In support of direct action
In the popular imagination, the term “direct action” conjures up images of violence and chaos. Masked thugs rampaging the streets, battling with the police, spraying graffiti on walls, throwing eggs, bricks. Smashed windows, social disorder, and impotent alarms caterwauling into the night.
But, as with all that offers a challenge to the ruling class and the status quo, the public perception is wildly different from the reality.
I argue that, far from sowing the seeds of disorder, direct action – in all its forms – is the precise reason that we enjoy the (limited) freedoms we do today. Moreover, that it remains the most effective way of forcing positive societal changes from the ruling classes.
What is direct action?
In order to make a positive argument in favour of direct action, we must first understand precisely what it is. As a useful starting point, Wikipedia defines the term thus;
Direct action is politically motivated activity undertaken by individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political goals outside of normal social/political channels. Direct action can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action participant. Examples of nonviolent direct action include strikes, workplace occupations, sit-ins, and graffiti. Violent direct actions include sabotage, vandalism, assault, and murder. By contrast, grassroots organizing, electoral politics, diplomacy and negotiation or arbitration does not constitute direct action. Direct actions are sometimes a form of civil disobedience, but some (such as strikes) do not always violate criminal law.
The aim of direct action is to draw attention to, and support for, an action or position at a grassroots level. Its purpose is to force its cause onto the agenda and bring about change, outside of the normal bureaucratic and political channels which by design bar all interests unpalatable to ruling elites.
The best way, perhaps, to explain this concept fully is by providing select examples and listing their achievements.
Direct action in history, and its achievements
As alluded earlier, direct action is responsible for all of the freedoms that we enjoy today. Society has not advanced because a benevolent ruling class has granted the masses generous concessions out of the goodness of its heart, not because of passive petitioning and asking politely if we might, please, have better conditions. Rather, even the tiniest concession of liberty by those in power is begrudging, forced from them by revolutionary actions and large-scale disobedience by the masses, and remains under constant threat of being rolled back as long as a ruling class exists.
Direct action by the peasantry, the workers, or the popular masses has won us everything from the eight-hour day and the right to join a trade union to universal suffrage and basic freedom of speech. As a demonstration of this, I will run through a few examples;
1. The Haymarket massacre
See also: May Day: in remembrance of Haymarket, elsewhere on this site.
On 1st May, 1886, Chicago’s working class – with the city’s anarchist movement at the fore – began a series of strike actions in support of the American Federation of Labor’s resolution that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886.″ They came to a head on May 3rd when police assaulted and shot at marchers.
In response, anarchist August Spies organised a demonstration on May 4th in Haymarket Square against the attacks. When police moved in to forcibly disperse the protesters, a bomb was thrown at them. They responded with gunfire, mass slaughter, and the rounding up of the eight ringleaders. Four of them – including August Spies – were executed.
Libcom sums up the aftermath of the executions;
600,000 working people turned out for their funeral. The campaign to free Neebe, Schwab and Fielden [the surviving Haymarket anarchists] continued.On June 26th 1893 Governor Altgeld set them free. He made it clear he was not granting the pardon because he thought the men had suffered enough, but because they were innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. They and the hanged men had been the victims of “hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge”.
The authorities has believed at the time of the trial that such persecution would break the back of the eight-hour movement. Indeed, evidence later came to light that the bomb may have been thrown by a police agent working for Captain Bonfield, as part of a conspiracy involving certain steel bosses to discredit the labour movement.
When Spies addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die, he was confident that this conspiracy would not succeed:
“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement… the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you – and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out”
As a result of the struggle and sacrifice of men like Spies, workers in the west now enjoy the right to work no more than eight hours per day. The struggle continues elsewhere, in the Haymarket tradition, but there can be no doubt that the direct action of that day in 1886 bears prime responsibility for any enjoyment of eight-hour days in the present.
2. The Suffragette movement
Without a doubt, the reason that women have the vote today is because of the women whom the New York Times of November 18, 1906 described as “a handful of violent cranks.” The paper describes how the movement was “making a deliberate and well-organized attempt to shame and scare Parliament into granting votes to women.” “They came to the conclusion that the cause of woman suffrage [sic] would be best achieved were the Suffragists to make themselves as unpleasant as possible to the authorities.”
