Death of a paper tiger: reflections on Class War

Class War's attempt to break out of the anarchist ghetto, which had been dominated by eccentrics and liberal pacifists, has had a profound impact on many anarchists and revolutionaries. In this issue's Intakes we have a piece written in response to the disbanding of Class War which looks at the fundamental problems of Class War's populist approach.

The Class War Federation have recently announced their decision to dissolve themselves. The last issue of their paper (Summer 1997) gives some reasons why and also serves as a post mortem on the history of Class War. This prompted the following reflection by some comrades, which we have included as the Intakes article for this issue. [Note from libcom editors: many members of Class War Federation decided to keep the group going. They still publish the paper, and have active groups, for example]

(Note: although the article dwells on the aspects of Class War we feel need to be most criticized, this is partly to counteract the somewhat self-congratulating boastful attitude that lies alongside the more useful self-critical insights in the final issue of the paper. But we do recognize that some people joined Class War out of a sincere desire to challenge this society and did some good things to further that goal while in Class War. Our point is that the effectiveness of such actions was not determined by their membership in the publicity machine called Class War (except on those occasions when the group orthodoxy became an obstacle to action); their participation was not necessarily any more effective than others trying to achieve the same goals. Organizational loyalties only became relevant in struggles when they become a hindrance and a cause for separation.)

* * *

On the level of appearances, which was always their main form of existence, Class War was essentially a marketing concept of the 80s - a kind of anarcho-Saatchi and Saatchi. Like the Tories under Thatcher, they invented a new way to sell politics to the working class. Thatcherism achieved a crushing victory in the arena of class conflict, and its tactics have been copied by ruling classes across the globe. Politically it has even succeeded in redefining its opposition; Tony Blair's New Labour is only the most obvious example, but we can also see Class War as the bastard child of Thatcherism. At a time when Thatcherite policies were destroying or radically restructuring the industries and communities that had been the strongholds of class struggle (and thereby also destroying the old forms of struggle) Class War responded by publicising themselves as the defenders of the traditional working class values of these communities. This took the form of various kinds of opportunism such as the Bash the Rich marches; media spectacles designed only to publicize the organization and keep its personnel occupied. 1

The Hampstead Bash the Rich march was not allowed into the area and was instead diverted by the cops through the back streets of Camden. It was ironic to see council tenants watching from their balconies as a couple of hundred predominantly anarcho-punk types marched down their streets with a banner proclaiming 'Behold Your Future Executioners'! Publicising a Bash the Rich march in advance is like informing the law beforehand of your intention to hold up a bank. Other opportunisms included their adoption of archaic cockney slang - denouncing swanky toffs etc - the sub-Chas 'n' Dave mockney style betraying the London-centrism of the 'national' paper. Logically, to be really populist, they should have done other regional dialect issues of the paper - perhaps an 'ee by gum' Yorkshire issue or 'De Cluss War' in Jamaican patois to be truly patronising?

Class War's other main stereotype was of the typical proletarian rebel as young, white, living on an estate and swearing a lot; like all organizations looking for a constituency to recruit from and sell to, Class War reduced all the individual and collective diversity of real people down to a convenient lowest common denominator.

Class War always projected an anti-intellectual pose as part of their identikit working class image; in effect this meant being generally anti-theoretical and ahistorical. This denial of an historical perspective led them to define the working class, its interests and consciousness in terms of their most immediate, temporary and shallow manifestations. This was the basis of Class War's adopted tabloid style.

Obsessed with the powerful social influence of the content of the media, and constantly prostituting the organization as a public image, Class War failed to grasp any real understanding of the social function of the media form. Populist journalism was an invention of middle class tabloid hacks which claimed to speak for and represent the working class - but like all media representatives, the real function was to pacify and manipulate. Its intention was to mould working class identity, not merely to reflect it. The desired effect of all populist journalism (of whatever creed) is to suspend critical thought on the part of the reader and to reduce choices of opinion down to a simple duality - good/bad, black/white - through a simplistic representation of reality. Constant repetition of this tends to numb thought and encourage predictable (Pavlovian) responses.

Class War failed to see tabloid populism as an historical trend needing to be ridiculed, but instead took it at its face value and embraced it. As the mass media came to invade daily life more and more, this and other factors combined to close off areas within working class culture where people could find time and space to think, read, reflect, discuss and debate social questions and organize struggle around their needs. There has been a massive and unprecedented decline in class struggle in the UK since its high point in the '70s. A working class under attack and in retreat from Thatcherite monetarism, a more repressive architecture and policing changing the use of public space, new more isolated forms of leisure consumption etc. - all this contributed to a withering of a combative proletarian culture. More than ever before, opinion is no longer created but only received.

We live in the age of the sound-bite, where carefully constructed pre-arranged fragments of words and images are constantly recycled in the media. (The average length of a Party leader's sound-bite in the 1992 election was 18 seconds.) As always, the media is a one way transmission belt from Power to the passive spectator, offering only various impotent false choices. The whole process is a closed circuit, completely stage managed, denying the possibility for collective discussion and development of complex ideas and realities. An historical development of the repression of critical thought or cretinization process - influencing the whole of society - is at work here. With their anti-theoretical attitude, Class War unconsciously became a part of this process.

Class War's anxiety and awkward self-consciousness about using long words, abstract concepts, political terminology etc. was a symptom of the retarding effects of their populism. (It was sometimes implied that being theoretical was 'elitist' or 'middle class' - a patronizing insult to the self-educating efforts of the historical working class movement. This was quite dishonest, as many Class War members had studied for degrees, and many were well read in what they might call 'difficult theory' - the Situationists, left communism, Barrot, Blob and Combustion. etc. The assumption seemed to be that while politicos like them could grasp it and were influenced by it, your mythical average prole couldn't or wouldn't be interested. 2

This retarding influence meant that Class War's analysis and coverage of events was usually quite limited and shallow, avoiding dealing with the real contradictions within the working class; especially the conservative aspects of working class culture, e.g. the internalized and conditioned values, attitudes and practices that are an obstacle to liberation.

