The 1997 disbandment of Class War and the anarchist movement in Britain

One measure of the success of the Class War Federation is that so many of the readers of this article will immediately recognise the name as belonging to a British revolutionary group. Well officially Class War is no more and what's more they produced a final issue of there paper to prove it, No 73 headlined 'Class War is Dead...long live the Class War'.

Class War originated in London in the early 1980's. It built a 'fearsome' reputation on a paper that concentrated on reporting on violent individual and collective attacks on the ruling class (or its agents). It also pulled a number of media stunts like the 'Bash the Rich' marches. Not surprisingly the media (and many others) confused these two aspects and came to the conclusion that Class War was somehow behind the events covered in its paper. The papers coverage was deliberately shocking, for a long time it featured a 'Page 3 Hospitalised Copper', and popular front covers included the 'we have found new homes for the rich' over a picture of a cemetery.

The thinking behind this was that the revolutionary left in Britain was (almost) entirely composed of pacifist students led by 'middle class wankers' who alienated the working class. Class War, by being populist and staying clear of 'theory', could appeal to the mass of unorganised working class activists and in some undefined way this would improve the chance of a revolution in Britain.

Cop Killer

The attraction of Class War, while based in a frustration with the existing left, was also about the need to fantasise a left that the ruling class were actually scared of. To a lot of its readers it was the organisational equivalent of Ice-T's 'Cop Killer'. To it's members it offered more then this if a magic way could be found of converting the thousands of people attracted to this fantasy into activists in their workplaces and their communities. But again and again they found that those attracted by the fantasy were not all that interested in the often unexciting reality this work involved.

Their strategy grabbed media headlines (particularly when Class War were blamed for the Poll Tax riot) and sold papers (a circulations of up to 15,000 was claimed), but apart from this it failed. Hence the decision by the majority of the federation to scrap the project in the hope of starting a discussion on an alternative. The last issue of Class War is an attempt to set down some parameters for this discussion.

It's impossible to summarise this analysis here, you'll have to get a copy and read it. However there are some obvious comments that need to be made on it. First off, although the paper carries the heading 'An open letter to the Revolutionary Movement', it ignores the debates that have already occurred in the post Cold War era. The idea that the left went wrong somewhere and that the cause of this failure is not yet completely understood is hardly new; it has been discussed by many, many activists over the last few years.

Also lacking is any serious discussion of the failure of the anarchist movement in Britain to build even one semi-convincing national organisation. Despite the fact that thousands consider themselves anarchists, Britain is remarkable for having no sizable national anarchist organisations nor any real desire on the part of anarchists to build one.

Instead there are a number of tiny organisations based on a couple of dozen core members which pretend to be national alongside dozens of local organisations who engage is struggle but do little to promote anarchist ideas. Class War acknowledge that they suffered from this problem in saying "the truth is that Class War, in it's entire existence, has never had more than 150 members, and membership numbers have often hovered around the 50 mark".

The thinking anarchist

This is really the big question for anarchists in Britain thinking of constructing a new movement. It is impossible to answer in a few hundred words written from Ireland but one suggestion is that the root of this problem lies in the division between theory and action that parallels the division of national and local organisations there. National organisations have tended to see their role as reporting on local struggles and theorising about them rather then getting involved in them on a co-ordinated basis, on a national level.

Locally, Class War members were involved in struggles and nationally their paper wrote about them but there could be no real attempt to take things further with ideas on the national level because there were no common ideas. The reasons for this are complex, not least a lack of willingness to discuss disagreements and adopt a national strategy; and this leaves 'action' as something which can only occur on a local basis.

The last issue of Class War carries on the tradition of pretending this isn't a problem when it says "One of the common criticisms of Class War is that we don't have an agreed 'position' on Ireland or unions.. In fact we have always regarded it as a strength that there was no line, no dogmatic position". This sounds fine but how can an organisation that is unable to even agree on such fundamental questions as what to do in unions or to oppose British imperialism in Ireland ever hope to be more then a circle of friends who have the odd debate. To become a mass organisation you must be able to work with people you have never personally met, and the only way you can do this is if you have reached a formal agreement on what you are going to work on and what tactics and ideas you will put forward.

Class War are quite right to dissolve themselves if they see no future for the approach they espoused. The last issue is well worth reading as an explanation for why this approach offered little. It is also a contribution to the debate that has been going on over the last number of years inside and outside the anarchist movement on revolutionary politics. However unless the conferences their last issue proposes tackles the question of how a national organisation can involve itself in working class struggles as an organisation it is likely that whatever emerges will just represent more of the same.

First published in Worlers Solidarity No52, 1997

Read the 'last' Class War and critiques by those who refounded the organization at

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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