Well-meaning but inchoate

As well as the platitudes and compromises from bourgeois politicians, the G8 featured protests from thousands who want 'another world'. Carey Davies reports

Firstly, the positives: last week's protests around Heiligendamm surrounding the G8 meeting were, to this observer, unprecedented in their success, both in terms of scope and organisation.

Sadly I was absent from the June 2 action, which saw a large demonstration in nearby Rostock and headline-grabbing clashes between black-clad militant types and police, resulting in a few startlingly violent altercations, the burning of cars and the general impression that the Baltic was aflame.

A receptionist for the Berlin hostel in which I stayed on the way to Heiligendamm advised me not to go there because it was basically "like a war". Hundreds had been injured and arrested, he warned, and the carnage continued - when I asked if there would be any interruptions to travel he blankly told me that I shouldn't travel there at all.

His grim predictions seemed to be confirmed by the reports of riots and violence dominating news coverage across most networks, so I was expecting scenes from a battlefield.

Upon arriving, however, I discovered an atmosphere not unlike that which one would imagine prevails in those seasons when the area surrounding Heiligendamm acts as a holiday resort and retirement destination for well-to-do Germans: placid, peaceful and generally undisturbed (excepting, of course, the odd incongruous looking protester and the unusually large police presence).

I made my way to camp Reddelich unmolested by police - another surprise, considering that the said camp probably contained the highest concentration of anarchist-inspired, battle-ready 'militants' of any of the various camps around the Heiligendamm area.

It hardly needs stating that the violence of Saturday's demonstration had been exaggerated by the world media. The - highly diffuse - movement of dissent represented at this G8 summit and others ('anti-globalisation', 'anti-capitalist' and so on) first made the front pages due to the violence that erupted during the huge anti-capitalist demonstration against the Seattle G8 in 1999. And it is this, the violence, not the numbers, of course, which media hounds have seized upon at subsequent G8s.

Of course, there are ideological reasons behind this: it behoves the rightwing press in particular to report primarily on instances of violence, as this serves the dual purpose of amplifying the 'thuggish tendencies' of the protesters and downplaying their political agenda. A depoliticised rabble looking for a fight (or a bit of looting) is much easier to dismiss and condemn.

But there are also less straightforwardly political but in some ways no less pernicious reasons for this sort of reporting. Street violence is photogenic, impressive and in the hands of a skilful picture editor can be imbued with a symbolic quality: witness the almost serene pictures of lone protesters confronting vast ranks of police, or handfuls of rioters lobbing projectiles at armoured vehicles amidst scenes of general destruction.

The interpretation of these images is myriad, but the viewer is often invited to marvel at the futility of the individual in the face of the forces of the state (even if the commitment of the dissenter in the picture is not in doubt). That, or simply gawk at the fiery imagery and the exciting smashy-smashy drama of it all. This kind of reporting is not new (eg, Paris, May 1968) but the effect of it is often to reduce the complexity and significance of political movements to a series of eye-catching images and a cursory bit of text: what passes for political reporting in a spectacle-guided society.

In terms of politics, the protests of this year were driven by a far more overtly anti-capitalist agenda than those around Gleneagles in 2005. Then, the Geldof-led Make Poverty History campaign predominated: in Heiligendamm the anarchists and peace activists were centre-stage. Within this, however, there was an enormous diffuseness of opinion and political outlook. The main story of the June 2 demonstration may have been the activities of the Black Bloc, but the hooded anarchists who clashed with police were a minority amongst a generally peaceable and pacifistically minded crowd of around 16,000.

The turnout was therefore much smaller than the one gathered for the Make Poverty History demonstrations, but in terms of the action around the actual meeting place of the G8 the protests were larger and more effective than previous summits have seen.

On June 6, there was a mass exodus from the various camps and meeting places. The demonstrators headed straight for the roads leading into Heiligendamm with the intention of blockading them, thus preventing land access to the summit. Few were seriously of the opinion that this would actually stop the meeting taking place: the understanding seemed to be that this was a symbolic act and one which would make headlines, which in itself offers a glimpse into how media-savvy this movement has become.

I remember a similar strategy being adopted by various disparate anarchist groups (clowns included) in Scotland in 2005 with largely farcical results: the only people who were prevented from getting near Gleneagles were other protesters, who did not have the luxury of helicopters or private planes, thanks to which they could sail over the barricades - this in spite of the fact that a demonstration had actually been organised inside the perimeter of the blockades, which does not say a great deal for the competence of the protest organisers. And in any event the number of protesters participating in this action was so pathetic that some roads were simply left unblocked, and it was not too difficult to simply find another route.

In Germany the situation was different, however: these blockades were carried out on a much larger scale and with a level of organisation that was deeply impressive. Before departing demonstrators arranged themselves into 'fingers' - labelled blue, red, green, etc - and, as the teeming mass approached the blockade points, these fingers split off in order to execute a multi-pronged 'attack' on police lines.

