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(en) Britain, Newcastle anarchists: Putting class back on the agenda

Date Wed, 25 Sep 2013 10:40:03 +0300

[Blog post by a Newcastle anarchists looking at how different radical groups approach the issue of class, both in an economic and a cultural sense, with specific focus on their experiences with Class War and the Solidarity Federation. ---- Working class pride is having time out on the naughty step, as anarchists have squabbled in recent years to redefine the essential character of their movement. Plasmatelly takes a look at how diverse groups of radical workers can throw up contrary notions of cultural assimilation. ---- How posh is your comrade? ---- Following the collapse of Class War and it's schtick of over-egging the prole pudding, class seems to have slided somewhat as a rallying cry for the downtrodden employed. ---- Rather than analyse what Class War brought to the table in the way of productive and useful politics to advance our corner, let's focus briefly on the one issue they concentrated on, white working class identity.

Once upon a time, when CW was a force, the paper was sold widely where I live in Newcastle - even in newsagents - and they only had to produce a pull-out poster and with some leg work you could spot them in people's windows. Newcastle had been royally shagged for decades and class hatred was something that didn't need whipping up, just re-directed and organised (something CW could never do with any useful effect). CW seemed on the brink of something big, though no one could define what that may be. A friend who was around then commented that "you could sense when Class War was hitting the big time as almost in a weekend, every crustie in town swopped their dreadlocks for a skinhead and shell suit." They didn't need to pronounce their working class identity, they were the real thing right enough, but such was the peer pressure; hippies and punks were bourgeois (not that they'd use that word, rather it'd be a vitriolic accusation of being middle class, or some such rot). Nobody knew what the plan quite was, but by god they weren't going to be mistaken as middle class. It was like waiting for the second coming of the Khmer Rouge.

But for all the front and talk, CW still hid away the odd slummer; those whose working class credentials were a tad flakey, shall we say, by house standards. Tyneside Class War would hold bingo and quiz nights, organised by (as time has shown us) well off social climbers with phd's. Those rocking up - and these were very well attended - would take the medicine; under no circumstances was there talk of irony - this (crap entertainment you could get anywhere if you were working class) was the future. My parents must have thought me mad - declaring myself an anarchist and taking up bingo. "Well, if you like bingo so much, you can take your Nana.."

And despite all the self promotion, the stunts, the bullshit, even the air of possibility, Class War was nothing but a political organisation that had no connection to the economic. Putting class back on the table with no sense of organised labour could only fuel a cultural model and a bad pastiche at that. With regards to class, at best, all they could acheive was to control the appearance of the organisation. A cultural stereotype of the working class upstart and anarchist.

Of course, there's nothing essentially wrong in being who you are. We can't choose our parents. But for all the huffing and puffing that CW did about class, it didn't stop the upwardly mobile taking hold of the reigns of, at least, the Tyneside branch. Should that make a difference? Well actually I think it does.

The political separated from the economic

Class War organised - if this is the correct usage of the word - on a political level only. It sought to organise working class people outside the workplace. The contradiction between the stereotype of the working class people it tried to appeal to and the membership who joined was only that on a cultural level. For all the hissy fits about what defines true working class identity, CW flew in the face of the reality that white working class people are massively culturally diverse. Trying to pin us down is impossible except perhaps by what we do for a living. CW may have had the best intentions in banging the class drum, but without the economic - that is, organising on workplace lines - CW could only work with a stereotype of us proles. Everything else was simply middle class.

You ain't no different to me

On a personal level, being a SolFed member at this early stage in our history, throws up those contradictions that CW refused to tackle. If I stand next to another member of SolFed who I don't happen to work with and discuss cultural interests it may be that we are as polar opposites. She may be a well versed educationalist, former private school pupil, a lover of the arts, of music, of good manners and decorum. I'm not. I'm a bit of a twat. But one thing unites us beyond our politics, is that of our economic class. We are employees, we do not own the means of production, we have only collective power. And despite possibly coming from a more affluent family, there has to be some acceptance and trust that that person is genuine, but in just the same way that she is atypical within the working class, tolerance is a two way street.

So, even though I may have a working relationship, even friendship, with that other member of SolFed - there could be some understood revulsion or amusement about who each other is - neither one is essentially wanting to antagonise, though both parties wishing the other a bit more like themselves.

I could imagine something like the situation that CW found itself in happening to any purely political organisation which is class driven; constantly redefining what is culturally acceptable, trying to homogenise the membership and of course the possibility of the most capable, confident and dynamic taking leading roles. Of course CW had a kind of reverse snobbery borne from a well founded mistrust and dislike of the rise of the radical middle class (largely because they can only really thrive in non-economic organisations). Personally, I'm not likely to see them at work, they tend not to work on the buildings having had the good sense to stick in at school. (I wish I had).

Putting class back on the agenda

Obviously SolFed isn't CW; it doesn't dabble in stereotypes and no one to my knowledge is planning cultural assimilation. And most importantly, it doesn't need to. Not just in SolFed - and this piece isn't meant to be about SolFed - but all workers who are organised in their workplaces have an instant advantage over those that collect on a purely political level - they understand their own collective working class identity. They understand their own language and culture, they live on the same economic plain. As much as I respect that fellow member SolFed member (who doesn't exist, by the way), our own personal working class identities have the potential to contradict and be misunderstood, we belong to different worlds.

As we move towards unions, defining ourselves as working class should be easier to understand. There should be less need to strike a balance; the meeting place is the union, the membership your workmates. The rules of conversation and behaviour are better understood. Being explicitly working class shouldn't be about defining our own culture so narrowly, it's about seeking commonality and better tolerance and, most of all, solidarity around working class identity. And, until we are organised in our own workplace unions with workmates from backgrounds we know and understand, we should always remember the tale of the track-suited hippies from Newcastle before we start imposing our own mores on those that share the same politics as ourselves.
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