What tactics should we use in political resistance struggle? Physical action or not? If we think physical action is valid, what type do we support and when should we employ it? On the other hand, the same questions arise with regard to non-physical action ….
For most people in this country, the closest they come to physical action in politics is to present themselves at the polling booth. One of the primary declared objectives of most political groups, in fact, is to deepen the involvement in political action of the majority of the population of the country (although what each means by this and to what degree they are serious about it differs greatly).
Something of an ideological struggle has been taking part in the movement against austerity measures as to how best to increase public involvement in effective resistance. Some advocate participation in demonstrations and pickets as their main activity, with perhaps a sprinkling of public meetings. Others advocate civil disobedience and/or disruption as the most effective tactics. Curiously, most agree with participation in on-line petitions and “liking” particular ideological Facebook pages. Many agree with voting for candidates perceived to be in opposition to austerity measures, while some do not. For some, membership of a political party is an important step while for others it is of no value at all. Faced with this lack of general agreement across the spectrum opposed to the status quo, how are we to make decisions, to make reasonable choices?
I’d like to attempt to answer this question but first I’d like to give an example from which to learn, a parable, if you will.
ONCE UPON A TIME ….
Let us imagine a country called Awtaegin. Across the world in the 1960s and 1970s, youth and students were in a ferment, disenchanted with the dominant system as they perceived it and in this Awtaegin was far from being an exception. This disenchantment with the dominant system also extended to many of the oppositional political parties, such as the main social democratic opposition party (which we can call the “Labour Party”) and the USSR-aligned Communist Party (which we can call the UCP).
A number of organisations arose which were opposed not only to the existing order but also to those aforementioned political parties which they considered to be no more than a slightly alternative way to manage the same system and order to which they were opposed, in the case of the Labour Party and a hindrance to mobilising for real change, in the case of the UCP.
One of the opposition organisations to arise was a communist group advocating revolution but which did not support the system in the USSR, which it considered oppressive and imperialist. This group in fact supported the system in China and the politics of its leader at the time, Mao Tse Tung. At that time this leader and his country were very popular among revolutionary communist and national liberation organisations around the world. Let us call this group the MCP.
In its early days, the MCP was something of an object of derision for most of the Left organisations including those advocating revolution in Awtaegin. It was very small and put a lot of store in the Red Book of Mao’s sayings. The MCP popularised Chinese posters. The leaflets and newspapers produced by the MCP tended to contain many quotations from “Chairman Mao” (but also from Lenin and Marx, which the other revolutionary organisations liked to quote too) and the party insisted on using revolutionary political terminology which had gone somewhat out of fashion in Awtaegin.
No-one could deny that the members and supporters of the MCP were hard-working. They went on to the streets and door to door in working class areas with their newspapers and leaflets, attended demonstrations and strike pickets, held internal discussion meetings, organised public meetings, put up posters. Nor could anyone deny that they had guts – their activists often vigorously resisted arrest, they carried their political struggle into the courts instead of, as had become the norm, just trying to be found “not guilty” or to receive the least possible punishment. It was not long before some of them found themselves being sent to jail by the State and there too they often continued their struggle.
If the members and supporters of the other revolutionary organisations had a sneaking respect for those of the MCP, they did not show it. The commitment to work and resistance exhibited by the MCP was explained as fanaticism.
The MCP had built links with a loose network of ethnic minorities in Awtaegin, most but not all students. Mao and China were very popular among many of these ethnic minorities, particularly among the students from Africa, Asia and Latin America, whether on grounds of the national liberation of their home countries from imperialism and colonialism or on the grounds of overthrowing capitalism and of building socialism. Many of these students were organised into a broad organisation which we can call the Progressive Afro-Asian Association (PAAA).
The MCP developed fraternal links with the PAA, which had quite a large network. Through reading, through internal discussions and discussions with the PAA, the MCP developed a theory on racism and its relation to fascism in application to conditions in Awtaegin. In that country at that time racist ideology was dominant and also a number of organisations with an openly racist agenda were on the rise.
The MCP theorised racism as a product of and justification for colonialism and imperialism and also as a method of dividing the working class to facilitate capitalist exploitation. They characterised the organisations with a racist agenda as fascist, as both a concentrated reflection of the dominant racist ideology in Awtaegin and as organisations encouraged to attack revolutionary and progressive people and to intimidate ethnic minority people, in particular settled and migrant ethnic minority workers. MCP articles also analysed and criticised racist writings and statements by politicians and authors.