'Apart from opportunism, they also embody the other side of practical anarchism, elitism. Witness the weirdly affected tone of articles with titles such as "Why I hate the rich", written as though throughout our lives we only experience poverty because we are bossed about and because we have less money than the rich. There is no doubt that readers off Class War are supposed to be recruited opportunistically. The perfect reaction would be for Joe Worker or Joan Housewife to say, "Class War is the only paper which really puts the verbal boot in against the rich in real working class language; they really know the business."' (Anarchism Exposed, London, 1985). 3

Underlying this populism were certain patronizing assumptions about what the 'average prole' was capable of comprehending and what projected image of Class War would make them most popular to the largest number of 'average proles'. While Class War remained on the terrain of wanting to escalate class struggle, their chosen methods only reinforced certain tendencies of existing society. Being basically anarchist, there could be no hierarchical leader figures to worship (although inevitably there was some informal internal hierarchy) but the real star of the show was the media image of the Class War organization itself - and all those associated with it could bask in its reflected glory. This was the source of the boring arrogance often displayed by Class War, along the lines of 'Class War is the bizness and does the bizness.'

For most of the history of the proletarian movement, a demanding critical thought was not seen as alien or elitist. In fact research into the use of union libraries, workers' book collections, radical publishers etc shows that 'deep' theoretical works were often far more widely read amongst sections of the proletariat than the upper classes. Knowledge was something that had to be fought for collectively and did not come cheap to the poor, and was therefore all the more highly valued. Proles were open to theory if it could be seen to be useful and related to their own reality and struggle. There were also many lectures, debates, meetings and workers educational events regularly held; 'it can be estimated on the basis of published speakers' lists in various journals that between 1885 and 1939 there were approximately 100 street corner meetings per week throughout London.' 4 Self-educated artisan/worker theoreticians produced by this international culture include; Weitling, Proudhon, Dietzgen, Bill Haywood, B. Traven, Paul Mattick, Lucy Parsons, Makhno, Arshinov, Jack Common, Fundi the Caribbean Situationist etc.

All this is mentioned not in the interests of romantic nostalgia, but to show how much autonomous working class culture has been repressed, and the consequences of its loss that we have to suffer today. Class War's resort to tabloidism could never be a solution; you could never cure the problem by using the very form that had helped to create it.

The contradiction between Class War's stock-in-trade populism, which was their basis of existence, and the growing need of some members for greater theoretical clarity could not be resolved and ultimately it killed off Class War. The tabloid form, although a dead-weight, could not be abandoned without robbing Class War of its only identity and character. But this form was, by its very design, simplistic and reductive; wholly inadequate for and incompatible with theoretical expression and development.

'Class War's main fault, and it includes all the others, is to be a political organisation as hundreds have existed in the world before, imbued with ideology, unable to look at the past and gain knowledge from it, more concerned with denouncing this society than with searching for its weaknesses and go on the offensive in a considered and coherent manner.' (A view on Class War by a former member, op. cit.)

In any future proletarian social movement channels of direct collective communication will need to reappear as practice; in exactly what forms remains to be seen. Class War's populism pandered to the anti-intellectual/anti-theoretical tradition within British culture; as one of them put it, 'We want action not theory' - a slogan fit only for headless chickens. Many of the criticisms in this article were shared by some of Class War and were voiced internally; but these contradictions were never allowed to surface publicly, so as to preserve a 'sussed' group public image. This is the opposite of what is necessary - rather than the working class itself searching for an adequate theory and practice by confronting openly its own contradictions, instead a political faction attempting to recruit people around a false image of unity which is the result of repressed contradictions. If these criticisms and contradictions are worth mentioning now in the final post mortem issue of the paper, why were they not worth sharing with the readers when Class War was a functioning organization?

At the Anarchist Bookfair in 1985, when Class War were in their ascendancy, intoxicated by media attention and believing their own hype, a Class War celebrity got on stage and drunkenly announced to the assembled anarchoes, 'You pacifists and liberals have had the anarchist movement for long enough - now its our turn. And if we haven't turned this place into rubble within five years then you can have it back'. Well, 12 years on and it's Class War that are in ruins, with little but a collection of fading newspaper cuttings to show for it, while this society carries ruthlessly on. Testimony to the fact that you can't fight alienation with alienated means.

Sept 1997

Dedicated to Julian

  • 1. According to an ex-member: 'Class War isn't based on any practically applicable theory, hasn't any practice to build a theory on and these deficiencies have often been felt during the low activity periods. But instead of discussing these gaps and ways to tackle them, the leadership - aware it has nothing to gain from such debates - prefers loud speeches and has always managed to impose its diversions: at the end of the miners' strike, during which no revolutionary critique of the NUM was published for fear of putting off the miners, the first problem cropped up: what was Class War and what was it to become as it had not much left to go on about? Inspired by its nostalgia for the '81 summer [riots], the leadership took the Bash the Rich Campaign out of the hat - a smoke screen that effectively prevented any profound discussion for over 6 months. This campaign ... failed for the ... simple reason: the proletariat doesn't give a shit for militants nor for these artificial, desperate calls for action.' From 'A view on Class War by a former member' [Julian] Flamethrower, London 1986.
  • 2. 'The separation of "theory" from propaganda stems from an ... elitist motive: get the workers interested on a simple level and "politicise" them on the heavy stuff later.' Refuse, BM Combustion, 1978. The Heavy Stuff was Class War's theoretical journal; it contained some useful articles alongside a lot of vague generalities that often read like someone's rewritten sociology thesis. Articles were submitted by various individual members, but it was never a collective theoretical effort. The Heavy Stuff sank like a stone after a few issues.
  • 3. Class War were always ready to answer attacks from the Left and the media, but valid criticisms from a radical perspective, such as the Flamethrower article or Anarchism Exposed, were met with a deafening silence. To have dealt with these critiques demanded some theoretical self-reflection and discussion that would have threatened the fragile unity of the group, based as it was on an uneasy compromise, and challenged the arrogance of the group with facing its own repressed self doubt.
  • 4. Quoted from Stilled Tongues - From Soapbox to Soundbite, Stephen Coleman, Porcupine Press, 1977.
Death of a paper tiger.pdf2.63 MB

A Reply to Death of a Paper Tiger by Animal

Demanding Critical Thought,
or Still Born Aufheben

This is a reply to "Intakes: Death of a Paper Tiger... Reflections on Class War" found on the Aufheben website on Feb. 21st 2000, but printed in 1997, Autumn no.6, in their magazine.

