Nick Heath reflects on his experiences in the UK anarchist movement since the 1960s, and the lessons on organisation and politics he finds valid for anarchists today.
Organisational responsibility and discipline should not be controversial. They are the travelling companions of the practice of social anarchism.
- Nestor Makhno
I have been involved in the anarchist movement since the mid-1960s. I came into a movement that appeared to be active and on the up. This vitality seemed to be accentuated by the forthcoming events of May 68. British anarchism seemed to be coming into its own, in a way not seen since before the First World War.
As I write, I have before me a photocopy of the inside front page of Freedom from 26th October 1968, the day before a large contingent of anarchists, numbering several hundreds had marched under the folds of black and red and black banners on the massive demonstration against the Vietnam War. Under the heading Anarchist Federation of Britain there is a list of almost 60 groups or grouplets, with federations in Wales, Scotland, Essex and East Herts, the North-west, Sussex, East London, as well as a number of student groups.
Alas, the view that is given by all of this was a false one. A slightly more than cursory look at the Anarchist Federation of Britain reveals that it was a house of straw, soon to be blown to the ground by the Big Bad Wolf of unfolding political events. Albert Meltzer comments: “The looseness of structure of the Anarchist Federation in the late sixties- having been revived in the early sixties-led to its disintegration into unrepresentative conferences, at which anyone could attend”. (The Anarchists in London 1935-1955)
Stuart Christie in his Edward Heath Made Me Angry remarks that the AFB “wasn’t really a federation at all, more an ad hoc body convened for a particular purpose then disbanded again”.
This was indeed the reality of the AFB and its conferences, several of which I attended. The anarchist movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, if one can judge from the pages of the Freedom of the time, appeared to be more cohesive and theoretically united than was later the case. A small number of people were involved, and these were mostly based in London. If this small movement sometimes appeared uninviting, exclusive and secretive, this may just as much be explained as due to the repression of the post-war years (the trial of the War Commentary editors) as by isolation of the movement itself.
The events of Hungary 1956 were to have an effect in the drift of intellectuals and others out of the Communist Party and the gradual establishment of the New Left. The movement against the Bomb, expressed in the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and the Direct Action Committee which later transformed into the Committee of 100, attracted both a number of these ex-CP militants and increasing layers of disaffected young people. This marked a break with the preceding period of “apathy” used by the old Left to explain lack of movement within the working class. The Gaitskellite leadership of the Labour Party had justified their politics with the outmodedness of the class struggle and the apparent embourgeoisement of the working class. The Tory leader Macmillan’s remarks that the British people had “never had its so good” epitomised this period of relative class peace and stability. A revolt, often inchoate and unarticulated, among young people against this complacency meant some were attracted to this new movement.
Involvement in action and debate and a wide variety of political views, many never before encountered by these new activists meant at the broadest level, numbers of them providing the base for local Labour Parties to campaign for the victory of Harold Wilson as leader of the Labour Party and ultimately as Prime Minister in 1964. The direct action tactics of the C100 influenced others so that the threat of The Bomb was replaced by a realisation that the problem lay in the nature of the State and of capitalism. Many were still trapped in single-issue politics, and were still enamoured of the concept of non-violence, elevated to an abstract concept rather than a sometimes useful tactic.
It was the interaction between the two different groups which eventually provided both the core for the forthcoming increasing radicalisation and the base of the new groups of the extreme Left that were born or strengthened around this time. The C100 had proved to be a school of radicalisation, whilst some of the broader layers, who had gone into the Labour Party or the Young Communist League (youth wing of the Communist Party) had become progressively disillusioned with these groupings.
The small anarchist movement had not ignored this new peace movement. In fact many working class anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had earlier or later recognised the importance in directing activity in that direction. This included people like Ken Hawkes, Tom Brown, Bill Christopher, Pete Turner and others. The Syndicalist Workers Federation in which many of these activists were involved benefited from the burgeoning peace movement so much that it was to increase from a small core of activists to an organisation of 500 for a short time. But all of this was at a price. The anarchist revival which led to the listing in Freedom I talked about above was in part due to a first wave of activists who had broken with the orthodoxy of the Labour and Communist Parties and consensus politics, through Suez, Hungary and the experience of Gaitskellism, and via the C100 had entered the anarchist movement. The second wave was the far larger number of young people whose first political experience was CND/C100 and for whom the initial enthusiasm for the election victory of Wilson had quickly been replaced by bitter disappointment. This disappointment was expressed in a rejection of orthodox politics, but it was often couched in extreme moralistic positions. (I was one of the latter).
