Article looking at the limits of small group activism, when employed outside the context of mass class struggle.
The following extract is taken from a piece in Crowbar 47 which came out in August 86...
“...Though the A’s in Britain are growing fast, more energy goes into making organisations (CWF, DAM, ACF,..) than doing any kind of Direct Action, legal or otherwise. Of course organising is important too, but from our actions in the last 10 years we might as well be a bunch of pacifist wallies! Where we should be more effective is in small group actions in our own areas, where just a few activists can make a big impact, in things like squatting, claimants, local campaigns, attacks on sexists, racists, capitalists etc. In the past, Crowbar has tried to support and encourage such local direct action, as a way of setting an example and directly hurting our oppressors. ‘Stop Business As Usual’, was a good idea, and it should happen again.”
There is no reason to criticise this extract from Crowbar in particular but it is roughly similar to many articles one sees in anarchist papers that run on the theme of calling for local small group decentralised actions as an ideal in themselves. Such pieces tend to call on us to move away from mass central organisation and instead urge us to “split up into small autonomous local groups that take whatever action they see fit as part of a decentralised network”, etc. They also reject mass ‘set piece’ confrontations, pickets and demos and call instead for so called ‘guerrilla tactics’, which in practice mean small group sabotage (spraying, bricking, glueing, etc...). But rather than leading to instant greater effectiveness, as some anarchists think, in practice these tactics often result in very little effect at all. This is because they are largely based on myth. Our intention is to question these myths of "anarcho-guerrilla" tactics and to argue in favour of mass concentrations of force at critical points in the system over the weakness of diffuse small group struggle.
A comparison between ‘Stop the City’ and ‘Stop Business As Usual’ in 1984 and 1985 gives us a good example of how ‘decentralisation’ and ‘spreading’ the action in practice lead to the dispersal of action into virtually nothing. It is easy with hindsight to slag off and mock the fiascos of STC demonstrations. But, in fact, the idea of STC, to mount a series of mass demonstrations in the capitalist heart of the country particular the miners’ strike to divert police from the picket lines, was basically, a sound idea. The ‘Stop the City’ demo having an organised planned time and venue and also a point of focus; the city and its institutions, brought together thousands of anarchists and others for the purpose of direct action against the system. People came along because they knew they would not be alone, because it gave them the opportunity to see and meet each other and act together in solidarity feeling their collective strength in numbers. There was also the potential to build some bridges between different groups - unemployed, city workers, miners support groups, anti-militarists etc. But of course all of this came to grief in the pathetic mess that occurred. Apart from the fact that the majority seemed only interested in a punk fashion show, and voluntary trip to the cop-shop, the ruinous tendency for dispersion and scattering had already set in. People called for what they described as ‘guerrilla tactics’ to avoid the police, which in practice simply meant a disorganised shamble that vastly increased arrests.
As a follow-up to STC a ‘Stop Business As Usual’ day of action was called for in 1985. The communique advertising the ‘Day of Action’ proclaimed that anytime was the time, and everywhere was the place for local groups to do ‘whatever they felt like doing’. The effect of this loss of time, venue and point of focus was that no time was the time, and nowhere was the place. A few tiny isolated groups in various towns aimlessly wandered around with their spray cans and tubes of superglue, randomly ‘attacking’ a token target or two with no real purpose or strategy, and no idea of what, if anything, anybody else was doing. By splitting up and turning to small group actions, people lost the feeling of solidarity and mass support of large numbers around them, communications broke down, people didn’t know if anything was going to happen and the ‘action’ became more and more irrelevant to mass struggles.
