Book Review: The Limits of Protest

The Limits of Protest by Peter Buckman. Gollancz. 50s.

Despite its promising title this is a rambling and confused book. Buckman’s basic argument (so far as it can be disentangled from the mass of quotations) is that single-issue campaigns aimed at winning mass support to persuade a government to change its policy arc ineffective.

He says much the same of these campaigns. such as CND. as we said of them at the time:

“campaigns on single social or political issues suffer from the fact that, if they are successful, it is too often through no contribution of theirs : besides, an exactly similar issue will shortly crop up when the energy of the protesters has been dissipated.”

and protesters

“offer empty demonstrations on vicarious issues, opportunities to “do something” which are more gesture than substance, vacuous rhetoric and pious imprecations.”

Is Buckman against such campaigns then? Of course not; he is a typical “leftwinger” who believes that you can combine the fight for reform with the fight for revolution. “Single issue campaigns”, he says “are essential to build a radical consciousness”.

What he has in mind is “radicals” helping discontented people in their protest campaigns in the hope that in return these people will help them overthrow “the system”. This is the old discredited Leninist tactic. Buckman, however, cannot make up his mind whether or not there should also be a vanguard party to lead these struggles. He obviously does not like the idea but speaks of the “immense danger” that the energies of those who preach “spontaneity”.

“if not co-ordinated, will simply dissipate themselves in isolated actions, which more and more resemble the single-issue campaigns whose limitations we analysed.”

But is the choice really only between elitism and ordinary reformism? Since we solved the dilemma of reform and revolution many years ago the Socialist Party of Great Britain has insisted that there is another way: the role of a revolutionary party is to spread revolutionary ideas and not to propose reforms of the system it seeks to overthrow.


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