Freedom talks to ‘Bob’, a longstanding member of the Anarchist Federation, about UK’s main anarchist-communist group.
The Anarchist Federation is growing in membership and involved in a range of campaigns including Defy ID. Its magazine ‘Organise!’ recently reached its 20th anniversary issue.
Freedom: Why did you join AF?
Bob: I joined the AF back in 1999. Before that I’d been a member of a council communist group called Subversion. We’d been going for about 12 years, based mostly in the Manchester area. We’d come together after the Wildcat group dissolved itself in 1987. One of our main tenets then had been the need to be anti-sectarian and work with other like-minded communists.
As time went by we found that the group we had most in common with was the ACF (AF was previously the Anarchist Communist Federation). We shared views on trades unions, parliament, national liberation and so on. We held a number of joint day schools together and organised a couple of summer camps too. I’d actually wanted us all to join the ACF anyway, but as some of the Subversion group held to a more Marxist line that didn’t happen. (Most of Subversion’s material is still online, it’s now on the AF Manchester website).
After the collapse of Subversion, I got on the phone to ACF comrades in London and said I’d like to join. In the end three of us from Subversion joined, though one has since left. If we’d joined up earlier, the result would have been a much stronger organisation which would have had a strong group in London and in Manchester. Sadly that wasn’t to happen and it took us a number of years to successfully create a Manchester AF group. Having known and worked with ACF members for the best part of 10 years, it was a simple move and one I wish had happened before.
What changes have you seen over the years you have been a member?
Well, we’ve grown quite a lot since then. I think we’ve doubled in size. And of course we’ve joined up with IFA (the International of Anarchist Federations). Not so many of the new members are old crumblies like me, either - there’s a healthy number of young anarchists joining us.
When I joined we weren’t really a federation. There was just a London group and a load of individuals around the country. Now we have groups in Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Surrey and we’ve got the makings of groups in a few other towns too. We’ve just taken the decision to start rotating the editorship of Resistance around the country. Manchester have produced four issues, Nottingham are doing the current one and so on. We’ve also taken a collective decision to involve ourselves in the anti-ID cards campaign. AF members are heavily involved with Defy ID, for example. We also collectively decided that working together on solidarity with Rossport was a priority.
One major change has been that a number of AFers have joined the IWW. However, we haven’t really worked this out yet and haven’t sorted out how it relates to our attitudes to trades unions, for example. This is something we’ll have to deal with soon.
Joining IFA has meant that we’ve focussed our international work mostly through that organisation. I think we’ve recently realised that this hasn’t been wholly for the good. It has allowed us to let our contacts with the Irish groups slip somewhat, for example. Since some of us got involved with doing solidarity work for Rossport we’ve come to realise the need to improve things in that area. Personally I’ve got high hopes, but we’ll have to see what happens. You guys ought to do interviews with Organise and the WSM in Ireland.
What do you think the relevance of anarcho-communism is today?
There is still a need for an anarchist communist organisation. Too often the anarchist scene is incredibly elitist. There are loads of friendship groups doing things that exclude the participation of working class people. They have no structures that allow people to join them, no internal democracy that places everyone on an equal footing. No point of contact for people new to anarchism. And ultimately no staying power.
Anarchist communism offers a set of perspectives in struggle that maximise the chances of success - direct democracy, mandated delegates, the right to recall, mass assemblies and so on. It’s a strategy that builds confidence, rather than inhibits it. And because our strategy is based on real experience of real workers in struggle, it brings with it a respect for the people most directly involved in the struggle. The people at the Rossport Solidarity Camp have found this. A number of those heavily involved in the camp are anarchist communists (one’s AF, the others are WSM). They have impact with the local community because they operate in an inclusive way, they don’t go round saying, “We’re the activist experts the rest of you watch us in action.”
AF and Sol Fed along with IWW have begun to work more closely together, jointly creating the Education Workers Network for example. What is your view of this? Do you think there should be just be one anarchist federation?
Well, as I was one of the movers behind its creation, I reckon it’s a pretty good idea! We also worked hard in the North to organise the anarchist bloc on the September 23rd demo at the Labour Conference. We get on pretty well with the local Solfed people, so it was natural to work with them. You know how big the anarchist contingent was. We distributed thousands of anarchist leaflets and copies of Resistance and Catalyst. It is no exaggeration to say that people were coming up to us asking for the literature. They were interested because there were so many of us. Mind you, it was exhausting organising it and afterwards all I wanted was an early night.
One anarchist federation? That’s a tricky one. Ideally I’d say yes. I know it’s a bit controversial, but I don’t see much difference between the AF and Solfed. We are basically an anarchist communist propaganda group, so are they. If you read their pamphlet “The Economics of Freedom”, what you see is an attempt to work out what an anarchist communist society would look like. There’s little in it I disagree with. I suppose the biggest problem is that we see the need for a specifically anarchist communist grouping. I believe that the attempt to create an anarchist union will lead to the emergence of an anarchist leadership within it. Freedom published a pamphlet on this some time ago, “The anarchist Revolution: Polemical articles 1924 -1931: Errico Malatesta'.” It’s worth a read.
But yes, I reckon we could work together. It’d give us a joint federation of around 150 members. We could really do some good work then. The comrades in Ireland managed to work out how to do this – the Anarchist Syndicalist Federation and the AF (Ireland) merged to form Organise. It’s still going pretty strong. If they can, I guess we could. The problem of course is big fish in small ponds.
Although AF is growing, most anarchists do not belong to a national federation. In the editorial of the 20th anniversary issue of AF's magazine ‘Organise!’ you call for anarchists to take a serious look at organisation. What do you think the movement needs to do?
It needs to recognise that we are more effective when we work together. We need to present a non-elitist public face that interested people can communicate with.
The activist scene doesn’t fit this bill. It depends too much on friendship networks, which are notoriously hard to break into. If people agree with us, then they should join us. If they agree with Solfed they should join them. It’s that simple. It’s a question of understanding the need to work effectively in a sustainable way, not just to feel good about spectacular “actions”.
Can you tell us some of the issues that AF is campaigning on in at the moment?
We’re working heavily on the anti-ID campaign. In Nottingham and Liverpool this is the main focus of work. We’ve let it slip a little in Manchester, but are refocusing back to it and will be helping re-launch Defy ID there soon. The London comrades are basically the secretariat of the International of Anarchist Federations, which takes up a lot of time, and they do most of the production of Resistance.
Somehow they find time to go on the streets and do solidarity actions too! Some of our members are busy setting up or sustaining social centres. Others are busy in their local IWW branches. Then of course there’s asylum seeker support. The list just keeps going on. And finally we support our comrades at Rossport and have organised a number of pickets etc over here and some of us will go over again when we get a chance.
AF can be contacted at BM ANARFED, London, WC1N 3XX,England, UK or email: info[AT]afed.org.uk, website: www.afed.org.uk