Monday, 30 March 2009

Class Matters

You don't have to tell socialists class matters. But incredibly, there are some social theorists and philosophers for whom this is heresy. I say to them how can you answer the six questions below without acknowledging the continued relevance of class?
*Distributional location: How are people objectively located in distributions of material inequality?
*
Subjectively salient groups: What explains how people, individually and collectively, subjectively locate themselves and others within a structure of inequality?
*
Life chances: What explains inequalities in life chances and material standards of living?
*
Antagonistic conflicts: What social cleavages systematically shape overt conflicts?
*
Historical variation: How should we characterise and explain the variations across history in the social organisation of inequalities?
*
Emancipation: What sorts of transformations are needed to eliminate oppression and exploitation within capitalist societies?

(Göran Therborn
From Marxism to Post-Marxism? 2008, p.144).

Sunday, 29 March 2009

32nd Carnival of Socialism

It's here! The 32nd Carnival of Socialism has arrived on this humble blog. Are you ready for your mammoth roller coaster ride through the very best leftyblogland has to offer?

Key cadres of the ruling class are shortly due in London town for the G20 to think up more ways of getting our class to pay for their crisis. Yesterday we were there in the tens of thousands to serve notice that we know what they're up to. We're still waiting for some reportage to work its way through the ether - but thankfully blogs have been filed from
Lenin's Tomb, Penny Red, Liam MacUaid, Harpymarx, and Directionless Bones. Keep an eye out for more!

There's been a lot of comment in the lead up to events over the coming week.
Duncan and Lenin (here and here) have got the goods on the police's pre-protest sabre rattling. In response to this provocation Louise says she will be present with her camera to document and dodgy behaviour on the part of the authorities. If the comrade hasn't got a digital camera I fear she'll need a bag full of film. Walton over at the Red Star Coven looks at the utility of Twitter(!) as a means of getting on-the-spot news out about G20 demos. And lastly Derek reports from a Socialist Party stall against unemployment as a means of plugging next week's march against youth joblessness.

Have you noticed how the bosses and political establishment have come in for a lot of flak this week? It must be that left bias in the mainstream media the right keeps telling us about. Quite justifiably Tony McNulty, the despicable Employment Minister has been dragged over the hot coals for dodgy expense claims on a second home ... owned by his parents.
Laurie is "incandescently angry" about his money grubbing behaviour and dangerously comes close to the average wage Militant position of old. Be careful comrade, Luke Akehurst will be sharpening his ice axe! Stephen of It's a Rough Trade fame is similarly unimpressed. I don't know, surely McNulty deserves an award for his "I acted entirely within the rules" chutzpah?

Speaking of despicable, the hated Fred "The Shred" Goodwin was in the news this week for some minor damage to his house and motor. I was going to write a piece carefully and patiently explaining why this sort of thing isn't a good idea in true Millie fashion but never got round to it. But still, some people had bloggy fun with it - see
Socialist Unity for instance. I Intend to Escape couldn't resist a spot of anarchist gloating either.

Those gentlemen certainly annoyed me this week. But there were another two who irritated me even more. Step forward Matthew Horne and James Corden, stars of the tepidly twee
Gavin and Stacey. It's not their forgettable contribution to the sitcom genre that has me riled - it's their "post-ironic" exercise in misogyny and homophobia known as Lesbian Vampire Killers. See how it is expertly and deservedly taken apart by Lesbilicious. Just goes to show women's liberation has a long way to go - a point underlined by Louise. She demonstrates the unwelcome persistence of some dinosaur arguments on the left. Perhaps Adam Spencer, the Labour Briefing comrade in a lather over the self-organisation of uppity women ought to take a look at Redbird's report on women's committees in Venezuela and tell us that's a distraction from the class struggle. This of course isn't to say the feminist movement is perfect and it's the left that's got a problem - as Monica shows, there are still too many (mainly radical) feminists with serious issues against transwomen.

As noted here before it does tend to be socialist women who raise gender issues in leftyblogland. What's up guys? Don't think gender affects you too?

At least some blokes have been socking it to the patriarch
par excellence this week. Joseph Ratzinger has once again displayed his peculiar attitude to human suffering by reiterating the Catholic church's opposition to contraception. The comrades over at Shiraz Socialist have much fun with Joanna Bogle, the batshit crazy Catholic fundamentalist who appeared on Channel Four News to claim condoms spread HIV-AIDS. Feministing also supplies some light relief. Stroppy can't help but note the irony of the Pope calling on Africans to reject their superstitions ... for the superstitions he propagates. However, The Bleeding Heart Show reminds us the Vatican's stance on reproductive issues are incredibly damaging.

No digest of socialist commentary would be complete without a foray into the dismal science. Amid discussion of further bailouts and fiscal stimulus
Dave looks at Japan's attempts to refloat their economy in the nineties. The results were less than spectacular. Andy plugs a new collection edited by Jon Cruddas that brings together left responses to the crisis and John takes a look at the declining financial markets. Lastly Boffy takes us on a two part trip into the economics of cooperation.

Off to sunnier climes now with a whistle stop tour of Latin American developments. By Any Means Necessary
republishes a piece from the Freedom Road Socialist Organisation on the left's victory in the El Salvadorean general election. Pink Scare takes on the political illiteracy of the New York Times over its characterisation of Chavez. Meanwhile Yoani reminds us that life in Cuba is no bed of roses.

Returning back to Blighty there are several pieces about
New Labour that caught my eye. With some justification the Conservatives are known as the stupid party, but it looks like some in the Labour party are desperate to steal this crown from them. And why not? It's hardly as if they haven't been ransacking the Tories' wardrobe these last 15 years. Charlie provides some evidence for the prosecution. Dave of Though Cowards Flinch asks why Labour should be expecting the unions to trumpet their "achievements". Finally, Journeyman talks about his parents' resignation from the party.

There's quite a few posts out there that defy my rather arbitrary categorical arrangement for this Carnival. So here's my shout out to them.
Jim has a conversation with Chris Goodall, Green PPC for Oxford West and Abingdon. Chris recently caused a shit storm for publicly supporting nuclear power. Strange. While we're on a surreal tip Leftwing Criminologist meets Wales' top copper. He writes "you’re probably wondering what any self respecting Marxist is doing meeting a police chief constable?" Click through to find out why.

Other posts that have caught my eye is Madam Miaow's
flaying of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Histomat's retrospective on Engels and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist's project of reviewing every episode of Dr Who. Lastly POUMISTA looks at the use and abuse of George Orwell - quite timely as a few right wing establishment writers have made the shortlist for the Orwell prize for blogging.

And that's it for this edition of the Carnival of Socialism, and apologies to comrades for it being overwhelmingly Brit-centric. As always the Carnival needs your support so sign your blog up as a future host - details
here. The next will be on 12th April and your host then shall be Harpymarx. So until next time, red salute!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Live Blogging Earth Hour

Earth Hour is live!

