Unfinished business - review by Subversion

A photograph of the book Unfinished Business

Class War Federation's book Unfinished business - the politics of Class War, is reviewed by the Subversion group which points out several important flaws, including on class and nationalism.

Submitted by Steven. on January 4, 2010

This long awaited book represents a serious and welcome attempt by the Class War Federation to sort out its own politics and present them to the working class in a clear and comprehensible language.

Subversion shares some important areas of political agreement with Class War which are hammered home in this publication. In Summary these are:-

1. A clear rejection of ‘reformism’ as a way forward for the working class and a commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and its state.

2. A recognition that the overthrow of capitalism means the complete abolition of the wages system, money and the market in all their forms.

3. Rejection of the ‘old labour movement’ as represented by the Labour Party and the trade unions and a commitment to independent working class struggle.

4. The need to combat racism and sexism within the context of the class struggle.

They also reject, as we do, Leninist views on revolutionary organisation. Whilst they continue to use the term ‘federalism’ to describe their approach to organisation, they clearly do not mean by this the kind of ‘every idea or tactic is of equal value’ and ‘every individual or group can go its own way’ approach of traditional anarchism.

Having said this there are some important weaknesses in the book which are very much hangovers from traditional left wing politics and in particular, anarchism. Firstly, their analysis of capitalist class structures is very confused. They attempt an amalgam of ‘Marxist’ and anarchist definitions of class, relating this to ‘wealth or property’ ownership on the one hand and ‘social power’ on the other, rather than a straightforward ‘relationship to the means of production’ definition which we would use.

We wouldn’t disagree with them when they say that capitalism is basically divided into three classes; the capitalist or ruling class; the middle class; and the working class. But their estimate of the size and importance of the ‘middle class’ is completely mistaken and their examples of who make up these classes reveals the muddle they’ve got themselves into. For instance, they say that rank and file soldiers are working class but rank and file policemen are not! Despite both being part of the state apparatus of repression. This distinction sees them reverting to an ideological rather than a material definition of class. They classify people like teachers and doctors as middle class but go on to say that in a ‘revolutionary’ period a large section of the ‘middle class’ will come over to the working class side, whilst sections of the working class will side with the capitalists. But if teachers and their like have distinctive and opposing class interests to the workers, why should they? They also imply that ‘peasants’, i.e. small agricultural landowners, could be considered working class, whilst small business owners are clearly middle class! What Class War have failed to do is make a materialist analysis of the way capitalism has developed over the last 150 years and how this has affected its class structure.

Modern capitalism is based on a complex division of labour on an international scale. Putting it very simply, commodities are no longer produced in factories and surplus value extracted from individual factory workers, but are the social product of the ‘collective worker’ as represented by factory, transport, communication, educational, health, housing and other workers. For example, whereas teachers in the early days of capitalism were for all practical purposes ‘outside ‘ the production process and for all their low pay, ‘middle class’ today we have a mass education industry fully integrated into the production process, with teachers playing their part in the creation of the social product of capitalism. Most teachers have become working class. This isn’t to deny that the role of teachers inclines them to conservatism and places obstacles to their becoming class conscious. But this equally apply to other sections of the working class. It does mean that there is a material basis for teachers and other similar groups of workers to be drawn into the advancing class struggle when it reaches a certain pitch. Even today it is fair to say that there were probably more teachers actively involved in supporting the last British miners’ strike than there were ‘working class’ soldiers!

There is certainly more chance of teachers and other ‘professional’ workers becoming involved in a revolutionary struggle or the overthrow of capitalism than there is the remnants of the peasantry or small time business people and others of the traditional middle class which still survives.

The important point for us is the relationship of people to the means of production. Thus many doctors running their own business might be ‘middle class’ whereas others fully employed in the NHS could more reasonable be considered working class. As Class War themselves say, there are many grey areas and it is certainly true to say that there is much more class mobility amongst some sections of the (mainly better paid) working class than others. The potential for upward mobility may detrimentally effect the ideology of some sectors of the working class, it doesn’t alter their objective class position at any given time.

A radical, militant and collective working class movement may well develop initially amongst the traditional working class - i.e. average manual and office workers. A recognition of this is important to our political strategy. It will only successfully go on to challenge capitalism if it draws in firstly the unemployed and then the rest of the modern working class. We can’t expect more than a handful of genuinely ‘middle class’ people to become committed to the movement precisely because they have got more to lose than gain in the immediate situation.

Secondly, Class War have an extremely ambivalent attitude towards nationalism.

On the one hand they state correctly that ‘Nationalism is one of the ways of keeping the working class divided’, but then they say, ‘....in the face of often brutal oppression nationalism gives working class people something. That "something" is identity, pride, a feeling of community and solidarity....’

We would say it gives the working class a false sense of pride, a false identity and a false sense of community and solidarity.

We do recognise, as Class War say, that in places like Northern Ireland many of the struggles engaged in by the Catholic working class are not purely nationalist. But our job is to clearly split the nationalist from the class elements, both theoretically and practically, not fudge the two as Class War does.

Sadly, even the strengths of this book are not consistently carried through in the practice of the Class War group. This is shown starkly in their confused approach to the trade unions. One of their very few members to talk and write regularly about workplace struggle is Dave Douglass, but despite some interesting insights into aspects of this struggle he still promotes an outdated ‘rank and falsetto’ approach which ends up defending the Trade Unions. (See the interesting Wildcat pamphlet "Outside and Against the Unions" for a criticism of his views.)

As worrying, is the ‘idealist’ tendency in Class War which sees many of their members worn out in an endless search for the ‘right formula’ that will get their ideas across to the working class. This was particularly evident at their final "Communities of Resistance" Rally in London where any critical discussion was deliberately squashed, with instant appeals for us to ‘get stuck in’ and ‘do something’ only to be told by Class War at the end that their idea of doing something was yet another typical lefty "Day of Action" stunt.

These are not by any means our only criticisms of this book of the Class War group, but we’ll leave it at that for now.

Text from www.prole.info

Libcom note: Two letters about this review and an editorial reply were published in the next issue of Subversion.