Going out with a bang

Somewhat unusually, the latest issue of Class War makes for interesting reading. This seems to be due to the fact that this is the very last issue or, as the front page headline proclaims, ‘Class War is dead ... long live the class war!’

The paper is definitely going out with a bang and not a whimper. This makes a dramatic contrast to some existing left publications, which either mysteriously disappear overnight without a word of explanation or whine away in a corner for months before dying of natural causes.

As previously reported in the Weekly Worker, all manner of trouble has been brewing in the Class War Federation - the publishers of Class War - for some time. The temperature has finally reached boiling point and the organisation has fragmented. According to the Class War editorial, “The majority of London Class War has decided to part company with the rest of us and have gone their own way. We wish them luck.” Slightly curiously, the editorial claims: “We [presumably the London minority - EF] are aware of no fundamental political differences between ourselves and the comrades who have left” (all quotes in bold from Summer 1997 issue).

The differences, however, appear quite glaring to us. In the words of comrade Dave Douglass, a supporter of the majority, the London minority represents a “petty bourgeois current which does not like the working class” - this minority hankers for a “more intellectual milieu” and treats with contempt the “old-style image” of Class War - ie, ‘hospitalised coppers’ and so on.

Dave and the majority do not think it is “necesary to analyse and re-analyse” the class struggle. The task of revolutionaries is to “empower the existing struggles”. The majority - or the ‘provisionals’ as they have already been dubbed - will have a new publication out soon.

Whatever the exact lines of dispute are, Class War’s self-criticism is admirably frank and honest. It is certainly hard to imagine monolithic publications like Socialist Worker or The Socialist ever admitting openly that they are wrong about anything, let alone going in for the lengthy soul-searching which is the defining feature of the last issue of Class War. Thus, in its own words, “The Federation remains a tiny group with a big image which has outlived its usefulness. The truth is that we will never grow any bigger in our present form. The appeal of our paper has become too narrow and limited - we have only sold between four and five thousand papers each issue for the last few years.” Class War concludes: “We have gone as far as we can: the time has come to try something new.”

Class War is not an insignificant organisation. It enjoys a relatively high public profile, as the media loves to evoke Class War’s name whenever discussing ‘extremist’ groups or doing a shock-horror exposé on how outside ‘infiltrators’ are stirring up trouble on demonstrations and marches. Class War is also often held up as the ultimate in mindless agitation and general mayhem. 

A cursory examination of this issue of Class War, however, does not reveal dumbo anarchism. It is in fact an ‘Open letter to the revolutionary movement’, quite a novelty for the Class War Federation. Previously the CWF had only displayed unremitting hostility to the revolutionary left, invariably described as “middle class wankers” or words to that effect (not that the social/class composition of the CAF could exactly be described as exactly 100% proletarian either) . The open letter presents an extremely articulate and well-argued case - shame it did not do this every issue, you could say - and might well come as a shock to some of its hard-core readers.

The comrades write:

“This paper marks a departure in style and content: every past issue has been written to be read by, for want of better words, ordinary working class people ... This final issue of Class War is different. It is written for all those who already consider themselves ‘political’, whether they regard themselves as anarchists, communists, socialists or whatever. This Open Letter is directed at everybody who is genuine in their desire to bring an end to this class-divided capitalist society that we live in, and who is open, honest and flexible in their attempts to achieve it.”

These are sentiments that we can certainly empathise with.

It has to be said that its critique of the revolutionary left hits the mark in many places, even if the anarchist comrades have picked up the curious idea that it “sometimes seemed that the entire left press has existed for no other reason than to slag off Class War”.

It attacks the “siege mentality” of most of the revolutionary left (Gerry Healey’s Workers Revolutionary Party somehow springs to mind), which means that “members are more likely to do what they are told and accept an absence of debate and democracy”. Tragically, this is the history of Trotskyism, and the revolutionary left in general - who have replicated, albeit on a smaller scale and without the mass murder and terror, the worst sins of ‘official communism’.

Class War’s critique of the various revolutionary left groups can be sharp at times. Discussing the Socialist Party/Militant, it points out:

“Over the years tactics and theory got very well confused and the majority of Militant supporters saw nationalisation under workers’ control [or even without it - EF] as a thing in itself and thought those who argued for real revolution were fools.”

The Socialist Workers Party also gets dissected. It is “renowned for two things. Firstly, calling for strikes, whatever the situation ... Secondly, opportunism. Essentially this means they chop and change policies from week to week on a vampire-like basis. Whatever brings in new blood is good.” More crucially, the SWP has “created an organisation with little internal debate or democracy, and worse, lacking any culture of critical debate. For a group that pays lip service to the idea of revolution it is ironic that they are totally lacking in imagination, freedom of expression and open discussion.” I defy anybody to disagree with this pithy summation.

As for the Revolutionary Communist Party, who cannot warm to Class War’s opinion on “the most ambitious and arrogant group in the 1980s”? The RCP became “increasingly obsessed with developing their theory over political practice”, “shut down their newspaper [The Next Step - EF]” and “as any fool knows, if you lose the relationship between theory and practice you soon end up with your head up your arse.”

But Class War’s solution to this malaise is hopeless - ie, to look to a loose, decentralised party. In the lofty opinion of Class War, “It is more likely that a highly centralised state will be defeated not by a pale imitation of itself but by a decentralised, diverse and multi-headed opposition.” Comrades, this is pure utopianism.

Also, the comrades’ instinctive suspicion of “lefty theory” - the great bugbear for most anarchists - is a permanent Achilles’ heel. It also has to be said that there is a small element of holier-than-thou hypocrisy to Class War’s attacks on the RCP for losing “the relationship between theory and practice”. The plain fact of the matter is that the CAF has neverattempted to develop theory, to turn its members into thinkers - it never had anything to unite its ‘practice’ (turning up drunk to demos for instance) with. Instead, for the most part the CAF has been far more interested in cultivating its image of being a collection of “angry young white blokes” rather than seriously building a revolutionary organisation. This was also another bone of contention. The “petty bourgeois” intellectuals of the minority said that this macho image was “unattractive to women and black people”. It certainly did not help.   

Having said that, communists are well aware that some young people are attracted to anarchism (in all its 57 varieties) because they are serious about revolution, not because they see it merely as an organic development of their alternative lifestyle, which they must attach themselves to if they want to remain cool and hip in front of their peers. To these comrades we appeal - be part of a centralised, disciplined party where, yes, “open discussion and freedom of expression” is an organic part of Party culture. This is the only real way to overthrow capitalism and maintain the “relationship between theory and practice”, as the Class War open letter quite correctly mentioned.

This is not a devious Leninist ploy to lull anarchists into a false sense of security and then massacre them in their beds - though paranoid conspiracy theories are a hallmark of the anarchist milieu. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, during the Revolution and the Civil War, endeavoured to win over the anarchists to their side - and many did defect’ to the Bolsheviks. Contrary to much anarchist mythology, the anarchist forces during the Civil War hardly behaved like angels. Forces loyal to Nestor Makhno, the legendary anarchist hero, banned all political parties in the areas under their control - hardly an inspiring example of ‘libertarian communism’, particularly in the context of a brutal civil war being waged by White counterrevolutionary armies.

Without a strong dose of political imagination and initiative, the danger is that disaffected members of Class War could end up like an anarchist version of the RCP. Now there is something to think about.

Eddie Ford