I chose the title above to reflect antagonism back to and as a political judgement on the state of Aufheben. Their hostility towards Class War was misplaced when in their article (Aufheben No. 4, page 17, summer 1995) about the struggle against the Criminal Justice Act (when Class War was going strong) they say 'Class War were busy selling papers rather than fighting with the police'. The reality of that day for those who were involved in Class War at the time was that several groups were involved in a lot of the main violence in Hyde Park and the looting down Oxford Street. But then when did intellectuals know anything?

Aufheben's method of critique was one of unjustly abstracting and isolating elements of the Class War package in order to criticise. This is not the imminent critique of Marxism (autonomist or otherwise) Nor is it actually aimed at the politics of the organisation. A consistent approach would critique Class War initiatives in the class struggle. The tone of the piece tries to take apart the POPULAR newspaper Class War to point out its supposed failure to grasp the essence of class, an unfair criticism. No newspaper, tabloid or broadsheet could do that, and one Class War never claimed to define. Perhaps we should have produced an 'unpopular' paper to make them happy?

In my judgement 'Intakes' lost the plot so badly that the entire article needs dismantling. It is pain fully obvious that throughout the entire article there was felt a need to denigrate the entire existence of Class War and what it stood for, a hatchet job from the same stables as the right wing media that Aufheben weakly try to analyse. It's really sad that the 'intellectuals' could only selectively find criticisms, and talk about something they never really understood or participated in. Basically the criticisms of Class War were not reciprocally applied. But now, to the article.

'Intakes' make several suppositions which need taking apart. Firstly, when they said "on those occasions when the group orthodoxy became an obstacle to action" they do not give an example or the supposed context. Also, Class War is an organisation notorious for wanting action and organising it which they contradictorily note later on in the article. Basically all the way through their article they misjudge what it was possible to do in particular times and places by the organisation Class War. Getting the political timing right, the right time and place is essential for the political 'moment'.

When 'Intakes' says "On the level of appearances, which was always their main form of existence. Class War was essentially a marketing concept of the '80s" it is asserting rather than proving its point. A fault throughout the entire article, which consisted of a lot of vague assertions and little real proof or analysis (for example there are no examples of the "boring arrogance" Class War is meant to have displayed, nor is there any real evidence of Class Wars' supposed "elitist motive"! So Class War when it organised events and took part in the fighting during industrial disputes and riots is only an appearance? So our question to Aufheben is where did we 'appear', why, and how was it our main form of existence? Then 'Intakes' say any event Class War organised was of various kinds of 'opportunism'. If by 'opportunism' (a phrase which is left unexplained) you mean that Class War as an organisation substituted itself for the working class this is clearly nonsense, but if by 'opportunism' you mean that we reject having to wait until the whole class is ready to act then we're guilty. As working class people we seek to confront oppression whenever we face it. In the context of class struggle, its urgency etc. things have to be done. In this case do all working class people have to digest the complete works of Marx (or Aufheben) before they are deemed fit enough to have conducted any sort of class struggle?

By calling the Bash the Rich Marches media spectacles designed merely to publicise the organisation and keep its personnel occupied Aufhehen miss the point. A Bash the Rich march was and is a good idea at the right time, publicising the organisation and keeping the personnel occupied are the effects of Class War organising a Bash the Rich march. Class War in the face of inertia by all groups on the Left was being radical by doing this, putting it's head above the barricade unlike Aufheben ever. By saying that "Publicising a Bash the Rich march in advance is like informing the law beforehand of your intention to hold up a bank" Aufheben show how completely they have lost the plot. Their ideas really are defeatist logic. So do you think we can organise large events with no publicity? Do you really think you can organise anything effectively without publicising it? So 'revolutionaries' cannot publicise any activities ever because we might fail.

Then when they get onto criticising the use of working class language they reveal their theoretical poverty. By calling for a Yorkshire or patois Class War so that we would have been truly populist is missing the point. Class War was passed on by people with Yorkshire and other accents to similar people. Single copies of Class War would be passed round large working men's and Labour clubs in the North and be understood by scores of people. Aufheben also seem to be painfully unaware of their own contradictions and weak analysis. Another example is where they talk about the "withering of a combative proletarian culture" and then slag off Class War for saying young working class men swear a lot. A real combative working class movement WILL swear a lot (so you'd better get used to it). There is NO contradiction, nor is it patronising, in 'educated' working class people spreading the good word in a working class manner in the streets of Britain.

Because Aufheben never participated in Class War and seldom read it, their only meeting with Class War appears to have been from the media. One of the reasons for the existence of Class War was to provide an antidote to the populist media as 'Intakes' notes. But where the analysis is wrong is where they say the "desired effect of all populist journalism (of whatever creed) is to suspend critical thought on the part of the reader and to reduce choices of opinion down to a simple duality good/bad, black/white through a simplistic representation of reality. Constant repetition of this tends to numb thought and encourage predictable (Pavlovian) responses". This analysis puts the cart before the horse, firstly it implies that people are already capable of critical thought which is gradually closed down (can younger people immediately read well?) and it overlooks the fact that millions of people already don't necessarily believe what's in the papers anyway. Sometimes as well - reality is that simple, to become a class for itself the working class has to have concrete enemies as Marx realised. Therefore the police are always to be laughed at and attacked, the rich are always greedy selfish gits and so on, and Class War did this.

