On the face of it, the arrival of a new anarchist group with a newspaper which outsells other libertarian papers several times over is a promising thing. But Class War's other tactics include organising 'Bash the Rich' outings and disrupting CND meetings. While Fleet Street brands them 'political nutters', some sections of the Left have reproved their behaviour as 'fascist'. What is their own view?
Andy Brown talked to three of the most active members of the London group. Two want only to be identified here as 'Janet' and 'John'. The third, Ian Bone, was also later coaxed into talking frankly about his personal history and convictions for a second interview. Here is what they have to say.
Why did you get involved with Class War in the first place and why do you think it has grown so rapidly?
IAN: Basically, because most working class people have anarchist ideas or are receptive to anarchist ideas though they wouldn't necessarily associate them with being anarchist ideas. For instance, they're anti-boss so they steal from the boss and they've got a sense of working class solidarity and community. All the existing anarchist papers at the time that Class War started, like Freedom and Black Flag, to working class people they might as well have been from another planet. The idea behind Class War was to produce an anarchist magazine which ordinary working class people could make sense of, and they would feel had some relevance to them. We also wanted it to be a good laugh as well, as I think humour is very important. So, basically, I feel there was a big gap in the market and Class War was meant to fill that.
Do you think you've been successful?
IAN: To an extent yes; to the extent that we've established a good populist anarchist paper. It's got a large sale (12,000 are currently printed) and lots of people want to read it, but the problem now is where we go from here. We've cornered a small market, and since we're big in a small market, what we've got to do is find ways of selling more and more. We've got to decide whether we are going to hang about in the anarchist milieu or whether we are going to go more popular, and personally I would like to see more stories in Class War about Dirty Den and Ian Botham rather than the kind of articles which have been in there lately.
Have you experienced any problems in moving from propaganda to action?
JANET: Class War started as a propaganda group, but we felt, particularly bearing in mind some of the wild rhetoric in Class War, that we had to do something more than just produce the propaganda. We felt that we needed something to back it up, otherwise we were going to appear to be like a lot of people just mouthing off and not doing anything about it ourselves. When we were trying to set up some kind of actions, we also felt that it was important to get other people involved so that they could do things on their own and develop their own activities. That was the original idea behind the 'Bash the Rich' thing. Looking back, it seems not totally successful, but the objective was to get people involved, and to build up people's confidence and to get publicity.
Some people have said in response to the 'Bash the Rich' marches that the idea was a bit macho. Do you think that's a fair accusation?
JOHN: As soon as you do anything in that way you get accused of being macho; we get this accusation just because of the type of paper we put out. Other organisations which don't share our style don't do any better. They don't have any more women in their groups.
JANET: The other thing about that is that we think that's very sexist because the accusation is based on the assumption that violence or anything associated with it, such as aggression or militant action, is a male thing, and the direct inference of that is that women are peaceful 'nice' people who just want to sit down in the road on demonstrations. We feel that this accusation is just a misnomer which arose from a lot of dubious ideas coming from Greenham Common.
Do you then intend to continue with the 'Bash the Rich' marches?
IAN: I think most people in Class War would acknowledge that the 'Bash the Rich' marches were unsuccessful. They were a failure because we were totally ghettoised. All we had was a lot of anarchists marching through Kensington or Hampstead or Bristol and it didn't break out of the anarchist ghetto and we were just isolated and surrounded. The possible exception is Henley regatta, where a lot of people who weren't anarchists did turn up to have a laugh at the toffs. As regards marches the 'Bash the Rich' campaign is at an end, but the basic strategy of class hatred, of having a go at the rich wherever you can get at them, is still valid. We've obviously made a mistake in attaching to that a load of old tactics which were outdated, and I think we've learnt from that.
Does it worry you that a lot of people got arrested on those marches and got bashed by the rich?
JOHN [who had recently been charged himself]: Not that many got arrested, and the majority of those who were arrested were released without charge. It was only a small minority who got heavy fines and we do operate a bust fund which was started because of things like that.
