Organise! magazine Issue 82 Summer 2014
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FULL CONTENTS Organise! magazine Issue 82 winter 2014:
- Editorial – What’s in the latest Organise!? Read online below.
- The Fire Next Time? Read in full online below.
- Crisis on the left, crisis within the British Anarchist movement. Read in full online below.
- The Political Thought of Errico Malatesta
- About Platformism, synthesism and the “Fontenis affair”
- The Life and Work of Anarchist Omar Oziz
- To what extent are Nozick’s notions of self-ownership, inviolable liberty and capitalism
- The Zoot Suit As Rebellion. Read in full online below.
- Culture Article: The Anarchist Woodcuts of Alexandre Mairet
- Review: Decolonizing Anarchism by Maia Ramnath. AK Press & Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2011.
- Review: Anarchism in Galicia: Organisation, Resistance and Women in the Underground. Essays by Eliseo Fernandez, Anton Briallos and Carmen BIanco. Edited and translated by Paul Sharkey, Kate Sharpley Library.
Editorial: What’s in the latest Organise!?
In this issue of Organise! we take a cold-blooded look at the scale of attacks that we are facing as a class. The mounting frenzy of attacks is a real class Blitzkrieg, a shock and awe offensive that is stripping away many of the benefits we have fought for and gained over the last century. Not only are our health services and education, pay and conditions and pensions in grave danger but the scale of the housing crisis is reaching frightening proportions. In tandem with this is a frantic campaign in the media against the homeless, claimants, and immigrants in an attempt to find scapegoats and distract us from the real culprits for the state we are in – the boss class.
In anticipation of any fightback, some of the other things we fought for and gained over the last few centuries are under increasing threat. Free speech, free assemblyand the right to demonstrate, all of these are under pressure and the police continue to reveal how corrupt and brutal they are. The most recent examples have been their attacks on student demonstrators and their campaign of intimidation against anti-fracking activists. In addition to this we are more and more aware of how far states have gone in a massive surveillance of our phone calls and emails. We are also made more aware of the police infiltration of different political groups, with the aim of provoking, disrupting and gathering information on activists.
One would think that these conditions would have created a mass movement by now in Britain. We look at why this challenge has certainly not been initiated or helped by the traditional left. We know that opposition will break out at some point, but it won’t be the decaying left that has a key role in this. However, we don’t gloat over the decline of the left when we see that our own anarchist scene suffers from a profound malaise. We examine these questions in some details and offer some solutions whilst at the same time wanting to provoke a debate within British anarchism.
We look at the ideas of an important anarchist, the Italian, Errico Malatesta, continuing a survey of his thought and practice started in issue 82. Malatesta is an extremely pragmatic thinker and his ideas should once again be re-discovered and appraised and he has much to offer us when we look at how we can build an anarchist movement that is effective and can begin to attract wider support.
Malatesta was a fervent supporter of effective anarchist organisation. In an article on Platformism and Synthesism we look at ways anarchists have organised and are organising and the problems that they have faced in the past. How we organise as anarchists remains acutely pressing and this article is an important contribution to that debate.
We also look at the ideas of someone we don’t think we should emulate, the fake ‘libertarian’ Robert Nozick, who under the cover of a discourse about freedom offers us an unadulterated 110 % proof raw capitalism.
We continue our series of occasional articles on rebel youth cultures with a look at the zootsuiters of the United States who brought down upon themselves a nasty media campaign and orchestrated violence because of their challenging of the norms of American society during World War Two.
We also continue our series on anarchist artists and writers with a look at the work of the anarchist wood cut specialist Alexandre Mairet, whose artwork war-time (this time the First World War) gave his support to anti-militarist and anti-capitalist propaganda.
Plus our usual reviews of books and pamphlets and you have yet another scintillating issue of Organise! from the Anarchist Federation.
Organise! magazine, issue 82, Summer 2014.
To order a printed copy or download the full PDF of this issue see details above, or read on for selected articles.
The Fire Next Time?
We look at the increasing stresses and strains within modern British society, and within the worldwide capitalist system as a whole. Will this lead to increasing apathy or to a sudden outbreak of protest, of urban uprisings?
“As nations of the world are thrown into a debt crisis, the likes of which have never been seen before, harsh fiscal ‘austerity’ measures will be undertaken in a flawed attempt to service the debts. The result will be the elimination of the middle class. When the middle class is absorbed into the labour class – the lower class – and lose their social, political, and economic foundations, they will riot, rebel, and revolt.” From The Global Economic Crisis: Riots, Rebellion and Revolution. When Empire Hits Home, Part 3: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-global-economic-crisis-riots-rebellion-and-revolution/18529
It is no accident that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is attempting to get a measure through the Greater London Authority about the use of water cannon by the Metropolitan Police. This wily politician, who masquerades as a lovable buffoon, is as sharp as many other members of his class, and has their alert class consciousness. He knows the social pressures are mounting continuously with more and more austerity measures piling up, on what seems like a daily basis. Johnson confirmed that he had made this decision based on the summer riots of 2011, which affected several cities in Britain. As the comedian Jeremy Hardy has noted: “He may seem like a lovable buffoon, but you know he wouldn’t hesitate to line you all up against a wall and have you shot”
In fact the current situation could be compared to that of the horrendous torture and execution device called pressing, of loading ever increasing weights on to a prone victim, bringing about their death via crushing.