By asserting that Class War was part of the repression of 'critical thought cretinization process' "influencing the whole of society" is just absurd. Class War was at its best in class struggle and encouraged working class people (me included) to realise who its enemies were and what was needed to do was fight back and go on the offensive if possible.

Aufheben seem to be under the illusion that the masses want to read Aufheben, if only they would realise it. It is correct from a working class point of view to state that insisting on reading or promoting theory to people is 'elitist' and 'middle class' at certain times. The working class generally has little formal education and to insist people like this (from prisons for example) can read and understand some articles in Aufheben is ludicrous. I can picture an activist trying to interest my mother in the Aufheben magazine, and she would politely say "take it back to your University where it belongs". Aufheben unjustly abstract the notion of tabloid populism as if there was no working class political content in the Class War newspaper. When of course working class people even today reflect on reading the Class War newspaper in a positive light, e.g. characters from Sunderland South Labour Club.

Aufheben accuse us of dishonesty as well when we produce a popular newspaper because we apparently are denying the proletariat theory when Class War ourselves understand a lot of theory. Aufheben seem to have no concept of learning and assume that everybody is immediately capable of theory from birth. It's obvious to us that when we still have illiteracy, that as recently as the late 1980s 50% of children left school with no qualifications that there has to be @/left material which is easy to read and understand. Class War is seen to separate theory from propaganda by theorists because we realise that building a movement takes all different kinds of people. As if you could street sell copies of Aufheben in the rougher areas of Britain...

Aufheben state with glee that proles really do like theory and used to conduct street meetings by the 100. But street meetings aren't necessarily educational, and when did Aufheben do a street meeting anyway? I could imagine them trying to explain the meaning of the word (Aufheben) to the one bloke who would turn up to a public meeting called "Aufheben" in Easterhouse. And contrary to the left, Class War actually did do street meetings. The street meeting in Gravesend in 1992 had around 100 people gathered to hear Tim Scargill speak and it was monitored by Paul Condon - then head of Kent Police... One in the last year in Glasgow was vibrant and very well attended.

To say we are 'insulting the historical efforts of the working class to educate itself' is just false and middle class bullshit, with no basis in reality. What Class War does is in the same league as Paulo Freire and the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed". The following quotes are taken extensively to give a feel and meaning to our argument, and are taken from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire [Continuum, New York; 1999].

Class War like Freire has worked on the premise that:

every human being, no matter how 'ignorant' or submerged in the 'culture of silence' he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a dialogical encounter with others. Provided with the proper tools for such encounter, the individual can gradually perceive personal and social reality as well as the contradictions in it, become conscious of his or her own perception of that reality, and deal critically with it. In this process, the old. paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome. A peasant can facilitate this process for a neighbour more effectively than a 'teacher' brought in from outside. 'People educate each other through mediation of the world.'

As this happens, the [good] word takes on new power. It is no longer an abstraction or magic but a means by which people discover themselves and their potential as they give names to things around them. As Freire puts it, each individual wins back the right to say his or her own word, to name the world.

When an illiterate peasant participates in this sort of educational experience, he or she comes to a new awareness of self, has a new sense of dignity, and is stirred by a new hope. Time and again, peasants have expressed these discoveries in striking ways after a few hours of class: "I now realise I am a person, an educated person." "We were blind, now our eyes have been opened." "Before tins, words meant nothing to me; now they speak to me and I can make them speak." "Now we will no longer be a dead weight on the cooperative farm." When this happens in the process of learning to read, men and women discover that they are creators of culture, and that all their work can be creative. "I work, and working I transform the world." And as those who have been completely marginalised are so radically transformed, they are no longer willing to be mere objects, responding to changes occurring around them; they are more likely to decide to take upon themselves the struggle to change the structures of society, which until now have served to oppress them." [Introduction pages 14 and 15]

he or she comes to a new awareness of self. a new sense of dignity... "We were blind, now our eyes have been opened." "Before this, words meant nothing to me; now they speak to me and I can make them speak"... This radical self awareness is not only the task of workers in the Third World, but of people in this country as well, including those who in our advanced technological society have been or are being programmed into conformity and thus are part of the 'culture of silence'. [Back page]

Class War has many examples of how it did this, but the best ones were from prisoner work, copies of which are available from the London Class War address for an SAE. Spelling and grammar have been left as they are in the originals, and copies were sent to Aufheben. This is a very small selection from letters in the Class War Prisoners archive of around 600 letters. The prisoners' names have been omitted for security reasons:

"Greetings C.W. First let me congradulate yous for all the Work and Truth That goes into every issue of Class War especially issue 69 September October 19-95 page 4 prisoners of War Special feature The War inside Thanks for everything yous Do for prisoners "Cheers" This prisoner appreciates it and So Do many others Keep up The good Work".
Prisoner 1, HMP Glenochil, Clackmanshire (north of Edinburgh)
Class War issued a number of prisoner membership cards and the membership form is reproduced below.

"I recently read your Dec/Jan 95/96 issue while sitting In this shithole. And I would Just like you to know I thought it was absolutely fucking brilliant. Its hard hitting, funny and most of all its straight to the point truthful. I can honestly say it is the best paper I have ever picked up. I would be very grateful if you could send me more info on what you do!"
HMP Saughton, Edinburgh

Class War; "what do you think of the Class War newspaper?"
Prisoner 2 "it's OK at times, but a littol Soft for my likeing, so to speak!"
HMP Glenochil
[So Class War - dubbed the "Rottweiler of the Left" and an "hate group" - is too soft for prisoners!!?!]

"Today was the day! I've read and seen my first Class War (Queen Muther: Scrounger) excellent, would make a remarkable t-shirt, poster etc. Felt good reading the paper, felt right. Wished I'd of come across it a few years earlier, better late than never".
HMP Whitemoor, Cambridgeshire

"Many thanks for the swift reply... I am from the worst part of Toxteth in Liverpool called the Dingle. I am 35 years old and was an active member of the Toxteth riots which made me politically aware of the power of mass Rebbelion... I was delighted to see the Class War banners in the Poll Tax Riots, as you are truly a broad based group who tries to unite the working classes... And I really want a Class War prisoner ID card as well, as it is something to be proud of."
Her Majesties Prison Woodhill, Milton Keynes

(The author of this piece has visited prisoners in 6 prisons in England and Scotland.)

