Mobilisation for reaction

The 400,000-strong Countryside Alliance march through London - consisting of the aristocracy and squirearchy, large numbers of smaller capitalist farmers, rural workers and other assorted country dwellers - was a show of strength by some of the most reactionary forces in British society. Even though at this stage it largely took the form of a protest at the Blair government's off-on promises to ban foxhunting, no one should doubt the reactionary potential of this kind of mobilisation in the future, should class struggle escape the straitjacket that Blair and co have up till now been able to impose on the working class. While this demonstration hardly evokes images of stormtroopers roaming the streets, nevertheless it goes without saying that the Countryside Alliance outdoes by a factor of several hundred anything the far-right sects - pathetic Hitler-worshippers like the National Front and the BNP - have been able to put together. While the organisers were at pains to stress that the demonstration was concerned with wider issues, there was no concealing why most protesters made the trip to London. What concerned them most of all was the sacred right of the aristocracy and the like to roam the countryside on horseback, following large packs of purpose-bred and blooded hounds, trampling over ploughed field, meadow, hedge and stream almost at will, in pursuit of small furry predators which are at the conclusion of the chase often savagely torn apart. This spectacle, no matter what the rationalisations for it, is barbaric enough. It is of a piece with other 'sports' that the British bourgeoisie - under pressure from the rise of enlightened and humanitarian views, mainly but not exclusively among the increasingly urbanised British populace in the last century or so - has felt the need to put a stop to. Such practices as bear- and bull-baiting, cock- and dog-fighting, were banned on this basis. Foxhunting, however, unlike these long-outlawed practices which were once regarded as means to entertain the lower orders, is a 'gentleman's sport'. Practised typically by the farming gentry and aristocracy and those who ape them, it is a symbol of their monopoly of the land. Legislation on this, even by the capitalist enthusiasts and barely liberal bourgeois Blair government, is seen as an attack on centuries of class prerogative. Indeed, such is the arrogance of these people that farmers who object to their trampling ways often find themselves the target of organised ostracism and abuse. One could, of course, go into a long discourse as to the ethics or otherwise of so-called blood sports - gratuitous cruelty to animals dehumanises those who practise it, distorts human development and thereby is counterposed to the liberation of humanity from oppression. Equally important as this aspect of socialist and working class ethics, however, are the political implications of this mobilisation of class forces. Large numbers of poorer rural dwellers find themselves subtly pressurised by the gentry into taking part in these kinds of demonstrations - the whole fragmented and dispersed structure of landowner-dominated rural life militates in favour of the despotism of such people over those without significant property. It is a truism, but a valid one, that collective organisation is far more difficult in the countryside simply due to the absence of large numbers of fellow workers close by, which would enhance the social power of labour and lead inevitably to the emergence of working class consciousness. The pseudo-collective consciousness epitomised by the Countryside Alliance demonstration, conversely, is predicated on the suppression of class divisions in favour of an illusory, and in fact thoroughly reactionary, 'solidarity' of all country-dwellers, irrespective of class, against real and imagined antagonists: political correctness, bureaucracy, trade unions, gay rights, neoliberalism, Blairism, ethnic minorities, ramblers, animal lovers, the European Union, French wine, asylum-seekers, multiculturalism, the euro .... But for this reactionary bloc the ultimate antagonist is the labour movement - the concrete expression of the tendency of urban-based social and political development to undermine 'tradition' and class domination in the countryside and indeed in capitalist society as a whole. For all the recent noises about the need to 'modernise' his party's image, Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith was unable to resist the temptation to join the march. This is fairly natural for a party that has had so many of its political canards stolen by the Blairites. As was nicely captured by a somewhat jaundiced observer of the march, quoted in The Guardian, "This is what's left of the Tory Party "¦ a lot of grant-aid junkies. They probably resent the fact that Blair's running the country rather better than their mob did" (September 23). It is, however, pretty unusual to see the Tory Party and its political supporters take to the streets in this manner. In fact it is the political desperation of their traditional base that has led to this - the more the Conservatives look simply incapable of providing an alternative to the Blairites, the more inclined are the rural Colonel Blimp elements to go for this kind of thing. Blair's project is to replace the Conservatives as the main party of the bourgeoisie in Britain. But, while the Conservatives have long held this position, they were never simply the party of finance capital and the City. They also represented the very considerable aristocratic, landowning and rural middle class interests - and if Blair's project of transforming Labour into capital's thoroughly dependable party of 'modernisation' is quite a tall order, it is even more difficult to accommodate the backwoods element in the Tory shires. What we saw on September 22 thus bears a certain resemblance to populist reactionary movements seen in other countries at various times. The followers of Pierre Poujade in France in the 1950s spring to mind as an analogy - though the Conservative Party is of course much more at the centre of the political establishment than Poujade's rabble-rousing ever was. At this point, despite the verbiage of some of its most vehement spokespeople, the Countryside Alliance movement hardly foretells 'civil war' - at least not in terms of class conflict between workers and their allies, on the one hand, and the ruling class, on the other. It is rather a unique product of a painful and incomplete project of realignment within bourgeois politics - which is seen by rural interests as depriving them of their traditional means of political representation in parliament - doubly so, given the collapse of the Tory Party and the trimming of its wings through the abolition of voting rights for hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, both as democrats and as the conscious embodiment of the historic interests of the working class, socialists and communists cannot be indifferent to such conflicts within bourgeois politics. Clearly at this stage there is no threat to political democracy and the existence of the working class movement from this particular quarter. But it does represent a flexing of muscles by forces that, despite the fact that their current target is Tony Blair, can potentially be a danger to the working class at some future conjuncture. We have every interest in the destruction of the kind of rural privilege that stands behind the Countryside Alliance that gives this movement its potency. Indeed, as is obvious from the reported outburst of Charles Windsor about the alleged 'oppression' of foxhunters being akin to that of ethnic minorities (!), the monarchy is the centre of this kind of anti-democratic putrefaction within British society. Yet the Blair government has struggled might and main to preserve this thoroughly anti-democratic institution in what has been a difficult period. As communists and democrats, we demand the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords, the established church, and the rest of the reactionary anti-democratic institutions that provide the political linchpin of the class forces standing behind Sunday's demonstration. We are also for the nationalisation of the land, the massive extension of transport, postal services and the like, the building of cheap housing for rural workers as a measure to undermine the hold of landowners on even the roof over rural workers' heads (a prime lever of the tremendous pressure brought to bear on rural workers by their exploiters), and a general struggle to extend democracy, workers' rights and living standards in the countryside. We are for both the urbanisation of the countryside and the ruralisation of the towns and cities. That is, an end to the kind of one-sided development capitalism brings about at both its poles - overcrowding, overwork, pollution and often squalor for the urban proletariat; backwardness, decay, exploitation and oppression for the rural poor. The abolition of the division between town and country has been a declared aim of communists since Marx and Engels authored the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1847. However, its concrete implementation will depend on socialists finding the means to lead real struggles for democracy and for the improvement of the conditions and rights of rural workers, thereby destroying once and for all the influence of the godfathers of reactionary movements like the Countryside Alliance. This is a task which the Socialist Alliance must not neglect. Ian Donovan