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(en) Britain, Organise! #63* - in the tradition - part five

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 10 Apr 2005 07:56:08 +0200 (CEST)


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This, the final part of the In the Tradition series, looks at developments in
international libertarian thought and struggle over the last 20 or so years.
>>> We finished part Four with a brief look at the Miners Strike of 1984-1985
and the impact this brutal struggle had upon the revolutionary movement. The
strike showed the combatitivity, the fierce intelligence and the practical
capability of an historic section of the working class, the mineworkers and
their friends and families. It also showed the severe limitations of trade
unionism and of the left and the weakness of the revolutionary libertarian movement.
>>>>>>> Demanding the impossible?
The leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers repeatedly called for
solidarity action from other union leaderships, to, inevitably, no avail.

Sections of the Leninist left either called
for increases in mass picketing (SWP) or
for the Trades Union Congress to call a
General Strike (Militant, WRP). The former
`tactic' was shown to be, on its own, a dead
end at Orgreave where the massed miners
were battered and dispersed in cossack
style by mounted police. The second tactic
was merely reflective of the bankruptcy of
Trotskyism, most of whose partisans could
think no further than calling upon the
bureaucrats to show a lead, or to
workers to "come through the experience"
of demanding the impossible from that
bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, rank and file NUM members,
their families, friends and supporters were
organising Hit Squads to target scabs and
their supporters and to defend their
communities. The traditions of Trade Union
practice still held most miners back from
attempting to reach out to other sectors of
the working class directly, not via the
bureaucracies of the official union
structures. This widening of the struggle
would not have guaranteed victory, but its
failure to emerge condemned the struggle to
defeat.

The anarchist response

The anarchist and libertarian communist
movement responded to the strike in
fractured way, reflecting the fractured
nature of that movement.
Although libertarians added to the numbers
on picket lines, at demonstrations and in
general support work, there was little co-
ordinated activity and a very limited
amount of serious analysis. Small
collectives such as the London Workers
Group (an open group of councillists,
anarchists, autonomists etc.) the Wildcat
group in Manchester and Careless Talk
group in Staffordshire were amongst a
minority who attempted to address the
issues (such as the need to criticise the
NUM and the need for the struggle to be
spread by workers themselves) that were
being ignored elsewhere.

Class War

One group, which emerged during the
Miners Strike, and which was to
subsequently have a considerable impact
upon the libertarian movement in Britain
and beyond, was Class War. The Class War
group and its eponymous tabloid-style
newspaper had its origin amongst working
class anarchists living in South Wales and
London. Annoyed and frustrated with what
they saw as the clear lack of dynamism and
general irrelevance of the anarchist `scene'
in Britain at the period, they adopted a
populist and highly activist approach. The
emergence of this group, which developed
a nominally national federal structure in
1986, sent a shock wave through the
anarchist `scene', which at that time, with
rare exception, was under the influence of
pacifism, moralistic exclusivist lifestyle
`politics' and/or individualism.
Class War, not surprisingly, emphasised a
populist version of class struggle
anarchism, promoting working class
combativity, focussing on community
rather than workplace struggles. Their
practical activity in the first years of their
existence, other than the production and
distribution of the newspaper, involved
headline-grabbing heckling and public
harassment of various (highly
deserving)left figures. After a period of
inventive, but inevitably less than
successful `stunts' such as the `Bash the
Rich' events, the new federation looked
more seriously at their political
development.
--------------------------------------
`Their irreverent approach shook up a complacent
libertarian milieu... their emphasis on an
antagonistic class politics being central to
libertarian revolution, helped return anarchism to
its working class
--------------------------------------
This period of intense discussion
culminated in the production of a book
titled `Unfinished Business: the politics of
Class War' (1992) which attempted to
outline a new and distinct politics that
distanced itself if not from the anarchist
tradition, then at least from the present
anarchist milieu. Simultaneously the book,
somewhat unconvincingly, embraced a
libertarian take on Marxism. Although a
considerable section of Class War rejected
much of the Unfinished Business thesis, the
book itself was at least a serious attempt to
both renovate libertarian thought and to
address the issue of class at the end of the
20th century. In doing so it borrowed
heavily from the politics of the
Organisational Platform of the Libertarian
Communists (see part 2 of In the Tradition)
Regardless of the book, the actual Class
War Federation, however, continued to be a
synthesis of Platformist anarchism,
autonomist Marxism, council communism
and various other tendencies, all painted in
populist colours. This created an ongoing
tension in the organisation, which, though it
contained a certain dynamic, inevitably led
to an inconsistency in political line with
regard to fundamentals such as the nature
of the trade unions and national liberation
struggles.
After a decade of trying to extricate itself
from what it described as the "anarchist
ghetto" the Class War Federation
eventually dissolved itself after a final
edition of the paper styled `An open letter
to the revolutionary movement' where they
stated that "After almost 15 years of
sometimes intense and frantic activity,
Class War is still tiny in number and, as far
as many in the organisation are concerned,
going nowhere". A small rump of militants
continued the organisation, which decided
to describe itself as explicitly anarchist
communist, though maintaining a populist
and increasingly counter-cultural
perspective.
But no discussion of international
libertarian thought in the last 20 years can
ignore the legacy of Class War. Class War,
which in part at least was inspired by the
experience of punk in the 1970s, breathed
new life into the anarchist body-politic and
brought a fresh, fiercely combative vision
of revolutionary politics. This vision, which
burned brightly for a short time, influenced
many young working class militants, new
to politics. Their irreverent approach shook
up a complacent libertarian milieu. And, if
nothing else, their emphasis on an
antagonistic and emphatically class politics
being central to libertarian revolution,
helped return anarchism to its working
class roots.

