Last year, Manchester University Press published a book called “Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956”, which looks as though it might be of interest for anyone who wants to learn from the successes and failures of previous attempts at revolutionary organisation in this country. Sadly, the price tag is £75, which puts it well out of the price range of most casual readers. However, the chapter on Red Action, which looked to be one of the more interesting sections anyway, has now been made available for free on the Red Action archive website, so I was keen to read it, and having read it I thought it was worth typing up a few notes on the subject.
What follows are is not a full review of Red Action as an organisation, based on either personal experience or an in-depth reading of their publications: I wasn’t born when they were set up, and I don’t think I ever really came into contact with them before they folded. Instead, I only really know them through the reputation of projects they were involved in, particularly Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and the Independent Working-Class Association (IWCA), both of which seem to have been quite successful for a while. So, this piece of writing will be solely about Red Action, not as I experienced them, but as they’re presented in Mark Hayes’ essay: any areas not covered in the Hayes essay (for instance, RA’s relationship with other activists within AFA) will have to be passed over.
Hayes’ central argument is that “Red Action… managed, in some ways, to make a unique contribution to the politics of the far left in late twentieth-century Britain… There were elements of both theory and practice which warrant more sustained critical analysis.” This seems fair, as long as it’s understood that “critical analysis” is not taken to mean “uncritical agreement”: RA’s ideas were interesting, but they were also often wrong.
Hayes first traces RA’s development from a group of militant anti-fascists who were expelled from the SWP into a distinct organisation with their own ideas, including, crucially, a critique of Leninism and Trotskyism. Of course, RA weren’t the first group to develop a critique of Leninism, and they won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make their ideas any less valid: as long as people continue to push the Bolshevik party form as a model, there’s going to be a need for arguments in favour of directly democratic, bottom-up methods.
Hayes then sets out their criticisms of anarchism, which, predictably, I find a bit less impressive: for a group so keen to differentiate themselves from Trotskyism, it seems a bit odd that their arguments against anarchism seem to be copied almost word-for-word from the old American Trot Hal Draper. Given the context Red Action operated in, I think it would’ve been more interesting to see observations on the actual experience of working alongside anarchists like the Direct Action Movement, Class War and others inside AFA, rather than a recycling of what an American Trot decided were the eternal principles of anarchism in the 60s or so; still, it’s not my article.
The next section is one of the most interesting of the whole article, as Hayes sets out RA’s criticisms of trade unionism, and their belief that “due to the changing nature of capitalism, trade unionism as the centrepiece of a working-class strategy for total social change has to be dismissed. It is not that trade unionism is finished entirely, or that workplace activity is counter-productive, but that its political relevance to the working class will continue to diminish.” I’d always found it curious that RA never seemed to have any distinct workplace strategy, so it was good to read something that explained this lack. Having said that, I don’t find their arguments on the subject wholly convincing, and I think there’s a contradiction here that’s yet to be explained: if their central analysis was that there was a crisis of both working-class political organisation and workplace organisation, why did they end up concluding that the answer to the Labour Party’s lack of relevance was to set up a new political organisation (the IWCA), but their answer to the decline of the trade union movement was to accept that workplace activity was essentially finished?
It is to RA’s credit that they were able to acknowledge and analyse the declining power of the trade unions, since their perspective was vastly more realistic than the “CALL ON THE TUC TO CALL A GENERAL STRIKE!” rhetoric flogged by most of the Trot groups to this day; but the conclusion they drew about the diminishing relevance of workplace activity seems questionable, both on theoretical grounds – considering how keen Hayes is to establish RA’s credentials as Marxologists, it seems odd that they would neglect a subject as central to Marx’s thought as wage-labour – and in terms of everyday experience – I don’t like the government, or the local council, but I can’t really say that I really, properly feel gut hatred for them as such; for the real, personal, visceral hatred that comes with having to talk to someone every day, while know they’re doing things that actively, directly make your life worse in measurable ways, you can’t beat a manager.
The next sections of the essay discuss RA’s criticisms of the various “workers’ states”, their orientation towards working-class self-organisation, and their anti-fascist strategy, all of which can be counted among their strengths. In particular, while other groups before and since have criticised the state capitalist regimes and stressed the importance of self-activity, few have made as much of a significant practical contribution to keeping the far-right weak and marginalised.
Having set out what RA’s anti-fascism looked like in practice, Hayes then turns his attention to the theory behind it, and particularly their critique of liberal multiculturalism. This is one of the more distinctive points of the RA ideology, and so it’s unfortunate that it only gets a paragraph here, as it comes off rather simplistic and one-sided. Gender, for instance, receives only the most cursory of lip service, in statements like “Red Action steadfastly refused to endorse the liberal agenda which prioritised gender, ethnicity and sexuality over class”. Combined with references to “minority rights”, the argument Hayes makes stops just short of explicitly treating women as a minority group. The conclusion, as Hayes presents it, is that by foregrounding issues other than class, “Politics … becomes an exercise in special pleading with the working class divided, which inevitably undermined the possibility of effective, unified action” – a view that implicitly sees the working class as united (as well as straight, white and male) until identity politicians come along to divide it, rather than recognising that the class is already fragmented, and that struggles against racial, sexual, gendered and other forms of oppression are a necessary precondition for the possibility of class unity.
