Published in the Anarchist Federation's twice-yearly magazine Organise! issue 77, Winter 2011, as part of the 25th anniversary issue, this article reflects on the last 5-6 years of the AF's development. It refers to involvement in events and social movements of the same period and the organisational changes resulting from the growth of the AF and development of relationships with other organisations (and non-organisations).
25 years of the AFED - Anniversary article
As we celebrate 25 years of the Anarchist Federation we look at the developments in our organisation over the last 5 to 6 years. Our first two decades were covered in some detail in Organise! issues 67 and 42 which can be found on our website, so we won’t repeat them here.
Our latest chapter begins at the end of 2005, as we were moving on from the anti-G8 summit mobilisation at Gleneagles which resulted in the largest explicitly anti-capitalist event we have ever had in Britain. Afterwards, many participants were discussing the future of the Dissent network that had been responsible for the fund-raising and convergence space organisation that had supported the anti-summit activities. Members of the AF were involved in a working group that was looking at the possibility of a holding a re-convergence of those involved following a couple of post-summit gatherings. We proposed that a good basis for proceeding would be an agreement that favoured the adoption of principles something like the People’s Global Action (PGA) hallmarks.
In the end though, the Dissent network did not continue and activists went their separate ways, and in hindsight it is possible to understand the reasons. Some decided to concentrate on environmental action and went on to establish the Camp for Climate Action near Drax power station. It is probably true to say that those who set up the camp were not of the political persuasion which would form a permanent or even a semi-permanent network based on a set of principles. Although some AF members engaged with CCA early on - until the lack of explicit principles meant that it was impossible to address the influx of liberals, celebrities and trots - others had thrown ourselves into anti-ID card campaigning and No Borders (including action at detention centres and local refugee support) whilst continuing to organise as far as possible in community campaigns and anti-fascist activity against the BNP. At the same time the anarchist social centres movement really took off and more AF members got involved with local centres.
However, there was a perception that the anti-capitalist movement was not really making waves outside of single issues, notwithstanding the threat of ecological collapse being seen by many as the main threat from capitalism and as an overarching rather than a single issue. Furthermore, as the US/UK led war on terror continued, the London Bombings having dominated the end of the Gleneagles summit, it was clear that there was no serious movement against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan outside of the Stop the War Coalition which was dominated by the Socialist Workers’ Party. The stranglehold of the SWP on StWC eventually resulted in a split, with some of its prominent leaders leaving to form Counterfire, and the war machine has continued regardless.
Out of the Shadows
For the AF a general lack of coherence in the anti-capitalist movement and a seemingly impregnable neo-liberalism in wider society (plus an overbearing anti-immigrant rhetoric and generally unpleasant right-wing rallying from the popular press) resulted, over the next 3 years, in some soul-searching about our role in the movement. From this an internal document Out Of The Shadows was written by a small number of members. The main points were that the AF needed to act more coherently as an organisation and agree on the main projects that groups would ideally be involved in (although without compulsion) based on reaching majority agreement at national conferences. OOTS stressed that we should come up with a set of positions on everyday issues such as housing and crime that might appeal to more people outside of activist ghettos, and to try to become more media friendly. A widening of involvement in our activities was to be encouraged by the formation of an AF supporters group that would include people more on the fringe of the AF proper. The document also challenged the looser basis of the AF as a collection of essentially autonomous groups that tended to act locally and whose activism was directed at mainly single issue campaigning. The overall effect was the putting forward of a more centralist programme for the AF. The AF took the challenge seriously and discussed the document in detail and this was to be a major input to our next conference. But for some members progress was too slow and so some (although not all) of the signatories left to form, along with others, Liberty & Solidarity. L&S aligned itself to the Anarkismo international project and also advocated a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to anarchist politics especially in terms of anarchist involvement in the mainstream trade union movement. Possibly this had always been the goal of some of those involved, uncertainty about which was the cause of some acrimony, since formation of a faction with an agenda is allowed in AF but must be openly announced. Members of L&S also joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Although we lost some members in the formation of L&S, the next few years nonetheless resulted in a rapid growth in the AF, increasing our membership from 90 to 150, confirming us as the biggest anarchist organisation in Britain. It was quite a shock to not only have a lot more members, but that we were for the first time experiencing a turn-over in our membership. Our membership was also becoming more mobile and more international. As a result we have had to contend with groups forming (and disappearing) as members have moved town or country. On the other hand we have benefited greatly from having more members originating from overseas and a greater geographical spread in general, such that we have seen sustained growth in Scotland for example.
