Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Direct Action: Theory & practice

Reading Time: 10 minutes

In the lead up to the G20 anti capitalist demonstration to be held in Melbourne in November, we reprint this article on direct action. This feature by Stephen Jolly examines the question of direct action from a socialist perspective. Drawing on the rich experience of the Socialist Party and the CWI, it highlights key features and principles of direct action.


The militant protests at capitalist conferences by radical youth and workers in recent years are a reaction to a system that leaves millions living in abject poverty. The protests also mark a turn away from the methods of the ALP left, moderate unions and Non-Government Organisations of petitioning, pleading, and lobbying the ruling class for a few crumbs off the table.

“Direct Action” (DA) has becoming a rallying cry for the protest movement, almost an end in itself or at least a political method seen as something separate from ‘politics’. But the methods of DA employed at any one time are not politically neutral or an end in themselves. They flow from the ideas, principles and strategy of those involving themselves in the action-whether this is conscious or not.

Labor’s Approach

When the Labor Party and union bureaucracy organise protest action it is usually because of pressure from the working class. Sometimes, such as the MUA dispute in 1998, it is to lean on the working class in a battle to preserve the role of the bureaucracy role in the system of exploitation. They use a bureaucratic-centralist approach in organising such action. That is, undemocratic, bureaucratic decision-making processes at the top and the expectation that the rank and file follow orders in a centralist, united way. Of course the very act of bringing workers onto the streets opens up dangers for the bureaucracy and the task for Marxists is to take advantage of these contradictions. They should highlight the limited aims and undemocratic methods of the leadership, and offer an alternative socialist programme and strategy and tactics for the struggle.

Petty bourgeois liberal approach

The petty bourgeois liberals do not have a class approach, in fact they have no confidence in the working class to change society or even effect reforms. In that sense they are different to the bureaucracy in the labour movement, who well understand the power of the working class and mobilise it as a last resort. The liberal approach is to plead and lobby the ruling class to effect change. DA in the form of peaceful protests can be used as part of this strategy. The political principles are that of a Popular Front, that is an alliance of the lowest common denominator. The fight against fascism in a Popular Front, therefore, has vague slogans of opposition to racism-the socialist ideas to undercut the support for fascism (job creation, decent housing etc) are sacrificed.

The Reconciliation Walks last year were a case in point. Aboriginal people and trade unionists marching together with mining companies and Liberals. This means the ideas of Land Rights, job creation and nationalisation of the mining industry have to be hidden to keep the ruling class on-side.

The organising principles of DA in a Popular Front are also bureaucratic-centralist. Great emphasis is put on mild, peaceful action so as the target audience (one or other section of the ruling class) is responsive to the needs of the liberals.

Ultra-left approach

This approach is held by those who are often ex-liberals or inverted liberals. That is, liberals who suddenly realise that polite demonstrations are getting nowhere. They up the ante to radical direct action, even individual terrorism. The aim is the same, to get the ruling class to take notice. Like liberals, they don’t have confidence in the ability of the working class to change society. They think the actions of a militant group will trigger support in the wider community, and force the ruling class to retreat on an issue. Because they don’t see the importance of the mass involvement of the workers and youth, the DA of the ultra-lefts is often organised in an undemocratic, secretive fashion at the whim of the leaders of these groups.

Anarchist groups and those influenced by their ideas argue that the movement needs no leaders and only requires ‘self-organisation’. Groups such as Reclaim the Streets, Critical Mass, AWOL also put this forward. But the reality is the protests do not happen spontaneously; they are organised (how else would they happen?) and leaflets are written, web pages updated and so on.

Marxist Approach to Direct Action

We believe that the movement needs democratic structures and that people in ‘leadership’ positions should be democratically elected and accountable. Otherwise, an undemocratic clique is taking all the decisions. We reject any idea that there is a conflict between Marxism and DA. Occupations, pickets, demonstrations, strikes and act of revolution itself are all part of the political weaponry of the socialist movement. The Marxist approach towards DA flows from a theoretical analysis of the situation and rests on decades of working class experience.

Where we differ from the ultra lefts is on the need to reach out and bring in the workers into motion on issues that effect them. This active participation in struggle is what more than anything radicalises and deepens the understanding of the working class. This approach involves a concrete set of demands that will bring people into action. It also involves a democratic-centralist approach to organisation. That is, democratic debate over strategies and tactics on DA, and then, once a decision is made, a united approach to the implementation of the decisions. It is an approach that embraces responsibility instead of avoiding responsibility.

