1990s >> 1999 >> no-1136-april-1999

Direct Action

Fly posters pasted up in Norwich invited members of the public to a Direct Action Forum. Stair, a comrade, asked me if I was interested in going along. I wasn’t. But something told me I should get out there and become au fait with what people are thinking, though what people are thinking I often find perturbing. I had done it all over the years and now found it heart-sinking to know that there are still people who believe that cutting wires on perimeter fences and swinging about in the branches of trees is going to change anything. From experience I knew that one-day participants in these activities would grow weary of what they were doing and look for a job, return to their studies or take up a career. I recalled the nights spent in my house in London many years ago talking animatedly with friends about the class struggle. I was not to know then that some of those very same people would, in later years, go on to become MPs, trade union officials or have other establishment careers. For them the class struggle became a distant memory.

By the time we arrived at the pub where the meeting was to be held about forty people had already gathered. By 8.30 the small meeting room was filled to over-capacity with sixty, maybe seventy, eager, bright-eyed young people raring to go. I admit to a stab of regret that the word “socialism” would not have had half the appeal for those present as the words “direct action” obviously had.

The suggestion was made that we should break up into smaller groups to discuss what kind of action we would be interested in taking. I must confess that at this point I was feeling a distinct disinclination to join in this discussion. In fact the only direct action I could imagine myself taking was that of getting the hell out of it and going home. But Stair was enjoying himself. He kicked off by giving the group a short account of his own political history which was half as long as mine but which contained some of the same ingredients. He requested other members of the group to do the same. Like Stair they were young but they did not easily use the word “capitalism”. They wanted to get involved, they said. They had social consciences and knew there was much wrong with society. The car culture, chemical factories, nuclear weapons, genetically modified foods and cycle lanes were among the subjects the direct actionists got excited about. One man announced that he intended to set up a peace camp in Norwich. They said “Nice one” and “Yeah!” to show him he had support in this. No-one thought to ask where in Norwich or even why. Giving some very good examples of why he thought the way he did Stair explained to the group that direct action was a misdirection of energy.

His analyses of the contradictions intrinsic in direct action did not go down very well. Mouths sagged open in disbelief, protests rose from fevered lips and (hopeless, this) psychological deafness set in. “But we’ve got to do something,” they cried. We told them they could become socialists. Their psychological deafness increased.

When we regrouped the spokesperson for our group reported back to the main body of the meeting that there were people in his group who saw no point in direct action. Here Stair interjected with “You’re just pissing about with capitalism.” There was a puzzled silence but no-one took him up on this. And then it was business as usual.

After the meeting Stair was optimistic. He said he felt we may have sown a few seeds. The thought uppermost in my mind was that I would be loath to attend any other direct action forums in the future. The spectacle of all those youthful faces aglow with enthusiasm for something so tenuous caused me to experience an emotion akin to sorrow. All that wonderful energy going into little more than thumbing noses at capitalism. What a shame.


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