Over the years, I have heard many left-wing activists say that mass peaceful protests do not achieve anything. Rather, “militant actions” which “take it up to the ruling class” are more important.
But for smaller direct actions to have any real political significance, they have to be connected to a patient and democratic approach to building mass movements that can win reforms. Smaller direct actions that are not tied to this political aim are a posture.
In a period of relative political quiet, some on the left are being snookered into the false idea that demonstrations that insist on direct action and militancy are the only way to win reforms.
This is a failed strategy, because it rests on the notion that a tiny number of conscientious and outraged activists can frighten or shock the ruling class into delivering reforms or stopping cuts. This sort of idealism is dangerous, and ignores evidence of how social movements throughout history have grown and succeeded in their aims.
When I first arrived in Melbourne in 1993, I met a man at a tram stop who told me that Victorians supported then-premier Jeff Kennett because they had stopped protesting.
What he did not realise is that a huge wave of protests across Victoria the previous year had actually worried sections of the ruling class.
But the Victorian Trades Hall Council did not escalate the campaign. People waited for more protests but it became clear the trades hall council under John Halfpenny’s leadership was oriented only to reelecting the Labor party at the next state election. The next two demonstrations were a ritual affair rather than an escalation of the campaign.
I remember Kennett's smug comment at Bairnsdale in east Gippsland, about a year after he'd closed the train line, about how much support his government was receiving from the community. He'd faced protest over the closure before, and this time nothing was organised.
Many became discouraged because the mass protests in 2003 failed to stop Australia taking part in the US-led invasion of Iraq. But when the most powerful capitalist class with the largest military force decides to go to war, there needs to be an extraordinary level of mobilisation to stop it.
The anti-war protests in 2003 were unprecedented in size. But in Australia, the Labor-led section of the anti-war movement worked hard to control the number of anti-war protests, and refused to support the militant mood for ongoing protests after the March invasion.
The protests needed to continue and gain momentum after the invasion to draw in wider sections of the population. This would have bolstered the confidence of the unions to take industrial action to prevent supplies to the army.
In Scotland, one militant train driver refused to drive a trainload of supplies to a British military base. His union did back him, but the train driver was just one individual conscientious objector. There was no overall union campaign against supplying the military.
Even so, the mass protests against the invasion did have a mitigating impact on the way the war was carried out. Without these huge protests — which involved communities and neighbourhoods self-organising and coordinating — the number of civilian casualties would have been much higher because the US would have been able to get away with carpet-bombing civilian areas.
Work Choices protests
The biggest workers’ protests in Australia’s history against John Howard’s anti-union “Work Choices” laws were organised between 2005 and 2006.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) initially wanted to run only a media campaign against the laws. Former ACTU secretary Greg Combet said that protests would only attract blue-collar male workers, which would affect support for the Labor Party’s reelection bid.
But pressure from rank-and-file unionists, particularly in Victoria, built up to such an extent that a number of state trades and labour councils called mass protests.
The ACTU was belatedly forced to support them or risk losing political control.
Until these mass workers' protests, the Labor opposition, led by Kim Beazley, had not spoken out strongly against Work Choices. Labor had not opposed individual workplace contracts: indeed, former Labor PM Paul Keating had introduced a type of individual contract.
It was not until the first big workers' protest that Beazley said that he would “rip up Work Choices”. It was not until the second big workers’ protest that Beazley said a Labor government would abolish individual contracts. Labor was under pressure to relate to these mass protests.
But while it postured as the workers’ saviour, it worked hard to channel protests into a reelect Labor campaign.
After Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007, union leaders pulled the plug on the campaign to force Labor to rip up all the anti-union laws. This was a political choice by Labor-affiliated unions.
Shocking the ruling class
The slow pace of politics can be frustrating. Social movements are at a low ebb and only flare up sporadically.
This is connected to the two big parties’ united support for neoliberalism. It makes mounting serious resistance to cuts and privatisations much harder. Traditional institutions of working class organisation — unions — are weak and their leaders are mostly compromised by allegiance to the Labor party.
It's understandable that activists get impatient. But they cannot afford to fool themselves and others into believing that small protests involving civil disobedience and confrontation with the police is more “militant” than a mass movement that has activated ordinary people to come into the streets.
A friend who was involved in all of the civil disobedience actions during the Vietnam War told me that the tide didn’t start to turn against the war until the big “moratorium marches” began — when the “mums and dads” started coming out.
This involved a lot of patient work to build the movement among community and union networks.
Governments rule for powerful vested interests. The capitalist class has a huge armoury and resources at its disposal — the capitalist media, the ALP, the police, the military, the judicial system and the education system.
The capitalist class doesn't cave easily to protests, otherwise their governments would not get away with implementing unpopular policies.
And it isn't frightened, shocked or tricked into changing its mind.
However, it does get concerned when working people discover they have power when they act collectively to defend their interests.
Civil disobedience and other forms of direct action are important tactics as long as they are tied to the patient work of trying to build bigger protests, along with industrial action, in which workers discover the power they have against neoliberalism.
If the aim of a social movement is to force a change of policy, or stop a neoliberal attack, numbers do count.
Civil disobedience and confrontation with police as a sole strategy is playing at militancy. For some it may feel good, for others it’s a turn off. If it deters or discourages broader mobilisation, it can be counter-productive. More importantly, it has little political impact on the ruling class.
A militancy that combines mass protest and targeted civil disobedience actions has the potential to build a mass popular revolt, and to make unjust laws unenforceable.
Targeted civil disobedience actions that mobilise masses into action — such as the three-day S11 mass blockade of the World Economic Forum summit in Melbourne in 2000 — can empower even bigger sections of the population and win concessions or make unjust laws unenforceable.
It was the mass character of the movement against the Vietnam War that made it so dangerous to the ruling class. This really was a militant movement: it inspired big sections of the working class to draw radical conclusions and question capitalism — the system that was sending them to war. The ruling class became so worried about this mass radicalisation that it decided to cut its losses and withdraw from Vietnam.
It would be great if this kind of movement could be built in Australia today, but it is hard to see which of the myriad anti-imperialist, social and economic issues could spark such outrage.
But left activists need to be patient. There is no short-cut to developing a stronger consciousness about the need for fundamental social and political change in the class with revolutionary potential.
An approach that prioritises the building of democratic movement committees with the conscious involvement of new activists, is critical. This is not pandering to respectability: this shows a materialist understanding of the strength and power of the capitalist class we are fighting.
Sue Bolton is a Moreland City Councillor, a leading Socialist Alliance member and a veteran campaign activist.