This sudden growth of the anarchist movement resulted in a transformation. The small numbers of experienced anarchists were overwhelmed by many who had little understanding of social anarchism and proceeded to describe their own brand of radicalised liberalism as anarchism.
This radicalised liberalism was expressed not just in terms of a vague humanism, rejecting the concepts of class struggle that were seen as identical with the moribund politics of the Communist Party, but in a fear of organisation and of consensus.
The first conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain had been held in 1963 in Bristol. A secretariat was set up at this congress to establish some sort of continuity, but over the years this was criticised and abandoned.
Each conference of the AFB attracted all and sundry. On one hand anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist-communists, on the other individualists, radicalised liberals and pacifists and prophets of the counter-culture. These conferences were glorified talking shops where few decisions were ever agreed on, and even fewer carried out. There was no structure as such. Positions became shared by default. They were not usually discussed at the conferences, adopted or agreed upon, as there was no recognised way for doing such a thing. These gatherings were large and attracted representatives from many local groups like for instance the Harlow Anarchist Group, the Manchester Anarchists and the Brighton Anarchists, who were very active.
It was no surprise that many who had been initially attracted to anarchism were deterred by its chronic disorganisation and lack of effectiveness. Some of these turned to groups like International Socialism (precursor of the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group. Digger Walsh, active in the Black Flag group of the period, was to be quoted in a national paper as lamenting the fact that 800 militants had gone over to the Trotskyists.
“Disjointed local activity; often moving from one ‘issue’ to another; unable even to create a small scale programme of work over a period, characterise our ‘practice’. In the event of a degree of small scale organising e.g. squatters (1946 and 1968); the campaign to turn Morriston Fire Station into a Youth Centre (1970) etc; the lack of theory and its consequence is exposed par excellence." (Towards a history and critique of the anarchist movement in recent times. K. Nathan. R. Atkins, C. Williams ORA pamphlet no1. 1971)
In the face of this impasse, a number of developments occurred in the AFB. One of these was the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, as the title says an alliance of anarchists and syndicalists who attempted to relate to the industrial unrest and to the huge demonstration that had taken place in 1971 against the Industrial Relations Bill. It attempted to orientate towards industrial activity, although a lack of perspective meant that it started reporting on counter-cultural activity in its paper Black and Red Outlook. A lack of structure also meant it repeated many of the errors of the AFB. Another group that emerged within the AFB was the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists originally conceived as a ginger group within the AFB. It argued for formal membership organisation and structure. I remember being involved in writing a leaflet produced by Brighton Anarchists for an AFB conference at the Toynbee Hall in the East End of London that argued against such ideas and putting forward the counter-argument that an organisation would emerge but as the result of ‘natural organic growth’ of local groups starting up and eventually federating.
The increasing frustration with the swamp of pacifism, liberalism and vague humanism meant that both groups estranged themselves from the AFB, which was now spiralling into terminal decline. The ASA ran out of steam pretty quickly, whilst the ORA seemed to be full of dynamism and drive and was able to produce a monthly paper that both reported on struggles in industry, among the unemployed and the squatting movement, but made a good attempt at anarchist and working class history as well as theory. The ORA had started moving away from the swamp as a result of the dockers and miners struggles and the influences of French libertarian communists.
In the pamphlet I quoted above you can read that: “The IS would not have attained their size and influence such as it is if a decent libertarian organisation had existed. It is an unholy mixture of libertarian and Leninist groups. The attempt by Cliffe (sic) to compete with IMG by out-trotting Mandel will make this alliance increasingly unstable. BUT do we have any capacity to attract these comrades? In fact, the flow has been the other way. Good comrades (for the most part industrial militants rather than students) have been lost without anyone attempting to understand why.” This was true and remains true today. A lack of effective organisation, in spite of the decline of Leninism, means we will be at a standstill until we rectify this problem.
All serious anarchist militants were concerned about the rapid growth of IS, IMG and the Socialist Labour League with no corresponding growth in the anarchist movement. Ultimately, though, the founders of the ORA were looking for too quick a fix. They thought that just by creating a revolutionary anarchist organisation the problems of the anarchist movement would be solved. They did not take into account dogged and determined work over a number of years. So, with the miners strike, the 3-day week and the fall of the Heath government, they concluded that a revolutionary crisis was about to happen and that the anarchist movement, still stalled by chronic disorganisation as it was, was inadequate. They decamped to various Leninist organisations, chiefly to the SLL which had always been parroting on about an impending revolutionary crisis (in much the way Trotskyists had done at the end of World War II).
