Mark S. Tey - The Ends of Class War

A review article about the "final" issue 73 of Class War and related strands of the UK Anarchist movement in the late 1990s.

Originally appeared in issue 4 of Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration (Newcastle, 1998)

Class War, Number 73 (1997)
available from P.O. Box 3241, Saltley, Birmingham B8 3DP, England

Animal: The Voice of Unrepentant Class War, Number 1 (1997)
available from P.O. Box 467, London, E8 3QX, England

Beyond Resistance: A Revolutionary Manifesto for the Millennium by the Anarchist Communist Federation, 1996, London, Anarchist Communist Federation
available from ACF, c/o 84b Whitechapel High Street, London, El 7QX, England

The Class War Federation was the most provocative intervention in British revolutionary politics in the 1980s and early 1990s. It represented an attempt to ditch the elitist, arrogantly aloof, quasi-academic discourse that has come to dominate revolutionary groups in the mid-late twentieth century. It tried to forge a popular, accessible, autonomist agenda. And it did this, at least in part, by parodying the reactionary nature of the British popular press by producing a tabloid style of revolutionary activity; a 'lowest common denominator' form of radicalism. As Ian Bone, one of the founders the group, writes in Animal:

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In the early clays Class War was often called a 'comic' by its detractors on the left. We didn't mind. We would stand next to the lefty paper sellers shouting 'get your gutter rag fuckin' stupid anarchist comic here' and the punters would queue up - we had the product they wanted, the lefties didn't. (p.7)

Other revolutionary groups never quite 'got it' about Class War. They continue to regard them as idiots, lacking a theoretical base. Perhaps, as these same groups slowly die away, slowly see their membership and influence dwindle even further, a few of their members might wonder if, just perhaps, they might have something to learn from a band of 50 or so activists (and 150 active supporters) who managed to breath a bit of energy, a bit of righteous anger, into the notion of left libertarian revolt. And who, incidentally, managed a circulation of 15,000 for their newspaper, when most revolutionary groups can't even give their rags away. I hope so. But I'm not optimistic. The revolutionary left just doesn't seem well equipped to cope with the late twentieth century, let alone the new millennium.

In this review I'm going to look at the 'last ever' issue of Class War. For in 1997 the Federation broke up. As it says on the cover 'Class War is Dead ... Long Live the Class War'. This is an unusual issue of the newspaper, and not just because it was supposed to be the final one. For it breaks with tradition and provides, not a tabloid type of analysis, but a clear and relatively sophisticated set of articles. Out go the photographs of 'hospitalised coppers', the gleeful stories of ruling class types getting run over or contracting cancer, and in comes lengthy analyses of just what went wrong with the Class War Federation. This is the other distinguishing aspect of this issue. For, unlike anything I've yet to see from the Socialist Workers Party, Revolutionary Communist Party etc etc., it attempts to provide an honest and fully public critique of the imperfections of its own activism. The SWP, RCP etc etc would never dare such candour, which is one of the reasons why no one trusts them.

Animal represents the 'unrepentant' Class War and it, and some of London Class War, evidently wants no truck with their former comrade's bout of navel gazing. But I'll come to them later.

Class War posed and responded to the most important question in revolutionary libertarian politics: how can revolution avoid elitism and vanguardism and become a popular, flexible and democratic process? The problem is that there are many `popular' cultures, of various political complexions. Unfortunately, Class War never really undertook any type of analysis on the nature and different constituencies of any of them. Despite this, they went ahead and mined away furiously at one of the most problematic of cultural stereotypes, namely the working-class hard man. He ruled their pages, he laughed at their jokes. The crowds of rowdies at English football matches, and the general preparedness of some working class young men to have a go at the police and every other figure of authority, seemed to convince Class War that this was the most rebellious, and potentially radical, element of the working class. As the last issue of their newspaper virtually admits, this assessment was hopelessly narrow and, in large measure, down right wrong.

