Breaking a Cycle

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.

10 responses to “Breaking a Cycle”

  1. Tom says :

    This post is a critique of the SWP I presume, as it doesn’t really apply to any other group on the left. You should widen your horizons when attempting to comment on the left as a whole.

    • Comrade Zhenka says :

      No it’s not a critique solely of the SWP. The SP also engage in this frantic level of protests/demos, as do various other groups and campaigns. It’s a recurring situation on the left and I feel it needs to be addressed.

      • Tom says :

        I don’t think it’s accurate at all to say that the SP engage in a frantic level of protests, how many have they organised in the last 6 months? What other groups have? As far as left left goes it’s been the DCTU and the SWP, and smaller ones by the group around the Young Workers and We’re Not Leaving. Aside from that there’s been the independent protesters and specific issue protests organised by pensioners etc.

        Unless you are including in your critique smaller symbolic type protests that are usually organised to highlight issues, homophobic laws in Russia which I think the SP organised, or racial profiling of Roma which the SWP organised. These protests don’t have as their aim fundamental change in relation to the specific issues, they are means of highlighting injustices that usually aren’t by anyone else. In that sense they are purposeful. They are not part of a strategy to defeat any governments or systems, and nobody claims that they are, so your valid criticisms of protests don’t apply to these types in my opinion.

        All protests have purposes and clearly protests organised to defeat ‘austerity’ here and now are often a waste of time, but again nobody on the left except the SWP ever organise protests that have as their aim the overthrow of the government, or the beginning of a series of protests to do that.

      • Comrade Zhenka says :

        I never said protests had to ‘have as their aim fundamental change in relation to the specific issues’. Regardless of the nature of the protest the left only has a small pool of activists to try and cover all of them. That’s a big part of the problem, left activists engage in all manner of protests and this leads to burn out and fatigue, so I would include them in the analysis. No one is saying there should be no protests or that there should be no solidarity protests, all I’m saying is that we need to seriously reduce the number of these events.
        I did a quick check and I’m aware of 12 protests occurring in October, there may have been more. That’s 3 a week (averaged out), that’s not sustainable in my opinion. The high number for this month is largely down to the budget of course. But September had 8 (to the best of my knowledge), two a week. I believe there needs to be a reduction in the current level of activity for a couple of months in order to allow a period of reflection and to decide what is the best way forward

      • Tom says :

        As far as “socialists, protest and strategy” goes, the only organisation on the left that seem to misunderstand and misuse protests is the SWP. As a criticism of their approach, which I thought it was, your blog post is valid, otherwise I’m becoming less sure what it is you’re talking about.

        Clearly not everyone on the left goes to all protests, and the only compulsion for anyone to go on a protest is the importance, or perceived importance, of the issue that the protest is about. The idea that the amount of protests being organised is a huge drain on the left in Ireland is not convincing, it really feels like you’re making an issue out of nothing.

        The only instance were the smallness of the left’s combined forces becomes an issue is when they are gathered together on a protest against ‘austerity’ or the government, when it becomes clear that the protest is completely ineffective and actually potentially counter-productive – because it demoralises people. But this doesn’t happen as much as you seem to make out. The DCTU protests around the budget and May Day are regular occurrences that could be done without, but would that really be a step forward?

        The left is also not one homogeneous whole who will ever all agree to prioritise ‘this’ protest over ‘that’ protest, so complaining about ‘too many protests’ is pretty pointless. Should the IPSC not organise a protest because ARC have already organised one for that week? What do you expect? Which protests in October should not have happened?

        Do you really think there is a risk that the left will ‘burn out’ because there was 12 protests organised in one month? Bearing in mind that most activists will have no inclination to go on most of the protests, and they don’t. Also who is going to decide on the best way forward? The left is divided because they have fundamentally different views about that.

      • Comrade Zhenka says :

        I was using October (and September) as examples of the level of activity that goes on in the left. Do I think one months activities will result in burnout? No, but I do think that a long sequence of months stretching back to 2008 will have a negative impact and cause burnout. This is not about a month, or a protest, its about a culture that has bedded down in the left and I believe that culture is ultimately negative.
        You are of course entitled to disagree. But we haven’t had too much success with all these protests. If you want you can continue with that cycle in the hope that someday, somehow it will lead to something. I don’t believe it will, unless we can develop a coherent strategy to underpin most of these events. In fact the declining turnouts suggests that we are on a downward spiral. Surely the first thing to do if you find yourself in that situation is to stop what you are doing and reassess the situation. You asked me what do I expect. I expect people to stop and think.
        You say I’m ‘making an issue out of nothing’ and that my post is ‘pointless’, if that’s the case why do you keep engaging?

      • Tom says :

        I engaged initially to try to understand what your post is about, the more I hear though, the less reasonable your criticisms become.

        My point is that it’s not true to say that there is a culture on the left of organising so many protests that people can’t keep up. Protests aren’t organised in response to every issue, most groups on the broad left don’t organise protests, at least they haven’t in the last number of years and not ‘too many’. The premise of your post is not accurate; there isn’t really a problem with the number of protests that have been organised in recent years. If there is a problem with protests on the Irish left it has more to do with the quality of the protests, with some exceptions they usually are not good – why that is, is a question worth asking.

