Socialist Worker

The May Day arguments

Issue No. 1696


The May Day arguments

By Alex Callinicos

I MISSED the May Day protests in London, but I should declare an interest in them. As a student at Oxford in the early 1970s I was suspended for a year for my part in spray-painting Balliol College with slogans denouncing a forthcoming visit by the Tory prime minister, Ted Heath.

So I feel a lot of sympathy with James Matthews, the ex-squaddie who has confessed to spray-painting Winston Churchill's statue in Parliament Square. Far from being the mindless thug denounced by Tony Blair and the media, James, now studying English and European literature and philosophy, justified his action by pointing out that "Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and imperialism, and anti-Semitism".

The May Day protests have provoked an intense debate. The organisers, Reclaim the Streets, are often depicted, both by supporters and by sympathetic journalists, as a "post-political" movement that has transcended the strategies of the "old" left. Yet visit the mayday2000 website and what you discover is a spectrum of positions that represent classic arguments within the socialist tradition. Many contributors are very critical of the trashing of McDonald's, and the defacing of Churchill's statue and the Cenotaph.

Some do so on the basis of what Marx and Engels called "Utopian Socialism". They believe the "guerrilla gardening" in Parliament Square could, through the power of example, have been the beginnings of an alternative society taking shape within the existing capitalist system. Thus "Broccoli Tops" argues, "Ultimately, we will make change by instigating that change ourselves. Rather than trying to effect the change per se, we might better think of ourselves as the catalyst that starts a larger reaction. When that reaction reaches a certain point, then those who control our lives will have no choice but to engage in the issues and allow change."

The trouble with this argument is that the capitalist class controls the main institutions of our society. Will it simply "allow change" that threatens its vital interests? Some contributors clearly think that it will. This position is put most clearly by Jem Bendell, speaking in effect on behalf of the non-governmental organisations who are trying to make big business "accountable". For Bendell, "The market was invented by people who want to buy and sell. It's not an institution that can be got rid of."

Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth wrote along very similar lines in the Guardian last week, "What the hot-heads have to understand is that you don't need violence to win, at least not in a democratic, regulated market economy." Defenders of this essentially reformist view tend also to argue that confrontation must be avoided because it attracts hostile media coverage. For example, "Many alternative groups have often gained wide support as a result of well-staged publicity stunts."

This is interesting because one of the starting points for the whole New Labour project back in the 1980s was the idea that "old-fashioned" mass action should be dropped because it didn't go down well on TV. Another contributor exposes the stupidity of looking to Rupert Murdoch for sympathetic coverage: "Mainstream press and TV will not cover the issues. It is not in their interests, nor that of their sponsors and backers."

Even when media coverage of protests isn't hostile, it tends to trivialise. Remember how the tabloids transformed the road campaigner Swampy into a short-lived celebrity posing for fashion shoots. The real force for change is mass action. The Trafalgar Square riot in March 1990 was viciously attacked by the media, but it still got rid of Thatcher and her poll tax. This is the real basis on which to criticise the very small number of protesters who used violent tactics. Street fighting isn't a substitute for mass mobilisation.

This is related to another issue very much present in the internet debate about May Day. There are numerous complaints about the confusion caused by the failure of the organisers to provide leadership as things started to get nasty.

Contributors refer to various secret plans, for example, asking about one tactic, "Why didn't more people know about it? There was obviously something organised. Is there a ruling elite here (ha ha)?" This is a serious point. Reclaim the Streets proclaims its hostility to organised structures and denounces the Socialist Workers Party as "authoritarian".

Our crime is to believe that effective action depends on democratically-taken majority decisions binding on all involved. In the absence of this minimal level of democratic organisation and discipline you get what has been called "the tyranny of structurelessness". Small groups are free to do their own thing without being held accountable to everyone else. Now that's real "authoritarianism".

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Sat 13 May 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1696
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