Direct action: the make-it-yourself

After all t direct action is no novelty. It has been practised
again and again with more or less success . . . It means simply
this—the firm, determined attitude on the part of the people to
assert their rights and to pursue happiness whether such assertion
or pursuit be considered illegal or not. m

Direct action, after all, simply means that each of us indivi-
dually must decide for himself the morality or immorality of any
course of action; and having decided, to act or to refuse to act,
according to the circumstances of the case and the character of
the question involved. ... . . „

—J. Blair Smith : "Direct Action versus Legislation

(Freedom Press 1909)

Direct action :

the make it yourself revolution

The phrase direct action was first given currency by the French
revolutionary syndicalists of sixty years ago, and was associated with
the various forms of militant industrial resistance—the stake, go-slow,
working-to-rule, sabotage, and the general strike.

For a while, in the years before the First World War, when the
ideas of syndicalism were being popularised in this country, and in the
period of intense industrial unrest which followed that war, it seemed
that the philosophy of direct action and its corollary in the demand for
workers* control, were going to take root in British trade unionism.
The General Strike of 1926 is usually taken to mark the end of this
period, and the end of the syndicalist "myth" of the general strike, but
it should be noted that this was not in fact a strike for revolutionary
ends, but an act of solidarity with the miners (a fact which makes the
cowardice and vacillation of the trade union leadership seem all the
more contemptible in retrospect). The weakness of syndicalism in its
traditional form were discussed in Anarchy 2; the point to emphasise
here is that the limitations in the syndicalist armoury are not weaknesses
of direct action as a tactic or of the strike as a weapon.

Indeed, the use or the threat of the strike (which is after all, the
commonest' example of direct action, and one which is neither illegal
nor violent) is, in terms of the aims for which it is employed, frequently
successful- A leading article in The Guardian (5/2/62) observes that
"The tragedy of industrial relations since the war is that time and again
strikes or the threat of strikes have paid handsomely'*. Whether you
think this a tragedy or not depends on your point of view.

The railwayman, contemplating the 3% wage increase offered after
a year's negotiation, by Dr. Beeching, formerly of ICI, who is paid
£24,000 a year for trying to make the railways pay by the not very
original method of cutting down services, is not likely to agree; nor
are the 120,000 government employees whose 2s. a week increase was
withdrawn under the "pay pause", when they read (New Statesman
26/1/62) that Mr. R. A. Butler has become £25,000 richer (tax-free)
as a result of the rise in Courtauld shares following Id's take-over bid.

The theoretician of French revolutionary syndicalism, Emile Pouget,
observed in La Confederation du Travail that "Direct action is not neces-
sarily synonymous with violence. It can be brought about by gentle
and pacifist conduct, as well as by very violent means." This brings
us at once to Gandhi, and to the more recent examples of direct action
on Gandhian lines from America in the struggle for racial equality —
the Montgomery bus boycott and the lunch-counter "sit-ins" — examples
of the way in which, as Martin Luther King points out, direct action
has effected social changes which decades of "constitutional" struggle
would probably have failed to achieve.

Today's field of experiment is direct action against war and war
preparation, which is the subject of this issue of Anarchy. Nicolas
Walter in his long essay follows the history of anti-militarism, of
pacifism, of non-violence, and of the current campaign in which these
themes are drawn together. Peter Cadogan's article, which was origin-
ally a contribution to the discussion of "new politics" in Peace News,
is included not for its advocacy of a "new party" (albeit a non-electoral
one), but for its imaginative enlargement of the discussion in what is,
for us, an anarchist direction.

To campaign against war, on any but the most superficial and
illusory of levels, is to campaign against the state, and to campaign
against the state is to envisage a different form of social organisation,
in which people take back into their own hands the control of their
own destiny. This is direct action, and it has applications to every
field of life; to work, leisure, education, welfare, and to our whole
social and physical environment.

To the anarchist, one of the tragedies of human existence is that
the vast majority of the world's inhabitants are people to whom things
happen. Direct action is the method of people who do things, who
initiate things, who are their own masters.

The politics
of direct action


If it be true that the future of politics belongs not to parliament-
ary but to direct action we are required to define what is meant by
both these terms and give grounds for saying why the second must
supercede the first. Wishful thinking has nothing to do with the case.