When a movement’s forces are dispersed too thinly, they simply disintegrate. It is a myth that ‘guerrilla’ tactics are automatically strong, “The guerrilla is everywhere but invisible”, is the typical sort of fantasy. The situation we are in (1980’s Britain), is one of industrial/urban class struggle. Guerrilla tactics in this situation are born out of, and are a sign of a position of weakness. We might adopt them at a particular time because we are not strong enough to mount open frontal attacks; mass strikes, mass demos, mass occupations. The purpose of such tactics is to build up the strength and numbers necessary so that we no longer have to keep hiding and running from the enemy in future. The aim of a guerrilla position is to progress away from a guerrilla position. Actions we carry out should not only be damaging to the enemy, but also be of accumulative material gain to us, such as encouraging more people to fight by demonstrating solidarity and what can be done, or by winning more space and time by diverting police or seizing loot which could be useful to the struggle. If smashing up a Barclays Bank is as taxing, tiring and costly (arrest, injury...) to us as it is to the bank manager, then what is the point? Kamikaze warfare is just a form of surrender, it is no use to anybody. The idea is not to move down from large-scale central actions to small group actions, but is the reverse; to organise and move up from small group actions to mass actions. The tactical methods employed by separate groups within the movement is of decisive importance: it removes the disastrous effect of several tactics in opposition to one another which is often the product of small group struggle. A central collective strategy concentrates all the forces of the movement, gives them a common direction, leading to a fixed objective.
Decentralisation has often been an idea thrown in with the anarchist approach, but since when did anarchy have to mean decentralisation? Does anarchy mean decentralising power? No! Anarchy means abolishing power whether centralised or not. Does anarchy mean decentralised industry and living? ... so we all have to live in tiny villages manufacturing hospital X-ray equipment with a bag of tools in the back shed and feeding the world from a garden allotment: what rubbish! Anarchy doesn’t have to mean decentralised anything. Alongside with the myth of decentralisation lies the myth of ‘community politics’. Anarchist groups feel they have to be based in the local area and spend their time with ‘local community issues’. But under capitalism, the local community doesn’t really exist. Different communities with conflicting class interests just live near each other in the same town or area. Alienated marginals of unemployed in one town, will find they probably have much more in common with those in a similar position in another town, than they have with people in the next road. So anarchists are not primarily concerned with localism and community politics, but are interested in mass class politics. Only mass struggles of workers/unemployed, such as the miners’ strike or the riots, have the potential to start changing the balance of power in society. Anarchist action must be rooted in the class struggle if it is to be relevant in any way to the lives of millions of people. No small group of political individuals who are isolated and divorced from mass struggle can have much effect in altering society on their own whether they are ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’. We must concentrate our effort on those points in the system where class conflict is most pronounced, at those points where mass confrontation visibly breaks out such as important strikes or riots.
In the case of the Wapping Print Dispute, it is in fact only the anger and energy of the regular mass pickets that kept the dispute alive for so many months and forced Murdoch to offer concessions. If it was not for the mass pickets, the dispute would have fizzled out in the first few weeks. Despite mostly being set piece confrontations where the police were prepared, the pickets had the advantage of bringing together thousands of strikers, their supporters and those at war with the monopoly press to fight together at a point where struggles converged. At the March 15th picket at Wapping, for instance, nearly 10000 descended on the plant, the ‘picket-proof’ iron fence was pulled down by weight of numbers of pickets! and the lorries were delayed for five hours, so many didn’t arrive in time. The recent arson attack on one of Murdoch’s paper warehouses was a fine example of ‘guerrilla’ sabotage, both psychologically and economically damaging to them. But such an attack would have had less effect or relevance if it were not set in the context of the industrial dispute and related to the momentum maintained by the mass pickets over the months including the flying pickets which demonstrated mass and mobility and took police by surprise.
Such acts of sabotage succeed when they supplement the mass confrontations, fuelling the flames of the central points of conflict rather than diverting energy from them. Small group actions must be a contribution, not a substitute, to mass struggle.
Thames Valley Anarchists 1986
This article was originally published in 1986 in Virus 9, the magazine of the Anarchist Communist Federation. It marked a move away from individual and small group activism towards class struggle. Taken from the Antagonism website.