Although some of these attitudes were to be found in the rest of the revolutionary organisations to some extent, there was a general agreement among them that the racist organisations could not be termed “fascist” and the MCP was criticised for adopting the position that they were. The opposition to the MCP however arose to fever pitch when the party put forward the political position that “Fascists have no right to speak” and advocated this with regard to authors and politicians. The rest of the Left at this time was largely split into two camps: those who thought the racists should be ignored and those who thought they should be defeated in public argument.
But the MCP and PAA applied this policy in action, refusing public debate with racists and those they considered fascists and disrupting lectures, book launches and public meetings that featured speakers they considered racist or otherwise fascist. These disruptions tended to take place mostly in institutions of higher education, where space was being provided for racist and fascist idealogues but also where the PAAA had many members and supporters. The disruptive actions of the PAAA and MCP were criticised by both pro-establishment figures and by most of the Left in Awtaegin. But many people began to consider seriously the arguments put forward by the MCP and the PAA. In time, the position of “Fascists have no right to speak” became popularised as “No platform for fascists” and gained widespread acceptance across the Left spectrum in Awtaegin – it was even adopted as official policy for a year or two by the Students’ Union in that country.
The MCP had been studying, as related earlier, and attempting to popularise the teachings of Mao Tse Tung but they had also studied and discussed other writings and had examined specific contemporary conditions in Awtaegin about which Mao had written nothing. The MCP also investigated the history of earlier struggles against fascism and racism. They uncovered and popularised the history of the resistance to fascism and racism (mostly anti-Jewish racism in those years) in Awtaegin, which had been led for a period by the UCP, the same party that in the more modern struggle was leading people away from confrontation with racist organisations. In the 1930s, the anti-fascists had fought fierce battles with the fascists and with their police protectors.
The policy of “fascists have no right to speak” was applied by the MCP to the racist organisations organising outside the institutions of higher education. The public meetings of racist organisations were beginning to be picketed and their rallies met with counter-demonstrations. Such opposition now had to be taken into account by racist organisations planning public meetings and rallies, as well as by local authorities and other bodies considering hiring out venues to such organisations. By now the disruptive response was becoming popular among the revolutionary Left, with the exception of the UCP which generally tried to outnumber the racist organisations in counter-demonstrations but then lead a march away from them so as to avoid clashes. Another exception included some libertarians, who thought it wrong to deny even racists the right to free speech.
The policy of confrontation with racist organisations, now becoming widespread in the Awtaegin revolutionary movement and even among radical and democratic anti-racist sections of society, was largely confined in practice to peaceful demonstrations and pickets, with the exception of some ethnic minority youth taking actions into their own hands and opportunist physical attack by some members of the Awtaegin Left.
But the MCP took their policy to its logical conclusion and openly advocated physical attack on fascists in the street. When they could, the MCP also physically attacked members and supporters of the racist organisations, particularly during counter-demonstrations to fascist ones. Once again, the MCP appeared to be isolating itself from the rest of the revolutionary movement in Awtaegin. However, their position found favour with many in the PAAA and with ethnic minorities who were under attack by racist organisations, the racist state police force and by racist immigration legislation. In time, the MCP’s position was adopted by the fringes of some of the revolutionary organisations too (some of which were expelled or split from their parties as a result) and the broad anti-fascist and anti-racist ‘physical force’ organisations that arose at that time spent the next decade or so successfully beating the fascist organisations off the streets. The threat of fascist organisations gaining dominance in Awtaegin did not resurface for another two decades.
So what are we to make of this history of the MCP and of the revolutionary movement and the racist organisations at that time? First of all, is it true? Yes, it is, though a little simplified and with names of country and organisations changed.
WHY WERE THEY SUCCESSFUL?
Why and how did the MCP succeed in having their political line with regard to fascism and racism, at first so widely disparaged, adopted so widely later? It certainly was not due to the influence of numbers as the MCP was a very small party. Even with the support of the PAAA, their numbers were smaller than some other revolutionary Left organisations and the PAAA split and diminished after a few years anyway, leaving the MCP to depend totally upon itself.
The MCP had very few individuals within it who had fame as intellectuals or a personal following of any kind – any influence the MCP had came about as a result of their work. Revolutionary organisations opposed to the MCP’s line included in their membership well-known journalists, actors and public speakers.
I can see no reasonable alternative to the judgement that the MCP’s line of physical opposition to racist organisations and idealogues gained popularity because it was the correct one, at least for its time and that implementing it also proved effective, giving victories in the short term to the anti-fascist anti-racist movement.