IAN: There weren't that many arrested. The biggest number of arrests was probably at Henley Regatta where forty-five to fifty people were arrested and no-one was sent to prison. Most of the people got off with fines and the worst fine was something like £150. It's obvious that any kind of marches of that type are a total failure. The police have got their tactics so worked out; not just for the 'Bash the Rich' marches, but 'Stop the City' events, the campaign against police repression, all those type of marches are a dead loss. We do want to pursue the 'Bash the Rich' idea but not in that kind of way.
A lot of people seem to confuse Class War with 'Stop the City'; what was your involvement with that?
JOHN: We just went along like everyone else. Individuals in Class War might have taken a small part in organising it but as a group Class War took absolutely no part in organising it and we didn't attend as a group. Individuals went along.
Was your experience on those types of events part of the reason why you moved towards a more structured organisation?
JANET: Well, there are several reasons why we have moved to a more structured organisation, one of which is that Class War as a paper is sold by people all over the country and they do just as much if not more work than the London group in selling the paper, but they were having no say or very little say in what went into the paper and its general strategy. Another reason was that we felt we could achieve a lot more by being better organised and setting up better communications and better relations all over the country.
JOHN: We were getting a lot of letters from people all over the country in isolated places saying "How can I get involved?" or "What can I do? "and all we could tell them was "You could sell some papers for us". So another reason was that if we could get groups going all over the country then it would be easier for people to get involved.
IAN: I think that's important. We didn't want to be a group in London producing a paper which other people up and down the country sold without a say in what went in the paper. I could refer here back to my experience in Solidarity in the early seventies. When I first came into contact with Solidarity and was really enthusiastic about its ideas, I wanted to be part of that paper's production. Basically, it turned out to be pretty difficult to get involved, because I think that most of the people who were involved in Solidarity at the time didn't really want it, and the paper was being produced by a small group up in London. I got the impression that people were being allowed in on sufferance, and rather than tell new people to fuck off they were told to go and form their own Solidarity group.
JANET: We felt that if we were better organised then we could help individuals and small groups to build up their own confidence to do things on their own and to be autonomous. We could offer them support with things such as public speaking and printing and help them build up their skills.
IAN: Also, I'm fed up with the anarchist movement just being a total shambles, just from the aspect of there being a lack of any co-ordination or coherence. What we wanted was to get together some people who had some coherent ideas and could act on them to develop strategy to change things.
So how, at the moment, would a local group go about getting its ideas across in the paper? Do they have any editorial control at the moment?
JOHN: The paper is rotated between any group which has a reasonable number of people and they take turns in producing it. The last three issues have been done in totally different places each time. Whichever group does it has total editorial control over what goes in but when the paper is all laid out and ready there's a meeting of all the delegates from the different groups who check it and if there's anything they really object to (which is quite rare, fortunately), then it's dropped or whatever. It's basically down to the group which produces the paper.
There were reports in one or two of the papers, particularly 'City Limits', that the move towards more organisation was strongly opposed. Is there any truth in this?
JANET: The article in City Limits was totally inaccurate, but there was some opposition to the changes. City Limits gave the impression that anarchists are opposed to all forms of organisation and that those who left were the anarchist element, which wasn't really accurate.
JOHN: There was strong opposition, but it was from a small minority, and the reports going around at the time were true to the extent that about three people had left, but out of a London group of twenty to twenty-five people it didn't really mean that much.
IAN: I think basically practically everyone outside London was in favour of the federation, it was a small number of people in the London group who opposed it and left.
How do you feel you can ensure that your organisation doesn't degenerate into yet another Trotskyist workers' party?
JOHN: Because we are structured in a totally different way. We are not a party, we haven't got membership, we don't want to be the vanguard of anything, we just want to play our part in agitating towards a revolution or whatever. We never had any ideals to become the leadership or anything like that. We just felt we could operate better if we were organised that in way.
IAN: Also, the first conference drew up an 'Aims and Principles' which basically enabled people to agree about whether they wanted to be part of the federation or not. It says things like class struggle is important and that we believe in violence to overthrow capitalism. Within that basic agreement there is room for a wide measure of disagreement in the federation. For instance, we haven't got a line on Ireland or animal rights. There is room in the federation for a very wide range of opinions, and we are not trying to create a party with a view on everything.
So, if a local group disagreed with the views of the group which was doing the paper, would their views be printed?