The OOTS experience resulted in some internal changes, firstly to our constitution where we identified a need to more clearly describe our commitment to federalism and consensus decision-making and to explain what we meant by it. We also reduced the power of our occasional voting at conferences by changing the majority from half to two-thirds, the upshot of this being that we now vote even less than we used to.
Secondly, whilst we did not agree overall with the idea of very specific position papers, which we felt might cause stagnation in our thinking, we realised that some of our theory would be better grounded by referring to practice more often. Over the next few years we produced pamphlets Against Nationalism in the context of the Gaza occupations and On the Frontline, on workplace strategy, where we explained in some detail our position with respect to syndicalism and the trade unions. These texts were widely appreciated by other anarchists, creating a level of mutual understanding that no doubt contributed to improved joint work with other organisations, notably the Solidarity Federation. We also produced leaflets and longer articles on a number of contemporary issues including environmental politics, such as Welcome to the Green Boss, part of an intervention at the Climate Camp mounted in the financial district during the London G20; and also against attacks on Roma people by the neo-fascist right in Italy which was produced for a joint AF/No Borders demonstration outside the Italian consulate in Manchester (attacks that can also be linked to eviction attempts at Dale Farm in Essex). A paper, Private versus 'Socialised' healthcare, about Obama’s health reforms in the USA that was also relevant to how anarchists view the NHS, quickly became the second most read article on our website, the most read article being Smash the English Defence League, written in the context of EDL demonstrations that we have opposed alongside other anti-racists in many towns in England. Our newest pamphlet, Introduction to Anarchist Communism, was written to put our worldview alongside real anti-war, workplace and community struggles.
A third outcome of OOTS was that we reasserted an active commitment to our founding principle of recognising the vital importance of struggles for sexual equality within and without our movement. Unconsciously, or perhaps though lack of consciousness, this was missing from OOTS in its striving to make us more relevant to working class struggles (a perception that might, wrongly, give sexual politics less priority). In part due to our growth in membership that made it meaningful to have these groups, both a Women’s and a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer (LGBTQ) caucus were formed as part of AF which now meet separately at least once a year. In particular, the AF has become a focus of radical anti-capitalist LGBTQ activism with a growth in LGBTQ members, two issues of a bulletin What’s Wrong with Angry? and interventions at several Pride events.
Considering the growth of interest in anarchism being experienced since the summit protests, the idea for a large outward-facing conference was on the minds of many within the movement. At the 2008 Anarchist Bookfair in London, we announced our intention to hold an Anarchism 2009 conference in a northern town; whilst it became immediately apparent that the Bookfair organisers and others were thinking along the same lines with an idea of ‘Bradford revisited’, echoing an important meeting of class struggle anarchists that we had all been involved with in 1998. We eventually decided to abandon our own conference and supported the Anarchist Movement Conference that subsequently took place in London in June 2009. It is probably fair to say that this conference was most useful in getting class struggle anarchists in London talking seriously about the future, and that it also gave a boost to anarchist-feminist organising though the intervention of ‘No Pretence’, both good things in themselves, but also, for AF members outside London, it did not have the impact it might have had in creating a countrywide buzz about anarchism, and so ended up being rather more inward than outward looking – a bit too much like Bradford ’98 perhaps?
Students and workers
Over the last few years the AF has attracted a lot of students and this had been a key element of our rapid growth in recent years. In the 1980s especially, university students were a bit of a pariah in the organised class struggle anarchist movement as a mainly privileged and self-interested group outside the experience of most working class people. But thanks to the Labour government’s widening of participation in further and higher education, and no thanks to the introduction of loans and fees that mean you have to work whilst studying unless you have a rich family, we found more and more students identifying with anarchist communism. A major effect of the most recent increases in university fees and the cutting of the Education Maintenance Allowance for younger students has radicalised education massively. During the university occupations such as the Free Hetherington, and when protest erupted into direct action at Millbank Conservative HQ, the input of libertarian politics was impossible to miss and we, having many members who are students and/or education workers, were well placed to play our part. The AF and SolFed organised a Radical Workers' and Students' Bloc in November 2010 as a direct contribution to the struggle, and the first issue of Anarchist Student was published just prior to this. We also participated in the January 2011 Network X conference in Manchester and a joint Radical Workers Bloc was called to take place on the 26th March TUC demonstration against the cuts, the so-called ‘March for the Alternative’.