OK, so if we can agree on that, how was it that the MCP came up with this correct line when so much of the rest of the revolutionary and radical Left in Awtaegin were in disagreement with it? Was it because the MCP’s political ideological position was so generally advanced that they could not help but be correct on the question of fascism and racism? Hardly – they were followers of Mao’s and his ideology has been rejected by most of the revolutionary Left today; China has become a state facilitating internal capitalist expansion and foreign imperialist penetration within a few years of the death of Mao. In Europe, the MCP supported Albania under Enver Hoxha’s leadership, a state the collapse of which took mere days with the bankruptcy of its political line exposed to the world. In fact, the MCP itself is no longer in existence and in real terms lasted little more than a decade after the death of Mao.
It seems to me that the MCP was correct on the question of fascism and racism in the 1970s in Awtaegin because they started from a position of ‘commitment to revolution, whatever it takes’. In that regard, their “fanaticism” worked in their favour. In addition, they studied not only the writings of Mao but also those of other writers on the topic and discussed their opinions internally and with other progressive people. Then they also studied the history of the world’s people in struggles against fascism and racism and that of Awtaegin in particular. Finally, they had the courage (or arrogance) to advocate their line publicly and to put it into practice when the opportunity presented. They used research, investigation and analysis to develop their theoretical position and they progressed it to practical application.
The MCP could have decided that the task of convincing the rest of the movement was too great and either abandoned it or thrown themselves into it in isolation. What they did was take on the task of convincing the rest of the movement with polemics and historical example and also putting it into practice themselves, seeking allies who agreed with that approach without necessarily agreeing with the rest of their ideology.
TODAY, IN IRELAND
So, in deciding what are correct tactics in struggles in Ireland today, I suggest that we should use the same overall approach as did the MCP in the example given. Study writings on revolutionary tactics, research and study our own class and national history, study current circumstances, discuss ….. then advocate publicly and, when appropriate, apply in practice.
If we look around us in Ireland at the moment, we see that the majority of the population, as observed earlier, is not engaged in political struggle. The sector in opposition to the status quo that has the most people in it, with however a wide spread in ideology, is the Republican movement. This sector has revolutionary and non-revolutionary parts; the major part of it has become non-revolutionary and the rest of it is struggling with fragmentation and ideological confusion. Traditionally, with some exceptions, the Republican movement has concentrated on the struggle against British colonialism and left the rest of the political, social and economic issues more or less alone. As a movement, the revolutionary rump of the Republican movement has given virtually no leadership to — and organised little participation in — the current and recent mass struggles against the Household and Property Taxes and the Water Charge (though its members are clearly in sympathy with the resistance).
In the historically small Socialist sector in Ireland, revolutionaries and radicals sometimes occupy the fringes of the social democratic Labour Party while the rest operate as independents or belong to a number of small revolutionary Left organisations. Chief in size of the latter, although comparatively still very small indeed, are the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party, with their respective front organisations, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit. While these organisations exhibit little interest in the Irish anti-colonial struggle (other than to condemn periodically those engaged in it) or in the struggle against the repression of the anti-colonial movement, they have concerned themselves very much with social and economic issues.
Both the SWP and the SP have concentrated their activities in opposition to the recent and current taxes and water charge in trying to build large protest mobilising organisations and in electoral campaigns. The mobilising organisations for mass demonstrations and pickets have also been seen as areas of contention between the SP and the SWP. The electoral campaigning is also intended to promote one party or the other, as well as promoting the resistance to the economic and financial attacks upon the working people.
The mass mobilisation has yielded numbers which at first surprised even the activists, growing in thousands succesively from the first demonstration in October to the next in November and many predict even larger numbers this week, on the 10th December. These numbers have forced some recognition of the level of public dissatisfaction by the mass media along with significant initial water charge reductions from the Government. The latter concessions are clearly intended to mollify public discontent and reduce the oppostion to the water charge while the State and the media concentrate on driving a wedge between the general opposition to the charge and some of its more active elements.
Meanwhile, some activists, mostly independent of any political party, have been organising physical opposition to the instalation of water meters. Let us remember that mass non-registration coupled with the threat of non-payment defeated the Household Tax but that the Property Tax replaced it, with the change in the law permitting the Revenue Department of the State to collect the tax through people’s salaries and pensions. In order to levy a charge on water consumption, however, in the absence of a blanket same-for-everyone charge, the State has to install water meters. Currently this work is being undertaken by a private company on behalf of the State with widespread speculation that capitalists involved in that company (such as Denis O’Brien) will eventually buy the water “industry” cheaply from the State.
