Our activity in the late 1980s and 1990s: activity and balance sheet - Antagonism

The Antagonism group reflect on their activities and theoretical development, through involvement in various groups and struggles from the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s.

The leaflets and texts in this archive were produced by informal and ad hoc groupings or individuals, based in Southeast England from about 1986 onwards, and are to some extent part of the prehistory of the Antagonism project. They were produced under many different names (partly as a sort of personal joke), and by different overlapping collections of individuals. Some of the names were just "flags of convenience" for a leaflet put out by a group that came together for that one pupose. In other cases there was an on-going organised collectivity, as in the case of the Thames Valley Class Struggle Group. This informal group of a dozen or so individuals was itself the product of a split in the Reading Anarchist Group between ourselves and a more "lifestylist" tendency. It existed from about 1988 to 1990.

The Thames Valley Class Struggle Group (TVCSG) was in contact with, or to some extent overlapped, a number of other radical milieus. The most important of these were a number of communists in London who were involved with or were close to the London Workers Group, Wildcat and Red Menace. Also important was the Anarchist Communist Federation (they have since dropped the "Communist"), which some of us were members of for more or less brief periods of time, before realising it was a sectarian group with duff politics, and ludicrous pretensions to leadership. As well as these groups the influence of council communism, the ICC, and Situationist ideas can be seen in many of our texts. An important source of the latter was the Spectacular Times series, produced by a member of the Reading Anarchist Group. Our synthesis of these diverse currents resulted in a tendency towards workerism, spontaneism, a romanticism about riots, and a sometimes overly sociological view of class.

Peace Off
The TVCSG and its forerunners were very much a product of their time and place. The people in it were individuals from sociologically working class or lower middle class backgrounds who had been radicalised partly through the anarcho-punk scene. The 1980s saw the climax of the Cold War and many people believed that nuclear war was a real possibility, especially with the belligerent Reagan and Thatcher as heads of state of two of the nuclear powers. In the early 80s there was a mass movement that opposed nuclear war, organised in Britain through the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). For many of us, participation in the huge anti-nuclear demos (up to 400 000 people), and opposition to CNDs liberal, pacifist, capitalist politics, was an important part of our political origins. (See the Back to Reality section of "Class Analysis for Anti-Capitalist Struggle" and also Anarcho-punk, the ALF and the miners’ strike - a cautionary tale from the 1980s (in Beasts of Burden) for more info on our origins.)

We found ourselves living through the most prolonged and successful assault on the British workers movement in the post-WWII period, and trying to find a way to act in that period. The two most important struggles of the time were the miners strike (1984-1985) and the anti-poll tax movement (1989-1991).

Miner Struggles, Major Contradictions
The miners strike, planned by the Conservative government for years beforehand, was an attack on the hitherto most powerful and combative section of the British working class. It in some ways was an archetype of the state’s policy of restructuring away from the Keynsian/Fordist/"state-capitalist" model to a Thatcherite/Reaganite/neo-liberal economy, attacking an entrenched unionised group of workers in the state sector. It formed a model victory both in the sense that it was copied by Murdock in the Wapping dispute, but also in the sense that it was a crushing defeat for the unionised workers movement as a whole and in fact of the whole proletariat, at least in Britain, but also to some extent in Europe and further afield.

Perhaps the more interesting conflicts during the miners strike were those which took place within the strike and within the movement around it; subtle conflicts between different striking miners, conflicts within the striking miners families and communities and conflicts, sometimes of a more ideological nature, amongst politicos and activists involved in the movement of support groups and demonstrations in support of the miners. There were subtle conflicts within the union between branches and different levels of bureaucracy and leadership, and between the union and wildcat action carried out by some of the strikers. Such action included the "hitsquads" (which sabotaged the working pits) and unofficial picketing by miners such as the Kent miners against pits up north which were staging official marches back to work in the last few days of the strike. There were struggles over what "role" women should play in such a strike movement in the context of a male dominated job.