The number of suicides as a result of the Department of Work and Pensions campaign against the unemployed, in collusion with its unemployed -bashing mercenaries ATOS, is mounting. Those people who through disability or physical and mental illness are on benefits, are under increasing pressure from this brutal agency, which is paid £100 million (!) a year to do the dirty work. One incontinent woman was told by ATOS to wear a nappy. Another woman dying of breast cancer had her benefits cut by £30 a week. When she appealed, her benefits were reinstated, but she died shortly after. Over half of those who appealed against ATOS decisions were found to be justified, and this increased statistically when they were represented by lawyers or benefits advisers. In retaliation, the Government is planning to withdraw legal aid from appellants. In a coordinated attack on the disabled, the Government announced the closure of 36 Remploy factories, which employed disabled workers. This resulted in compulsory redundancies for 1,700 workers. At the same time, Disability Living Allowance is being cut, which will seriously hinder many disabled people being able to work.
Attack on the Elderly
As a result of cuts to local authority spending over the last four years, at least 250,000 older vulnerable people are being deprived of care over such things as bathing, dressing and eating. The number of older people receiving “Meals on Wheels” dropped by half. Obviously with this came a concomitant cut in the number of care workers. This increased the pressure on family carers and friends, with a resulting increase in hospital entries. As Holly Holder, a co-author of a Nuffield Trust report remarked: “It is highly likely that this is having a negative effect on older people’s health and wellbeing and that of their carers, but without adequate data to assess this impact, the NHS and government are flying blind when it comes to managing demand and planning for the future.” Already one thousand-and rising- people have received letters with instructions on how to get back into work, even though some of them have less than six months to live. One notable recent case involved one person being accounted “fit to work” when they had already died!
These cuts in local authority spending also put pressure on the elderly in terms of day centres being closed, as they also impacted on young people with the closure of youth centres.
The Student Crisis
The student crisis is one that will have long term effects. The axing of student grants in 1998 by the Labour Government and the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees was the start on attacks on easy access to higher education. These tuition fees have increased to £9,000 at the present time, with the passing of the Higher Education Act in 2004 by the Labour government of Blair to introduce variable fees. This brought in fees of up to 3,000 a year in the academic year 2007-2008. In 2010 the cap on student fees was set at £9,000, meaning that universities could, and did, raise their fees to this figure.
In late March of this year it emerged that the Coalition government is now preparing to abolish this cap, thus opening the chance for university administrations to increase their annual tuition fees to up to £16,000 a year. Already this is stopping many people from going to university. It further confirms the move to a two-tier education system. In conjunction with the ending of student grants in 1998, came the abolition of maintenance grants for living expenses starting in the academic year 1999-2000. This forced students to take out large student loans from that date on, trapping many in debt. Those now entering the jobs market are now already in debt to the sum of tens of thousands of pounds. Increasingly, only those able to afford to pay for tuition fees and living costs at the same time will be in the position to snap up lucrative jobs.
Attack on the Homeless
There is also a twin pronged attack on the homeless, through government legislation and through the actions and policies of the local State, that is, local councils. The Coalition government brought in legislation against the squatting of empty residential housing recently, in summer 2012. It is looking towards extending this ban to public and commercial buildings in the coming years. In London, the number of homeless people has risen by 60% over the last two years. In tandem with this and not just involving the homeless, but those still with shelter but in impoverished conditions, half a million people are now using food banks. As well as attacks on squatting, the Coalition Government introduced cuts to local housing allowances to people in private accommodation administered by local councils. In a staggering display of class arrogance, Philippa Roe, heading up finance at Westminster Council, said that “If larger families have to move out strong transport links will allow children to travel to schools and friends and families to stay in touch”. The Conservative controlled Westminster Council has paid a key role in lobbying Ministers to remove the responsibilities of local councils to house the homeless. It attempted to ban soup kitchens in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral in late 2011 but was forced to make a U-turn after a general outcry. However plans to ban soup kitchens in the area are once again being put on the agenda, together with a campaign against rough sleeping. A leading figure in Westminster Council said: “Soup runs have no place in the 21st century. It is undignified that people are being fed on the streets. They actually encourage people to sleep rough with all the dangers that entails. Our priority is to get people off the streets altogether. We have a range of services that can help do that.”
In tandem with this local councils are increasing their attacks on the homeless. In many areas, local councils are fiddling the figures for the number of rough sleepers in their area, deliberately minimising the numbers. In March of this year Newham Council, controlled by Labour, separated an elderly disabled couple who had found themselves homeless. They were put in separate accommodation in a move reminiscent of the practice of separating married couples in workhouses during the Victorian period! In another vile move, Newham Council, with the enchanting figure of Sir Robin Wales at its head, served ASBOs on 28 rough sleepers. They worked in alliance with the notorious UK Border Agency. Unmesh Desai was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1980s for his advocacy of physical attacks on the far right, known as “squadism”. This young radical has become the Labour Party enforcer for Newham, with a post as executive member for crime and anti-social behaviour. He went on record as saying: “Residents do not regard sleeping, drinking, urinating, or taking drugs on the streets and using threatening or violent behaviour as an acceptable way of life. We will not tolerate it, and will take action wherever we are able to reduce anti-social behaviour and crime linked to rough sleeping.”
