Marx and the Anti-Poll Tax Movement - G. Barr

Marx and the Anti-Poll Tax Movement - G. Barr

The poll tax was not an act of pure madness but was an attempt to deal with the intractable problems of the public goods crisis that afflicted the developed world. The response by the labour movement is examined in the light of the ideas developed about the state. The internal politics of the anti-poll tax movement and the changes provoked by the poll tax and its failure are then discussed.

In the first part of this paper I will focus on the nature of the state in Marxist thinking. I will move on to look at the crisis in the welfare state. The paper will argue that poll tax was not an act of pure madness but it was an attempt to deal with the intractable problems of the public goods crisis that has afflicted the developed world. Not only were the changes which first provoked the poll tax important but they still have a massive impact on our lives. The response to the poll tax by the labour movement is then examined in the light of the ideas developed about the state. Attention is paid to the internal politics of the anti-poll tax movement. Further I look at the changes provoked by the poll tax and its failure. These are the changes within the labour movement and in the state.

For Marxists the state emerged with class society. It, however, has undergone development over its whole history. Fundamental to the state is a division between it and civil society. While this split is as old as class society, it is especially sharp under capitalism. This is because of the development of fully private property. The separation of property from the community and into private hands was paralleled by the separation of the state from civil society.

The business of capitalism is making profit and, therefore, for capitalists, the state is an "overhead". It is a necessary overhead but a drain not an aid to the production of surplus value.

If the state is an overhead cost, why have one? There are certain tasks which are essential for society but can only be undertaken collectively. The nature of these collective chores has varied over time but there have always been some functions that have to be undertaken on behalf of the whole community. This was true before class society as well as within class divided systems. The main differences between classless and class society are: a) in a classless society the cleavages are individual, whereas in class society the divisions are structural; b) following from (a), in a class society the carrying out of communal functions takes on a class character. These common functions are no longer the functions of all society but rather just of the ruling class; c) a state is needed because in a class society there is always a possibility that class conflict will get out of hand and tear society apart.

Marx argued that the state is an illusory collective in a society in which the division of labour separates all from each other. The division of labour ensures that a fully communal society is impossible. State collectivity is illusory because the real community exists in the totality of all our lives. We perceive ourselves as having our own private interests and therefore we cannot see the real community before our eyes. The state deals only with those things that cannot be dealt with privately and we see this as the limit of our community interests. Thus the reality of an existing community is turned into the stunted illusion of community through the state.

It must be noted that the state does not simply deal with a separate area of life. Its territory overlaps the private interests and it frequently finds itself in conflict with them.

The public authority, once established, tends to grow in size. It becomes an interest in itself and government functionaries defend their interests as against the rest of society. Thus the state embodies the ambiguity of it standing for society's interests whilst advancing its own narrow self interests and the ambiguity of advancing our collective interests while protecting the power of the ruling class. Marxists have stressed the role of force as the basis of the defence of the status quo. Force is, however, a last resort - a state which regularly needs to physically repress large portions of its own population is a state in trouble.

A number of strategies are used to keep force in the background except in periods of crisis. Marx pointed to the importance of the cooptation in consolidating power: "The more the ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of a ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule."[3] The modern form of cooptation is not principally the recruitment of John Major and his like as individuals. Rather it is the involvement of the whole leadership of the labour movement in defending the interests of capital.

The alienation of the state from civil society has always been a feature of capitalism to some degree. The 20th century has, however, seen a gulf develop between the simple interests of most capitalists and the machinery of government that defends the whole web of social relations.

This century has seen a massive growth in government. Marxists argue that the inability of the free market to deliver a socially acceptable level of welfare is the mark, not of the advance of capital but, of its decline. It is the sign of a system in crisis. Against this it could be objected that the market has never delivered a modern welfare system. It follows that, therefore, its inability to do so in this century is not a symptom of failure. Such an argument would miss the point. A developing system can meet the new demands imposed upon it by its own development. Indeed, the resort to the state by capitalism is a sign of the market's failure to incorporate changes it has created.

Through the whole of this century the labour leaders have opposed revolutionary confrontations between capital and labour. However this fact has become central to the entire post-war settlement in Britain. The political system has relied on the understanding that labour movement leaders would defend the rights of capital in exchange for position, status and power for themselves and welfare services for their followers. Another way of saying this is to say that the post-war settlement embodied a social compromise between a working class unable to overthrow the existing system and a capitalist class forced to throw more and more areas of life into the state.