The economic crisis, and state response to it, is of course a major turning point in general. While the Trotskyist and Labour Left see it as a chance to regroup around a left-wing agenda, the tired old politics of traditional trade unionism have had very little to offer in preventing the effects of the cuts, even on their members’ jobs. Prior to this a glimmer of hope was evident in the Visteon and Vestas factory occupations. Now with the rise of UK UnCut, direct action has become everyday and anarchism is being openly discussed in the mainstream media, even if commentators mainly concentrate on sustaining a myth around the idea of a Black Block. Now, with the August Riots so fresh, and recriminations flying about the state of our society, at least they can see that unrest cannot so easily be attributed to this or that political group. To explain our politics in regard to the cuts, we produced thousands of copies of a poster/bulletin, Everything we've won: they want it back, that was handed out on the March For The Alternative. These included contributions from AF members working in health and social care and students. We also produced a statement on the June 30th coordinated strike day calling for more sustained and coordinated strike action. The Trot parties’ amnesia and downright opportunism continues in their lobbying the Labour Party or TUC, or seeking to influence rank and file trade unionists within them, whilst the non-unionised unemployed who will be facing the coalition’s Work Programme and those whose disability allowances are being taken away are being all but ignored, as are the majority of service users who are not within easy reach of the left as they are not workers in the public sector.
One thing we have developed over the last few years is a widening of our involvement in promoting anarchism outside of our own activities and publications. This has included getting regional bookfairs off the ground in Sheffield, Manchester and Bristol and supporting others like in Belfast and Dublin. In 2008, our Nottingham group founded an anarchist cultural centre with library and archive, The Sparrows’ Nest, and this now contains a wealth of material; no small thanks to generous donations and loans from individuals, organisations and publishers as well as ongoing cataloguing efforts by non-AF members. Significantly, it is about to become home to the Solidarity Federation’s historical archive. In addition we have written more than ever for other papers of the movement, including a regular piece for Black Flag and individual member contributions to Freedom and Shift, and we have contributed articles and interviews to overseas papers and magazines. Some of our members are involved in libcom.org which has become an increasingly important online resource for anarchist communication and publications. AF groups are also running their own blogs, publishing local papers, and have initiated local publishing efforts notably in Manchester and London with Peterloo Press and Stormy Petrel. In 2008 we celebrated 100 issues of our monthly free paper Resistance and we are now close to 140.
As well as joint work with the Solidarity Federation, AF members continue to be involved in the IWW, seeing in it a vehicle for co-operation with other militants in workplace agitation and organisation whilst seeking to develop its potential as a solidarity unionist body.
We have not yet said much about international activities. Our involvement in the International of Anarchist Federations (IAF-IFA) has continued and we have been especially pleased to have had the chance to strengthen links with other IAF-IFA members by participating in regular international delegate meetings and bookfairs and hosting overseas comrades in England. We have also formed meaningful relationships with non-IAF-IFA groups including the recently formed Federation of Anarchist Organising in Slovenia and groupings in Holland, Greece and Macedonia; whilst AF members have also conducted two tours of Central and South America where they met with many groups across the region. The last few years has also seen great need for international solidarity and we have engaged in practical and moral support for comrades in Serbia, Oaxaca (Mexico), Belarus and Greece, Philippines, Indonesia, as well as Anarchists Against the Wall in Israel/Palestine.
We cannot leave 2011 without mentioning the great loss we have felt from the death through cancer of our AF comrade Bob Miller in June. Bob was instrumental in getting our publications for sale online in addition to his invaluable political contributions (see elsewhere in Organise! for a full obituary).
It feels like the next few years will be dominated by the economic climate. As surprised as the state has appeared to be about the riots and attacks on police in our major and not so major cities and towns, it has perhaps also been a surprise to see how quickly the gloves have come off, with threats of water cannon, denial of Facebook and the rest as well as the extremely heavy sentencing. The state has, in its rhetoric, moved on from the war on terror and its polarising suspicion of ‘other’ cultures, and now sees a much larger part of the population as a threat to stability and business as usual. It is hard for them to maintain the lie that we are all in this together without completely writing off people as feral or scum, egged on by the populist press. The present government continues erosion of the right to a ‘social wage’ by changing legislation to make benefits or council housing even more conditional and short term, whilst threatening removal of access to these as a punishment for unrest.