Their analyses had been right in many instances. One of the shortcomings that they had highlighted was the lack of industrial activity. As Brian Bamford, whom I do not often agree with, has pointed out: “ At the time of disputes at Roberts-Arundel in Stockport, Pilkington’s Glassworks in St Helens, the strikes and stay-in occupations at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and in engineering, the miners struggles in the 1970s, the anarchist influence was tiny” (Freedom 6 August 1994)
What was left of the ORA painfully reconstituted itself as the Anarchist Workers Association and soldiered on into the beginning of the 80s when it transformed itself into the Libertarian Communist Group and eventually went into the leftist organisation Big Flame. This tradition-ORA/AWA/LCG- was distinguished by its steady adherence to class struggle and its critique of the anti-organisational and liberal humanist strands in the ‘movement’. Set against these plus points were its leftism, which meant it tailended the leftist organisations, got itself involved in the Socialist Unity electoral alliance alongside IMG and Big Flame, and eventually dissolved itself into an organisation that had been previously described in the pages of its paper as schizoid libertarian Leninist.
Alongside these developments in the early 70s were moves in other directions. Notable among these were the Angry Brigade actions .The general illusion that there was a mass movement capable of carrying out a revolution, common in many quarters, led these libertarians, active in claimants and squatters struggles, to engage in a number of attacks on property, including the homes of Ministers and capitalists seen as instrumental in bringing down repression on the working class. The Angry Brigade activities were meant as supplementary to the actions of the mass movement. However they had failed to understand the nature of this movement and had overestimated its revolutionary capabilities.
The Black Flag group itself had many cogent criticisms of the failings of the AFB. However, promised and much heralded creations by this group failed to materialise. In fact, the Black Flag group aligned themselves with the Angry Brigade through uncritical cheerleading in the pages of its journal.
Of course, the humanist and pacifist elements that rejected class struggle continued to peddle their forms of radical liberalism within the pages of Freedom and Anarchy.
“Like federalism itself, of which it is one of its principal elements, collective responsibility exercises itself in two ways- upwards and downwards. It makes an obligation of the individual to explain their acts to the collective, and for the latter to explain their acts before the individual…collective responsibility consecrates and clarifies individual responsibility” (my translation) Pierre Besnard, entry on Responsibility in the Encyclopedie Anarchiste 1933.
The beginning of the1980s saw another upsurge in anarchism. A number of young people began to refer themselves as anarchists. This had its origins in the birth of the punk movement in the late 70s and the influence of the Crass group. The politics pushed by Crass in its music were a mixture of the aggressive stances of then punk movement coupled with a pacifist ethos that referred back to both the hippy movement and the pacifist elements within the anarchist ‘movement’.
Small groups began to spring up and these were increasingly to be seen at the demonstrations called by CND, itself going through a revival as a result of the political climate of the Thatcher-Reagan years. Some of the demonstrations mounted by CND were very large, something not seen since the previous period of radicalisation.
This new wave was very much defined by lifestyle and ultimately a form of elitism that frowned upon the mass of the working class for its failure to act.
At the same time, the small number of existing class struggle anarchists failed to engage and to offer an alternative and to argue class struggle politics to these new activists.
The high point of this particular wave were the Stop the City demonstrations in 1983-4 which involved an alliance of anarchists, pacifists, ecological and anti-nuclear activists. These actions were exciting and inventive. They challenged the apathy and inertia of the period and the routinism of the Left. However, they made little effort to reach out beyond the ghetto of activism.
Some anarchists were beginning to question this and to argue that we had to go beyond the Stop Business As Usual and to argue our ideas in the workplace and community.
The Great Miners Strike of 1984-5 was a challenge for this movement as was the Wapping dispute that followed shortly after. Some refused to be involved. As one said “Suddenly all our aims and dreams are thrown aside in the euphoria of class struggle…playing the capitalist money game”(The Beano, June 1986).
Others discovered the class struggle roots of anarchism and reinforced the small class struggle anarchist movement.