In this assumption, they were proven right. As even the Times article concedes, twelve years before the Representation of the People Act 1918, “the Suffragettes have done more in the last few weeks to obtain victory for their cause than the old-fashioned Suffragists succeeded in accomplishing in many years.”
3. The Battle of Cable Street
On October 4, 1936, the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Moseley, planned a march through the East End of London. At the time, the BUF were gaining in popularity, and this march was aimed at promoting their fascist agenda by claiming the streets of the East End, where there was a large Jewish population.
However, in response to these plans, a great mass of anarchists, socialists, Jews, trade unionists, and – after retracting their initial opposition – Communists organised to oppose the march. The clash between the two groups would become known as “the Battle of Cable Street.”
The working class activists erected barriers to bar entry to the fascists, and resisted the advances of bothe the fascists and their police collaborators in a series of running battles that ultimately saw the march dispersed. An article in the Guardian from 2006 quotes eyewitness Bill Fishman, who was 15 at the time of the battle;
I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism.
Ultimately, this action by the ordinary people of the East End spelled the demise of the BUF, and set a powerful example that would be instrumental in repelling the National Front in the 1970s. Without the warriors of Cable Street, one can only speculate where British fascism might have ended up. Or how different history might have been.
4. The Civil Rights Movement
On 1st December 1955, a black woman refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger. Rosa Parks’ action drew greater attention to the plight of blacks as second class citizens in the United States and inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the spark that lit the tinder of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
The Bus Boycott was only the first in a broad campaign of direct action. In 1960, sit-ins at lunch counters, parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, museums, and other public places forced the issue of segregationist policies onto the public agenda. The following year, in the face of massive violence from the Ku Klux Klan and state collaborators, activists engaged in “Freedom Rides” aimed at integrating seating patterns and desegregating bus terminals, including restrooms and water fountains, in the Deep South.
After the Freedom Rides, and again in the face of KKK and state repression, there was a massive drive to organise and register black voters in Missisipi. After a swathe of desegregation and integrationist campaigns, 1963 saw the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This massive protest march, comprised of all of the major civil rights organizations, the more progressive wing of the labor movement, and other liberal organizations as well as black civil rights groups, aimed at pushing for “meaningful civil rights laws, a massive federal works program, full and fair employment, decent housing, the right to vote, and adequate integrated education.”
The above is just a snapshot of the direct action that took place in support of black civil rights. Activists were arrested and jailed, beaten by police and racist groups alike, took part in marches, sat down and refused to move, occuppied buildings and places of business, and forcibly upset the double standards of the status quo. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, and visible change to the very psyche of the United States, the achievements of the movement are undeniable.
Direct action today
Today, the tradition of direct action continues apace. To give just a few examples, anarchists in Greece are engaged in running battles with neo-fascist paramilitary groups and their police collaborators, anti-deportation activists continually engage in blockades protesting illegal detention and mass deportation, auto workers in Korea occupied their place of work in protest at proposed job losses, and parents in Lewisham have occupied Lewisham bridge primary school in protest over its closure. One might also cite the Camp for Climate Action and the No Borders Camp in Calais as examples of ongoing direct action aimed at highlighting broader issues.
However, almost without exception, direct action is derided as “counterproductive,” a “mere distraction,” “hooliganism,” “out of touch with the real world,” and even “terroristic.” Authoritarians and “moderates,” better known as apologists, don’t like it for the simple reason that it upsets the status quo.
But that is precisely the point.
If all protest was of the “legal” and “orderly” type – i.e. confined to cordoned-off “free speech zones,” drowned in police presence, unseen, and unheard – then nothing would ever be accomplished. Indeed, we might even begin to move backwards. Progress is what happens when ordinary people take to the streets en massé and force as much concession from the ruling classes as possible. Societal advance is the result of ever more layers of power being stripped from the state and capital.
During the Spanish Revolution, Buenaventura Durruti Dumange said this;
It is we the workers who built these palaces and cities here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth; there is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.
The only thing that stops this being true is our submission. When those in power cannot use the brutal force exacted against the Haymarket rioters, it locks us up in pens and calls it “free speech,” and the hounds of the media print lie after lie after lie. Whatever form suppression takes, it must be resisted. “Moderation” is the admission that you have no desire to see your goals and visions come to pass. Direct action is the only guaranteed agent of progressive change in our society.
Waiting on the benevolence of those above will achieve nothing. Only direct action can force through positive change. If we are to see a better world, then it is our duty to disobey.