communicating with other people in face-to-face personal situations at work and in the community. Many studies show that personal communication is more likely to have a positive impact on people than is impersonal communication through the mass media.
The media are very fickle and even if their attention is gained it does not usually last for very long. It is worth using the media when possible but it is important to be aware of the news values which determine whether or not their attention is gained. In general journalists are looking for matters which involve conflict, hardship and danger to the community, unusualness (oddity, novelty), scandal and focus on individuals rather than groups. It may be possible to present a political occasion so that it at least appears to have some of these qualities. This is worth doing but it is not usually appropriate to arrange a whole political event simply to attract media attention. The media should not be allowed to determine the character of leftist political activities. There is a big wide world outside of the bounds of media representations.
Standing in elections
From time to time leftist organizations in Britain develop election fever and stand candidates in elections, especially parliamentary ones. The most prominent recent example was the Respect organization – a front for the Socialist Workers Party – standing candidates in the General Elections of 2005 and 2010. In 2005 a Respect candidate, George Galloway, was actually elected to the House of Commons. This was very unusual but Galloway had been a long-standing Member of Parliament, a nationally known person, who had achieved much media exposure because of his involvement in the anti-war movement. Galloway got back into Parliament through a byelection in Bradford in April 2012 but his success is unlikely to be repeated by other Respect candidates in a general election. Much more typically, leftist candidates attract a desultory number of votes.
In British parliamentary elections the voters usually only take political organizations and their candidates seriously if they have taken local affairs seriously, stood in local elections, won seats on local councils and worked diligently on local concerns, e.g. rubbish collection, for a long period of time. It was by means of patiently building up a base in local government that the Liberal Party was able to revive and rebuild its parliamentary representation. But the British leftists do not follow this course.
Instead, when a general election is on the horizon, they decide to stand candidates in a few constituencies. Usually some electoral platform is hastily formed by a few Trotskyite groups under names such as Socialist Alliance and Socialist Unity. Such organizations claim to be “revolutionary” but the political platforms they put forward to the electorate are social democratic in character, advocating reforms within the framework of capitalism.
Their real aim is to ginger up the Labour Party to try to get it to adopt more progressive policies. Never do they stand on a platform which exposes the liberal parliamentary system as an anti-democratic fraud. They never put up candidates in constituencies where there could be any serious danger of the votes they attract bringing about the defeat of the Labour candidate. Indeed these electoral alliances usually make it clear that voting for them would not endanger the election or re-election of a Labour MP.
This sort of electoral buffoonery is simply going through the motions. The leftist organizations putting up candidates do not take the thing very seriously so it is hardly surprising that the electorate do not take them seriously. If leftists really wanted to gain elected offices then they would start at the local level by working on a long-term basis to win some seats on local authorities.
There are occasions when it is appropriate to stand in elections. In 1991 in Nottingham a number of protest candidates stood in the local council elections. The poll tax introduced by the Conservative Government had been defeated but the Labour-controlled council was zealously pursuing people who had refused to pay the poll tax. The protest candidates objected to this persecution and they attracted a respectable number of votes. Another possibility would be to stand anti-public spending cuts candidates in local elections.
Solidarity campaigns aim to give support to revolutionary struggles and progressive regimes in other countries. Examples include the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. The people involved have good intentions and genuinely sympathise with the people they are trying to help. However there are serious limitations to this type of political activity.
Given the political situation in Britain there are definite limits to how much real support can be given to political movements abroad. A certain amount of humanitarian aid is possible, e.g. medical supplies for Palestinians in the West Bank, books for Cuba, etc.. More effective support is difficult to provide precisely because in Britain today because there are no real revolutionary organizations and parties on which it can be based.
The situation was very different in the nineteen thirties at the time of the Spanish Civil War. The old Communist Party of Great Britain at that time was small in numbers but highly organized with energetic and committed members. It had considerable influence beyond its own ranks. When the Spanish Republic, faced with a nationalist and fascist uprising, needed support the CP was able to mobilize it. Among many types of practical measures people were sent to fight in the International Brigade, medical personnel and supplies were provided, food was collected and shipped, child refugees were taken in. All of this was done despite all attempts by the British Government to obstruct aid to the Spanish Republic. Without the international assistance organized by the Communist International, including the Soviet Union, the Spanish Republicans would not have been able to resist the reactionaries for as long as they did. The leftist organizations in Britain today do not have this sort of capacity to deliver very concrete and effective support to popular struggles in other countries.
Another aspect of solidarity campaigns is that they allow people to mentally identify with some popular struggle or progressive regime abroad. They enable people in their imaginations to believe that they really are part of, or at least closely associated with, an armed struggle or a regime engaged in radical social transformation. Holidays to the country being supported are taken and social and cultural events are held to raise funds to provide aid. In fact there is a large social element in the activities of solidarity campaigns. Garden parties and musical performances are popular. The participants in these campaigns are mostly middle strata people.
