This is what my comrade Martin Wright calls them. People who never dirty their hands with real struggle but maintain an intellectual purity about proletarian struggle – without actually associating with any proletarians. You know – the rough sort. They publish papers like AUFEBHN (you fucking wot!) and once upon a time HERE AND NOW – which pour scorn on anyone involved in the ever compromising reality of day to day working class life and struggle.They attract a small coterie of inadequate posturers showing of their left communist credentials to impress the girls – they’re always blokes – well they would be wouldn’t they.
I’ve just discovered – courtesy of the excellent LIBCOM historical archive – a text written in 1992 by Tom Jennings which deals with Here and Now’s critique of Class War and also examines Class War’s appalling book ‘UNFINISHED BUSINESS’. Here’s some extracts reprinted as an anniversary celebration so we are not condemned to repet earlier mistakes. Comrades Tom’s point here is that THOSE WHO TALK ABOUT REVOLUTION WITHOUT EXPLICIT REFERENCE TO EVERYDAY LIFE SPEAK WITH A CORPSE IN THEIR MOUTHS
Funny Business: the Interpreting of Class War
If the above analogy – between professional, managerial and other middle class discourses and revolutionary doctrines – is not completely spurious (or mischievous), an unexpected effect of analysing them properly might be that some hitherto radical perspectives may lose some of their allure, when, for example, a class-specific disgust and hatred lurking under the purity of revolutionary rhetoric is exposed. In mapping the development in Britain of the “autonomous wing of anarchism” (‘Revolution as merchandise’, Here & Now 13, p35-37), Nat Turner gives a timely reminder of the Left’s shortcomings. More to the point here is that special kind of contempt reserved by some radicals for any sign of human weaknesses – such as pleasure gained in and through aspects of the present evil set-up, or maybe thinking that the implications of a given situation may be, perhaps, ambiguous (just a little?). Oh no – that’s reformist, even downright reactionary! Sacred theory must be protected at all costs, even if that means losing any connection to the real world. If there’s joy or anger – it should be a consequence of theoretical analysis and the righteousness, and self-righteousness, that goes with it, rather than arising from our sensual engagement with the world and its attendant frustrations.
The sheer puritanical zeal of this kind of revolutionary politics runs counter to all of the irreverence, conviviality and passion – seedbeds of solidarity and direct action – that characterise so much of the diversity of lower class cultures across the world and throughout history. Strange, then, to hear this evangelism called, in the British context, “proletarian fundamentalism” (Turner, p35) – meaning, presumably, proletarian in the sense of being on the ‘side’ of the theoretical proletariat conceptualised by Marx. Of course, awareness of these theories is utterly absent from working class communities, whereas some of the down to earth attitudes of Class War, for some reason, are familiar to many thousands of working class people.
So, Nat Turner’s discussion of Class War’s Unfinished Business pinpoints serious weaknesses in the book, especially its inability to deal with CW’s own historical, geographical and social specificity. However, to write off their views on class as ‘reactionary’, refusal of middle class leftist political correctness (including the “proletarian fundamentalist” varieties) as “macho”, and the robust populism as merely “marketing”, completely misunderstands the wide, complex appeal of the Class War paper and the diversity of its supporters and members. CW do spend a lot of time sneering at the middle classes, but their explicit politics defines the bulk of the middle classes as part of the working class (waged work/subject to extraction of surplus value) whilst many members and supporters would not count as working class at all according to such criteria (e.g. underclass or new middle class). Worse, such fundamental questions are hardly addressed within the organisation. Many members are confused or have little consciousness of these issues, yet those who write CW’s ‘theory’, draw up ‘business plans’ and develop ‘rigorous approaches’ react hysterically to comradely debate from CW supporters, presenting their artificially unified opinions as “the Politics of Class War”.
Nevertheless, a fairly straightforward exposition of classic anarchism, from a modem working class perspective, ends up in a glossy paperback stocked by High Street bookshops, regularly selling out (good pun, eh?). It passes itself off as ‘The Politics of Class War’, but it’s really the dogmas of a few bores and loudmouths in CW who shout over, wear down and tire out a more independent, realistic, down to earth and politically naive membership. The theoretical confusion and political redundancy of Unfinished Business described by Nat Turner lies in its resort to classic anarchist and left communist theory, whereas the potential of the CW phenomenon resulted from bypassing such straightjackets. The view of class in the book is only reactionary if its gender, race and cultural bias is generalised to apply universally, having already been tied to archaic marxist economics. I prefer to interpret this as the effort on the part of some in CW to establish themselves as leading cadres, via their grasp, use and control of these particular theories – illustrating the role and principles of operation of middle class discourses in general.