8:30 pm - Lights are off. Sat in the dark.

9:30 pm - Lights back on.

That's that for another year. I can now ride in 4x4s and jet around the world with a clear conscience.

Sociology Meets Dolly and Guido

It was handbags at noon on Thursday's Daily Politics as two mainstream bloggers took their feud onto our TV screens. In the blue corner sat the corpulent self-styled enfant terrible of the libertarian hard right, Paul "Guido Fawkes" Staines. His pointy-finger opponent in the red was LabourList supremo and new kid on the block, Mr Kate Garraway. The ensuing slap fight did no one any credit and probably left "normal" people outside the blogging world scratching their heads in bemusement. Just see for yourselves:





Epic fail.

But speaking as a sociologist Derek Draper's entry into political blogging and his subsequent feuds with Staines and
Iain Dale are very interesting. It serves as a model case study for Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of cultural capital and capital conversion.

Bourdieu argues it is useful to conceptualise social space in terms of fields. A field is much like a game, with its own rules, objectives, strategies, stakes, actors and forms of capital. Think about the economy - firms "play a game" by developing strategies to accumulate capital and turn a profit. Non-economic fields operate in more or less the same way too. This is not to say the economy determines what happens in its non-economic counterparts, but that the interactions and interrelationships animating fields resemble the structures and dynamics of capitalist economies. For instance, take Sociology as a discipline. Whichever way you look at it, my PhD represents a strategy for accumulating the cultural capital specific to that field. My work is an intervention in current debates within social movement research on mobilisation and commitment, and has certain things to say about sociological reflexivity, paying particular attention to the thorny issue of activists studying activists with whom one shares substantial political agreement. The first function my thesis will fulfill (with luck) is achievement of my PhD, which will become my pass into the academic career structure. Depending on how my work is received by the sub-field of social movement research and the wider sociological field, I will accrue greater or lesser amounts of cultural capital, which will then be added to and deployed over the course of my subsequent career in terms of research opportunities, interests, etc.

There are ways in which cultural capital accumulated here can be converted into other forms of capital. One is economic capital - the more successful one's strategy the greater the chance of landing better paid and prestigious academic jobs. There are other ways of converting it into economic capital; securing consultancies of various stripes and writing popular sociology books are two avenues that spring to mind. There's political capital as well - for some on the left a well grounded professional background in the social sciences can give one standing as an 'intellectual'. In the wider political field academia can be married to political capital in terms of expertise. For instance, some MPs had been voicing concerns about the debt-fuelled boom for years, but it is Vince Cable whose reputation as a trained economist has allowed him to hoover up most of the kudos for foreseeing the bust.

What's all this got to do with Derek Draper vs Guido and Iain Dale? If you recall Draper shot to notoriety in the late 90s over the 'lobbygate' cash-for-access scandal. He then disappeared from the
New Labour firmament until resurfacing in 2008 as a "campaigns advisor" for the party (as a close associate of Peter Mandelson, it seems Nosferatu's return to favour opened the way for Draper's comeback). Among his brief was the setting up of a rapid rebuttal unit that could respond to the latest mud flung around blogland by the big Tory blogs. Several "new media" breakfasts later Draper midwifed LabourList into the world.

Because Draper is a New Labour insider his activities in putting the blog together attracted high profile attention from the blogging world. Seven posts appeared on Staines' blog about Derek Draper prior to LabourList's launch, variously mocking his efforts and attempting to discredit his psychotherapist credentials. There are even more on Dale's. Using Bourdieu, Draper's move into blogging can be interpreted as an exchange of his political capital for the (subcultural) capital of the blogging field - and that's even before writing a single blog post!

But being a name doesn't necessarily mean big audiences - who really pays attention to June Sarpong's
politics blog? Here Draper showed an intuitive understanding of how the blogging scene operates. He made sure there was just enough content on the fledgling site - some of it all right, most of it spin - and then went after the big blogs. Staines was called out over his toleration of the racists and sexists that infest his comments boxes. Dale was upbraided for his soft apologetic for Carol Thatcher's racist outburst. Because their previous actions had invested Draper with a certain amount of blogging 'capital' they had to respond to the provocation - driving audiences LabourList's way and sparking off a secondary layer of commentary on smaller blogs.

Add to this voices critical of the government's record in office and an overall improvement of content, Draper's sacralisation by Dale and Guido has helped LabourList's accumulation of blogging capital become self-sustaining. Like the aforementioned it has become a must-visit destination for anyone who follows the developments in mainstream blogging. However whether the capital the site has built up will translate into economic capital (via advertising) or political capital for the Labour party remains to be seen, but it's certainly done Draper's wider political profile no harm.

By treating political blogging as a field in its own right we can identify the rules of the game and the hierarchy it sustains. It enables a blogger to be conscious of the position they occupy in the blogging scheme of things and can help them understand why certain posts on certain topics pull in the numbers and others do not.



Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Burn the Witches!

A spectre is haunting New Labour, the spectre of communism! Well, it is at least for one man. Step forward Luke Akehurst: arms companies consultant, Labour chief whip on Hackney council, and self-styled bruiser for all right-thinking (and Right-thinking) party members. Normally Luke's blog contains little of interest to politicos who take their commitment to democracy and socialism seriously (though I will concede him his weekly council by-election updates). But this post stands out. A quite neutral posting by Sunder Katwala on the Fabian Society blog about Militant and the hard Labour right has worked "brother" Luke into a witch-hunting frenzy. Quoting Marx's "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" at Sunder, our hammer of the Trots writes:
The Bennite left and its Trotskyist allies have not gone away. I see the evidence of that every time I go to my local Labour GC meeting ... Insurgency from the left has afflicted Labour during every major period in opposition - the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s. In every case it has been necessary to wage a long and bitter internal struggle to smash the left and purge entryists who are not democratic socialists in order to make the party electable again. This is not a pleasant task but it is one that has to be done.
Who'd have thought that nice Mr Osler, Luke's fellow CLP'er from Hackney, could be so threatening?

He is no minority of one, unfortunately. Luke's McCarthyite bloodlust has voided a few shits from New Labour's bowels. The
repost on Labour List has Julie Davies hallucinating an armada of Trots bearing down on New Labour's emaciated ward and constituency parties. Godfrey Richards adds his voice to the fray, believing his party is in danger of adopting "class war" politics at any moment!

Neither Akehurst or his Dunwoody/Kilfoyle wannabes display the slightest inkling of what they have done to their party. Under the neoliberal Blair-Brown hegemony over 200,000 activists and members have upped sticks. The internal regime owes more to the GDR than the "democratic socialism" Akehurst professes. Entryists - careerist entryists that is - have colonised all levels of the party apparatus and government, and New Labour has successfully triangulated electoral meltdown from all quarters. What has the remnants of the Labour left got on this?