A different direction?

If a group like Class War distinguished
itself in its emphasis on class, then other
libertarian currents were developing ideas
which appeared to be moving in a different
direction, that of prioritising the struggle
against the environmental destruction of the
planet.

Although libertarians such as Peter
Kropotkin, Edward Carpenter and William
Morris, were amongst the first people
anywhere to address issues of environment
and human scale economics, much of the
productivism and technophilia of capitalist
ideology was shared by early socialists,
anarchists included.

This failure to address the alienating and
environment destroying nature of
unfettered economic `progress' was evident
in the brutal industrialisation of the so-
called socialist nations. The supporters of
the Soviet Union and its satellites sang the
praises of the latest super-dam or the
newest tractor production figures. But it
was reflective of the lack of environmental
awareness generally, that many of those
who saw the `existing socialist' nations for
what they were, namely state capitalist
dictatorships, failed to recognise the
grotesque nature of the productivist
ideology they reflected.

Social ecology

A revolutionary anti-capitalist
understanding of green politics was slow in
developing. `Ecology' was equated with the
`conservationism' of the past which more
often than not, hankered after a pre-
industrial golden age and hid a reactionary
agenda. It was not until the work of Murray
Bookchin, and his book `Our Synthetic
Environment' (1962) that a social ecology
would begin to emerge based upon a
revolutionary humanism. This perspective
was most forcefully argued in the 1982
work `The Ecology of Freedom'.
At the centre of social ecology was the
realisation that the productivist nature of
capitalism was wrapped up in hierarchical
social relations as much as in the need for
capital to constantly expand. So this
productivism and the desire to dominate the
earth are contained also within socialist
ideologies, particularly Marxism which also
defend hierarchical social relations.
Even before the emergence of Primitivism
or Deep Ecology, Bookchin realised the
danger of an ecological understanding that
was based upon a misanthropic, anti-
humanist ideology.
"In utopia man no more returns to his
ancestral immediacy with nature than
anarcho-communism returns to primitive
communism. Whether now or in the future,
human relationships with nature are
mediated by science, technology and
knowledge. But whether science,
technology and knowledge
will improve nature to its own benefit will
depend upon man's ability to improve his
social condition. Either revolution will
create an ecological society, with new
ecotechnologies and ecocommunities, or
humanity and the natural world as we know
it today will perish." (Post-scarcity anarchism, 1970).
===============================================
`Hopes were artificially high that the possibility of a
new working class movement for a self-managed socialism
would emerge, somehow, from the wreckage of these
===============================================
Bookchin's vision of a massively decentralised,
stateless and classless society which
rationally utilises technology in order
to both save the planet and to save
humanity remains a minority current within
mainstream green thought and organisation.
On the on hand, reformist green parties and
pressure groups remain entirely within the
camp of a kinder, gentler capitalism, whilst
on the other Primitivist and post-primitivist
groups prefer to rage against civilisation
itself whilst following an equally reformist
trajectory.
There is much to criticise in Bookchin's
arguments. His rejection of the working
class as motor force of revolutionary
transformation, his support for a `libertarian
municipalism' which tends to equate to
electoralism etc. But his arguments on the
need for a liberatory technology and an
anti-hierarchical praxis have certainly
influenced the Anarchist Federation and
even some of his ostensible critics in the
ecological resistance.

