Radical Chains on the demise and legacy of the UK anarchist organisation Class War Federation.
Obituary: Class War
It was far too easy to dismiss Class War and now they have dissolved it is tempting to say they have done the best thing they could have done. Yet in dissolving they raise an issue relevant for all the left. The general problem is that communism no longer seems plausible. Even those fully committed cannot deny that scarcely anyone else believes a genuine alternative is possible.
Questioning the role of organisation today does not mean we can also come to simple answers. Indeed although the crisis in SE Asia could still have devastating effects in Europe and America there is no way of rushing at solutions. The movement has not yet escaped the anti-Stalinist era; the left formed in its opposition to Stalinism was in important respects deformed. There is an objective absence of any vision of a communism for people rather than of a system for mad ideologues and henchmen.
Class War appeared in the eighties and while they may not have had solutions for the left of those days they were something of a relief. Who else showed anything approaching the same uncompromising humour in class politics. Of course you can point to the crudity of Class War but this would come as no source of anguish nor surprise for those in Class War. Far from being a theoretical desert Class War represented an important advance over the majority of those who dismissed them. To understand this we need to place them in their context.
They appeared at the point when the left was about to collapse. Evident to many that the left was inadequate to the task of resisting the political movement of the eighties, it was not so obvious to the left itself. Campaigns against cruise missiles and for 'Peace', or the 'right to work' preserved the priestly worthiness of parts of the left fora few years but this just disguised the extent to which they diverted attention from the dramatic changes during the early eighties. The Peace Campaign, given a massive boost by Reagan saying that Europe was expendable, attracted huge demonstrations as industry after industry was decimated, firms went bust daily and unemployment was soaring. Just as the bourgeoisie was successfully asserting the `right to manage' after the obstructions of the early seventies the left was content to parade its good credentials. When it did respond it was with several `right to work' marches that owed more to showbiz than to politics. Studiously recreating pictures from the original Jarrow marches, they also reproduced the original cosy politics. The demand for the 'right to work' accepted the logic of the global capital market which dictated the conditions workers had to comply with if the invest-menu that would create jobs could go ahead.
The ripe fruit of this left has been Tony Blair. However, where Blair refreshingly makes little pretence at radicalism the 'right to work' campaigns were touted as opposition to capital, an idea that was already ludicrous in its time but which now, given the results, would be embarrassing to its participants. The right to work is linked with the duty to work, hence the Labour Party's acceptance of administrative measures for the working class along the lines of workfare but with a new cherry on top.
One of the most remarkable facts of Thatcher's period of power was not her `iron will' but rather the impression of invincibility granted by the absence of serious alternatives from the left. There were some remarkable struggles in which much commitment was shown. However the Miners' Strike was lost before it started. The restructuring against which they fought had already been achieved in the car industry, the steel industry, and indeed most other industries. Not only left to last, they were picked out at a time suitable to Tory planners. Even if the miners had won, what would they have achieved other than confirming large parts of the left in its nationalist reformism? No amount of nostalgia for the seventies was ever going to summon the kind of social energy needed to sweep away the reaction. The left was unaware of just how much it was tied into state administrative structures, whether local or national. Nor was it aware just how its influence was dependent on these structures rather than on an active grass roots. Thatcherism, by denying this root in state structures to the left and trade unions showed the left to be hollow.
Blair has learnt much more than the far left that for many people the market was preferable to bureaucracy. The use values delivered by administration whether nationalised industry, central bureaucracy or local were heavily compromised by the absence of the discipline of the direct producers. In as much as the left did not break from this it offered a nationalist future of bureaucratic decline, desperate struggles, and vicious repression. Arthur Scargill, while certainly representing a very real anger at the Tories, never broke, indeed could not be expected to break, from the left that was so discredited. He never broke from the perspective of a national coal mine, of national energy policy, and ultimately of a fortress Britain economy on its way to Eastern Europe. This was crucial to the government's black propaganda campaign.