Far be it for me to advise the terminally thick Labour right on the way forward, but may I suggest Akehurst and his ilk address themselves to more pressing matters than a few harmless duffers in Socialist Appeal.

Monday, 23 March 2009

In Praise of Stalls

For the first time in a very long time, I ventured out with other comrades from Stoke Socialist Party on Saturday for a stall. We set our two tables and for a few short hours a couple of square metres of Hanley became our very own (degenerate) workers' state. I managed to have some decent conversations with interested passersby about the part-privatisation of Royal Mail (our stall's topic was a joint Youth Fight For Jobs-Post Office affair). Everyone I spoke to were incensed about the funds found for the continued bail out of the banks - it's been a long time since I last encountered this unanimity of opinion. There was one woman who seemed especially interested, and Brother A spoke to a few local militants who regularly drop by the stall.

On a Saturday morning we do have to compete with a 'scene' for attention. Without fail there's two
Big Issue sellers out - one bellows out while the other constantly ... dances. Then there is the tasty noodle man with his sign that points the way to stringy-dough paradise. The million balloon man, the charity hawkers, the Mormons, anti-vivisectionists are also occasional additions to the Stoke city centre scene. But my favourite competitors by far are the mobile street team of Park Evangelical Church. They turn up with a board and a group of seven or eight, and just stand there and deliver a sermon. Think less fire and brimstone and more CofE vicars with guitars. I recall one set of pictures they put up on the board - one was Superman, the other two ambulances and air sea rescue, and the last Jesus. What's the difference? they asked. In case you're stumped - it's that the first three save lives, but only Jesus can save your soul ... Still, mustn't complain. They set up not far from us and inadvertently increase the numbers coming by our stall as the public go out their way to avoid them. If Park turn out, we're guaranteed a successful stall!

Another regular fixture is Brother J, a long-time
Workers' Power supporter. Most Saturdays he drops by to sell us a copy with their eponymous publication and has a quick chat, often trying to tempt us with WP's ultra-leftist wares. Because the comrade hadn't seen me for a while he thought he'd break me from reformist-leaning Taaffeite centrism by launching an attack on our stance on the Lindsey oil refinery strike. I patiently explained to Brother J that WP's position basically amounted to taking out a checklist and refusing to get involved because they did not meet their standards of how striking workers should behave. I explained we shouldn't be too surprised if workers struggles do assume a nationalist colouration at times seeing how neoliberalism has had 30 years to grind down socialist ideas - it's not ideal but we have to relate to workers as they are, not how we'd like them to be. Luckily the comrade has none of the Spartoid air you often find on the ra-ra-revolutionary left and accepted my points, even if he didn't agree. But he's always worth talking to, even if to sharpen our politics up. Sometimes he can hit you with a curve ball - the one time he caught me out was tackling our position on nuclear weapons ... on a stall about the banking crisis!

As an added bonus the stall was visited by Sister C, a lapsed comrade who's looking to get back involved; and Brother C - a member who joined in Stoke but moved to London for work but will be returning to the Potteries in the next few weeks. So very good.

This is all jolly fun, but we're not really out there to experience the diverse fauna of Stoke's urban ecology. Stall work is among the basic activity carried out by the
Socialist Party. It's important for three reasons. It gives us a regular public presence that is seen by hundreds of people week in week out - we can justly say we're the only party in Stoke with the confidence to do this sort of activity. Secondly it's where we sell our papers and raise money. And lastly it's an opportunity to regularly test our ideas and make the case for socialism. Speaking to dozens of people over a couple of hours gives you an idea where popular consciousness in the city is at. The situation demands you vary your patter and arguments constantly but you are left with a broad understanding of the arguments that work and what large swathes of working class people are thinking, which becomes part of the collective experience of the branch. In short, stall work keeps the party's feet on the ground. If we didn't develop convincing politics or did stalls on hobby horses unconnected to the consciousness of our class, we would not sell papers or raise money. For this reason, stall work is something serious socialists cannot do without.

(Image of Birmingham comrades in action).

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Goodbye Jade

It is difficult not to be moved by the sad demise of Jade Goody, who succumbed to her cancer in the early hours of this morning. Few of us really knew Jade apart from her media persona but even so there was definitely something about her that appealed to millions. There were no airs or graces. She stood before the media and the public warts and all, assiduously inviting everyone into her private life and getting rich on the back of it. In this sense, the starring role she assumed in 2002's Big Brother Three has never ended. She began her celebrity life as it ended: in a goldfish bowl.

Since her very long goodbye began, Jade's celebrity started the ascent to media demi-godhood. Most distastefully we saw Jade's "final words" and glossy obituary
published several days before her death. And now the media will be clamoring to position her as a saintly mother figure - a working class "peoples' princess" if you will.

This is of course hypocrisy of the highest order. The
News of the World are leading the pack with sycophantic tributes and laurels to "brave Jade". But this along with its Sun stablemate were at the forefront of some of the most disgusting press ever leveled at a celebrity. Who can forget their "vote out the pig" campaign while she was ensconced in BB3? Their superior and condescending attacks over the Shilpa Shetty episode? The very press that made Jade delightfully put the boot in when and wherever it could. Their mountains of tribute and praise over the coming days will "forget" all this.

Jade was something more than a run of the mill tabloid hate figure. Her tough working class upbringing, lack of education and "proper" social mores stirred up the class prejudices of the
Mail-Express-Telegraph bigot brigade and Guardianista left-liberals alike. Coupled with her z-list status as a "lower class" celebrity famous for being famous (like Kerry Katona and Katie Price/Jordan), Jade's persona symbolised all the cliches the elite have about the dangerous class. She was symptomatic of the broken society for conservatives. Jade epitomised the non-PC "barbarism" of the white working class for swathes of the liberal-left. The "race row" of 2007's Celebrity Big Brother witnessed both sections of elite opinion uniting to give vent to their class prejudices. It was a frenzy of condemnation some on the left shamefully felt compelled to join.

Jade's career distills the trajectory celebrity has taken since the 1980s. As I've noted
before, the cultural developments of that decade laid the foundation for an altered perception of celebrity. Our would-be immortals were by degrees knocked off their pedestals and shown up by the media as flawed human beings like the rest of us. This demystification of celebrity aura has unfolded in bizarre and increasingly perverse ways. The normalisation of celebrity figures has paradoxically created an aura that makes celebrity even more seductive. Living life in the public eye holds the promise of effortless fame and wealth, provided one has no qualms of bearing all about bedroom malfunctions and drugs 'n' booze hells when required.