The whole episode says little about the CW rank and file except that they were unable to prevent such manoeuverings, now that the organisation is a revolutionary organisation along classic anarchist lines. It’s a far cry from the mould-breaking tabloid swagger that spoke to many of our feelings, and went down a treat with working class people across the country – helped by the rudimentary politics and refreshing lack of refined theoretical sensitivities. The CW project began by mobilising working class identity and pride, drawing on richly varied traditions from working class cultures to describe patterns of resistance that are and will be equally diverse. But to suit the needs of CW’s theorists, this is transformed into a call for working class cultural unity. Of course such unity couldn’t happen without the obliteration of differences – unfortunately CW members seem wholly unaware of the implications of this shift in perspective – they’ aren’t even sure what they mean by ‘working class’ at all, let alone a (singular) ‘international working class’. They don’t really want to have to think about it either.
Middle class politics is forced to attack the directness and vulgarity of working class behaviour and attitudes, because these are the dimensions of collective action most resistant to guidance, control or harnessing – the functions middle class discourses best serve. CW’s treatment of ‘working class violence’ reflects their debunking of the mainstream political discourses of criminality and social cohesion. When the category of violence is complicated by questions of direct bodily engagement as opposed to rationalised detachment, then it has little to do with working class “virility” being hampered by the “effete middle class” (Turner, p37).
Middle class individuals can, of course, be as violent as anyone else, though associated meanings will usually be gathered into discourses such as legalism, rights or nationalism. The point is that these ideological underpinnings have to play down effects of social class, in order to be coherent – middle class knowledge and action, whether via State institutions or, less concretely, in scientific, theoretical or ‘common sense’ understanding. The point is that although working class people can ‘operate’ middle class discourses – if less readily and seamlessly – the institutional practices and material inertia associated with them can still exert their power in the world, and still need to be exposed – as Here and Now is trying to do from one set of perspectives, and as Class War also helped to do from an entirely different starting point. Class identity, like any other aspects of identity, is fragmentary. It is the structure and effectivity of a discourse that concerns us in the first instance, not the ‘essence’ of those individuals momentarily mohilised by it. Yet, of course, ideas are not, in themselves, important – only their capacity to enlist, mobilise and animate strategic groups of people, in deploying specific material resources.
The failure to grasp any of the implications of this is evident in the idea that “action … instead of talking” (e.g. about gender issues; Turner, p37) has any relevance to politics (revolutionary or not); or that identity politics should stick to “unravelling the mish-mash of conditioning” (ibid). That hoary old dichotomy of mind-language versus body, elaborated into identity via ‘learning’, may fit postwar far-left theory, but should otherwise be relinquished as the anachronism it has been since the sixties. “A willingness to use violence” may be “a poor guide to political soundness” (Turner p37, my emphasis), but we know that self defence is no offence – and to revolutionaries, ‘offence’ should be no offence either. Liberal pluralist identity politics, and its tactic of political soundness – sorry correctness – refer to the lifestyle choices of those whose institutional positions allow them to disavow the world’s unpleasantnesses, while the structures they serve do the same old business. It’s not a case of gratuitously hating middle class people, but the need to be clear about the dominance of certain types of discourse (which, more often than not, coincide with middle class positions).
Similarly, CW’s honest sense of rootedness in specific British working class cultural environments doesn’t have to lead to nationalism, or be denied with illusions of universality – even if CW’s ideologists don’t understand this (proved by their discussions of Ireland and Europe in Unfinished Business). In general the Class War newspaper had considerable propagandising potential, which it was able to fulfil for several years without needing to appeal to or engage with the agendas, priorities and sensitivities of its near neighbours in far-left politics.3 These and other political interests respond by resurrecting the kind of smears4 aimed in the past at Bakunin and Sorel, among others – expressing an intense fear of collective explosions of unrest – in particular that these may evade the grasp of the political cadres, and, more pertinently here, reveal the bankruptcy of theory. Many people would be relieved to see the end of Class War, not least because its success threatens to undermine all sorts of “proletarian” pretensions.5 However, a combination of the effects of CW’s own ‘theorists’ (lending contingent support to equations of populism with demagogic orchestration of hate), plus the surprisingly intense levels of enmity and contempt from other revolutionaries for its rashness and vulgarity, have helped to stifle CW’s progress.