The role of gangs... "Outlaws & Renegades" - Red Action

J. Red-Rebel at
Wed Apr 10 00:40:27 MDT 2002

Article from Red Action on the role of youth gangs in politics in  Weimar
Germany in relation to current debates over drugs and anti-social


At issue is not whether drugs are good or bad, suggests Joe Reilly, but how
the subsequent anti-social problems should be managed. Key to this is
deciding from a Marxist perspective, whether 'junkies' are part of the
working class or a key component of the most dangerous of classes opposed to

"Degenerate youth! Guttersnipes! Pimps! Bums! Thieves! Plunderers!" was the
headline appeal of a Communist Youth newspaper in Germany in 1923. Had it
been produced 50 years earlier in Marx's day, it might have read: "Street
Gamins! Riff-raff! Vagabonds! Beggars! Spivs!" Today: "Joyriders! Ram
raiders! Pushers! Junkies!" would undoubtedly figure prominently.

In pitching their invitation, the Communist Youth authors did not attempt to
offer any judgement on the accuracy of the epithets, beyond expressing their
contempt for the bourgeois press that applied them to street gangs known as
'cliques' and it's 'gibbering' about the "moral degeneration" of 'youth'.

This appeal represented the beginning of a campaign by the German Communist
Party (KPD) to try and organise and politicise the sections of society
previously referred to by Marxists as the 'lumpen proletariat'. Their
reasons for so doing were many. In the first place, the KPD claimed as its
strongholds the very neighbourhoods in which the cliques were at home, and
the milieu of the cliques was reflected in its own composition. Secondly,
while the KPD had a disproportionate number of manual and unemployed workers
in it's ranks, the main Social Democratic Party (SPD) retained the
allegiance of the great majority of organised workers; which forced the KPD
to seek recruits outside the ranks of the organised and employed working
class. Thirdly, the KPD then was an avowedly insurrectionary party, which
adopted and even welcomed the role ascribed to it by its opponents and
rivals as a 'party of outlaws'. The SPD regularly accused the Communists of
having brought an unheard of coarseness and brutality into political life on
the streets and in parliament, while for it's part the Communists were known
to be relatively tolerant of ex-convicts in its own ranks and whose chief
political newspaper named spies and traitors to the movement and urged
readers 'to teach them a lesson'. Last but not least in the battle for the
streets, as a result of the Brownshirts attempting to establish itself in
strongholds of the Communists, knives and guns were being brought into the
conflict as well as fists. Given that the credibility of the combatants
depended on their displaying an active and effective response to the
physical and political threat posed, the advantages of mobilising the
energies and abilities of the cliques 'in their own cause' was fully

However to pretend that the strategy of orientating, organising and
recruiting outside of the realm of the 'idealised worker' outside of its
'proper' constituency went smoothly, without controversy or contradiction,
would be wrong. In fact the KPD never fully reconciled this departure from
the orientation to the 'point of production'. Indeed when the communist
movement approached the worker outside the workplace or the working class
child who had never known work, it always did so with suspicion.

Tellingly, when the party leadership thought of the gangs it saw them as
possible allies rather than as bone fide members of its own constituency. A
party less constricted in its vision of class and of politics, might have
been expected. Indeed may have felt obliged to develop an analysis of the
street gangs and their role within a progressive movement. It was never
attempted. Logically there were only two lines of argument open to the
Communists: on the one hand, they could acknowledge that the cliques and all
they represented were marginal to the working class, or even that they were
a symptom of the actual 'pathology of the proletariat under capitalism', but
that the party while recognising them as degenerate nonetheless regarded
them charitably.

On the other hand they could have concluded that the fact that individuals
or groups were categorised as criminal, was the result not of intrinsic
qualities that disqualified them from participation in the revolutionary
movement, but of belonging to a single and universally (if not uniformly)
oppressed working class, all of whose members were subject to the same
pressures, processes and categorisation. In terms of the cliques this would
have meant the KPD accepting they were no less representative of the working
class for not being in work. In fact the KPD attitude on such related
questions as anti-social crime, youth and so on, forever hovered between
these two approaches. This ambivalence was particularly vivid when young
Communists behaved like clique members. For instance the active and fighting
formations of the Communist youth (with an emphasis "on ace lads only") were
often characterised by a style and mentality strikingly similar to those of
the cliques. Inevitably this led not only to renewed concerns about the
dangers and values of the latter, but interestingly, also became a source of
conflict between the leadership and the rank and file. In 1931 this led to
one of the most explosive moments of the conflict within the party as a
whole. In an attempt to hold on to its tenuous legality, the definitive
statement issued by the leadership in November 1931 of it's rejection of
'individual terror' and 'adventurist tendencies' within the movement ended
its insurrectionary phase. Which in turn led to open accusations from
activists of the leadership having abandoned their revolutionary ideals, as
well as betraying any effective defence against Nazi incursions into 'Red'

The leadership countered, that tendencies to 'individual terror' reflected a
mood of 'desperation' and 'revenge', motives that characterised 'the
uprooted, insecure, petty bourgeoisie gone mad... alien to the socialist
working class'. This depiction of the street fighters as 'petit -bourgeois'
only exposed the inability of the party to describe, or accurately put into
words activists who were in its view, neither perfectly disciplined
Communists nor members of an alien class.

