Review of controversial pamphlet in Black Flag.
A CLASS ACT - Anarchism, Class and who we really want to talk to.
This article started out as a review/ response to the pamphlet "Educating Who About What - The Circled A and Its Parasites". Once I started getting into the issues, though, it took on a life of its own. I hope this provokes some debate. The pamphlet begins with the statement "90% of the Anarchist Movement is a Joke" and goes on to blame middle class domination of anarchist organisations for the fact that the people anarchism is from and for don't get the message. What I want to do is look at why those people don't get the message, whose fault it is, and to look at issues of class, culture, identity and organisation as a whole.
For a pamphlet which puts down situationism so neatly - "criticising society in the language of the privileged" it is irritatingly laid out in different typefaces, styles and sizes, very arty but a pain to read (it reminded me of the 80s popstars who wrote their names with capitals and normal letters reversed - bOLLoCks, if you ask me).
What is the middle class, so despised by the pamphleteers? Well, they don't define it. The sort of middle class attacked here are the "radical" types, who, to be fair, are an easy target. In my experience, the "radical" middle class always live in bohemian areas, anywhere where real people live is just too dull.
Most of the middle class doesn't live in inner cities - they live in the posher bits of every town and city in this country. We are not likely to come into contact with them much, except as bosses, bank managers etc, unless we mix with them socially. Yes, I find the bohemian types slumming it for a few years before they return to their overflowing trough irritating in the extreme and destructive to getting any real organising done politically. But they're an obstacle in the way of getting at our target, not the target itself.
The pamphlet's writers advocate a purely working class organisation as a solution to middle class domination of anarchist politics. Unfortunately, the working class isn't defined here either, so we get no idea of who decides who fits in a "working class" organisation? I have a good job, a mortgage, I like to engage my intelligence and I'm working class.
Many of our class cannot be defined by work, because they haven't got it. Increasingly there are all sorts of barriers between those of us who do have jobs and those without. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the DSS and Department of Employment. On the one hand, there are working class people expected to "seek" non existent jobs by poorly paid working class people, a lot on temporary contracts, and not very far from the same situation. There are still some workers in good situations - usually those who are well unionised or where there is a genuine shortage of their skills in the labour market (certain types of computer programmers spring to mind to illustrate the skills shortage, train drivers, airline pilots and engineering workers in large firms illustrate the former). Some would argue that the difference between the two classes is that between order givers (such as our poorly paid civil servants, teachers, social workers, cops etc.) and order takers (everyone who doesn't have any order-giving status in their job). While there is clearly a germ of truth in this, it is a misleading picture.
As a kid I remember being banned from the local swimming pool for staying in for three hours. The worker there told me I was "defrauding the council". He was giving orders, to me, a small child, because he had the power to do so. He had no power to order anyone else about, as he was just the changing room attendant. It was something in his psychological make-up that made him do it. Whether teachers are middle class or not is a debate that goes on and on. In purely economic terms, they're nearly all working class. Like the rest of us in work, they're only a few months pay packets away from poverty on the dole. The pamphlet calls this a cartoon view of the world, in that it simplifies the class relationships and misses some of what's going on in there.
However, the pamphleteers' version of the world does the same, only from a different angle. Bloody teachers, etc, - they have a limited amount of power and can give orders to kids, therefore they are middle class. Some teachers are bullies and take full advantage of the power they have over kids. But most are just people trying to do a job as well as they can within the restrictions placed on them - like class sizes, national curriculum full of bollocks, kids with no future, no books etc... The key issue here is power, and an anarchist approach has to be one of minimising any concentration of power and recognising cultural differences within the working class.
Many of the "middle class teachers, social workers and civil servants" wielding this power over working class people are people (usually women) who have escaped the drudgery of a small-minded working class culture. As well as asking them difficult questions about why they are doing what they are doing, we ought to be asking ourselves equally difficult questions about why so much working class culture encourages people to get out.
MORE CULTURE THAN YOGHURT
This is one of the strengths of the pamphlet - it recognises that there are working class cultures which are diverse and have different strengths. This is something we need to promote otherwise many talented working class kids will seize any opportunity to join the middle classes. These are the people in previous generations who filled the shop stewards' and convenors' jobs, acted as barrack room lawyers on their estates and stirred things up against the council, the boss or whatever dead arm of bureaucracy was interfering in their lives. We can't afford to lose them, and to keep them we have to show that there are alternatives within the working class. I remember talking to a woman brought up in a pit village who desperately wanted to be middle class. She saw middle class women with more control over their own lives than those of the women from her village. I suspect she'll be disappointed with the class to which she aspires, but decades of lionising of the miners by the left meant she identified that as the working class way to live, not merely a working class way of life.
