Chris Harman


Third time lucky

(December 1994)

Thinking It Through, Socialist Review, No.181, December 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Direct action can only change, as opposed to protest at, the existing order if it involves forces with real social power. That is why, at the end of the day, the 1984 miners’ strike was a much greater threat to Thatcher than Greenham Common had ever been’

The campaign against the recently passed Criminal Justice Act has been quite amazing. The government had managed to slip its bill into the parliamentary timetable barely noticed by all but a few civil libertarians. It went through its early stages virtually unopposed, with the Labour Party refusing to vote against it.

Then, in the late spring, shortly before it moved from the Commons to the Lords, a movement sprang up against it which brought together previously non-political groupings, like ravers and new age travellers, as well as roads protesters, squatters, trade unionists and socialists. There was a series of semi-spontaneous protests from one end of the country to the other, involving many thousands of young people who had never demonstrated before.

Two huge demonstrations in July and October pushed the issue into the limelight, especially when people on the second demonstration fought back vigorously against police attacks in Park Lane.

Even the tone of the liberal press like the Guardian began to change. The traditional refrain, ‘Young people are not politically engaged like we were when we were at university,’ suddenly became, ‘Young people are looking to a new form of politics based on non-violence and hostility to leadership.’ They claimed the new mood was embodied in the ‘fluffies’ – those who stood for non-violent direct action.

The liberal press has, as usual, got things doubly wrong.

First, the mood expressed on the demonstrations against the Criminal Justice Bill was not completely new. It was already to be seen more than a year ago, on the demonstration against the British Nazi Party’s bunker in Welling, south east London. It was there on the 30,000 strong ‘unofficial’ demonstration against the government’s cut in student grants in the early spring. It was certainly there on the 150,000 strong ANL carnival – even if the liberal press managed almost entirely to ignore that event. And it has been there in the form of a rising level of interest in left wing politics in the universities and further education colleges for nearly 18 months.

Secondly, the politics of the ‘fluffies’ are certainly not new. ‘Non-violent direct action’ was very much the flavour of the month in the early 1960s and again in the early 1980s.

Back in 1961 people like George Clarke, Pat Arrowsmith and Pat Pottle were telling us that if only enough of us sat down in Trafalgar Square or trespassed on Ministry of Defence property we would bring the state crashing down. In fact, we found that the state ignored most of us, leaving us to return home with our tails between our legs, and then, choosing its time, cracked down very hard on an isolated minority, all but destroying the movement.

The experience was very similar in the early 1980s. The huge demonstrations against nuclear missiles in 1981 and 1982 gave way to ‘non-violent direct action’ protests at Greenham Common. Again the state waited until those who had roots in the wider society returned to their homes and their jobs, leaving an isolated minority to hold out for months in the face of relentless persecution, considerable hardship and diminishing active support.

In both cases, what had started as massive, defiant protests aimed at decisive political change ended up as small groups that became concerned almost solely with expressing their own moral convictions and changing their own lifestyles.

The point is that direct action can only change, as opposed to protest at, the existing order if it involves forces with real social power. That is why, at the end of the day, the 1984 miners’ strike was a much greater threat to Thatcher than Greenham Common had ever been.

What is more, if direct action does pose such a challenge it can no longer be, as a matter of principle, non-violent. For, sooner or later, it will have to counter the violence of the state. As the miners’ pickets found in 1984-85 and the Criminal Justice Bill demonstrators found on 9 October, a point is reached where if you do not stand up and resist the violence of the state, it will be used to smash you into the ground.

That does not mean organising vanguard detachments, complete with masks and petrol bombs, to attack the police along the lines of the autonomists in Europe or Class War here. That merely plays into the hands of the police, by allowing them to pretend they are merely responding to someone else’s violence.

It does mean standing firm in the face of police attacks, showing solidarity with each other on the widest basis, while seeking to mobilise wider social forces that can counter the violence of the other side. The most important such force is that of organised workers who have the ability to hit the system at its very core, where value and surplus value are created.

These points are very important when it comes to the issue of where the movement against the Criminal Justice Act goes from here.

It would be a terrible waste if all the anger were frittered away into a series of small protests which involved isolated groups taking actions which, by their very nature, excluded the participation of those rooted in society – those who work, those with families, most single parents, and so on. The end result would not be a challenge to the Act, but small groups trying, unsuccessfully, to live according to alternative lifestyles on the margins of society while the authorities used the Act to beat confessions out of people, to harass protests and to victimise the homeless and the jobless.

What is needed, instead, is a campaign which uses defiance of the law as a spur to mass action, action which involves trade union branches as well as squatters’ groups, shop stewards as well as hunt saboteurs. But to be successful, such a campaign has to go beyond the single issue of the Act to begin to confront all the horrors of life in Tory Britain.

Last updated on 18 December 2009