(Reprinted from Ethical Record, journal of the South Place Ethical Society, October 1989)
May I propose the application of some SPES rationalism to the myth of class politics as displayed, particularly, in The Unsung Heroes of the First Austrian Republic, by Gertrude Elias (ER July/August).
This article repeatedly identifies the workers with the left. It calls the fight for equal wages for women and free abortion “the workers’ struggle”; firing at a peace march becomes “an attack on the workers,” and after those accused were acquitted “the workers” were outraged; “the workers” marched on the Law Courts; “the Austrian workers” had no intention of joining the fascists; “the Austrian workers” were determined to fight for their right to work.
No reason is given for using “the workers” instead of “some of the workers” (or a convenient equivalent), although the article itself contains evidence that the Austrian workers at that time were not identified, as a whole, with the left.
Speaking of a fascist private army used to harass the “labour” movement (i.e. the left) the article says the Austrian workers had no intention of joining it. So who did belong to it for the sake of fifty pence a day, with hot sausages and free beer? The capitalists? The realities begin to appear when the article speaks of events as the Nazi movement – which included many workers – increased its influence: “socialist municipalities were taken over” “socialists and communists were rounded up”. “Socialism had to go underground.” Not the workers, but socialists and communists.
Doubtless most socialists and communists were workers then as they are today, but so were (and are) most conservatives, most liberals and most fascists. Every political movement large enough to be socially significant consists mainly of people on the lower levels of the economic pyramid; only there are the necessary numbers to be found.
The wording of the article implies that the workers of Austria at that time were identified, as a body, with the left wing. It is a claim often made or implied by the socialist and communist movements in other connections, and it is no more valid than the conservative claim to represent the whole nation. If we are to think rationally about the great social, political and economic questions we need to recognise this.
Yours etc. George Walford
(From Freedom, the Anarchist Fortnightly)
In Freedom of 14 July the article Anarchism by DR points out that “Even the most oppressive of bosses needs at least the tacit consent of the majority of subjects… ” and “The limits of political power are decided, not by the good will of the powerful, but by what the unpowerful will tolerate.”
This is not always obvious, for the State normally takes care to act within the limits set by what the general body of the people are willing to accept. But occasionally it gets out of line, trying to do something that large numbers are not willing to tolerate, or to refuse something they demand; when that happens the outcome shows that final power lies with the people rather than the State. Early in World War II there was a struggle to get the Tube stations opened to the public as air-raid shelters. The authorities refusing to give way the people simply took over, buying tickets but not travelling; settling down for the night with their bundles and baskets of food. On the night of 27 September, 1940, there were estimated to be 180,000 on the platforms. That number was only a tiny part of the population even of London, but it was enough to carry the decision. The State cannot stand against the big numbers.
(Data from an article by Tom Hopkinson, former editor of Picture Post, in the Observer of 24 June).
from Ideological Commentary 49, January 1991.