This is important not just because it’s bad politics – although it certainly is, it’s hard to see how anyone could defend a statement as flat and simplistic as “Gains made by minorities were, it was argued, made at the expense of working-class unity and advancement” – but because it’s bad politics tangled up with the germ of an important and necessary critique. Liberal multiculturalism, as a strategy of state patronage based around dividing people up into “communities” that are treated as fixed, homogenous, and static categories, and then cultivating a relationship between the state and individuals at the top of the internal hierarchies of these communities, does deserve to be attacked, but the critique of multiculturalism is only helpful or worthwhile if it’s part of a larger and better grassroots strategy for fighting oppression. To just criticise multiculturalism, while offering no positive programme for opposing oppression, just a finger-wagging reminder that “support for minority rights is… not the way forward” is to come off as distinctly uninterested in these struggles. (It is also extremely difficult to see what this analysis means in practice – is the #BlackLivesMatter movement against racist police killings an example of working-class people fighting back against state violence, and therefore good, or a demand for minority rights, and therefore divisive and bad?)
Identity politics becomes most dangerous and reactionary when it treats professional representatives of oppressed groups as automatically having the legitimacy to genuinely speak for everyone in the groups they claim to represent. The danger of this politics is that it doesn’t distinguish between stonewall the riot and Stonewall the charity, between explosions of rage like Brixton ‘81 or Feguson ‘14 and the charlatans trying to channel that energy back into support for the Labour or Democratic parties, between the feminism of the Mujeres Libres and the feminism of Hillary Clinton. But, at least as presented by Hayes, the RA critique also doesn’t seem to adequately distinguish between radical bottom-up and liberal state-focused approaches to these problems, lumping them all together as “not the way forward”. Far from weakening liberal cross-class multicultural ideology, these kind of arguments actually play into the hands of the professional representatives and “community leaders” associated with state multiculturalism: to argue against their anti-racist strategies without simultaneously putting across an alternative programme for advancing “gains made by minorities” is to reinforce their claim that to criticise them is to attack, or at least to be indifferent to the problems of, the communities they represent.
Having set out, or at least briefly touched on, the RA critique of multiculturalism, Hayes then moves on to another distinctive and controversial feature of the RA ideology: their uniquely high level of commitment to the cause of Irish Republicanism, and particularly for IRA bombing campaigns. This seems like a curious contradiction in their ideology: having detailed why RA opposed prioritising any issue other than class, Hayes then explains why they focused much of their activity on a national, rather than class, question. Personally, I can’t see that much of a difference between treating the Sinn Fein leadership as genuinely representative of most working-class Northern Irish Catholics and treating whatever Imam you can find who most agrees with you as being genuinely representative of most working-class Muslims. For RA, refusing to criticise Republican tactics seems to have been a point of pride. At the risk of being called a squeamish middle-class liberal, I support the right of British working-class people to get on trains or go to the pub without being bombed, but RA don’t appear to have made any distinction between these kind of targets and the attack on the Tory Party conference: it seems particularly ironic that a group who were so keen to stress the centrality of class to their analysis would also be unable to tell the difference between Margaret Thatcher and some ordinary London commuters.
Earlier in the essay, Hayes stresses that “Red Action adopted the view that the working class must be given the opportunity to determine its own destiny – they certainly did not require ‘commissioned officers’ from the middle classes to tell those in the ranks what do and how to behave”, but this supposed commitment to a directly democratic, insubordinate, bottom-up approach doesn’t seem to have caused any problems when taking orders from the IRA leadership.
Before moving on to the conclusion, it’s worth noting a conspicuous absence in Hayes’ article: any consideration of the circumstances that led to the group’s winding up. I don’t want to rely on an argument from success or numbers – after all, if long-term stability and size of membership are treated as indicators of a healthy political approach, the Labour Party is far superior to any socialist or anarchist group that’s ever existed – but it does feel like anyone constructing a case for the merits of a defunct group should at least make some attempt to deal with why, instead of attracting new people and growing, it ended up stagnating and disbanding. Similarly, an indepth treatment of the Independent Working-Class Association project, especially an honest balance sheet that examined both failures and successes, would doubtless have a lot of lessons for anyone engaged in community organising projects today; such a study would definitely be worth a whole separate article at least, and I can only hope that one appears soon.
Hayes concludes that “distinctive elements of [the RA ideology] deserve much closer scrutiny”, and I would tend to agree, but only as long as close critical scrutiny does not imply straightforward acceptance. When scrutinised, RA, like me, you, and everyone else, turn out to be deeply contradictory: proclaiming their total rejection of Trotskyism out of one side of their mouths while reciting arguments memorised from old Trot pamphlets from the other; preaching working-class independence and rejection of top-down authority one moment and repeating the instructions of the Irish Republican leadership the next; and equally happy to brand people as liberals for putting too much stress on the interests of “minority groups” within the working class or for not putting enough emphasis on the struggle of Northern Irish Catholics. It’s true to say that some aspects of their ideas and practices – for instance, their commitment to working-class self-emancipation, their willingness to look honestly at the declining industrial muscle of the union movement, or their formidable contribution to the anti-fascist struggle – should be remembered “as examples of ‘best practice’”, but it’s equally true to say that other aspects – such as their willingness to bomb working-class civilians on the orders of aspiring generals and politicians – deserve to be written off as historical anomalies, hopefully never to be repeated, and that other key questions – such as pretty much anything to do with gender, or the challenges of workplace organising in a post-industrial economy – barely seem to have registered on their radar. In the end, as always with those that came before us, the point is not to praise or to bury them, but to retrieve what’s worth retrieving and let the rest be forgotten.