When Aufheban says Class War avoided dealing with real contradictions within the working class, it is a thing we could direct back at them and ask what has Aufheben done. Furthermore Class War did make attempts to do this, such as articles like "what do we do when the cops fuck off' about working class people looking after ourselves when the cops have been kicked out of our areas after the 1985 riots.

The endpiece of their article was trying to use a quote from a Class War drunk saying that we'll turn the place into rubble in 5 years, well we did. Class War did take part in the Poll Tax riot and many others besides making lots of good propaganda as we went. The brick in one hand and a biro in the other is still a reality today as well. Class War did have a messy split but now we are free of 'repressed contradictions and repressed self doubt' and Class War continues in the progressive working class attitude it always has had. For people who should know the meaning of the phrase "From A Working Class Point Of View" you really should have known better. The task we set ourselves then is the same one as is necessary now - the creation of a combative working class movement which can begin to mould our destiny under no control by intellectual leaders where the raw, brutal and vengeful nature of the beast is released upon its enemies.

The Logic of Marx's Capital - Tony Smith, State University of New York Press. 1990.

Making Histories: Studies in History Writing and Politics edited by R. Johnson, G. McLennan, B. Schwarz and D. Sutton. Especially Chapter 5 - "Reading for the Best Marx: History Writing and Historial Abstraction", University of Minnesota Press. 1982.

Reply to Animal's Reply

The third text in an exchange of views prompted by Aufheben's publishing in 1997 of a critique of the Class War organisation. (For the other texts, see links at end of article.)

As the reply-proper (below) to the Animal reply makes clear, the article 'Death of a Paper Tiger' was not written by Aufheben. 'Intakes' articles in Aufheben are 'guest' articles and so do not go through the normal editorial process (of editing, criticism etc.) but nevertheless are considered useful contributions. For these reasons, we do not necessarily have to agree with everything written in an 'Intakes' article (although such articles usually share basic assumptions with us). We saw nothing we disagreed with in 'Death of a Paper Tiger', and would be quite happy to defend it. However, we thought it more appropriate to get the original author to make the reply himself. Therefore, below, we present a summary describing Aufheben itself, and then the reply to the Animal reply.


The Aufheben magazine is a project initiated by a number of individuals who came together through participation in various struggles in the Brighton area, notably that against the poll tax, in the late '80s early '90s. Feeling a need to develop our ideas and come to terms with the significance of Marx for the revolutionary project we started a reading group reading Capital and the Grundrisse. Partly out of the common understanding developing through this reading, and discussion and through our experience of the class struggle, we decided to produce a magazine.

A central theme for us has been the need for a unity of theory and practice. We opened the editorial in Aufheben (Autumn 1992) with a quote to this effect:

Theoretical criticism and practical overthrow are... inseparable activities, not in any abstract sense but as a concrete and real alteration of the concrete and real world of bourgeois society.
(Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy)

For us this has a fairly straightforward meaning that our struggle against this world as individuals and as a class needs to involve reflection on what we do. Without knowing who actually reads the magazine, we imagined an audience of those who are engaged in struggle and who feel the need to reflect on this process, to think about capitalism and the movement to abolish it. Essentially this means writing for ourselves, about the subjects we think important and at the theoretical level necessary to address them.

The title Aufheben describes for us an important concept/process and one for which there is no adequate English translation. It poses the issue of finding communism not in an abstract negation of this society or as an ideal but as a movement within and against what exists. It also indicates the need to appropriate and go beyond previous theoretical attempts to understand capitalism and the process of its supersession. Finally choosing the title Aufheben was in a sense a confrontation with the anti-theoretical prejudice very prevalent among activists in Britain. Feeling ourselves the need to think about what is going on and what we are doing, we reject this anti-theoretical stance as self-defeating. Nevertheless we can understand it as a reaction against the use of theory by those claiming to represent the proletariat's interests. As has been pointed out, the division of mental and manual labour is the fundamental basis of the capitalist division of labour as a whole, thus of alienation. Those assigned to proletarian labour with little room for mental expression rightly distrust the experts in it. Hence also the correct distrust of academic Marxism. Theory for us is not academic.

We feel influenced by, among other currents, class struggle anarchism, the German and Italian left communists, the situationists, the Italian autonomists, and the non-party-ist French currents influenced but critical of the Italian left. We don't however identify ourselves completely with any particular tradition. If communism is the real movement that abolishes existing conditions then 'theoretical clarification', becoming conscious of what is happening and what needs to happen, is a moment of the process. While some aspects of such 'theory of the proletariat' can be found in these traditions, not all. Also the most valid theory can become ideology if it is held in a rigid and frozen manner. Thus, for example, it seems to us that groups like the situationists did more to recover and make live the contributions of the German/Dutch lefts than did those groups claiming an unbroken heritage with them. There is always something provisional in theoretical clarification - and this would include the ideas expressed in Aufheben articles.

While we, like many before us, have gone 'back to Marx' in order to escape what has been known as 'Marxism' we don't see his writings as having all the answers. However, we do find the critique of political economy an essential reference. Marx did not invent communism but his critique of capitalism, his attempt to reproduce the 'concrete in thought', made a fundamental contribution to the task of the overthrow of capitalism. In particular, we find very helpful the recognition that Marx's work was incomplete, that issues of proletarian subjectivity and of the crisis of capitalist social relations are not dealt with fully in the critique of political economy. We also see some of the failures of Marxism as lying in the failure to recognise this.

