At school our history lessons teach us that single individuals can change the world. The lesser told story is how mass action fells governments, prevents wars and wins democratic rights.

In science we think of Newton discovering gravity; Copernicus and Galileo trying to convince an outmoded theocracy to see the universe differently or Darwin trying to prove that we are all descended from monkeys.

In the 20th Century we think of Einstein nearly destroying the planet with five little symbols: E=MC2.

In matters of war, we think of Boudica sacking Roman London or Winston Churchill, stoically steering Britain through the Second World War.

If that’s not quite to our taste we think of Lenin leading iron-willed Bolsheviks to a victorious revolution. (Though perhaps we don’t learn that story at school.)

We have no problem with the idea that Alexander the Great single-handedly (people use this phrase in all seriousness) conquered a land mass covering more than 2 million square miles spread over three continents.

We also accept that William Wilberforce ended the slave trade; Mahatma Gandhi defeated British rule in India without lifting a finger in violence, and Emmeline Pankhurst lead the battle for women’s votes.

The Roman Republic of 510 to 30 BC was torn apart by a series of three slave wars called the Servile Wars. It was finished off by a civil war that saw the dissolution of the empire.

But our history lessons boil this down to the actions of a few of individuals: be they Spartacus or Caesar.

In recent history, the Stalinist (again the legacy of one individual) regimes of the Eastern Bloc were torn apart by a series of mass protests.

But again our history lesson extracts from the actions of hundreds of thousands of people just one figure: Mikhail Gorbachev, the great reformer.

It’s an optical illusion of history that the acts of the mass of people appear in reality as the actions of a few single individuals; usually larger-than-life characters of unprecedented genius, strength, courage and determination.

Yes, when it comes to individuals changing the world our credulity seems to know no bounds.

But when it comes to the idea of a mass of people changing the world, it sometimes appears to require an unprecedented leap of faith to assume what is on the face of it a very modest claim: protest works.

But scratch beneath the surface of the pleasing façade of individualism and we see something far more spectacular:

A never-ending process involving large groups of people, often separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles, coming together and organising mass actions that lay low the mightiest empires, the cruelest dictators and the most savage armies.

From 1999 to the end of the first decade of the 21st Century there has already been a spectacular array of protests and demonstrations.

In Seattle in 1999, well over 40,000 people demonstrated outside the Washington Trade Centre to protest against the capitalist free-for-all which was the WTO trade negotiations.

In Genoa in 2001 the G8 summit of the world’s most powerful nations was confronted by crowds of over 200,000 people.

In February 2003 it is estimated that up to 10 million people across 60 different countries worldwide protested against the Iraq War.

In London alone, two million people took to the streets; the biggest demonstration ever held in the UK.

In Spain, over two million people demonstrated. The list goes on.

But what was the point?

Britain didn’t leave Iraq until 6 years later and American troops still have a significant presence there.

The demonstration against the Afghan war happened even further back, in 2001, and Britain is still in the war which appears to be escalating despite claims that troops are to be scaled down.

But if we look at the anti war movement in a historical context, things are not quite as straightforward as they seem.

The anti-apartheid movement was established in 1959. Apartheid didn’t fall until 1990. That’s 31 years of campaigning, boycotts, divestment, protest, strikes and direct action. But apartheid did fall and it was a movement which brought it down.

Well over 70 percent of the British population are against the Afghan war. Tens of thousands have marched and demonstrated, two million more against the Iraq war.

Tony Blair was chased out of government because of the anti-war movement. Now he can’t show his face in London without being run out of town.

And who’s to say the government would be talking about troop withdrawals beginning in 2011 if it wasn’t for thousands taking to the streets?

One of the main demands of Stop the War was to prevent the war escalating to Iran. So far, no escalation; and who knows how many other wars have been prevented?

Politicians don’t spend millions on media training, PR, advertising and spin doctors for nothing. They do it because their livelihoods depend on the way in which they are seen by their potential voters.

The clich√© that there is no such thing as bad publicity is a vain myth. Politicians wish there was no such thing as bad publicity, but Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and, more recently, Barack Obama have learned the hard way that this simply isn’t the case.

Every anti-war demonstration was a nail in the coffin of New Labour just like every miners’ strike and riot sounded a death knell for the regimes of two successive Tory administrations.

Similarly, every anti-government rally drove a knife into the Soviet Union. Except it didn’t seem like that at the time, in Eastern Europe or the UK.

An anti government rally of 50,000 students in Prague in 1989 was crushed by police violence. But it was part of a series of revolts that tore the Soviet Union apart.

In Britain, the miners were defeated. Large sections of industry were gutted, leaving desolation in their wake. But the strikes drove out Edward Heath’s government.

The Poll Tax riots were a disaster for the ruling class. Everywhere, ordinary people stood up and smashed Thatcher’s plans into the ground.

Before the ConDem’s announced they were to cut the universal child benefit, their programme of savage, ‘no Plan B’, cuts was whizzing ahead without a care in the world.

But spontaneous public outcry slowed that film down to a crawl. Within the Tory ranks we began to hear references to ‘staggered cuts’ where before we heard only ‘cut fast and cut deep’.

It is not yet possible to judge the direct impact thousands of students converging on Tory HQ last Wednesday will have on the ConDem’s, but one thing’s for sure: the first nail has been driven in.

Stop the War National Demonstration Afghanistan: Time to Go Saturday 20 November. ‚Ä®Assemble 12 Noon, Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, London. Details…

Coalition of Resistance Organising Conference: Saturday 27 November, Camden Centre, London. Tickets available online.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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