There is some tendency to exaggerate the effectiveness of the support they are able to give. A good example is the trade boycott of segregated South Africa organized by Anti-Apartheid. Many people in Britain who made a point of not buying South African goods deluded themselves into believing that the international trade boycott was the main factor which brought down the apartheid regime. In fact, South Africa was not much affected by the trade boycott. In so far as it was effective it meant that South African industry had to develop and expand to provide commodities which could no longer be imported. This was particularly so in the case of armaments and the South African state ended up producing a nuclear weapon with the help of Israel. Neither was it the African National Congress, much favoured by Anti-Apartheid, which brought about the downfall of apartheid. It was schoolchildren in the black African townships, such as SOWETO, who in a highly disciplined way bravely went out unarmed on a regular basis to fight the paramilitary South African police. With such a militant rising generation the white ruling class realized its days were numbered and thus cut a deal with the ANC who represented the growing black and coloured business and professional class. It was not sympathetic people in Britain not buying Outspan oranges which destroyed apartheid.
The PSC has called for a boycott of products from Israel. Again this is not likely to seriously undermine the economy of the Zionist state. Israel has highly developed industry and agriculture and like South Africa can stand up to such economic sanctions. Indeed, in so far as a boycott of Israeli goods is effective it could hurt many Palestinians employed in the Israeli economy. As a propaganda device to draw attention to the oppression of the Palestinians and the supporters of Zionism in Britain a trade boycott campaign may have some value. But people should not deceive themselves that this will seriously undermine Israeli society.
Internationalism is important. People of radical and revolutionary outlooks should make constructive links with people struggling against oppression and exploitation in other countries. In doing so we should not neglect to try to build a revolutionary movement in our own country. But all too often the attitude of solidarity campaign members seems to be “Revolution abroad, reform at home”. When visitors to China during its socialist period asked how they could support the Chinese people Mao Tse-tung used to tell them that the best help they could give was to go home and make revolution in their own countries. The same is true of Britain today.
A fairly regular activity for left political campaigns is to hold fundraising events, ostensibly to finance political activities. Typically such occasions consist of some sort of musical event with food and drink available. Staging a fundraiser entails much organizational effort by quite a few people. Very often attendance at such occasions is less than was expected. Typically the outcome is modest in terms of funds raised. The manifest function is to raise funds but typically the latent function is having a good time (Perhaps). There is nothing wrong with having a good time but let us not kid ourselves. In Britain we live in an affluent society – even in the latest economic depression – and if a political cause needs funds the most effective and labour-saving way for its supporters to get a bit of money together is to put their hands in their pockets. The time spent both organizing and attending a fundraiser would be better spent on actually carrying forward the particular political cause.
In order to organise the above activities, left political organizations and campaigns necessarily have to bring people together to make the appropriate arrangements. However, what is ostensibly meant to be a means to an end very often becomes an end in itself. People often spend more time in such meetings than they do in actually carrying out the activities they are supposed to be organizing. For some people attending such meetings is a substitute for engaging in any worthwhile political activity. Also in a given locality the different political campaigns mostly consist of essentially the same people popping up in different guises. As for the different political organizations, one function of having members spend a lot of time in internal meetings is to insulate them from contaminating contact with the outside world which could result in a weakening of their allegiance to the organisation.
WHY DO THEY DO IT?
It is clear that the types of political activity reviewed above are often of limited or no effectiveness in achieving the ostensible aims and objectives of left political organizations. Yet people keep on practicing these activities in an unreflective way. They have become rituals carried out through force of habit. Only rarely is the effectiveness of these activities critically reviewed. In trying to explain such behaviour two types of factors will be examined: social psychological factors and ideological-political factors.
Social Psychological Factors
Most of the people involved in such activities get a sense of satisfaction doing these things because they think “I’m doing something, I’m trying to make the world a better place”. Some activities, such as street campaigning and picketing, can be quite exciting and the participants experience an adrenaline rush. Indeed, quite often the thrill people get from an action is more important to them than whether there is any discernible, significant impact on other people. The participants are self-directed rather than other-directed. Other activities such as paper-selling to unresponsive targets are not exciting but a certain sense of satisfaction can be gained from forcing oneself to do it, what has sometimes been called “revolutionary masochism”. People think that because they are suffering somehow some good must come out of it. Activists tend to think, especially in the early part of their involvement, that if only they put in a bit more effort it will make all the difference.
Even if it is recognized that the activities engaged in are not very effective in achieving their declared objectives, people often say, “At least what I’m doing is better than doing nothing.” In reality this may not be so. If the methods used to achieve some political objective are shown to be ineffective then this will discourage some other people from joining in the struggle because they think it is futile. Also this sort of rather mindless activism often leads, sooner or later, to disillusionment with the cause. Waking up one morning, seeing the piles of unsold papers and petition forms not sent anywhere, has been a moment of epiphany for many a former political activist.
Another reason why people keep at ineffective political activities is because they are so busy carrying them out that they do not have time to critically examine and reflect upon what they are doing. Doing these things has become a routine, a habit with which people feel comfortable. It is easier to stick with the known than to risk venturing into the unknown. Also any questioning of the organisation’s regular activities can be seen by fellow members as a weakening of commitment and loyalty to the cause. Keeping quiet will avoid unpleasant and unwanted conflict with one’s comrades. The leaders of these organizations feel a need to find things for the members to do to keep them busy. If members are not involved in a continuous, never-ending, round of activity then they may start to criticise the leadership and stray from the fold. Thus there is a tendency for campaigns to be invented even though there may not be any real objective basis for them at a given time.
