George Barrett: Direct Action v. Parliamentarianism

Freedom Press in England has recently published a collection of essays on anarchism by George Barrett (1888-1917), Our Masters Are Helpless, edited by Iain McKay. Barrett wrote for the London based anarchist paper, Freedom, and published his own paper, The Anarchist, and several pamphlets on anarchism. Two of his best known pamphlets were the posthumously published Objections to Anarchism (Freedom Press, 1921) and The Anarchist Revolution (Freedom Press, 1920). Here I reproduce his answer from Objections to Anarchism about why Parliament cannot be used to achieve a social revolution, and the section on direct action from The Anarchist Revolution, in which Barrett sets forth the anarchist alternative to parliamentary (or electoral) methods. Both topics retain their relevance today, particularly with respect to the current political debacle in Britain regarding its exit from the European Union and Boris Johnson’s attempts to usurp the British Parliament.

Objections to Anarchism No. 2

The House of Commons and the Law have been used by the present dominant class to gain their ends; why cannot they be used by us to gain ours?

This question is based upon an extraordinary misunderstanding. It seems to be taken for granted that Capitalism and the workers’ movement both have the same end in view. If this were so, they might perhaps use the same means; but as the capitalist is out to perfect his system of exploitation and government, whilst the worker is out for emancipation and liberty, naturally the same means cannot be employed for both purposes. This surely answers the question sufficiently so far as it is a definite question. In so far, however, as it contains the vague suggestion that government is the agent of reform, progress, and revolution, it touches the very point upon which Anarchists differ from all political parties. It is worthwhile, then, to examine the suggestion a little more closely.

It is thought by the enthusiastic politicians that once they can capture government, then from their position of power they would be able very quickly to mould society into the desired shape. Pass ideal laws, they think, and the ideal society would be the result. How simple, is it not? We should thus get the Revolution on the terms promised us by the wonderful Blatchford — “without bloodshed, and without losing a day’s work,” But, alas! the short cut to the Golden Age is an illusion. In the first place, any form of society shaped by law is not ideal. In the second place, law cannot shape society; indeed, rather the reverse is true. It is this second point which is all-important.

Those who understand the forces behind progress will see the law limping along in the rear, and never succeeding in keeping up with the progress made by the people; always, in fact, resisting any advance, always trying to start reaction, but in the long run always having to give way and allow more and more liberty. Even the champions of government recognise this when they want to make a drastic change, and then they throw aside the pretence of the law and turn to revolutionary methods.

The present ruling class, who are supposed to be a living proof that the Government can do anything, are in themselves quite candid in the admission that it can do very little. Whoever will study their rise to power will find that to get there they preach in theory, and establish in fact, the principle of resistance to the law. Indeed, curious as it may seem, it is a fact that immediately after the Revolution it was declared seditious to preach against resistance to law, just as today it is seditious to speak in favour of it.

To sum up, then, if there was any logic in the question, which there is not, we might restate it thus: “Since the present dominant class were unable to gain their ends by use of the House of Commons and the Law, why should we hope to gain ours by them?”

Direct Action

To make it quite clear what is meant by the expression Direct Action, let us take an illustration. Not very many years ago, if there was a great national calamity, such as an outbreak of plague, the religious people used to declare that the only remedy was for us as a nation to pray that God might remove his curse. These good people were very much shocked when scientists came along and began taking merely sanitary precautions to stamp out the disease. The first was the indirect method: prayers were sent up to heaven so that God might send down his good influence on the plague. This was a very indirect route to reach a disease which was, so to speak, next door. The scientist attended to the disease itself, studied its nature, and tried to find a means of stamping it out. This was direct action.

To-day in very much the same way the people are divided with two methods. In their factories and homes they find themselves discontented, and some of them propose to influence the chief of society — the Parliament — so that it will exercise its power to put things right. These in their turn are shocked when advanced thinkers come along and declare that the way to get a remedy is to study the nature of the trouble and apply the cure directly to it. The former believe in the indirect or legislative method, for it is a long way from home to Westminster and back home again. The latter are the direct actionists, and they recognise that if anyone is going to put the factories in order, it will be the workers who spend their lives in them, and not the politicians.

Imagine the utter absurdity of a group of politicians sitting in the House of Commons earnestly discussing the welfare of the people. While they are doing so, are there not countless bakers, builders, and tailors walking about the streets, unemployed, and cut off, by the laws which these same politicians have passed, from the means of production, machinery, and tools with which they might produce what they need. To break down the laws and allow these people to produce what is necessary for their welfare, on equal terms with the other workers, is the way to abolish poverty.

It is clear that, if we are to rid ourselves of the troubles that best us at present, we must organise an entirely new system of wealth distribution. I do not mean by this that we must divide up, but I mean that the wealth which is produced must be stopped from flowing to the rich man who produces nothing; the stream must be diverted so that it will come to the producer.

But who is it that distributes the wealth? Is it the politician? Certainly not; as a matter of fact, it is the transport workers. If, then, the workers who produce want an alteration in the present distribution, to whom must they apply? To their comrades, the transport workers, and not to the politicians, who have nothing to do with the matter. Similarly when better conditions are needed in the factories — larger sheds, better floors, and more efficient lighting and ventilation — who are the only people capable of doing this? It is the workers who need these reforms, and the workers who can carry them out. The task before the worker to-day is as it has been in the past: the slave class must rid itself of the dictating class — i.e., of those in authority.