Attack on Social Housing
The Government pushed through the Localism Act in 2012. This was intended to spearhead a harsh attack on social housing, whether either the rapidly dwindling council housing or the housing associations. Tenants will now be robbed of security of tenure. Newly let council properties can be let on five year (occasionally two year) ‘fixed term secure tenancies’. Councils can now discharge those duties to house the homeless by insisting they take fixed term tenancies in council or housing association accommodation or private accommodation, with no security of tenure at all. Before this, homeless families had to be offered the choice of a social housing tenancy, although often following a period in temporary accommodation. Housing Associations can now charge up to 80% market rents on newly let properties.
Labour councils as well as those controlled by the Conservatives, rushed to implement these new rules. The Labour councils of Haringey, Lambeth and Newham brought in the new 5 year tenancies, despite having no legal obligation to do so. Once children of families in this accommodation move out (that is if they can afford to do so) they are then deemed as under-occupying, meaning their tenancy will not be renewed. They can then be evicted and provided with insecure private housing. In private accommodation there is no security of tenancy, and families can be evicted with only a two-month notice. In addition, in particular problem areas like London, avaricious landlords and land speculator sharks have driven up rents to astronomical levels. The housing benefit cap means many will not be able to afford these rents and are being forced out of inner-city areas.
The £500 housing benefit cap will affect those in housing association property as rents are raised. Even those in employment but on low wages will be penalised. Mark Hoban, Minister of Employment, under the new Universal Credit scheme, is preparing plans for those in work, but who need benefits to top up their income, to be forced to retrain to up their incomes or face benefit cuts.
In conjunction with this attack, there are massive attacks on those claiming unemployment benefits. Very large numbers of jobseekers are being deprived of benefits for arbitrary reasons. It is known that jobcentre advisors have been given targets to deprive the unemployed of their benefits.
Attack on Pensions
The government has now sped up its legislation over the age of retirement with the age of receiving a state pension going up to the age of 66 in 2020. In addition, the pension age of women to be equal with that of men is accelerated, to be completed by 2018. Plans are also underway to increase the State Pension Age to 67 by 2036 and 68 by 2046. The Government is also looking at applying this rising State Pension age to public service pension schemes! For many, this may well mean that they work until they do, with the idea of a happy retirement a dim and distant possibility.
Meanwhile this Government is continuing to support sweetheart deals where its capitalist friends and supporters, like Vodaphone and Goldman Sachs, can get away without paying taxes to the tune of billions of pounds, and where millionaires like Mick Jagger and Bob Geldof stash their wealth in offshore companies.
The Ecological Crisis
The idea that climate change is not a likelihood has received a thorough soaking lately. Extreme weather conditions, with their effects on agriculture and indeed on housing, are more likely to be a common occurrence. The ecological crisis is increasingly combining with the economic crisis. So around the world, particularly in what has been called the “periphery of the global capitalist system” or the “Global South”, new environmental movements are emerging, involving an increasing working class component, with an increasing input from indigenous peoples in Canada, Latin and Central America, China, Egypt, etc. This has involved campaigns against toxicity and pollution, against the construction of dams and high speed railway lines and tunnels, etc. The need for increased exploitation on a global level has given birth to a “disaster capitalism” like never before. The continuation of humanity is increasingly at doubt, as is the continuation of many of the “higher” species of animal. Increasingly we may well see –and as cited there are already indications of this- of a convergence of interests involving class and labour with environmental, race and gender issues, bringing to fruition the sort of movement the Anarchist Federation and others have advocated for the past few decades (see our pamphlet The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation). The need to develop a ‘libertarian front’ of all these movements and groups is built. Thus, revolutionary work consists in part of linking each area of struggle, bringing out all latent anti-capitalist and libertarian tendencies.
In Britain such movements could emerge around the embryonic anti-fracking and anti-nuclear power movement, although it is possible that they could equally develop around other environmental issues. Bear in mind that fracking and nuclear power are now important planks in this government’s policies. The police thugs that were once used against miners are applying their brutal tactics to anti-fracking activists, awakening many to the nature of the police.
Increasing Police Surveillance
More and more people are increasingly becoming witnesses to, and indeed victims of, police methods. From the already mentioned attacks on the anti-fracking activists, via the attacks and kettling of anti-capitalist protestors in anti-G8 and anti-IMF actions, and the anti-fascist mobilisations where many were kettled and arrested in Tower Hamlets, to the increasing criminalisation of student protest, the most recent example being the recent kettling of students in Birmingham. Black people and Asian people have long been at the receiving end of police brutality and harassment, as have political activists in recent years. In addition to this is the increasing use of CCTV in every sphere of life. The recent revelations by Edward Snowden showed that the US and the British state were colluding in the mass surveillance of phone calls, emails, and internet usage.
The police in Britain were used as a weapon to beat the miners’ strike of 1984-5, and they have proceeded to play a more overtly political role, returning to the one of naked intimidation as witnessed in previous decades of struggle. More and more people are witnessing their true nature, and among the conscious active minority of students, this has been a revelation that has had a radicalising effect. At the same time the Government is attacking the jobs, conditions, and pensions of the police, causing certain resentment there, a factor which could play a role if there were mass unrest and mass confrontation.