It is also a life more attainable than ever before. The proliferation of reality shows and the internet have "democratised" celebrity - anyone, whether they have talent or not - can make it. All that's required is being in the right place at the right time. But this is an extremely precarious world. Marx's observation that the petit bourgeoisie live in constant fear of being cast back down by big capital is an apposite anticipation of celebrity status anxiety. The truth is celebrity and celebrities are nothing more than commodities. The demystification of celebrity has seen them move from valued figures to mutually interchangeable and utterly disposable objects buffeted by a capricious media. The gap left in the OK!/Heat firmament by Jade's passing will be filled by Jade's surviving family and the Cheryl Coles and Andy Scott-Lees of this world. So it is with any celebrity.

Nevertheless Jade proved to be a skilled and astute player of the celebrity game. Her self-flagellation and public penance after BB7 showed she recognised the shaky foundations of her fame. And we knew she knew this, as news of her cancer was greeted in some quarters as a cynical move to rebuild her career demonstrates.

Jade's death is very sad and all my sympathy goes to her family and friends. But as her personality fades from popular consciousness and other celebrities fill her place, Jade's claim to celebrity immortality will be ever more predicated on the nature of her death. Whatever one thinks of Jade's conduct in her final months it is this very public dying that is uniquely hers. Celebrities die, but she's the first who has done it with Living TV at her bed side. And sadly, given the nature of contemporary celebrity, she will not be the last.

Also at
Socialist Unity.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

No2EU is Live

The No2EU electoral initiative website is now live.

From 'about us':
No2EU Yes to Democracy is an electoral platform. It is a trade union-backed alliance of political parties and campaigning groups. We believe the time is right to offer the peoples of Britain an alternative view of Europe.

The recent referendum in Ireland clearly demonstrates that the working people of Europe are not happy with the direction the EU is taking. The failure of the mainstream parties to represent this feeling has led to a political vacuum.

We will not sit in the European parliament in the event of winning any seats. Our candidates will only nominally hold the title MEP and will not board the notorious EU gravy train.

We want to see a Europe of independent, democratic states that value its public services and does not offer them to profiteers; a Europe that guarantees the rights of workers and does not put the interests of big business above that of ordinary people. We believe the current structures of the EU makes this impossible.

We say...

* Reject the Lisbon Treaty
* No to EU directives that privatise our public services
* Defend and develop manufacturing, agriculture and fishing industries in Britain
* Repeal anti-trade union ECJ rulings and EU rules promoting social dumping
* No to racism and fascism, Yes to international solidarity of working people
* No to EU militarisation
* Repatriate democratic powers to EU member states
* Replace unequal EU trade deals with fair trade that benefits developing nations
* Scrap EU rules designed to stop member states from implementing independent economic
policies
* Keep Britain out of the eurozone
Thoughts? Comments?

Also, Bob Crow's blog here.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

More Blogs You May Have Missed

Last month's feature highlighting new and not-so-new left blogs was a success, judging by some of the comments received here and at Socialist Unity. Here are some other new(ish) blogs you may have missed:

Better Burn That Dress, Sister - "I’m 26, Aries, Feminist, agnostic, live in a small village in Northumberland in between Hexham and Newcastle. Like cats, tolerate dogs reasonably well, yada yada yada. I’m writing a 50 000 word MA thesis about women in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s all due to finish in June 2009. Hm, what else? I used to blog at Uncool til I got ratted out and now I’m here. I’m a big Virginia Woolf fan, am a horrible book snob - I judge you by your library, love my mates, I’ll probably always prefer birds to actual people. When I grow up I’d like a damn cool job with a lot of money. Oh, and a really, really nice car."

Moving Online - "I am a student, researcher, marker of papers, urban wanderer, thinker, raging lefty (in terms of both politics and dexterity)..."

POUMISTA - "Against fascism and Stalinism" - a blog that's (mainly) dedicated to defending the revolutionary heritage of the Spanish civil war.

Spring Thunder - Maoist blog following the student occupation movement in defence of Gaza.

The Third Estate - "Welcome to The Third Estate. We are a group of writers and activists who met at Cambridge in the early 2000s. We aim to offer progressive, irreverent and atypical commentary on current events. We hope you enjoy."

If you have a new left blog or know one that would like a plug, please let me know at philbc03 at yahoo.com and it will be featured in next month's round-up.

Further public announcement: The Carnival of Socialism is imminent over at
Stroppyblog. In a fortnight's time yours truly will be compiling the Carnival at this very location. If you would like anything plugged get in touch at the address above.

The Carnival showcases the best of what leftyblogland has to offer and is always looking for new blogs to support it. Interested? Get in touch with the editors
here.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Building a Campaigning Trades Council

It is common knowledge on the left and trade union movement in Stoke that North Staffs TUC hasn't been the most dynamic of trade union bodies of late. Its activities mainly consist of not-exactly-inspiring monthly business meetings, which haven't been particularly successful in attracting a younger generation of trade union militants. Its public profile is far from high and it is probably unknown to the majority of the tens of thousands of trade unionists in the area. How to turn this around? We used the occasion of our AGM on Wednesday evening to invite Nick Kelleher from Wolverhampton Trades Council, which has built up a good reputation as an active, inclusive campaigning organisation.

Going by his description, the council Nick and his comrades have built is closer in spirit and method to
Stoke Socialist Party meetings than our current two hours of bureaucracy on a Wednesday evening. Wolverhampton's are a lot less formal than North Staffs. Its decision making powers are not encumbered by a high quoracy threshold and its meetings are not taken up by the fetish of rule. The emphasis is on getting things done and attracting new trade unionists into the fold. Labyrinthine discussions of procedure and accounts serve only to put new people off and erode the patience of existing attendees.

This also means taking a pro-active approach to securing and maintaining affiliations. A good proportion of the secretary's duties are taken up with chasing affiliates down. For Nick the key to keeping that base going and securing new ones is face to face contact - writing off to the regional TUC to moan about x branches not sending in their fees and delegates is not enough.

Trades councils also have to think about making themselves attractive. A welcoming atmos is pointless if there isn't anything interesting to talk about. For Wolves the key has been a regular programme of speakers and strive to have a guest speaker every month, so at least each meeting has a certain freshness about it. By way of contrast, aside from Nick, North Staffs has only had one other guest speaker in the previous 12 months. Nick has found people will always tend to turn up if
Thompson's Solicitors send someone along for a talk on some aspect of workplace legislation, or if an ongoing dispute sends some strikers along.

Moving on to the discussion, Nick said Wolves TUC has been so successful that it is seen as the only body that has the capacity to coordinate joint actions across trade unions. For instance, it has played a key role organising public sector demos and rallies. It has got to this position by standing firmly against inter-union rivalry - Nick has recruited workers to many different unions, and as such has aided his and the trades council's role as a facilitator.

There's also been some success in attracting women. Of Wolves TUC's nominated delegates of 60, forty-five are men and 15 are women. A third of the men regularly attend, but so do half of the women. Parity may be a way off, but its last AGM saw attendance evenly split between the genders.