While Class War never fully distanced themselves from this left they had recognised and built on a new phenomenon of anger that could not be contained in the usual channels. They set out to recruit the working class `Youth' who had been disaffected not just by the collapse of any opportunities in the mainstream economy but also by the left's response. They did this by emphasising certain basic class hatreds and what's more doing this with a sharp regard for effective publicity and the use of an appropriately entertaining black humour. In their break from official politics, that of the revolutionary as much as the reformist left, they anticipated the evolving culture of political action that was clearly demonstrated during the anti-poll tax campaign. One of the most dramatic turnarounds for Thatcherism came from outside the left that had dominated the seventies. Where that left did act within the campaign it was either treated with great suspicion or as in the case of Militant thoroughly disgraced itself. It was the anti-left left such as Class War and many more unattached class militants who prospered during that campaign. The poll tax campaign brought down Thatcher but was unable to break from the limitations imposed by antithatcherism. It could not address the issue of organising for needs that underlay opposition to the poll tax.
Despite the strength of their rhetoric, despite the vivid attack of their graphics, Class War could never quite leave the left it despised. In attempting to join class politics to anarchist activism they never achieved an adequate theory of what they were actually doing. This was helped by lazy duplication of an anti-intellectualism that many leftists of various hues have taken to, confusing this with purity of position against the sinister influence of Leninists, party-builders and the like. The nearest they achieved to a distinct theory was in basing themselves on the emotionally felt anger of working class youth, an anger that could be trusted against potential confusion from shady academics. While this challenged little in the culture they purported to want to change, it did in fact allow real insights into the current mess. Class War recognised clearly the pernicious effect of various 'middle class' functionaries.
However this had its problems as well. Based on instinctive anger it comes to a rather ponderous and worthless end in Unfinished Business as the attempt is made to ascribe class positions to people on the basis of their occupation. Not merely ridiculous, this exercise condones the sterile sectarianism of so much of the rest of the left. It was just this kind of mentality that lead to the comment (applauded at a RCP conference) that teachers are state agents of order. It is all rather sad.
The real problem is the absence of an attempt to understand the political economy of mediating functionaries. There is no question that administration has burgeoned in the twentieth century; with it has arisen an extensive cadre of `middle class' functionaries. Nor is there any doubt that these functionaries have had an influential role in the development and direction of the left. They have been able to represent working class interests because involved directly or indirectly in the administration of the formal recognition of needs. Their significance arises not from any psychological disposition they might have but rather in that they arose from important modifications in the operation of the law of value. The question is to analyse how this affects class formation, changes the nature of struggle and whether capital can sustain such modifications.
It is significant that Class War felt the practical necessity for some theoretical statement of their political position. Unfinished Business demonstrates that behind their paper there was indeed not just careful thought but also knowledge of what needed to be faced. It shows a struggle within the working class movement to come to terms with the difficulties of the age. It had all the signs of a work born out of a reasonable participatory process. It is anarchist but it considers that Marx should be read. It is anti-imperialist but `argues against the local oppression waiting in the wings to take over the local management of capitalism.'; while they supported the struggle in Northern Ireland they dealt with every anticipated objection as a valid argument. It was an intellectual effort from a group that had suspicions of intellectuals; and yet here again we should not be deceived for it is here that they declare that 'Our aim is to make everyone an intellectual'. What they object to is anything that smacks of the 'Dictatorship of the intellectuals'.
And such a book in which responsibility is taken is precisely the kind of effort that undermines any basis for such a dictatorship.
Their voluntary dissolution is consistent with this. Indeed where their previous politics of publicity was appropriate to its period their dissolution is appropriate to a period where the left has lost direction now that it has no well organised Stalinism to oppose. The publicity of anger was appropriate when the class position was disorganised by the organisations; now the need is to recreate a positive vision of what we must fight for, a positive vision of another society and not bellyaching about who the welfare state is safe with. Without this we will be trampled by the logic of global capital, damned in occasional nationalist horrors. Genuine intellectuals must come from the working class experience because it is precisely there that there is something to understand. The intelligentsia simply have to run things and for that any ideology even marxism or anarchism can be made functional, although the scope for such appropriation becomes limited the less it is backed by formal recognition of need. In the chronic crisis of needs through which the welfare state will both continue and dissolve there will be much occasion for anger, but we have to be clearer where that is going. In the end anger is not enough.
Unfinished Business. The Politics of Class War, Class War Federation/AK Press, 1992, ISBN 1-873176-7