Democratic structures need to be set-up well before, during, and between mass protests to ensure everyone can have a say, are well-informed and can take part in making decisions. Such democratic organisation would allow a real discussion on tactics, including how to prepare to marshal and defend the demonstrations and other protests. Also, democratic organisation would allow a full discussion on what demands, slogans and programme the anti-capitalist movement should adopt.

When working with others around a DA, Marxists take a United Front approach as opposed to a Popular Front approach. That is, a working relationship with others around an agreed, limited goal (eg blockading the Crown Towers in September 2000), but no restrictions on each other political programme: To march separately, but to strike together. This is the approach used at Richmond Secondary College, at S11 and M1, and in the anti-Hanson movement.

From theory to practise

There are two main forms of peaceful protest-planned actions, which presuppose an agreed set of goals between the different forces on the united front, and ‘snap actions’ that can occur during a planned protest or in response to an immediate crisis. Snap actions must have an identified political opportunity or else they become diversions and take people away from the main protest. An example of a successful snap action was during the Richmond SC occupation, when supporters went to the Educational Department in Melbourne demanding a meeting in response to losing an Equal Opportunity Case. It was an attempt to turn defeat into victory. The police and private security over-reacted before the TV cameras and a propaganda victory was won.


The propaganda (leaflets, posters, web pages etc) will reflect the political agreement within the United Front in preparation for the action. Within the group, different parties and groups can still bring out their own propaganda for the action. The propaganda should be concrete e.g. “Save this School”, “Reinstate Mr. X”. The demands are therefore winnable and can bring people into the struggle. Socialists will then have a wider audience for the broader issues they raise.

Too abstract, too broad, too multi-issue propaganda is dangerous. It is easier for the ruling class, and especially the Labor Party, to agree to “End Poverty” or “Support Free Education” than to support a concrete, real demand of workers in motion such as save a particular school from closure, reinstate a particular group of workers etc. It is in the fight for these concrete reforms that workers come into conflict with the state, the mass media, the labor movement bureaucracy and thereby become more open to socialist ideas.

As Peter Camejo outlined in a 1970 speech to the US SWP (Socialist Workers Party), “we advocate many things, but we try to put into practice those things the masses are prepared for. We advocate general strikes, but we don’t call them, because we are not fools. We know there cannot be a general strike, on any issue right now, given the present level of conciseness. And you wont get to the point where there can be general strikes unless you put people in motion, precisely because when they start to move on one issue people begin to question the whole society and to see the interrelationship between the two issues. In fact, it is the way people radicalise.”

Intelligence/Police Liaison

Drawing together as much information in advance is key. Knowledge of the geography of the protest area and possible police movements are key to ensuring the ability for quick tactic shifts in plan on the day, if necessary. The Richmond SC occupation had been forewarned by leak’s in the opponents camp of a raid on the school, which helped tremendously in planning. At S11, information from Crown staff was useful to the campaign on the first day of protest. The SP (Socialist Party), usually supports police liaison before an event, but always with two or more protesters in attendance. Such meetings often give us some idea of police plans for the day.

A meeting with the police before the trial of Nazi leader Michael Brander allowed Militant (now SP) to hear of police plans for the placement of the Nazi and anti-Nazi supporters outside the country court and allowed us to successfully push for the higher ground. No agreements should be confirmed in these meetings, that is the job of the broader campaign body.

Campaign police liaison representatives should be elected before an event. They should be personally in contact (via mobile phone) with their equivalent in the police. On secondary issues, this can be useful. For example; on the Sunday night before S11, protest police liaison representatives were able to pressure the police liaison representatives to turn off the sprinklers that were wrecking the first aid tent and equipment.


A good PA system, a megaphone and if appropriate a stage is critical. This allows campaign representatives to inform the protesters of latest developments, it allows for entertainment, and most importantly a political space for the campaign. It is key that this equipment is not solely in the hands of one component part of the campaign, but allows space for all ideas, within the agreed goals of the united front.

First aid equipment is essential, even on the smallest of rallies. The police can sometimes block emergency professionals and non government first aid may have a political bias against the protests (e.g. St Johns Ambulance at S11). Often protesters can negotiate access to first aid administrators through the police line, this can prove to be useful to the campaign. All injuries should be recorded in an incident book, and copied for legal support.

Marshalling and Communications

Marshals should be elected in advance so they have the confidence of the group. They should reflect the diversity of the campaign. Their role is to guide rally attendees into the organizational tasks for the action, and also play a basic political role in going over the main demands of the action. They should play a leading role on pickets and on the edges of rallies to provide direction and information to the demonstrators. They should ensure that no-one is intentionally isolated or open to arrest.