The resistance to the instalation of the water meters has been taking the form of groups of people turning out in some communities where the meter instalation teams are in operation and physically impeding them in carrying out that work. The tactics have involved parading slowly in front of the company’s vehicles, slowing down their progress enormously and also by physically blocking with their own bodies access to the spots outside houses or estates where the meters are planned.
The Irish state has responded to these physical but peaceful tactics in some cases by postponement of instalation but mainly by a physical repression of the resistance with methods varying from deployment of sufficiently large numbers of police to force the resisters aside, to assaults on those resisting. In one area in Clonmel, even armed police were deployed for a while. In addition, the State issued court injunctions against a number of activists but for the moment has suspended them, for fear of giving the movement some martyrs in jail and augmenting the resistance. This fear is a realistic one, given that public condemnations of the water meter resisters by two Government Ministers, backed up by a compliant media, have resulted mainly in antagonizing public opinion against the Government and the police. Detecting political opportunity in the changing breeze, a number of political parliamentary representatives, notably Sinn Féin TDs, who previously announced they were going to pay the Water Charge but under protest, have now indicated they will not be paying (though however being careful not to advocate a general campaign of non-payment and thereby ruining their party’s chances of integration into the system).
To sum up: the SP and SWP, to varying degrees, are concentrating on two main approaches, building mass demonstrations and electoral campaigning. A group of non-aligned individuals are concentrating on physical opposition to the instalation of meters. Which should we support?
The mass demonstration mobilisation approach is already idealogically split between insistence on non-payment one the one hand and on the other, a broader church tolerating payment under protest by its numbers. Increasing numbers at the cost of an important tactic such as non-payment, particularly at a time when the opposition to the meters is growing, seems a particularly retrograde step. On the other hand it seems tactically unsound, in the absence of a convincingly large presence in the resistance movement, to split on this issue rather than to remain inside it fighting for the line of non-payment.
It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the SWP, through its front PBP, has agreed to tolerate in the ranks of the mobilising organisation those who refuse to advocate non-payment, like for example Sinn Féin and the Unite trade union, even to dropping or muting the SWP’s own line of non-payment, in order to be the left-wing of a larger campaign – i.e. political opportunism. Since the SP and the AAA do not have anything like the numbers or connections necessary to have a significant impact on the resistance movement from a lone position, it is also hard to avoid the suspicion that they have left the broader campaign in order to posture at being more revolutionary than the SWP and, perhaps, if the broad resistance movement continues to grow, to gain in recruitment from its more militant Left members.
However, the general strategy of both the SP and the SWP is in any case wrong. Large demonstrations have a morale-building effect, of course; they give the resistance a physical presence representing many who could not be present and they strengthen the hopes of the resistance – up to a point. But building successively larger demonstrations will not in itself change the ruling class’ determination to make the people pay for the financial crisis. And at some point, demonstrations may peak and then begin to reduce in numbers as people perceive that nothing will be changed through this tactic. This in fact occurred a couple of years ago when the SWP tried to organise a programme of escalating demonstrations against austerity measures. The demonstrations then have a demoralising effect as those who continue to attend see them getting smaller.
Those who advocate physical resistance with regard to the meter installation seem to me to be on the right track but they are too few in numbers to have a decisive impact. They need the support of the rest of the resistance movement. It is the meter resisters who have widely exposed the connection between the State and private company installing the meters and the degree to which the State is willing to go in order to push its program through. They have done this through their actions and through filming police violence and disseminating the videos through the Internet. It is they who have rattled the Ministers into making ill-considered statements which in turn have deepened the mood of resistance. The rest of the resistance movement needs to find ways to support the physical resistance, physically if possible and ‘morally’ when not, e.g. by statements of support, pickets of news media demonising physical resisters as for example recently against Independent Newspapers and protest pickets of the police, as the “pink ladies” did for example in Coolock and in Tallaght (photos: http://www.broadsheet.ie/2014/11/20/the-pink-ladies/)
In the long run, of course, the Irish capitalist class can content itself with installing meters where it can do so without difficulty, then later isolating each area of resistance in turn, swamping it with police and installing the meters. But if the meter installation resistance were to be combined with large demonstration mobilisations and identified with by the broader movement, then the State would risk the development of a situation that could threaten its very existence unless it abandoned its Water Charge plan and thinks again about how to finance its debt. That is far from being all that revolutionaries would want but that kind of victory, transitory though it may be in the longer term, would provide a welcome respite for the people. It would also give rise to a huge boost in confidence for the ordinary people and lessons in effective tactics of resistance, as well as a sorting through of who are worthy to lead future struggles and who are not.