In my post of May 2, I offered a critique of Jeffrey St. Clair’s article in CounterPunch, “Bernie Sanders: the Candidate Who Came in From the Cold,” in which St. Clair maintains that the Sanders presidential campaign should have developed a direct action strategy instead of a conventional campaign. In the post, I maintained that if Sanders were a revolutionary socialist, rather than developing a direct action campaign, he would have developed an alternative political party that sought to capture the executive and legislative branches of the government (“What should Bernie Sanders have done?” 5/2/2016).
I came across the St. Clair article as a result of the fact that it was posted on the discussion list of the Radical Philosophy Association by Mitchel Cohen. Mitchel is an advocate of the concept of direct action, which I imagine is one of the reasons that he posted the St. Clair article on the Radical Philosophy Association list. So I take this opportunity to offer a series of six posts on Mitchel’s 2013 book, What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street.
Mitchel is well-qualified to write on the theme of direct action. He has been involved in direct action since 1967, when as a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, he organized student participation in a demonstration against the Vietnam War at the Pentagon. Issues in which he has been involved include US imperialist wars, environmental degradation, student rights, and US political prisoners. He was one of the founding members of the Red Balloon Collective at SUNY Stony Brook in 1969. He currently lives in Brooklyn, and he hosts a weekly internet radio show, “Steal This Radio.”
Mitchel describes the US system of capitalism as characterized by: low taxes for the rich and high taxes for the 99%; a high level of home foreclosures; high student debt; high debts for home mortgages and credit cards; an impending environmental catastrophe; imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; and government bailout for Wall Street banks and brokerage firms. He maintains that, confronting this situation, “appeals to the morality or conscience of those in power are futile” (Cohen 2013:85). Mitchel believes, however, that a new better world is possible, and it can be established by direct action (Cohen 2013:81-88, 97-98).
What is direct action? Mitchel writes:
“Direct action is . . . a way . . . of accomplishing for ourselves, and not through intermediaries, some action goal ‘directly’ in the here and now. By participating in such projects, we expose and attack the system for exploiting our needs in its service to Wall Street, and at the same time we create models to build upon as we strive to create a different kind of society that values people and nature over the accumulation of private profits” (Cohen 2013: 24-25).
An important example of direct action was the occupation of Zucotti Park on September 17, 2012, establishing a base for the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as subsequent Occupy movements in other US cities. Some examples of direct action are well known in the history of the US Left: the refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955; the Freedom Schools established by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1964 in Mississippi; the Black Panther Party free breakfast for children program in the late 1960s; the storming of the Pentagon in 1967; the United Farm Workers grape boycott in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the resistance of US soldiers to the Iraq war in 1990; and the protests against the global neoliberal project in Seattle in 1998 and in other cities in subsequent years Direct action in some cases has involved blocking activities, such as the disabling of nuclear missiles, the blockage of Japan’s whaling boats, the action to stop the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire in 1979-80, the refusal by San Francisco dockworkers to unload a ship carrying goods from South Africa in 1984, and the blockading of trains with arms destined for the contras in Nicaragua by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1987. Direct action strategies date to the early nineteenth century, when the Luddite movement in Great Britain opposed the mechanical transformations that would lead to the destruction of true work through the assembly line (Cohen 2013:27, 29, 30, 43, 53, 66-77, 90-96, 111-17, 120-22, 224-35, 291-94, & 330).
The strategy of direct action implies an organizational form that contrasts with hierarchical organization. Four to twelve people work together on a direct action project, forming “affinity groups” or “action teams.” They may network with other affinity groups, and they may give one of their members the responsibility of serving on a coordinating committee of the network (Cohen 2013: 170-73).
As people work together on direct action projects, they are constructing alternative communities and new ways of relating to each other, seeking to build effective and long term communities of resistance. “Direct action communities prefigure, to the extent possible, the new society we hope to create” (Cohen 2013:25). Communities of resistance thus redefine cultural norms (Cohen 2013: 24-26. 157-58, 164-65, 337).
Direct action is characterized by the direct and immediate implementation of demands, rather than waiting for acceptance of the demands by the government or corporations. Examples include the formation of alternative health clinics and schools, alternative media of communication, and food coops; squatters’ movements; workers’ councils; and actions to prevent foreclosures and evictions. This creates a dynamic very different from that in which most organizations of the Left are trapped. The organizations issue demands to those in authority, and when the demands are not met, there is nothing that the organization can do, a situation that obliges Leftist organizations to move from issue to issue (Cohen 2013: 123-24, 161-65, 303).
Through direct action, we liberate ourselves from the habits, thoughts and ways of being into which we have been socialized by the capitalist system. Central to this process is the reframing of questions. The issue of welfare, for example, should be reframed, so that instead of focusing on assistance to the poor, the focus is on various polices that constitute welfare for the rich. And the issue of property should be reframed, as Marx did. Rather than proposing the seizing of the property of the capitalist, we should advocate the seizing of property that by right belongs to the workers or to the people. In order to reframe issues, we must overcome our fear and anxiety, which can be done through the political task of creating direct action organizational structures (Cohen 2013: 163, 193-99, 206-12, 321, 337-38).
In the following five posts, I will critically analyze Mitchel’s concept of direct action. I will maintain that direct action projects often are constructive, involving people in acts of solidarity and in taking power into their own hands; but they are no substitute for vanguard organizations, for we must seek to take control of the political-economic-cultural institutions of the nation as delegates of the people. And I will argue that we must assess the political consequences of any direct action that is disruptive, not with concern for its effect on the elite and their political representatives, but with care to avoid alienating the people, who must be brought on board in a movement in their own defense.
Cohen, Mitchel, et.al. 2013. What is Direct Action? Reframing Revolutionary Strategy in Light of Occupy Wall Street. Brooklyn: Red Balloon Collective Publications.
Key words: direct action, protest, Occupy Wall Street, revolutionary, socialism