Why are some actions more successful than others?

Mike Phipps reviews Sowing Seeds for the Future: Exploring the Power of Constructive Nonviolent Action by Andrew Rigby, published by Irene

This book is about constructive nonviolent direct action for change. Here’s an example:  In the late 1970s plans were announced to create a hydro-electric power station on the River Orkla in central Norway. The construction of a dam was proposed, which would result in large parts of the Innerdalen Valley being flooded. Environmentalists and others were appalled at this and decided to campaign against it. They decided to bring the value of soil and land to the centre of the discussion by occupying the valley and starting to use it for food production. The idea was that such a constructive action would be difficult for politicians and the media to ignore.

But they did. After three years of peaceful resistance, there was no coverage. It was only when protestors blocked the road to the dam area that the national media appeared, eager to sensationalise the conflict between protestors and the police.

The lesson: confrontation – or what Rigby calls “friction” – works. But it’s more complicated: how much friction? Too little means the campaign is ignored. Too much “can undermine the strength and vitality of the movement, imposing severe costs on those engaged in the protest activities.”

The possibilities are legion: nonviolent direct action; prefigurative action which seeks to bridge the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be; action that emphasises the continuity between the means and the end. In a recent interview in Peace News, Rigby expanded:

“At the heart of what I came to understand as constructive nonviolent direct action was ‘prefiguration’ – trying to create the future now. This is a nonviolent version of propaganda of the deed – embodying in our activities the kind of values and relationships we hope to see manifested on a much broader scale over time.”

Rigby’s survey of constructive resistance takes us from Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of the 17th century, through the early Quakers, Robert Owen, the cooperative movement, Edward Carpenter, Tolstoy, Gandhi, the western counterculture, the Women’s Liberation Movement and the movement for intentional living amid the crisis of climate change.

Rigby’s sweep is ambitious, but it’s less a history of the movement and more an attempt to typologise different methods of resistance and discern what makes them successful. This is daunting, given that earlier literature identifies up to 200 types of nonviolent action for change.

Although Rigby narrows the field down to five broad categories – symbolic, polemical, offensive, defensive and constructive resistance – it is still no mean feat to draw from these experiences hypotheses about what is more and what is less likely to be effective.

I’m not sure it’s possible to make these generalisations because so many details have to be screened out in the process. But it struck me that it was useful to try: I’m not aware of much literature on the left tackling what tactics are most suitable for what struggles, yet it’s a pretty obvious area of study if campaigns are to succeed.

Case studies here range from resistance to the military coup in Myanmar, civil resistance to Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, resistance against occupation in Kosovo and Palestine and constructive action in wartime. There’s even a chapter on constructive resistance to organised crime, exploring the anti-mafia struggle in Sicily.

But for socialists, perhaps the most interesting section is on constructive action in the sphere of production, examining the development of cooperative modes of production during civil conflicts, or to relieve economic hardship, or in other contexts. The experience of the Spanish Civil War and the later Mondragon cooperatives are analysed.

The kind of constructive action discussed here , concludes Rigby, is a necessary counter to the narrow  focus on ‘seizing state power’  which can weaken the transformatory potential of resistance movements, where ‘success’ amounts to little more than widening political participation at election time. Constructive action broadens the base of civil resistance movements and enhances their legitimacy, sustaining and reproducing oppositional cultures and identities.

It can also contribute to the well-being of activists in a way that other forms of engagement may not. Anyone who has battled away in the Labour Party over the last two years to defend the gains of the Corbyn era is unlikely to claim that this necessary struggle has promoted their well-being! That said, the kind of resistance discussed here demands a deep and sustained commitment and often considerable bravery – and success is not guaranteed.

Furthermore, as Paul Rogers has argued, new government laws are likely to mean fewer acquittals when practitioners of direct action in Britain come to court.

One of the most inspiring examples of creative non-violence in Britain in recent years was the action undertaken by four brave women to disarm a weapon designed for use against civilians, with the capability of dropping cluster bombs. The action took ten months pf preparation and the perpetrators were held in jail for a similar length of time pending their trial.

In The Hammer Blow: How Ten Women Disarmed a Warplane, published in 2016, Andrea Needham explains how she and three other women broke into a British Aerospace base to damage a Hawk jet to prevent it from being exported to Indonesia where it would be used to repress the people of East Timor. It’s an impressive book about a very courageous action: the women could have been jailed for many years by the highly unsympathetic judge presiding, had they not been acquitted by the jury.

That was 26 years ago. Since then, juries have repeatedly refused to convict activists who claim their transgression of the law served a greater good, from Extinction Rebellion and arms fair protestors to those who toppled the statue of a Bristol slave trader. Such celebrated acquittals may become a lot less frequent if government plans to give no-jury magistrates courts greater sentencing powers succeed.

Should that happen, activists will have to think more deeply about the efficacy of direct action. Andrew Rigby’s book will help them to do that.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocusHis book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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