Direct Action vs. Class Struggle

From activists glueing themselves to trains to throwing soup at paintings: recent years have seen numerous groups employing “direct action” tactics to achieve their aims. Instead, Marxists call for mass organized struggle by workers and youth.

Following a recent Socialist Appeal article about animal rights protests in Britain, direct action group Animal Rebellion (AR) responded, providing a defense of their strategy, tactics, and demands. Click here or scroll down to read their reply at the bottom of this page. In the piece below, Socialist Appeal activist Joe Russell explains the limits of the methods and programs adopted by direct action groups like AR, and presents a Marxist alternative.

Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity. (Lenin, What is to be Done?, 1902)

The capitalist system is in a deep global crisis. Its decline has devastating consequences, not only in terms of social and economic conditions, but also the destruction of the planet.

This is bringing about a political awakening amongst many layers of society, with an increase in political activity of all kinds. In particular, some are drawn towards the methods of “direct action” and “civil disobedience” in order to combat the destruction that capitalism is wreaking on the planet.

Recent examples include Extinction Rebellion and its various offshoots. These include Animal Rebellion, who have set up camps near food production sites to block distribution; Insulate Britain, who have disrupted traffic and everyday activities; and Just Stop Oil, whose activists infamously threw a can of soup over a Van Gogh painting.

We have no doubt that those involved in these groups are extremely dedicated, and have the best intentions. Nevertheless, we have to say honestly that their tactics will not achieve their aims, no matter how noble these might be.

In the early days of the Russian workers’ movement, Lenin dedicated much of his writing to theoretical clarification, drawing out the necessary priorities, strategy, and tactics for success. This was the motivation behind classic texts such as What is to be Done?

Lenin’s works are as relevant today as ever. Especially since these “direct action” groups repeat many of the mistakes which Lenin had to combat in his time.

We therefore welcome Animal Rebellion’s contribution, which provides an opportunity to revisit this theory and discuss the most effective methods of struggle.

A sense of proportion

Animal Rebellion logo
Neither Animal Rebellion nor any of the civil disobedience groups now active are “mass movements.” We must have a sense of proportion. / Image: Animal Rebellion

Animal Rebellion, who offered us this comradely debate, opened their reply with the following: “Animal Rebellion is a mass movement using nonviolent civil disobedience to call for a just, sustainable plant-based food system.”

But in order to determine what is to be done, we must have a sense of proportion. Neither Animal Rebellion nor any similar “civil disobedience” focused group can really be called a mass movement.

Extinction Rebellion mobilized around 6,000 people for their largest days of action. By comparison, in recent months, 115,000 postal workers have repeatedly been on strike. And many more workers are set to walk out in the coming period: hundreds of thousands of nurses and civil servants; tens of thousands of rail workers; and 70,000 university staff at UK campuses.

Likewise, following the resignation of Liz Truss as PM, an Instagram post by Animal Rebellion held the caption: “The Tofu-Eating Wokerati topple Truss.” This was referring to Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s description of these “civil disobedience” environmentalist groups.

Once again, we must insist on a sense of proportion. The collapse of the Tory cabinet was not the result of small-scale “direct actions,” but of far greater economic, political, and social contradictions.

These claims do not seem to be isolated exaggerations, but a consistent theoretical mistake.

Animal Rebellion stated in their article: “A long history of social movements show that this style of action [visually provocative stunts, occupations, and blockades] achieves results. It is how the civil rights movement in America secured legislative change; how the Indian Independence Movement secured their freedom; and how the suffragists secured the right to vote for women in the UK.”

So, how effective were these struggles? And to what extent do they prove the effectiveness of “direct action” or civil disobedience?

Civil rights

Without meaning to downplay the inspiring actions of the activists and demonstrators in the American civil rights movement, we should put their significance into context.

Firstly, the movement cannot be separated from other huge events, such as the Vietnam War. They are entirely intertwined. And this was a mass movement, involving explosive riots across many American cities. These were not the product of a gradual escalation of “direct action” groups, but were the organic result of many social and political crises piled on top of each other.

MLK Image US National Archives
The successes of the civil rights movement are cited by Animal Rebellion, without discussing their context: the mass mobilizations of millions of workers in the US and all over the world. / Image: US National Archives

The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese revolutionary guerrillas was vital in ending the war, and further weakening the American ruling class. This also resulted in disillusionment in the American ranks—in some cases to the extent of mutiny. Conscription tied the military to the working class in a way that was extremely dangerous for American capitalism in such a period of political unrest.

