Chris Harman

Thinking it through

May the force be with you

(July 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.243, July/August 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Anti-capitalist protests must draw in large groups of workers to take the movement forward, argues Chris Harman

Every successful protest movement goes through two phases. The first is when it bursts upon the world, taking its opponents by surprise and bringing joy to those who agree with its aims. The longer the time since the last great movement of protest, the greater the joy. And the sheer momentum of the movement draws its adherents together, making all but isolated groups on the margins play down old differences of opinion and old arguments on tactics.

But those against whom the protests are directed do not simply give up. Once the initial shock is over, they strengthen their own defences and attempt to stall the movement’s forward motion. At this point, arguments over tactics necessarily arise within the movement, even among people who have sworn to forget old disputes in the interests of consensus.

This happened, for instance, with the movement against nuclear weapons in Britain in the late 1950s. The euphoria of unexpected success gave way after three years to bitter arguments over tactics between those who looked to changing Labour Party policy and those who put their faith in mass non-violent direct action. Similar arguments erupted a decade later in the US in the movement against the Vietnam War – was the way forward to try to pressurise the government, or was it to try to find the forces that could revolutionise society?

There are signs of a similar process of debate and polarisation within the movements which burst upon the world last year, most vividly with Seattle. The debates have been most bitter among the various forces involved in London’s 1 May demonstration. The breaking of windows in a McDonald’s, the painting of a statue of Winston Churchill, a few scrawlings on the Cenotaph war memorial caused a predictable outcry in the media. Less predictably it produced an anguished debate on the website of the organising focus for 1 May, Reclaim the Streets, and a bitter attack on the behaviour of the protesters from the movement’s most prominent journalistic sympathiser, George Monbiot of the Guardian: ‘The movement ... has lost the plot,’ he wrote. ‘It has turned into an association of incoherent vigilantes, simultaneously frivolous and menacing ... The nutters in the crowd smashed up shops and defaced the Cenotaph.’

The arguments are not completely new. They had begun to emerge in the aftermath of Seattle. Medea Benjamin, a leading figure in Global Exchange, which played an important role in organising for Seattle, wrote afterwards:

‘The mass, non-violent protests in Seattle represented the culmination of a months-long process of coalition-building by organisations.’ But ‘a small number of protesters took it upon themselves to break the sense of solidarity and collective cohesion ... in the most sectarian manner’ by ‘breaking windows, overturning trash bins and looting; roughing up WTO delegates, store employees and customers; and blanketing downtown Seattle with graffiti’. This was ‘negative in the eyes of the general public’.

Such arguments are not accidental. Nor can the problems be simply laid at the feet of ‘anarchists’. They follow from the difficulties of achieving the goal the movement has set itself – the magnificent but extremely awesome one of confronting the world system.

Protests like that at the meeting of the World Trade Organisation have been of enormous symbolic importance. They have shown people right across the world that there is a movement against the system and, even to some extent, legitimised its claims. But that is not the same as inflicting permanent harm on the system. Within a couple of days of the protests deals are being made again, new forms of exploitation launched, billions of new profits counted. It is hardly surprising if some activists feel they have to go beyond simply symbolic non-violent action.

That is why the anarchists won some support on 1 May in London. Yet, their ‘violent’ actions were just as much symbolic gestures as the non-violent actions of their critics. For the anarchists did not claim they were going to close down global capitalism, or even McDonald’s global operations. They were making a gesture, and nothing more, even if it was a more vigorous gesture than the guerrilla gardeners’.

The logic of such anarchist gesture politics was to be seen in certain European countries in the 1980s. Relatively small groups of ‘autonomists’ would take to the streets, their faces covered in masks, for ritualised attacks on property and clashes with the police. Disorder would feature prominently in television news broadcasts, and then ...everything would return to normal. The only change was that the movements out of which the autonomists once emerged grew progressively smaller and more isolated, and the forces of the state progressively more confident and aggressive. The real issue that faces activists is not violence or non-violence as such, but how to tap the forces that can go beyond symbolic actions of either sort.

Global capitalism rests upon the exploitation of billions of people around the world – on a global working class. The members of this class grow up within the existing system, and usually take much of its functioning for granted. All the time, however, its needs clash radically with theirs. It demands flexibility, endless competition for jobs, ‘reforms’ which cut back on sickness, old age and unemployment provision, of each and every IMF structural adjustment programme.

The bitterness this engenders can suddenly explode into mass action capable of paralysing parts of the system. In recent weeks we’ve seen general strikes in Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, a new wave of unrest in Ecuador, huge protests of the landless in Brazil, riots over fare rises in Guatemala, and threats of public sector strikes in Norway and Germany.

Those leading these struggles have often been trade union bureaucrats keen to avoid any fundamental challenge to the system. Those taking action on the ground have often not seen that they are part of a global struggle. Yet just as there is global system, so too there is a global pattern of struggle against it. The great importance of the symbolic actions like that planned for Prague in September is that they can provide a focus, a sense of unity for all the disparate forces that are beginning to fight back.

But the movement will reach a point when it begins to fragment unless activists find ways of going beyond symbolism. That means involvement in each and every concrete struggle against the system, drawing together the most militant, most far-seeing activists, so that each learns from and contributes to the struggles of the others. It means, in other words, beginning to build revolutionary organisations among the world’s workers.

Protests like that against the WTO have been of enormous symbolic importance

Last updated on 22 December 2009