Make-Believe Revolutionaries: Two Case-Histories of Direct Action
A commonplace response to the Socialist case, by people who find it unanswerable, is that it is “all right in theory”. The implication is that there is something separate from and superior to theories, called Practice. This is, to start with, a misunderstanding of the nature of theory. Theory does not precede or stand apart from practice: on the contrary, it is the conclusion from practice — from what has happened and what is observed.
The sort of Practice implied, therefore, is action which does not give a hang for the known facts. The practitioners never state it like that, of course; they are Getting Things Done, and Striking a Blow for this or that. In recent years its special manifestation has been Direct Action, the doctrine of people taking things into their own hands and launching themselves against the system. Looking at some well-known instances, it is possible to see Practice in practice. Does direct action work?
The squatter movement began in 1968, as a venture by the East London Libertarian Group. “Venture” is an accurate enough term: it was preceded by agitations over housing conditions at Coventry Cross, conditions in an unmarried mothers’ home in Walthamstow, and claimants’ grievances at the local Social Security office. For several weeks the squatter campaign consisted of Sunday afternoon visits to examples of inequality in housing. Invited groups of libertarians met without knowing where they would be taken — mystery tours, as a delighted anarchist described them without qualms over the leadership principle.
The general history of the squatter battles at Ilford and derivative episodes elsewhere, when the occupation of empty property began, is well enough known. Demonstration about homelessness became an infection in the Left; the north-west anarchist federation’s bulletin described it as “the highest form of revolutionary activity possible in Britain today”. But in fact the campaign’s first casualty was the proclaimed revolutionary content, the deadest mortality the anarchist slogan “Do it yourself”. For the avowed purpose was to promote direct action among the working class, and it never happened. The families which squatted in empty houses were taken to, installed and defended in them by the libertarian groups. No one did it himself.
Scalps & Souls
The Ilford episode ended in a treaty with the Council, which undertook — on certain conditions — to make condemned houses available for homeless families. The terms re-invoked the original presumption of the mystery tours: they were made not by the house-seekers or by collective decision of the agitators, but by the East London Libertarians’ leader Ron Bailey. Among the conditions was one that the houses where the siege had raged were to be given up, including a house in which a group of libertarians had made their own commune. On their eviction Freedom had a bitter, passionate article headed “The Soul of a Movement”. It was, they felt, as if the Redskin chief had started trading his own braves’ scalps to the white man.
Freedom Press was enthusiastic for squatting, and for the London hippies who occupied buildings in the Drury Lane-Piccadilly area: the “commune of the streets”. In 1969, after successive evictions, some of the hippies went to Freedom, cited the paper’s persistent encouragement of them and pointed out that the Freedom/Express Printers building in Angel Alley, Whitechapel, had empty rooms galore. The building had been acquired and renovated in the previous two years. The Freedom group felt a moral compulsion — they had supported, vindicated, egged-on; so they let the army of hippy squatters in. In the next two weeks, the building was turned to a shambles. Hell’s Angels stood guard, demanding subscriptions from anarchists who went there. The culminating incident was lead-stripping — from the roof above, from the printing works below. Describing it all in an article, the Freedom group asked unhappily: “What were we to do?” The movement’s soul was certainly a soul in torment.
At its height, squatting had a great deal of public sympathy. It had the Left and libertarian groups working together; and it illustrated succinctly all their misdirections and failings. “Direct action” failed, in circumstances most favourable to it. Indeed, the term “squatting” was a misnomer, implying people spontaneously taking possession. As has been said, that never happened: “installation” would have been more accurate. Nor is this mere carping. What has to be seen is that the do-it-yourself revolution was a myth, and the reality was a series of simple charitable acts. And today the energy and good intentions of the squatter movement appear to have made useful auxiliaries for local councils in their housing administration and welfare services.
As for the hippy squatters, it may sound ungracious but is true to say they were not homeless people at all. In general, they had homes but chose to be away from them; perhaps with reasons, but that is a different question. Their being on the streets was due chiefly to the demise of the Drury Lane Arts Laboratory, where anyone and everyone kipped. But the Freedom Press dilemma — “What were we to do?” — originated in uncritical support for any semblance of direct action. Otherwise, it would be hard to account for the presence on Freedom’s doorstep of Hell’s Angels, who are the nearest thing to pre-war Fascist youth in Britain today.
Bombs & Bullets
The most recent demonstration of direct action has been the “Angry Brigade” bombings. There is, no doubt, a division between those who would actually have done this kind of thing and those who would not; but there is no doubt either that it had the sympathy of practically all direct-actionists. A pamphlet published shortly before the Old Bailey trial, by the “Stoke Newington Eight Defence Group”, tries hard to suggest that bombs and firearms are now the method of radical activists at large:
“The state is also alleging that bombings and shootings claimed by the First of May Group, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Wild Bunch and Lotta Continua are also part of this conspiracy. In fact just about every single guerrilla action undertaken by groups from very different political areas within the movement over the past four years has been put down to them. The prosecution is attempting to create falsely the image that the political offensive carried out by the movement in the past four years is the work of a very small isolated gang of madmen.”