Also another key point coming out of the discussion was the feeling the council is the collective property of its members. Nick said that in Wolves TUC its not just down to the officers to do the building, it falls on the shoulders of everyone. That ethos has helped keep itself turned outwards.

This is all very well, but is there a place for trades councils in Britain today? After all the historical trend has been toward their closure as lay activists have dropped out of labour movement activity. North Staffs for instance is the sole survivor of a movement of trades councils that were dotted all over Staffordshire. But as Wolverhampton has demonstrated, there is certainly a role they can play provided they transform themselves into campaigning bodies that have a visible presence in local politics. They possess the advantage of a name and apparatus already recognised by the trade union movement, and through branch affiliations and connections with the national
TUC, it has access to the kind of resources the NSSN, for example, does not.

One should not fetishise these advantages. Again, using the NSSN for comparison, as 'official' bodies in the last instance they can be overruled and subject to the authority of national bodies - there have been plenty of instances where communist-influenced councils have been shut down or taken over by the regional or national organisation. This is not the case with the NSSN. Its purpose as an 'unofficial' rank and file movement of shop stewards and union activists give it much greater room for manoeuvre. The two do different things but can compliment each other, and especially so now as the labour movement's emphasis turns to rebuilding our strength.

Where North Staffs TUC is concerned, this was easily the best meeting I've attended so far. There has, despite everything, been a drip drip inclusion of new activists this past year or so and a new determination to step up its presence. Watch this space.

Cross posted at Union Futures.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Twitter Virginity: Lost

It was only a matter of time. Yours truly has fallen in with bad company, bad company who spend their time Twittering. I know a bandwagon when I see one and it would be very out of character if I didn't hop aboard. So for the first and last time ever, here are my tweets for this day of our Lord, 10th March.

>>> Sob, only two weeks of Battlestar left! What the hell is going to happen?

>>> What to blog about later on? Yesterday's will do in the mean time: http://tinyurl.com/auaevj

>>> @jochristiesmith Reading anything interesting?

>>> At home now but the cupboard was bare. Off out to get some mushrooms. The glamour!

>>> @jonanderson44 - Lorna Morgan eh? She scheduled for a guest post at the 'sunrise?

>>> That coffee was disgusting, but I still drank the lot. Is this the sign of a serious caffeine addict?

>>> My coffee smells like oxtail soup. Not impressed.

>>> Coolio. Another 1,347 words to add to the old PhD done so far today. Time for a stiff coffee and a short break methinks.

>>> Twas nice to have luncheon over the computer catching up on today's blogging. I do wonder how people with jobs manage to blog so frequently.

>>> @catherinebuca - no shammin' here. It's essential for my intellectual development.

>>> @alixmortimer, comforting to know I'm in such exalted company.

>>> Nice cup of tea and a good laugh @ the expense of a certain TU general secretary. Sounds like NorScarf on Sat was interesting too.

>>> Bah, Brother S has disturbed me for a tea after a mere 170 words :(

>>> Right, getting down to work now. Must avoid tweeting for the next hour.

>>> Do I really need something else that will distract me from my PhD?

>>> Viva Longton Help the Aged - 10p a book!

>>> Well, here I am. Twitter. Does that mean I'm now down wid da kidz?

You've got to pity the scholars of the future. Whereas scholars now excavate the archives of historically significant personages, future academics will be raiding rusty Twitter servers and unearthing sketchy thoughts on Elbow gigs. I can already see theory wars being waged over the best tools for the job. Who would win? Content analysis? Post-Heideggerian hermeneutics? Can I achieve Foucault-style academic fame by writing the definitive sociology of tweeting while skipping the gay S&M?

There's plenty of potential with Twitter in plugging material - it's no accident most of the big blogs use it to tweet their offerings and pull in those numbers. And I know, one of my posts got tweeted t'other day and brought the grand total of five people to this here blog. Not a lot, but proof it does work. So time the revolutionary left go where the yoof are (and Stephen Fry. And MC Hammer) and got twittering!

Aside no. 1 Bloggers - it might be tempting as filler but never ever use Twitter updates to make up a blog post. It looks crap and lazy. I've only done it today for illustrative purposes. And general crapness and laziness.

Aside no. 2 - I'll be your twitter friend! I'm anybody's! Follow me
here. I will guarantee you a rolling PhD wordcount, observations on Keele coffee, blog plugs and other highlights from my daily itinerary. And because I'm full of tweety love, feel free to plug your twitterly presence in the comments.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Assessing History and Class Consciousness

It's about time this series of blogs were properly put to bed. If there's one thing I learned from reading History and Class Consciousness, it's that it isn't an easy read. And as I've found during my blogging efforts on each of Lukacs's essays and lectures, it's not a book that can be easily summarised either. But seeing as H&CC was heavily criticised by the 'official' communist movement of the time, and these criticisms were added to by layers of received socialist opinion since, including the self-criticism Lukacs (pictured) undertook in his 1967 preface, is there anything worthwhile left? Can socialists safely give this thick and imposing tome a miss?

Lukacs himself characterises
H&CC as a transitional work between his pre-Marxist career and later mature outlook. He deemed it irredeemably stamped by a toxic mix of Hegelian excrescences and ultra-left exaggeration. Seems like the book can be left to gather dust with the blessings of its author. But why?

The first of these self-criticisms concerns
H&CC's treatment of ontology - the nature of being. Lukacs demonstrates how his youthful work upholds an understanding of the social and natural worlds that radically opposes the two, which he resolves by collapsing nature into society. He suggests society is the only object of philosophical reflection and that thinking about nature is subordinate because 'nature' is only a category defined by society. It is easy to understand how Lukacs came to this view. Taking Britain as an example, there's precious little of our environment that remains unshaped by human hands. The landscape has been fundamentally remade by hunter-gatherers, peasants, agrarian capitalism, industry, and urbanisation. Our taming of nature appears to be all one way - society has expanded at the natural world's expense, suggestive of the view that society is active, nature is passive, and society can categorise nature according to society's subordination of nature to society's ends. Echoes of this perspective remain alive and well in poststructuralist thinking - its emphasis on the text and there being nothing "outside" of it is merely a contemporary reworking of this perspective.