As people become involved in a political organization and spend more time on political activities their ties with people in the wider world tend to become weakened. At the same time they form new ties and friendships with their new comrades. A significant amount of time at evenings and weekends is spent on political activities, especially internal meetings and conferences of the organization. There is usually a social element in these activities such as going with comrades to the pub after a meeting. In most of these organisations there is a greater or lesser degree of pressure on new members to recruit their partners for the cause. The outcome is that an organization tends to be more inner-directed than outer-directed, that more time and effort goes into internal activities than is directed at the wider world. One consequence of this process is that a member who starts to become disillusioned with the organization and who contemplates leaving, or even being excluded if he openly expresses his doubts, is faced with the prospect of a major rupture in the social relationships which have become central in his life. Often it may be more attractive to carry on going through the motions even though the person seriously doubts their efficacy.
A noticeable feature of left-wing political organizations is that they attract and form a haven for some people with mental and social problems. These organizations do not have much appeal to the wider society so they cannot be too fussy about who they recruit. Thus some people who find it difficult to enter a network of social relationships find acceptance within a left organization. The members’ progressive outlook determines that they are usually sympathetic towards and tolerant of people with personal problems. Thus such people are able to form the personal relationships denied to them in the wider society. Even if they come to have doubts about the organization they may well carry on out of fear of social isolation if they leave.
While social psychological factors do partly explain unreflective, habitual adherence to ineffectual dead left rituals, ideological and political factors are more important. The left organizations being examined are situated within three different political traditions.
There are several fragments of the old Communist Party of Great Britain which, after a long decline, finally dissolved itself in 1990 at the time of the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The most numerous ones in membership – in a world of dwarves – are the Communist Party of Britain and the new Communist Party of Great Britain. The CPGB was formed in 1920 very much under the auspices of and guided by the recently founded Communist International. Lenin advised them to apply to become affiliated to the then rapidly growing Labour Party. The idea was that while retaining their organizational integrity the comrades would work within the reformist Labour Party and win over more radical members to a revolutionary Marxist outlook.
The Labour leaders were never so daft as to allow the communists to enter their party. None the less the CPGB never lost its fatal attraction towards Labour and throughout its subsequent history was always trying to influence Labour policy in a more radical direction. In this they did not succeed but the result was a steady watering down of CPGB policies in order to accommodate themselves to the Labour Party.
Another strong trend within the CPGB was a desire to win seats in the House of Commons. In his “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder Lenin had criticised communists who dogmatically opposed standing in bourgeois elections in any circumstances. For Lenin it was a tactical question rather than a matter of fundamental principle. However the British communists interpreted Lenin’s position as meaning that communists should routinely stand for election in British parliamentary elections. In the Party’s early years they did stand on a revolutionary platform as in their 1935 manifesto ‘For a Soviet Britain’. But this was a largely unsuccessful tactic and the maximum number of seats won was two in the 1945 General Election.
Tendencies in the CPGB towards embracing reformist rather than revolutionary policies, i.e. revisionism, were greatly accentuated after the World Congress of the Comintern adopted its United Front Against Fascism policy in 1935. Fascism had risen to power in Italy, France and other countries putting the communists on the retreat. The response of the Comintern was to declare that communist parties around the world should seek to form the broadest possible alliances with other non-fascist elements – social democrats, liberals, etc. – in order to oppose and defeat fascism. While in itself not incorrect the United Front policy greatly strengthened tendencies towards reformism in parties such as the CPGB. In order to accommodate themselves to non-communists such as the Labour Party the communists increasingly played down and abandoned the revolutionary policies they had previously espoused.
Revisionist tendencies were strengthened when the Soviet Union entered World War II in 1941 and formed an anti-fascist alliance with Britain and America, the “democratic imperialists”. The CPGB rapidly abandoned its previous revolutionary position and in 1951 adopted a new programme, The British Road to Socialism, which explicitly rejected making socialist revolution in Britain and proclaimed that socialism could be achieved by means of peaceful, parliamentary elections.
From that time onwards it was downhill all the way for the CPGB. Its approach to political action became no different from that of the other political parties in Britain. The same is true of the CPGB’s latter day successors the CPB and new CPGB which base themselves on the same revisionist politics as their predecessor.
A second political tradition claiming to be Marxist consists of Trotskyist organizations such as the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party. After Leon Trotsky left the Soviet Union in 1928 and denounced it and the communist parties supporting it, he urged his followers in the capitalist countries to enter reformist, social democratic parties such as the Labour Party in order to influence and win over some of their members to a Trotskyist outlook. This tactic became known as “entrism”. The aim was to build Trotskyist organizations within reformist parties and even at some point to transform these parties into revolutionary ones. Trotsky’s followers, much to the despair of Trotsky, proved to be particularly fractious and in Britain from the nineteen thirties onwards a few small Trotskyist groups operated inside the Labour Party.