Civil disobedience may have played some role in ending the war, or in ending some cases of racist legislation. But neither war nor racism, in general, have ever been, and ever can be, ended by reforms. They are inherent features of capitalist society.

We must also remember that capitalism itself was shaking at this time. 1968–69 were years that nearly saw socialist revolution on the international stage.

The movements of both May 1968 in France and the “hot autumn” of 1969 in Italy were powerful because of the mass general strikes of the working class they involved.

In both cases, the state was disarmed and paralyzed precisely because of the strength and breadth of the strikes. Power lay at the feet of the strike committees. What was missing in these historic moments was not more “direct action,” but a clear revolutionary political program and leadership.

It is in this context of war and revolution that the civil rights movement took hold as a mass movement that threatened the capitalist system as a whole.

Women’s suffrage

Women of the Russian Revolution
Women were given full voting rights in Russia in 1917, immediately following the Russian Revolution. Meanwhile, full enfranchisement of women wasn’t established in Britain until 1928. / Image: fair use

Animal Rebellion also refers to the example of the struggle for women’s suffrage.

But the winning of the vote for women was a product of far more than isolated instances of civil disobedience. In fact, the Militant Suffragettes halted their civil disobedience in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI. Full female enfranchisement was not granted in Britain until 1928. In the 14 years in between, there were enormous political tremors and pressures.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had struck fear into the hearts of the ruling class and brought a revolutionary wave through Europe. As US President Woodrow Wilson said in 1919: “We are running a race with Bolshevism, and the world is on fire.”

Indeed, Britain experienced a stormy wave of class struggle that erupted in 1918, and culminated with the general strike of 1926.

In Russia, the Bolsheviks immediately granted full enfranchisement to both male and female workers upon their coming to power. And in Britain, women had been drafted into the workplace during the war effort—becoming a more independent political layer of the working class.

In this context, Britain’s enfranchisement acts of 1918 and 1928 are hardly compelling evidence for the effectiveness of the simple formula of direct, civil disobedience.

Adventurism

The civil disobedience and “direct action” of the Militant Suffragettes did not win working women the vote.

Groups such as these never connected with the mass movements of working-class men and women that were unfolding at the time. This is because their tactics do not flow from the experience or the traditions of the working class. They are petty-bourgeois methods, which tend to emphasize the role of publicity stunts and isolated acts of small groups.

Lenin called this approach “adventurism.” By this, he meant:

…trends expressing only the traditional instability of views held by the intermediate and indefinite sections of the intelligentsia [which] try to substitute noisy declarations for rapprochement with definite classes, declarations which are all the noisier, the louder the thunder of events. “At least we make an infernal noise”—such is the slogan of many revolutionarily minded individuals who have been caught up in the maelstrom of events and who have neither theoretical principles nor social roots. (Lenin, Revolutionary Adventurism, 1902)

This fundamental mistake is a theoretical one: a movement cannot connect with a wider class if it does not base itself on the concrete experience and objective interests of that class. This, therefore, requires a theoretical understanding of class and the class struggle.

Ignoring this leads to various mistakes in practice.

Their morals and ours

When making political demands, a fundamental question must be: “who are these demands aimed at?”

Animal Rebellion states: “To achieve these solutions, our core demands are targeted at the government bodies responsible for a subsidy system that funnels billions in taxpayer pounds into the destructive animal farming and fishing industries.”

But in the capitalist system, the state defends private property and the rule of the capitalist class. On all the biggest questions, it defends their interests.

A rapid transition to sustainable energy and food production does not correspond to their class interests, as it will damage their profits. No amount of moral persuasion can change this.

Sowing illusions in this is not progressive, as it holds back our understanding of how to fight for change. The approach taken by Animal Rebellion is guilty in this regard:

…I am one to believe that individual people at DEFRA [the government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] do their absolute best to deal with this emergency…

…I turn to you at this dire time, asking that … you will stand with the people, and back our demands during the September disruptions, even at your own, personal sacrifice. (Animal Rebellion, August 19, 2022)

This is nothing but a moral appeal to individuals, as if the capitalist system behaves as it does simply because of the whims of individual government regulators.

Instead of appealing to the better nature of government officials, we must start with a materialist understanding of the real interests, consciousness, and forces at work in society—which, after all, is a class society.