The welfare state provided an illusory collective far larger than Marx would have found possible. Illusory because the whole welfare state structure was designed as a machine for servicing a class society. The impersonal bureaucracy, ever growing and beyond all rational control, was a machine not a way of asserting our common humanity. It offered an unsatisfactory compromise between the cruelty of the market and bureaucratic rules of administration. This was a part of a larger compromise between the state as agency of capital and the state as self-motivated bureaucracy.

Economic crisis and especially crisis in state funding has been the driving force behind the need to end the post-war settlement. All western countries have seen welfare states in crisis. Various governments have tackled the crises irrespective of their political standpoint. Mrs Thatcher was different from, say, Jim Callaghan in that she developed an ideological case for an assault on state provision of welfare services. Both were willing to undermine public services.

A major effect of the welfare state has been to partially remove a large part of economic activity from the crude impact of the market. The poll tax was important in part because it was a special and brutal way of trying to partially re-marketize local services. The idea was simple. Those most dependent on welfare services could only have them funded by paying much more than they had paid in rates. Thus the poor would be faced with an impossible choice. Either they could impoverish themselves by voting for a poll tax they could afford and destroy local services or they could defend the services by supporting a high level of taxation. As Michael Forsyth MP put it:

To exempt people from liability to pay the poll tax, or to pay it for them through the social security system or via some scheme of rebates, would be to destroy accountability...

If people are to be encouraged to take responsibility for their actions they must be allowed to face the consequences of them. The benefits of electing a prudent, cost-conscious council should be reflected in being able to spend money on something else, just as the drawbacks of overspending should result in less money for other purposes.

The poll tax should therefore be levied on every adult, regardless of their means, and the social security system used to increase the incomes of those in need by a standard amount across the country.[4] The costs and benefits of the spending policies of local councils would then be felt by every poll tax payer, and local authorities would have to take the impact of their actions on their electors far more seriously.[ 5]

Nicholas Ridley added to the point about the need for a more market oriented attitude: "Why should a Duke pay more than a dustman? It is only because we have been subjected to socialist ideas for the last 50 years that people think this is fair."[6]

]The poll tax has played a part in transforming the relationships embodied in the post-war settlement. It made it clear that the aim of the state was to provide low cost minimum services not adequate welfare. Another way of seeing this is to say that the state has changed goals from the political one of quieting the working class by cooptation to one of defending the economic base of capital, even at the expense of political conflict. Marx commented on the way in which 19th century French Government created a huge bureaucracy that dominated civil society and left the independent organisations of civil society enfeebled. His remarks seem entirely appropriate to late 20th century Britain. Thatcherism was an attempt by capital to free itself from a bureaucratic governmental system which it declared to be "socialist". The poll tax was part of this approach.

Today the whole of the workers' movement has become enmeshed in the state. The defence of welfare services has become the defence of parts of the state. Once the poll tax was in place, Labour leaders were obliged to defend it. Since a non-payment campaign would threaten the state it was intolerable. Yet, from a Marxist point of view, the state is there to secure capitalist social relations. In the youthful Marx's terminology it made political emancipation a substitute for human emancipation.

Labour could see that the poll tax was a threat to the gains of political emancipation that had already been made. Indeed the early protests against the poll tax treated it as a tax on votes and the Tories never shook off that attack. As an attack on welfare the poll tax was also an attack on full participation in society by the poorest. This proposition is in line with the ideas of the "new Liberals" of the turn of the last century. It led much of the labour movement to the notion that what was needed was a defence of the state against the Thatcherite assault. The defenders sought to protect the state both as an agency of capital and as self-interested bureaucracy. What was inconceivable was that Labour would go beyond that to challenge the basis of the capitalist state. The Labour Party's attachment to the capitalist system, and especially the state bureaucracy inhibited it in action. In particular, the Labour Party was trapped by its strength in local government. Despite the fact that in 1988 to 1990, first in Scotland and then nationwide, the poll tax was the issue above all others contributing to the Tories' unpopularity, Labour faced difficulties.

The big problem for Labour was how to take it's limited opposition to the poll tax forward. In particular, the issue of non-payment spontaneously arose. Labour found it impossible, as a party, to break the law, therefore, it sought a propaganda campaign alone. Demonstrations or protests, however, quickly attracted the supporters of the "don't pay" strategy. Such a strategy would undermine the basis of the state and, therefore, Labour had to reject it. The result was to make public campaigns impossible for Labour. Furthermore, any campaign of civil disobedience would inevitably lead on to the question of councils refusing to cooperate with the Community Charge legislation. This defiance would exclude councillors from office and undermine the party's standing as a party of government. Thus Labour was caught between being either a party of government or a party of the protest of the poor.

The poll tax movement seems to have played a part in moving the Labour Party towards its new respectable persona. Once the party had ruled out illegality it further marginalized the "hard left" within the party. What is more, many of the hard left undertook fruitful activity in the campaign away from the atmosphere of official Labour politics. This further weakened the bonds between the hard left and the party.