Green revolution

In the early 1990s, much of the cross
fertilization between libertarian communist
and green thought found organisational
form in Britain with the journal Green
Revolution: a revolutionary
newspaper working for ecological
survival, human liberation and
direct action. Though short-lived,
Green Revolution attempted an
eclectic, but coherent approach,
embracing "...an unbroken
tradition of struggle". This tradition
included the Diggers of the English
Civil War, William Morris and the
Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. It called for
a "Green and libertarian critique of
Marxism" and understood that "The
war against the planet is a class
war". Green Revolution was caught
revolutionary potential in social
ecology.

The collapse of `communism'

The end of `existing socialism' with the
death of the Soviet Union and the other
state capitalist dictatorships was welcomed
by libertarian communists, not least those
few who lived in those countries. Hopes
were artificially high that the possibility of
a new working class movement for a self-
managed socialism would emerge,
somehow, from the wreckage of these
societies. But, although a blossoming of
libertarian and anti-capitalist groups,
newspapers etc. was almost immediate, the
reality was that, instability, ethnic conflict
and massive attacks upon working class
living conditions were the norm across the
former `Socialist' states as private
capitalism arrived.

For the Stalinist left across the world the
`collapse of communism' created crisis and
deepened schisms. But the Trotskyist left
also felt the effects. The Workers States,
however degenerated or deformed, were for
them still examples of non-capitalist
societies. Their collapse left them in an
awkward situation.

For those who considered these so-called
Workers States as variants of capitalist
societies, however, their demise also had a
strangely negative impact. Certainly we had
no illusion that our God had failed, but the
relentless trumpeting of the `End of
Communism' and by extension, of all
collective solutions to the problems posed
by capitalism, by the bourgeoisie was
demoralising. "Look at what happens when
you have a revolution. Dictatorship and
unfreedom inevitably follows!" harped the
ruling class, "Give up now!". As no wave
of resistance to the new reign of free
market economics seemed to be
forthcoming from the working class of the
former Soviet Bloc, the early nineties
looked bleak.

The return of working class selforganisation

The defeat of the miners strike was an
enormous blow to working class
confidence. The subsequent unsuccessful
struggles in British industry such as those
of the print workers at Warrington and
Wapping, along with the general run-down
of manufacturing, left many feeling
despondent. The community based struggle
against the Poll Tax in the late 1980s-early
1990s, whilst inspiring, did not signal the
beginnings of a new working class
combativity. By 1996, the Liverpool
Dockers' fight appeared like a struggle
from another era. And, despite the efforts o
the Dockers to internationalise the struggle
and to seek new allies in the direct action
oriented movements such as Reclaim the
Streets, the dead hand of the Transport and
General Workers Union ensured defeat.

Autonomous struggle?

In parts of Europe during the period of
1986 until the mid-nineties, new
developments in the class struggle were
taking place. As everywhere, working class
living conditions were under attack and as
everywhere, the Trade Unions were
desperately trying to maintain their
negotiating positions and to control any
autonomous struggle.
In Italy, self-organised co-ordinations of
workers began to emerge during 1985,
particularly amongst teachers, railway
workers and metalworkers. These co-
ordinations were outside the existing union
and, where the traditional unions existed,
quickly entered into conflict with them.
Although different names were used in
different industries and regions, the
movement became known as the COBAS
movement (from Committees of the Base)
and used mass assemblies, recallable
delegates and militant tactics to conduct
their struggles. The political complexion of
the movement was diverse and included
various elements from the old Workers
Autonomy movement of the 1970s, as well
as Trotskyists, anarchists and others.
Mostly its strength lay in mobilising those
workers who were fed-up with the response
of the established unions to attacks upon
their sectors.

