George Walford: Class Politics, an Exhausted Myth

Erect upon the barricade, sledgehammer in one hand, Das Kapital in the other, Red Flag whipping overhead, the classic figure of communist revolution wears overalls. Anarchism flies the Black Flag and repudiates all dictatorship, even that of the proletariat, but it, also, sees itself as a movement of the oppressed; the idea that those on the upper levels of the social pyramid will want to preserve it, while those near the bottom try to overturn it, has become one of the unquestioned givens of advanced political thinking. This has not always been so. Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen intended to benefit the oppressed, but for the power to put their schemes into effect they looked to the rulers, the Frenchmen appealing to Napoleon and Owen addressing the American Senate. They made an impression – “socialism” was coined as a name for Owen’s ideas – but fell short of their main object.

Marx ascribed their lack of success to utopianism; he named class interest as the motive power of political movements, exalting the workers as the modern revolutionary class. Most anarchists repudiate Marxism and its methods, yet many of them believe – most often they just take it for granted – that the unemployed, and people obliged to work for a poor living, will incline towards anarchism while the rich turn away from it. They too accept the myth that class position determines, or significantly influences, political attachment.

Anarchists (and others) holding this belief use a double standard in their thinking. Most princes, counts, members of landowning families and capitalists accept existing society, and when one of them – Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Bakunin, William Morris – turns against it he wins praise for the intelligence and honesty with which he overcame the malign influence of class. Most bus drivers, working housewives and schoolteachers also accept present society, preferring it to any alternative offered, but when one of these turns to anarchism the class-theorists think it only normal.

In the first great upheaval of modern times the aristos did not all belong to the aristocracy, and the sans-culottes earned their title by wearing, whatever their class, revolutionary trousers instead of reactionary knee-breeches. If the revolutionaries had had only the tiny minority of aristocrats against them they’d have found things a lot easier than they did; the popular voice demanded more police rather than greater freedom, and – as the support later given to Napoleon confirmed – vast numbers of French people preferred control, hierarchy and conquest to liberty, equality and brotherhood. In the French Revolution the two sides distinguished themselves not by their class position but by their politics, and this has continued in later revolutions, successful and otherwise. Franco’s soldiers came mostly from the same class as most of their opponents, so did those of the White armies, and so did the Red soldiers who put down Makhno; political divisions do not correspond with class divisions and show no sign of coming to do so.

When you ask why most of the people who have to earn a living don’t in fact support anarchism (or communism or socialism), the standard answer blames the influence of the rich and powerful. They, the argument goes, make sure the people learn to respect the monarchy, the establishment and the church, to work for their bosses and to obey the government and the police. They convince the people that they ought to act in these ways, they impose false beliefs. And they keep anarchism from getting a fair hearing.

Taking anarchists as a group we find them mentally active, argumentative, literate and highly vocal. Anybody who stops them making themselves heard has brought off a clever trick; how is it done? The rich and powerful control most of the newspapers, television and radio stations, and won’t allow the anarchists access to them; so the argument runs.

The bosses own these things, and they get the profits from them, but do they control them in the sense of deciding what to publish? On any one day, perhaps, but over the long period only if they don’t mind losing their investment. Take a newspaper, one privately owned. To show a profit it must please its advertisers, and these need a mass readership. The proprietors have no way of forcing people to buy their journal; they can get them to do so only by printing things they will want to read, and owners of magazines and radio or television stations also have to present a message adapted, in form and content, to the intended audience. Where the state owns or subsidises the media this makes little difference, for with small audiences they won’t make much impression and will probably lose their subsidies. Mass media have to attract the mass audience and they can only do this by offering what people want. They don’t say much about anarchism because few people have any interest in it.

This usually brings the answer: “Well, of course people aren’t interested. The rulers have kept them from knowing what anarchism really means.” That argument does not stand up; those who have become anarchists provide a living refutation of it, showing that ownership of the media by the capitalists does not prevent people taking up anarchism. In Hyde Park at weekends you can see that numbers of people do get to hear anarchist ideas put forward by anarchists, and you can also see their response. Occasionally one will listen, accept it, and go on from there, but most laugh and turn away, satisfied that they know better. Enthusiastic amateurs, the anarchist speakers carry on in spite of all discouragement, but professionals cannot do that. A newspaper, magazine or television station that persisted in presenting material of no interest to most of its audience would soon get reduced to the condition of the anarchist press, struggling for survival while those catering to mass preferences sweep ahead. Doubtless most bosses find the virtual exclusion of anarchism from the mass media very acceptable, but they do not bring it about themselves; the viewers, the readers, the listeners do that. They may not intend it but their response has that effect.

Now turn to government, presented by communism as the executive committee of the ruling class and believed by most anarchists, also, to work in the interests of the rich and powerful. Like the media, it has to give the great majority what they will accept. The press barons can’t force people to read newspapers they don’t want, and the government cannot force the general body of the people to obey laws they don’t want. When the police disperse a demonstration it looks as though they have overwhelming power, but – in Britain for example – no demonstration ever attracts more than a few tens of thousands out of fifty million; the police need to deal with only a tiny minority.

Government could put down the Indian Mutiny because most of the sepoys remained loyal, and the Easter Rising because most of the Irish did not actively support it. When the Indian people began to assert themselves the British had to leave, and when the American people began to turn against the Vietnam war their government had to drop it. The government of the USA could not enforce prohibition and British governments could not stop off-course betting. That doesn’t sound like a very big thing to do, but it beat them. They tried all through the twenties, thirties and forties and into the fifties and finally gave up, allowing betting-shops and turning the government itself into a bookmaker with Premium Bonds. They can’t stop hooliganism, vandalism, prostitution, shoplifting or pornography. No government can end illegal drug-taking and no government has ever managed to stop crime. When any large part of the people want to do something they do it, and government tags along willy-nilly; it cannot stand against the big numbers.