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Class War is overburdened with baggage from the past: the myths, the lies, the illusions, the fantasies have all become millstones around our necks ... On occasion the paper has become a parody of itself and Class Warriors have tended to fetishize violence. Worse, this has led to us under-emphasising struggles that didn't involve violence. ... On many occasions Class War's macho approach has in turn alienated many people, especially women. (pp.4-5)

Another group Class War didn't attract was people racialized as 'non-White'. "Class War is, and always has been, an almost exclusively white organisation ... we have tried many times to put it right but always with a lack of success" (p.5). The latter 'failure' bothers a lot of revolutionary groups, mainly because they see in the African British led urban riots of the 1980s evidence of a militant and combative section of the working class. They imagine that black communities are the front-line of revolution. Class War attempted to translate this supposed militancy into the culture, the language, of white working class males: to say to them, 'don't just kick each other in at football matches, be like the blacks, and kick the police'.

There are two mis-readings inherent in this approach, one about Britain's 'black communities', the other about 'the working class'. I'll deal with the former first. Black people in Europe and North America are burdened with expectations of radicalism: they are supposed to be heroes of resistance, perpetually taking on the forces of oppression. They are the political fantasy objects of white and black radical intellectuals par excellence. Truth to tell, however, these communities, at least in Europe, are neither incredibly politicised nor radical. Like an awful lot of communities of recent migrant origin, they mostly just want to make a decent living for themselves, to get a decent education for their kids and get ahead. The last thing most British African or British Asian people want is trouble with the police. The fact that the authorities give them trouble, and the fact that British society is a racist one, has prompted periodic bouts of fighting back. But, relative to the provocation, these bouts have been pretty tame affairs. The secret history of Britain's black communities is that they put up with an awful lot, they ignore a lot of insults, and they potter along, not particularly radical, not particularly combative.

As to the second misreading identified above, we have to ask first what Class War meant by 'working class'? Again we are dealing with the stuff of fantasy. I accept that most Class War activists were working class, and that this distinguished them from members of certain other revolutionary groups. However, their movement's image of what 'working classness' looks like has all the hall-marks of bourgeois delirium. Think of those Victorian books about the awful, uncivilised, metropolitan masses. In Darkest England and the Way Out (1976, p.145, first published 1890) William Booth mirrored the middle class's fears and covert desires. Within a "stone's throw of our cathedrals and palaces" exist:

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similar horrors to those Stanley found in the great Equatorial forest ... The two tribes of savages, the human baboon and the handsome dwarf, who will not speak lest it impede him in his task, may be accepted as the two varieties who are continuously present with us — the vicious, lazy lout and the toiling slave.

In How the Poor Live George Sims (1976, pp.64-65, first published 1883) drew the same colonial parallel. There is, he gushed, "a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office ... the wild races who inhabit it will, I trust, gain public sympathy as easily as [other] savage tribes". Such tales of depravity and violence thrilled the nineteenth century middle class, even to the extent that tourist packages were arranged to London's East End and other horror spots.

It is precisely this image of the working class, disseminated through the years and down the class scale, that Class War bought into. In other words Class Warriors sustained an anti-working class myth. They spoke of the working class as 'up for it' (i.e. violent), as holding education in contempt, as a dangerous rabble. Such images are both wide of the mark and offensive. The fact that so many working class people believe such things about themselves is one of the surest signs of working class defeat; it shows that working class people can no longer sustain an autonomous cultural and political image of themselves, that they live off the ideological scraps tossed down from the tables of the rich.

For Marx and his followers, it was not working class 'wildness' that was revolutionary but their discipline. Victorian Marxists despised the lumpenproletariat as reactionary, whilst heralding the 'labour aristocracy' as the heirs to a new communist society. Such contempt for what would today be called the underclass seems unjustified today. But at least it showed a grasp on the fact that it isn't the aggression of the working class that makes them a radical force but their ability to act autonomously, to develop a coherent, inclusive and nurturing culture. And it is precisely those elements who subvert that culture, who attack the working class from within, that are the most hated, and most feared, individuals within working class areas.