To its credit Black Flag magazine galvanised itself during both the miners strike and during Wapping. For a while it took on a fortnightly frequency. It gave its pages over to extensive reporting of the struggles, moving away from its standard presentation of prisoners struggles, investigative journalism and “armed struggle”. In this way it performed a very useful function. But once again it failed to move on from there, failed to offer a credible anarchist alternative and held its fire on the Scargill leadership of the miners strike.
Despite the defeat of these struggles, class struggle anarchism was reinforced. The Direct Action Movement (successor to the SWF) welcomed many new members to the extent that it became the biggest anarchist organisation with a membership of 150. But again as with the SWF in the 60s, it had problems with activists from a radicalised liberal background. As a strategy, it advanced the classic syndicalist tactic of building revolutionary unions in the here and now and failed to get a grip with the reality of the workplace. Class War, which had emerged as a group around the paper of the same name in the mid 80s, transformed itself into the Class War Federation in 1986. The latter group was made up of activists who rejected the pacifism, lifestylism and hippyism that were dominant tendencies within British anarchism. In this it represented a healthy kick up the arse of that movement. Again, like the Stop the War actions, it rejected apathy and routinism. It groped towards organisational solutions in its development of a Federation. But it was trapped in a populism that was sometimes crass, and in a search for stunts that would bring it to the attention of the media. In its search for such publicity, it went so far as to immerse itself in populist electoralism with its involvement in the Kensington by-election. These contradictions were eventually to lead to the break-up of the old CWF, with some offering a sometimes trenchant critique of their own politics up to that time. However, no organisational alternative was offered beyond a conference in Bradford that attempted to reach out to other anarchists and to offer a non-sectarian approach at unity of those seriously interested in advancing the movement. Alas, these moves were stillborn and many of those who had offered critiques of the old ways of operating dropped out of activity altogether. A rump remained that has carried on maintaining Class War as both a grouping and a paper in the same old way.
Other groups that emerged in the aftermath of the Miners Strike were the Anarchist Communist Federation and the Anarchist Workers Group. The former had its roots in Virus magazine that had begun appearing during the course of the Miners Strike and in the AWA/LCG of the 70s. It offered organisational measures, was as its name suggests openly anarchist communist and orientated to the class struggle. At first, it adopted Platformist positions but over the years moved further and further away from a dogmatic Platformism, to the extent that it now talks of the Platform as one of several reference points for its politics. It from the first made a number of appeals for united actions with other class struggle anarchist groups, appeals that in the main fell on deaf ears. It has failed to construct an organisation beyond a skeletal federation of small groups and individuals.
The Anarchist Workers Group emerged from the DAM in 1988,and pulled in a few people who had left CW and the ACF. It repeated the mistakes of the ORA/AWA in its leftism (including its support for national liberation struggles) and its rankandfilism, which had been another characteristic of that organisation. It was far more condescending than the ORA/AWA in the way that it related to the movement, and had far less longevity and level of activity. Again, as with other organisations, it attracted a number of activists, some of them ex-SWP, who had no real understanding of anarchism and failed to go beyond leftism. It had criticised other anarchist organisations for failing to educate their new members and thus developing a two-tier system of experienced militants and raw new members. This it failed to do itself. It thought that it alone could offer a solution to the problems of the movement. Like the ORA it imploded. This time there were none left to carry on, all its members dispersing into Trotskyist groups (mainly the RCP but also Workers Power and SWP) or disappearing into inactivity. One of the grossest mistakes it made, in direct consequence of its leftist support for national liberation, was its support for the Saddam regime against the Americans in the first Gulf War on spurious “anti-imperialist” grounds.
Parallel to the developments within the anarchist movement had been the emergence of the libertarian socialist organisation Solidarity, which had been created by ex-members of the Socialist Labour League in 1960.Solidarity had also become involved in the anti-bomb movement via the Industrial Sub-Committee of C100.Like the best anarchists, Solidarity had refused to endorse “non-violence" and had to use the words of an erstwhile member, John Sullivan, participated in the peace movement, “ because it was the only place where methods of direct action were being carried out”. Solidarity was a theoretical engine room for the entire libertarian movement. Its quite natural fears of developing as an organisation after the experiences of the SLL, meant that it was ham-strung in offering organisational alternatives to the IS, of which it had many very trenchant criticisms.