Anarchists speak as if government maintained a high level of efficiency, but the newspapers reveal it as confused, blundering and incompetent. Government can’t get schools that are sure to stay up, or motorways that will carry the traffic. Its police break the law, its advanced weapons systems seldom work properly, its space shuttle blows up, its nuclear power stations burn down, and it keeps falling over its own feet. Remember Watergate, look at the Spycatcher nonsense and the Poll Tax shambles. Government readily gives way before widespread opposition; most of the schemes announced get radically altered before reaching practice, and many quietly vanish. Government can only get what the people allow it to have, only do what they permit it to do.

The armed forces of government serve mainly against the forces of other governments. Within their own countries the police succeed only against individuals and small minorities, and even then their effectiveness has limits. Government can put isolated people or small groups in jail – though it can’t always keep them there – but, as Heath discovered, it has to get most of the people on its side before tackling the trade unions. If one regiment rebels, or two or three regiments, government can suppress them, but every successful revolution shows that when a large part of the army turns awkward government cannot do much about it. Who can dragoon the dragoons? The army, like the police, draws its strength from the people.

Communist governments can no more force their people than tsarist or capitalist ones. For forty years in China and seventy years in Russia they tried their hardest, using force almost without restraint, slaughtering millions in the attempt to impose a collectivist economy. They failed. Both these countries have started moving towards a system much like Western capitalism, impelled by the persistent, almost inarticulate, determination of their people.

Government does not, either by force or by fraud, impose upon the majority the will of any small minority. It cannot compel the general body of the people, and it can mislead them only within limits; until recently techniques of deception were primitive, and now a society depending on technology has to keep the sources of information open. On the big issues, such as whether we shall have an anarchist society, government has no option but to move with the people, and formal democracy has little to do with it. If the people, or a majority of them, or sometimes even a large minority of them, decide to disobey the government, it gets disobeyed (Sunday trading provides one recent example), and if they decide to overthrow it it gets overthrown. It may look as though governments hold the final power, but only because they usually take care to keep within the limits of what the people will accept. Anything outside those bounds governments can’t do, and they recognise this with the phrase “politically impossible.”

Capitalism and the authoritarian state survive because they suit the preference of the great numbers. Most of the rich and powerful ignore or oppose anarchism, but that hardly matters; even if they wanted anarchy they wouldn’t get it unless the people agreed. Marx said the ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class; the phrase makes better sense reversed: the ideas of a ruling class are those of its society. The vast majority of the people subscribing to the “bourgeois” ideology belong to the ruled, and they accept as rulers only those holding similar beliefs. When asking why society behaves as it does the wealthy and powerful minority can be left out of account, because if, over any long period or in any serious way, they go against what the people want, they lose both wealth and power. They lose them the way the French Kings, the Russian Tsars, the Chinese Emperors and the Shah of Persia lost theirs. The way ex-President Marcos lost his and the way the “communist” rulers of Soviet Russia are now losing theirs. The reason we don’t have anarchy is not that the upper class or the government or the state oppose it, but that the general body of the people don’t want it. Finally, power belongs to the people. That is no mere aspiration but a straightforward statement of present fact.

A great many anarchists will deny most of this, yet if you look at what they do, instead of just listening to what they say, you find their actions supporting it. They try to convert not the rich, the rulers, the newspaper owners or the employers but the people, and by doing that they show themselves to believe, deep down, below the level of words, that these hold the decisive power. In this they have the right of it, for although one person with wealth has more power than one without it, the people without come in far greater numbers, so that as a whole, as a class, they have more power than the wealthy. In their thousands of millions they decide what sort of society we shall have, and so far they have preferred not to have anarchy (or socialism or communism either). Their class position has not led them to support the movement, and we have no good reason for expecting it to do so in future.

I started off with the classic image of the revolutionary on the barricade, and that has the great defect of failing to show that the opposition to revolution also comes mainly from the people. When bullets replace ballots the overalls do not assemble in one trench with the top hats in the other. No revolution has ever set the rich and powerful on one side with the people over against them; a bayonet has a worker on each end in revolution as in war. If we keep on seeing anarchism as a class movement we shall be clinging to a myth that never did work very well and has now lost any effectiveness it may once have possessed.

It is not only a false myth but a dangerous one. If you believe the people to have aspirations that anarchism (or communism or socialism) can satisfy, and a minority to be holding them back, then the obvious solution requires you to get rid of that minority. You pull down the emperors, the tsars, the kings and the priests. That doesn’t help, so you knock off the rich. When that makes no difference you start on the bureaucrats; Stalin’s functionaries were jailed or executed sometimes down to the fifth replacement. When the people still don’t move you start on the intellectuals and the successful peasants. When those have gone, and it still makes no difference, you start looking for hidden enemies of the revolution; you start blaming, jailing and killing ordinary people who dare to criticise. All these things happened in Russia under Stalin and in China under Mao.

The myth of class politics has done a great deal of harm, and the sooner we break free of it the better. Anarchists can be old or young, tall or short, male or female, educated or uneducated, black, brown, red, yellow or pale greyish pink, and they can belong to any class. They distinguish themselves by their way of thinking, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of each class consists of non-anarchists shows that class position does not govern, or significantly influence, political affiliation.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.

Angles on Anarchism now available on the Kindle.