By Pat Stack
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 355

Violence and Legitimacy

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
Pat Stack argues that the media frenzy about direct action at recent student protests is based on the assumption that state violence is legitimate - and that we don't have the right to win
Issue 355

Photo: Geoff Dexter

When Edward Woollard was sentenced to 32 months in prison for throwing a fire extinguisher from the roof of Tory HQ at a student protest, there was no doubt that the British state was making an example of him to warn off student protesters.

Woollard’s actions may not have been the most sensible, or indeed effective, way of protesting, but nobody was hurt, and the sentence was shockingly disproportionate, the most obvious contrast being with the police officer accused of killing Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests who apparently had no case to answer at all.

Woollard’s sentence comes amid hysteria at the “violence” on student demonstrations against government policies on tuition fees and the Educational Maintenance Allowance. Every liberal commentator seemed to have the same line – they agree with the students, Ed Miliband may even go and talk to them if they’re ever so lucky – but they abhor the violence: “The violent minority are ruining it for the peaceful majority.”

Of course, much of the hysteria is phoney, and all of it completely out of proportion to the reality. Apart from the fact that the police were responsible for much of the violence, given the behaviour of this government, and in particular the betrayal of students by the Lib Dems, it’s a wonder there hasn’t been considerably more violence. Many of those protesting will have voted for the first time last May and experienced a very salutary lesson on the shortcomings of bourgeois democracy in the process.


“I voted for a party who promised one thing, then did the opposite – they seem to be ignoring my protest and I’m darned angry,” seems a very reasonable response, particularly when that violence appears to make more impact and hit more headlines than “peaceful protest”.

The reaction of mainstream politicians and the media shouldn’t surprise us – it has ever been thus. In every great battle for change, for reform, in defence of workers’ rights, or against injustice, brutality or war our rulers have always made the same noises: I may agree with your cause (usually not) but I abhor your methods. Civil disobedience and violent protest are, in their eyes, always wrong.

This was as true in the battle for votes for women, the fight against the Vietnam War, the movement for civil rights in Northern Ireland, the miners’ mass pickets of the early 1970s, the struggle against the fascist National Front in the late 1970s and the campaign against the poll tax.

In all these cases we were told violence was “ruining their cause”. Strangely enough all, to a greater or lesser extent, were successful. Here lies the key. Government ministers and the press all say they are in favour of our “right to protest”. What they forget to add is that they are against our “right to win”.

Poll tax

The poll tax is instructive here. A movement built around refusal to pay undermined the tax, and led to long lists of court cases as the government tried to coerce us all into paying by threatening prison sentences. Still huge numbers wouldn’t pay, and the movement took to the streets, culminating in a huge demonstration in London which ended in an angry and violent confrontation on the streets.

Following the events, the howls of rage by media and politicians alike were loud and long, yet as the bricks, broken bottles and smashed windows lay scattered around central London it was obvious the poll tax was dead, and that Thatcher was on the way out.

Contrast this with her anti-union laws. These were introduced with little resistance, as union leaders refused to lead a real struggle and no great confrontation was had. By the time the miners went on strike in 1984 the laws had weakened solidarity action hugely, which played no small part in the miners being defeated.

On this question of protesting rather than winning, a fascinating exchange took place between Evan Davis of the Today programme and Len McCluskey, the new general secretary of the Unite union. Davis argued with McCluskey that while he and his union had every right to protest against government policy, they had no right to subvert it.

Leave aside the fact that all governments get elected for a variety of reasons and very few do so with a mandate to close particular services, and that if ever there was a government without a mandate to do anything at all it is this one. If you listen to what Davis is articulating it is that you have no right to save your job, hospital, school or local service, only the right to moan at their passing.

This is very instructive. We are told strikes are wrong and violence is wrong. Otherwise protest is fine, but those telling us that the violence, strikes and so on discredit “the cause” are the very same people who ignore “the cause” when the protests are peaceful.

One cause that couldn’t be ignored, of course, was the movement to stop the war in Iraq. It turned the country upside down, launched the biggest demonstrations this country has seen since the days of the Chartists, and helped wreck the reputation of Tony Blair. It almost certainly represented the majority of the population. It had everything a protest should have – numbers, public opinion, a just cause, air time, articulate and determined leaders, it was amazing just how peaceful it remained – and yet Blair chose to ignore it. Actually the numbers were so huge that it very nearly succeeded and was almost certainly responsible for Blair’s premature departure, yet the war went ahead. All those who argue that causes are discredited by “violence” may like to explain what happened in this case.

