"The real vandalism is not a few Millbank windows broken, but £9,000 fees destroying the dreams of many young people going to university" - John McDonnell MP
The students who besieged Millbank Tower on 10 November were right to do so, and should be saluted, not condemned. The right of millions of people to a decent education and decent life is infinitely more important than the property of corporations and their political arm, the Tory party.
Let us explain what we mean.
The coalition government and the right-wing media are straining every muscle to condemn the actions of those who besieged Millbank Tower, which includes Tory HQ, at the end of the NUS/UCU demonstration in London.
We should refuse to accept the arguments being used against the protesters.
NUS President Aaron Porter has condemned the protest for the same reason that he refuses to demand free education – he puts looking respectable, his relationship with the Labour Party leadership, and his career, above taking on and defeating the government (if he can conceive of doing that at all).
Phrases such as “extremist”, “divisive” and “the violence of a minority” need to be broken down.
Extremist? Well, the action at Tory HQ was certainly radical, reflecting the anger millions of young people and others feel. And that is exactly what is called for! The Tories’ agenda, which will disrupt, shorten and brutalise the lives of millions of students and tens of millions of working-class people to shore up the profits of the rich, is extreme – in fact, a form of violence in itself (in fact, "the violence of a minority" is quite an apt description). Their policy on fees is quite clearly a violation of popular will even expressed, according to the low standards of capitalist democracy, at the ballot box. We will need much more such radical action (by students, and above all by workers) to defeat them.
The government, which expected a much smaller and nice, polite, A to B march, is scared and on the back foot. Good! As as for our side, if Tory HQ had not been besieged, the protest would not have had the galvanising, inspiring affect it seems to have had for so many – including huge numbers of British workers who read about it in the papers or heard about it on the news, and for activists all around the world.
We can build on this by a thorough-going debate in the movement about the demands, forms of action and tactics necessary to push forward our advantage. Such tactics will not necessarily always involve smashing windows, and those who fetishise such actions are wrong to do so. But such tactics are legitimate, and the necessary debate will be undermined, not aided, by Porter-style condemnations of direct action.
Divisive? The media, aided by Porter, have gone out of their way to contrast the respectable majority of demonstrators to those who took part in the Millbank action. It is not so clear that most demonstrators would condemn what happened. Anyone who was there on the day will tell you that the mood was militant. In any case, it is not the Millbank action which is dividing the movement, but the NUS leadership’s condemnation of it in step with the Tories and their press.
The violence of a minority? Yes, the Millbank protesters were a minority of the demonstration! So what? So were those who sat down in Parliament Square – an action which the NUS stewards also tried to stop. Those at Tory HQ were not a small clique, but numbered many thousands – and we should not be afraid to defend our mass action, including its use of force.
There were some utterly stupid actions by small numbers of people – throwing a fire extinguisher off the roof, for instance – which any reasonable person would condemn, and which the great majority of protesters put a stop to (by chanting “Stop throwing shit”, until they did). But our condemnation of this stupidity can have nothing in common with condemnation of the Millbank protest itself. The “violence” involved at Millbank was basically violence against property – except in so far as the police intervened and forced violent clashes (a number of their victims are still in hospital).
We repeat, unashamedly, that people’s right to education and a decent life is more important than the property of corporations and their political wing, the Conservative Party (which exists to defend the interests of a tiny minority). Infinitely more important! So, yes, we were right to do what we did!
Look back through two hundred-plus years of working-class and democratic struggles against exploitation and oppression, all over the world. No major struggle has ever been won by respect for the laws of property, or by relinquishing our right to self-defence.
The early 20th century the women's suffrage movement, for instance, carried out acts of small-scale – and not so small-scale – terrorism. The problem with their movement was not its use of force, but the fact that it was elitist – a problem remedied by the working-class women's suffrage movement in East London, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, which wielded force on the basis of democratic mass mobilisation. That is the tradition the Millbank action stands in.