Parliamentary or electoral politics consists of the business of
electing Members of Parliament or local Councillors so that they may
be entrusted with the functions of legislating and government and be
periodically accountable for their deeds. In the nature of the case
this kind of politics is the special responsibility of the few; the majority
have but to register their vote at set intervals and in the interim to
maintain skeletal electoral machinery in readiness for the next call
upon its employment.

Parliamentary government was originally based upon representa-
tion of propertied interests defined by the limited franchise of the rural
freeholder and the urban freeman. It was the means whereby the
new rulers, the gentry and merchants, gave constitutional embodiment
to a form of state different in substance to that of government by royal
prerogative. This parliamentary sovereignty, however, was not estab-
lished by Parliament but by the New Model Army acting in its name.
Constituent design followed in the wake of direct revolutionary action.
It was over two hundred years later that representative government was
transformed into parliamentary democracy by universal franchise. This
achievement did nothing to alter the fact that Parliament, of its nature,
could be nothing but the instrument of the few governing the many.

In the face of the complexity of modern political economy the few
have been obliged to extend the machinery of control without permitting
it to face the sanctions of democracy — thus the proliferation of the
Civil Service, the Armed Forces and police; and Oxbridge. The new

PETER CADOGAN is not an anarchist. He regards himself as part of
the tradition that is associated with John Lilburne, John Bunyan,
Jonathan Swift, Tom Paine, George Julian Harney, William Morris,
Tom Mann, R. H. Tawney and Christopher Caudwell~-the English
radical-revolutionary tradition, but also thinks that political literacy
necessitates real knowledge of Marx, Ixnin and Trotsky, and takes a
good view of Ray a Dunayevskaya's marxist humanism.
state structure built largely under the stress of two world wars (when
constitutional precedents tend to pass un-noticed) and composed of
people literally related to those who make up the government of indus-
try and finance, is now of vast proportions and wholly beyond the
effective control of Members of Parliament. Something vestigial Is
retained at Question Time, and, for the rest, Members are allowed to
go through the motions of government. The Cabinet, in consultation
with other Top People, take the political decisions. The whole massive
machinery of state is at their disposal. The elected representatives of
the people are kept in line by the party whips, the prospects of pelf
and the desire for security, i.e., getting back next time. In face of the
ever increasing complexity of modern government the all-purpose MP
moves further and further into the cold and is reduced to writing stalling
letters to his constituents, waiting for the division bell and acting as a
very well paid guide to the antiquities of the Palace of Westminster.

Under the conditions of state capitalism parliamentary democracy
slowly grinds to a halt and the prospect becomes one of choice between
tyranny dressed up as Parliament and real democracy by direct action.
The choice is not of our making, it is necessitated by circumstances.
The Bomb is the symbol and highest expression of the new tyranny of
the state. The military alliance is its handmaiden. The nation-state
has given way to the international power-political block and in its
name the self-determination of peoples has been traduced. The Russian
and American empires by their several methods are attempting the
conquest of the self-same world. Since this is manifestly impossible
we are bound soon to reach the point where things can no longer
continue in the old way. When we reach that point we shall either
have to break out of the imperial dilemma by concerted international
mass action or consent to being blown to pieces.

Direct action is a theory and practice of politics that envisages
the active participation of the overwhelming majority in the making
and implementing of political decisions. It is the negation of any elitist
theory or practice. It starts from the proposition that the ordinary
mortal has intelligence and imagination and that collective wisdom,
critically and democratically developed, is both more humane and more
efficient than any "enlightenment" that proceeds from on high.

Direct action is concerned with ideas; and they should be judged
by results. In any situation the first task is always to identify the
problem, to ask the right question and then to proceed by experimental
investigation to work out the answer. (Currently a vast amount of time
and energy has been wasted on irrelevant or unimportant questions
such as "Who do we want in place of Mr. Gaitskell?" Once the nature
of Parliament is understood, this question, and any answer to it, can
have no more than the peripheral significance of Parliament itself).

Direct action assumes the possibility of a make-it-yourself political
future common to us all. The embryonic elements of its construction
are all around us. In the past these elements have been regarded as
ancillary to parliamentary politics. In future the position is to be
reversed. The ad hoc body, the voluntary association, the functional
decentralised unit democratically conducted — these are legion and are
the germ of the direct democracy of the future. In the centre of the
new scheme of things is politically conscious rank and file trade union-
ism and professionalism.

