Open letter to a direct-action militant

Submitted by Matthew on 30 March, 2011 - 10:38

Comrade,

We are sympathetic to the direct action taken against banks, Fortnum & Mason, the Ritz Hotel and other locations throughout central London on Saturday 26 March. We will not join in with moralistic condemnations of your “violence”, nor will we go along with attempts to “disown” you or pretend you are not part of our movement. Indeed, some Workers’ Liberty members were involved in the direct actions which took place on Saturday.

We will not join in with attempts in the media and elsewhere to create a division between respectable, non-violent direct-action activists and “bad”, troublemaking “anarchists”.

We share many of your instincts; you have our sympathy, our solidarity against any police repression.

Like you, we see the conservatism of the labour movement leaders as an obstacle. Like you, we know that the working-class anti-cuts movement will need more creative tactics than “A to B” marches followed by long rallies if we are seriously to threaten this government. And, like you, we think that places like the Ritz Hotel and Fortnum & Mason — symbols of the opulent luxury the rich continue to enjoy while we lose our jobs, homes and services — are legitimate targets for symbolic direct action.

But we also think that such action is only symbolic. Symbolic actions have their place, but they are not enough. A mere proliferation of symbolic action, counterposed to traditional demonstrations, will not in itself give us the movement we need. To get that movement we will need a serious political campaign to build it, the frontline of which will not be in the exciting and dangerous cut-and-thrust of a ruckus with the cops but in the day-to-day lives of our fellow workers in workplaces and communities.

We think there’s a problem with the way in which direct actions of the kind undertaken on Saturday can create unnecessary and unhelpful, even hierarchical, divisions between the mass labour movement and direct-action activists. If activists meet in secret, have special direct-action “skills”, and undertake their actions without any accountability to mass labour movement organisations they risk becoming an “elite”. Wouldn’t it be better to organise direct actions which took with them, or had the sympathy of, sizeable sections of the main movement against cuts?

The labour movement is frequently a politically dull and conservative place to spend your time. Smashing up some ostentatious symbols of capitalist excess certainly makes a more immediate impact than plugging away within most trade union branches to democratise and radicalise them, and it usually feels a lot better, too.

But means condition ends, and if your end goal is a mass, class-based movement capable of mobilising not just seasoned direct-action veterans but hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers (the sort of people who, for the most part, stuck to the main route of the march on Saturday and probably wouldn’t have known how to get involved in the direct actions even if they’d wanted to), then means other than taking those actions in a unilateral and unaccountable way will be necessary.

We believe that many of the people who see radical direct action as a primary focus (some of whom identify as anarchists) share with us some form of class politics; you believe that the working class is the social force capable of changing the world. If that’s true, we think you should consider what relationship your activism has to the organised movement of that class — however politically inadequate its leadership may currently be.

The labour movement needs your energy and innovation. For want of better words, it needs your “courage” and daring. The size of Saturday’s demonstration shows us that we could now be entering a period where mass action of working-class people becomes a more viable possibility. This means we need to be creative and innovative and come up with direct-action tactics that are accessible to the “mass” of people and are not the exclusive property of those with the skills to undertake them. To develop those tactics, the dynamism and creativity of the direct-action movement and of activists like you will be needed.

But, conversely, you “need” the labour movement. Your revolutionary anti-capitalist instincts cannot become a political reality without an agency capable of giving them meaningful content. That agency is the working class.

This doesn’t mean that it’s only legitimate to take radical direct action if some labour movement body sanctions it or if there’s a critical mass of workers taking part. But it does mean that without mass working-class direct actions, symbolic direct actions can ultimately only serve to create direct-action “elites” and provide ammunition to the right wing and the state.

Our aim is a movement of workers capable of taking over shops, banks and other buildings — not just smashing them up. If you want to build that movement too, direct-action organising is at best limited and inadequate. You should become — or, if you are already, more consistently see yourself as — a labour-movement activist.

Ira Berkovic

Comments

Submitted by stuartjordan on Sat, 02/04/2011 - 00:26

What's the role of a revolutionary socialist? Or just a decent working-class militant?
The old adage is that there are 3 fronts to the class struggle, which are all interconnected and affect one another in different ways at different times. The 3 fronts are the political, the economic and the ideological.