Coupled with this is the role of much of the media in whipping up attacks: on benefit claimants and the unemployed, on rough sleepers and squatters, and on immigrants. Any future revolutionary movement must, as a priority, look to the development of its own media, its own mass propaganda and means of communication.
The Coming Social Blaze
We can see that a number of factors are coming together, whether over attacks on pensions, on housing, or over increasing criminalisation of dissent. The role of both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party is being exposed in many graphic ways. And yet there appears at the moment to be no alternative being offered. The Left, or part of it, still clings to the Labour Party, whilst other parts of it attempt to replicate the “good old days” of Old Labour- as if its record was any better than New Labour, and as if these were not two heads of the same beast. They seek to raise the Lazarus of Welfare State Labourism by their impotent incantations- Left Unity, The People’s Assemblies, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, etc.
And yet the anarchist and revolutionary groupings cannot seem to gain much of an audience, and they remain isolated and small. Numbers on demonstrations, pickets, rallies and public meetings are at low levels, whilst those involved in campaigns and local neighbourhood work are similarly low. The number of strikes has fallen to a new low, whilst workplace activism has been similarly affected.
We have indicated that there are many increasing stresses and strains in British society. Many of these stresses and strains can be seen in countries around the world. The magnitude of the crisis affecting capitalism is reaching gigantic proportions at every level. Yet we know that a social quickening must come at some point. We cannot predict where it will first burst out, we cannot predict how it will spread, but the likelihood is that it will burst forth and surprise us all. Here are some indications of where it could burst forth. We have already indicated anti-fracking and anti-nuclear power movements as potential poles of struggle, another could be over the question of housing. We can see this in the development of various private renters groups that have emerged with their anti-landlord outlook and their occupations of up-market housing. Struggles over the attacks on social housing and over gentrification could be sparks to set off the social bonfire. Equally, the squatting laws themselves have been proved to be full of loopholes, with some recent examples of acquittals of those occupying residential property. The looming intensity of the housing crisis could ignite mass squats and occupations of housing and land. In London the amount of empty housing has increased by 40% over the last year. Kensington and Chelsea ranks highest in the number of empty homes among London boroughs. The centre of London and indeed of many other major cities of the world has been sold to Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs in the “buy to leave” phenomenon, where super-rich overseas buyers use prime property as an investment, with no intention of occupying. Whole areas of cities are becoming ghost towns. This phenomenon started with the last financial crash, when Swiss banks and other havens of the rich came under increasing scrutiny. These people moved their oft dodgy riches away from the banks to investing in prime property.
Organise! magazine, issue 82, Summer 2014.
Crisis on the left, crisis within the British anarchist movement
We look at the accelerating decay of the British traditional left and turn a critical eye on British anarchism.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and then the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, we in what was then the Anarchist Communist Federation (we changed our name to the Anarchist Federation in 1999) predicted the collapse of Communist Parties in the West and a related crisis in what we called the “little brother “ of official Communism, the Trotskyist movement. But the Communist Parties in Portugal and Greece still remain mass parties and still have some reactionary influence in sabotaging the independent struggle of the working class there.
Well, the process took a little bit longer than we at first envisaged and is still in process. Here in Britain in the early 1990s, the Communist Party shattered into old time Stalinist wings (The Communist Party of Britain(CPB) and the New Communist Party), whilst the Eurocommunist wing quickly disappeared off the face of the earth, with some of its personnel ending up as advisers of the Labour Party leaders Kinnock and Blair. The CPB still wields some influence via their input into the daily newspaper the Morning Star, but like the other fragments it is an aging and shrinking organisation with little recruitment from new generations. The Communist Party’s large influence in the trade unions, especially within their bureaucracies, has declined with the decline of the trade unions themselves, especially with the decimation of heavy industry (engineers, miners, steelworkers etc.).
As to the Trotskyist movement, perhaps we should have taken more note of the crisis that had already happened within a fairly large Trotskyist formation, the Workers Revolutionary Party, in 1985-6. For years its leader Gerry Healy, with the other leading lights within it turning a blind eye, was able to sexually abuse and rape many of its young female members. At the same time he and the WRP entered into pacts with the regimes in Libya and Syria. In return for support in their daily paper, the WRP received funds from these regimes, a lot of which Healy funnelled into his own bank accounts. He and others in the WRP provided information on leftist opponents to the Syrian regimes, with the result that some of them were captured and died agonising deaths at the hands of Assad’s butchers. The whole story of Healy’s systematic rape of young WRPers did not come to light until it was used in a faction fight within the leadership. In the process the WRP broke into a dozen different grouplets, many of which are now moribund or live a half-life.
Trot, Trot Trotsky Goodbye!
We had originally thought that British Trotskyism would implode as a result of the collapse of Stalinism and indeed of the whole idea of welfarism, the Welfare State no longer being possible with the new demands of evolving capitalism. Certainly the Trotskyist movement has had a parasitic relationship with the Labour Party, either when organising “entrist” groups within it, or whilst organising outside it like the Socialist Workers Party, having a position of “critical “ support for Labour “Left” MPs, particularly with the phenomenon of Bennism and with “left” trade union bureaucrats. Practically all of these groups with a few exceptions call for a “critical “ vote for Labour at the time of elections, and the whole history of Trotskyism in Britain is very much characterised by an orientation towards what they call the “labour movement”, in reality the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy.
