After Millbank: the way forward

Communists have no truck with cowardly and hypocritical condemnations, writes James Turley

After months of phoney war, the anti-cuts movement has its first defining image - 30 Millbank, the Conservative Party headquarters (among other things), evacuated and entered by hundreds of students.

No less than nine separate national newspapers carried the same front page image - an activist putting his shoe through an already broken window, smoke billowing from a flare in the background. All manner of metaphors have been drawn on the left as to what else got smashed along with that window - the confidence of the ruling class, the notion that we will go down without a fight. The most compelling option is the idea that this is just not how we do things in Britain: that militant action is for the French and (more recently) the Greeks. This illusion is built up in periods of relative social peace - and then, at moments like last Wednesday, shattered into glittering fragments.

‘Inspiring’ is a word which is enormously overused when writing up demonstrations - particularly by those groups involved in organising them. The assault on Millbank Tower deserves it. Thousands of protesters on the street outside, looking up not at an impenetrable fortress, but at their own comrades letting off fire extinguishers on the roof - there can be no doubt that, beyond a certain residual bitterness towards scrounging students, the mood of the country is with them.

The Daily Star, not an organ famed for its progressive cachet, conducted an online poll, which found 56% of people in support of the Millbank protests. Anecdotally, outside of bedrock Tory England, one searches in vain for someone prepared to say a word against them - and all this in spite of a lot of truly venomous denunciations in the press.

It is not just the press - politicians of all persuasions have been weighing in with their own enraged opinions. The government’s anger is to be expected, of course, since it is the government under direct attack; Labour, meanwhile, has never wanted to be caught dead supporting any action not catered for within the letter of the British constitution, such as it is.

Aaron Porter, the leader of the National Union of Students, was perhaps the quickest off the bat - he condemned the violence as “despicable” with people still on the roof at Millbank. He has talked a very militant game over the past few months, but has, of course, turned out to be a cut from the same cloth as generations of careerist NUS tops - all mouth, no trousers, with one eye always on the MP’s salary to come.

Communists have no truck with all these cowardly and hypocritical condemnations - we support and salute the militancy on display. We call for all charges against the protesters to be dropped immediately; and we oppose any attempts by university authorities to impose their own sanctions. We add our voices to those who wonder what is more destructive - the students kicking in a few windows, or the government prosecuting an enormous assault on the public sector and, indeed, the masses as a whole?

Yet it is one thing to establish something as justifiable from a moral point of view, and quite another to recommend it as a tactic. We must soberly examine why this action was successful, and what it tells us about the struggles to come.

The success or failure of an action has to be judged on the basis of its effects on the struggles at hand. This does not mean simply concentrating on the number of column-inches generated - press attention is fickle, though it should be exploited as best as we can when it comes. Nor is it the case that all publicity is good publicity. The bourgeois media can hardly be said to have carried the nation with it on this one - but in other circumstances it will, and focusing on ‘spectacular’ actions as a point of strategic principle is unlikely to strengthen our hand in this regard.

It has often been said that peaceful, A to B marches have never achieved much - and, indeed, recent history is replete with evidence for this thesis. We need only mention the February 15 2003 demonstration against the impending Iraq war - though upwards of 1.5 million people attended, the war went ahead anyway. The opposite is true as well, however: sustained campaigns of direct action, violent and non-violent, also have a history of failure. All tactical options have limitations - when, as with the Stop the War Coalition, political expediency limits us to the endless employment of a single tactic, the law of diminishing returns comes rapidly into effect. The last march did not achieve anything, so why should this one? The tendency for excitable platform speakers at STWC rallies to declare that “we will keep on marching until the troops are withdrawn!” long ago took on a comic aspect.

As for repeating the occupation of Millbank, whether at the same building or elsewhere, there are different dangers. We already have 52 activists under the cosh of the law, and several more injured. As CCTV footage is raked for further victims, more will surely receive visits from the Met. Meanwhile, the police have been engaged in fulsome apologies for under-defending the Millbank premises. The protesters got in, and got away with it, not because they had an enormous amount of strength behind them, but because the police in this instance had less. The latter will learn from their mistake.

It is hardly scaremongering to point out that there will be more between activists and the next party HQ than a few plate-glass windows. The police will come out in force. People have died as a result of over-zealous policing in the very recent past, and another undisciplined and semi-spontaneous attempt to occupy a government building runs the risk of turning into a bloodbath. That, contrary to the opinions of only the most idiotic anarchist provocateurs (the kind who repeat the bourgeois media’s characterisation of the event as a ‘riot’, but intend it as a compliment), will not have a galvanising effect on the movement.

Apart from the very real danger of repression, which can, after all, be counteracted up to a point, there are other limitations to direct action. By its very nature, it tends towards minoritarian politics. The more people are involved in deciding to do something very public and very illegal, the more likely it is that the state will have the jump on activists. A campaign of violent action is more or less by definition carried out by a minority, whose deliberations cannot be the public property of the movement.

This is not an argument for ruling out these tactics as a whole - but it does highlight something which is almost absent from the discourse of the movement, and that is the need for serious mass organisation, with forms that place sovereignty among the mass of the membership rather than a self-appointed clique. As it is, the student movement is woefully lacking in this respect. One example will suffice: on November 15, I attended a London-wide ‘planning meeting’ organised by the Education Activist Network, run by the Socialist Workers Party - at which nothing was planned. As a slightly perturbed non-SWP member of the EAN executive observed, the latest ‘proposals’ (to target Liberal Democrat headquarters and parliament on the upcoming November 24 day of action) had already been unveiled at a press conference earlier in the day, and then presented to the ‘planning meeting’ as a fait accompli.

Along with the worship of direct action, there is another danger here - the worship of spontaneity. Activity that issues apparently from out of the ether (almost invariably this is not really the case, anyway) is venerated; activity produced by the conscious organisation of activists is condemned. November 10 proves, among other things, that there are such things as political reflexes - kick a dog, and it will bite you. There was never a question mark over whether some kind of fightback would follow government attacks. The burning questions remain: will this be a disorganised show of force that achieves nothing, or will we win? Above all: what are the politics that will allow us to win?

This is not a side issue or distraction from the ‘real’ work of building up the movement and so forth. Tactics only amount to strategy with conscious organisation and discipline. Our opponents will employ these powerful weapons against us - and will make mincemeat of us if we do not respond in kind. That means making hard-headed decisions about the strategy which will allow us to build consciousness for the movement we need.

Of the first order of importance here is the need for unity across the different fronts of the anti-cuts battle. Indeed, the slogan of EAN is perfectly correct - ‘Workers and students, unite and fight’. A series of sectional disputes - lecturers and students fighting cuts in education, public sector unions defending jobs, etc - will simply be picked off one by one, as happened in the 1980s.

The trade union bureaucracy, however, has made an existence out of conducting disputes in exactly this way. The anti-union laws are employed just as effectively by bureaucrats in abrogating on large-scale action as they are by governments in repressing the unions. We cannot rely on their agency to deliver us from Osborne’s butchery. The NUS is more degraded still - a chimera, one part consumer cooperative, one part incompetent lobbying firm and one part recruitment agency for political careerists.

If the Marxist left was united on a principled basis, with an agreed strategy for working class power, we would not solve these problems overnight. We would, however, be in a far stronger position to overcome the bureaucracy, to fight for meaningful and powerful united front actions in defence of the class and the oppressed, and above all to beat back the most vicious government attacks in decades. The best defence of those arrested on November 10 is not to make them poster children for spontaneous acts of political violence, but marshal the symbolic power of their action to a truly substantial political project.