Such is the simple logic of the Direct Actionist, and it is already clear how it necessarily leads to the Anarchist Revolution. We must, however, be careful how we follow this principle — not that we fear being taken too far, but lest it does not take us far enough. The expression has been used so much in contradistinction to legislation, that any one who throws a brick through a window is generally supposed to be a Direct Actionist. He may be and he may not.

To be logical and true to the real meaning of the term, every act should, of course, be on the direct road towards the desired end — in our case, the Social Revolution. Sometimes it is difficult to be entirely consistent, but it is nevertheless of the utmost importance that there should be at least a minority of the workers who understand what is the direct road, so that every skirmish may be made by them a step towards the final overthrow of Capitalism.

At the risk of repeating myself, then, let me try to state the position very clearly. We have two classes — the governing, ruling, and possessing people on the one hand, and those governed and without property on the other; in a word, a master class and a slave class.

When this slave class becomes discontented and restive, it has several courses to consider before deciding which will give better conditions. It may be argued:

  1. That since the present masters do not give enough of the good things of life, these must be turned out and a new set selected from among the slave class; or
  2. That since the slave class is composed of the producers, and the master class is, therefore, dependent on it, the former is clearly in a position to force the masters to give them more food and everything that may be desired; or
  3. That since the slave class is the producer of all that is necessary for life, there is no need to either ask or demand anything from the master class. The slave class need simply to cut off supplies to the masters and start feeding themselves.

The first of these arguments, it will be seen, is that of the politicians; and it may be dismissed without further comment, since, as will be understood after what has been already said, it obviously misses the point. It is not a question of who shall be master, but it is a matter of the essential relationship between master and slave, quite irrespective of who either of them may be.

The second argument is that of the non-Parliamentary but non-Revolutionary Trade Unionist. It is right in that it recognises where lies the true power of the workers in their fight against the capitalists, but it is wrong in that it proposes no change in the relationship between these two.

If the slave class is to be better housed, fed, and clothed from the masters’ store, it means that the slaves will become more and more completely owned by the masters. It is not revolutionary, because it proposes to retain master and slave, and merely attempts to better the conditions of the latter.

The third argument is, of course, that of the revolutionist. It agrees with the second as to the weapon to be used, but it says that the task before the workers is to feed, house, clothe, and educate themselves, and not to spend their energies in making better masters of the capitalists.

To cut off supplies to the capitalist and to retain what is produced for the workers are the main points of the revolutionary fight.

In every industrial dispute there are really two, and only two, essentials. On the one hand are the factories, warehouses, railways, mines, etc., which may be termed industrial property; on the other, the workers. To unite these two is to accomplish the revolution; for with them will be built the new society.

The capitalist and master class in general can hold their position only so long as they can keep the workers outside the warehouses and factories, for within are the means of life, and the common people must be allowed to use these only on the strict understanding that they make profit and submit to the conditions dictated. To come out on strike, then, is merely rebellion, and is essentially not the revolution, however thoroughly it is done; to stay in and work in the condition of equality, free from the dictates of a useless master class, is the real object of the revolutionist.

Direct action, therefore, in this strictly revolutionary sense would mean the taking possession of the means of production and the necessities of life by the workers who have produced them, and the reorganisation of industry according to the principles of freedom.

The doctrine of Direct Action does not boast of bringing the workers easy salvation. It is, indeed, a recognition of the terribly simple fact that nothing can save us except our own intelligence and power. We, the workers, are the creative force, for is it not we who have produced all the food, clothing, and houses? Assuredly it is we who need them. What, then, has the politician to do with this? Nothing, absolutely nothing! What use is it to hand over to the master class all that we produce, and then keep up a continuous quarrel as to how much we shall be allowed back? Instead of this we have to stop supplies, reorganise our industries, not from above but from their source below, and see that in future all that is produced goes to the producer and not to the dominant class. This is the meaning of direct action, and it is Anarchism.

But, alas! it is easier to accomplish a revolution on paper with cold logic than it is to bring it about in industrial life. We have to fight the lack of understanding on the part of the worker and the craft of the politician ever at work to increase this; and in addition we have the certainty that the class in power will attempt to resist the change, with the only argument that remains on their side — brute force. While, therefore, it is important to understand that direct action properly applied means the actual “conquest of bread” and the taking possession of the factories, we must be content probably for some little while longer to use our weapon of direct action simply according to the second of the three arguments given above — that is, to demand better conditions from the capitalist class.

It is not, however, too much to hope that in the very near future the Anarchists will form a militant section of the workers, which will give to every great industrial rebellion the revolutionary character which is its true meaning. Worker as well as capitalist is beginning to recognise that a well-planned scheme for feeding the strikers is more than possible. Such a scheme would entail the capturing of the bakeries, and this is surely the first step of the revolution.

Beside this real problem, simple but great, how hollow and grotesque are the promises of the politicians. How absurd the idea of gaining liberty through the ballot-box. These hopeless government men, who talk with such sublime imbecility of feeding, housing, and clothing, only add insult to injury. The House they stand in to make their senseless speeches was built and furnished by the workers, and it is the workers who house and feed them.

And beyond our own doubt and hesitation, what, after all, stands in our way? Let us gain inspiration from the hopeless position of our foes. How helpless they are! Is not the policeman’s baton shaped by the worker, and his absurd uniform stitched by underpaid women? The soldier’s rifle is certainly not made by the master class — in every particular they are hopelessly our dependents. Every instrument of oppression is supplied to them by us, and we keep them alive by feeding them day by day. Surely, then, it is apparent that this change must come. Those above are powerless for good, or for evil; the revolution can be brought only by an upheaval from below — from the one vital section of society, the workers.

George Barrett

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