This post was originally published on the 28th of October on the comradezhenka blog.
Socialists, Protests and Strategy
The last few years has seen a lot of frenetic political activity, there have been countless protests and mobilisations without much success in many of them. There were of course some obvious exceptions, the early CAHWT demos and more recently the Coillte protests The unions had organised some very big demos but they’re now in the distant past, and the recent ones are more a case of being seen to do something, rather than actually doing something. It seems like there has been an endless round of activism and it appears people are simply moving from one protest to the next. Every new cut in services is met with a protest, every attack on the working class is met with a demo. There are a lot of very good people putting a lot of effort into these activities. Unfortunately it seems as if we’re simply chasing our tails and one of the results of this is that the numbers attending have, in general, been declining. The lower numbers and the lack of substance to back up the demos ultimately leads to demoralisation and a downward spiral.
If you ask someone outside of the left what the left does, the answer is usually ‘protest’. Is that all we stand for? Of course not. We do however need to move beyond the cycle of tactical actions. Rather than objecting to every single manifestation of ‘austerity’ we need to develop an overall strategy for tackling capitalism. This means we need to break the current cycle of protests. We need to take a step back from the current level of activity and analyse what has worked over the last few years and what hasn’t. It is important we don’t get bogged down in the usual protest-recruit cycle that other groups thrive on, but ultimately leads to a dead end as there’s little substance to back it up. We need now to develop that substance. This is naturally going to be a long process involving as wide a range of voices on the left as possible. It certainly won’t be glamorous and will most likely be boring, but it’s vital for our long-term interests that we break this cycle and get back to some serious thinking.
This is not to say there should be no protests, but that we should pick and choose our battlegrounds more carefully. There are a myriad of cuts and attacks on the working class happening now under the guise of austerity, and we shouldn’t be looking to protest every last one of them. Simply put we don’t have the numbers to tackle each one of them individually. We have been trying to do this, and the result of it is diminished numbers at these demos. In my opinion this has the net effect of making the left appear weaker than it actually is. I know this won’t be a popular idea, but the left is thin on the ground and further dividing our strength by the sheer volume of (and sometimes competing) demos doesn’t serve us well. We simply don’t have the strength of numbers required to attend every protest, and in truth everyone knows the low turnouts make us look weak. We need to strategise our demonstrations, we need to decide what our priorities are and then take each invite to a protest and decide whether it fits into our strategic plan.
This will necessarily involve making some tough decisions. Nobody wants to turn away from any members of the working class that are under attack. But it must be done. We have to find other ways of supporting those groups, because truth be told having 300 people turn up to protest a cut in, for instance, the education budget does that group no favours at all. Ultimately it shows that those protesting aren’t strong enough to defeat the cuts, and makes them ripe for further cuts in future. I know some people will say that having 300 there is better than having no one, but really it isn’t, it amounts to the same thing: There is not enough force there to prevent the cuts.
There is a sort of cult of activism among some on the left that sees protests as something to be exalted above other forms of politics. In truth this isn’t just confined to the left as we also see groups like Independent Resistance (and their many different guises) protesting frantically (with even poorer numbers). The simplified message of constant protest followed by some vague idea of revolution is seductive to some, but it won’t work unless we know what is going to happen afterwards. And that requires some serious discussion. Unfortunately all this activism means there’s less time for that discussion: what are we hoping to achieve with all this activism? While an awful lot of good effort from some very dedicated people goes into these events, that effort would be better served if it was backed by an equally good strategy.
In many ways these protests are not just a case of showing our anger but are a method of communication. It is our way of saying to our class that we are here and are prepared to resist these capitalist attacks. In many ways this has become the left’s dominant form of communication with the wider populace. One of the problems with this is that protests are mainly what we’re known for. Socialists have a lot more to offer society rather than just being seen as those who will ‘kick up a stink’ every time there’s a cut we don’t like. Do we want to be seen as a socialist movement, or as a protest movement? Because there is the danger (or the reality) that that is all our movement will be regarded as, unless we come up with a serious alternative to the endless cycle of protests.
Protests can be a great medium of communication if they’re done properly. For now I think that means using them sparingly. We need large numbers of people at them in order for them to have any impact, and unfortunately that is just not happening at the moment. We can continue to have protests six days a week and get nowhere or else we can rethink what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Protests need be deployed tactically in order to maximise their impact. That can’t happen if we are in a situation where there are multiple protests in one week. The numbers are down, fatigue has set in, and we need to find a way out of this cul-de-sac before it’s too late.