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.)
Reply to Animal's Reply
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' strike...no 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 19852 ).
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.3
* * *
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.4 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.5 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'.6 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 others7 - 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
- 1Obviously this can't be misunderstood as support for the dominance of conspiratorial politics. But you use the tactics most appropriate to achieving the goal.
- 2Libcom note: https://libcom.org/article/anarchism-exposed-red-menace
- 3"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).
- 4Ironically, 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).
- 5In 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.
- 6The 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?)
- 7The decline of the Left as well as in numbers of people voting are evidence of this.