This is not the place to present a detailed history of Trotskyist organizations in Britain. (Is it worth it, anyway?) What is relevant in this context is the general course that Trotskyist entrism has taken. Typically any Trotskyite group in the Labour Party which attracts members and support within the party comes to be perceived by the Labour leaders as a nuisance and is excluded from the party. This happened in the nineteen sixties to the Socialist Labour League led by Gerry Healy and in the nineteen eighties to the Militant Tendency led by Ted Grant. The price paid by the Trotskyites for long years of immersion in the Labour Party is that their political line makes considerable compromises with Labourite reformism. Given the Menshevik origins of Trotskyism this is hardly surprising. In the case of Militant the road to socialism for Britain they outlined was not very different from that of the old CPGB. The idea was that a radically left-wing Labour government would be elected with mass support from trade unions, etc. Then this socialist government would pass an enabling act giving it powers to suppress and expropriate the capitalist class.
Some Trotskyist groups left the Labour Party before they were thrown out. Most notable was the International Socialism Group led by Tony Cliff which came to call itself the Socialist Workers Party. Despite being outside the Labour Party its sights have always been firmly focused on Labour, trying to ginger it up in a leftwards direction and usually calling upon people to vote Labour in national and local elections. Like other Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Party and Alliance for Workers Liberty, the SWP put great emphasis on trade union activity and aspires to win leadership positions in trade unions. In this they are following in the footsteps of the old CPGB which also put much time and energy into securing high level positions in trade unions. It is the same erroneous “economist” line which thinks that if only the unions have the right leaders then they can be transformed into revolutionary organizations. As the CPGB found out, if trade unions have more radical leaders they may be a bit more economically militant but this does not automatically transform the members into revolutionaries.
None of the Trotskyist organizations make it clear that any socialist revolution in Britain would necessarily entail violent, armed struggle in order to overthrow the capitalist state. Their perspectives on the road to revolution are vague and do not go beyond electing more left-wing Labour governments. (Pigs might fly!) The truth is that despite their pretensions to be “revolutionary” their politics are in reality nothing more than reformist, social democracy. As someone once said: “Left in form, right in essence.”
Like other variants of Marxism in Britain, membership of Trotskyist organizations is declining. However this doctrine does have a certain psychological appeal. On the one hand it espouses the purest type of revolutionism, condemning the attempts at socialist construction in Russia and China as doomed to failure. The Trotskyites advocate socialism but when people raise questions about the negative sides of the Russian and Chinese revolutions they concur in roundly condemning these things, e.g. the Great Purge in the USSR. Thus one attraction of Trotskyism is that one can agree with a lot of anti-communist propaganda while still imaging that one is a thoroughgoing revolutionary. At the same time one can engage in the most routine reformist politics in trade unions and the Labour Party and think that such activities have some sort of revolutionary significance.
Both the revisionist communists and the Trotskyists are in their political practice hopelessly bogged down by the methods described and analysed above. They do not experience this as a limitation but are content to persist with these rather ineffectual activities. The reason is that this mode of political activity poses no serious threat to the existing capitalist order. Participation in these activities does not expose members to any danger of serious persecution from the police and courts. People can comfortably continue with their normal lives under capitalism while at the same time imagining that they are “revolutionaries”. This is the essential point. People do not stick to the old dead left rituals simply out of force of habit. Rather, they carry on with them because they do not seriously intend to mount a revolutionary challenge to capitalism.
A third political tradition claiming to be revolutionary is anarchism. It should be stated straightaway that the anarchists are far less attached to dead left rituals than are other leftists. They often try out new and more imaginative methods of political action. They share this orientation with the more radical sections of the green movement with which they overlap to some extent, especially the green anarchists. The anarchists are keen on more militant types of political action such as sit-downs, blockades and occupations, direct action. Also they favour more colourful and joyful ways of communicating to the people such as street theatre. Much can be learnt from the types of political activity developed by anarchists and environmentalists. More will be said about such methods of political activity below.
One major problem the anarchists have is effective organization. They are deeply suspicious of clearly defined organizational structures. These are seen as hierarchical and authoritarian and suppressive of individual liberties. Also they don’t like having people in defined leading roles. When decisions have to be made anarchists prefer to reach a “consensus” rather than have a vote. Anarchists prefer looser, more informal ways of acting together. In some circumstances this approach to political activity can work, especially on a small scale, but it is more problematic for carrying out political action on a national and international scale.
An example of largely anarchist inspired political action was the Climate Camp movement. Its aim was to take direct action against major emitters of greenhouse gases, especially coal-burning power stations. The first major target was Northfleet Power Station in Kent. A camp attracting thousands of protestors was set up nearby. Many hundreds of police had to be sent in to stop the power station being invaded. The event attracted much national media coverage. Subsequently Climate Camp organized an attempt at the mass invasion of Radcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in Nottinghamshire. The company owning the power station had to erect extra security fencing, hire many security guards and hundreds of police had to be brought in to prevent the protestors breaking into the site. Although not achieving the declared objective of shutting down the power stations these were serious, challenging political actions which attracted a lot of media attention and public sympathy.
Then, after these successes, the whole campaign started to fall apart. A number of large gatherings were held to decide upon and plan future actions. These consisted of long, interminable and inconclusive discussions. For many of the participants the organizational form of their deliberations took precedence over their substantive content. The means became more important than the ends. Before long a militant campaign which had got off to a good start fizzled out. Clearly the loose, informal organizational methods favoured by anarchists had not achieved the desired outcome on this occasion.
