Direct Action Makes History

A central part of our organising practice at Recomposition is direct action. In this piece our comrade Marianne addresses criticisms of Occupy Wall Street and the importance placed in that movement on a direct action strategy.

Direct Action Makes History: A Response to Andrew Kliman’s “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber”
by Marianne Garneau

The following is not a commentary on, much less a defense of, David Graeber – with whom I disagree. It is a critique of key facets of the ideology of Andrew Kliman. In a recent article, Andrew Kliman attempted to critique “the ideology” of David Graeber, in particular its emphasis on direct action, without condemning the Occupy Wall Street movement in which Graeber’s ideas and strategy have found so much resonance. All that Kliman accomplished, however, was revealing his profound misunderstanding of the significance of both OWS and of direct action – a misunderstanding that can be traced to his deeply apolitical take on Marxism.  He tips his hand early on:

As Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Human beings make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already.” I’ve always thought that this is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.

Rather, this could be the most pregnant phrase in all of Marx, and working out what it means, on a practical level, could be the most important thing at stake with respect to his legacy. The ambiguity of it formed the basis of the dispute between Luxemburg and Lenin, between Trotskyism and the “ultra left,” between Maoism and its opponents, and between revolution and reformism. But Kliman isn’t really interested in all of that, because he isn’t interested in politics. He believes world history will accomplish itself.

Let me explain by looking at what he says about direct action.

How many direct-action anarchists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: None. They just sit in the dark and act as if the light bulb didn’t burn out.

This joke illustrates the depths of Kliman’s misunderstanding (why aren’t the anarchists changing the light bulb?). Kliman fails to apprehend two main things about direct action: that it “gets the goods,” and, equally importantly, that it builds a movement. It does so insofar as it empowers people and makes them feel solidarity with one other. It takes people from not seeing themselves as political agents to feeling themselves as political agents, by giving them real experience in acting alongside others. After all, politics is about what human beings can accomplish together, and direct action just is the deployment of collective strength.

What doesn’t build a movement, on the other hand, is feeding people an analysis of capitalism, no matter how razor-sharp. Simply describing to people the problems they face, in a systematic way, actually makes them retreat even further into inaction, especially if you describe those problems as a plenum in which there is no room for meaningful resistance, which Kliman all but does in his piece. Most people don’t like “talking about politics” because they see it as fruitless and depressing, and they see no connection between what happens out there in the world of power, and what they can make happen in their own everyday lives. They see themselves, in Kliman’s phrasing, as already having lost.

But OWS has grown as rapidly as it has because it has provided people with an arena in which to jump right in and start acting politically: not just a forum in which to discuss what is wrong with the current political and economic system, but a jumping-off point for participating in all kinds of meaningful political activities: shutting down foreclosure auctions, building independent media, picketing in support of Sotheby’s workers, learning how to facilitate meetings. It has done more to build a movement than something like the Marxist-Humanist Initiative, on behalf of whom Kliman writes, ever has (other things that don’t build a movement? signing people on to a mailing list, inviting them to a public talk, or handing them a newsletter).

Kliman attacks a straw man when he reduces direct action to a lifestylist opting-out of capitalism (“rural communes”), and contrasts that with the sit-down strikes that created the CIO. Of course, the irony is that those sit-down strikes are a quintessential form of direct action. There is even an entire literature (Stan Weir, Martin Glaberman, Staughton Lynd) celebrating such direct-action methods in contrast to the practices of business unionism, namely contract negotiation and grievance arbitration. These authors argue that direct action tactics on the job are not only far more successful, but they simultaneously embolden and train the working class to run production by themselves, for themselves, which is precisely what most envision would happen within socialism. Direct action unionism amounts to the working class developing and exercising their own political power, their power of acting in concert, rather than delegating that to someone else.

So, how does Kliman’s view of direct action relate to his dismissal of Marx’s dictum about the making of history? Shortly after favourably citing these sit-down strikes, Kliman smugly points out that OWS never actually occupied Wall Street. But considering that he is ridiculing Graeber for not understanding the real functioning of political economy, this seems like an especially inane charge: what would physically occupying the New York Stock Exchange have accomplished, in an era in which financial transactions are global and electronic? To consider that actually occupying Wall Street would have made the movement a success is to fall prey to precisely the idea that human beings make history just as they please. It betrays a deep ignorance of the fact that even revolutionary tactics still have to abide by what is possible, and there is simply no way that a group of young, disaffected outsiders could have shut down the stock market, especially in a city with such a massive police presence. These are entirely different circumstances than workers shutting down their own workplace by refusing to operate the assembly line.

Kliman equally fails to understand that human beings – and only human beings – make history. Revolutions – yes, even those that are world-historical – require people to actually carry them out. But that takes not only courage and the right revolutionary inspiration. It takes a certain political practice, one that involves solidarity and training in concrete skills like collective decision-making and the delegation of tasks so that an action can be carried out by a group. This is the very kind of political practice that is being honed, even if imperfectly, in OWS working groups.

OWS may not yet be in a position to overthrow capital, but it has managed to build a mass political movement where not even the glimmer of such a thing existed before, and it has done so precisely by providing a space of meaningful and empowering political activity. Kliman neglects this because politics has no significance to him – perhaps nothing does, other than the Final Revolutionary Moment. To him, Marx’s phrase about making history seems “trivial.” He, along with every other “interpreter” of Marx who fails to apprehend the political dimension of the latter’s writings, is guilty of precisely the kind of pathetic and dangerous idealism that Marx warned against, most perniciously the belief that history itself has agency. It doesn’t.

Andrew Kliman’s piece that Marianne replies to is online at libcom.