In one sense the young Lukacs is right - how we define and understand nature is transmitted and conditioned by the historical relationship society has with nature. But we shouldn't confuse the things of logic with the logic of things and conceptually rule nature out. As far as the mature Lukacs was concerned, Marx's materialism was premised on the ontological objectivity of nature. This isn't to reverse the poles of determination, making nature 'active' and society 'passive'. The materialist conception of history points out that society and nature are in a metabolic relationship with one another, which is mediated by labour. In pre-capitalist and pre-industrial societies, the primitive state of the forces of production meant that scarcity was imposed by the forces of nature. With the emergence of capitalism and its constant revolutionising of the productive forces, the metabolic relationship, in a sense, became more equal. Scarcity in modern Britain is not the fault of natural limits but rather the social limits of capitalism itself. This is where the progressive character of capitalism lies - it has developed the productivity of labour to the extent that society is no longer "ruled" by nature. But unfortunately, because of the blind and chaotic characteristics of the system and the way capitalism exploits and pollutes the environment, we are looking at revenge of nature-type scenarios in looming ecological collapse and climate change. Only by establishing global socialism and consciously regulating our metabolic interchange with nature can the worst of the effects be mitigated (see
Marx's Ecology).

The mature Lukacs argued that
H&CC was blind to this, and therefore blind to a true appreciation of how radically different Marx's materialism was compared with bourgeois philosophy. From this a couple of other errors flowed. The first of these was his theorisation of revolutionary praxis - we saw him repeatedly criticise bourgeois philosophy for its contemplative stance vis the material world, in contrast to the activist stance of Marxism. But because the young Lukacs did not appreciate the role labour occupied in Marxist ontology, his understanding of praxis (the unity of theory and practice) was not based on the actual concrete activity and consciousness of the working class but on a theoretical construct - the idea of imputed class consciousness (see the essay on class consciousness). Here Lukacs argues his younger self philosophically worked out the interests of the proletariat , its place and trajectory in the philosophical process, and the thought-obstacles capitalism constantly throws up to prevent it from realising its socialist fate (false consciousness). For the mature Lukacs this is the mirror image of bourgeois philosophy and is equally as contemplative in spite of the radical verbiage. Implicit is the belief the working class ought to act in a particular way because theory says so, and that they are bound to do so sooner or later - reproducing the mechanistic errors of Second International 'Marxism'.

This is one instance where Lukacs's desire to distance himself from
H&CC prevents a considered reflection of this position. It is true that Lenin saw socialism growing from concrete, conscious political action by the mass of our class, action in turn founded on the long challenging work undertaken by the militant class conscious minority within it. But what Lukacs implies in his criticisms is an autonomy of philosophy. Philosophy is, in the words of Louis Althusser, class struggle in (the realm of) theory. It is the abstraction of the experiences of classes and class fractions into contending schools of philosophy and social theory - a point which the younger Lukacs makes often enough about the relationship between Marxism and the proletariat. Therefore the criticisms one can make of poststructuralist attacks on Marxism, which were touched on in this post can partially apply to the mature Lukacs. What the younger Lukacs accomplished was a philosophical sketch of what the working class has done throughout its history. The set of relationships workers enter into in the workplace are antagonistic and this antagonism will find collective expression in some way, even in the absence of class conscious workers and/or Marxist ideas. Imputed consciousness therefore is not an idealist construct, it is a philosophical abstraction of the everyday experiences of our class. Similarly, I may not be a fan of the expression, but the young Lukacs's understanding of false class consciousness is a theoretical rendering and explanation of the ideological barriers capitalism puts in place that have to be overcome by socialist politics. In neither can a trace of essentialism and contemplation be found, provided one stands firmly on the ground of Marxist epistemology.

The second of the mature Lukacs's criticisms concerns his early relationship with Hegel, whose treatment he thought was insufficiently materialist. He says "it is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of
History and Class Consciousness to have reinstated the category of totality in the central position it had occupied throughout Marx's works and from which it had been ousted by the 'scientism' of the social democratic opportunists" (1968, p.xx). But the mature Lukacs thought H&CC made use of Hegel in a straight forward and hence a problematic fashion for materialists, and this particularly impacts on his widely influential essays on reification.

Lukacs's first charge is how the young Lukacs describes the historical destiny of the proletariat. In Hegel's philosophy history is a process of 'the spirit' becoming conscious of itself as it overcomes alienation. Each form of society corresponds to a particular stage in its development toward the absolute, the point where subject and object become identical and reason reigns for ever more. The young Lukacs reworks this casting class consciousness as the subject and the (unconscious) proletariat as the unconscious object of history. When the two become fused this marks the period of revolution and the building of communist society, the point where history is now the result of conscious activity. The mature Lukacs suggested this was merely metaphysics, of providing a philosophical justification for communism that attempted to "out-Hegel Hegel" and come up with a solution to alienation, a solution Hegel relegated to a liminal space provided by his system.

The second problem is how alienation is conceptualised. In Hegel alienation is synonymous with objectification (in the neutral sense), that is the separation of reality from consciousness. Thus in Hegel's schema, the resolution of subject and object in the absolute means the abolition of alienation and thereby the "destruction" of reality. The young Lukacs didn't hold to this view but the species of alienation he described was similar in form to Hegel's - for example his discussion of the individual facing society as a subject versus a system of objects that are outside and beyond their subjectivity has clear echoes of Hegel. As the mature Lukacs says, "only when the objectified forms in society acquire functions that bring the essence of man into conflict with his existence, only when man's nature is subjugated, deformed and crippled can we speak of an objective societal condition of alienation and, as an inexorable consequence, of all the subjective marks of an internal alienation" (ibid. p.xxiv).

Lukacs goes on to discuss his changing views when Marx's
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was published when he was domiciled in Moscow in the early 30s, but only to put radical distance between himself and the essays on reification. But this is something of an exaggeration. There are moments where Lukacs's early arguments mirror Hegel's, but his examination of the relation between the proletariat and reification seems a pretty accurate reconstruction of Marx sans the Paris Manuscripts, regardless of what the mature Lukacs thought.

Lukacs then goes on to list the positives - the treatment of Marx's work as a whole,
H&CC's tendency toward a dialectical and materialist reinterpretation of Marx, and, peculiarly, the mature Lukacs endorsement of What is Orthodox Marxism?. If you recall this is the stress on totality as the defining characteristic of the Marxist method (more here). As John Rees observes in his Algebra of Revolution, this is not the case. What differentiates Marxism from other social theories is not just its relationship to socialist practice but the totality of all the characteristics of materialist dialectics - totality, change and contradiction, premised on a sophisticated materialist ontology.

Understandably the essays on method, class consciousness and reification have drawn the lion share of criticism and comment down the years, but this is not all there is to
H&CC. For example, the critique of spontaneism in his second essay on Rosa Luxemburg and the revolutionary party are especially useful restatements of socialist political practice, as long as they're read with a critical anti-voluntarist eye. Legality and Illegality at the same time shows how to and how not to do ideology critique.

What is also interesting about the book was its subsequent fate at the hands of so-called Western Marxism. This trend was primarily a movement in academia, picking up on
H&CC's Hegelianism and taking their brand of Marxism in a number of interesting directions. However, what unites the variegated philosophies of Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, and Habermas (with the possible exception of Marcuse) is their aversion to practice, reducing Marxism to a radical species of contemplative thought. The responsibility for this cannot be laid at Lukacs's door - despite the errors and criticisms the appeal of H&CC lies in its being a philosophical call to arms that not only makes the case for militancy in theory, but concrete socialist activism in practice.