This sort of organizational failure is not simply an accidental mishap but is directly related to the anarchist political outlook. Their aim is to achieve a world-wide communist society where there are no states or class divisions and where the means of production are held in common. Although worldwide, the anarchist vision of communism is one of decentralization where a network of small, largely autonomous and self-sufficient communities are only loosely connected to each other. Such a social order, they think, would maximize the conditions necessary for individual liberty. The main aim is not so much collective social welfare but rather the complete freedom of thought and action on the part of individual persons.
Given the vision of the future held by anarchists, it is not surprising that in their political activities in the present they try to form and put into practice the types of organizational structures they hope will emerge in the future. However, these are not often fit for purpose when one is up against highly disciplined and determined adversaries such as the state and capitalist corporations. As in the case of Climate Camp, the means, the organizing activity, becomes an end in itself. The participants try to live out in the present their vision of how social relationships should be conducted in the future. As a result they lose sight of the objective for which they originally came together.
Related to this approach to political organization is the more general approach of anarchists to life under capitalism. To a greater or lesser extent they try to live in ways whereby they resist and at least to some extent escape from the oppressive and exploitative structures of capitalist society. This desire is entirely understandable given that capitalism does not just oppress and exploit people in economic terms but also has negative effects on our psyches, on our mental well-being. Some anarchists try to escape from bourgeois society by setting up and living in small-scale communes. However it is very difficult to live in the midst of capitalism while at the same time trying to cut oneself off from it. Most communes do not last for long.
More generally, anarchists develop an alternative lifestyle in opposition to the wider society. They tend to associate with other anarchists and – rather like the Trotskyist groups – develop an inward-looking orientation which isolates them from other people. Gatherings of anarchists, ostensibly to plan political actions as in the case of Climate Camp, have a large element of socializing in them which is often just as important, if not more important, than the ostensible political aims. They tend to be more sectarian than the other leftist groups, not being very keen on working with other people in broadly-based campaigns. To a considerable extent anarchists are more inner-directed than outer-directed, trying to isolate and insulate themselves from a wicked world. The American anarchist Murray Bookchin has characterized this tendency as life-style anarchism, as not constituting a serious challenge to capitalism but rather an attempt to withdraw from it, a form of retreatism.
Another aspect of anarchist ideology which detracts from taking serious political action to challenge capitalism is the belief that revolution will come about spontaneously. Anarchists are very critical of Marxists who hold that conscious political leadership is necessary if any political crisis which arises is to be developed into a successful revolutionary upheaval. The danger they foresee is that the self-appointed revolutionary leaders will usurp power from the masses. While on the one hand rejecting parliamentary means of bringing about fundamental change in society, anarchists on the other hand are waiting for the masses to get on with it. This view generates a certain passivity on the part of the anarchists.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
To get out of the dead-end in which would-be revolutionaries in Britain find themselves requires a radical advance in both theory and practice. In making such a rupture we cannot completely discard the ideas and traditions of the revolutionary movements out of which we have come but even so we must struggle to make a qualitative advance.
It may not be palatable to many people but the historical fact of the matter is that in the capitalist era it is only the Marxist tradition which has made any significant revolutionary breakthroughs, principally in Russia and China. True the attempts at socialist construction in these countries foundered as a result of the internal contradictions within these societies. Nonetheless these revolutions were the first time in human history that powerful regimes were established on the basis of the mass mobilization and support of poor people, of workers and peasants. Within a few decades much was achieved in positively transforming the lives of the people and they held hostile imperialist forces at bay. Inevitably there was also a negative side to these attempts at revolutionary socialist transformation, something which is endlessly trumpeted by apologists for the bourgeoisie. This should be fully recognized and engaged with but at the same time it should be recognized that these experiences are the concrete reality from which we must begin. It is idealist to imagine otherwise.
The Russian and Chinese revolutions were carried out under the guidance of the Leninist stream of marxism in opposition to the revisionist, reformist marxism of the Second International. The communist parties which constituted the Third International, founded under the leadership of Lenin, have long since degenerated into revisionism, abandoning any pretence to wishing to bring about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The remnants of these parties quickly disintegrated and mostly disappeared after the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As for the Trotskyists, who broke with the Third International during the nineteen twenties, they have come to nothing and try to pass off watery, social democratic politics as Marxism. A hundred years ago the anarchists, in countries such as Spain and Italy, were serious revolutionaries who frequently engaged in armed struggle against the capitalist state. However, because of the inadequacies of their revolutionary theory they never achieved any real advances and today’s anarchists are a pale shadow of their predecessors.
In recent years, many leftists have looked for new inspiration to “Twenty First Century Socialism” which has emerged in Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. This is an illusion because these populist regimes pose no fundamental challenge to the rule of capital. They aim to achieve significant progressive social changes by means of peaceful, parliamentary means. This was attempted before in these countries back around the mid-twentieth century. When such regimes started to seriously encroach upon the interests of the bourgeoisie they were deposed by military coups, as in Chile in 1973. In many ways the present wave of populism is less radical than the earlier one but is likely to meet the same fate if it becomes more ambitious. We should never forget that over one hundred and fifty years of revolutionary experience have shown that the capitalist ruling class never go quietly and have to be overthrown by violent, revolutionary force. Yes, this is true, even in dear old Blighty.
