1980s >> 1986 >> no-984-august-1986

Bar Room Rebels

The bar-room rebels are very tough – when they talk. And they know how to talk. They have fought a hundred bloody battles in their conversations in the boozer on a Saturday night. With Guinness as their fuel for their tanks they have defeated countless oppressors – at least, they have spoken of doing so.

The bar-room rebels come to life on a Friday night when the pub doors open and the band is tuning up. After a pint or two they speak with passion about injustices which they know to exist. The troops in Ireland and the despicable prison camp at Long Kesh where men are sent without trial before a jury to be tortured and wasted. They are right to be angry – only the politically desensitised are not. The misery caused by racist tyranny in South Africa – the white dictatorship, the torture and murders committed in its name for the sake of “law and order”, the willingness of governments to deal with such oppressors. Again, workers are right to be angry. The bosses who are robbing us – we work hard, they grow rich. The idle, parasitic millionaires. And the bar-room rebel downs another pint and concludes that “they’re all a bunch of bastards”. A common response to the class which exploits us; scientific socialists are not too pure of mind to share such indignant emotions – we would be peculiar revolutionaries if we did not.

The leisure hours of some of the bar-room rebels are one long expression of anger. Every symbol of capitalist oppression is muttered against in endless bitterness, usually preceded by the inappropriate adjective “fucking”, and that for some of the bar-room rebels is the beginning and the end of the fight. At best, such behaviour can be described as harmless; it is also politically useless. But that is not the worst of bar-room politics.

Worse still are the theoretical terrorists who are to be found making aggressive verbal noises in the pub. They support the IRA. “Up the Provos”, they shout, as if this is some kind of threat to the ruling class. Now let us be clear in understanding two points about the politics of the gun. Firstly, it has nothing to do with liberation. You do not liberate anyone by the tactics of the militarist oppressor. Certainly, it is theoretically possible that violent struggle will remove British occupation of a part of Ireland, but it is just as sure that once the old oppressors are out the men with the guns will be the new oppressors – the new ruling class. That is the lesson of 1916. Workers who believe in the illusion of national liberation should look at the Irish Republic, where British capitalists have more capital invested in working class exploitation than in the North, and they will see that wars over nationalism lead only to new, but not very different, nations. Secondly, violence is not something to be theorised about. Armchair terrorists are not only mistaken for thinking that freedom will come from the barrel of a gun but they are hypocrites for doing nothing about their conviction.

Not so long ago the Islington branch of The Socialist Party had a debate against a bunch of bar-room rebels called Red Action. Their main speaker argued that winning the war against the British state in the north of Ireland is the key issue in the class struggle, exhibiting a degree of sincerity unusual on the Left. His comrades cheered him when he made his comment and spoke loudly about the important and brave struggle of the Republicans in Ireland. But killing workers is not a theoretical position, it is a practical one. Why don’t those who are so eager to cheer when it comes to supporting military violence get in on the act? After all, if socialists genuinely believed that defeating the British army in Ireland was the decisive issue in the class struggle (a nationalistic belief which no socialist could share) we would have an obligation to join the armed struggle. But for the bar-room rebels it is much easier to sing a few nationalistic songs (it is a sight worth seeing: these so-called Red Internationalists sitting in a pub on a Saturday night singing A Nation Once Again) and paint a few slogans on the toilet walls than to go and do what they urge other to do.

The bar-room rebel fight wars with his mouth. The present writer has been told countless times that he is not qualified to speak about Ireland because he was not born there. Such crass reasoning would lead to the conclusion that the Loyalist majority of the North must be most qualified to speak about Ireland because they were born there. Socialists recognise that workers have no country. The bar-room rebels will agree with that view and then talk at length about the nation which is soon to be born out of the heroic military struggle which they are unwilling to join.

Those who offer support to terrorism in resolutions have an obligation to do so on the streets. Socialists refuse to make brave sounding noises which we cannot back up with action. Like the Christian pacifist who declares that “Thou shall not kill . . . unless under orders from Her Majesty’s government”, the bar-room rebels proclaim that the armed road is the only road – but they’ll not be collecting their ammunition this weekend.

Within Trotskyist circles, where insurrection is always just coming up on the agenda (after the expulsion of this or that member) bar-room rebellion is a favourite pastime. They are to be found often, sitting over half pints of lager discussing whether the Socialist Workers Party or the Workers Revolutionary Party will run soviets after the BBC has been taken over in a midnight coup and the Royal Family has been sent to Epping Forest to receive the Nicholas II treatment. Big talk; if words were bullets the millionaires would be trembling. And the bar-room rebel is quite sure of the futility of trying to persuade fellow workers of the need for a new system. The essence of Leninist politics is that workers are too thick to know what socialism is all about. We must be led. So the bar-room rebels persist in their puerile fantasies about Petrograd in 1917, expelling each other as they fight over who will be Lenin and who will be Trotsky. Meanwhile the would-be Stalin never buys a round and takes the minutes.

The odd thing about these bar-room insurrectionists is that (to their credit) if they saw a gun they would faint. Guns and bombs and the sophisticated instruments of murder are sickening, obscene objects, not symbols of human freedom. Armies are necessarily brutal and authoritarian.

The case for political violence is the case against the possibility of working class consciousness. Once workers understand our oppression we can dispossess he ruling class of both the means of violent coercion and the means of wealth production and distribution. The bar-room rebels base their talk about violence on the defeatist belief that the ruling minority will always be bigger than us. Indeed, the capitalist elite might respond to majority socialist revolution with violence. But if they do they will be powerless in the face of the democratic majority. There is no glory in getting killed; as workers, our aim must be to avoid at all costs the possibility of suffering for our class, while ensuring victory for our class.

A recent topic of noise-making for the bar-room rebels is the struggle in South Africa. Socialists are just as sickened and angered by the racist dictatorship of apartheid as are our fellow workers who have come to hate it. It is easy to be sickened and angered, but then what? There is an implicit racist attitude, expressed by some leftists in Britain, both white and black, that violence is the only possible way out of oppression for the African blacks. It is a racist perception because it assumes that persuasion, organisation, democratic action, trade union struggle – these are not to be expected of the black South African. It is based on the racist caricature of the spear-carrying, unthinking “native” who can only win by the rules of the jungle. The bar-room rebels are quite happy to see a bloodbath in South Africa – “it is the only way”. But it will not be their blood in the bath. There have been no reports of British leftists going to fight alongside the ANC.

Socialists would not be historically scientific if they did not understand why workers join the IRA, why they join the ANC. The present writer was once told by a comrade in Belfast how after the British troops started beating up and killing Republicans the IRA won more recruits than they had guns. State violence breeds counter-violence. The Socialist Party is not the Liberal Party; we do not sit around tutting at workers for becoming violent. But neither are we opportunist liars who will tell workers that violence will create anything but new rulers. Only the struggle to end capitalism will bring genuine human liberation. And the struggle is easier to win than those in which countless workers have had their lives wasted as they have swallowed nationalist myths and joined the dead heroes.

It is not for socialists to begrudge our fellow workers a few drinks and a bit of shouting on a Saturday night. The bar-room rebel is but a political reflection of the poverty of working class life. Out of the emotional anger of the heated pub debate socialists have been made – and many more will begin to think about politics in the place where workers try to escape and brewers get rich. But to the bar-room rebel we have a warning: you can’t romanticise the struggle forever. The need to get rid of this rotten capitalist system is urgent. Sloganising and fighting wars with bar mats and looking for new nations is no solution. And the bar-room rebel knows that it is no solution. Perhaps that is why one or two of them are reading this article.

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