Lenin explained this well in reference to the Narodniks, a petty-bourgeois trend in the early revolutionary movement in Russia that based itself on “propaganda of the deed”:

The Narodnik thinks it sufficient, in criticizing capitalism, to condemn it from the angle of his ideals, from the angle of “modern science and modern moral ideas.” The Marxist thinks it necessary to trace in detail the classes that are formed in capitalist society, he considers valid only criticism made from the viewpoint of a definite class, criticism that is based on the precise formulation of the social process actually taking place and not on the ethical judgement of the “individual.”  (Lenin, The Economic Content of Narodism, 1895)

This description is certainly applicable to the current trends basing themselves on “direct action” and “civil disobedience.” They too make loud, moral appeals “to society” in general. They attempt to use “the science” to convince bourgeois individuals, one by one. And they likewise emphasize the role of small direct action groups over the mass organizations and mass action of the working class.

This is no accident. The individualism in the ideas of the intelligentsia and middle class ultimately reflect their social position.

The working class works collectively; has the same fundamental interests; and, as a result, forms mass organizations such as trade unions and political parties. Armed with the correct program, these have the potential to challenge the capitalist class for power, due to workers’ essential role in production.

In contrast, petty-bourgeois individuals are more atomized; work for themselves; and have conflicting interests between them. At the end of the day, most aspire to become bourgeois themselves. They are therefore impotent to transform society, and can only appeal to—not challenge—the ruling class.

As a result, climate “direct action” groups cannot find mass social roots, even among those who are concerned about the environment.

Class consciousness

Animal Rebellion have declared “huge UK public support for direct action to protect the environment.” Citing The Guardian, they say: “66% of people back nonviolent action and 75% support solar power being installed on farmland.”

This is indeed a welcome sign. But it says nothing of the specifics of those non-violent actions. The task at hand is not one of “raising awareness.” There is already an appetite for change. The question for many is: “What is to be done?”

With regards to Insulate Britain, their methods of blocking motorways are certainly not working to convince the government to invest in insulating homes. And rather than engaging working-class people to get organized themselves, many simply see these activists and their activities as a nuisance. But this is not the decisive question.

System Change

As Marxists, we do not object to “direct action” in itself. The working class is no stranger to that method. After all, strikes are a form of mass direct action. What is objected to is the elevation of a tactic into a fetish, and into something without relation to the working-class movement.

A strategy or tactic is not justified by whether it has widespread public support, or not, but by whether it helps to raise class consciousness; to give the working class confidence in its own power and strength; to bring closer the objective necessity of socialist revolution.

In short, we are not against direct action because of its form, but because of its class content. We are in favor of that which makes the working class conscious of its potential power to change society. And we are against stunts that are utterly disconnected from, and even antagonistic to, the working class.

There have been some recent forms of direct action to which we take a wholeheartedly positive view. For example, the rapid mobilizations to block deportation vehicles in GlasgowPeckham, and Hackney have been effective and inspiring. These were mass actions (relative to their local scale), which displayed the potential strength of the masses.

We must be clear about the difference between these actions. The anti-immigration raids movements are a necessary form of disobedience and struggle by a local community against direct attacks by the bourgeois state on oppressed people.

This is fundamentally different to a small handful of protesters taking it upon themselves to disrupt wider society indiscriminately, or disrupting workers as they struggle to make a living.

Substitutionalism

Even if these methods did lead to achieving partial improvements—which they do not—ultimately they would play a negative effect in the development of class consciousness. The message to currently politically inactive layers of workers would be: “Don’t you worry about organizing to transform society, since we—a small group of dedicated individuals—can and will do this for you.”

What makes the direct action of a strike progressive is not the fact that production is stopped. It is the fact that working-class people—the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism—collectively organize and decide for themselves to stop production. In doing so, they become conscious of their position in society, and how this can be used to transform it.

It is through struggle, strikes, and mass mobilizations that the working class transforms itself and its consciousness. Such consciousness and forms of organization can never be produced by the stunts that are more-or-less randomly enacted by petty-bourgeois activist groups.

This was the point made by Trotsky in relation to the individual-terrorist methods of various petty-bourgeois groups in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which bare many similarities to today’s direct action types:

In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.

The anarchist prophets of the “propaganda of the deed” can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise.

The more “effective” the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy. (Trotsky, Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism, 1911)

If you replace “individual terror” with “small-scale direct action,” then the logic of Trotsky’s argument applies perfectly to these groups today which similarly seek to substitute the patient work of winning over the masses to a revolutionary program, with the stunts of small groups of activists.

Socialist revolution

The priority outlined by Animal Rebellion is that of protecting the environment. This is a task that demands revolutionary solutions. However, their main focus is for a plant-based food system.