The individuals who produce Aufheben are not a group with a membership or interest in recruitment. We have not defined ourselves by a set of 'aims and principles'; probably however we are more coherent in our ideas than most groups who have done so. Indeed it seems to us that the aims and principles of most formal organisations are compromises aimed at repressing and covering up the contradictions and disagreements within those groups. While Aufheben articles are generally written by individuals, there is a collective process of reading, discussion and revision so that the final version is something on which there is general agreement though it may not extend to every last point. (We do also publish articles from outside sources, which we don't subject to the same editorial process.) With our own articles, the individual does not necessarily know what he or she is going to come up with until it is written, then there is the discussion before the final article is agreed. It is largely through this process that Aufheben can be said to develop collective positions. Aufheben's positions then are defined by what appears in it. The magazine speaks for itself.


Publicity of the Organization
and the Organization of Publicity

The ANIMAL remains a paper tiger
In the three years since the 'Paper Tiger' article was written and published, the ANIMAL article is the first written response received. Other reactions varied; from a few ex-CW members in Leeds who said they agreed with most of it but felt I should have been more self-critical; but one of them, who admitted not having read it, said I shouldn't have written a critical article on CW at all. One of them, I think, later wrote a decent piece on CW for Smash Hits which made some similar points to mine. Two other ex-CW people got angry, upset and sulky about it; one tried to slag me off for 'not doing anything' - presumably meaning not going to as many boring political meetings as he does. He also tried to trash the reputation of the long dead ex-CW person I quoted in my piece, all the while avoiding dealing with any of the specific critical points I made. Such people, while accusing others of being 'intellectuals', will become hostile and stop speaking (no great loss) to those who dare to hold opinions different from theirs - revealing how completely ideological and intellectual their relationships with other people really are. One or two more grown up ex-CW people disagreed with the article but were happy to remain on good terms. All a bit of a storm in a teacup really...

So somebody who has bothered to sit down and draft a response deserves the courtesy of a requested reply. Though I have to say that I approach this with little enthusiasm; partly because from the start of their response there are basic errors in understanding the meaning of points made in my article. These misinterpretations could have been avoided by a more careful, less sloppy reading of the text. (I will charitably rule out the possibility of deliberate distortion.)

Most readers have not seen my original article; so ANIMAL's misreadings and distortions will not help them grasp my meaning. Nor will the fact that they have ignored some of my most important points. In my reply I have tried to get a balance between correcting some of their misinterpretations without repeating myself too much. (Those interested can get a copy of my original article from Aufheben.)

* * *

For a start, ANIMAL's whole response is written as if the article is the work of Aufheben - yet this is obviously not true, as it's clearly stated at the top of the page that this is an 'Intake' - coming from outside their group. So all criticism based on the idea that 'Paper Tiger' was written by an intellectual is mistaken; like everyone else I have an intellect that I sometimes use, but that does not make me an intellectual. It's not my job or defining social role. It's not even true that Aufheben are just intellectuals uninvolved in real struggles (but they are quite able to defend themselves and I'll deal with my own criticisms of them further on). But even if it had been written by an 'intellectual' that wouldn't in itself invalidate all criticisms; you can't try to dodge difficult questions by tagging dismissive labels on to those who ask them or assume that CW's supposed working class pedigree always ultimately wins the argument. Which is not to say that intellectuals don't need criticising...

The 'Stillborn' article is written as if only middle class intellectuals would make these kind of criticisms - ignoring the fact that some of them were also made inside CW during its history (but were not allowed to surface publicly).

The ANIMAL reply continually distorts what I actually said in my article; or asks me to defend things I never said. It also asks questions whose answers can easily be found in my original article. Some examples: ANIMAL asks for an example of "occasions when the group orthodoxy became an obstacle to action". Well, one example is given in the first footnote on the first page in the quote from an ex-CW member: "...the leadership ... managed to impose its diversions: at the end of the miners' revolutionary critique of the NUM was published for fear of putting off the miners..." even though there were those in CW who saw the necessity for such a critique. And the Bash the Rich March was another example; a pretended attack preventing a real one occurring. They ask "Do you really think you can organize anything effectively without publicizing it?" Of course you can - if CW really wanted to go into Hampstead and do some bashing they could quite easily have secretly organized it amongst themselves, gone in and done it and disappeared into the night.[1] But instead they organized a big publicity stunt, thereby forewarning the cops and media, and were prevented from even entering Hampstead - as CW must have known would happen. But the real goal of the event was achieved - CW's lifeblood, publicity of the organization and the organization of publicity.

And I didn't "slag off CW for saying young working class men swear a lot". I criticized CW for reducing the diversity of the working class down to a crude stereotype image as part of its recruitment strategy; moral judgements about swearing didn't even come into it.

But the most revealing thing about the ANIMAL reply is that as they try to refine and justify the logic of their position they only expose more of their own contradictions; for instance, while claiming that CW have always encouraged the working class to realise that 'the rich are always greedy selfish gits', CW were always ready to suck up to and praise various soap (Lofty) and pop stars such as Joe Strummer - whose early presence in Notting Hill encouraged the gentrification of the area - as long as CW could gain more publicity from it. The 'Rock Against the Rich' Tour starring the extremely rich bastard Strummer trying to revive both his and CW's flagging career and fading pseudo-rebel image - pathetic. And a recent issue of ANIMAL continues this with an article slavishly praising super rich footballer Eric Cantona, basically because he mouthed a few vague liberal sentiments saying that poverty and inequality are bad. No criticism is made of his extreme wealth and exclusive lifestyle, his advertising appearances (for products of Third World sweatshops) and his readiness to play his part in the star system that reinforces this hierarchical society. Where do CW think these celebrities invest their vast fortunes? In business and trade, meaning investing in the exploitation of the working class. Presumably CW are happy to ignore all this because one of their present campaign bandwagons is for a better deal for all football supporters - and they don't want to alienate potential recruits from the terraces by dissing their heroes. Footballers (along with many other sport and music stars) get much of their influence from the fact that most of them are from working class backgrounds and therefore represent one of the few escape routes to wealth and fame. You can't say anything very meaningful or useful about football (or the rest of culture) without dealing with these kind of contradictions. But CW, so desperate to popularise themselves, are too afraid to criticise what is popular with the sections of the working class they want to recruit from, so instead they opportunistically ignore these contradictions. But by pretending they don't exist they reinforce them... "It's the old con. Present yourselves as allies of what's going on (which means opportunistically refraining from criticising what you know to be its weaknesses), and hope to add your 'political dimension' once you've won confidence and been accepted as knowing the business." (Anarchism Exposed, London 1985).