It is the thieves and vandals, the drunk thugs scaring people out of their wits, who personify 'decline' in the eyes of most working class people. It is these 'rowdies', these wild folk, who represent the front-line, the first forces of attack, not against the state, but against working class people themselves; breaking-up formerly socialist communities and leaving them at the mercy of capitalist development. The police may not be liked. But, for the most part, it isn't the police who trash people's neighbourhoods and steal their stuff.

Class War, it must be said, did launch a variety of ad-hoc schemes designed to isolate and attack 'anti-social' thugs. But these were marginal affairs, and remained undeveloped within the Federation. 'No burglars, no muggers' strikers appeared in most British cities. However, they were often mistaken for the work of neo-Nazi groups, groups who have tried to racialize the issue of anti-social behaviour. Such neo-Nazi stupidities should have been met head-on by Class War, and the whole issue of enabling sustainable and caring working class communities placed at the centre of their project. That it wasn't takes us back to the heart of the matter of who Class War spoke of, to and for when it talked about the working class. More specifically, it tells us that they didn't talk of, to or for women and old people. One of the articles in the last Class War makes, what in the context of the group's past coverage, is a devastating admission:

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In 1987 a Brixton women wrote to Class War questioning our coverage of the Brixton riots. She said that living in a police no-go area had ended not in Utopia, but in women suffering intimidation, physical and sexual abuse ... a lot of women who agree with Class War's aims and principles, think the organisation is too Boy's Own to become involved in. (p.13)

Now women and the aged do not spend their time cowering in their homes surrounded by young male demons. They do, however, have to put up with a lot of shit, from all quarters. And because of this they often have a lot to say about how and why their communities could be made into more integrated, more sustainable places; places where solidarity, rather than mutual loathing, can start developing again. Of course you'll find the usual racist, reactionary twaddle. But, in my experience, you'll also find a lot of revolutionary feeling. The fact is that most working class women and old people are more politically 'up for it' than Class War ever understood.

Young men stomp around, make a lot of noise, but so what? It is women and the old who are keeping things going in Britain's run-down inner-cities, who give children the time of day, who have some vestige of respect for their environment. It is these two sections of the working class that form the most potentially explosive core of liberation revolt. As for young men, which includes 90% of self-styled revolutionaries, they need to stop ignoring these groups and start learning from them.

In fact, on the evidence of the last issue of their newspaper, Class War don't seer to know how to move forward at all. After years of telling us that only the working class matter and that we're on for a revolution they unceremoniously dump both conceits:

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is it possible to make a revolution in which only working class people participate? Is it possible to create a purely working class organisation? We suspect that it isn't. After all, how do you determine who is allowed to get involved? Do you have a class-based means test or is it down to intuition. (p.6)

Oh, well, there goes class, and here comes revolution...

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we have to be clear about things and say the unsayable: revolution is not on the agenda at the present time. (p.6)

And then there's Class War's famous 'action not words' anti-intellectualism...

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A 'kick it till it breaks', anti-intellectual, anti-theory mentality has been prevalent within the organisation. This has been an obstacle ... we have been unable to respond to the upsurge in environmental/anti-roads activism or the rave/free party 'counter-culture' that partly overlaps with it. The 'anti-intellectual' culture within the Federation has stifled real political debate and left us mouthing the same slogans as ten years ago. (p.8)

I just hope this general clear out doesn't undermine Class War's — or whatever group emerges out of it - attempts to engage in popular culture. As I've explained I think their engagement was muddled but at least it was a serious and exciting one, which is more than you can say for the rest of the left. As they note, rightly, "if you get a kick out of the mess we're in, then the jokes on you — it's on all of us" (p.9). The remnants of Class War aim to carry out a sort of consultation exercise in order to think through what to do next. Revolutionaries will wish them well. The 'last' issue of their newspaper is already a land-mark document. It declares that the revolutionary left is fucked and provides hope for its renewal.

