Peter Sedgwick

The Direction of Action

(May 1961)

Peter Sedgwick, The Direction of Action, Socialist Review, May 1961.
Taken from the collection A Socialist Review (1965), pp.178-181.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The anti-nuclear sitdowns have had a bad Press, not least from the Left – which is usually so quick to acclaim insubordination – if it takes place in other countries. It seems that it is all right for the 121 to advocate illegal tactics in France, but wrong for the 100 to undertake much milder forms of mutiny in Britain. Tribune and Canon Collins jump to denounce the “lunatic fringe” behind the Easter Monday sitdown in Grosvenor Square. The various vanguards of the proletariat and (on the whole) the New Left movement are conspicuous by their absence from the cold pavement outside the Ministry of Defence in February. Even Socialist Review permitted itself a cheap gibe at the sitdown (in last month’s editorial) – although most of its contributors seemed to be out there on that pavement.

One may well agree that the post-Aldermaston sitdown was ill-organised and ill-timed. (Socialist Review goes to press too late to be able to comment on the Committee of 100 sitdown in Parliament Square on April 29th.) But on the other hand, anything that tends to increase disrespect for the “law and order” that protects Polaris is to that extent commendable. And above all any criticism of Direct Action, its methods, activities and participants, should be fraternal criticism. These people are, after all, trying to get a job done (the job of abolishing the Bomb unilaterally), and done quickly. Even the most wrong-headed Direct Actionist is at least right in his scepticism as to the possibilities of purely “constitutional” action in bringing about a better world.

Get moving

Our approach to Direct Action (whether organised by the committee bearing that name, or by the more widely-based Committee of 100), should also be empirical: that is, we should refrain from blanket judgements pro or con Direct Action as such, and should examine each proposed form of civil disobedience on its merits as a possible means of waging the anti-nuclear class struggle. Most Marxist Socialists seem to be agreed that industrial stoppages against the Bomb are a desirable form, even though last month’s editorial felt rightly obliged to stress that strikes of this kind will have at present to begin in (unfortunately) only a token fashion.

Yet we cannot leave our consideration of Direct Action at the stage of proclaiming “No work on Rocket Bases!” This slogan, uttered or distributed practically anywhere in Britain, amounts to saying that somebody else (i.e. workers in rocket bases) has to get moving. But the essence of revolutionary politics is that WE – and anybody else we can involve around us – should get moving.

We should then think of Direct Action as a form of militant demonstration undertaken to alert the British people to the nuclear peril and to show that there are large numbers of people who hate nuclear weapons sufficiently to prove that they mean business. As and when working-class Direct Action follows in the form of strikes against the Bomb. Direct Action will become something far more important: a dangerous challenge to the social system that needs the Bomb.


The mistake made by many Direct Action enthusiasts is to suppose that the present forms of Direct Action are sufficient, if expanded on a really huge scale, to overthrow nuclear weapons. After the February sit down Russell stated that the aim of the Committee of 100 was to carry on organising ever more disobedient kinds of disobedience until the Government was forced to the choice of either imprisoning thousands of people or abdicating. Clearly the implication is that the Government would then rather abdicate than imprison. (For there is no point in imprisonment for its own sake.)

Other Direct Actionists conceive of their task as that of carrying their martyrdom to such an extent that the Tories will be converted by the example of suffering offered them, and give up the Bomb. (This might be called the “pressure-politics” view of Direct Action; it is no coincidence that the recent CND National Conference both approved Direct Action as a form of CND activity and rejected a resolution demanding a concentration of forces on the Labour Party struggle.)

Both of these approaches are what may be called “ideologies” of Direct Action; acceptance of them does not depend on a detailed consideration of this or that particular kind of activity, but rather contains a total philosophy of politics, usually that associated with the name of Gandhi. It is worth noting that Gandhi was by no means an absolute foe of violence. He helped in recruiting Indian troops to the Allied imperialist side during World War I, and refused to protest against the imprisonment of the Garwalhi soldiers (who refused to fire on a crowd in Peshawar) on the grounds that when independence came Congress would need an obedient soldiery, and this set a bad example!

Besides. Gandhist Direct Actioners usually have a curiously rosy picture of the struggle for Indian independence, which certainly did not succeed by melting imperialist hearts by the spectacle of total non-violence.

The struggle included terrorism, sabotage, mob-violence and mutiny among its methods as well as hunger-strikes and passive disobedience; Indian masses, like any others, had a habit of breaking into distinctly violent forms of Direct Action if they were thwarted or shot at, this causing immeasurable sorrow to the Mahatma on numerous occasions.

It is unlikely, moreover, that any more than a very few Direct Action participants will follow the Gandhists in positively seeking imprisonment as a consequence to their protest. (Only one out of nearly thirty defendants after the Grosvenor Square sit-down chose to go to jail rather than pay a fine.)

The attitude of what may be called the “hard-core” Direct Actionist, who can seriously discuss whether or not disobedience has to be carried to the extent of refusing to use the prison lavatories, is in marked contrast to the course followed by, for example, the seamen’s leader Paddy Neary, who got out of his imprisonment for “contempt of court” during the shipping strike by humbly apologising to the judge for his subversive activities against the bosses – following which, of course, he promptly resumed those activities in the National Seamen’s Reform Movement.

Most supporters of the Committee of 100 will, of course, not strive to keep out of prison at all costs: there are occasions when any serious rebel has to be prepared to enter jail rather than sacrifice principle. But this is a far cry from the “hard-core” Actionist’s craving for four narrow walls and a plank bed.

To sum up, one can probably do no more than repeat the call made by the anarchist paper Freedom at the time of the first demonstration outside the Defence Ministry:


May 1961


Last updated on 12.11.2004