Within the movement of support groups and support activities, in which we had some involvement, there were arguments over tactics. To openly criticise National Union of Miners leader Scargill or not, to work with the unions or against them, maybe open up a "second front" in the inner cities (an attempt at staging a "riot" in Wood Green ended up a joke), equality in struggle or miners to the front and everyone else follow…?

"Support" ?
There were also problems concerning practical work the support movement was doing such as the unequal distribution in practise of support and aid. Those miners and their families who were living amongst tight knit high profile mining communities at the centre of the dispute were getting quite a lot of support and aid including such things as extended credit from local shops. Other miners in other areas, such as single miners living a distance from the immediate mining community were sometimes losing out on their share of the aid and welfare. If they lacked any significant reserves of their own to on they found themselves in impossible hardship and feeling a bit abandoned by other strikers. This distorted support and unequal distribution of aid and welfare was one of the factors which encouraged a growing trickle of petty scabbing in striking pits in the last few months (in addition to the hardcore of notorious "superscabs"). Some of the strikers talked openly about such problems with the support and aid and welfare and there were questions as to who exactly was supposed to control the distribution of aid (see "A year of our lives").

At the end of the strike one of the prevailing slogans was "Keep the support groups going". The idea being to maintain a coalition of political opposition to the bosses and the Thatcher regime built around the specific task of maintaining a network of "support" groups to "support" whichever particular group of workers were currently on strike or in dispute because their industry was under attack from thatcherite/neoliberal attack and restructuring. At the time the feeling was that this was a good idea and this positive feeling was one of the influences that encouraged the later formation of the Thames Valley Class Struggle Group for instance. But what did this idea actually mean? Was it really a good idea? How much use or relevance was a permanent network of "support" groups, whose role was waiting for the next lot of industrial workers queuing up to be hammered so we could "support" them, have? Could this be a real basis for a radical socialist movement?

In a political context the word "support" can mean different things; adopting an ideological posture towards something, referring to a social base, or instead refer to specific material acts of solidarity. But over the last few decades there has been a visible syndrome of what might be called "supportism" which in practise amounts to a lefty cringe coupled with a strategy of workerist vanguardism. Here a particular group of workers in dispute, usually in a vulnerable/defensive position in a passive union strike or lockout are idolised and heroised and set up as a vanguard (to lead the "fightback" - "fightbackism"; a related vulgar syndrome to supportism) behind which other militant workers and socialists/communists are called to mobilise behind. The leninoid and trot left and the unions will play a double act in manoeuvring workers behind such a campaign of "support" for this or that particular sectioned off group of workers and thus in practise to attempt to manoeuvre a whole movement behind shoring up their own specialised bureaucracies/leaderships.

As well as straight away encouraging a separation and hierarchy of roles, such "supportism" is often a part of the process of setting up a particular group of workers who are led down the garden path, usually by union leadership, to a predictable pre-arranged defeat. "supportism" of this kind will divert from genuine equal solidarity . The "supporter" is encouraged to deny their own subjectivity and subordinate their interests to that of an idolised and romanticised particular group of industrial workers (industrial kitsch) who in turn will be unable in practise to live up to the idolised and romanticised role constructed around them. If a particular group of contained and isolated workers are in the process of being defeated, mobilising other workers behind them in "support" may serve only to increase the size of the defeat.

While the union and labour left leadership will in effect set up workers from above, the anarcho-left and anarcho-activist scene repeatedly makes the mistake of picking up the tale end of this workerist vanguardism in the form of rearguardism and accidentally helps set up workers from below. This can involve a genuine urge to express/practice material acts of solidarity becoming channelled into playing the alienated role of "supporters" to ready-made defeats; taking the demand for "support" at immediate face value without seeing the wider context and situation.

