Book Review from the October 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
The State and Community Action. By Terry Robson. Pluto Press. 250 pages.
With the manifest failure of Labourite reformism and Keynesian economic policies by the end of the 1970s, the sort of people who previously had joined the Labour Party to get reforms designed to benefit “the poor” deserted Labour, setting up and joining instead single-issue campaigning charities and other such organisations to work towards the same aim, although with considerably lowered sights.
Among such organisations were grass-roots neighbourhood and community councils in areas inhabited by the worst-off sections of the working class. Incredible as it may seem today, some of these activists put forward the idea of “community action” as an alternative to “working class action” not just to get improvements within the capitalist system but even to bring it to an end.
It was never going to work since, despite the personal views of some of those involved, “community action” as such was in the same tradition of piecemeal reform as the Labour Party had been, only even more piecemeal in that whereas Labour had sought reforms at national level the “community activists” were only seeking changes at local level. Some of these charges – better street lighting, community centres, better provision of public services, more information about how to claim state benefits – were unobjectionable in themselves and did improve things a little but the idea that this had anything to do with “challenging capitalism” or “creating a culture of resistance” was, frankly, just laughable.
Robson makes this point in passing, but his main concern is the relationship between community action and the state. Following the riots in the black ghettos of America in the 60s and 70s and in Brixton and Handsworth in Britain a decade later, the governments in both countries decided to actively encourage “community development”. They set money aside to fund local community associations and full-time community workers. Robson accurately describes this as “letting the poor manage their poverty”. The governments' aim was clearly to allay discontent and integrate the people affected into mainstream capitalist existence.
This continues to this day, with the present Labour government's much trumpeted “local initiatives” aimed at ending “social exclusion”. There is also a narrowly financial aspect: letting the poor manage their poverty is cheaper than having this done by civil servants subject to civil service terms and conditions over pay, job security and pensions. In other words, full-time “community workers” are in effect cheapo state functionaries. To imagine, then, that such associations and such workers could form the basis of an anti-state, anti-capitalist movement is just a pipe-dream. Being state-funded these are no more likely to bite the hand that feeds them than the state would be to allow its hand to be bitten.
Robson tries to set all this in a wider theoretical framework by referring to the idea of “hegemony” of the pre-war, imprisoned leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, apparently, observed (not very originally) that capitalist control was not based on mere coercion but also on consent; according to him, this consent was mediated by “intellectuals” who transmitted ideas and values favourable to the ruling class amongst the general population. To overthrow capitalism, he concluded, the working class movement needed to produce its own intellectuals (who needn't necessarily be of working class origin) who would undermine the work of the pro-capitalist intellectuals and lead the working class against capitalism and its state – for Gramsci was, of course, still a Leninist vanguardist.
Robson's conclusion from all this is that while some of the university-trained community workers might have considered themselves to be such pro-working class intellectuals they were just the opposite: intellectuals co-opted by the state to get the worst-off sections of the working class to acquiesce to capitalist rule without kicking against the pricks too much.
It's an interesting theory but this is the least interesting part of the book. It also contains two errors that rather undermine Robson's credibility as a person who knows what he's talking about here. He includes the Bolshevik leader Bukharin as one of the theoreticians of Second International “economistic” Marxism (but he was only born in 1888 and didn't publish anything substantial till after 1917) and he also has the Paris Commune (1871) occurring at about the same time as the Chartists in Britain (1830s and 40s).