A further development of revolutionary theory and practice was Maoism emerging from the experience of the Chinese Revolution. In the world today the only significant Marxist movements waging real revolutionary struggle are guided by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM), principally in India and the Philippines. Some people think that Maoism is only applicable to less developed, imperialistically dominated countries. This is a misconception because many of the developments in revolutionary theory and practice arising out of the revolutionary struggle in China are of more general significance. These include developments in dialectical analysis, the mass line approach to creating revolutionary policies, the conduct of people’s war, criticism of revisionism in the communist movement and analysis of socialist construction and the danger of capitalist restoration.
It is not a subjective opinion but an objective fact to state that the revolutionary current running through Marxism, Leninism and Maoism is the only one which has succeeded in stimulating popular revolutions to overthrow oppressive and exploitative regimes and continues to display the capacity to bring about mass, armed revolutionary struggles. This is not to claim that MLM is a magic formula which guarantees success in making revolution. In Nepal the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) led a very successful people’s war but now there are major problems in carrying the revolution further. The world is in a continuous state of change and revolutionary theory must develop accordingly. MLM is the starting point for any further revolutionary developments but for these to occur the theory and practice of MLM must be transcended. In the imperialist countries such as Britain it is not just methods of political work which have become ossified but the application and development of Marxism to overthrowing and transcending contemporary capitalism. Unlike in less developed countries, there have been no significant developments in Marxist theory as applied to advanced capitalism since the period after World War One, i.e. for over ninety years.
If would-be revolutionaries are to achieve anything then they must get organized. The starting point is to form a pre-party type revolutionary organization which inevitably will be very small at first. It needs to be based on a brief manifesto – the existing Revolutionary Praxis one is appropriate – and it would set out to make the developments necessary in revolutionary theory and practice that would eventually be the basis for the formation of a proper revolutionary communist party. The major theoretical questions which must be engaged with are the impact of new forces of production, changes in the class structure, developments in bourgeois ideological-political control, the quality of life under capitalism, globalization, the environment, and the nature of socialism and communism and the necessary revolutionary transition. Also the issue of the appropriate form of organization for a revolutionary party must be engaged with given past failings in this area. (See The Death of Marxism? by Harry Powell for some elucidation on these questions.)
The formation of a proper communist organization is not only a theoretical issue but a practical one as well. From its outset any new revolutionary organization must be intimately engaged with the major political issues of the day. In contemporary British capitalism the sharpest lines of conflict are:
- The contradiction between the mode of production and the mode of exchange, i.e. the economic crisis.
- The contradiction between imperialism and the oppressed countries, e.g. the war in Afghanistan.
- The contradiction between the national majority and the national/ethnic minorities.
- The contradiction between capitalism and the natural environment.
Unless from the outset there are intimate connections between theoretical and practical tasks, consciously striving for a unity of theory and practice, no progress will be made. Which brings us back to the starting point of this exposition. What types of political activity can be employed to begin moving in a revolutionary direction beyond where we are now?
HOW TO DO IT
The general criticism which has been made of existing leftist modes of political activity is that they do not offer any serious challenges to the present rule of capital. It is essential to engage in types of political action which do begin to hit at the capitalist ruling class and its state apparatus. This is necessary in order to demonstrate to people that the dominance of the capitalist class, the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, is not absolute and that we can rebel against it and get away with it. British society is very authoritarian and most people are unwilling to step on the grass, to break the rules. We have to encourage them to break the rules because only by doing so can people really begin to take on a revolutionary countenance and become committed revolutionaries. It is primarily through action, and not just by passive thought, that revolutionaries are formed.
It has been anarchists and environmentalists, especially the latter, rather than Marxists who have used various types of direct action. Direct action may be violent or non-violent and directed at persons or things. Types of direct action include graffiti/fly posting, tax non-payment, sit-downs, blockades, occupations, stunts, sabotage and self-defence. In general, direct action is more challenging and confrontational to the status quo than are the types of political activity discussed previously. They are likely to involve law-breaking to a greater or lesser degree and confrontation with the authorities, including the police and the military. One important aspect of people taking direct action is that it encourages them to break the rules and gives them self-confidence in so doing. If a person begins by engaging in small challenges to the existing order then this can lead on to more serious infringements.
Graffiti and fly posting
In Britain graffiti and fly posting seems to have greatly diminished in recent years following the introduction of laws applying more serious penalties for doing this sort of thing. The spread of CCT surveillance may also have had an impact. Even so these methods of getting across a political message should be used as appropriate. Lessons could be learnt from the way these things are done in other countries such as Italy. They use stencils and better-designed posters which have more visual impact. However past experience suggests that it is only in exceptional times, e.g. in times of war, that fly posting has much impact on the public.
In Britain it is difficult for most people to take such action in the case of income tax because it is deducted from their earnings and pensions before they are received. It is only employers and the self-employed who can effectively withhold tax on earnings.
With local council tax the situation is different because it is householders who have to pay the tax to their local councils. Thus it is easy to withhold payments. The most successful example of such action was people refusing to pay the iniquitous new poll tax (Community Charge) during the time of the Margaret Thatcher-led Tory government. Campaigns around the country succeeded in persuading millions of people not to pay and this led to a humiliating climb down by the government and was an important factor in Thatcher being deposed as prime minister. (At the same time the government increased Value Added Tax from 15% to 17.5% as a “temporary” measure to make up for the lost revenue, an increase which was never taken off.)