The KPD had no way to acknowledge that one might be working class, and yet
behave in ways considered undesir­able. This was a genuine confusion that
arose within the Communist movement whenever a distinction had to be drawn
between what was proletarian and what the emanci­pated proletarian ought to
be, what the party had to deal with in terms of actual working class culture
and what it was meant to make of it: and this confusion was not irrelevant
to the party's own capacity to carry out the political tasks it had set
itself. Chief among them being social revolution, which was its raison d'
etre. Instead of a social revolution what it actually got was a political
counter-revolution and fascist dictatorship.

Considering the many other obstacles the KPD faced (not least Stalin's own
fears of the impact on Russia of a successful German revolution) it would be
a mistake to imagine that a coherent class analysis alone would have made
triumph possible.

Nonetheless if it was even to assess the prospects of change accurately and
present them convincingly to actual and potential followers, the party had
first to understand the reality it was aiming to change, and to confront the
nature of its own constituency in its totality. And this it could not do
with any consistency.

The party's self image continued to be dominated by a view of class struggle
that implied it should not be and need not be, dealing with the cliques in
the first place. This view had no place in it for the analysis of working
class culture as it reflected the construction of collective interest
outside of the work place. There is no question that the elements of a new
and inven­tive approach to the politics of every day life were present in
the theoret­ical utterances of some spokesmen for the movement, and even
more obvious in the actual practices of the KPD.

But as long as the party's leaders continued to argue as though the
progressive politicised culture it expected its members more or less
spontaneously to represent, was the only real culture of the working class,
they ran the risk both of blinding themselves to the points of vulnerability
in class and movement alike, and of alienating their own followers who knew

Though we are self evidently addressing an entirely different situa­tion in
a different country, in a now different century, the lessons to be learned
remain critical. All importantly~ the main point of conflicts within the
KPD, have, due to time been resolved.

One, social democrats anywhere, pronouncedly in the case of New Labour, can
no longer count with any confidence on the allegiance of 'organised workers'
. Two, the sections of the class most in need of organising are for the most
part no longer unionised.

Consequently 'the point of production' as the best or indeed only basis from
which to organise the working class in pursuit of its 'immediate interests',
is in a complete break with a century of socialist custom and practice,
passé, in Britain at least. It was on this premise that the Independent
Working Class Association came about.

Three, there is of course Red Action itself. Here is an overtly political
organisation formed by precisely the same social elements, who as a result
of a confrontation between leadership and rank and file fighters, were
accused of a propensity for 'individual terror' and expelled from a party
riddled with markedly similar contradictions to the KPD.

But unlike their predecessors, rather than drift out of political life,
they, rather impertinently, set themselves up in political opposition.
Tellingly, of RA's initial modest objectives, 'to accommodate ordinary
working class recruits within the then wider socialist family', was one. To
'celebrate working class culture' another. Because many of the founding
members, who if not exactly 'convicts', were not entirely unfamiliar with a
prison cell either, there was never a danger of a conflict between the
political rhetoric of the group and the reality of working class culture
coming into conflict - and Red Action surviving.

Of course whether Red Action has marked an evolution or regression is
dependant on your opinion on the proper boundaries of both proletarian
behaviour and class, Suffice to say that up to the present, in line with
tradi­tion, the consensus amongst the mainstream Left is that Red Action is
not merely a 'party of outlaws' but has, and continues to be for a wide
variety of reasons, a menacing 'party of renegades'.

Interestingly despite said developments, the potential for conflict either
within Red Action, or between sections of the class on the question of class
demarcation has not altogether abated. For instance, by some distance, the
most heated debate at the RA Annual Conference in 1999, and the one which
drew the greatest number of contributions (24 in total) was in relation to
some proposals on the drugs issue. Since then, the debate has continued
within the pages of our publications. Off the record the respec­tive
positions have been referred to (probably unsatisfactorily) as either
'liberal' or 'reactionary'.

Quite properly all involved recognise that a) politicising working class
neighbourhoods and avoiding the issue of drugs and related issues cannot be
put off indefinitely and b) helping the IWCA define an appropriate strategy
is not only crucial in itself, but could in conquering what is considered an
insoluble problem, prove the lynchpin in progressive working class thinking
on related issues.