According to CW, 'if you're not popular you're nothing'. So their politics are always going to be led and defined by the other far stronger forces in society that determine what is immediately popular. Tail-ending the dominant media and cultural forces is not much of a recipe for autonomous class struggle or a radical critique of such forces.[2]

* * *

CW's tabloid populism was a triumph of style over substance and form over content. Creating genuinely subversive relationships amongst even a minority (whether thru writing or whatever activity) is ultimately worth far more than all CW's fleeting moments of media attention and popularity. The theory that has been shown to have any lasting value is not at all that which was immediately the most popular - when times of upheaval arrive this becomes clear. CW seem to think about tabloidism and fame the same way others mistakenly think about Parliament - that it's a neutral form which, if it only had the right people installed in it with the right ideas, then it would cease to have any harmful effect and become beneficial. But the form to a large degree determines the content and traps people in pre-determined, static social relationships. Which leads to CW's simplistic analysis, opportunism etc.

Of course we should try to express ourselves as clearly as possible. But there is a contradiction that has to be dealt with - much of what is known as 'common sense' is the medium or currency for the circulation and expression of the taken-for-granted dominant values of this society. To express the subversive thru language it is sometimes necessary to use words that have retained a clearer meaning thru less use. Everyday language is a terrain largely occupied by the enemy: we tend to speak the language of our masters. (A beautiful example of a counter-tendency to this occurred in the 1992 LA Riot when the rioters coined the phrase 'image looters' to describe the media: a neat reversal of perspective.)

In a world where appearances and the truth of things almost never coincide, theory is necessary to penetrate the lies. This society encourages a fragmented consciousness that craves only immediacy in its consumption (e.g. tabloidism). But a partially understood text that resists complete immediate understanding may not be just unnecessarily dense and wordy. It may be that it has a depth, subtlety and value worth pursuing. And it may grasp and reflect more accurately the real complexities of class society. "I assume of course they will be readers who want to learn something new, who will be prepared to think while they are reading." - Marx on Capital.

* * *

ANIMAL say we are wrong to say that "the desired effect of all populist journalism (of whatever creed) is to suspend critical thought on the part of the reader and to reduce choices of opinion down to a simple duality - good/bad, black/white - through a simplistic representation of reality..." because, according to ANIMAL, "it implies that people are already capable of critical thought which is gradually closed down (can younger people immediately read well?)..." This is more of CW's patronising attitude revealed - why is the ability to think critically automatically identified with being able to already read well? A strangely elitist intellectual view.

CW's idea of theory/critical thought as something separate and external to the working class that they have to learn from reading and more 'educated' people (such as CW of course) is influenced by Paulo Freire, whose book they quote from at length. CW are always ready to throw the accusation of 'intellectual' at those they see as their rivals and critics in the political arena, yet they rarely if ever attack the role of the professional intellectual and their ideas.[3] Freire puts a libertarian gloss on his ideas by saying that educators and educated should work together in creating 'educational projects'; the educators are middle class radicals and/or 'the revolutionary leadership' and the educated the ignorant masses incapable of liberating themselves by their own efforts alone. Freire praises the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and China as fine examples of his theories being practised! (p. 36, p. 75, pp. 145-6 - Penguin 1996 edition). And according to ANIMAL, "what Class War does is in the same league as Paulo Freire", this great friend and defender of these butchers and dictators. Freire, the Stalinists - and apparently CW - all share the belief that they are the necessary bearers of consciousness and knowledge that the working class lacks.[4] The Stalinists and other leftists use this belief as a justification for their leadership and authority over the working class. ANIMAL are using it as a justification for CW's populist style - either way, it's elitist bullshit.

CW seem unaware that throughout their lives people use critical thought to make decisions and form opinions - the schoolkids who turned their school chemistry labs into molotov-cocktail factories during the Hungarian revolution of 1956 didn't need to 'read well' to be 'capable of critical thought' and practice it. Neither did the peasants, mostly illiterate, who created the Mexican Revolution. And the slave revolts? The working class can use various sources critically in the development of its own theory - but it has to be a process located in people's own activity and circumstances. Theory is not a product of intellectuals that can be taken ready-made off the shelf of the ideological supermarket. Nor can theory and consciousness be reduced to verbal and written forms of expression. Acts of solidarity and subversion, writing and discussions, spontaneity and reflection - are all components of the expression and development of theory.

ANIMAL talk about theory as if it is a body of written knowledge that can be learned off by heart and mastered - a typical bourgeois and leftist assumption. This 'theory' is really only ideology - a set of fixed ideas, congealed eternal truths - 'ideas that serve masters' very well as party lines and group orthodoxies.

* * *

The letters from prisoners that ANIMAL quotes from show that CW is doing some useful prisoner support work. ANIMAL preface the letters with the long quote from the Freire book. (The quotes are not actually Freire's words at all, but are from the Foreword by R. Shaull.) They say that CW, like Freire, work on the basis of "dialogical encounters with others" where these others, when provided by CW "with the proper tools for such encounters, the individual can gradually perceive ... reality as well as the contradictions in it, become conscious of his or her own perception of reality, and deal critically with it". A very touching image of CW kindly providing us all 'with the proper tools' for 'becoming conscious'.[5] Bet you weren't so explicitly patronising in your 'dialogical encounters' with the prisoners whose letters you quote.