Now we are in a period of massive cuts in public spending including cuts in local services imposed by local councils. Not only are councils cutting vital services but many are increasing council tax charges. They are giving us less and charging more. The time has come to campaign for people to withhold their council tax payments. If sufficient numbers responded, as they did with the Poll Tax, then this would have an immediate fiscal impact on the state which it could not ignore. This line of action should certainly be pursued.
Notable examples in Britain of obstructive sit-downs in public places were those organized in the early nineteen sixties by the Committee of 100, the direct action offshoot of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. There were sit-downs in central London and at the Polaris nuclear submarine base in Scotland resulting in many arrests. The state was perterbed by this raising of the traditional level of protest and in September 1963 a sit-down in Trafalgar Square was violently attacked by the police.
Since that time the sit-down tactic has been used on many occasions, usually on a small scale. Such action is often spontaneous, rather than planned in advance, and is a response to some immediate opposition, especially by the police. It has become something of a ritual and quite often a protest march includes a period in which the participants sit down on the road for a short period. Often there is no particular point in taking such action and by unnecessarily holding up traffic it can alienate some potential supporters of the cause being put forward. Even so, it can have its uses.
More confrontational is when people try to prevent access to some establishment or thoroughfare. Environmentalists have used this tactic on many occasions at places such as power stations and industrial plants. Quite often it attracts media coverage. Also it has been used by anti-Trident protestors at Faslane and other establishments involved with nuclear weapons. In order to be effective it usually requires large numbers of people so as to make it difficult for security guards and police to remove them. This is a tactic which should be used more often, particularly at military bases as a protest against the war being waged in Afghanistan.
Again, it is environmentalists who have been particularly keen on occupations as a tactic. A notable attempt at a mass occupation was the attempt to shut down the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in October 2010. Around a couple of thousand protestors tried to enter the site which had been heavily protected with new fences and security lights. Many hundreds of police and security guards were on hand to repel the invasion. The protestors did not succeed in making a serious breach of the defences but the action did attract national media coverage.
Occupations need not necessarily involve large numbers of people. Around the same time as the Ratcliffe-on-Soar action about twenty-five activists did succeed in entering the site of a power station in Oxfordshire and shutting it down for a while. This shows that a carefully planned and well organized occupation carried out by just a few people can have a big impact.
In 2011 the Democracia Real movement in Spain occupied public places and set up camps in protest against the financial crisis. Later in the year the Occupy movement began on Wall Street in New York and quickly spread to many countries including Britain. There have been some protest camps before but not on this scale or duration. Politically, very diverse elements have been involved in the Occupy camps. In most places the authorities have hesitated to try to shut down the camps. This shows that they are on the defensive, that they realize that there is much public resentment at the ravages being caused by finance capital and the politicians who support it.
As well as public places, protestors have occupied buildings of various kinds. Students have occupied college and university buildings in protests about fees and other issues, e.g. university involvement in military contracts. It is a tactic which should be used more widely and frequently. Both local and national government buildings should be targeted as well as offices and plants of capitalist corporations engaged in anti-working class activities. If in October 2008, when the international financial crisis really took off, there had been occupations of banks and investment companies in the City of London, then this would have been a serious challenge to finance capital and would have had a wide resonance, probably stimulating similar actions elsewhere. Similarly in the campaign to oppose the Coalition Government’s privatization of the NHS, occupations of administrative offices could have considerably disrupted the reorganization.
Inevitably, occupations involve confrontation with security guards and police. To some extent such actions can be non-violent but beyond a certain point violent confrontation is unavaoidable. The experience of such clashes would enable the participants to develop effective methods of resisting such attacks by hostile forces and demonstrate to other people that this can be done.
Environmentalists have used this type of action very effectively. Climbing up on buildings, structures and monuments to display slogans to make a political point attracts media coverage and public attention. This has been done on Nelson’s Column and the Houses of Parliament. There are other types of stunts, some of them forms of agitprop.
Damaging facilities and equipment is a direct way of attacking companies and state organizations. This has been done particularly with respect to arms and the arms trade. Many years ago some women damaged fighter-trainer aircraft made in Britain but destined for Indonesia. They were caught and tried but acquitted on the grounds that their action was to prevent the illegal taking of lives. More recently there has been the campaign against EDO in Brighton, a firm involved in the manufacture of military equipment. The EDO plant has been attacked and damaged many times although this has not yet shut it down. Sabotage can take place within organizations, carried out by people working in such places. This has happened in the course of industrial disputes when workers have disabled production equipment by removing some vital and not easily replaceable part. The targets for sabotage should be carefully chosen. There have been some instances of damage to public buildings and monuments which have had a negative impact on people. Sabotage can be effective both in terms of actually obstructing and damaging the enemy and in its public impact.
Politicians and business leaders who oppress and exploit the great majority of people usually get away with it without any serious penalty. A recent example is the bankers and financiers who brought about the financial crisis beginning in 2007. Practically all, if not all, of these people have suffered no serious losses or inconvenience as a result of their reckless and avaricious actions. They may have had a bad press but what do they care as they relax in their mansions and on luxury holidays in exotic locations. The same is true of politicians who serve the interests of the capitalist class while they work their expenses claims to get all they can from the public purse.