In response to our previous article, in which we explained that the only way to tackle the climate crisis is through a socialist revolution, Animal Rebellion replied:

While this perhaps carries some truth, the realities of our climate and ecological crisis means what we do—or fail to do—in the next 2–3 years will determine whether or not we have a livable future.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time, so we take this nonviolent direct action knowing that a transition to a plant-based future—even within the existing system—would buy us valuable time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and address other aspects of these crises.

We are in complete agreement that tackling climate change is an urgent priority. It is therefore vital that we do not waste precious time pursuing methods that won’t get results.

Animal Rebellion present their demands as if they are reforms that can be carried out by our capitalist government, in order to buy us time. But we must be clear: a transition to a plant-based future cannot take place within the existing system. And so it cannot buy us time. The idea that you can revolutionize the agricultural system as a whole in the country, through government reforms alone, is utopian.

The vast majority of the economy and the land is of course privately owned. It can therefore only function on the logic of profit.

…the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profits—stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.  (Marx, Capital Volume Three, 1894)

Referencing a 2019 Harvard University report, Animal Rebellion claims that a fully plant-based food system would be enough to make the UK “carbon negative,” i.e. for the UK economy to completely cease polluting CO2.

Unfortunately, this is not true. It does not do justice to the scale of the task necessary. The report which they reference also concluded that:

Our scenarios 1 and 2 extend the permissible CO2 budget for 1.5°C by 103% and 75%, respectively, up to 2050. Our scenarios are not a substitute for strong and rapid GHG reductions in the short term, and should be considered alongside other measures to bring emissions in line with the Paris goals. (H Harwatt, M N Hayek, Harvard, 2019)

The food supply of the UK cannot be separated from the wider—global—economy. What is needed is a root-and-branch green transformation in all sectors, internationally. And these sectors must produce according to a rational plan, allowing space for reforestation, rewilding of wetlands, crop rotation, etc.

Here we see precisely how only socialism—the worldwide planning of industry and land use, to integrate with agriculture—can make this a possibility.

Question of leadership

The struggle for a sustainable mode of production is intrinsically tied to the struggle for socialism. We agree with Animal Rebellion that we do not have the luxury of time.

But unlike Animal Rebellion, we don’t see the struggle for socialism as something for the distant future. The contradictions of world capitalism are coming to the fore, bringing social, economic and political crises now. And the working class is already entering into struggle.

The working class’ role in production is what gives it the power to transform society, and to introduce democratic planning to production at its very source. But to do so, it needs to be in power, armed with a socialist program. In other words, we need a revolution.

Already there is a seething anger in society against the establishment, poverty, insecurity, and a general sense that the system isn’t working. Inflation is driving living standards rapidly down and forcing millions to take action. The conditions are being prepared in all countries for a social explosion.

Unfortunately, the leadership of the working class—of the trade unions and political parties—is completely lagging behind events.

What is missing, therefore, is not more stunts aimed at “raising awareness,” or imploring our capitalist governments to “do the right thing.” Instead, we need a revolutionary leadership, at all levels of the working class, that is able to connect with this desire for change, and offer a clear way forward. This won’t fall from the sky. It has to be built.

In the coming years, the working class will face many opportunities to take power owing to the crisis of capitalism. We cannot afford to squander these opportunities.

To encourage the working class and radical youth to join groups with no clear class identity, no connection to their role in production, and no clear political program, is to call for the delay in the development of class consciousness and the struggle for socialism—the only real solution to the problem at hand.

For any activists who are serious about fighting against exploitation and the destruction of the planet, it is our duty to prepare for the impending revolutionary movements—the success of which will ultimately depend on the struggle for revolutionary theory and the building of a revolutionary leadership.


Animal Rebellion—Direct action for societal change

By Animal Rebellion

Animal Rebellion is a mass movement using nonviolent civil disobedience to call for a just, sustainable, plant-based food system.

The group emerged in the latter half of 2019 as a response to Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) success in Spring of that year. As XR called on the government to “tell the truth” and declare a climate emergency, however, they themselves were failing to tell the whole truth.

Indeed, the farming of billions of nonhuman animals for food each year is one of the key causes of our climate and ecological emergencies. Despite this, the wider environmental movement remained largely silent on the issue. This is perhaps unsurprising since the “V word” is still a touchy subject despite wider acknowledgement that adopting a plant-based diet is the single-best action an individual can take to reduce their impact on the environment.

Thus, Animal Rebellion joined the “Impossible Rebellion” in October of 2019 to shine a spotlight on this issue and call for a systemic transition to a plant-based future. Since then, we have continued to advocate for our planet and ALL those we share it with, human and nonhuman alike.

Why plant-based?

