Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

The radicalism of action, not words

Posted by Left Luggage on July 20, 2009

We’ve argued previously that the Left needs to tackle such thorny issues as anti-social behaviour, crime, and morality if it is to launch itself from the political wilderness to centre stage. Blogger Vengeance and Fashion took up these issues in an excellent post that furthered this debate. Generalising from the case of teacher Peter Harvey, who was charged with the attempted murder of one of his pupils, the writer goes on to discuss problems of behaviour in the classroom and how this relates to wider changes in society.

He relates his analysis to the Independent Working Class Association’s identification of a “lumpen attitude”, highlighted in a previous piece on Left Luggage, that is ultimately counter to working class values and destructive to communities. The writer correctly argues that the Left as a whole needs to recognise such attitudes and behaviour as something that needs to be countered:

It doesn’t do the left any good to pretend that the attitudes of a significant section of the school population stink.  The constant invokation of ‘rights’ and selfish disregard for anyone else (be they other pupils or teachers) is prevalent in many classrooms.  As is the baiting of teachers, who have little real power over pupils.[…]

The lumpen attitude, as identified by the IWCA, of ‘venal and brazen opportunism’ and the decline of working class ideals, is undoubtedly as a result of the atomisation and decline in traditional working class organisations and institutions. This has in turn led to a decline in the working class values identified in the quote above, to which I would add the spirit of self and collective improvement. This does seem to have been a significant factor behind the escalation of problems in the classroom over the last 30 years.

Much of the Left might find fault with this analysis, given the strong tendency to romanticise an idealised “working class” while largely remaining distanced from it. Even if such a heretical notion were permitted, the solutions offered would not doubt be along the lines of: “Unless we abolish capitalism…”, merely reinforcing the Left’s impotence as regards practical politics in the here and now. V&A attempts to bridge this gap by suggesting a “twin-track approach”:

The solution is to acknowledge that these problems cannot be dealt with in schools, but only by a fundamental change in society involving a radicalisation of the working class. There is no solution under capitalism. What seems most effective is a twin-track approach of building opposition to capitalism while pursuing policies within a classroom or school that ensure that the needs of the majority are not hampered or denied by the behaviour and actions of a minority.

It needs to be acknowledged that workers and their families demand fairness, the cause of which doesn’t seem to be furthered by doing little to sort out problems in the classroom (and the problem’s parents) or be seen to be actively rewarding bad behaviour with trips and one-to-one attention. Defending this makes the Left look ridiculous, and can only benefit the Right

V&A raises some very important aspects of this question here, especially that such problems cannot be dealt with in schools but are determined by trends in society at large and therefore it is changes in this arena – most importantly “a radicalisation of the working class” – that can tackle these issues. But he doesn’t really seem to bridge the gap just mentioned.

He correctly identifies anti-social behaviour and the “lumpen attitude” identified by the IWCA – similar to what we have elsewhere described as Thatcherite values that have had a wider influence – as something the Left needs to counter. What’s more the Left needs to resist this practically, rather than just telling people such problems are impossible to solve under capitalism (and therefore that they have to live with them, since capitalism shows few signs of collapsing any time soon).

In this case at least, however, it is possible to argue that there is a solution – or at least possible improvements to the situation – under the present economic system, since V&A himself suggests there has been an “escalation of problems” over the last 30 years. Thus it might be the case that a “single-track” approach – getting on with practical work that embodies the Left’s values and furthers its objectives – can be pursued in many cases.

This does not been sidelining radicalism, but it means refocusing attention on practical issues and providing solutions alongside the long-term work of trying to build community values, solidarity and political culture. In reality this in itself is far more radical – and effective, especially in a time when defensive formations are the order of the day – than the political impotence that comes with not going beyond identifying capitalism as the culprit behind social problems.

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