Absorption in the state has played a part in undermining the basis of the Labour Party. The failure to campaign against the poll tax helped in a long running process of alienating the Labour Party from its traditional working class base. The party ended up doing little except grudgingly implement the tax at a local level. The life and zest of the campaign could have provided new forces for a radical party of the left, Labour gained nothing and probably lost.

The positions Labour adopted were part of the whole move rightwards under Kinnock. This move to the right is very much tied up with Labour's conception of the labour movement. The movement is, in the revised Labourite view, little more than trade unions acting within the limits of Conservative legislation, co-operatives acting as parts of the market system and the party itself reduced to little more than an electoral machine.

The trade union leaders were concerned by the poll tax. The low paid were the most worried by the tax and members of relevant unions did press the issue. Union incorporation in the machinery of state has in certain respects turned the major unions into something like "prisoner groups", wholly captured by the state. This meant that the poll tax could not be pursued with any vigour. Like the Labour Party, the unions came up against the problem of a "don't pay" campaign. This was a major problem because local authorities are major employers of unionised labour. Cuts in council spending, resulting from falling tax receipts, would directly affect workers in council employment.

The unions had to face the issue of whether to take industrial action to fight the tax. Any union could have taken action. However, once broadly political strike action was ruled out, the focus was on the local authority unions and especially NALGO. The potential of NALGO was huge. Its members were centrally involved in every aspect of the Community Charge and could surely have wrecked it.

Almost any union whose members dealt with pay could also have also been involved. There were some pressures from the left but very little was done. Almost certainly such action would have broken the Government's anti-trade union laws at a time when legality was vital in the eyes of union leaderships. Action would also have opened a gulf between the unions and the Labour Party.[8]

The Communist Party had a long history of leading left-wing campaigns. However it played a much more limited role in the late 1980s. This withdrawal from active grass roots campaigns was new for the (then still existing) Communist Party. It played a negligible part in the anti-poll tax movement. Here too adaptation to the capitalist state is vital. Gorbachev ended any remnants of the illusions of a world Communist movement. Once this was over the need was to relate directly to the British state - under these circumstances illegality was inconceivable. On a smaller scale the logic was similar to that of the Labour Party. In many ways the new thinking of Marxism Today made participation difficult.

Burns sums up the role of the old leaderships of the labour movement: "We were not only nakedly attacked by the Tories, but were betrayed by the official labour movement which purported to represent us."

Despite the limited opposition of the official labour movement the poll tax was intolerable to millions of people. Proposals for restricted protest and patience - "wait for a Labour Government" - were bound to be ignored. The abstention of the traditional leaderships opened the way for other forces.

Danny Burns in Poll Tax Rebellion painted a vivid picture of the movement. It is one of a largely spontaneous development in which the official labour movement played a small part. The simple truth was that around 17 million non-payers,[10] of whom hundreds of thousands marched, petitioned, confronted bailiffs, etc., defeated the poll tax. At the centre of this huge movement there were local anti-poll tax unions in every significant city and town and in plenty of minor ones. This political campaign was vital because of its mass base. At that base there were millions willing to defy the law who eventually made the tax unworkable.

At a national level the Militant Tendency dominated the movement. The Militant proved to be a bureaucratic sect. It stressed organisation, with a large number of full-time workers in charge. Militant was always able to pack conferences and win key votes in meetings, even if it could not play such a large role in the day to day work. After the demonstration of March 31st 1990 ended in violence, the leading spokespersons for Militant (Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan) blamed sections of the march for the scenes.

This in a sense marked out territory. Militant had instinctively stood with the authorities against the unruly demonstrators.

Militant kept their thinking within the bounds of capital. The non-payment campaign had a huge potential. For the first time in living memory a mass campaign of refusal to fund the local state was underway. Yet Militant minimized its significance. For example, they argued that such a campaign would have little impact. Even at their most radical they sought to re-assure their supporters that the state would not be harmed: "THE ARGUMENT THAT A CAMPAIGN OF NON-PAYMENT OF THE POLL TAX WOULD CRIPPLE COUNCILS IS COMPLETELY UNTRUE..."[11] Most local anti-poll tax groups were not under Militant control. Indeed the experiences of the South West of England bear this out.

Important alternatives to Militant within the various groups came from members of smaller political groups. Burns relates that The Workers Party of Scotland took the initiative in early 1987 in setting up a resistance movement.[12]The tendency for smaller leftist groupings and non-aligned socialists to involve themselves later became common in England. All came up against the determination of the Militant to retain control of the movement. They united against Militant in the 3D Network. The emphasis here was on "open communication and democracy within the anti-poll tax movement".[13] It was a mixture of free spirits, anarchists and some of the smaller Trotskyist groups. It's energy and enthusiasm were never able to match the Militant's dogged dedication and organizational skills.