Each year billions of nonhuman animals are farmed globally for food. The production of animal proteins uses more than 80% of all agricultural land yet provides only 18% of calories consumed worldwide. This inefficient system of extracting value at the expense of sentient beings is fueling the climate and ecological crises.

Equally alarming, this unequal system creates a significant social justice issue where land is appropriated to produce monoculture crops to feed animals in factory farms, whose flesh is then used to (over)feed those in more affluent parts of the world. A classic example is the deforestation of South America’s rainforests for cattle ranching and soy production for animal feed. This unequal distribution is unjustifiable while people around the world continue to go hungry.

This situation will only worsen as the impacts of climate change—fueled by nonhuman animal farming—increase the prevalence of extreme weather events, droughts, and mass crop failures; climate-related disasters which we know impact most severely those who contribute least to the problem.

On the flip side, however, transitioning to a plant-based food system would help us avert these catastrophes. Moreover, it would enable us to produce food for 10 billion people—the predicted population by 2050—while freeing up 76% of existing farmland; the land-area equivalent to the whole of the US, China, EU, and Australia combined.

Thus, Animal Rebellion employs solution-based messaging to highlight the increasing scientific consensus: that transitioning to a plant-based future and rewilding the freed-up land and waterways as part of a wider program of carbon drawdown and wildlife restoration is THE key solution to our climate and ecological crises.

Tactics

To achieve these solutions, our core demands are targeted at the government bodies responsible for a subsidy system that funnels billions in taxpayer pounds into the destructive animal farming and fishing industries.

In short, we are in open civil resistance against a system that is killing us.

Our tactics of nonviolent direct action vary from visually provocative stunts, to occupations, to massively disruptive blockades of farming and fishing infrastructure. Examples of previous actions include occupying Smithfields meat market in 2019; blockading McDonald’s facilities in 2021; scaling the DEFRA offices to hang a “Plant-Based Future” banner before COP26; and disrupting dairy distribution centers day-after-day earlier this autumn.

A long history of social movements show that this style of action achieves results. It is how the civil rights movement in America secured legislative change; how the Indian Independence Movement secured their freedom; and how the suffragists secured the right to vote for women in the UK.

With these tactics, we hope to not only force the government to change, but also to shift the public narrative around the climate and ecological emergencies; the animal emergency; and the need for people to step up into open resistance against a system that is killing us.

Solidarity and class struggle

We openly take these actions in solidarity with the people who are trapped in this unjust system of production. In particular, those working on farms and in slaughterhouses suffer from horrific working conditions, mental stress, and financial precarity. Suicide rates among dairy farmers, for example, are around 50% higher than the national average. Moreover, many of those working on farms and in slaughterhouses are vulnerable members of society or even migrant workers unable to find appropriate work elsewhere.

When we blockaded dairy infrastructure in September of this year we had a farmer dialogue team visiting auction marts and farming conventions to have crucial conversations and find common ground with those who would be considered most at odds with our demands. Meanwhile our “milk spill” actions in supermarkets—where we took milk off the shelves in high-end stores like Fortnum & Mason and Harrods and poured it onto the floor—were inspired by the actions of farmers protesting the price of milk in 2015.

Indeed, we stand in support of all those engaged in any form of positive civil resistance. This includes the strike actions taken by an increasing number of unions across the UK. The climate and ecological crises are rooted in the same system that is responsible for the oppression of human and nonhuman animals alike. These challenges are interlinked and should not be treated in isolation. Rising to these challenges, however, is no mean feat.

An article for Socialist Appeal last month suggested that the actions of Animal Rebellion and others are futile in a system founded upon principles of capitalism. While this perhaps carries some truth, the realities of our climate and ecological crisis means what we do—or fail to do—in the next 2–3 years will determine whether or not we have a livable future.

Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time, so we take this nonviolent direct action knowing that a transition to a plant-based future—even within the existing system—would buy us valuable time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and address other aspects of these crises. We do this just as trade unions campaign within the system for better working conditions and fair wages.We do this in the hope we will see more people step into mass action to achieve revolutionary goals. But we also acknowledge that there is no single, silver-bullet solution to the many other challenges we face. We therefore welcome the plurality of approaches and diversity of people challenging oppression every day.

Perhaps one day, together, we will see a radical transformation of society, but until then Animal Rebellion will continue to resist a system that is killing us in the same ways countless nonhuman animals resist their persecution every day on farms and in slaughterhouses.

Until then, we will continue to call on our government to support farmers in a transition to a plant-based future and our positive vision of a thriving, rewilded, countryside.


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