What the WRP crisis should have taught us was that the Leninist concept of organisation, with its hierarchy of cadre leadership, can lead on to a fear of the rank and file membership and a willingness to keep it in the dark, the growth of a self-seeking bureaucratic caste, increasing authoritarianism, and the developing belief that one’s group is the one true party representing the working class. This leads onto the manufacture of a particular atmosphere inside that group, where the leadership bodies maintain a mutual solidarity against the membership, and where abuses by one of this group can either be ignored or covered up. This is not to say that every Trotskyist group has the problems that the WRP, and more recently the SWP, has experienced. Neither does it mean that similar scenarios have not happened within the British anarchist movement. What it means is that the structure of these groups facilitates the cover-up of abuses by a leading member. The attitude of the SWP leaders was to close ranks and deny any abuses. Further to this it is worth bearing in mind the comments of Rebecca Winter in her Silent No Longer: Confronting Sexual Violence in The Left : “The lack of internal democracy within the SWP certainly hindered the efforts of those seeking change within the organisation, but informal social processes influenced by misogynist ideas about sexual violence can be just as destructive to the lives of sexual violence survivors.”
The SWP is now in freefall. It constituted the largest group on the Left. It had already had disastrous splits after its experiments in constructing an electoral alliance with the ex-Labour MP George Galloway, Respect, and through this and its work in a front it more or less controlled, the Stop The War Coalition, it went into alliance with reactionary Islamists. Galloway is an extremely astute operator and he used the SWP for his own objectives, discarding them when they were no longer useful. Someone had to be blamed for the Galloway fiasco and the equally disastrous alliance with Islamist reaction. As a result the SWP leaders Lyndsey German and John Rees were sacrificed and now lead another formation, Counterfire, which shows no signs of growing and appears to be in decline itself. The more recent splits after the sexual abuse show little signs of learning very much, with a continuing liking for getting into bed with Islamists. Meanwhile they harp back to the “IS tradition”, that is the early days when International Socialism (IS) was the precursor of the SWP. The IS is portrayed as having a libertarian outlook, when nothing could have been further from the truth. The only reason it was fairly open in those days- and that is all relative- was because it was so small and had to operate as an apparently open organisation.
As to the second largest Trotskyist group the Socialist Party, it too is experiencing internal problems. It operated an entrist grouping within the Labour Party, the Militant Tendency, and had a fairly large membership. However after it was expelled from Labour in 1991 the majority formed the Socialist Party, losing a lot of its membership it had had whilst in the Labour Party. It too is now experiencing internal difficulties. None of the other much smaller Trotskyist groups in Britain are faring well, with many shrinking or suffering splits themselves. None of these smaller groups appears to be able to recruit and these groups are all shrinking with an aging membership.
There seems to be a hope among anarchists that these splits would mean that some of them would move in a libertarian direction. This hope is based on the development of the expelled members of the Socialist Labour League, the precursor of the WRP, who formed the Solidarity group in 1960 and DID move very decisively in a libertarian socialist direction. However only a few individuals from these splits with the recent SWP crisis seem to be doing this, with the fragments- the International Socialist Network, Revolutionary Socialism for the 21st Century, Revolutionary Socialists- remaining firmly within the Leninist camp (The Commune, a previous split from the small Trotskyist group Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, showed some signs of being inspired by the ideas of Solidarity to a certain extent, but its initial promise proved short lived and it now exists only as a one-man internet presence) . Indeed the ISN is now in a process with other ailing Trotskyist groups –Anticapitalist Initiative, Socialist Resistance, and Workers Power- to constitute a larger grouping, whilst at the same time orienting towards the various initiatives to build what in practice is a movement modelled on Bennism, The People’s Assemblies, which are supported by both Stalinist and Trotskyist groupings, and Left Unity , which is an attempt to create an Old Labour style machine uniting reformists with Trotskyists.
The People’s Assembly movement involves Labour Party members like Owen Jones- who one might feel has a desire to be a future leader of that Party- and wants to be a group that exerts pressure on the Labour Party from the left in the same way that UKIP pressures the Conservatives from the right. Alongside these staunch supporters of the Old Labour vision are the Counterfire group which hopes to manipulate this movement the way its leading lights controlled The Stop The War Coalition, the dregs of Bennism , left trade union bureaucrats and assorted other Stalinists and Trotskyists. NO lessons appear to have been learnt, and the duplication of old and discredited forms of organisation and politics are perpetuated.
As Phil Dickens noted on his blog: The nature of leftist politics in the UK at present and the monopoly of resources and influence such organisations hold means that this is a necessity in order to stage such a large meeting and get the crowds in. But it also helps to guarantee that this new project will be just as stale and formulaic as the last one. http://libcom.org/blog/extra-cynical-look-peoples-assembly-13062013
As to Left Unity and its attempt to create a new party, the stresses and strains between the different factions that make it up are already making it dead in the water. The Trotskyist groups are already swarming in to what they see as a fertile recruiting ground and three different platforms have already been up within it. It in all likelihood will go the same way as a previous and similar attempt, the Socialist Alliance, (1992-2005) which imploded for the same reasons. This was a left electoral alliance that was rift by struggles between the SWP, the Socialist Party, and other Trot groups. Eventually the majority of what was left of it was led into the Respect coalition of Galloway by the SWP.