The letters show that the prisoners are grateful for the help and support that CW provide - and all due respect goes to CW for doing so. But if CW are trying to claim that the letters are examples of how, in a Freire-like fashion, the prisoner 'comes to a new awareness' and how their 'eyes have been opened' due to their contact with CW then this is just unconvincing (and probably gives a worse view of CW's prisoner support work than it deserves). Having read the full letters you sent us, it's clear that the prisoners' hatred of authority, the rich, the system etc. is a result of their real experiences, the struggles they have lived - and are positions they had developed long before they had any 'encounter' with CW. Most other groups doing similar work could produce similar letters. The letters prove only that the prisoners are grateful and see CW as being on their side - nothing else. And there's little evidence of a 'critical dialogue' going on.

It seems odd that CW should choose these letters as supposed evidence of their educating efforts and popularity. After all, prisoners mainly doing long stretches (armed robbers and the like), in isolated conditions whose main form of contact with the outside world is via letter writing - these are hardly the most typical representatives of the working class. But then even in the heyday of its 15 minutes of fame the CW paper was always a bit short of letters from their readers. CW even felt obliged to sometimes make them up - as was admitted in their Internal Bulletin (no. 18, Minutes of delegate meeting). Again, creation of the right image being more important than honesty.

Even in its own terms, the populist strategy has failed. Most of the shrinking CW Fed. were eventually forced to recognise the absurdity of a populism that is less and less popular. The decline and split of CW is a reflection of a double-edged apathy towards politics among the working class; a healthy cynicism towards all the political rackets that claim to represent others[6] - but also a resignation and acceptance of conditions born of the defeats of the past 15 years.

CW could at least be seen as a (voluntaristic) attempt to assert a collective class identity and subjectivity when all such subjectivity is being crushed under the weight of isolation and uniformity being imposed on social relations. (In this sense society is more totalitarian now than ever.) To retain any meaningful subjectivity is to retain a point of view - and the ability to act on it. The old forms of struggle and communication have been outmanoeuvred and the working class have yet to adequately create new ones. The tragedy is that CW have tried to resist these developments by adopting the same methods that created them - marketing of politics, simplistic 'analysis', tabloidism etc. (described in more detail in my original article).

CW constantly compare themselves favourably to the rest of the Left. Yet Militant in the 1980s and early '90s had a far better claim to the popularity, influence and membership among the working class that CW dreamed of and still seek - and their politics were still total crap. Which only goes to show the limits of populism and the appeal of simplistic solutions and mechanical activism.

* * *

As one of those mentioned by ANIMAL belonging to the high percentage of people who left school with no qualifications (and have never gained any since) I can only humbly say to my more educated friends at ANIMAL that it's you who should know better than to think you have any monopoly on 'A Working Class Point Of View'. Mine (and many others) just don't coincide with yours.

ACATAC - Summer 2000
A Class Act to Abolish Classes



[1] Obviously this can't be misunderstood as support for the dominance of conspiratorial politics. But you use the tactics most appropriate to achieving the goal.

[2] "Like the Leftists they are, Class War has recently proposed a strategy of entrism into these [Neighbourhood Watch] para-State bodies. They dream of kicking out the cops from these cop-initiated Neighbourhood Watch Schemes, a vanguardist fantasy doomed to failure but which may help to boost the image of these schemes amongst the poor and confused. Such entrism is an imagined short-cut, a substitute for the harder task of initiating some anti-mugging, anti-cop, anti-heroin, anti-rapist etc. project completely independent of the State. It's about as subversive as the Trots whose delirium leads them to believe the Labour Party can be turned into a Bolshevik party; that the State can be turned into a Workers' State." (Once Upon a Time There was a Place Called Nothing Hill Gate; BM Blob, London 1988).

[3] Ironically, despite their dismissal of Aufheben as intellectuals and detached theorists, ANIMAL/CW seem to share some of their attitudes with regards to intellectuals and academics: both are too uncritical and respectful of academia. Aufheben's best articles are the ones about recent events (e.g. LA Riots) or struggles they've been involved in (anti-roads, anti-workfare etc.) and the worst are the ones where they abstractly theorise about other theories (USSR, Decadence) to no real practical consequence - except, perhaps, to gain some kind of acceptance from a few boring lefty hackademics. The worst articles in Aufheben are only relevant to the academic study of the class struggle - and not to the practice of the real struggle. Which is ironic considering how active the Aufs have been in various struggles (on occasion alongside CW members!)

"The popular element 'feels' but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element 'knows' but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel. The two extremes are therefore pedantry and philistinism on the one hand and blind passion on the other..."
(Gramsci - Prison Notebooks).

[4] In essence, Freire's ideology boils down to replacing the ideological dominance of the present rulers over 'the oppressed' with the ideological dominance of the educated Leninist leadership, with the willing co-operation and participation of the oppressed (Freire, p. 144, op. cit.). The religious overtones of his servant of the people/guide to consciousness role are shown by one of his enthusiastic quotations: "German Guzman says of Camilo Torres: '...he gave everything. At all times he maintained a vital posture of commitment to the people - as a priest, as a Christian, and as a revolutionary.'" (p. 144, footnote). Freire's libertarian brand of Leninism is plain naive; idealising from afar the heavenly Cuban and Chinese regimes and taking their leader's pronouncements as the gospel truth, he believes these regimes are practising his libertarian educational theories. Yet in his descriptions of the misconceived 'libertarian' equality (really a hierarchical benevolence) he seeks to create in his educational projects, Freire describes everything that social relationships are not under the Stalinist regimes. And in 30 years of various reprints of his book, Freire has never felt the need to revise his opinion of Stalinism expressed in it. Maybe Freire lacks a 'dialogical encounter' with himself and the educator needs educating... Freire's ideas are so threatening to the ruling class that he has for four years been funded by those well-known organs of subversion, the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

[5] The quote goes on to say that eventually the paternalistic teacher-student relationship can be overcome - but Freire's theories never doubt the need for professional educational specialist and/or revolutionary leadership in their role as deliverers of consciousness and the tools for it. (Free Brains for the working class, anyone?)

[6] The decline of the Left as well as in numbers of people voting are evidence of this.