1990s >> 1992 >> no-1058-october-1992

The politics of Class War

What are we to make of the Class War Federation? According to the tabloids, who have not been slow to recognise this growing group within British politics over the past decade. Class War (CW) comprises a collection of wild-eyed revolutionary hooligans; the walking, swearing seeds of civilised destruction. But then, when have the booze-soaked brains of Sun and Daily Mail journalists ever come up with a valid definition of what a revolutionary is?Many on the Left dismiss CW as a gang of loudmouthed lumpenproles whose entire existence is dedicated to gratuitous violence and offensively-stated propaganda. Some police and politicians imagine that behind every urban riot and act of vandalism there are CW organisers in the wings ticking off a list of targets. Others dismiss Class War as a prolier than thou version of Private Eye: satire for those who get their kicks out of wounded cops and dead aristocrats. Whatever worth there is in these analyses, there can be little doubt that plenty of people are talking about Class War, both the newspaper and the federation.

Our analysis will ignore the question of style. Revolutionaries are not identified by image or affectation, but by what they stand for and what they do. Our purpose is to examine and criticise the politics not the pose.

Areas of clarity
Class War understand more about what a socialist society will be like than any of the pseudo-socialists on the Left. We quote from their book Unfinished Business, the Politics of Class War (from which all the other quotes come):

  There will be no need to work for a capitalist to survive. The revolution will mean us clocking off wage slavery for good . . . [A]fter the revolution we can and will survive without (money]. Money will not be replaced by something with a different name that does the same thing such as bartering, coupons, tokens, etc. . . . Just by its existence, money is a measure of the failure of society to organise the production and distribution of goods for the benefit of all; IT HAS TO GO . . . We seek to do away with artificial boundaries and borders. The world will not be divided into countries or States . . .There will be no limitations on travel.

A wageless, moneyless, stateless world society is not a bad start as far as revolutionary vision goes. But ideals are cheap. How does CW do on some of the other basic revolutionary tests so regularly failed by the Left?

On several, they do pretty well. For example, the Left’s long-running sick love affair with the capitalist Labour Party has been one of the enduring comi-tragedies of the twentieth century. Not so CW:

  “At times we have no choice anyway but to fightback . . . This is where the role of the British Left is crucial to the ruling class. As long as they can divert us into stupid campaigns like getting Labour elected, the ruling class are safe”.

Again, how often do we find leftists romanticising the role of the trade unions, seeing them as bodies of immense working-class struggle? Whilst socialists understand the need for unions as defensive combinations of our class (in which many of us are active) we are well aware that bodies committed to fighting for crumbs will do little to abolish the wages system. CW argues, correctly, that the unions are crucial to the role of “regulation stability and control . . .  In advanced capitalist countries like the UK. capitalism cannot function without the help of the unions”.

CW opposes Leninism and those sects which stand for “taking control of the State with a vanguard party on behalf of the working class”. CW avoids falling into the trap of leftists who patronise feminists who are seeking women’s liberation without socialism:

  The objectives of equality for women can only be achieved as part of a wider social revolution . . . The idea of ‘wages for housework’ is an illusion. We believe the only real solution to low pay and no pay for women is the removal of capitalism.

That much-loved concept of the pseudo-socialist, the state that will live on into the new socialist society, is rejected by CW: “We see no transitory workers* State . . . as the Left does, we have learnt the lessons of history”. Finally, CW seems to understand clearly the role of mass culture as a means of feeding workers with capitalist ideology, and, unlike many leftists, they are firm in their rejection of religion: “Once you believe in divine beings or forces above humankind with superior power over our lives then you give up the right to control your own life yourself”.

These areas of clarity are refreshing contrasts to the usual trash of left-wing thinking, and puts in question the popular claim that CW is just a bunch of noisy but vacuous graffiti kids. Unfortunately, in with the positive points are a load of major negatives—illusions, misconceptions, follies. We urge the supporters of the Class war Federation to think about these seriously.