With the Thames Valley Class Struggle Group (in its various stages/manifestations) in reality we were not able to have much effect either way. In practice we tended to be marginally following events as they unfolded, tagging along to occasional pickets and support demos, producing small circulation leaflets targeted at specific disputes, appealing for wider/generalised/autonomous solidarity but lacking means or potential strength to start achieving this. We lacked a full understanding of the wider context and nature of the events unfolding (late ‘80s) and we lacked a proper understanding of our own role and interests in these events.

Voices of the Restructured?
Although some of us had long term and/or skilled jobs, we mostly had a varied experience of work, usually in many unskilled temporary or casual jobs, long periods on the dole, or were occasionally students. Our activity as a group though mostly consisted of "intervening" in disputes of the unionised workers, mostly in nationalised industries, who were currently being restructured out of existence, or at least into relative marginality. This perhaps was a better project to have been engaged: attempting a radical self analysis as to who we were as proletarianised individuals in the "Thames Valley" and how we fitted in ourselves to the "thatcherite" restructuring. By looking more at our own subjective condition and how it related to the wider situation as a whole we would then be in a clearer position to look for others with common interests and with whom we could start to practise equal solidarity in struggle. Note that this is a project of a different type than the autonomist influenced investigations of, for instance, call centre workers, which are another example of the activist relating to the worker as other (even if the activist takes the same job).

Capital was undergoing a profound restructuring during this period, a process which we had an inadequate understanding of. In our own region, this resulted in closures or mass redundancies in manufacturing and especially in electronic and light engineering, with companies including Sperry, British Aerospace, Ferranti, Racal and Fluidrive downsizing or closing sites completely. Following on from this was mass unemployment and a rise in temporary work. We saw this process purely in terms of capital attempting to discipline the traditionally "stroppy" British workers. Like many others, rather than be cowed into greatfully accepting lowpaid work, many of us made a virtue out of neccessity and looked on unemployment as "the permanent weekend", avoiding work except to occasionally top up our dole money. In this sense our activity, our lives in fact were a proletarian response to a new composition of capital. Even so, we failed to understand and respond to the full measure of changes that were going on around us. Certainly we realised that traditional manufacturing was moving out of Britain and to Southeast Asia, for example. But it is striking that we lived and were active in the region which was then receiving the largest amount of capital investment in the UK. Despite the fact that we sometimes wrote under names such as "Info-Tech Corridor Uncontrollables" and "M4 Corridor Group", and despite the fact that we had one or two computer programmers in the group, we didn’t relate to the fact that the information technology sector, which in the UK was and is centred in the Thames Valley region, was now of crucial and growing importance both to Britain and the world. Mass unemployment in our region was not just an agent of discipline, but also a result of the temporary dislocation in the transition from one technical composition of capital to another. We were in some ways in a perfect position to start analysing the emerging new composition of capital and the resulting new technical and political composition of the proletariat which we were in the midst of, but such a project didn’t really occur to us.

Bopping at Wapping
The Wapping dispute (1985-86) was a particularly important episode in our "political education", marking a turning point from a punk anarchism/romantic marginal urban guerrillerism to a more serious class struggle anti-state communism towards the end of the eighties. We were involved in a fair amount of the picketing and agitation around the News International plant in Wapping (5000 printworkers locked out etc.). But the Wapping dispute was essentially a big farce. A last ditch stand by a desperate NGA bureaucracy to hold onto its power in the print industry in the face of virtually inevitable restructuring and modernisation. Some of the picketing tried to break out of the control of the union hacks, a genuine coalescing and solidarity between some of the local community, left/anarcho/commie militants and some of the printworkers occurred. But despite a couple of times when newspaper delivery was delayed, most nights the picketing failed to stop production and distribution of Murdock’s papers. (The near overrunning of the police in the ’81 riots was already like ancient history. Warrington ’83 was where police successfully tried out new anti-riot tactics specifically against industrial pickets; forerunner to the miners strike and Wapping picket line battles.)