It seems likely that this decline and decay of the traditional left looks like it will continue. Whilst we shed no tears about this, one would think that the vacuum that is being formed could be filled by those who advocate revolutionary libertarian ideas like self-organisation, direct action and anti-electoralism, and that the anarchist and libertarian left would be up to this. Unfortunately this is not the case.
British Anarchism? Oh dear!
It might be fruitful to quote at length from a previous article in Organise! from issue 42, spring 1996 :
“The ACF remains a comparatively small organisation. Its desire to create or be the component of a large revolutionary organisation and movement has failed to happen. Many are put off joining a group where a strong commitment and a lot of determination are required. Many libertarian revolutionaries are as yet unconvinced of the need to create a specific libertarian communist organisation. They remain tied to the ideas of local groups, or at best regional federations loosely linked, being adequate for the very difficult tasks of introducing libertarian revolutionary ideas and practices to the mass of the population. They remain unconvinced of the need for a unified strategy and practice, for ideological and tactical unity and collective action as we in the ACF have insisted upon consistently. Some remain mesmerised by the myths of nationalism and national liberation, some by illusions in the unions. …….As we noted in Virus 9, in late 1986-early 1987:”There has been little sharing of experiences among libertarians in various campaigns and struggles. Even on something as basic as a demonstration, libertarians have marched separately and in different parts of the demonstration”. This still remains true today, despite several attempts by the ACF over the years to encourage coordinations, and even (still) on basic things like a united contingent on a demo. Libertarians remain within their separate local groups and organisations. There is little dialogue and little attempt for united activity, for forums and debates where these are possible. And yet not since the pre-World War 1 period and the late 60s has there been such a potential for the growth of the libertarian revolutionary movement. The collapse of Stalinism, the changes within social-democracy-including the British variety of Labourism- with the end of welfarism, and the effects of both of these on Trotskyism, have created a space which revolutionary anarchists must fill.”
Unfortunately these words remain as true today as they were those 18 years ago. Whilst there has been some growth in both the Anarchist Federation and the Solidarity Federation, there seems little will or desire for collaboration, both between the national organisations, and between national federations and local unaffiliated groups.
An indication of the malaise within this scene- a scene rather than a movement as the last term implies some shared identity, which seems lacking- is the disappearance of hard copy publications like the newspaper Freedom and the magazine Black Flag [update: there is a plan for an issue in time for the London Bookfair 2014]. These both disappeared essentially because they lacked a base able to write for them and to distribute and sell them. Other magazines like the magazine of the Solidarity Federation, Direct Action, and Here and Now, based in Glasgow and Leeds, have also disappeared. They were unconnected to a movement, a network of groups and individuals, or a national organisation or organisations. Even the problem of a lack of a visible and united presence on demonstrations and actions is one that still plagues British anarchism.
In 1997, the year after these words above were written we saw the collapse of the Class War Federation, though a rump continued on and still produced Class War into the 21st century. With its final extinction one would have thought that we had seen the last of the mix of populism, heavy use of stunts, and occasional electoral adventures coupled with an anti-theoretical base. At its outset Class War had been a refreshing new venture breaking with the liberalism and pacifism of what passed for an anarchist movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However it soon became a parody of itself and its unwillingness to develop beyond the politics of the stunt doomed it. Now however, just like the way the traditional left continues to repeat its errors over and over again, new attempts by some people with their origins in Class War are reappearing. A loose and adhoc attempt to run CW candidates in the next election is under way, with stickers already appearing, where a few revolutionary demands are covered up by a host of reformist and populist slogans. Like the traditional left, the old ex-Class War seems to have learnt no new lessons.
What passes for British anarchism seems at the moment unable to develop as a result of the space created by the decline of the traditional left and seems to be in crisis itself. Various conferences which somehow sought to unite the different anarchist groups and develop a revolutionary practice- Mayday 1998, the Anarchist Movement Conference of 2009, the ALARM Conference of 2012- all proved to be damp squibs and failed as organisers. Some local attempts to organise- the Whitechapel Anarchist Group, the ALARM London-wide network, also collapsed. Meanwhile the Haringey Solidarity Group, which has done sterling local work over many decades has, we must speak truthfully, failed to develop its idea of a network of local London community groups, influenced by libertarian ideas. Apart from the HSG, few local neighbourhood/borough groups have developed and the network, Radical London, only flickers on.
What then can we do? If we are serious anarchists we must look at how we can grow our influence and numbers. As already cited there has been some useful local work in neighbourhoods and several interesting attempts to set up Solidarity Networks. There has been some work around workplace issues and strikes, and some valuable work around housing, evictions, Workfare, and the Bedroom Tax. This work is not enough, it needs to be multiplied. We need to develop a serious class struggle anarchist practice and theory. We need to move away from amateurism and lack of seriousness. We have to develop a willingness and practice of coordinated activity wherever we can, and that includes coordinated blocs on demonstrations. We must turn away from the outlook of organisational patriotism and look for practical unity wherever possible. We have to reject populism, electoralism and anti-organisationalism.