I began by noting how a book like
H&CC defies easy summary. It can be maddeningly complex and pretty straight forward. Reading the essays in a different order do not seem to bring any extra clarity, but a crash course in Kant and Hegel are definitely useful for the middle essay on reification - I'm still not sure if I entirely understood everything Lukacs had to say on the subject.

In his 1967 preface Lukacs said it was a book of its time and had little bearing on then contemporary debates. Is this still the case more than 40 years later? No. In Britain Marxism has lived something of a twilight existence these last 20 or so years. Its enrichment and development has gone largely unseen as the revolutionary left and a handful of academics and journals have kept it going. Now the neoliberal tide has turned and increasing numbers are looking to Marx and Marxism for answers,
H&CC as a statement of the fundamental basics of Marxist philosophy is very likely to attract more activist and scholarly interest. Provided H&CC is regarded as a primer and not the final word on Marxism, it could play an important role in educating the next generation of socialists.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

By Gum, It's Grim Up North

I watched the opening episode of the much hyped three-part series based on David Peace's Red Riding quartet. It is set in the mining area of West Yorkshire and opens in 1974. Andrew Garfield plays an emerging, young reporter (Eddie Danford) who is investigating the disappearances of three young girls over a period of five years. Eddie soon realises that he has entered a web of corruption involving the local police force, council and press. The main villain is a brash, racist, homophobic property developer John Dawson, played by professional Yorkshireman, Sean Bean. Dawson is supported in his dirty deeds by the local bill that seem to have already killed one reporter who got too close to Dawson - as well as given Eddie some savage beatings.

I am afraid that Red Riding didn’t do a lot other than depress me. Yes, it is supposed to depict grim reality but the violence seems over-elaborate and over the top. Gritty reality pieces (Kes, Billy Elliott) need to be believable and this just isn’t. The North is stereotypically depicted as soul-crushingly drab. The sun never shines (although if the series was shot last summer this might have been unavoidable). We get a few shots of bleak-looking moorland on the horizon but the beauty of the Pennines is not portrayed. Bean's character is all too predictable.

So what point is the series trying to make? There is corruption in all walks of life. And? It is unfair and nasty and good people get abused. And?

It is just too bleak for me. Even ‘grim reality’ films can have moments of humour or brief interludes when the better side of human nature shines through. And before anyone tells me I should get my middle-class arse down to a mining area and see what it is really like, I do. I live close to the former North Staffordshire coalfields and regularly walk around the old mining villages. And the views are inspiring!

Teaching Max Weber

Of the 'big three' founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber (pictured) was definitely the most miserable. If he thought to preface his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with a few gags then perhaps more of my Thursday students would have persevered with their reading. Does this explain why Slavoj Žižek appears so sexy to so many?

I digress. The purpose of the week's seminar was to bring out the basics of Weber's method and then examine the thesis that protestantism, and
Calvinism in particular played a key role in the formation of capitalism. These were my batch of questions for the students:

1) What is Weber's 'Ideal Type' method? Can you think of any examples?

2) What are the main features of a) The Protestant Ethic, and b) The Spirit of Capitalism?

3) For Weber, what differentiated capitalism from preceding modes of production? Why did it develop in Western Europe after the Reformation? Why not in other well developed societies such as China?

4) Do you think there are any problems with Weber's thesis?

5) Despite criticisms do you think Weber's arguments could be useful for understanding contemporary capitalism?

6) What criticisms could Marxists make of Weber's account? Do Marx and Weber offer incompatible views? Whose analysis of capitalism is superior?

Except for committed Weberians and Marxists the subject matter was never going to ignite the passions, and so it proved with this session. But nevertheless Weber's thesis did come in for a bit of a kicking over his value judgements concerning what did and what didn't count as rational action (was it really irrational for Catholic aristocrats to invest in piracy, slavery and wars?); whether you can read off actors' actions from religious prescriptions; and if the documents Weber used to underwrote or undermined his argument. His disjointed "tick box" schema of capitalism's emergence was compared with Marx's emphasis on class struggle to explain the breakdown of West European feudalism.

The next session will be looking at the emergence of nationalism and democratisation - whether the nation is an invention of capitalism or has roots in pre-capitalist times, what social forces have historically driven the struggle for democracy, and the relevance of both today. With a nice cross section of political views in all my classes - from
UKIP to anarchism - I hope on this occasion the fur will fly ...

Friday, 6 March 2009

Branch Meeting: Fascism and Anti-Fascism

It was my turn to give the lead off at last night's Stoke SP branch meeting. Because of the imminent anti-fascist conference I volunteered to do a primer - and here it is.

The left spends a lot of time condemning the BNP, damning them as fascists and Nazis and frequently mobilising against them. This weekend, for example, the North Staffs Campaign Against Racism and Fascism will be holding a special one day conference on how to beat the BNP. But why? What is it about an organisation that only has 56 councillors, 100 parish councillors and a member of the London Assembly that can rouse the passions like no other political party? In this lead off I'll be looking at three things - what fascism is, the roots of its support in Britain today and how we can go about fighting them.

If we return to the Communist Manifesto, Marx describes the capitalist state as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Engels in his Origin of the Family also argued that the state, in the final analysis, is an organised military body that stands in defence of capitalist property relations. But the state is no monolithic leviathan - not only is it struggled over by various factions of the bourgeoisie it has to manage and partially reflect the aspirations of the subject class - the working class. The extent to which the working class exerts an influence over the bourgeois state depends on the level of class struggle. When it is strong the labour movement can extract concessions from it. When the movement is weak the state can be used to strengthen business and the power of the bourgeoisie at our expense. In British post-war history from 1945 to 1979, you could say state economic intervention, the growing welfare state, and the semi-institutionalisation of the trade unions in the field of industrial policy reflected the strength, confidence and expectations of our class. From Thatcher's election in 1979 and the defeats of the 80s these reforms were clawed back. Socialist ideas more or less went underground and the Labour party capitulated to the neoliberal consensus around free markets, privatisation, deregulation and the dismemberment of the welfare state. It remains to be seen if the present economic crisis has conclusively brought this period to a close.

There are moments when the state can assume a degree of autonomy from the ruling class and the aspirations of the workers. This happens when class struggle reaches an equilibrium. Marx analysed this phenomena in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and termed it 'Bonapartism' after emperor Napoleon III, who seized power in France in 1851. The state and the person of Napoleon III appeared to stand above and apart from society - not least because he appeared to speak for all groups and classes. Press freedoms were curtailed, parliament emasculated and elections emptied of any democratic content but the state remained premised on the defence of capitalist property relations. Thus the rule of the bourgeoisie was preserved.