The picketing became aimless streetfighting rituals, angry demonstrations for their own sake over a little bit of physical space opposite the newspaper plant, open to all who turned up. The final irony is there is today (March 2001) a campaign to save jobs at Wapping as production could now move elsewhere.

The restrucutring of the British economy was not the only signficant domestic policy of the Conservative government. There were also a whole series of measures of a moral character. These were generally aimed at reinforcing the family, for example, the restrictions on the representation of gays in schools, moves to restrict access to abortion, and changes to benefits to keep younger adults living with their parents. (Many of the state's other policies had the opposite effect of course. For example, unemployment and greater job mobility both did much to weaken the family.) This attempt to reimpose a moral order met with resistance on various level, including mass struggles in some instances.

No Prole Tax!
The Poll Tax must be seen as the Thatcher government’s biggest blunder. Perhaps due to the almost total success in previous attacks on the British working class, the state seemed to become blasé about its ability to win. The Poll Tax basically attacked too many people simultaneously, and was too obviously tied to government policy. As we predicted early on, the Poll Tax generated a movement against it that was widespread, neighbourhood based, and effective in defeating this particular policy.This movement was organised through local anti-poll tax groups. Much popular excitement was had by all, in the demonstrations and riots , which eventually defeated the tax and contributed to the fall of Thatcher. Many radicals hoped that the anti-poll tax groups would continue on as a radical movement, much as there had previously been hopes about the network of miners support groups, but for the most part, the local groups quickly faded away. Any illusions of working class strength caused by this temporary cock up in British state policy were painfully exposed by the feeble opposition to the gulf war.

From workers' struggle to anti-capitalism?
The early nineties saw continued assaults on the organised workers movement, which saw the lowest ever recorded number of days lost to strikes. Under this situation it became impossible to continue with our "interventions". These appeared increasingly futile, as there was rarely any response to them, and increasingly sterile, as each leaflet looked more like the previous one. Part of our response to this state of affairs was to try to make a theoretical examination of our situation; see for example the text The defeat of the old workers movement and the failure of the revolutionary minorities.

The early nineties also saw the development of what was then called the direct action movement (no relation to the 80’s anarcho-syndicalist group) and is now known as the anti-capitalist movement. This originated in the anti-roads movement, and coalesced around opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill. Perhaps the most important, and characteristic group in the whole movement was Reclaim the Streets. We were peripherally involved with it for a year or two, following on from the March for Social Justice, a collaboration between RTS and locked out Liverpool dockers. The demonstrations against the Eurotop meeting in Amsterdam which drew activists from all over Europe can be seen as a precursor to events in Seattle and Prague. To what extent the anti-capitalist movement was itself a new and interesting development, and to what extent it was merely a substitute for supposedly more "real" workers' struggle, remains a topic of debate.

This shamelessly biased introduction was written by two indivduals and was circulated among several other participants, who suggested additions and changes. See Red Menace for other texts produced in the same period, from a sometimes similar viewpoint. Aufheben have covered many of the topics in this introduction in various of their articles. Also relevent is an account of an anarchist squat centre in London - 121: A Brief Personal Trip Down Memory Lane.

Taken from the Antagonism website.

Comments

Steven.
Jul 26 2009 15:55

This is a really interesting text. Thanks for posting it up and formatting it so well soap.

Is there anyone on libcom who was involved in antagonism or any of the groups mentioned above?

Devrim
Jul 26 2009 18:49

I knew the people who were involved in it. One of them was in 'Communication Worker' with me. Most of the people involved in it ate still around, as in I have seen them about when I have occasionally been in the UK in the last few years. In fact I saw one woman at the 'teabreak' meeting organised by Libcom people after the last anarchist bookfair.
Devrim

Steven.
Jul 26 2009 19:28

That's interesting - was it the blonde woman with glasses?

Devrim
Jul 27 2009 02:19

Who left early, yes.
Devrim