To give another example of where we need to be critical of elements of working class culture, many out of town estates were hit by riots over the last few summers. Bored young men (and it was nearly all young men) had pitched battles with the police, stole cars, looted shops and set fire to community centres. The effect of this on other members of the community - who are no less working class - is often ignored by anarchists cheerleading for anyone having a bash at the cops. But the shops and community centres are vital to the rest of the community, the pensioners, those without transport to go to the shops in town, the single parents (overwhelmingly women) who use these facilities for mutual support, maybe a creche etc,. Anyone with an opportunity is going to get out of that estate, but why should they have to leave our class? There is a danger in mixing up class and identity too much, so in affirming their own identity, people must reject their class.
On a better point, I totally agree about other struggles, such as anti-racism and anti-sexism. Class is the most important factor in the struggle for a new society. Of course sexism affects all women, but the Queen mother (bless her!) gets to 94 and the media gush about how well she's doing for her age. Of course, she's never had to work for a living, or do the housework, or wait for years on an NHS waiting list for a hip operation. Anyone who does not recognise the class divisions at work is merely out for their own advantage (such as those liberal middle class women who wnat 50% of all MPs to be women, as if it will make a blind bit of difference to anything other than their careers) and as the pamphlet rightly says, they have no place in our movement. The opposite, unsaid, is also true - any anarchist who thinks it's OK to be sexist or racist, even using the excuse of "it's part of working class culture" should get short shrift from us.
The pamphlet is very critical of organisations, harping "Where are your members?" Why do anarchists then continue to try to form organisations, if no one is joining? I am not going to answer this question, except to say that people will always organise to achieve their aims. The problem with most anarchist organisations is their aims are so distant their purpose becomes blurred. The point of organisation is to improve your prospects of winning and facilitate collective action. Another trouble with anarchists in this country is that they get jealous of the Trots, even though we shouldn't be trying to replicate them as they don't share our aims.
Trot parties are set up to mirror the state they want to set up and control - with the rank and file paper sellers being the working class, the middle class consisting of branch organisers and full timers and the ruling class consisting of the leadership and central committee. They even go so far as to discuss getting a "few of the younger comrades arrested" when the need arises, like generals committing troops to battle. It might work, though evidence for this is scanty, but anarchism it ain't.
I am only interested in looking at two forms of anarchist organisation - the affinity group and the syndicalist union and commune (I have put these together for reasons which I shall explain). There are of course, others, such as the much tighter political group advocated by people like the Anarchist Communist Federation and the Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland, where membership depends on agreeing with aims, principles and often policies.
The affinity group is based on shared belief and other close ties, friendship, socialising and so on. It is obviously self-selective and not open to general membership. It is vitally important for direct action as the members of an affinity group grow to learn from each other and trust each other. It is unlikely to win many people to anarchist ideas on a direct basis, and certainly not in any large numbers.
The syndicalist union and commune are libertarian, democratic and open to all who are part of their constituency - either workers in that industry or people who live in that area. By their nature they are working class bodies which can include all the workers. Indeed, modern anarcho-syndicalism has improved on the classical model by moving on to the syndicalist union advocating and calling "workers assemblies", sovereign decision making bodies open to all workers who accept their decisions as binding, regardless of union affiliation. (This is usually conveniently forgotten by Bookchin and other critics of syndicalism who really should know better).
We often come up against the "spontaneity" argument here. You know the sort, there's no need to organise workers, they will organise themselves when the need arises, spontaneously, and will be more revolutionary without unions, parties or ideologies to hold them back. This argument simply doesn't wash, and asks us to deny our own existence as workers. It's OK for the workers to do it, but not the anarchists. But aren't the anarchists workers too? Organisations can be sapping and contradictory at times, but it is through the experience of organising that lessons are learnt and digested.
These two models are not contradictory, it's simply a matter of recognising different tactics; you can go out there and "just do it" as the ad goes, or you can build a long, steady fightback by gaining respect from those immediately around you, and hopefully some of our ideas will find an echo in their experience. The point is to see that an active anarchist movement usually benefits from an active libertarian workers movement, and vice versa.
A good chunk of the pamphlet is taken up on attacking Chumbawumba and praising Pulp for their connectedness to working class culture. The points made are valid enough, and I prefer Pulp myself, but they are only pop stars. Pop stars are not going to change the world. Crass played the same role in the late 70s early 80s as Chumbawumba do now. I am one of the few anarchists of my generation who wasn't into punk, but I am glad it got loads of people interested, even if 99% have since fucked off, there are some real gems in that 1%. If Chumbawumba can do the same, good. If not, who cares?
"Educating Who About What - The Circled A and Its Parasites" (£1 from Black Economy Books, Dept 8, 1 Newton St, Manchester M1 1HW).
This review was originally published in Black Flag #209, October 1996