This was largely non-violent, and all the more effective for it. Demonstrators approached the police guarding the roads with arms raised or placed behind the head to signify they were unarmed, and simply aimed to go straight past the police cordons and on to the roads (one protest organiser summed up this approach in a piece of advice shouted through a megaphone as we approached the roads: "Don't go for the police - go for the gaps in between the police").

This seemed to have the effect of throwing the police a slow ball - the group I was with went straight past their lines and were sitting down on the road, within what seemed like seconds, with the minimum of fuss. The multi-directional tactics of the protesters genuinely seemed to confuse the police, who were spread too thinly and weighed down in riot gear which made them unable to keep up with the zippy protesters, especially in the surrounding wheat fields.

Within hours the news came through that every road leading to Heiligendamm was blocked - the aims of the protesters had been achieved, and all that remained to do was sit. Some managed to last until the end of the week, while others were forcibly removed by police.

On one particularly spectacular occasion we arrived just after a blockade had been smashed by hundreds of police, assisted by the judicious use of water cannons. But the freezing, wet and injured protesters simply withdrew through the trees to another road, whereupon they threw up barricades constructed from the materials of the Baltic forest - branches and logs piled 10 feet high, stretching for hundreds of yards.

However, with the media presence diminished, police did not waste time in clamping down: protesters scattered, as hundreds of police charged the barricades, destroying them in minutes and making short work of any who resisted, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Armoured cars cleared what was left of the barricades. A smaller sit-down blockade further down the road was removed with the same brute force.

Predictably, police did not need to have Molotov cocktails thrown in their direction to unleash thuggery and violence. This should alert comrades to the limits of pacifism, an outlook which clearly had considerable purchase amongst the protesters.

Non-violent methods are clearly preferable to violent ones, but communists emphasise the virtually unlimited capacity and willingness of the state to unleash repression upon political movements which seek to challenge the status quo. In Heiligendamm as elsewhere the only factor mitigating police behaviour was the level of media presence.

No police force in the world when unwatched would flinch from taking to a peaceful sit-down protest with boots, batons and other weaponry. For these reasons we must be prepared to defend ourselves - if only because this could act as a deterrent to state repression and actually reduce the likelihood of violence.

Demonstrators returned to Rostock for one last demonstration on June 8. They were also joined the previous day by a Greenpeace boat, which effectively blocked the sea entrance to Heiligendamm in spite of a massive police and army presence on the water.

These events received some press coverage, but not the same level as the June 2 riotous demonstration in Rostock, which is unsurprising but still a shame. The events during the week were on a much greater scale and were far more effective and meaningful than a few petty-minded juveniles having a barney with the police.

Their effectiveness was perhaps due to the organising presence of protesters versed in the tactics of peaceful resistance due to anti-nuclear waste dumping campaigns in Germany. However, they may also reflect the growing coherence and unity of this movement. There was a determined and practised feel to the demonstrations which I have not sensed before.

And now the negatives: this coherence is achieved in spite of an inchoate political agenda. Diversity is no bad thing. But in the opinion of this observer the diffuseness within the anti-globalisation/anti-capitalist/etc movement (the difficulty in naming it results from its internal variety) often reflects a refusal to take the question of what sort of world we want to see seriously.

'Action' is fetishised at the expense of grappling with the complexities of political theory and the more - intellectually, at least - challenging aspects of emancipatory politics. Hence the appearance of unity on actions such as the ones in Heiligendamm - differences can be brushed over in the heat of action.

But ask 10 people on a demonstration of this sort what they envisage in the 'another world' they believe is possible and you will receive 10 different answers - most of them buoyant and optimistic, but hopelessly vague, and often imbued with a sort of deeply flawed primitivism. (One teeth-grinding example of the latter was a notice in the camp where I stayed pinned next to the washing area. This advised people not to buy cleanliness and hygiene products, as they destroy the environment - in this way "begin the resistance in your everyday life".)

Marxists should well and truly steer clear of the view that we are shining sentinels in possession of the infallible theories which will bring truth and clarity to this movement. Such an attitude can only result in elitism and condescension.

If we are serious about rearticulating Marxism for a new era we should be cognisant of the new ways in which dissent and protest are articulated and take them seriously as political phenomena. It is not sufficient, for example, to simply dismiss the ideology of the anti-capitalist movement as 'Proudhonism': the movement we see today which was manifested in Heiligendamm has its roots as much in the new left mobilisations of the 1960s as it does in the 19th century.

And we should also be aware of the opportunities posed by these movements for the enrichment of our own political outlook - Marxism is not a hermetically sealed doctrine and there are undoubtedly lessons within the global anti-capitalist movement which we must be open to learning.

On the other hand, we must avoid the embarrassing tailism of the Socialist Workers Party and others on the left who would substantially alter their own Marxist-derived politics or generally seek to play it down in order to appeal to 'the movements'.

Ultimately, we must be prepared to articulate the notion of emancipation as achievable only through the self-activity of the working-class - the vast majority of people - in an era where this idea is becoming less and less fashionable. Our challenge is to do this in a manner which avoids dogmatic isolationism on the one hand and opportunistic tailism on the other.