A socialist perspective on direct action


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In recent times direct action tactics, like pickets and mass sit-ins, have been used with relative success in campaigns against fracking, the fight against the closure of remote Indigenous communities, and the struggle against the East-West toll road. Activists in the refugee movement have also begun to turn to direct action, organising pickets in an attempt to stop refugee deportations.

A growing number of people are beginning to question whether peaceful rallies alone can achieve the social change we desire. Many activists are arguing for a refreshed approach as years of peaceful rallies have not prevented the major parties from implementing policies that are totally at odds with the needs of the majority of people.

While a small number of participants in recent direct actions are experienced activists, the overwhelming majority have come into political action for the first time. The Socialist Party welcomes these developments and actively campaigns for our movements to employ effective direct action tactics. In particular, we emphasise mass direct action involving thousands of people, as this is the most effective way to build strong movements and win victories for ordinary people. To that aim, we offer this socialist perspective on direct action.

What is direct action?

Generally, direct action encompasses a broad range of combative tactics to achieve political aims. The workers’ movement has a rich tradition of direct action. For those of us who work for wages our ability to collectively withdraw labour and bring industry to a halt is a source of great potential power. From wage rises to the winning of social programs like Medicare, huge gains have been won by workers engaging in direct action such as strikes, pickets, rallies, marches and sit-ins.

Recent years however have seen some of the lowest levels of strike action on record. Where unions have taken direct action, there has often been a shift away from strikes and an emphasis on protest actions that do not involve withdrawing labour. This flows from the fact that many of today’s union leaders have accommodated to the system rather than struggling against it. The trade union leaders of today are also less inclined to take up broader social justice issues.

As such, calls for action on social issues of late have originated less from the organised working class and more from loose alliances of people. While less effective than strikes, all actions that bring people together in a form of antagonistic protest, as opposed to negotiation or other requests for mediation, can be described as direct action.

Is direct action more effective than traditional protest?

Massive street protests can disrupt business as usual and can play a key role in winning reforms. The marches against the Work Choices laws across Australia in 2006 – which were linked to some limited strike action – are a good example of this.

While the Howard government did not back down, the huge show of working class force – and the developing threat of a general strike – convinced significant sections of the Australian ruling class to support a vote for Labor at the 2007 federal election as a way of dissipating the anger. While the subsequent Rudd Labor government kept big parts of the Work Choices laws in the Fair Work Act, they did not go as far as the measures implemented by Howard.

Many working people instinctively understand the potential power of collective action. When rallies have been called, thousands have enthusiastically marched for refugee rights, the environment, women’s rights, LGBTIQ rights and more. But given the pressures of eking out a living the mass of working people’s energy is unlikely to be sustained indefinitely.

It is natural for campaigns to ebb and flow, but movements can ebb more quickly if people sense that their protests are not having an impact. Working people are more likely to give up their time and energy to engage in an action if they sense they can win. This explains why sometimes movements can dwindle even when they have not won their demands, until some fresh attack provokes a burst of outrage.

Given the common experience of largely symbolic non-confrontational rallies of late, a growing layer of activists are thirsty for more effective tactics. Some come to draw a distinction between peaceful rallies like those for refugee rights and marriage equality, and direct action tactics involving more militant disruptive intent.

But in reality, whether or not actions or campaigns are effective is not a mechanical question of which tactics are employed. The effectiveness of any direct action is first and foremost a political question.

For traditional protests to be effective, just like any other form of direct action, they should be mobilised around concrete, winnable demands, and an effort should be made to mobilise wide layers of working class people. Rather than being events in and of themselves designed to express outrage, they should be part of a broader campaign involving a variety of tactics with a plan to escalate action until the demands have been met.

Is direct action something that only activists can do?

For some activists, direct action is something that is only engaged in by small groups of hardcore people. Given the historical low ebb of the workers’ movement, and the lack of recent mass actions carried out by the trade union movement, it is understandable that some people have drawn these conclusions. Socialists however think this is mistaken.

This approach can unintentionally reinforce a division between those who engage in heroic actions, and those who passively observe. Some groups calling direct action will place emphasis on the idea of having two levels of participation: actors and observers. But doing this can sometimes scare people out of taking action altogether.

In reality, this approach leads to heightened safety risks. The absolute best defence against oppressive police tactics – for example – is strength in numbers. This was clearly the case when up to 3,000 protesters stared down the threat of mass arrests by the NSW Police at the successful anti-fracking Bentley blockade. Dividing this action into actors and observers would mean reducing the numbers directly involved, and leaving those directly involved exposed to mass arrests.

How should direct action be organised?

Some of the direct action approaches described above flow from a specific tendency known as Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA). NVDA groups agree with socialists about the centrality of direct action in winning reforms and affecting social change but don’t always think it is necessary – or even possible at this stage – to mobilise significant numbers of working class people.

But all the most significant advances that have raised the living standards of ordinary people have been won through mass political action. Knowing this, capitalists use a range of methods to prevent working class people from engaging in political action. Ordinary people often lack confidence in their ability to affect change or are too exhausted from long work hours to find time for activism.

Socialists always strive to counter this by campaigning to mobilise the widest possible layers of working class people into political action and using every action as an opportunity to develop people’s confidence. Even with the smallest crowd turning out for a particular direct action, the tactics on the day should aim to serve this overall strategic aim.

NVDA actions are usually planned in advance with leading activists giving attendees instructions to listen out for particular signals, or follow particular people. While it is important to think about logistics, for a working class person engaging in direct action for the first time this approach can be disempowering, sending the message that their agency is secondary, that other people have all the important stuff worked out and your job is simply to follow.

A better approach is to actually have a democratic discussion at the beginning of an action, then reach agreement before taking action. Taking this approach means even in the event of contingencies it is possible to maintain the trust of people, shift tactics and still have a successful action. For example, an excessive police presence may make picketing or occupying a building impossible, but perhaps it could be feasible to arrange a sit-in at the intersection in front of the building.

This was the general approach the Socialist Party took when picketing the East-West toll road project. This gave people real agency in the campaign tactics and as a result many ordinary people went much further than they otherwise might have. In the end the pickets against the road’s preliminary works were key to stopping it.

Without collective decision making, it is possible that actions can fail and working class people may feel like their limited free time has been wasted, potentially discouraging them from future political activity.

How can we see more direct action?

The recent low level of struggle does not indicate a permanent, universal characteristic of working class people. Changes to the economic situation will inevitably lead to an increase in class struggle. As such more and more people will be pushed into political activity and there will be a greater willingness to engage in direct action.

Socialists will do our best to win people to the idea of mass direct action and to connect it to the organised working class via the trade union movement. When working class people act collectively and in a combative way not only can important reforms be won, but society itself can be changed.

By Ben Convey

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