This said, we have yet to see less-marginalised parts of the working class involved in political activity even though there have been a lot of job losses and welfare is under attack on many fronts, including pensions, benefits and healthcare. Whilst Labour is in opposition, we won’t hear the end of ‘Tories Out’ from the trots, but thankfully there have been some inspiring developments in the form of UK UnCut and a radicalised student movement. This will hopefully be something to build upon. And we are growing in number as anarchist communists, so we can potentially do more in more places. But in the AF we are certainly noticing the economic climate. It costs us a lot to publish Organise! and our other papers, pamphlets and leaflets. At the same time a good many of our members have very little income. Some of us have lost jobs recently. But we will support each other and keep going!
The outcomes for the wider anarchist movement are currently a bit unclear. Organised revolutionary class struggle anarchism in Britain is less sectarian than ever and its groups are working and writing well on joint projects. Bookfairs are getting bigger and more numerous and the amount of new anarchist material being written and published is phenomenal. Part of this represents an accelerating literacy in our movement as a whole, and also the legacy of access to higher education that so many more people have taken advantage of over the lifetime of the AF.
This picture of harmony and growth is not, unfortunately, the case more broadly, if we include those who define themselves as anarchists but are not in organisations. At the Bradford ’98 conference, the first major meeting of minds in recent memory, one of its most exciting aspects was the coming together of class struggle anarchists and eco-activists who were calling themselves anarchists. However, over the last 5 to 6 years there has been a divergence of the same. Some of this can perhaps be put down to the different lifestyles that allow people to put on events like Climate Camp which require bouts of very intense activity. Eco-activism has also taken a hit from police infiltration and mass arrests and this has no doubt taken its toll in terms of involvement in major new activities in the last couple of years. A meeting that took place in February decided to wind up camping as a strategy to allow “new tactics, organising methods and processes to emerge in this time of whirlwind change.” In addition to a closing statement Metamorphosis produced at the meeting, an article Climate camp is dead! Long live climate camp! appeared in the April 2011 edition of Peace News (which, incidentally, celebrated 75 years of radical publishing this year). It indicated unresolved tensions between the need for security in camp organisation and inclusiveness of decision-making, invoking Jo Freeman’s seminal text from the 1970s, The Tyranny of Structurelessness that we in AF have often cited in our stressing the need for open and accountable anarchist organisational structures without which unspoken leaderships inevitably develop. The article finished by asking “Is it impossible to organise in large groups over the long term in a participatory, democratic way? How can we build a movement which not only inspires with its political actions, but inspires day-to-day with the way it organises?” and asked for help to achieve this. Hopefully this will encourage eco-activists to engage with anarchist organisations once again.
At the same time there has been little enthusiasm amongst anarchists who are not in organisations to engage with anti-austerity politics, or indeed any kind of mass movement building, with the exception of community orientated local organisations like those in London and Edinburgh who continue to do good work around housing, green spaces and benefits. Reasons for this are not hard to find. Firstly the economic basis for the cuts is something that many non-organised anarchists have disengaged with already; in some cases having dropped out of even claiming benefits, so the idea of defending pensions is a million miles away. Secondly there is an understandable gut reaction against defence of ‘state’ services that, without an analysis that sees welfare provision as something won out of class conflict, seems like the complete opposite of a libertarian society. Thirdly there is an ideological opposition to mass movements which sometimes manifests itself in small and secretive group organising that does not seek to explain its actions to a wider movement (a nihilist tendency is even gaining credence in some areas). For such people, organisations like the AF may seem little removed from those of the Trots, and ‘post-left’ theory only adds weight to this separation.
Internally, the AF will continue to adjust to growth and work on scaling up our activities to ensure efficiency of organising whilst maintaining maximum self-organisation in a non-hierarchical structure. We hope to attract more members and grow further. We will engage with efforts to create a united anarchist movement in Britain and across borders. All in all, we are in for some interesting times ahead in our second quarter century.
The Anarchist Federation
Organise issue 77, Winter 2011.