Direct action and class struggle

Submitted by Matthew on 11 May, 2011 - 10:07

Much of Bobi Pasquale’s response to our “Open letter to a direct action activist” (Solidarity 3/202) was made up of statements no leftist could object to (workers and students in struggle good; the cuts, coppers and Labour careerists bad).

And while the Socialist Party, for instance, believes the police are “workers in uniform”, and has as its “priority” in the labour movement “moving through elected positions” — these are certainly not accusations you can make at the AWL. They are not relevant to this debate.

I’d urge everyone interested in this debate to read “Can we build a revolutionary workers’ movement?”, published in Solidarity in April, which discusses some of these issues at length. If Bobi had read it, she would not necessarily have been persuaded, but she might have engaged with our actual arguments a bit more.

What are the real disagreements?

1. Judging by what she writes here, I think Bobi fetishises direct action as such, essentially detaching it from class struggle. We should certainly support direct action by many different groups and social forces, but it is not necessarily the same thing as direct action by the working class, at the point of production and beyond that in a class movement whose ‘base’ is the organisation of workers in production. The point about a strike is not so much that it is the most effective way of making bosses lose money; what is crucial is the growth of workers’ class organisation, class consciousness and ability to struggle as part of a class.

In her conclusion, what Bobi effectively counterposes to the notion of a class movement is “direct action [as] a tactic that enables individuals to be at the forefront of their own movement, to make mass decisions in a safe space...” Class and class struggle are blurred out almost completely.

On the other hand, direct action is only one element of working-class struggle, which takes place on many levels (direct action, organisation, representation; industrial, political, ideological). Direct action is not all the labour movement needs to do to organise workers and fight the bosses effectively. Supporting localised direct action by groups of workers, as Bobi urges, is far from the be all and end all of developing working-class struggle.

2. Bobi’s piece reads as if she wants to start a new labour movement from scratch, instead of transforming the one we have. She does not state clearly whether she rejects completely working in bourgeois, bureaucratised trade unions, but that seems to be implied.

Without organising to resist its exploitation at the point of production, the working class would “be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches, past salvation” — and thus “certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement” (Marx). Like it or not, this resistance has, across the world, consistently taken the form of organising trade unions. Unions are not the whole working-class movement, and Marxists have explained why they cannot, by themselves, overthrow capitalism (ironically, this is one of our objections to syndicalism). Their bureaucratisation is not an accident, but an inherent tendency which has to be combated. Nonetheless, they are the core, the bedrock of the workers’ movement as it exists, certainly in Britain. Any talk of “class struggle” without seeking to transform them is playing around with words.

Leave aside whether most self-defined anarchists take part in anything which could meaningfully be called class-struggle activity. Even members of organised anarchist groups (AFed, SolFed) which define as class-struggle anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist are mostly either hostile to working in the unions or do not see transforming them as a strategic task. We do.

Lastly, it is not clear whether Bobi opposes large-scale (national, international), structured organisations like unions as such — implied by her apparent hostility to the whole concept of “representation”. In which case, how will we have workers’ councils, which involve workers electing... representatives?

3. Bobi’s argument also blurs out the question of politics, and the battle of ideas. One example she cites in passing illustrates this. She praises the direct action of the suffragettes (by the way, does this mean that she doesn’t share the usual anarchist objection to voting in bourgeois elections?) — but says nothing of the divisions which opened up in the suffragette movement immediately before, during and after the First World War. This split, which led to the expulsion of the working-class suffrage movement of East London, was not along the lines of willingness to take direct action or degree of ‘militancy’ (what could be more ‘militant’ than the bourgeois suffragettes’ small-scale terrorism?) It was along the class/political axes of universal suffrage vs votes for rich women; class politics vs bourgeois feminism; and democratic mass mobilisation vs authoritarian elitism.

Politics matters — direct action by whom, organised how and for what goals?

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