Community Action Gathering: The libertarian way to strengthen the local state

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If there’s something in the subject of an event that might attract people who want to talk about the class struggle, or any other aspect of communist politics, then the ICC will be interested. So when some of our militants went to a ‘Community Action Gathering’ held in East London in mid-June, we didn’t like the divisive workshops, but thought that one of the event’s aims - the promotion of “anti-authoritarian, anti-state, anti-capitalist and pro-working class politics, and collective, non-hierarchical forms of organisation” - might have interested people concerned with working class struggle.

Obviously we weren’t blind to the fact that the meeting was organised by two groups noted for campaigning for micro-reforms. The Hackney Independent website pictures abandoned cars that they want the local council to move, they worry about phone masts, they don’t want schools closed and they stood in the recent general election. Haringey Solidarity are concerned about advertising billboards, encourage people to sue the police for damages and want those with money problems to share/exchange second-hand items. But despite such unpromising credentials there was still the possibility that among those participating might be people who might want to discuss the defence of working class interests.

Drowning in campaigns

In a workshop on housing and urban regeneration the whole approach was on how to make the local state work. It was all very reminiscent of Fabianism and ‘municipal socialism’. Against private housing and council regeneration, that they thought was a cover for gentrification, there was a shared illusion in the possibility of “decent and affordable housing for all” in capitalism. At a different workshop there was a denial of this possibility, but still a belief that capitalism was capable of granting lasting reforms. For example, the establishment of the NHS in 1948 was seen as a great workers’ gain, with the fact that it was a creation of the capitalist state dismissed out of hand.

Not only were reforms, great and small, seen as the only possible focus for the class struggle, but also trade unions were presented as the means for this struggle. There were some attempts to talk about solidarity that went beyond the ritual of financial collections etc, as well as some basic questions about the development of workers’ self-organisation. However, talk about workers’ organising themselves came up against a basic denial of the way unions work against the attempts of workers to overcome their divisions and develop relations of solidarity. We were told that unions were “shit” and that unions are “part of capitalism”, but also that workers didn’t need to be told this as they use unions like they do shops, without illusions.

Throughout the gathering there were many disparaging remarks about Trotskyists, and the SWP in particular. Yet it was difficult to see much difference between what these campaigning ‘community activists’ were saying and what you can read in the big leftist papers. There was a more libertarian vocabulary employed, but there was also a lot of fashionable modern management-speak. In terms of political orientation the only difference between ‘hierarchical’ Trotskyism and ‘libertarian community activism’ is that the former sows illusions in the capitalist state as a whole, while the latter seem to be the ideology of ginger groups who want to improve the functioning of local councils.

At one point we heard that every situation, every struggle is different and should be seen as such. In reality, the basis of working class solidarity lies in understanding what we have in common, what unites us. It’s divisive to single out the struggle of fire fighters or food workers from the situation of those facing deportation or unemployment or who are anxious about the drive to war. We all face the same ruling class, the same capitalist state, and our strength lies in a unified struggle.

Don’t mention the revolution’

The brand of ‘community activism’ served up at the ‘gathering’ was most dangerous in the way that it concentrated its energies on the state. Campaigns for concessions from local councils risk drawing activists into the lowest reaches of the local state. Yes, housing has always been a major question for the working class, but it’s a problem that can only be solved at the level of the transformation of society by the whole working class after the destruction of the capitalist state. The capitalist state can only be an instrument of the ruling capitalist class, can only work against the interests of the exploited. In the old phrase, the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. In their struggles workers come up against the state locally and nationally. They also come up against ideas that claim that the working class does not have to liberate itself through its own struggles but can rely on unions, local councils, or any other form of the capitalist state.

During one discussion it was claimed that we probably all shared a view of what future society we’d like to see and on the need for fundamental social change. This was impossible to verify as none of the campaigns advocated had any perspective that might possibly challenge capitalism. Certainly the defensive struggles of the working class contribute to a growing confidence in the class, to the development of consciousness and self-organisation; but divisive campaigns that foster illusions in the state undermine the class struggle.

Between sessions at this event there was a break. Before resuming discussions one of the leaders of this ‘non-hierarchical’ meeting insisted (without any dissent) that there should be no talk of revolution during the remainder of the day. In continuity with this there was a thread on the LibCom website following the ‘gathering’ that referred to the presence of “ICC loons” – in contrast to the “sensible people” that have sensible discussions. This is a clear adaptation to the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois ideology. It’s supposed to be sensible to offer endless campaigns that never challenge capitalism, but crazy to talk of revolution and how the struggle of the working class offers a perspective for the transformation of society.

Norm 29/6/05.


See also this short article, Engels on the Housing Question