It is for each of us to study the decision-making methods that at
present relate to his own particular and specialised form of work and
spheres of interest and activity. In the teaching profession, for example,
it is apparent that whereas in the past decisions have always been taken
by Heads, Chief Education Officers, the Ministry and the Treasury
(with the usual ritual acknowledgments to Parliament, Education Com-
mittees and Governors) the future belongs to the staff meeting, the
professional conference of subject teachers and a new level of political
consciousness and organisation — all this in view of the infinite possi-
bilities of educational science in an incipiently classless society.

Given that every industry, service and profession is looked at in
a similar way it follows that the answers to the question "What next?"
will be as variable as the variety of the conditions themselves. We have
to start from where we are now, and see the genesis of the future in
present non-elitist forms of organisation rather than to utter slogans
about workers' control and workers' councils (never defined) and leave
it at that. .

What is the central unifying factor that gives cohesion and effective-
ness to decentralised direct action? There can be only one answer—
the issue of war and peace. It is no accident that it is over the threat
of World War Three that the most striking new expressions of direct
action have been worked out. AldermastonsI— IV were revolutionary
by their implications. They were the first decisive steps away from
parliamentarism and the subsequent steps leading to the Committee of
100 have arisen as further imaginative responses to international neces-
sity conceived in terms of direct action. From moral protest to mass
opposition; from there to non- violent civil disobedience; and from that
to mass sovereignty— the take-over. This would seem to be the his-
torical order.

Given this case, and central to its development, is the creation ot
a new party of direct action, the party of the non-violent revolution.
The difference between this party and the Committee of 100— with which
it ought not to be involved in any necessary contradiction— is that
whereas the Committee of 100 is concerned simply with the Bomb
and its more immediate ramifications the party's terms of reference are
as wide as the whole of society.

Today every department of English life is starved of new imagina-
tive ideas. Yet at the same time there are any number of isolated
individuals and groups who are "loaded" with inspiration. It is the
business of the new party to see that they get together, work things
out, devise new ways of putting them across, test responses and make
self-activity decisively meaningful. It follows from the propositions
made so far that the new distinguishing negative feature of the new
party will be simple enough— it will not, as a party, contest any
elections and until such time as direct democracy itself is mature,
members of the new party will, if they so please, contest elections as
members of the old electoral parties. But these parties, not the new
one, will do all the electoral work. This solves the problem of possible
conflict with the Labour Party. It will not arise except is so far as
Right-wing leaders will feel the very ship of reformist politics sinking
beneath their feet!

How to proceed in practice? Clearly the multiplication of small
experimental groups all over the country is the first requirement. Decen-
tralisation has to be in the very nature of the new party's origins.
As to group method, the starting point arises naturally from the theory.
Since we are not governed, except tokenwise, by our elected representa-
tives the important break with the past is not to send deputations to
Westminster or to Town Hall committees under the impression that
power rests where it does not — but rather to locate the real source of
power, the place and people responsible for real decision making, and
direct attention there. This is direct action. When those who possess
and use powers of decision are faced by people and units of the new
party armed with highly developed critical and creative powers and
backed by mass organisation, then we shall be witnessing new politics
and be on the verge of achieving man's political destiny, the redundancy
of political functions themselves. The state is on the way out— we have
to show it the door.

The only political rebels worth mentioning today, are the
anarchists. (There are other rebels, of course, with just causes,
but they are catching up on the revolutions and readjustments
which have already taken place elsewhere, and here we are con-
cerned with an attempt to anticipate the forward direction of
history.) The one sound political judgment that can be made
today, and which no one is able to dispute, is that the primary
political evil of our time is the overwhelming, arbitrary, and im-
measurably destructive power of the State. The anarchist is the
only political thinker who addresses himself directly to a correction
of this evil. What is an anarchist? A contributor to Freedom,
the British anarchist weekly, recently wrote: "Perhaps the out-
standing distinction between anarchist and non-anarchist is that
the former alone seeks no power over others. " We are not sug-
gesting that the anarchist position is without difficulties, or that it
contains an ultimate political message for the future. We are
suggesting only that the anarchists have shown realistic recognition
of the dominant political evil of the age. Their solution may
sound unrealistic — we do not argue this point. But whatever is
said about anarchist programmes, it remains true that a realistic
diagnosis with an inadequate prescription is better than a frivolous
diagnosis followed by a "realistic" programme which does not even
touch what is the matter with us, but instead makes it worse.

— Manas (Los Angeles)

Posted By

Jun 18 2016 18:49


Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas

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