Of course the media and politicians will argue that they are against violence, that in and of itself it is wrong. In this they are being supremely hypocritical. They (or at least the vast majority of them) have no problem with violence as long as they’ve sanctioned it. In other words they are not against violence per se but simply believe that the state should have a monopoly of it. Coppers can kill demonstrators, or indeed passers-by, can drag people from wheelchairs, can beat the living daylights out of kettled students, and then we are asked to understand that they have a “difficult job to do”.

“Peace keeping” soldiers can shoot to kill, torture and terrorise, war planes can rain bombs on innocent civilians, dissent can be ruthlessly crushed, but it is all legitimate because it is done “within the law” and with government sanction. The simple message is that they can enforce change with violence, but we are not allowed to. Is this therefore an argument for violence for violence’s sake? Far from it. Most socialists are instinctively anti-violence, and rightly so. It is after all the violence of the system which appals us and led many of us to be socialists.

We hate their wars and we hate the violence capitalism inflicts on entire peoples in order to create profit. We hate the way they seek to divide and rule us so we will turn violently on one another on the grounds of race, religion or sexuality. We hate the way they have created an alienated world that manifests itself in domestic or sexual violence, and we detest all forms of bullying and random violence.

However, we also recognise that the system that does all these things does so through a combination of fraud and force. The fraud is that things are as they have to be. Anyone listening to millionaire old Etonian David Cameron telling us we are all in this together can surely spot the fraud. But often it is much more subtle or deep rooted. Things that capitalism does are explained away as “human nature” or “common sense” and part of the fraud is that we can change things by voting once every few years, or writing angry letters to the Guardian – if we remain passive, in other words.


At the back of this fraud though lie all the coercive elements of force – the police, the judiciary, the armed forces – on hand to be used against any serious attempt to fight back or change things. Such forces cannot be challenged or replaced by purely peaceful methods. Nor though can they be defeated by individual acts of heroism, or small groups of people carrying out violent acts.

The key to all the great movements for change has been their force of numbers and their willingness to defy the law, the police and so on. This is an argument the revolutionary left has conducted at a number of levels. If we go back to the campaign against the National Front (NF) in the late 1970s there were essentially three positions in the anti-fascist movement.

There were those who argued that the movement should march peacefully against their ideas and avoid any confrontation, and that violence would only make anti-fascists look as bad as fascists. Alternatively there were those who argued that anti-fascists should organise themselves into tight, small squads and seek out groups of fascists or individual fascists and physically take them on.

Those around the SWP argued for a different approach: to build as big a movement as possible of those who believed the fascists had to be stopped. Build large mobilisations, and very publicly and physically prevent them from marching, as well as building much broader events to show just how hated and isolated the NF were. This option led to the building of the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism and ultimately the defeat of the fascists.

Purely peaceful methods would have left the NF largely intact with their marches unchallenged, and as a result they could appear more attractive events for soft racists to turn up to. On the other hand, backstreet fighting and covert actions would have had little impact on wider society, and seemed little different to the football hooliganism that was so popular at the time. The impression it gave was that to fight the fascists you had to be as hard and as good a street fighter as them. It was a tactic that left little place for huge numbers of anti-fascists who didn’t fancy their chances in set-piece battles between small groups of hard men.

This is in essence the same argument Trotsky had about individual terrorism – that after the daring act, the loud explosion, society remains largely unchanged, and that if anything the state can use the event to pile on more repression, more coercion, more force. The mass of people, even those who support the cause, are often left bewildered by the action. And rather than saying we can all change the world, it says that only the brave and the daring, who will risk everything, will change the world. It ends up demobilising rather than mobilising.

For revolutionary socialists the key is not shying away from a fight or bending down to a law but how you draw the greatest number to that fight, to break that law. If union leaders had stood with the students on 9 December last year, if they’d called on their members to join the protest, how much less likely would it have been that the police would have laid into the students the way they did and how much more fearful and unstable would our wretched government have been.


In 1972, faced with thousands of trade unionists in Birmingham responding to the call by miners to join their mass picket of the Saltley Gate coking plant, the police were overwhelmed and the state was forced to retreat. A major blow was struck at the authority of the government.

When the then Tory home secretary, Reginald Maudling, was asked by some Tory ministers and MPs why he didn’t send in the army to back up the police, his reply was revealing. He asked them a simple question: “If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with rifles loaded or unloaded?” As he commented, “Either course could have been disastrous.”

In other words, unleashing violence against a confident mass working class movement ran the risk that, far from successfully intimidating those fighting back, it would spark a generalised confrontation with the wider working class. This proved too dangerous a possibility and the state retreated.

For strength of numbers, social forces and a willingness to defy the authorities is exactly what our leaders fear most. That is the combination that we need to build in the months ahead. The students have shown the way, and we all need to follow their example if this wretched, nasty and thoroughly right wing government is to be resisted, defeated and ultimately got rid of.

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