Politics here in the UK is in a state of flux as the existing political parties start to fracture and split as a result of Brexit. Public discontent with the existing political parties grows by the day. The rise of Farage’s Brexit Party is one manifestation of how this discontent is being exploited by populist opportunists. On the other hand, Change UK is the last gasp of the technocratic ‘centrists’ trying to maintain some influence on the political process. Basically, to paraphrase, it’s a case of all that is solid melting into air.
A number of our comrades are asking why anarchism isn’t making more headway in what’s a volatile, unpredictable and potentially dangerous situation. More importantly, they’re asking why anarchism is failing to make any meaningful connection with an increasingly bitter, disillusioned working class. Most important of all, they’re asking why it’s the populists and the far right who potentially could end up making significant inroads into our class if we don’t raise our game.
A number of comrades have pointed to what they see as the growing influence of middle class identity politics in the anarchist movement in the UK as the problem. They see this as deterring the participation of working class anarchists who feel they’re not really welcome in the movement. The debate about the influence of middle class identity politics to the detriment of working class anarchists is an ongoing one that’s not only not going away any time soon but one that appears to be getting more bitter.
Definitions and the ‘debate’
There are issues relating to the definitions that are being used in this debate. From our perspective, what constitutes ‘identity politics’ is probably the most contentious. This is because, the more we think about it, the more amorphous and vague the term seems. Given that it’s used to describe what some of us would still see as liberation struggles all the way through to what some see as issues of personal identity, we’re coming to the view that ‘identity politics’ isn’t really a useful term to use any more.
What is the ‘working class’? Pretty much anyone who doesn’t have independent financial means and has to sell their labour in order to survive or is dependent on an increasingly vicious ‘benefits’ system. In other words, the majority of us, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or creed. Suffice to say, because of the ever changing nature of capitalism and the exploitation it can offer, the working class is constantly being formed and re-formed in response to this. Anyone who attempts to sub-divide us by ethnicity, nationality or creed needs to be shown the door pronto!
Definitions aside, the debate about the direction of the anarchist movement and it’s lack of relevance to our class goes on. The question is, do we continue to have this debate among ourselves while the working class turns to those they see as being able to provide a solution to their problems or do we get stuck into building an anarchism that will win our class over?
A comrade of mine once said that if you don’t like the way anarchists are organising and the issues they’re focusing on, get your mates together and start organising and mobilising around the issues that affect and concern you. Having made the error of getting involved in the row about gender identity that was exacerbated by events at the London Anarchist Bookfair in 2017, needlessly pissing off a lot of people in the process, I now realise that the above is very sound advice! Not only that, with the way things are going, we haven’t got the luxury of indulging in internal rows about the future direction of the anarchist movement while the world goes down the tubes dragging our class down with it.
How do we build a working class anarchism?
What we’ve been trying to do out here in Essex with our comrades from Basildon & Southend Housing Action is to develop an anarchism that’s relevant to our class. People on the estates feel they’ve been thrown under the bus and have lost faith in the political system. This is reflected in low voter registration and turn outs at local and national elections. This creates a political vacuum which the far right are only too happy to fill. Our presence at the grassroots on the estates is part of the strategy to fend off the far right.
Working at the level of the estates, our task is to do whatever is needed to empower people. Our ultimate aim is to give life to the old Independent Working Class Association slogan: Working Class Rule In Working Class Areas. This is easy to say – putting it into practice is a hard slog where we’re constantly learning lessons from our experiences and using them to alter and refine our approach. We can’t afford to stick to a rigid dogma – we have to be flexible and pragmatic.
Our ultimate goal is political, social and economic revolution, initiated by an empowered, progressive working class. It’s a case of nurturing different strands, bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. This means starting off with easily attainable goals and moving on from there. The process involves a range of tactics from facilitating residents in lobbying the council to practical actions that improve conditions on the estates.
In facilitating the lobbying of councils, purist anarchists may see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group, based in Basildon, by offering support, advice and logistical backing when necessary. When lobbying pays off, it empowers those involved to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands.
Then there’s the direct action. In the case of the Vange Hill estate, it’s a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there’s some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.
As this proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity.
If we want to change the world, we have to move out of our comfort zones and work with those who don’t agree with us. We need to be able to convince people that radical change is not only desirable but possible too. Just working with and writing for those who agree with us won’t help. We need to be there as part of the solution to the problems on the estates and in the workplace, whether this is dealing with fly-tipping or supporting a group of workers in a struggle for union recognition.
Empowering people to become more ambitious in their demands and aspirations is a step by step process. We’re in it for the long haul. The hope is that what we do on the estates where we have a presence a) inspires more people to get involved and b) inspires people on other estates to start doing the same. There will come a point when barriers will be hit as the authorities refuse to relinquish any more power. The hope is when this point is reached, people are politicised enough to push things forward in taking on the powers that be and start fighting for real change.
Building an anarchism that will draw in people from our class is a slog, an unremitting, long one at that. Winning people in our class over to our ideas and solutions has to be seen as a process. It’s not going to be achieved by a snappy blog or social media post. It can only be achieved by day to day engagement that recognises where people start from and working to change their perspectives. It means action that’s rooted in the working class communities where we live.
We have already written a piece about this issue which was published last autumn – Finding a way forward. On a personal note, the slog on the estates and the security risks that sometimes poses is infinitely preferable to an interminable internal debate that may never reach a conclusion. It’s what we do out here on the estates that counts, not how ‘clever’ we may or may not be in the debate about middle class identity politics versus working class anarchism. So hopefully, this will be our last word on the matter!
Dave (the editor)
This article is now available as a downloadable, printable publication from here.
Good on you for working so hard on your projects. And reminding us living in trendy parts of inner London that we need wider vision.
Just to say i don’t think it was a mistake for you to try to get involved in the ‘gender identity’ wars. You were trying to figure out what you thought and actually doing thinking and reading like a lot of people didn’t bother to. I admire that even if you came to different conclusions.
Unfortunately there are many who can’t just ‘get on with it’ and ignore that debate. Some women remain under threat of physical violence as well as constant attempts to exclude them from spaces. Some London anarchists and anti fascists have decided that feminists are fascists and must be physically confronted. The video of the incident at Mayday shows that the ‘threat’ from radical feminists is being a bit overstated, but LAFA have come out supporting Freedom’s fact-free statement from about terfs and have promised to continue to confront them. This is a ramping up of the threats of violence over the past 2 years by some people whose main or only political activity seems to be directed at the women they decide are ‘terfs’. That’s why eg class war complaining about extinction rebellion was a bit embarrassing…hey why couldn’t XR pay more attention to issues really affecting the working class like… um, terfs.
Meanwhile outside of tiny subcultural scenes more and more people are recognising that it’s not transphobic to question contemporary trans activism and there are now dozens of trans people online and irl openly seeking ways to get on with resolving the disputes with feminists. Debate is happening, it’s just happening without the so-called anarchists. Many people think that the tendency to want to punch people who disagree with you isn’t building any movement except the far right.
i know your article wasn’t all about this, and I like hearing about your efforts in your local area and why you do what you do so don’t want to derail, but just wanted to comment in that line about @ book fair and fall out. Happy for you to delete this comment rather than publish as don’t want a back n forth on your blog.
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