Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Direct action not inaction

Andrew Beckett of Smash EDO says Milan Rai's criticism of direct action campaigns misses the point

October 5, 2009
5 min read

Although some of what Milan Rai says in his article, (Disarming the arms makers,) is accurate, he also seems to be suggesting that direct action campaigns, such as the long-running campaign against EDO MBM (now EDO ITT), do little to build broad-based support for anti-militarism. Rai draws parallels with the militant animal rights movement, questioning whether tactics that can win particular battles contribute to larger successes or undermine building mass opposition – essential for an overall victory.

But the established peace movement has little to teach anyone about ‘overall victory’. The biggest spontaneous outbreak of anti-war sentiment in British history (with a few honourable exceptions) before the Iraq war was channelled by a moribund peace movement into a virtual re-run of the failed campaign against nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The whole thrust of the Stop the War coalition’s approach was that marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square would ultimately compel the government to see sense. A march, a few speeches and a coach home … is it any wonder that our government felt safe to go to war?

Underlying the established peace movement’s approach (and Milan’s argument) is the belief that, despite years in political backwater, they hold the key to the genuine social change. Their vision is inherited from movements in the past that have simply sought bigger demos and more paper sales until a mass base of opposition overthrows existing power structures and brings about world peace and social justice.

This leads to a ‘play it safe’ attitude when engaging with the public and the authorities. Defiance and confrontation are seen as alienating and having ‘political costs’. The public is seen as apolitical and need leading in baby steps towards the correct solutions. In fact the peace movement often seem to confuse the public and the media with the priority being to avoid negative headlines at all costs. By contrast, one of the main inspirations for Smash EDO was the mass outpouring of spontaneous rage that occurred across the country on the day that the war against Iraq broke out.

When it comes to demonstrations, the established peace movement insists they be ‘inclusive’ and safe (which often means coordinated with the police) and above all ‘non-violent’. Add an approach advocating ‘bearing witness’ and symbolism over direct action and what you have is a recipe for ineffectiveness. It is this ineffectiveness that is actually the barrier to creating a ‘mass movement’. Every form of inclusivity is also a form of exclusivity – and building a movement around ‘non-violent’ symbolic actions is very exclusive. The reason that the Smash EDO campaign can get over one thousand disobedient people on to the streets and has inspired new campaigns around the country is that it has gone beyond the symbolic.

Milan claims that Smash EDO has a ‘narrow social base’ and that the Mayday Street Party was aimed at ‘solidifying and enthusing’ this base

(presumably at the expense of wider outreach). There is probably some

truth that the ‘branding’ of the campaign has subcultural resonances. For example, the demo in question was on May Day and involved a ‘street party’ pointing to associations with the Reclaim the Streets movement. But in attacking our ‘social base’ of the great unwashed, Milan not only ignores the narrow social base of his own movement but ignores the wide spread of ages and classes who have been involved in the campaign over the years. He makes the typical media error of mistaking the tip for the iceberg. May Day was just one manifestation of an ongoing campaign that has learned there is strength in diversity of tactics.

The May Day crowd, for the most part, was young and ‘up for it’ and come to anti-militarism through anarchism rather than the peace movement. Outraged by the police treatment at the G20, they were determined not to be trapped like that again. The point of the demonstration was to show that the arms trade and global capitalism are inextricably intertwined, and the list of targets, including Barclays, RBS and McDonald’s (all major shareholders in ITT) meant it was more than just a ‘street party in the park’.

In his article Milan quotes an anonymous source about May Day demo, who said ‘I found that once told, 100 per cent of shopkeepers expressed support, although few thought it would change anything.’

This is what we need to change – the belief that it’s impossible to change anything.

Police repression aimed at the EDO campaign stems from their very real

fear that we may have found a way to change things. The May Day

demonstrations did not incur ‘political costs’, rather, by providing an

arena where people were able to fight back against the war machine, it did something to restore the credibility of the ‘peace’ movement.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency