“Degenerate youth! Guttersnipes! Pimps! Bums! Thieves! Plunderers!” was the headline appeal of a Communist Youth newspaper in Germany in 1923. Had it been produced 50 years earlier in Marx’s day, it might have read: “Street Gamins! Riff-raff! Vagabonds! Beggars! Spivs!” Today: “Joyriders! Ram raiders! Pushers! Junkies!” would undoubtedly figure prominently.
In pitching their invitation, the Communist Youth authors did not attempt to offer any judgement on the accuracy of the epithets, beyond expressing their contempt for the bourgeois press that applied them to street gangs known as ‘cliques’ and it’s ‘gibbering’ about the “moral degeneration” of ‘youth’.
This appeal represented the beginning of a campaign by the German Communist Party (KPD) to try and organise and politicise the sections of society previously referred to by Marxists as the ‘lumpen proletariat’. Their reasons for so doing were many. In the first place, the KPD claimed as its strongholds the very neighbourhoods in which the cliques were at home, and the milieu of the cliques was reflected in its own composition. Secondly, while the KPD had a disproportionate number of manual and unemployed workers in it’s ranks, the main Social Democratic Party (SPD) retained the allegiance of the great majority of organised workers; which forced the KPD to seek recruits outside the ranks of the organised and employed working class. Thirdly, the KPD then was an avowedly insurrectionary party, which adopted and even welcomed the role ascribed to it by its opponents and rivals as a ‘party of outlaws’. The SPD regularly accused the Communists of having brought an unheard of coarseness and brutality into political life on the streets and in parliament, while for it’s part the Communists were known to be relatively tolerant of ex-convicts in its own ranks and whose chief political newspaper named spies and traitors to the movement and urged readers ‘to teach them a lesson’. Last but not least in the battle for the streets, as a result of the Brownshirts attempting to establish itself in strongholds of the Communists, knives and guns were being brought into the conflict as well as fists. Given that the credibility of the combatants depended on their displaying an active and effective response to the physical and political threat posed, the advantages of mobilising the energies and abilities of the cliques ‘in their own cause’ was fully apparent.
However to pretend that the strategy of orientating, organising and recruiting outside of the realm of the ‘idealised worker’ outside of its ‘proper’ constituency went smoothly, without controversy or contradiction, would be wrong. In fact the KPD never fully reconciled this departure from the orientation to the ‘point of production’. Indeed when the communist movement approached the worker outside the workplace or the working class child who had never known work, it always did so with suspicion.
Tellingly, when the party leadership thought of the gangs it saw them as possible allies rather than as bone fide members of its own constituency. A party less constricted in its vision of class and of politics, might have been expected. Indeed may have felt obliged to develop an analysis of the street gangs and their role within a progressive movement. It was never attempted. Logically there were only two lines of argument open to the Communists: on the one hand, they could acknowledge that the cliques and all they represented were marginal to the working class, or even that they were a symptom of the actual ‘pathology of the proletariat under capitalism’, but that the party while recognising them as degenerate nonetheless regarded them charitably.
On the other hand they could have concluded that the fact that individuals or groups were categorised as criminal, was the result not of intrinsic qualities that disqualified them from participation in the revolutionary movement, but of belonging to a single and universally (if not uniformly) oppressed working class, all of whose members were subject to the same pressures, processes and categorisation. In terms of the cliques this would have meant the KPD accepting they were no less representative of the working class for not being in work. In fact the KPD attitude on such related questions as anti-social crime, youth and so on, forever hovered between these two approaches. This ambivalence was particularly vivid when young Communists behaved like clique members. For instance the active and fighting formations of the Communist youth (with an emphasis “on ace lads only”) were often characterised by a style and mentality strikingly similar to those of the cliques. Inevitably this led not only to renewed concerns about the dangers and values of the latter, but interestingly, also became a source of conflict between the leadership and the rank and file. In 1931 this led to one of the most explosive moments of the conflict within the party as a whole. In an attempt to hold on to its tenuous legality, the definitive statement issued by the leadership in November 1931 of it’s rejection of ‘individual terror’ and ‘adventurist tendencies’ within the movement ended its insurrectionary phase. Which in turn led to open accusations from activists of the leadership having abandoned their revolutionary ideals, as well as betraying any effective defence against Nazi incursions into ‘Red’ neighbourhoods.
The leadership countered, that tendencies to ‘individual terror’ reflected a mood of ‘desperation’ and ‘revenge’, motives that characterised ‘the uprooted, insecure, petty bourgeoisie gone mad... alien to the socialist working class’. This depiction of the street fighters as ‘petit -bourgeois’ only exposed the inability of the party to describe, or accurately put into words activists who were in its view, neither perfectly disciplined Communists nor members of an alien class.