IAN: If it came to the crunch and a local group disagreed very strongly with something which was in the paper then presumably they would just refuse to sell it. There have been cases where individuals in the London group have not liked particular articles in the paper and have just refused to sell it.
Would you expect a group to censor sexist material, for instance?
JOHN: Yes. We've got in the 'Aims and Principles' that we are totally opposed to sexist material so the groups aren't stupid enough to put anything like that in, anyway.
And the same for racist material?
JANET: Again, this is covered in the 'Aims and Principles'.
IAN: Yes. We are not a bunch of liberals like Freedom who will just publish anything. Lots of articles are just chucked out because we don't like them or don't agree with them.
Having said that, would you like to comment on the bizarre allegations of racism in Class War?
JOHN: To cut a long story short, you could say that they have all been totally disproved now. We have been re-admitted to the AFA [Anti-Fascist Action] and there was an article in the Guardian saying it was all total rubbish. One of the reasons the allegations might have arisen is, because a lot of people don't really like Class War, so they thought that an easy way to get rid of us might be to call us fascists.
IAN: We've been very unpopular on the Left, and the allegations basically came frow a couple of sources, Gerry Gable of Searchlight and David Rose in the Guardian, who just repeated his allegations. Gable himself has talked of a 'good tradition of anarchists' and referred affectionately to Freedom people, saying that anarchists who are part of the socialist tradition he welcomes. But us, all of a sudden, because we believe in violence and try to break out of the anarchist ghetto, and because we heckle CND rallies, we heckle Kinnock, we heckle Ted Knight and we heckle all these sorts of people, we get up their noses. One of Gable's main things was that we heckle Ted Knight and Tony Benn, and this was positive proof that we were fascists!
They just can't understand it, they don't mind a few idiots waving a few black flags, but they just could not understand where we were coming from. A lot of anarchists also called us fascists. A lot of pacifists called us fascists. Freedom at one stage called us fascists because we believe in enforcing class power. We are not a bunch of liberals who believe in freedom of speech; the idea that freedom of speech is an anarchist thing is a load of shit.
JOHN: We were becoming a threat, so they were worried.
IAN: A lot of people were very pre-disposed to welcome these allegations; not just people on the Left, but also people in the anarchist movement, because it 'proved' what they'd been saying all the time. The good thing about it was that we didn't knuckle under to the particular accusations of Gable and co. and we've come through it, and now it's Searchlight who are discredited. However, I think that as soon as the fascist thing vanishes something else will crop up. I've heard all sorts of stories, including one that we were funded by BOSS. No doubt someone will soon be saying that we're funded by MI5 or the CIA! I take it as a sign that we've been successful.
I noticed that in one of your denials you went so far as to say that no member of Class War had ever had anything to do with a fascist group. Do you then refuse admission to people who are ex-fascists or ex-racists?
JANET: It's difficult. Someone is not born a fascist and people sometimes go through a phase of being racist or actively fascist when they are fifteen or sixteen. If they've genuinely changed then it's very difficult to hold it against them or the rest of their lives. Obviously, we would be dubious and if someone like that got involved - we would check them out.
IAN: People are full of shitty ideas. We want to change things and if we can persuade someone out of racism we'd welcome it.
Another allegation made against Class War is that in a country where sixty per cent of homes are owned privately your type of anarchism is always doomed to be the voice of a minority.
IAN: That's like saying that there's no working class any more because they own their own homes, they've got videos, they go on holiday to Spain and so on. Though the working class have got an improved standard of living, they are still just as class conscious and they are still selling their labour power for their entire lives, and I think there's as much of a chance of a revolutionary movement developing in the society we live in now as ever there was.
What evidence do you see of this class consciousness developing?
IAN: Well, I don't see any signs that extra class consciousness is developing today, I simply think that the working class is class conscious in the kind of ways that Solidarity has held so dear over the years; such as stealing at work, stealing time from the bosses, clocking in for other people, buying stolen goods, the black economy. People don't consider those things crimes; even though the state to them that they are terrible they don't believe it. It's remarkable how the working class has managed to preserve its basic class consciousness given the stuff in the press and on the television, but I think it's just as much there as ever it was.
So how do you see the movement developing at the moment and how would you see a change in the way things are organised coming about?
