Socialist Worker

Why marching matters: the power of protest

After two weeks of mass resistance to new US president Donald Trump, Simon Basketter looks at the power of protests and where it can lead

Issue No. 2539

Protesters against Donald Trumps Muslim ban in Leeds on Monday night

Protesters against Donald Trump's Muslim ban in Leeds on Monday night (Pic: Neil Terry)


Demonstrations are powerful. They can put manners on an arrogant boss or politician. And mass protest can bring down a dictator, and change the balance of power between the rich and poor across the globe.

Al Capone once called capitalism the “legitimate racket of the ruling class”. US president Donald Trump is a dystopian embodiment of that.

The massive protests against Trump last weekend were a powerful riposte to the idea that society is inexorably moving to the right. And the protests affect those who take part.

Collectively standing up for ourselves and others breaks down the atomised grind of life under capitalism.

Those at the top want us to be passive observers of politics—but when we march we are putting ourselves at the centre.

Protest pushes against the habit of subordination that capitalist society puts upon us.

Shaken

We saw this recently in South Korea, where mass political protests have shaken the system.

To those at the top, our protests are either irrelevant or inexplicable. Or, if too large or militant to ignore, they are immoral and illogical.

It is compulsory for journalists who spend their lives propping up the status quo to disparage large demonstrations.

They point out that the people protesting know what they are against but not what they are for.

A former Tory MP Ian Gilmour wrote a book on rioting.

He noted that our rulers “are convinced that the ruled can have no cause for complaint; hence they infer that popular violence must stem from licentiousness, perversity or agitation”.

Hail to the mob - Irish revolutionary James Connolly

"All hail to the mob" - Irish revolutionary James Connolly (Pic: Irish Labour Party)


In contrast the Irish revolutionary James Connolly wrote, “There was a time stretching for more than 1,000 years, when the mob was without power or influence,

when the entire power of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy.

“That was the blackest period in human history. Then the mob started on its upward march to power—a power only to be realised in the socialist republic.

“In the course of its upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. All hail to the mob, the incarnation of progress.”

But the refusal of those in charge to give into demands leads some to believe that the only way to change the system is from the inside.

That and repression can encourage other people to dismiss protests as stunts or spectacle.

But a revolutionary socialist conclusion is to deepen confrontation. We try to win larger numbers of people to adopting the best methods to bring down the system, not try and reform it.

That means escalating struggle. It means building mass resistance based on the power of the organised working class.

Reforming parliament, breaking windows, or even bombing buildings will not stop the giant corporations from making many millions and wrecking billions of people’s lives.

But revolutions can.

They break out when the great mass of people, whose work keeps the system going, move into action on their own behalf.

Such revolutions have been a regular feature of human history. Capitalism is by its very nature an unplanned, global system which creates sudden wars and economic crises.

People can suddenly find they cannot go on living in the old way. They are repeatedly faced with a choice between enduring a terrible worsening of their lives or fighting back.

The fightback does not always occur, nor is it guaranteed success. But when it does it throws the whole of society into crisis. Unable to solve its problems at our expense, the ruling class can split down the middle.

Splits

Those who give the orders in industry, finance, the army and the police begin scrapping with each other, even though this weakens their hold on power over the rest of us. Protest can widen those splits.

At the same time vast numbers of working people begin to question things they have taken for granted in the past.

Popular street democracy can sometimes develop into workers’ self-organisation. This often results from people defending themselves against right wing forces or the police.

There were hints of it in the Arab Spring, where uprisings challenged dictators across the Middle East in 2011.

People went from defending their streets to trying to sack their bosses.

Any large demonstration involves group decision making. Do we listen to the stewards or ignore them? Sit down or run, chant or change direction?

These choices are examples of people taking a level of control.

But the key element shaping how any revolution develops is the role of organised workers.

Workers’ position in society gives them immense power. They can bring the system to a standstill if they refuse to work.

And they have the economic power, the numbers and the expertise to reorganise society on their terms.

That’s why strikes throw up direct questions on control and organisation.

It is why the media and the bosses hate them.

Women marching in Russia in 1917

Women marching in Russia in 1917


Socialism is about the transfer of economic power—away from a tiny, greedy elite, and into the democratic control of the majority, the working class.

During the 1905 Russian Revolution strikes fed into huge marches which escalated the strikes. In 1917 again the workers struck to join demonstrations.

International Women’s Day and May Day demonstrations were used in order to mobilise strikes, which fed into the revolt.

Protest can shake regimes. But workers creating their own organisations offers the potential to reshape society. The first version was the soviet of workers’ deputies that emerged in St Petersburg.

But the form reappeared repeatedly wherever people have risen up to challenge the system. In Germany in 1918-23 they were called “Rate”. And in Chile 1972-73 they were known as “cordones”.

These bodies produced far more than simply meetings. They offered a chance for ordinary people to exert some real control over society.

Those elected were truly accountable—they could be instantly recalled by the people, council or cooperative that elected them.

And revolutions have to go further than setting up new democratic institutions. These new forms of democracy cannot exist side by side with the existing state. They have to overthrow and dismantle the state—or the old ruling class will hold onto power.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx wrote, “Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but because only in a revolution can the class overthrowing it rid itself of all the muck of ages and fit itself to found society anew.”

Actively

Revolutions are about the mass entry of ordinary people onto the political stage, as they actively attempt to shape their own futures.

Even in revolutionary times, there are people in every workplace and locality putting across old ideas promoted by the bosses and their allies.

These ideas seek to divide us with racism, nationalism and deference to the upper classes.

And then there are people who say that we have to keep the existing system intact and then change it slowly. Together they can hold us back from taking action.

At worst this can disarm us enough for the rulers to hang on, or worse regroup and crush a movement.

With workers’ organised struggle at a low level, the process of transforming the world can seem distant.

But mass revolts often break out soon after the working class has been dismissed as dead. And revolutions will erupt whether we think they are a good idea or not.

But whether demos move towards working class organisation and whether strikes move towards soviets depend on which political forces win out.

This is a crucial time.

The barbarism of the “devil we know” is getting more and more vicious by the minute.

As the great American freedom fighter Frederick Douglass wrote, “Without struggle there is no progress.

“And those who profess to favour freedom, yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without digging up the ground.

“They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters.”

Socialists need to escalate the resistance.

And we need to be organised now, in a revolutionary organisation, to give future revolutions a bigger chance of winning.


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