How many classes?
This is no academic question, although for years it has been a key area of attention for the pseudo-intellectual sociologists. They are concerned to classify people in accordance with the market needs of a consumer-commerce society. That is why they break up the working class into an upper and lower section (often several sections) and are committed to the false view that there exists a middle class.

Our definition of class is clear: there are those who need to work and those who don’t. There are us workers who must try to sell our mental and physical energies in return for a wage, salary or giro cheque, and there are capitalist parasites who live off the proceeds of our work by receiving rent, interest and profit. The profit of the capitalists comes from the legalised robbery of the workers. We give them everything they have. They live in privilege and luxury out of our productive efforts. There can be no common interest between the class of exploiters and the class which is exploited: our class, the overwhelming majority. Willingly or otherwise, the antagonism between robber and robbed takes the form of a constant class conflict. The only way to end the class war is for our side to win. We must throw the very small minority who own the means of wealth production off of our backs. We are many, they are few.

We would expect an organisation called Class War to agree with all this. And at one point in their manifesto they do: “Struggle is inevitable because society is divided into two opposing camps, the working class and the ruling class, who are fundamentally at odds in this world” (our emphasis). But, aside from this accidental clarity, CW’s analysis of class is hopelessly confused and should be abandoned sooner rather than later. In chapter 3 on “Class” they claim that there are three classes under capitalism: ruling, middle and working. They claim that the ruling class in Britain comprises 5 percent of the population—which is probably much larger than the real size of the capitalist minority. They then claim that “the middle class” comprises 20 percent of the population and includes doctors (but not nurses, who are listed as workers), social workers, researchers, teachers and small employers.
The reasoning behind this false division is that the middle class are those with more power than the workers. In fact, this power which people in the middle class think they have is illusory. There are those who imagine that a “good” accent or a college degree or a job with a monthly salary puts them in a higher class. Look around the dole offices and see how wrong they are: these are just the deluded workers who are being hit, especially in the South East, now that the recession is cutting into welfare services, banking and insurance and other so-called safe jobs.

The myth of the middle class was invented by sociologists who saw themselves as being an intellectual vanguard for such a class, and CW has fallen into the trap of accepting their self-deceit. But there are practical questions which CW had better face up to. In the event of a working-class revolution, are we to assume that millions of teachers and social workers—or, put more clearly, people given a salary to teach infants to read or paid a wage to work in old people’s homes or centres for the mentally handicapped—will be regarded as part of the non-working-class enemy? Are we to assume that a nurse with a posh accent or a bank clerk who plays golf at the weekend (both defined as working-class by CW) will be inherently more revolutionary than a junior doctor working sixty-plus hours a week for a pittance or a newsagent who employs a couple of part- time staff? We suggest that CW’s ridiculous class analysis is based upon a romanticised view of the workers as horny-handed sons of toil who wear cloth caps and drop their aitches and a large dose of sociological nonsense based upon middle-class guilt.

What is a revolution?
There are two areas of disagreement here. Firstly, CW throws out the democratic baby with the parliamentary bathwater. Secondly, having rejected a democratic road to the new world society they commit themselves to a policy of foolhardy violence.

As to democratic change, there is a long-standing confusion on this issue which requires serious debate amongst those who seriously seek a new system of society. For us the democratic principle is paramount. There can be no socialism without a majority who want and understand it. Only a socialist majority can enact the revolution. Democracy is not merely a strategic appendage to the thought of the Socialist Party, but it is inseparable from our aim: a truly democratic society. Unless those who seek to establish socialism do so as knowing participants in their emancipation, the outcome cannot be socialism, as it is bound to be the case that those who followed others into any new system would remain followers within it. Democratic change—which means a majority who are conscious and not willing to be passive— is a prerequisite for revolution.

In different parts of the world conscious socialist majorities will express their mandate for the new social system in different ways. In Britain workers have the vote.The vast majority use it now to elect leaders to run capitalism. They are not forced to do so; workers are deceived into wasting their votes on the continuation of their class slavery. Used by revolutionary workers the vote would be the most orderly and peaceful method of giving a mandate for socialism.