At issue is not whether drugs are a good or bad thing, but how the
subsequent problems should be managed. Personal behaviour, approval or
disapproval, is neither here nor there. The key is devising a strategy that
works. And works moreover in the interests of the real working class,
politically and socially. And here we get to the root of the matter. Are
'junkies' and indeed 'dealers' to be consid­ered part of a working class
constituency, or are they a key component of what the 1848 Communist
Manifesto referred to as the 'most dangerous of classes' opposed to it. How
this question is resolved will be key in addressing the problem on the

Marx to whom the phrase 'lumpen proletariat' is attributed was totally
unambiguous in regard to the threat 'the scum' posed, in particular to
revolution­aries. Time and time again he went in to bat on the subject.
'Marginal, itinerant, obsolete, downtrodden, dregs' were just some of the
metaphors attributed to trades and livelihoods such as "beggars, vagabonds,
rogue's, police spies, spivs, Street gamins, petty thieves, discharged
soldiers, discharged jailbirds, pimps, brothel keepers organ grinders,
rag-pickers, brothel keepers": those who could not and were for the most
part, unorganised, who contributed nothing productive and so lived as a
parasite on society. (Importantly. this view does not extend to the 'reserve
army of labour' the unemployed; who are 'a consequence' but also all
importantly a 'condition' of capitalist production.)

Significantly as a result of their intimate studies of revolutionary
endeavours across Europe over three decades their initial hardline view,
only hardened as time went on. In 1870 Engels evaluated them thus: "The
lumpen proletariat, this scum of all classes.., is absolutely venal and
absolutely brazen. If the French workers in every revolution inscribed on
the houses: Mort aux Ouvres! Death to Thieves! and even shot some, they did
it not out of reverence for property, but because they rightly considered it
necessary above all to get rid of that gang". And again: "What all these
elements, honest or dishonest, have in common is that they are functionless
outsiders, discards of the system, or self discards". Experience
demonstrated to Marx and Engels that on the whole, whether 'honest or
dishonest discards or self-discards' the 'lumpen' tended to be inhospitable
to social ideals and are typically moved by cynical self interest on the
most vulgar level, available to the highest bidder, untrustworthy even when
bought up, and dangerous not only as accom­plices but even as tools: "the
worst of all possible allies", as Engels commented. Consequently anyone who
"relies on them for support proves himself by this action alone a traitor to
the movement".

In contemporary terms the casual drug user (either hard or soft) is not
automati­cally fitted into such a catchment. It is not a question of
personal morality. For our purposes, it is entirely dependent on how it
relates to wider society generally, and working class communities
specifically. Nonetheless it is evident that the historic character profile
of the 'discards and self-discards' is an all to familiar one. Nor does it
need a revolutionary conflict for their malign presence to be felt. Their
corrosive effect on the self esteem, morale and material well being, once
they have come to the fore within working class communities is well
documented. That their defining character is a decidedly parasitic one is
beyond question. Equally any progressive movement that had serious ambitions
would face a confronta­tion with them sooner or later: that they are the
enemy within is without doubt.

Clearly for 'working class rule in working class areas' to be made operable
the real working class would have to be master.

Thus the revolutionary responsibility is three fold. Social democracy has
ditched the working class, respectable and otherwise entirely, so all are
now subject to the same bourgeois 'underclass' categori­sation. The upshot
being that the IWCA has the opportunity and moreover is obliged, to operate
under the principle of the "big tent"; in the sense of accommodating and
organising from the broadest class basis permissible (as against the
position of the Communists who had no choice but to concentrate exclusively
on those sections of the class rejected by social democracy).

Secondly, much like their employers, the police role in working class
communities such as it is, has been re-defined as one of de facto
containment. Finally, when the real working class counterpoise their
inter­ests in an organised fashion (most visibly in Dublin) to those who are
feeding on their children, the state rushes quite brazenly in on the side of
THEIR allies. In such circumstances to confront or even execute dealers as
the IRA have done on occasion is 'not out of reverence for the law' but the
opposite. Above all, for any progressive movement to continue its advance
within a working class neighbourhood it will prove necessary 'to get rid of
that gang'. Get rid not merely as a by-product, but as an end in itself.
Given the stakes, not taking sides is not an option.

In practical terms this means, as the IWCA have done on Blackbird Leys
'dealing with them' at an early stage by organising the real working class
against them. This is not in itself a political solution but it is the
founda­tion for one. For on the matter of class demarcation there can be no
room, not least within Red Action, for any 'ambivalence'.

Furthermore only when it is fully understood and accepted they are a natural
adversary can it be worked out how their influence is ameliorated and
under­mined. But only when we ourselves are absolutely sure where we stand
politically; are crystal clear on where the demarcation line is drawn, then
and only then, can we allow any solution the luxury of the necessary liberal
and charitable ingredients; 'the carrot' undeniably required to make it

In the meantime the existence of the contemporary 'lumpen' is a glaring
'point of vulnerability in class' and potential movement alike and we who
are best placed, the ones who 'know better', must not blind ourselves to
this reality, or indeed, in particular, to the implications of the current
balance of forces on the ground. For as the writer D.H. Lawrence put it:

"No absolute is going to make the lion lie down with the lamb - unless the l
amb is inside".

(Research on KPD from an essay. Organising the Lumpen Proletariat; Cliques
and Communists in Berlin during the Weimar Republic by Eve Rosenhaft,
acclaimed author of Beating the Fascists. Material courtesy of C. Price,

Reproduced from RA Bulletin Volume 4, Issue 5, Feb/March '00

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