Although the COBAS movement was a
positive example of self-organisation, it
suffered from sectionalism and the desire o
some of its activists to become a new trade
union, a little more left and a little less
bureaucratic than the traditional ones. In
February 1991 the COBAS, alongside the
anarcho-syndicalist union, the USI,
organised a self-managed general strike
against the Gulf War, which involved
200,000 people. This initiative brought
more people out far more than the
combined membership of the committees
and USI put together.

A year later a formal organisation, the CUB
(United rank and file confederation) was
established, uniting workers across various
sectors. This `alternative' union is today
one of several in Italy, including the
UniCobas, which has an explicitly
libertarian perspective. These organisations
have developed their own bureaucratic
practices and operate somewhere between a
political group, a trade union and their
original role as a tool of liaison and co-
ordinated struggle.
------------------------------------------
`In February 1991 the COBAS, alongside the
anarcho-syndicalist union, USI, organised a self-
managed general strike against the Gulf War, which
involved 200,000 people.'
------------------------------------------
France: echoes of 1968?

In France during the early 1990s a similar
development took place as workers in the
health service, transport workers, posties,
workers in the car industry, the airports and
elsewhere began to self-organise. They
established independent Liaison
Committees which attempted to co-ordinate
activity in their sectors. These Committees
were constantly having to out manoeuvre
the various established trade unions,
themselves competing for recognition and
advantage. Wildcat strikes involving lorry
drivers, nurses and care workers, brought
thousands of self-organised workers out.
When these struggles died down, some
following more success than others, the
independent Committees tended not to
establish themselves, as in Italy, as
permanent structures. Many of those
involved in these strikes in 1990-1992 were
subsequently involved in the mass strike
wave of the Hot Autumn of 1995. Public
sector workers responded to proposed
attacks upon social security, pensions and
the public budget with a series of strikes,
mass demonstrations and occupations. With
echoes of 1968 (see In The Tradition part
3), at times this took on an almost
insurrectional character with pitched battles
between coal miners and police, the
occupation of public buildings and
barricades rising in towns and cities across
the country. Eventually, with union help,
the most active groups of workers, such as
the rail workers, were isolated and the
struggles petered out.
What such events point to is that even in a
period where the ruling class seems to have
extinguished the spirit of revolt and any
vision of a better world, the basic
contradictions of capitalism create
resistance. Likewise, the stranglehold of
bureaucrats and officials is challenged by
the innate creativity of the mass of working
people, time and time again.

In the tradition?

The In the Tradition series has attempted to
draw the very briefest outline of the ideas,
people and events that have influenced the
development of the modern libertarian
communist movement. Most of the events
have allowed us insights into how people
attempt to practically solve the problems of
organisation and struggle. Many have been
inspirational and we have learned most
from the activity of (extra)ordinary people
trying to understand and change their
world.

The Anarchist Federation accepts no guru,
no theoretical God or master. We think no
libertarian group or individual should. But
we reject anti-intellectualism and
ahistorical approaches, both of which are
far too common amongst anarchists.
Neither do we favour an eclecticism that
simply borrows from here and there
without critical appreciation. We hope that
readers will seek out for themselves the
thinkers, groups and movements that we
have talked about. We hope that readers
will take the time to contact us, demanding
to know why we haven't covered x, y and z!
So many important events and theories
haven't made it into the parts, perhaps we
should have started work on a book several
years ago!

But, in a period such as our own, when
libertarian revolutionary movements are
growing in areas where they had never
existed until the last 20 years, then the need
for an engagement with where we have
been is central to any understanding of
where we are going in the future. We hope
that In the Tradition has made a small
contribution to making that engagement
possible.
=============================
* Organise! #63 - Winter 2004 FOR REVOLUTIONARY ANARCHISM -
the magazin of the anarchist federation


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