What is Direct Action and can it deliver change?


The idea of direct action is sometimes simply understood as meaning anything violent, anything from a brick through a window to a full-scale guerrilla war. Our political opponents and enemies go out of their way to spread confusion because they know that in a “battle of ideas” they would lose. Firstly the fact that we are sitting in this room now having this teach in is a result of direct action being taken, doing it for ourselves and not relying on any politicians or anyone else to sort out homelessness or the building social centres.

According to the Wikipedia definition ‘Direct action is a form of political activism which seeks immediate remedy for perceived ills, as opposed to indirect actions such as electing representatives who promise to provide remedy at some later date.’

The Anarchist FAQ (see http://www.diy-punk.org/anarchy/secJ2.html) states ‘Basically, direct action means that instead of getting someone else to act for you (e.g. a politician) you act for yourself. Its essential feature is an organised protest by ordinary people to make a change by their own efforts.’

Anarchists have always been exponents of direct action as a political tactic. Not only is direct action most often the most effective tactic to use in a political struggle but also – and just as importantly - direct action is about empowering people, it's about breaking from dependency on others to run our lives. Rather than pleading with our bosses or electing 'better' politicians to make decisions for us, it means ordinary people coming together to win change through our own efforts.

When the phrase ‘direct action’ was first used at the end of the nineteenth century it meant no more than the opposite of trying to win change by trusting in ‘better’ politicians. In the context of modern trade unionism it means using industrial action – strikes, work to rules, occupations – rather than trusting in the supposedly impartial Labour Court, trade union officials and mediators.

In the community it means tenants and residents associations organising non-payment of water and household taxes like they are in the south at the moment instead of trusting in the local politician or the defeat of water charges here though the threat of mass non-payment. During the Arab Spring it meant hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, occupying their workplaces and general strikes, setting up neighbourhood committees and defending themselves from the forces of ’law and order’.  This did not simply appear overnight but took years of organisation and agitation plus a bit of spontaneity thrown into the fire of revolt.  This is something we need to learn at Occupy Belfast.

The point is that action is taken, not indirectly by representatives over whom we have little control, but directly by those who are affected. It is action intended to succeed, not just to gain publicity or serve the ego of a few activists, or replace the need for a mass movement of the working class for its own interests and in its own interests.  We need to learn to set the agenda in terms of dictating the terms of struggle and not be held to ransom by the straightjacket of what the state determines is acceptable or unacceptable protest.  The fact is the state is the greatest practitioner of violence and terrorism and history teaches us that the ruling class will not leave the stage of history voluntarily and give concessions without some of struggle including the tactical use of ‘armed resistance’. From the rise of the Civil Rights movement in 1960s both here and in the US to the ending of apartheid in South Africa all points to the need for mass direct action.

So therefore direct action rejects the notion that ordinary people are stupid and powerless and so must leave all the important decisions to someone else. It recognises that most improvements for our class will not be handed down by the bosses; they have to be fought for. That is how we have gained nearly everything we have, from the eight hour day to the right to join a union.

Many left-wing activists will argue that it is possible to combine campaigning and participation in elections.  For me direct action is the opposite of this four year spectacle because it is about empowering others to take decision on your behalf resulting in a pervading sense of powerlessness, betrayals and disempowerment in the long term. The reality is that because of the way in which the electoral system works, the person who is going to be the election candidate has to be the ‘face’ of the campaign, has to be the main spokesperson, has to be seen to be the driving force of the campaign. Thus campaigns can often become the opposite of encouraging mass participation and self-management, campaigners are treated as ‘followers’ or ‘supporters’ of the election candidate not as equal participants.

As an anarchist we believe that genuine socialism cannot be created by the actions of any small minority or elite. Through engaging in direct action we learn by experience that there is no need to depend on some ‘expert’ or professional politician. We learn that we can manage our own struggles in our own interests which we are slowly learning here in this building. We learn the need to link up with others in the common cause. For example, if we want to defeat the welfare reform bill or combat house evictions, we need to link up with others in struggle. This is when the ideals of solidarity and mutual aid become real. There is no pre-condition for revolution more important than working class self-confidence. If this does not exist then the running of society will be taken over by whatever party is able to put across the image that they are the “professionals” and “experts”.

 When this happens we can forget about socialism. A minority is in the driving seat and it is only a matter of time before they develop from a grouping with their own interests into a new fully-fledged ruling class. This is what has happened every time a minority has been trusted to rule a country after a revolutionary upheaval. The building of socialism will require mass understanding and mass participation. By their rigid hierarchical structure, by their ideas and by their activities, both social- democratic and Bolshevik types of organisations discourage this kind of understanding and prevent this kind of participation. The idea that socialism can somehow be achieved by an elite party (however revolutionary') acting 'on behalf of' the working class is both absurd and reactionary.

 Only a confident and militant working class can create a society which serves the interest of the many that will stop this happening.

 So back to the title of todays teach in in terms of what is direct action and can it deliver? I believe I have provided a brief understanding of direct action and obviously it can deliver or else we would not be sitting here or conceded many reforms from our masters and rulers down the centuries which is what I have covered. But the question is how can translate direct action of the few into the direct action of the many which we are witnessing in the streets of Greece and elsewhere.

 Finally to summarise. In the words of the UK Solidarity group in the 1970s.

 ‘Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.’

 This text is an edited version of previous WSM articles on direct action.



As part of Occupy Belfast teach ins, WSM member Sean Matthews delivered a talk  on direct action, elections and what type of society anarchists are struggling for.