In the 1984-5 miners’ strike, Margaret Thatcher's Tory government set out to destroy a powerful union and devastate whole communities, as part of its more general drive against the working class. When the miners fought back, and met police violence with violence of their own, they were right to do so! Aaron Porter stands in the disgraceful tradition of Labour leader Neil Kinnock, who instead of backing the strike and fighting for its victory condemned the violence of the striking miners.
That is why striking firefighters can be run down by scabs in full sight of the police, while students smashing windows are condemned as violent.
Of course the current struggles are on a different scale from the miners' strike - for now. But in a system where capitalists and the governments that serve them can devastate millions of lives at whim, and use their highly trained, highly violent police thugs to enforce those decisions, it is legitimate for us to fight fire with fire.
We should defend and celebrate the protest at Tory HQ on 10 November!
For more articles on the relationship between democracy, the class struggle, direct action and violence, see our pamphlet Socialism and Democracy.
The article above expresses the views of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, and not necessarily any other organisation. We would urge those who agree with it to get in touch and discuss revolutionary socialist politics with us (email firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 020 7207 0706) - but also to support the campaigning organisation we are involved in, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.
"The small minority of students who ruined it for the rest"
And how do you think they will be forced to back down?
A million protested peacefully and Blair still went to war, but the Tories did back down, to a certain extent, after the poll tax riots.
These arguments are not as straightforward as you make them out to be, Dan.
if dan says, that all protest and marching and whateva wont help, then what shall people do instead? nothing?
i wonder what dan does think about those workers in france, who locked up their bosses, till they paid, and threatened to blew up their factory with dynamite. criminals? terrorists? than what about lenin, who said , socialist revolution will be civil war?
Passive demonstrations of even a million people are not enough- they are a good barometer of public feeling but to actually change things we need direct action to disrupt the rule of capitalism, to block the rule of the bourgeois and show that ordinary working class people have the power to change society. Strike action and occupations are a fundamental part of this power. When these actions are big enough or threatening enough they need to backed up by militant organised self-defence.
Smashed windows and property destruction per se won't stop the government yes. But a mass miltiant campaign of occupations up and down the country could. Th students on their own can't win it even if we have a hundred such actions. But the actions are inspiring and can and should act as a lightning rid to the rest of the workers' movement.
The events of one day cna begin to change things. November 10th was a historic day. We need ot build on it and make it bigger and better, spread the action and argue for and organise co-ordinated workers'strikes in defiance of the anti union laws. We need a mass campaign to drop all charges against the protestors and meet any charges or court cases with more occupations, more wlak outs and messages of support and improtantly solidarity action from union groups (at first perhaps symbolic but later gathering momentum to become the backbone of real strikes). Can we do it? Yes. There's a long way to go and the workers' movement needs rebuilding almost from scratch and the left needs to get its act together or people will pass it over as an irrlevance. But when the class begins to move- and hopefully last Wednesday was only a taste of things to come- we need to support it, agitate, organise, educate, strike and occupy.
Well, who can say, but for sure plenty of the students at Millbank were from working-class backgrounds.
But let's say they weren't: why does that make their action less justified?
...as far as i know, dan, these militant factory-occupierers in france at least got what they want.
i dont know why u hook endlessly on this few broken windows. that this is not helpful, can be said in a sentence. to make it the main point in articles, will separate AWL from the protest and sounding like socialdemocrats. is it this what u want? i think the main point is, as jason said, to build a mass movement with occupations up and down the country. if smashing windows may become the main action and keep many people away, u can still make a ruckus out of it. for the moment, it was a marginal action which didnt destroy the movement at all, so dont hook on it endlessly. or this civil-war- "terrorist" lenin may climb out of his grave and spank ur reformist ass.
In case there's any confusion:
Dan Factor isn't in the AWL. I don't know who he is. Many people post on this website who are not our members or supporters.
ALL OF US not only support the Millbank protest, as the article makes clear, but our students took part in it!
Sorry, just wanted to be absolutely clear.
Having a demo, even one with 50,000 people, won't change government policy either - except as part of a broader, ongoing campaign. But a militant demo that ended with the siege of Tory HQ will have exerted more pressure and inspired more people than a nice, polite, A to B march - and thus be a better launch pad for the necessary campaign.