What is a “political offensive” in these terms supposed to achieve? The authors of the pamphlet, which is called A Political Statement, assert that the Angry Brigade’s terrorism was an integral part of a working-class uprising:
“Being part of their revolution they are sensitive to the needs and desires of that revolution. On January 12th we had a one day strike, we went on huge marches all over the country, we planned strategies for the future and we bombed Robert Carr.”
The implication intended is of a massive number of workers united in all those activities. But one has only to ask who are the “we” of the dramatically italicized sentence, and its meaningless ranting is immediately exposed. On January 12, 1971, some trade unionists demonstrated against the Industrial Relations Bill; Left-wing groups distributed leaflets and had euphoric syndicalist dreams; and, in complete dissociation from all of that, a secret handful planted bombs which caused outrage but little harm.
The absurd delusion of a grand “political offensive” is further emphasized in a photograph of Carr’s front door, under the heading “The Minister’s Palace Destroyed”: which is quite untrue. Indeed, if the object of the “bombing and shooting” has been to kill representatives of the State, its incompetence is almost comical. The pamphlet claims at least 107 bombing episodes: not one person was hurt by them, it seems. If, on the other hand, the aim was not to kill but to alarm, that is even more ludicrous. It is reminiscent of the old yarn about the man who, finding his wife in bed with the milkman, went outside and kicked the milkman’s horse. What sort of “offensive” is that?
Nevertheless, behind the puerile fantasy lie serious political considerations. At a simple everyday level, those most likely to be killed and injured by bombing are not establishment-figures but working men and women; Northern Ireland, to which the pamphlet refers repeatedly, demonstrates this only too well. For all the cant about “we” and “the movement”, bomb-planting is the negation of class-consciousness and democratic practice. Anarchists and direct-actionists may approve of the faits-accomplis, but that does not alter the fact that at the time they had no knowledge or control of what was being done in their name. Early in 1971 when publicity for the Angry Brigade explosions was at its height, the libertarian gossip and speculation were that the bombs were the work of agents-provocateurs with the object of raising public opinion against the Left. So much for “we”!
The knowledge that opinion — and repressive measures — are thus raised is another reason why terrorist tactics should not be supported. The State and the newspapers do not distinguish between “pretend” revolutionaries and real ones: direct action has done great harm to the growth of the Socialist movement. The “political statement” pamphlet complains of these consequences of the actions it is acclaiming:
“This is a long hard struggle . . . It will be even more difficult in face of attacks from the political police which have grown enormously in organisation and number in the past year. The fact that there have been so many raids, the fact that they now habitually seize all political documents that they come across in their raids. The fact that innocent brothers and sisters arc locked up, some of them for many years.”
Up to recent times anarchists were wont to respond to the traditional accusation of bomb-throwing by saying they had given it up because they had learned that governments did it better. That was at least a realistic view. The “urban guerrilla” and the saboteur may be problems to the state, but there is no question of their being able to match or weaken its armed power. Engels was able to point this out in military detail to would-be insurrectionists in 1895, in his preface to Marx’s Class Struggles in France. Speaking of the German bourgeoisie’s readiness to let rebels engage in physical battle with them, he said: “We are not so stupid.”
The most important question of all, however, is: who are the enemy? Against whom is the “offensive”? The Angry Brigade’s targets were representatives of the State. The “political statement” of their supporters has not a single reference to capitalism, but insists on the state as adversary:
“It began when it became clear that the state can and will smash the movement if it feels it can win. The bombings started.
And when he [Heath] talks of civil war, he is talking of a military/political offensive against all who oppose the corporate state.
The Stoke Newington Eight are . . . militants who have been active in the resistance to the corporate state and in the revolutionary movement.”
Six years ago anarchists were wearing badges and carrying banners which said: “The state is your enemy”. And it is wrong, wrong, wrong. The deprivations, conflicts and miseries of the world we live in are caused not just by governments but by capitalism. The State’s rôle is to enforce them with the coercive machinery against which direct-actionists stub their toes and knock their heads. What the working class has to do is organize to abolish capitalism — by gaining control of the state machine with conscious intent to that end.
Socialists have no sympathy with those who believe bombs contribute to a social revolution. Of course rage and the desire for reprisal are emotions we have all experienced — who has not felt something like the poet’s “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough/It isn’t fit for humans now”, or wished to kick-in the huge grinning teeth of some inflated politician? But the futility and self-destructiveness are clear. Indignation becomes constructive only when it is translated to consciousness. The direct-actionist asserts that consciousness can be a result of the act, that to cajole or push people into being hammered by capitalism’s force is to spread comprehension of what it is all about. There is not a shred of evidence that this has ever happened. On the other hand, the evidence provided by case-histories of direct action and terrorism is that they are at least fatuous and at worst horrifyingly pernicious, and always anti-working-class.
The means to change society exist and wait to be used, as Engels went on to say:
“The irony of world history turns everything upside down. We, the ‘revolutionaries’, the ‘rebels’—we are thriving far better on legal methods than on illegal methods and revolt . . . we, under this legality, get firm muscles and rosy cheeks and look like eternal life.”