Travelling Out of Limbo

First Published: October Review, No. 11, November 1997
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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[MIA note: A commentary on the demise of the English Anarchist organisation, Class War Federation that appeared in the internal newsletter of the RCLB.

Issue 73 of the newspaper Class War was different: gone was the “hospitalised copper” feature, instead a reasoned and self-critical suicide note – Class War Federation was dissolving itself. For an organisation that never had more than about 150 members and for most of the time membership around 50, Class War had a high media profile. Its stunts attracted attention; it glorified violence and shock bourgeois sentiments. CW’s “Mug a Yuppie” campaign, disruption of Henley Regatta, and picnics in Hampstead attracted headlines in the 1980s. With its skull & crossbones motif, use of graphics and anarchist stance “in many respects it’s true to say that Class War failed to become much more than a punk organisation...” Its politics too often seem to be an attitude, a pose in the name of invoking a culture of resistance.

CW did have a sense of fun. No one active on the Left had any illusion that CW was an enormous organisation. It was the newspaper media who swallowed every claim issued by CW, even to attributing the police-induced riot at Welling against anti-BNP marchers to CW planning! At its height, the newspaper Class War was selling 15,000 copies – no mean feat – and it did partly succeed in its original aim: “Class War came into being with the aim of sticking the boot into anarcho-pacifism and lifestyle politics.” CW certainly shook up the cosy fringes of anarchism.

Class War was started in the early 1980s in London, going on to form a national federation in 1985. So why end it? “Because we feel our class needs a far better political perspective than those currently on offer.” This is something of a departure for the CW. Like other radical organisations, they had been dismissive of other forces for change. Of the middle class left, CW argues “Stalinism is dead with the Trotskyists not far behind.” There is some truth in that: the Left Opposition was always defined in relation to the Soviet Union. Its major splits and discussions centred on definitions and approaches to take towards Moscow. Only Trotsky would think it necessary to try to construct an International on the basis of a failed factional dispute in one party. With the destruction of the Soviet empire what is there for Trotskyists to oppose? Revisionism as a political force in Britain is dying on its feet, splintered and ploughing the same furrow of pro-labourism. CW analysis on the state of the Left in Britain is reproduced as the question addressed by CW is an important one: how do we empower the existing struggles, build on them and go on the offensive?

CW decided: we have gone as far as we can. There is no argument with that conclusion. CW was not noted for its concern to link theory and practice – in a real sense apart from its “image” it never had anything to unite its practice with. As CW acknowledges “Activism and taking a morally superior stance might make you feel good but won’t bring about any significant change.” There was an anti-intellectual culture within CW, “defending a rebellious attitude and ’image’, rather than looking at what’s wrong with the world and how best we can intervene to change it.” While its theoretical musing were amusingly entitled “Heavy Stuff” – the thought behind the anger – the anti-Leninist politics that dominated CW did little to address the issues of what kind of organisation could advance the struggle. CW argued for the “re-creation of an independent revolutionary movement within the working class, under the control of no one but themselves, inspired by the best traditions of unity and solidarity.” (Unfinished Business. ...the politics of Class War. AK Press 1992) But as an organisation it shared the defects of the rest of the Left being “too Boy’s Own” to attract many women militants and “too white” and into its alternate lifestyle to attract outside its own social milieu. At its end CW had no creative insights; it maintains criticisms of varying validity about the Left’s uncritical reverence to stifle discussion and antiquated approaches and structures. Left parties acting as if a “second eleven” set up as alternative bureaucrats to lead the workers. The English Left is in suspended animation: they speak without any confidence and the political script remains familiar – rightwing labour leaders in government but where’s the Labour Left to court? CW believes that a “decentralised; diverse and multi-headed opposition” can defeat a highly centralised state. But they cannot give you an example in practice. If the question is what kind of organisation corresponds to the need to change today’s society, then we do need to tease out lessons from the plight that the Left is immersed in. Forget the obligatory knee-jerk reactions: all parties are “Leninist”. Our dominant point of reference is the successful party, the ruling party with Lenin as undisputed leader, steely discipline, polemics against errors flying here and there. It is the mature party, the mass party, a party that led. Perhaps that is not our best point of reference when looking at their party history. The idea of the vanguard party emerged from the period 1903 to 1923. This form did not spring out of a Machiavellian conspiracy by Lenin and like-minded Bolsheviks. It was rooted in the historical circumstances, and proved to be a successful means of organising. Today organisations like the Labour Party are centralised machines that seem far more tolerant to its programmatic enemies than its dissident minorities.

We build revolutionary organisations in different ways in different periods. There is an unevenness in progress in how we organise. There are different periods that need a different emphasis – what period are we in – there is a need to correctly characterise the period and the task of the moment. For the organised Left of whatever hue, it is a period of defeat and retreat. No organisation has prospered in recent years. We see struggles, varied in scope and significance, which have this in common, they all embody formations and activity which overrides, bypass or consciously aim at substituting new social forms for the traditional workers’ organisations.

We can’t always choose the terms of discussion; we can listen to what people are saying and response. Our beginning point is from where we agree with people, not intervening in campaigns SWP style, we have to participate in them. The self scrutiny displayed by CW would not go amiss among other Left forces. We need open discussion and freedom of expression, even factions, in a living revolutionary organisation. Marx was vague about how the working class would organise: his emphasis was on working class self-emancipation, internationalism and the need for debate. We should unscramble the past to make it useful to our future endeavours. The analytical tools are still valid. We have the successful Bolshevik precedent and its evolution into a centralised party, bureaucratic and outwardly monolithic. The Road to October was along perilous one, full of set backs and the disintegration of revolutionary forces. The Bolshevik forces were reduced to individual members in the reaction of 1907: their leadership exiled, ostracised at home by their Menshevik allies, attacked by Social Revolutionaries, ridiculed by the centrists around Trotsky. The outlook was bleak. We need to differentiate between that and their later experience – what experience is more useful for us? What organisational structure and practices are appropriate to advance? Class War’s last issue addresses the question, and reminds us that it was Rosa Luxembourg who observed that the Class War is the only war in which eventual victory will be secured by a series of defeats. We still have the opportunity to prove her right.