The KPD had no way to acknowledge that one might be working class, and yet behave in ways considered undesirable. This was a genuine confusion that arose within the Communist movement whenever a distinction had to be drawn between what was proletarian and what the emancipated proletarian ought to be, what the party had to deal with in terms of actual working class culture and what it was meant to make of it: and this confusion was not irrelevant to the party’s own capacity to carry out the political tasks it had set itself. Chief among them being social revolution, which was its raison d’etre. Instead of a social revolution what it actually got was a political counter-revolution and fascist dictatorship.
Considering the many other obstacles the KPD faced (not least Stalin’s own fears of the impact on Russia of a successful German revolution) it would be a mistake to imagine that a coherent class analysis alone would have made triumph possible.
Nonetheless if it was even to assess the prospects of change accurately and present them convincingly to actual and potential followers, the party had first to understand the reality it was aiming to change, and to confront the nature of its own constituency in its totality. And this it could not do with any consistency.
The party’s self image continued to be dominated by a view of class struggle that implied it should not be and need not be, dealing with the cliques in the first place. This view had no place in it for the analysis of working class culture as it reflected the construction of collective interest outside of the work place. There is no question that the elements of a new and inventive approach to the politics of every day life were present in the theoretical utterances of some spokesmen for the movement, and even more obvious in the actual practices of the KPD.
But as long as the party’s leaders continued to argue as though the progressive politicised culture it expected its members more or less spontaneously to represent, was the only real culture of the working class, they ran the risk both of blinding themselves to the points of vulnerability in class and movement alike, and of alienating their own followers who knew better.
Though we are self evidently addressing an entirely different situation in a different country, in a now different century, the lessons to be learned remain critical. All importantly~ the main point of conflicts within the KPD, have, due to time been resolved.
One, social democrats anywhere, pronouncedly in the case of New Labour, can no longer count with any confidence on the allegiance of ‘organised workers’. Two, the sections of the class most in need of organising are for the most part no longer unionised.
Consequently ‘the point of production’ as the best or indeed only basis from which to organise the working class in pursuit of its ‘immediate interests’, is in a complete break with a century of socialist custom and practice, passé, in Britain at least. It was on this premise that the Independent Working Class Association came about.
Three, there is of course Red Action itself. Here is an overtly political organisation formed by precisely the same social elements, who as a result of a confrontation between leadership and rank and file fighters, were accused of a propensity for ‘individual terror’ and expelled from a party riddled with markedly similar contradictions to the KPD.
But unlike their predecessors, rather than drift out of political life, they, rather impertinently, set themselves up in political opposition. Tellingly, of RA’s initial modest objectives, ‘to accommodate ordinary working class recruits within the then wider socialist family’, was one. To ‘celebrate working class culture’ another. Because many of the founding members, who if not exactly ‘convicts’, were not entirely unfamiliar with a prison cell either, there was never a danger of a conflict between the political rhetoric of the group and the reality of working class culture coming into conflict - and Red Action surviving.
Of course whether Red Action has marked an evolution or regression is dependant on your opinion on the proper boundaries of both proletarian behaviour and class, Suffice to say that up to the present, in line with tradition, the consensus amongst the mainstream Left is that Red Action is not merely a ‘party of outlaws’ but has, and continues to be for a wide variety of reasons, a menacing ‘party of renegades’.
Interestingly despite said developments, the potential for conflict either within Red Action, or between sections of the class on the question of class demarcation has not altogether abated. For instance, by some distance, the most heated debate at the RA Annual Conference in 1999, and the one which drew the greatest number of contributions (24 in total) was in relation to some proposals on the drugs issue. Since then, the debate has continued within the pages of our publications. Off the record the respective positions have been referred to (probably unsatisfactorily) as either ‘liberal’ or ‘reactionary’.
Quite properly all involved recognise that a) politicising working class neighbourhoods and avoiding the issue of drugs and related issues cannot be put off indefinitely and b) helping the IWCA define an appropriate strategy is not only crucial in itself, but could in conquering what is considered an insoluble problem, prove the lynchpin in progressive working class thinking on related issues.
At issue is not whether drugs are a good or bad thing, but how the subsequent problems should be managed. Personal behaviour, approval or disapproval, is neither here nor there. The key is devising a strategy that works. And works moreover in the interests of the real working class, politically and socially. And here we get to the root of the matter. Are ‘junkies’ and indeed ‘dealers’ to be considered part of a working class constituency, or are they a key component of what the 1848 Communist Manifesto referred to as the ‘most dangerous of classes’ opposed to it. How this question is resolved will be key in addressing the problem on the ground.