CW rejects this, but we see their objection as more based upon anarchist dogma than experience. They say that “as it exists, democracy is most definitely an illusion. It fools us into thinking we can change things through the vote”. They argue that instead we should elect workers’ councils or soviets with instantly recallable delegates. The Socialist Party has no dogmatic objection to workers expressing their will through such bodies—why should we? But we warn CW that these bodies can become just as anti-democratic and leader-controlled as parliaments have been if those doing the voting for them are not politically conscious. The soviets in Russia in 1917 were used by the Bolshevik leaders as a means of getting a grip on the malleable workers in them; soviet power became party power.

Parliaments with instantly recallable and democratically elected and accountable delegates sent to outlaw capitalist property rights will make perfectly useful revolutionary bodies. And they can be won now, simply by having a majority of workers using the vote as a revolutionary weapon. CW is just wrong when it claims that “the condition for us to have a right to vote in this competition is that all the candidates are on the bosses’ side”. We do live in an undemocratic society and the bosses do have millions to spend on their rotten candidates, and their laws do make it very hard for us to stand against them, but we can and we have. Imagine if we revolutionary socialists had enough candidates to stand in every constituency—if we could win one in ten of the votes cast—if workers started to realise that there is a real political opposition. Could the ruling class ban us at that stage in our growth? Let them try and see how much faster we would grow.

We realise that there are long-standing anarchistic sentiments which make the case for the majority vote seem unappealing. So the debate on this matter must go on, particularly amongst people who agree on the aim of a classless, wageless, moneyless global society. But in the meantime CW is committed to a case for revolution which rejects democracy. They say that “a revolution is not ‘democratic’ in the sense that there might be a majority of our class involved”. From there on in CW’s entire revolutionary strategy is useless.

Who needs violence?
What they seem to envisage is a growing minority of workers rioting, creating no-go areas, entering into violent conflicts with the police and army and eventually bringing about a civil war. They “see violence as necessary and inescapable”. Of course, in a minority revolution violence would be inescapable—and the ruling class, backed by the most sophisticated weaponry and well- trained and paid military force, would rout the insurrectionaries. There is nothing romantic about such a prospect. Look at how the Serbs are currently dealing with the Bosnians and then imagine what would happen if a civil war, fought between an army with NATO-type equipment and a well-tooled gang of glorified rioters, was ever to be fought in the name of working-class revolution.

At times CW glibly glorifies violence, such as in a rather sick passage in Unfinished Business where they recount an occasion in the Spanish Civil War when peasants shot the local nuns and priests and then dug up the bodies of previously dead clergy in order to shoot bullets through them too. “This brilliant piece of working class propaganda sets very well the tone for dealing with religion”, comments CW. But what about dealing with the teachers and the social workers and the greengrocers and the other so-called middle class enemies who must be defeated? Shooting people, even if they are of the most confused and ideologically unpleasant kind, has nothing to do with revolution and is, in fact, a recipe for the rule of bullies and psychopaths.

CW proposes the setting up of no-go areas administered by vigilante-type workers’ militias. You cannot run an army democratically. On the contrary military organisations are notoriously authoritarian. Living on a council estate where thuggish police hassle young workers and blacks is bad news, but the way out is not to create new cops who will, as CW might put it, “sort out their own”. Workers in Ireland who have been on the receiving end of so-called paramilitary justice will be the first to warn against new self-policing squads.

CW warns of “the dangers of these forces becoming detached from our class and becoming a new power in themselves”. The only safeguard against this is to close the doors of the revolutionary movement to those who think with their fists and are happiest when they are playing authoritarian militarist roles. We don’t need them, In a majority revolution the capitalist minority will be likely to cave in peacefully, but even if they do not they could easily be dealt with by the socialist majority.

The basic prerequisite for a socialist revolution is widespread working-class self-education. The Left, who have contempt for workers’ intelligence, have always been against this. They are just officers looking for infantry. The Class War Federation seems to be still at a stage where it is willing to debate and to learn. To that end we challenge them, as workers to workers, to enter the process of public scrutiny and discussion of their ideas and ours.


Steve Coleman