IAN: Firstly, as regards Class War I would look back to As We See It1 by Solidarity, where it defines the kind of things which should be encouraged in the working class, like anti-hierarchical struggles, opposition to differentiation, support for autonomy, and support and co-operation. I think that all the working class needs is a shove in the right direction and we've just got to put our shoulders to the wheel wherever working class struggle is most intense and try and push it further. We ourselves can't conjure things out of nothing, we can't go and cause riots, we can't act as a vanguard and go round and lead this that and the other struggle.
When you mention riots, the popular papers seem to have this image that it is all caused by outside agitators, like the famous man in the balaclava helmet who was supposed to have started three riots in one weekend in completely different parts of the country. Just as a simple matter of clearing up facts, could you tell us whether any member of Class War at any time had played any part in starting any riot?
JANET: That's clearly the nicest thing for the media to believe, isn't it? It's less threatening than the idea of a load of people spontaneously rioting. Class. War has always supported what has happened, whilst being critical of some aspects of what has taken place on riots, for example, rapes and muggings and things like that. We are very critical of that and think it's very important not to get carried away in the adrenalin of the moment, and to remember the less positive aspects of the riots, and to try to deal with that as well and to influence that.
If there were to be a fundamental change in the social system, how would you like to see things organised? Could you, for instance, give us an idea of how you would like to see something like healthcare operating in a completely free society? [This question caused some confusion and there was a lengthy pause and a couple of false starts before it was answered].
IAN: You can't draw up plans for the anarchist utopia. When it comes to the working class changing society then in all previous upheavals they have proved them-selves totally capable of creating new forms of organising things. I don't think it's our job to come up with blueprints, I think it would be a total waste of time.
You don't think that one of the reasons why the Trotskyists are more successful at organising than we are might be that they give people clear ideas about the sort of changes they are looking for?
IAN: I don't think that's true. I don't think they are any more worked out than us, and some of the blueprints we do produce are just a joke. I remember a Solidarity pamphlet called Workers' Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society2 where there were lots of little diagrams and arrows going round showing how this assembly would elect people to that assembly. That was just worthless.
JANET: Nevertheless we do have some ideas about health. We would like to see it run by the people who actually work in it, but also it would actually involve the patients and potential patients, who would have a say in it. I would want to see a totally different approach to preventative health care, and a system where a patient got a say in what was happening and there was much more co-operation between the people who have the misfortune to be patients and those who are working to cure them, which is sadly missing from the health service at the moment.
IAN: What we have got to after is concrete solutions to people's problems now. I'm really fed up with reading that in an anarchist society there won't be any crime. Even if that is true, what good is it to someone living up an estate when they get mugged? Let's face it, who wouldn't believe in anarchy? It's like heaven on earth. I also believe in sunshine every day, and everyone would put their hand up in agreement, but so what? We need to be more practical.
Your latest project is the Class War single3
, which I'm told is heading up the independent record chart. At the risk of giving your dubious musical efforts a plug, could you explain what the idea is behind this?
JANET: We think that we should use lots of different means of communi¬cation and be more imaginative, so we're interested in using any means: records, videos, holograms, anything which will get our politics across.
JOHN: We also wanted to prove that if you put an anarchist record out it doesn’t have to be a hundred mile an hour punk thrash.
Is there anything you’d like to add in order to make your own brand of anarchism clearer to people?
JANET: One thing which I think is important to say is that although Class War is an anarchist organisation, not everyone in the federation is an anarchist. Some people view themselves as libertarian socialists and we come from a lot of different backgrounds.
Finally, could you clear up one confusion. A lot of the popular press writes of you as if you were terrorists. Do you actually believe that terrorism can be a useful tactic?
IAN: So far as I'm concerned, terrorism is a form of arrogance. It's usually carried out by people who want to act on behalf of the working class rather than work with them.
EDITORS' NOTE: The views expressed here are, of course, those of members of Class War, and not Solidarity's. Nevertheless, Solidarity publishes them as part of its longstanding policy of attempting to provide reliable information on subjects which the rest of the Left either ignores or distorts. Unlike virtually every other report on the activities of Class War, we have made every effort to ensure that this interview accurately reflects the views of members of this group, and both transcripts have been checked for errors by the people spoken to. Class War asked us to print their address, which is PO Box 467, London E5 8BE.