In defense of protest and people power

‘You people are just into the politics of permanent protest. You don’t want to form a government and actually do anything’. So Labour Minister Alex White to Richard Boyd Barrett (and Joe Higgins) on ‘The Week in Politics’. Actually it could have been almost any Labour Party spokesperson to almost anyone on the radical left.

Socialist Worker

In defense of protest and people power

‘You people are just into the politics of permanent protest. You don’t want to form a government and actually do anything’. So Labour Minister Alex White to Richard Boyd Barrett (and Joe Higgins) on ‘The Week in Politics’. Actually it could have been almost any Labour Party spokesperson to almost anyone on the radical left.

The only ‘real’ and ‘serious’ politicians are people who become government ministers and join the establishment. Anyone who does any different is at best childish and irrelevant and most likely a fraudulent troublemaker up to no good. This is the mantra of the Labour Party in its desperate attempts to deflect the rage of working class people at its wretched betrayals and prevent its support shifting to the left.

But if we look at the facts we can soon see that this argument doesn’t stand up.

First of all it is not at all the case that protest doesn’t achieve anything. Take the immediate example of the water charges. It is true that the mass protests have not yet abolished the unjust water charges but they did secure a) a massive reduction in the charge and b) concessions in the threatened sanctions for non-payment which have made the charges unenforceable and unworkable. Moreover, it was the mass protests that got the Sinn Fein leadership to say they wouldn’t pay and made even Fianna Fáil (who originally supported the charges) say they would get rid of them. And let’s not forget that it was the ‘protest politics’ of mass non-payment that defeated water charges back in the nineties.

In contrast, Labour’s ‘practical’ policy of being in government far from stopping the water charges simply had the effect of turning the Labour Party into supporters of the charges.

Another good example is the way in which mass protests stopped the sell off of the forests in 2014. Similarly it was protest action, in the form of workplace occupations, that won workers at least some of their rights at Vita Cortex and La Sensa, and a strong protest by pensioners in 2008 that saved them their medical cards.

And on the refugee crisis it was only protests and rallies by ordinary people that led the European governments to relent even temporarily from the fortress Europe policy of exclusion.

When governments do enact progressive legislation it is almost always the result of prior mass protests and campaigns. The great yes vote in the marriage equality referendum would never have been achieved without sustained campaigning on the streets by LGBT activists and their allies. The government only moved to hold the referendum after the ‘heavy lifting’ of changing public opinion had been done by activists and ‘protesters’ over many years.

The bigger picture

These are all examples from recent Irish politics. Look at the bigger historical and international picture and the importance of protest and struggle becomes even clearer. How did working people even win the right to vote at all? Only through mass struggle from below beginning with the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s. How did women win the right to vote? Through the ‘protests’ of the suffragettes. How did Ireland win its independence? Through armed ‘protest’ and workers struggles. The workers’ struggles are not much talked about but their role was actually very important. How did workers win the right to form trade unions? Through struggleincluding, in Ireland, the great struggle of ‘the Lockout’.

How did black people in the American South win the vote and end the racist Jim Crow laws? Through the Civil Rights marches. How was Apartheid defeated in South Africa? Through mass resistance and people power, from Sharpeville to Soweto. What stopped the Vietnam War? The resistance of the Vietnamese people combined with the mass protests in America and internationally. It was mass protests, led by Mahatma Ghandi, that won India its independence from Britain, and mass protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of Egypt, in 2011.

Just last week the Rumanian President was forced to resign (after a terrible fire disaster) by mass street protests and it was mass protests that brought down the Berlin Wall.

Why Protest Works

The examples given above can be multiplied indefinitely but it is also important to understand why protest and people power is more effective than speeches in the Dáil or politicians ‘good intentions’. It is because this society, capitalism, runs on the basis of production for profit, above all the profits of the big corporations and banks- the 1%. And the 1% feel threatened by people power in a way they are never threatened by ‘realistic’ and ‘practical’ politicians, whom they know they can tame, get round, bribe and otherwise induce to back down.

First there is the administrative and economic disruption that people power can cause – think of the way water meter installation has been blocked and Irish Water undermined by mass non-payment – and this is magnified many times when people power includes action in the workplace i.e. strike action and occupations. This really hits the bosses and the corporations where it hurts, in their profits.

There is also its effect on public consciousness. Its not just that a mass demonstration makes the news and impresses people with its size, it’s that a demo of 20, 50 or a 100 thousand sends 20, 50 or a 100 thousand people back into their communities to talk to their friends and neighbours about the experience and the issue. This has a huge knock on effect on public opinion.

But there is something else about mass protest and people power which the establishment and the ruling class fear, and therefore make concessions to. This is the potential – they see it as a danger – which lurks in every mass movement of the people to ‘get out of hand’ and start to move in a revolutionary direction. Our rulers can’t admit this but they know it and are terrified of it. They know that the mass of working people have the power – if they are willing to use it – to actually take the wealth and the control of production out of the hands of the super rich and so completely change society. This is why, faced with a rising mass movement on the streets, the reaction of the ruling class is frequently to retreat, as they did over water charges, and play for time.

In Praise of Protest

All the things about mass protests and people power that the establishment fear are things we should cherish.

They are the most effective way of repelling an attack by the government or the employers. They are a powerful means of transforming public opinion. They are the foundation on which almost all democratic and progressive legislation rests. And the larger and more militant the protests, the more extensive the mobilisation of people power, the more the concessions that will be won.

In short people power is a far better way of winning even limited reforms than relying on ‘practical’ and ‘responsible’ politicians like the Labour Party. Even if a much more left government than the Labour Party were elected in Ireland (or anywhere else) it would still need mass mobilisation from below to get it to implement a radical programme.

But, of course, socialists want more than just limited reforms; we want fundamental change. We want to abolish class divisions, not just moderate them. We want to end exploitation not just curb its excesses. We want a revolution and the revolution we want can only come from working people themselves, which means changing the political awareness and consciousness of large numbers of ordinary people.

Here again mass protests and people power are key. They transform the consciousness of people who take part in them in a way no amount of newspapers or books or lectures can match. This is because they give people a sense of their collective power and raise their confidence. It is lack of confidence, born of being ground down by the system, which is the main obstacle to socialist consciousness in the working class.

People power is, therefore, the bridge between the struggle for reforms and revolution. That is why we are proud to be labelled by our opponents as the party of protest.

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