At a time when the intensity of the ruling class attack on our living standards, on our wages and conditions, on free speech and assembly, are increasing at a frightening pace, British anarchism must heed the wake-up call. Either it undergoes a renaissance, with the possible emergence of grass roots struggle (see the separate article in this issue The Fire Next Time?) and relates to that struggle, or it consigns itself to continued irrelevance.
The Zoot Suit As Rebellion
“A killer-diller coat with a drape-shape, reat-pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell”. Detroit Red aka Malcolm X
“These youths refused to accept the racialized norms of segregated America. With their flashy ensembles, distinct slang, extra cash (generated by a booming war economy), and rebellious attitude, pachucos and pachucas participated in a spectacular subculture and threatened the social order by visibly occupying public spaces.” Catherine Ramirez, Woman in a Zoot Suit.
In previous issues of Organise! we have focussed on various youth movements that developed in the 20th century and in one way or other were expressions of dissent and disquiet with the present system. We have taken looks at the Edelweiss Pirates, the Zazous of France, and the Schlurfs of Austria. In this issue we look at the zoot-suiters, a style and movement that developed among black and Hispanic Americans.
The zoot suit appears to have developed around 1935 in nightclubs in the black area of Harlem, New York, at Sammy’s Follies and the Savoy Ballroom. Zoot suits exaggerated the smart 1930s look, and were worn by young blacks as an expression of personality, in a world where social recognition, and a limited one at that, could only be gained through being a musician, boxer, and in a few instances, as a writer.
The future Malcolm X was fifteen in 1940 when he bought his first zoot suit. In the Autobiography of Malcolm X he describes this outfit: “‘I was measured, and the young salesman picked off a rack a zoot suit that was just wild: sky-blue pants thirty inches in the knee and angle narrowed down to twelve inches at the bottom, and a long coat that pinched my waist and flared out below my knees. As a gift, the salesman said, the store would give me a narrow leather belt with my initial ‘L’ on it. Then he said I ought to also buy a hat, and I did – blue, with a feather in the four-inch brim. Then the store gave me another present: a long, thick-lined, gold plated chain that swung down lower than my coat hem. I was sold forever on credit. … I took three of those twenty-five cent sepia-toned, while-you wait pictures of myself, posed the way ‘hipsters’ wearing their zoots would ‘cool it’ – hat angled, knees drawn close together, feet wide apart, both index fingers jabbed toward the floor. The long coat and swinging chain and the Punjab pants were much more dramatic if you stood that way.’
The determination to have a smart appearance despite poverty, as a sign of pride and self-respect, has a long tradition in the working class. Musicians, whether in blues or jazz, made a big effort to be smartly turned out. Musicians, among them Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, always dressed in immaculate suits and were called “The Gentlemen of Harlem”.
The zoot suit took this notion of gentility and immaculate clothing three steps further, upping the ante with jackets with huge shoulders and trousers pegged down to the ankles.
As the black author Ralph Ellison in his magnificent novel The Invisible Man wrote: “What about these three boys, coming now along the platform, tall and slender, walking with swinging shoulders in their well-pressed, too-hot-for-summer suits, their collars high and tight about their necks, their identical hats of black cheap felt set upon the crowns of their heads with a severe formality above their conked hair? It was as though I’d never seen their like before: walking slowly, their shoulders swaying, their legs swinging from their hips in trousers that ballooned upward from cuffs fitting snug about their ankles; their coats long and hip-tight with shoulders far too broad to be those of natural western men.”
So the zoot suit was more than an exaggerated gentility, more than a fashion statement. As Stuart Cosgrove notes in The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare: “These youths were not simply grotesque dandies parading the city’s secret underworld, they were ‘the stewards of something uncomfortable’, a spectacular reminder that the social order had failed to contain their energy and difference….The zoot suit was a refusal; a subcultural gesture that refused to concede to the manners of subservience”. It was a symbol of pride of ethnicity.
The zoot suit fashion began spreading from the black urban areas to the Mexican-American youths –the pachucos – of Los Angeles and other towns on the West Coast, who further popularised the look. The Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz wrote in his The Labyrinth of Solitude that: “The pachucos are youths, for the most part of Mexican origin, who form gangs in southern U.S. cities. They can be identified by their language and behaviour, as well as by the clothing they affect. They are instinctive rebels, and North American racism has vented its wrath on them more than once.” The pachucos were second-generation working class immigrants. They were alienated by the racism around them, whether at school, in work, or on the welfare line. Rather than hiding their disgust with society, they adopted a swaggering and proud posture. Like black zoot-suiters they paraded their hostility and difference. It should be remembered that both pachucos and pachucas held down several jobs at a time, and had to save for many weeks to acquire their expensive and immaculate apparel.
In addition, the style spread to Filipino-American youth. In the 1940s, they were banned from white dance halls in California and began to frequent dance halls with a black and Hispanic clientele, some of them picking up the zoot suit style, as did some Japanese-American youths.
The wearing of the zoot suit became more and more difficult with the outbreak of war and the introduction of wool rationing by the War Production Board in March 1942, with a 26% cut in the use of fabrics. This turned the sporting of zoot suits into illicit acts. However they continued to be made by underground tailors. Zoot-suiters became seen more and more as anti-patriotic.
