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Mass movements and direct action scare the state

This article is over 2 years, 7 months old
With many campaigns turning to militant direct action, Nick Clark argues that the tactic is more effective within a mass movement.
Issue 2763
Extinction Rebellion protest supports direct action taken at London City Airport in 2019.
Extinction Rebellion protest supports direct action taken at London City Airport in 2019. (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Fed up with Labour and bored of waiting for movement from the “official” leaders of the labour movement, some people are taking action themselves.

Direct action is the weapon of choice for some of the most committed and engaged activists—and some of the most high-profile campaigns—in Britain.

They go beyond marching—and far beyond wrangling inside Labour meetings—to use their power and activity to force change to happen.

They might be activists with the Palestine Action group, who have occupied factories that make engines for Israeli drones.

Or they might be the construction workers who protested in the offices of construction giant Balfour Beatty to stop it undercutting conditions.

The mass mobilisation that surrounded an immigration van in Glasgow, and the students at Pimlico Academy who staged an occupation against racist rules, were taking direct action.


Often, they get results. The Glasgow residents stopped two deportations. The Pimlico students forced their head teacher to resign.

The protesters in Bristol who tore down the statue of slaver Edward Colston last year ensured it was never restored to its plinth.

Palestine Action activists occupy drone factory in Runcorn
Palestine Action activists occupy drone factory in Runcorn
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At a time when victories seem hard to come by, those wins are heartening and inspiring.

They also put the Labour Party—and the union leaders who have failed to meet the challenge of Tory attacks on their members—to shame.

Sometimes direct action can also seem like an alternative to mass action, which can take longer to organise and where the pace of change can appear slower.

One crucial aspect of mass action is that it changes the participants themselves as they take part. They learn about their own strength and who are their allies.

In contrast militant actions by small groups of activists can lead to then spurning broader movements. Large demonstrations can come to be seen as at best a supplement to direct action and at worst as a distraction.

A danger of this is that it leaves the activists cut off from the rest of the movement—and more easily beaten.

Their organisations can be broken by the state, with activists arrested or punished.

Or they find that the governments and businesses they target can cope with the relatively small-scale disruption, and that any small wins never lead to bigger victories.

Then it’s easy to become worn out, or even isolated and bitter from the rest of the movement and ordinary people.

The key to avoiding this is organising the sort of mass action that doesn’t just aim to win ­small-scale victories against governments and businesses but challenges their power.

The most successful examples of direct action are those that have involved more people than just a core group of activists.

Extinction Rebellion forced demands for climate action to the forefront of politics because it involved thousands of people in blocking central London. The power of the anti-racist victories in Glasgow and Bristol was that they involved hundreds of people acting together.


Palestine Action was at its strongest when its activists occupying the Elbit weapons factory in Leicester were backed up by hundreds of supporters at the gates.

It’s much harder for the state or big business to crush or ignore mass direct action.

And that’s because it carries an even bigger threat.

Ordinary people are powerful because they make society run. When they take action together, they can shut society down along with the profit system that keeps it running.

That’s why the most powerful form of direct action is the strike.

Encouraging ordinary people to take mass direct action can take lots of often unglamorous organising work. And often mass demonstrations might not end in direct action.

But they do give people confidence—and a sense of their collective power to take action themselves.

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