"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"