The Stalinist style of machine politics used by Militant probably encouraged 3D to go in the opposite direction and to carry on in a cheerful chaos. Its politics were vague and ill defined, but its membership was generally on the left of Militant. Where Militant was committed to a Labour victory, most of 3D seemed to treat it as a matter of minimal importance. 3D was, however, limited in its goals. It accepted the state and demanded only a fair local taxation system that would not threaten jobs or services, the return of powers from the government to local councillors and an amnesty for all non-payers.[14]

While political battles were being played out at a national level many local groups ignored them and acted independently. The national level - the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation - was always under Militant control and it was never trusted by groups not controlled by Militant. It was short of money and lacked authority. From the point of view of destroying the poll tax this ultimately did not matter because local organisations could work effectively in their own areas irrespective of national problems. The bulk of the local activists had no positions in the state and felt no commitment to it. They were, therefore, able to fight a lively and uninhibited campaign. The power of the non-payment campaign made the manoeuvres at the national level largely irrelevant to the campaign. However, national weakness was a barrier to the movement widening its objectives.

The open structure of the movement in contrast to the highly bureaucratic labourite tradition was highly significant. Is it too much to say that in Marxian terms the proletariat is taking the first step to become itself? This campaign was not organised from above. It largely spoke for itself and it was generally organised on a democratic basis. The very flexibility of such forms opens the way to rapid responsiveness to changing circumstances, and to the initiative coming from below.

The various groupings at work in the anti-poll tax movement were given their opportunity because of the inability of the official leaderships to participate in the movement. Their alternative approaches were only tested to a limited degree but the movement's enthusiasm for a participatory style was important. This campaign was very different from the traditional campaigns of the left.

The crisis in the welfare system is forcing the capitalist state to take back concessions from the working class. During the bulk of the 20th Century, capital has used a growing state machine to partially insulate important areas of life from the force of market competition. The growing bankruptcy of the state has forced a reversal of this policy. The shift to both full privatisation and to simulated markets in the health and education is fraught with dangers. The peculiar indecisiveness of the Major Government is, in part, due to the anti-poll tax movement and its role in Mrs Thatcher's collapse. The Tories defeat over the poll tax has increased the need to cut spending while it has made such cuts more hazardous.

At this time the traditional leaderships of the workers' movement have died away as mobilizing forces. Their long close relationship with the state has rendered them incapable of serious opposition. This opens the way for a revival of Marxism, as workers move into defensive struggles. Attempts to defend welfare cannot hold up the tide as economic circumstances impose the cuts in services upon capitalism. The rise of the state was a symptom that the forces of production had outgrown the system by the start of the century. The problem has been put off by two essential (and related) factors. One was the capacity of capitalism to use the state to partially exclude areas of life from market forces. The other was the rise of labour leaders, in a variety of organisations, who would accept the power of capital and turn the working class towards reformist and statist goals. On a world scale the most significant of these leaders have been the Stalinists.

New ideas and leadership will be needed but it can only come from Marxists who recognise that Marxism is concerned with the advance of a real movement and who draw revolutionary politics through, not against that movement. The anti-poll tax campaign was, for Marxists, a test of how to orientate to a radical and passionate movement. Most of the existing groups failed the test. (From Critique no.26)

1 See The German Ideology 2 The German Ideology, pp. 46-47 3 Capital Vol 3, p. 601, 4 This system was the one adopted. 5 Forsyth, pp. 11-12 6 Burns, pp. 10-11 7 Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, pp. 62-3 8 See Burns pp. 163-4 9 Burns, p. 182 10 Burns, p. 184 11 The Coming of the Poll Tax, p. 15 (Capitals in original) 12 Burns, p. 28 13 3D = Don't Pay, Don't Collect, Don't Implement. 14 From 3D's Aims and principles 15 See 3D's Aims and Principles

D. Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion, Stirling, Scotland, AK Press, 1992 J. Cunliffe, Marx, Engels and the Party, History of Political Thought, Vol.11, No 2, June 1981 M. Forsyth M P, The Case for a Poll Tax, London, Conservative Political Centre, 1985 K. Marx & F. Engels, The German Ideology, in, Collected Works, Vol. 5, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1976 K. Marx, Capital Vol. 3, Moscow, Progress, 1966 K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, nd Marx and Engels, On Britain, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962 Various, The Coming of the Poll Tax, Glasgow, Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation, 1989