Socialist Worker

What kind of direct action do we need to stop the war machine?

by Kevin Ovenden
Issue No. 1839

PARLIAMENTARY PROCEDURES will not stop this war. That much is clear from the way Tony Blair has arrogantly dismissed the enormous groundswell of feeling against attacking Iraq. It's a characteristic of the undemocratic system we have that governments can implement unpopular policies while keeping most MPs firmly under control, whatever their private misgivings.

Every radical change in Britain, including winning the vote, has come through extra-parliamentary action or the impending threat of it. Hundreds of thousands of people are drawing that conclusion after last Saturday's march - which itself was a tremendous display of popular political action.

But what further action can halt the war machine? There are broadly two types of what is often called 'direct action' which mass movements have thrown up. What has always made the difference is whether a movement has encouraged masses of people to take radical action or whether it has been left to relatively small numbers of activists. The deployment of nuclear weapons and the threat of war produced a huge movement in the 1950s.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was founded in 1958. By 1960 there were 500 local groups, 100 college branches and 160 youth groups. The first annual Easter march in 1958 from the nuclear research plant at Aldermaston to London attracted some 4,000 marchers. The numbers reached 10,000 when the march entered London. Two years later the size of the march was four times bigger and 100,000 people joined it in London.

The Tory government of the day refused to listen to one big march. The movement was faced with the choice of what to do. The leaders of CND put their focus on getting the Labour Party to support a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament. They succeeded in winning the Labour conference to that in 1960.

But Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, stated he would not be bound by the vote. That drove philosopher Bertrand Russell and a core of other activists to form the Committee of 100 group. They argued that if sufficient numbers of people took part in non-violent civil disobedience, got arrested and were thrown into prison it would force the end of nuclear weapons.

Thousands of people took part in sit-downs across the country. Hundreds were arrested. The arrests were embarrassing for the government. But it was able to cope and the movement went into rapid decline. The government's hold over every area of society was left intact. It was a different story when 250,000 people marched in 1990 against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. It wasn't just that there was one big march.

There had been protests and mass meetings in every town and city against the tax. Millions of people were refusing to pay it. This created a climate of defiance. When the police attacked the march it was not simply a minority of people who sat down waiting to be arrested.

The mass of demonstrators fought back. In the weeks that followed the sympathies of millions of people swung behind the protesters, despite universal press condemnation. Hardline Thatcherite MP Alan Clark recalled in his diary the strikes and mass pickets that broke the Tory government in the early 1970s:

'Last night there were riots in central London. There is a strain in most Western countries, it is bad. Civil disorder. Could cut either way, but I fear will scare people into wanting a compromise - just as did Saltley Colliery and the three-day week in 1972-3. In the corridors and tea room people are now talking openly of ditching the Lady to save their skins.'

In the face of mass revolt the Tories abandoned the poll tax, and with it Thatcher, six months later. Mass revolt was at the heart of the movement that forced the US out of Vietnam. The movement against the Vietnam War grew throughout the late 1960s. It led to huge protest demonstrations in the US, though unlike today they took place some years into the war.

The protests worried the US government, but were not enough by themselves to force it to abandon the war. Out of frustration one group of radical students calling themselves the Weathermen took the idea of small groups of activists acting in isolation from the mass of people a stage further.

They despaired of winning over large numbers of workers or fellow students to take action. They set about attacking the symbols of power violently by themselves. By the late 1960s they were on the run from the authorities and, of necessity, totally cut off from wider layers of people who were questioning the war. They were isolated from the explosion of discontent that did shatter the US state's war effort.

In May 1970 the US National Guard opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four students.

The anger that swept the country reached new heights. Within days 350 universities were on strike. The following weekend there were massive demonstrations. Four million students took part - 60 percent of the total.

The establishment, already divided over the war, was gripped by fear. A New York Times columnist summed up the concerns of US president Nixon: 'Nixon's advisers thought when they came to power, they were dealing with a foreign war, and now they see they are dealing with a rebellion against the war, and maybe even a revolution at home.'

The Blair government today faces a mass feeling against the war. Its biggest nightmare is that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets last Saturday turn towards radical action aimed at drawing in even bigger numbers.

The task now is to argue for the student occupations, protests at work, blockades of city centres and other collective acts that can make Blair's nightmare a reality.

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Sat 22 Feb 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1839
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