The campaign should provide the marshals with clear identifying clothing (a T shirt or at least an armband). On long events, marshals should have strictly limited periods of duty to ensure they are alert. To do the job properly marshals need mobile phones or walkie-talkies and/or megaphones linked to a central marshal or marshals situated in a safe position. Back up plans should be put into place as mobile phones can be scrambled or, more mundanely, batteries can run out. A big event requires radio communications as used by the S11 campaign and on the docks in Melbourne during the MUA dispute.

Legal/Video/Camera support

The state has made it practice to arrest protestors on demonstrations, even if they know a subsequent court case will be thrown out. The states goal in doing this is to take militants, (irritants to a capitalist society), out of action and disorganize a protest. The prescience of clearly identified legal support is useful in making police command aware that the action is well organized and will counter-attack legally as well as politically and industrially to any assault.

Legal support allows for on-the-spot documentation of arrests and assaults, bail information and so on. The presence of camera and video operators, independent of the mass media, allows for recording of any police brutality, all arrests, and video the baton charge from commercial television was like pulling teeth. Campaign footage should not be sold to the mass media without campaign approval and never, given to the police.

Pickets and Blockading

The tendency is for all protesters to be on the picket line or blockade point. Unlike the police, we therefore have no ready reserve to strengthen weak spots when necessary. Army and police training manuals make no such mistakes. At S11, the police studied the deployment of protesters and then used regular diversions to confuse, demoralize and disperse blockaders. At a set moment, they would then attack a particular blockade point. Good communication and intelligence information is key to overcome these tactics.

Records should be kept of police movements and shift changes. Information should only be accepted when it is first hand. Even more important is, if at all possible, a ready reserve of protesters standing by to cover any weak spots. At the MUA dispute on the Melbourne docks, the main gate was staffed not only by picketers but also a ready reserve of people resting, or enjoying the entertainment.

Good communication skills meant this group of people could be deployed to weak spots as required. The police’s main move was to block this picket and its reserves, to prevent any interference with their attack on another picket. This plan was defeated when the CFMEU,mobilized a second reserve force (passive reserve) from building workers in the CBD who left work and marched behind the lines of the police who were the blocking force at the main gate. Their marching forced the surrender of the police blockade.


Long term occupations are rare, and usually the occupiers can enter and leave the building at will. Therefore the organizing principles that apply to a long term picket or blockade would be the same here. A good reference for long term occupations is the book called ‘Behind the lines’, (the story of the Richmond SC occupation in 1992-93).

Short-term occupations are usually of a siege character as in the RMIT occupation of 1996. Therefore, as important as an occupying group inside is, a separate, but connected support group on the outside is equally important. This group would co-ordinate union and community support, supplies for the occupiers and so forth.


The youth involved in some of the anti-globalization protests have shown tremendous courage and determination in the face of state repression and harassment. However, not just some anarchist groups but a small layer of youth have engaged in rioting during the anti-globalization protests in the US and Europe. The riots are an indication of the natural desperation of a youth that is deeply alienated from capitalists and ‘politics’.

Predictably, the media and governments have enormously exaggerated this aspects of the protest in an attempt to discredit the movement as a whole. In our material we stress the provocative and brutal role of riot police in these events. (Undoubtedly, agent provocateurs play a role in these events as well). But it is also the duty of the Marxists to clearly oppose the counter-productive consequences of rioting, which only plays into the hands of the ruling class and gives the state an excuse to increase repressive measures against protesters and the working class as a whole. Of course, protesters have the right to defend themselves against state repression, but this should be organized democratically.

Changing tactics

It is rare for the main strategy of a DA to change mid-stream, but tactical changes can occur. For example, on the morning of the third day of the S11 protest, SP members argued successfully that a warning should be sent to the police and their backers. If a baton charge was used again, we would maintain our strategy of peaceful protest, but change our tactics, from standing at the gate of the Crown towers, to grid locking the city by blocking the key roads to the area. We put this to police directly and through the media and they backed off from the continuation of the baton charges of the day before.

For tactical changes to be made, a democratic decision making process must exist. Such democratic organization would allow a real discussion on tactics, including how to prepare to marshal and defend the demonstrators, and other protests, and also what contingency plans should be adopted including when and how to retreat or change tactics in an orderly fashion, for instance when faced with overwhelming violence and force from the police.

Tactical options relevant to the G20 demonstration include blockading the venue, occupations of corporate and government facilities, grid locking of key roads, marches or pickets.

By Stephen Jolly


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