The same cannot be said for Animal or the Anarchist Communist Federation's (ACF) new 'revolutionary manifesto'. I haven't too much to say about the latter. I include it here because the ACF have come to acquire the status of the most 'sorted', most coherent, of Britain's left libertarian groups. Perhaps they acquired this reputation through the extraordinary dullness of their periodical Organise. There certainly isn't much evidence of penetrating analysis in their booklet Beyond Resistance, which promises "suggestions about what the alternative, anarchist communist society could be like". Of course as anarchists the ACF would rather 'not dictate' the outcomes of revolutionary change. They just want to make it happen. Well `not dictating' is one thing. Not giving anyone a bleeding clue is quite another. Anarchists, famously, tediously, confuse the two. It is both a self-aggrandising and a self-defeating strategy: it guarantees an abundance of radical rhetoric and a minimum of concrete political achievement. The ACF's response to what is a basic and structural flaw in anarchism is to go in for vague post-revolutionary predictions mixed with specific proposals on what, I guess, are presumed to be non-controversial issues. This very vague thing might happen, this very vague thing might be nice, and everyone one will have a big garden...

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it is not for us to determine now exactly what our world will look like. However, agriculture will of course play a major part ... Some of us will still desire to live in larger social centres, but in the heart of towns there will be no offices and shops but perhaps communal meeting places, open green spaces for leisure and congregation, gardens and orchards, or whatever we choose and need (p.15)

I'm sorry, call me crazy, but I'm not prepared to destroy an existing, highly complex and inter-dependent, economic arrangement, however unfair, on the promise of an orchard and a communal meeting place. There are plenty of real, practical, examples out there of how we can develop non-capitalist organisations — collectives, autonomous activities of various kinds. I'd suggest that if the ACF want to offer any more 'suggestions' about what an `alternative' `society could be like' that they study existing attempts to organise outside the capitalist economy.

As the 'unrepentant' voice of Class War one might expect Animal to offer vintage, anti-intellectual, bash-the rich, material. In fact it has a rather wounded tone. It wants to legitimise the Boneist tradition (i.e., Ian Bone's camp within Class War, which the last issues of Class War have sought to distance themselves from) of `up and at 'em' politics. But Animal, nevertheless, contains, what will appear to readers new to the whole Class War saga, a rather odd mixture of rants, self-justification and obscure theory (with an article on the significance of Hegelian dialectics!). It is, of course, Ian Bone's piece that will attract most attention. He launches a defence of old-style Class War in the guise of a defence of stuntism, i.e. the organisation of public disruptions, such as Bash the Rich marches.

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The serious tendency [in Class War] determined that the battle against stuntism was to be a battle for the soul of the organisation ... Having rejected stuntism the serious tendency mutated into the 'DO NOTHING' tendency - the two went hand in hand since if you were a serious revolutionary then kicking rich people in the street without any analysis was only a stunt. (pp.7-8)

Bone derides the `anti-stuntist' group as coming up with "some tired Rainbow coalition ideas which even Jesse Jackson gave up on years ago" (p.8). He also notes that stuntist politics worked, that it brought people into Class War, that it upset the enemy. Yet Bone's musings on stuntism and anti-stuntism miss the point. If you read the last issue of Class War stunts aren't presented as a issue.

Bone may be right about the personal animosity towards him within the group. But, for an outsider, this isn't of interest. What is of interest is that the revisionist Class War Federation have produced an analysis of their own practice that dares to push revolutionary politics into a new space. This new politics may or may not be stuntist but, with a bit of luck, it will be open to, and engaged with, the most radical sections of the working class not just the most physically aggressive.

REFERENCES

BOOTH, W. (1976) 'Why darkest England?', in P. KEATING (ed) Into Unknown England, 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers Manchester, Manchester University Press,

SIMS, G. (1976) 'The dark side of life', in P. KEATING (ed) Into Unknown England, 1866-1913: Selections from the Social Explorers Manchester, Manchester University Press,

P.S. The Animal tendency has joined 'Continuation Class War' to relaunch Class War (available from the Animal address), whilst the `stickies' have published Smash Hits: A Discussion Bulletin for Revolutionary Ideas, available from BM Box 5538, London WC1N 3XX

Posted By

Fozzie
Aug 27 2018 10:06

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