The war mobilised over four million civilians into the US armed forces. At the same time five million women entered the wartime labour force. This caused big changes in family life, with the erosion of parental control. There was a marked increase in juvenile delinquency. Because of parents being on active military service or in war work and with an increase in night work because of the demands of the war, many young people were able to stay out late on street corners, or in bars and cafes.
The Zoot Suit Riots
The wearing of the zoot suit was now in very marked and polarised opposition to servicemen in uniform. Zoot suit wearers were seen as both delinquents and as thumbing the nose at rationing.
In early June 1943 servicemen on shore leave in Los Angeles began to attack pachuco zoot-suiters in the street. As a result, sixty zoot suiters, rather than their attackers, were arrested by the police. The police began to patrol the streets, whilst rumours circulated of servicemen forming vigilante groups. More and more zoot-suiters were attacked and stripped of their outfits. Some drunken sailors ran riot through a cinema, dragged two pachuco zooters on stage, where their suits were stripped from them and urinated on. The confiscated suits were burnt on bonfires. In addition, in a move that reflected what happened with Hitler Youth attacks on Schlurfs and Vichy youth organisation attacks on Zazous, zoot suiters had their ducktail hairstyles shorn by rampaging, soldiers, sailors, and marines.
In the second week of June, Pachuco youths retaliated by slashing a sailor, whilst a policeman was run over when he tried to flag down a car-full of zoot-suiters. Pachucos stoned a train load of sailors, fights broke out daily in San Bernardino, and vigilantes assembled in San Diego and began to look for zoot-suiters. Meanwhile a young Mexican was stabbed by Marines.
The riots accelerated with a police special officer gunning down a zoot-suiter in Azusa. Pachuco youths were arrested for rioting in the Lincoln Heights district of LA. Now black zoot-suiters became involved, wrecking a train in Watts. Three zoot suit “gang leaders” received widespread coverage in the press after their arrests. Two were Mexican, whilst the other was black. Their arrests confirmed the popular view that most zoot-suiters were black or Mexican, that they were of conscription age but were avoiding it or had been exempted on medical grounds. What was conveniently forgotten was coverage of white zoot-suiters, of servicemen being arrested for rioting, and the refusal of Mexican-American servicemen to take part in vigilante raids.
The riots spread beyond California to Arizona and Texas. Now media coverage began to concentrate on gangs of women zoot-suiters, like the Slick Chicks and the Black Widows. The appearance of the female zoot-suiters was linked to the breakdown of family normality: “… There are many indications that the war years saw a remarkable increase in the numbers of young women who were taken into social care or referred to penal institutions, as a result of the specific social problems they had to encounter” (Cosgrove). The Slick Chicks and Black Widows wore black drape jackets, fishnet stockings, and tight skirts, with heavy make-up, dark lipstick, and black eyeliner, with pompadour hairstyles. Some adopted the full zoot suit outfit, challenging heterosexual norms of dressing. Cosgrove again: “The Black Widows clearly existed outside the orthodoxies of wartime society: playing no part in the industrial war effort, and openly challenging conventional notions of feminine beauty and sexuality”.
Whilst the disorder died down in Los Angeles in the second week of June, it now spread to Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. Within three weeks, Detroit experienced the worst race riot in its history. These were not “zoot suit riots” as such, but nevertheless they were preceded by attacks on wearers of zoot suits, that is, black youths.
The press had from the start instigated and fuelled hostility against wearers of the zoot suit and against Pachuco culture. During the disorder, their daily and false reports further fanned the flames. However, other parts of the establishment were worried. State senators were concerned about relations with Mexico. Senator Downey said that there could be “grave consequences” with the souring of relations between the USA and Mexico, hindering the supply of Mexican labour to help grow crops in California. The Mexican embassy did then raise the matter with the State department. These US administrators were not concerned with the appalling abuse and discrimination against the Mexican-American population, they were concerned the effect the riots would have on the economy.
The press now began to deny the racial component of the disorder. As the black writer Chester Himes protested: “Zoot Riots are Race Riots” (Himes wrote a great series of novels set in Harlem, with characters like Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed, which should be read!) The response of the authorities was a crackdown on bootleg tailors, additional detention centres, a youth forestry camp for youth under the age of 16, as well as an increase in military and shore police, some increase in neighbourhood recreation facilities, etc. As Cosgrove notes: “The outcome of the zoot-suit riots was an inadequate, highly localised, and relatively ineffective body of short-term public policies that provided no guidelines for the more serious riots in Detroit and Harlem later in the same summer.”
The zoot suit riots had an important effect on a generation of youth that was socially disadvantaged. They happened whilst the USA was at war and they broke with the official orthodoxy that America was united and was a champion of freedom. They, and the riots in Detroit that followed, were signs of the unrest that was to come in the 1960s, when new movements emerged and once again riots broke out. As Himes said, the racial factor was important, but as important was the development of youth cultures that were beginning to reject the norms of capitalist society, inequality, racism, and, with the pachucas, sexism and “normal” sexuality. They with the contemporary youth movements in Austria, France, and Germany, were to be heralds of new and combative youth cultures that were to emerge in the post-war years.
References: Baldwin, Natalia. War on the Home front: Politics and the Zoot Suit
Cosgrove, Stuart. The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare in Zoot Suits and Second Hand Dresses Mcrobbie, Angela (ed.)
Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Organise! magazine, issue 82, Summer 2014.