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We need to stay on the streets

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Alex Callinicos on why mass direct action can bring change
Issue 1874

WE ARE living in an era of intense political mobilisation. Over the past two years London has witnessed a succession of great mass demonstrations that belong to a far larger tapestry of global protest.

This began to unfold with the anti-capitalist protests at Seattle in November 1999, but reached their high point to date in the unprecedented global day of anti-war action on 15 February. The actions planned for George W Bush’s visit to Britain on 19-21 November open a new chapter in this story.

But some people sympathetic to the aims of the protests question whether or not mass demonstrations are worthwhile. They point to the fact that neither 15 February nor the protests provoked by the invasion of Iraq managed to stop the United States and Britain from conquering and occupying the country.

Sometimes the criticisms of mass demonstrations spring from a principled preference for small-scale, decentralised acts of civil disobedience. More often, however, they reflect an understandable degree of demoralisation caused by what is seen as the failure of the anti-war movement. So did the protests fail?

The Iraq war certainly showed that an American president and a British prime minister can wage war in defiance of huge popular opposition. Bush and Blair were armed with all the great powers of their offices and backed up by largely compliant legislatures and media,

This indicates the limits of the splendid democracy in whose name George Bush and Tony Blair went to war. All the same, they did so at a great cost. Not since Vietnam in the American case, and not since Suez in the British, has a war been so contested at home. More than that, both Bush and Blair have emerged politically weakened.

This is partly because the occupation of Iraq is turning so sour on them. But, of course, it’s also because the lies they told before the war are coming back to haunt them.

Here in Britain the lies that Blair told reflected the scale of the opposition to the war and the impact that the anti-war movement had on society at large. The giant march on 15 February has left a deep mark in British life that will make itself felt in different ways for many years to come. Reflecting on 15 February is helpful in understanding why big demonstrations matter.

I’ve never seen so many people look so happy as on that day. The reason should be obvious. Being part of a mass demonstration gives you a sense of power. Small local protests can be effective, but on their own they can leave those involved feeling weak and isolated.

Joining tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of other people reminds you that you’re not alone. There are other reasons why national demonstrations are important. Like it or not, the capital is where most major decisions are taken in Britain, and so it makes sense to direct our pressure at the decision-makers themselves. And concentrating large numbers of people in London is more likely to get media attention.

Of course, demonstrations aren’t enough. The last great wave of mass protests in this country, in 1992, didn’t stop the closure of much of the coal industry. And we didn’t stop the invasion of Iraq. But this doesn’t mean that any form of direct action is better than a demonstration.

What would have been needed was mass direct action-mobilisations on a similar scale to the demonstrations but moving to confrontation with the state.

The two most effective forms of mass direct action are riots and strikes. The Trafalgar Square riot of March 1990 delivered the death blow to the poll tax and to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Rioting has just forced out the Bolivian president.

Riots can’t be planned. They happen when a large enough number of people are angry enough to defy the state. Strikes, by contrast, can and usually have to be built for in advance. Moreover, they tap the greatest source of power in our societies capable of challenging both the state and capital.

That is the collective power of workers potentially to bring the whole system to a halt by withdrawing their labour power. Mass strikes back in March would have stopped the war. Many workplace protests did take place in Britain, and there was much larger scale industrial action in Italy, but there weren’t enough of them. Let’s hope-and work-for strikes against Bush’s visit.

But it’s important not to counterpose strikes, the most effective form of direct action, to mass demonstrations.

In Britain today political strike action is most likely to develop out of the confidence that mass mobilisations give ordinary people to resist the forces that dominate their lives.

Alex Callinicos is the author of An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. Both are available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848.


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