9. A Balance Sheet

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

9 A Balance Sheet

After the Second World War the anti-parliamentary communist groups entered a period of decline from which they would not recover - although the ideas they had propagated survived to be taken up by a later generation of revolutionaries.' Towards the end of the war a split developed amongst the Glasgow Anarchists over their relations with the War Commentary group in London. One faction began publishing a paper called Direct Action, focusing mainly on workplace struggles to compensate for War Commentary's alleged lack of industrial coverage. Here the anarcho-syndicalist strand which had always been present within the Glasgow Anarchist Federation came to the tore. A second, less active group formed around Frank Leech, Jimmy Raeside and Eddie Shaw. These were the 'anarchist working men', mentioned in George Woodcock's history of anarchism, that Woodcock describes as regarding the individualist anarchist Max Stirner's The Ego And His Own (1845) as 'still a belated gospel'.2 This group was apparently held together by Shaw and consequently fell apart when he emigrated. Frank Leech died in January 1953.

The old guard of the United Socialist Movement - Jane Patrick, Ethel MacDonald, Guy Aldred and John Caldwell - continued to publish the Word. Between 1946 and 1962 Aldred stood for Parliament in four Glasgow constituencies - Bridgeton, Camlachie, Central (twice) and Woodside - never collecting more than the meagre handfuls of votes that he had picked up in his earlier electoral efforts. John Caldwell says of Aldred during this period: 'the ranks were thinning around him. The old Anarchists and "antis" were fading from the scene.'4 After Aldred's death in October 1963, Caldwell took over as editor of the Word until it finally ceased to appear in 1965. The Workers' Open Forum - into whose activities the Solidarity group dissolved itself at the end of the war - continued to provide a common meeting ground on a regular basis in Glasgow well into the late 1950s. Willie McDougall, a leavening influence in many initiatives such as the Open Forum, remained an active communist until his death at the age of 87 in 1981.5

John Caldwell's comment on the disappearance of the Workers' Open Forum - 'the end of the period of proletarian meetings in austere halls of wooden benches and bare floors'6 - captures the

feeling of the vanishing era in which the anti-parliamentary communists had been active. The art of open-air speaking - the street-corner oratory upheld as an alternative to sending men and women to Parliament - died in the increasing roar of motorised traffic. Traditional speaking pitches were bulldozed away by the redevelopment of inner city areas. Audiences disappeared through the dispersal of working-class communities to new, suburban housing schemes and through the trend toward atomised forms of entertainment such as television. These changes were all manifestations of the post-war economic boom, when steadily rising standards of living, low unemployment, wider provision of social welfare and confident promises of a permanently crisis-free capitalism all seemed to make a nonsense of the anti-parliamentarians' earlier references to the irreversible decay and impending bankruptcy of the capitalist system.

Surveying the activities and achievements of the anti-parliamentary communist groups during 1917-45, it is obvious that their worth cannot be assessed according to their numerical support or influence within the working class. In these terms the anti-parliamentary communists had precious little to show for all their tireless efforts. Rather, it was in terms of helping to sustain a genuinely revolutionary tradition in Britain that the anti-parliamentarians made an enormous and invaluable contribution.

During the inter-war years only the anti-parliamentary communist groups and a tiny handful of others kept alive a vision of an authentic alternative to capitalism. In the anti-parliamentarians' conception of socialism/communism, the wealth of society would no longer be owned and controlled by a self-interested minority of the population, but would become the common possession of all the world's inhabitants. The slavery of wage labour, and its relentless toll on the physical and mental well-being of those forced to depend on it, would be replaced by the voluntary co-operation of free and equal individuals engaged in enjoyable productive activity, in which the boundaries between work and play would disappear. The subordination of human needs to the dictates of production for profit via the market, and the domination of every area of human activity by money and exchange relationships, would give way to production for the satisfaction of every individual's freely-chosen needs and desires, and unrestricted access for all to the use and enjoyment of abundant quantities of wealth. Class-divided society and the system of competitive national blocs, with their necessary attendant apparatus of armed forces, frontiers, police, courts, prisons and so on, would give way to a harmonious, classless world community of liberated men and women.

Who else besides the anti-parliamentary communists was putting forward such a vision of emancipation? Certainly not the organisations popularly associated with socialism/communism: the Labour Party striving to demonstrate that it could manage capitalism more effectively and more responsibly than its Conservative opponents, and the Communist Party tying itself in knots in its role as apologist for every political twist and turn made by the despicably anti-working class Russian regime!