Life should be made uncomfortable for these parasites. They could be bombarded with phone calls and emails. Their offices and homes should be picketed as appropriate. They could be targeted at company annual meetings and on public occasions. Every opportunity should be seized to turn them into pariahs. These people get away with a lot because they rely upon the norms of politeness and decent treatment of each other which generally prevail in civil society to avoid being reproached. But they are not decent and thus should not be treated decently.
Most people of progressive and revolutionary inclinations do not like violence and try to avoid it. This is a positive sentiment but many leftists other than those of pacifist views recognize that there are occasions when violent conflicts with opponents are unavoidable. But we are not usually adequately prepared for any such confrontations and when it comes to clashes with right-wing extremists or the police we usually come off worse. This must change.
I have been on several anti-English Defence League demonstrations where the racists and antiracists were prevented from clashing by the presence of large numbers of disciplined police. Many of the racists are the sort of people who enjoy engaging in physical violence, not just on political occasions but in other contexts such as football matches and do so for the excitement and imagined status that they gain. Some of them have trained in various martial arts so as to be more effective in inflicting damage on others and defending themselves. When the EDL tried to march in Nottingham they far outnumbered the counter-demonstrators and fought vigorously to try to get through the police lines. It was clear to me that if they had broken through then the ant-racists would have received a severe beating. The objective reality of the situation was that the police protected the anti-racists from the racists.
There have been occasions when the police have attacked peaceful demonstrators as at the G20 protests in London. The police were well-equipped and well-organised and so their opponents did not stand a chance. With large-scale political actions the protestors hardly ever prevail over the police because the former are less well-trained, equipped and organized. If attacks on the system carried out by some of the methods mentioned here were to escalate then the police would increasingly respond by using physical force. Unless we are prepared for this we will lose. The conclusion can only be that any serious revolutionary organization would have to train its members and supporters to effectively deal with any violent attacks upon them from whatever opponents.
There is a lesson from history to be learnt here. In Italy and Germany during the nineteen twenties the communists were on the rise but extreme reactionary movements – fascisti in Italy and Nazis in Germany – backed by the bourgeoisie, were formed to combat the forces of the left. An important element of the fascists’ political organizations were paramilitary formations – “blackshirts” and “brownshirts” – to physically attack communists and socialists. The socialists and communists did not develop an organized fighting capacity to anything like the same degree as did the fascists. This was a major factor, perhaps the principal factor, as to why they were defeated and the fascists came to power in both countries. Already in Britain today there is the beginning of a British brownshirt organisation in the form of the EDL. “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.
The Internet and Information Technology
During the last twenty years radical political communication has been considerably politically enhanced by the internet. There is a vast range of websites and discussion groups covering different types of left-wing politics. In particular this has opened up the spread and exchange of ideas between people in different countries. Although this is a very good development it also has a downside.
It is very easy to set up a website purporting to represent some left organization or other. However this can give the illusion that something substantial exists when in reality it does not. Behind the façade of the elaborately designed website very often there are only a few people not doing much. Anarchists are particularly good at this sort of thing. Some people spend a great deal of time on the internet managing websites and making contributions to discussion groups. They are very busy but in terms of practical political outcomes it does not amount to much. These internet revolutionaries are lost in the political hyperreality of cyberspace.
The internet certainly does have its uses in revolutionary politics but much more significant is the degree to which contemporary capitalism has become dependent on information and computing technology. Both private and public organizations have become heavily dependent on ICT both for administration and in actually carrying out their tasks. This is both a strength and a weakness for capitalism. Computers have greatly enhanced the ability of the state and firms to observe and control people but at the same time these systems are open to penetration and disruption. School children have hacked into military computers and criminals have had considerable success in engaging in financial fraud.
It would be possible for revolutionaries, both within and outside of organizations, to make significant attacks on the capitalist class and its state apparatus in this way. Already this is being done by Wikileaks but matters could be taken much further by people who have the necessary technical knowledge.
LET’S GET ON WITH IT!
In Britain during the first decade or so of this decade the limitations of traditional leftist political activity are all too apparent. The ant-war movement and the anti-cuts movement have come to nothing. Millions of people became involved in opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in trying to resist the public spending cuts of the Coalition Government. Given the lack of success in these struggles most of those who were involved have become disillusioned and given up. The primary responsibility here rests on the shoulders of the leaders of leftist organizations who led people to believe that traditional protest methods would produce the desired outcomes.
However, there has been some glimmers of hope amongst all this gloom. The UK Uncut movement did succeed in getting large numbers of people to start breaking the rules. The shops and offices of firms engaged in tax evasion were invaded and temporarily disrupted. Also the Occupy Movement set up anti-capitalist protest camps in public places in defiance of public authorities. Some people have been daring to tread on the grass.
Capitalist ideological domination is still very strong despite the dents it has taken as a result of the financial crisis. Most people still do what they are told most of the time. Even so, as the above examples show, it is possible to persuade people to start breaking the rules and for them to discover that they can get away with it. This is the direction in which would-be revolutionary activity should go.
BREAK THE CHAINS OF DEAD LEFT RITUALS!