Fascism is a species of Bonapartism. Typically fascist parties and movements comprise 'lumpen' elements of the working class, declassed middle class people fallen on hard times and small business people. They always dress themselves up in the national flag and claim to be the true uncorrupted voice of their country, and are as such opposed to immigrants, the labour movement and anything else that threatens the integrity of the nation as they see it. Their politics are often crude and incoherent, but that doesn't stop the ruling class from backing them if they feel threatened by a strong working class. Italy, Germany and Spain are, if you like, the classic cases of where the fascist movement was levered into power by the ruling class off the back of intense class struggles. Fascism was their battering ram to smash the labour movements. This preserved capitalism but the price the bourgeoisie paid was political expropriation and the ruin of their countries - so it is not an option our rulers will lightly take.

Britain is a million miles away from this situation. The bourgeoisie might be worried about the economic crisis, but none of them think they're about to be swept away by socialist revolution. Hence the BNP are a comparatively tiny organisation, especially if we compare it to its brethren on the continent. But like the fascist movements of the past they fish from the same sociological pool. Equally none of them have any kind of record of standing up for workers of any colour. And the areas of Stoke they draw support from tend to be all-white, depressed, and with high rates of unemployment and welfare dependency. The 'white working class' in media-speak is synonymous with the most backward, alienated and isolated sections of our class.

This comprises their electoral bedrock in Stoke, but it is not one they can take for granted. It is mostly passive and tends to be a mile wide but only an inch deep. Their activist numbers in Stoke can’t be that much more than ours, despite having a paper membership many times our own. And this support is hardly what you would call a solid vote. Having spoken to many BNP voters over the years, especially when we were canvassing in the Abbey, the majority I spoke to could not be described as hardcore racists. I've lost count of the conversations I've had with BNP voters who previously supported Labour all their lives. Among them is a sense of grievance, abandonment and disillusionment with mainstream politics. This isn't surprising when New Labour and their carbon copies in yellow and blue have done everything to show their contempt for working class people and their aspirations. Make no bones about it, the mainstream parties are responsible for the increasing support of the BNP, not anyone else.

But seeing as the BNP are so small, why should we bother about them? First they propagate ideas that are not only repulsive to most people but also divide our class. The power of the working class depends on its strength as a unified collective - the BNP's nationalist and racist poison cuts against this and makes the tasks of socialists that much more difficult. Second is their political function - if they get a whiff of power in this country we'd better watch out. As Pastor Niemoller observed in his celebrated verse, "first they came for the communists ...". Even now they attack socialists and trade unionists if they think they can get away with it. Assaults on activists are not uncommon. Socialists have received bureaucratic harassment in some authorities where the BNP have an influence. And even local Labour party candidates have had their property vandalised for standing up against the BNP. Thirdly wherever they build a base, racist attacks and racist "incidents" follow. In Welling in the early 90s where the BNP were then headquartered there was a spike in racist assaults, culminating in the infamous murder of Stephen Lawrence. BNP activists might not be directly involved in this violence but they help create a situation that encourages racist activity.

What can we do about them? This is the question NorSCARF will be asking at Saturday's conference. NorSCARF was set up in the late 70s to counter the growing menace of the then National Front and has since been the favoured labour movement vehicle for anti-racist and anti-fascist activity in the Potteries. At present it brings together a broad range of activists from all kinds of political backgrounds, including the Labour party. This fact, which is NorSCARF's greatest strength, is also its chief weakness. In order to maintain this unity there is a tendency toward lowest common denominator politics. This keeps everyone on board, but at the price of not really hitting the BNP where it hurts. To give you an example of a NorSCARF-endorsed leaflet I helped deliver round Longton a couple of years ago, it concentrated on three matters:

1) The candidate's holocaust denial.

2) The BNP's hate-mongering over plans for Stoke's only purpose-built mosque.

3) The candidate not paying his council tax.

I wrote at the time "Given everyone in Longton is well aware of Batkin's far right lunacy (not least because his ward has been plastered with Unite Against Fascism and Searchlight material in the past) and his support remains undiminished, just highlighting his and the BNP's racism and Islamophobia just won't cut it. And as for not paying his council tax, given its relentless rise to pay for council mismanagement, is a failure to pay likely to count against him?"

People have turned to the BNP because Labour has consistently kicked them in the teeth. They are the nuclear option when it comes to protest votes. If you want to beat the BNP you have to address the conditions they feed off, but that's impossible without understanding the causes and providing a political alternative. Obviously in an organisation with Labour backing that's a problem - this was why A was shouted down at the last NorSCARF conference.

This isn't to say NorSCARF is of absolutely no use. It has done useful work making sure the BNP are dogged with racist baggage wherever they go. It's good at mobilising non-BNP voters who may otherwise stay at home. But neither tackle the underlying issues, and there is no prospect of NorSCARF of evolving into something that will.

What does this mean for our anti-fascist work? Our party has a semi-detached relationship with NorSCARF because we are not afraid of calling a spade a spade. For us fighting fascism is inseparable from arguing for socialist politics. If the BNP are growing in the absence of a working class political alternative, it follows we must work to build that alternative on the streets, in the workplace and at the ballot box. Last summer, for example, witnessed some Herculean efforts at delivering our series of anti-fascist leaflets as the BNP sought to capitalise on the killing of one of their activists. In all some 15,000 were posted through Stoke's letter boxes.

What we need to think about then is how we can work with NorSCARF and crucially draw in that layer who've come to similar conclusions as us toward our party? Should we seek to build a loose faction of like-minded activists? Forget about NorSCARF altogether? How should we relate to LMHR, who are planning a massive free gig at the end of May? And what about the RMT’s left electoral initiative?

The following discussion talked through our experiences of dealing with BNP supporters and the casual racism we often meet on stalls. One comrade joked about his activity on the banking crisis. When he started he thought that at last this would be an issue no one could possibly blame immigrants for. In the first conversation he had he explained how it was funny money could be found for that but not post offices, hospitals, etc. "Yeah ... " said the woman, "and immigrants".

Another mentioned a discussion he had on Saturday with a couple who had similar sentiments. Replying to the 'send 'em home' argument on jobs and housing, he replied that if we did that then we'd still have the same problems, and especially so if the millions of Britons who worked overseas were forced to come home. He also pointed out it wasn't Poles or asylum seekers who'd been closing the pot banks, the steel or the mines. That seemed to have a big impact on the couple, demonstrating how racist and xenophobic attitudes in most cases are very shallow.

The discussion moved on to the nitty-gritty of strategy, which I'll keep mum about.

But all in all I thought the session went well. There were new members and new people to Stoke there, and I hope the talk and discussion served as a good introduction to the local political and anti-fascist scene.