The anti-parliamentary communists not only promoted a goal worth fighting for; by constantly stressing that the overthrow of capitalism could only come about through the actions of a majority of class-conscious working-class people organising and leading themselves, they also defended the only method by which this goal could be achieved. The labour movement was dominated by the idea that the instrument of social change would be the conquest of power by a minority of the working class organised in a political party. In this matter the social democratic and Leninist parties differed only in the sense that the former saw this as a peaceful parliamentary process, while the latter laid more emphasis on the violent minority coup. Meanwhile, on every occasion where these parties did win and hold power they did so as oppressors of the working class and as upholders of the very system that they had purported to oppose.

The conclusion drawn by the anti-parliamentarians was that social revolution could no longer be defined in terms of a party taking power. Revolutions could only succeed if the conscious mass of working-class people themselves determined the course of events throughout every phase of the struggle. Working-class people had to begin to organise their struggles by themselves, keeping all initiative in their own hands and organising independently of all organisations or institutions that would defuse, divide or divert the workers' own collective power and consciousness. This could be done through forms of organisation such as mass assemblies open to everyone actively involved in the struggle, and where necessary through the election of mandated and recallable delegates. Eventually such forms of organisation - the Soviets or workers' councils - could be used by working-class people to establish their own power over society, and to reorganise production and distribution on a communist basis.

During a period spanning nearly 30 years, in which occurred such momentous events as two world wars, the Russian revolution, the great economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, it is only to be expected that the anti-parliamentary communists occasionally faltered in their response to some events. The Dreadnought group's proposals for post-revolutionary transitional measures, which they described as communist but which were in fact capitalist; Guy Aldred's reluctance until 1925, for reasons of personal animosity, to believe accounts of Bolshevik persecution of revolutionaries; the way in which the anti-parliamentarians refrained from extending their analysis of Russia as a state capitalist regime back to the period before 1921; the Dreadnought group's confusions over nationalisation; Aldred's flirtation in the 1930s with the Trotskyist idea that Russia was in some way a 'workers' state'; the anti-parliamentary communist groups' support for the capitalist democracy of the Spanish Republic against its fascist opponents at the beginning of the Civil War in 1936; the USM's anti-war alliances during 1939-45 with pacifists. Labour politicians, fascist apologists and religious and racial bigots . . . these are just some of the positions taken up by the anti-parliamentarians which anyone assessing their history would be completely justified in criticising and rejecting. It is a catalogue of errors which should dispel any notion that the anti-parliamentarians were flawless heroes who never put a foot wrong. Nevertheless, the anti-parliamentarians were able to correct many of these mistakes themselves, and even where they did not their errors can still be fruitful if revolutionaries learn from them and do not condemn themselves to repeating them.

It is also to be expected that during the decades since the end of the Second World War some of the anti-parliamentarians' perspectives were called into question by subsequent events. For example, it might appear at first sight that the APCF, which argued that capitalism had entered a period of permanent crisis and decay in which it was unable to grant even the simplest demands of the working class, and that whatever the outcome of the Second World War Western capitalism would evolve towards fascist-type totalitarian forms of political rule, was spectacularly wrong in its predictions.

But what of the expectations of the great majority, who believed that they were fighting a war to end all wars and for a new era of peace, freedom and prosperity? During the 1950s and 1960s it seemed as if these hopes had been fulfilled ... as long as one closed one's eyes to the sight of the rival superpowers armed to the teeth and engaged in endless proxy wars in South East Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, to the growing poverty and destitution in the Third

World, to what was happening in Stalinist Russia and Eastern Europe, to the Western European fascist states in Spain and Portugal, and so on. More than 20 million people were killed in the first 40 years of so-called peace after 1945. The war for which the superpowers are currently preparing could quite easily destroy the whole planet, and all its inhabitants, if it is ever allowed to begin. The so-called freedom enjoyed by striking coalminers in Britain during 1984-5 - consisting of roadblocks, curfews, pass laws, centrally-controlled national riot police, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, political courts and so on - show that when called upon to do so the ruling class has no compunction about letting slip its democratic facade and resorting to naked coercion and violence to defend its rotting system. Increasing state repression, and ultimately war, are the ruling class's only remaining answers to the inexorable economic crisis into which the world has plunged, and to the working class's resistance to the austerity which is being forced upon it. So much for peace, freedom and prosperity.

Every capitalist solution to the world's problems has been tried and has failed. The communism advocated by groups such as the anti-parliamentary communists in Britain during 1917-45 remains the only genuine and as yet untried alternative to the existing system. Faced with the choice of war or revolution, barbarism or communism, it is up to the working-class people of the world to take up the ideas put forward by the anti-parliamentary communists, and destroy capitalism before it destroys us.