The political struggle is the struggle for a working-class political representation - what I guess your doing in Sunderland. We need to democratise the existing labour movement, bring large numbers of working-class people into political activity and have representatives in the political sphere which are accountable to that movement. We need to mobilise people around a programme of working-class politics and interests. AWL members fight that struggle at the moment by getting the unions to fight for their own policies within the Labour Party. We believe that if there was a big enough push within the unions to stand up for themselves within the party structures, then this would create divisions within the party along class lines. We also call for left unity - to unite the socialist left in an open democratic party organisation outside of the LP.

The economic struggle is trade union work. AWL members in work are all trade unionists and active in their workplaces. This is the slow work of building the sinews of working-class power. The class struggle is felt most keenly in the workplace and its here that we concentrate most of our attention. We are involved at every level of the trade union movement which, for all its bureaucratism and sluggishness, is the most democratic and progressive force on the planet. We seek to transform the trade union movement into a militant fighting force, through building rank-and-file organisation.

The ideological struggle is the political ideas that the class needs to make socialism. As Marx said, the dominant ideas of any period are the ideas of the ruling class. We see this with the capitalist controlled media and an education system run for capitalist interests. Scientific Socialism, as Marx described it, is an ideology that came out of the scientific study of human history. This study was undertaken by bourgeois individuals like Marx. Working-class people are not naturally socialists. This is not to say that the Marxist intellectuals cannot come from working-class backgrounds. It is simply saying that people do not come to socialism through a process of divine revelation. Someone needs to be hammering out the ideas and the propaganda. And much of the left has been corrupted by another ruling class - the Stalinist dictators - who manipulated the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin to justify their own totalitarian rule. Our ideological struggle now, through the website and our newspaper, is to revive and develop the writings and methods of the early Marxist movement and cleanse our tradition of Stalinist filth. We place massive emphasis on collective self-education, learning working-class history, Marxist philosophy, political theory and develop our own critical faculties and abilities to convey these ideas.

I agree that breaking stuff is cathartic. When you hear about the latest bankers bonuses or plans to turn the NHS into a slush fund for BUPA, violent destruction is very appealing. However, what I've outlined above is a coherent way to live a life as a revolutionary socialist.

Submitted by Jason on Tue, 05/04/2011 - 15:48

Ira's letter is good in that it defies any attempt to split the movement into bad and good, deserving and undeserving. Indeed a lot of the property destruction no doubt reflects the anger some people have at some of th einsitutions run by tax avoiding crooks who continue to get massive bonuses and steal profits from the working class whilst forcing thew working class to pay for their mistakes.

There is a need for a serious discussion of tactics but at the forefront should be the recognition that the violence of the bourgeois and their state in sacking hundreds of thousands of workers, in destroying services, attacking benefits and housing and using riot police to attack and arrest peaceful protestors is wrong.

The problem with breaking widows is that they can easily be replaced, that the police come in and start breaking heads. This is not to be moralistic about the matter but merely to focu on tactics that work. We need a mass movement to disrupt the profits of the bourgeois with tactics that work (linked in with a strategy of the people ourselves, organised in the messy direct democracy of mass meetings, taking power)- mass occupations, like those organised by UKUncut and other actions organised by local anticuts groups and serices users, mass demonstrations, strikes and direct action by the working class.

We should demand that all those charged have the charges dropped and against any more arrests to intimidate the movement.

Submitted by stuartjordan on Thu, 07/04/2011 - 16:58

I think some of your impressions of AWL are wrong.

You are right that the trade unions didn't fight throughot the Blair Brown years. But there wasn't any pressure on the TU leadership to fight. LP became a shell and most of the left rank and file trade unionists wanted nothing to do with it (e.g. Socialist Party) giving a clear field for the right wing.

As more workig-class people get back involved in politics, the movement will becme more democratic and left wing. If we can get decent left wingers into leadership positions then they may hasten this process. But the results from th previous decade are not great - the SP/SWP control PCS and it has lost every industrial dispute it has entered into.

A revival in the TU movemen will mean questions are asked about the LP. We don't know what will happen but I expect there will be a time comin when we fight the class struggle inside the LP once again.

Yes, things can move very quickly and people can become quickly radicalised.

On ideological sruggle, I think that your idea is a bit elitist - only the elite need to understand the complex ideas and th masses are only good for action. I would put it differently. Workers learn from facts, not lectures. There are any number of facts that capitalism presents to our class that can turn masses of people into socialists. Facts are particularly obvious when workers egage in struggle. Part of our task is to create that critical political culture where people can think, debate, discuss the way forward - rather than try and get people to sign up to a ready-made 3 point programme.

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