        But you seem to think that all of the left have an obligation to go on every protest, and that this burden is too much to carry on the shoulders of a weak left. I really think this is a bit ridiculous. It doesn’t reflect the reality on the left today and it’s not a major problem that’s holding back the left from doing other things; like holding meetings or ‘thinking’.

        What’s also mistaken in your basic premise is the idea that groups and individuals on the broad left actually somehow think that the protests that have been organised have been successful, or that organising more protests alone is a good strategy. This again just isn’t true; most on the left are quite aware of the limitations of protests and nobody I’m aware of argues that in order to defeat this government and capitalism what we need is just more protests. This is not an issue on the left that needs fixing.

        Yes a ‘coherent strategy’ is needed, I’d be interested in whether you have views on what that should be. Your criticisms of a ‘protest culture’ are only valid in relation to the SWP and even they have slowed down since the Enough! campaign, not that they’ve learnt any lessons, unfortunately.

      • Comrade Zhenka says :

        I obviously believe there is a problem with this issue, I wouldn’t have written the blog if I didn’t. As well as the parties there are various campaigns and party fronts that organise these protests. I am not under the assumption that these events are obligatory, nowhere have I said that, that is just your (mis)interpretation. I would say that because of the small size of the left in Ireland you invariably find the same activists at most of these events, anyone who attends them on a regular basis will tell you the same. IMO there is there is a problem with the number of protests, but do agree with you that quality of protest is also a serious issue.
        I have never suggested that the organisers of the events believe them to be successful, some have been, most haven’t. Both the Trotskyist parties seem to have the view that keeping their members active is the best way to hang on to them (I disagree with them on this, obviously). I have spoken to some members of all major socialist parties, WSM and non-aligned activists about this issue and there is broad agreement about this problem (at least among those I spoke to, which naturally is a limited sample).
        I am hoping to work on developing that strategy over the coming months. Naturally it’s a long process and one that is best done with a large group of people rather than on my own. I hope to put my own opinions on this blog in due time, that will require its own post, and not just a comment on a post.

      • Tom says :

        I know you think there is a problem, but I’m still trying to work out why. The problem as you explain it, doesn’t exist in real life, at least not in the form or scale that you outline.

        Take a minute to consider what you’re saying:

        Parties, campaigns and fronts organise protests. If those protests are bad for whatever reasons that’s a problem for those groups, who put the work in, not all left activists. But why is it that you see the same people on many of these demos? Again, there is nothings compelling anyone to go on any protest except the politics behind the issue that the protest is on. If the issue is important and worthy of a protest people will go on it, if it’s not, they won’t.

        Is there an unsustainable burden on left activists because of the number of protests organised in Ireland? I would argue that there clearly isn’t, for two main reasons; a) because there isn’t such a huge, unnecessary number of protests organised in Ireland at this point in time, and b) because left activists don’t have to go on any protest that they don’t want to go on, and they don’t.

        You on the other hand, seem to think that there is such a dangerous level of protesting going on that the entire left is about to be stopped for a 8 count. I really don’t get it.

        I can’t really comment on parties keeping people active just to hang on to them, but what should left activist organisations do, stop activists from being active? And that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the issue at stake here; which is the particular value or otherwise of protests, as a form of activity or resistance.

        I’ve also been on countless protests and have spoken to other activists about these issues. One way of looking at it is that there are three elements here; serious political issues, organisers of protests and participants at protests.

        Political issues arise. Often there will be people or groups who feel so strongly about the issues that they will organise protests – they take on the responsibility and they do the groundwork to build for it. If things go well, people will come to the protest, including left activists who do nothing in support of the protest except turn up.

        Ironically it seems to be the latter group, probably including yourself and those other people who are in ‘broad agreement’ about the negativity of protests, who complain about there being too much focus on protests and the ‘fatigue’ that goes along with standing and chanting for an hour.

        There’s plenty of hours left in the week for such activists to think about better uses of our time, until someone comes up with something better, you should lay off the protesters.

  2. Iskan says :

    As a non-aligned Trotskyist let me state – the endless angling for sectarian advantage by key leaders of Socialist Party and SWP beggars belief. And this shortly after a time when we had already witnessed such mass mobiliations of the “ordinary” people in CAHWT! Sect building (promoting your own group) was the always the foremost item on the agenda.

    The Socialist Paty were long since splitting the ULA and anti Property Tax campaign over the issue of standing candidates for the local elections when the emphasis should be fighting to the bitter end and also organising to fight the installation of water meters.

    SWP site tells us instead “selecting one candidate is divisive when there are many different political tendencies inside a campaign. It leads to a jockeying for position and creates bitterness, when unity against the state is required. … That is why Socialist Worker urges activists – broaden the fight against austerity – keep the focus on mass action.” Is that why standing People Before Profit candidates in the local elections will solve these problems (and SWP candidatates fail to mention their membership in election literature!) The pot calling the kettle black!

    Given the healthy dislike that ordinary voters have for the divisions within the left, why would they bother to vote for organastions destined to remain sects. They prefer, understandably, to vote for some party that will be a factor in power. Not that this is a solution … but struggle goes on.

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