An argument has developed on the left regarding the effectiveness of so-called “A to B marches”. A critique, articulated by some activists on the left, argues that the cycle of annual anti-austerity demonstrations has failed, and counterposes “more radical” actions, such as occupations, direct action and community organising.
Why has this developed? The past five years has seen huge attacks on working class people which the leadership of the labour movement — whether the Labour Party or the trade unions — have failed to consistently challenge. Instead of a serious industrial strategy to beat austerity, we have been offered a strategy of street mobilisations.
In March 2011 the TUC organised a demonstration of over half a million people against austerity. In 2012, 200,000 people took to the streets; a year later 100,000 marched and last year 50,000. This downward trend was bucked by the 250,000-strong People’s Assembly demo last month.
It is clearly justified to question this strategy — demonstrations on their own will not beat austerity — but it’s important to look at why the numbers dwindled. In November 2011, 2.5 million public sector workers struck over pension reform in the single biggest day of strike action since the 1926 General Strike.
Nineteen days later union leaders signed the “Heads of Agreement”, a sell-out which demoralised millions who had been promised a fight. In fact, the Grand Old Duke of York strategy employed by the leadership of the big unions throughout the last government has had a deflating effect on all forms of struggle against the Tories — political and industrial.
But mass demonstrations still play a hugely important role. Marxist art critic John Berger, in his 1968 article “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations”, argued that they are “rehearsals of revolutionary awareness”.
Such events strike against the intense atomisation of capitalism, bringing thousands of like-minded people together:
The importance of the numbers involved is to be found in the direct experience of those taking part in or sympathetically witnessing the demonstration.
For them the numbers cease to be numbers and become the evidence of their senses, the conclusions of their imagination. The larger the demonstration, the more powerful and immediate (visible, audible, tangible) a metaphor it becomes for their total collective strength… Those who take part become more positively aware of how they belong to a class.
Equally, mass demonstrations are often where people learn about the true nature of the state: “Either authority must…allow the crowd to do as it wishes…demonstrat[ing] the weakness of authority. Or else authority must constrain and disperse the crowd with violence: in which case the undemocratic character of such authority is publicly displayed.”
However, the nature of a mass demonstration, often as an appeal to “the democratic conscience of the state”, also shows its limitations.
The government has no democratic conscience. Firstly, the Tories were voted in by just 24 percent of the electorate. But also the Tories’ attacks are ideological — it is class war. So we need more than just appeals to stop them.
The strengths of “more radical” forms of action are clear. Occupations and direct action pose a much more immediate challenge to the state than demonstrations which take place at a sanctioned time and place.
Indeed, in March and April a wave of student occupations at LSE, UAL, Goldsmiths and King’s College won some of their demands.
A serious campaign of direct action has targeted the National Gallery, in support of the strike and the reinstatement campaign there, as well as to urge disinvestment from oil companies such as Shell.
Mass demonstrations in city centres often have no obvious or immediate effect on local communities. This has led to a claim that we should focus more clearly on “community organisation”.
It is important to develop local organisations to fight cuts. A good example is the Scottish Anti-Bedroom Tax Federation which beat the tax north of the border.
But this doesn’t tackle the question of centralised capitalism and its state — and what force can take it on.
Why is it that for some people class seems to play an increasingly small role in protest? When my mum was growing up, the question, “do workers have the power to change society?” was simple to answer — the miners’ strike in 1972 had turned the lights off.
Today the legacy of defeat and the lack of fight by union leaders obscures this power. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of the power that workers still have to change the world.
The Easter strikes on National Rail — called and then called off twice — would have halted 90 percent of trains, closing down Gatwick Airport and TATA Steel in the process. This was a wasted opportunity to take the fight to the bosses.
A debate about the tactics needed to beat the government is welcome. The demo on 20 June showed the huge numbers who want to see the back of austerity — and, crucially, will have boosted their confidence.
Other tools, such as direct action and occupations, will have a huge role to play in the fightback.
However, if we really want to see the Tories beaten, we have to argue for the broadest possible fightback, with workers hitting the Tories where it hurts — in their pockets.