Marx to whom the phrase ‘lumpen proletariat’ is attributed was totally unambiguous in regard to the threat ‘the scum’ posed, in particular to revolutionaries. Time and time again he went in to bat on the subject. ‘Marginal, itinerant, obsolete, downtrodden, dregs’ were just some of the metaphors attributed to trades and livelihoods such as “beggars, vagabonds, rogue’s, police spies, spivs, Street gamins, petty thieves, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, pimps, brothel keepers organ grinders, rag-pickers, brothel keepers”: those who could not and were for the most part, unorganised, who contributed nothing productive and so lived as a parasite on society. (Importantly. this view does not extend to the ‘reserve army of labour’ the unemployed; who are ‘a consequence’ but also all importantly a ‘condition’ of capitalist production.)
Significantly as a result of their intimate studies of revolutionary endeavours across Europe over three decades their initial hardline view, only hardened as time went on. In 1870 Engels evaluated them thus: “The lumpen proletariat, this scum of all classes.., is absolutely venal and absolutely brazen. If the French workers in every revolution inscribed on the houses: Mort aux Ouvres! Death to Thieves! and even shot some, they did it not out of reverence for property, but because they rightly considered it necessary above all to get rid of that gang”. And again: “What all these elements, honest or dishonest, have in common is that they are functionless outsiders, discards of the system, or self discards”. Experience demonstrated to Marx and Engels that on the whole, whether ‘honest or dishonest discards or self-discards’ the ‘lumpen’ tended to be inhospitable to social ideals and are typically moved by cynical self interest on the most vulgar level, available to the highest bidder, untrustworthy even when bought up, and dangerous not only as accomplices but even as tools: “the worst of all possible allies”, as Engels commented. Consequently anyone who “relies on them for support proves himself by this action alone a traitor to the movement”.
In contemporary terms the casual drug user (either hard or soft) is not automatically fitted into such a catchment. It is not a question of personal morality. For our purposes, it is entirely dependent on how it relates to wider society generally, and working class communities specifically. Nonetheless it is evident that the historic character profile of the ‘discards and self-discards’ is an all to familiar one. Nor does it need a revolutionary conflict for their malign presence to be felt. Their corrosive effect on the self esteem, morale and material well being, once they have come to the fore within working class communities is well documented. That their defining character is a decidedly parasitic one is beyond question. Equally any progressive movement that had serious ambitions would face a confrontation with them sooner or later: that they are the enemy within is without doubt.
Clearly for ‘working class rule in working class areas’ to be made operable the real working class would have to be master.
Thus the revolutionary responsibility is three fold. Social democracy has ditched the working class, respectable and otherwise entirely, so all are now subject to the same bourgeois ‘underclass’ categorisation. The upshot being that the IWCA has the opportunity and moreover is obliged, to operate under the principle of the “big tent”; in the sense of accommodating and organising from the broadest class basis permissible (as against the position of the Communists who had no choice but to concentrate exclusively on those sections of the class rejected by social democracy).
Secondly, much like their employers, the police role in working class communities such as it is, has been re-defined as one of de facto containment. Finally, when the real working class counterpoise their interests in an organised fashion (most visibly in Dublin) to those who are feeding on their children, the state rushes quite brazenly in on the side of THEIR allies. In such circumstances to confront or even execute dealers as the IRA have done on occasion is ‘not out of reverence for the law’ but the opposite. Above all, for any progressive movement to continue its advance within a working class neighbourhood it will prove necessary ‘to get rid of that gang’. Get rid not merely as a by-product, but as an end in itself. Given the stakes, not taking sides is not an option.
In practical terms this means, as the IWCA have done on Blackbird Leys ‘dealing with them’ at an early stage by organising the real working class against them. This is not in itself a political solution but it is the foundation for one. For on the matter of class demarcation there can be no room, not least within Red Action, for any ‘ambivalence’.
Furthermore only when it is fully understood and accepted they are a natural adversary can it be worked out how their influence is ameliorated and undermined. But only when we ourselves are absolutely sure where we stand politically; are crystal clear on where the demarcation line is drawn, then and only then, can we allow any solution the luxury of the necessary liberal and charitable ingredients; ‘the carrot’ undeniably required to make it effective.
In the meantime the existence of the contemporary ‘lumpen’ is a glaring ‘point of vulnerability in class’ and potential movement alike and we who are best placed, the ones who ‘know better’, must not blind ourselves to this reality, or indeed, in particular, to the implications of the current balance of forces on the ground. For as the writer D.H. Lawrence put it:
“No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb - unless the lamb is inside”.(Research on KPD from an essay. Organising the Lumpen Proletariat; Cliques and Communists in Berlin during the Weimar Republic by Eve Rosenhaft, acclaimed author of Beating the Fascists. Material courtesy of C. Price, Baltimore.)
Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 5, Feb/March '00