Looking back, it would have been useful if closer ties could have been developed between Solidarity and the different elements of class struggle anarchism. I don’t mean that this necessarily meant a united organisation, but that closer ties and joint activity could have been intensified (I don’t in the least think that joint work between libertarians never took place, as cooperation was at least attempted in East London for example via the East London Libertarian Federation and led on to the1968-69 squatting campaign, in which libertarians jointly worked together) But mutual suspicion, the magnifying of ideological differences and the failure to recognise shared viewpoints had their role to play in the failure of the libertarian movement of the period to construct a credible alternative to Leninism.
Alongside the development of national organisations were various attempts at local and regional coordination. The libertarian upsurge of the 80s led not just to the growth of organisations but the development of a number of local groups. Some of these groups were a microcosm of the old AFB- class-struggle anarchists jostling pacifists, individualists and lifestylers. A development occurred in these groups –partly in response to ideas generated by class struggle anarchist organisations- which resulted in the forming of specifically class struggle anarchist groups. These groups were to a lesser or greater extent limited by a parish-pump anarchism which made them leery of national organisation to which they counterposed local and at best regional organisation.
None of the attempts by local groups to construct regional federations- as with the Northern Anarchist Network of the 80s, the Class Struggle Anarchist Network, the Scottish Libertarian Federation, the Midlands Anarchist Network- were to be long- lasting as was any effort- where it was even attempted- to federate the local groups on a national basis. The local groups were often also crippled by a suspicion of theory, an activist mindset which meant moving from the issue of one day to the issue of the next- all of this alongside an unwillingness to look at coherent organisational solutions.
Today we have a movement where a number of organisations exist more as chapels than anything else. The original intention of galvanising and organising the movement has ended in these organisations becoming not just isolated from each other but from what passes for a movement. The crisis of Leninism has deepened; but what should have been a golden opportunity for British anarchism has not been effectively capitalised upon. Where before local groups had more or less withered away, a number of local groups have emerged. Will these repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and remain trapped in localism, to be ephemeral creations to be remembered by few?
Looking back after almost 40 years of anarchist activism, it would be excusable to feel dejected. The same mistakes have often been repeated decade after decade. Indeed, the lack of continuity in the movement ensures that these same mistakes ARE committed again. New forms of confusionist thought have emerged within the anarchist movement, in particular primitivism and insurrectionism, both in many ways new forms of the old individualist scourge. (In fact these currents seem to be converging, as with the recent Wildfire bulletin)
But on the positive side, class struggle anarchism appears to have strengthened itself within the British movement to a certain extent. Some new local anarchist groups have emerged and there seems to be a tentative but growing need to cooperate and coordinate activity.
We have to drop the outlook of the chapel. The national organisations should all be looking for ways in which they can cooperate. Whilst recognising their differences, they should be looking for ways in which they can cooperate and make the movement as a whole more effective. We should seriously be looking at ways of coordinating the activities of the local groups and the national organisations. We should be arguing strongly against localism and for the construction of national organisations and networks. The vitally important work of constructing strong and active local groups should not in the least rule out the crying need to construct national organisation.
We need to have propaganda that addresses not only the Great Questions of the day like war, racism and exploitation, but issues like housing, transport and gentrification. Anarchism has to be become a visible movement, with mass stickering and flyposting, and mass propaganda distributed on estates and in neighbourhoods. Whilst demonstrations have become extremely ritualised, we must not shirk our responsibilities in making sure there is a strong and visible presence on such events, especially if they are large scale, with bookstalls, mass distribution of literature, and united anarchist contingents.
In the period just before the Second World War, the Glasgow Anarchist Communist Federation ceased publication of its journal Solidarity in order to support Spain and the World ( precursor of War Commentary , which became Freedom).In London , the veteran Russian anarchist Leah Feldman was the chief initiator for dropping many superfluous papers to support Spain and the World. Should we not now be thinking along the same lines? Is there really room for 3 glossy magazines? Could resources be pooled? Could this lead on to a new vibrancy within British anarchism?
We have to start thinking outside of the boxes of our little groupings, and we have to start thinking big. We must start growing and growing up. The opportunities are there. We have to attract both those disillusioned by Leninism and the newly radicalised youth who are emerging as a result of anti-war activity and a revulsion at the Labour government. We have to draw back into the movement those discouraged in the past by the ineffectiveness of our movement, who have retreated into private life. We have to be seen as a serious movement, not one viewed as ineffectual and passive, riddled with dilettantes and cranks.
Every serious anarchist should now be thinking and acting upon ways to maximise our effectiveness and clout. We should be thinking of greater cooperation and the development of forums where we can start to discuss these concerns.
Article originally called "Looking back and forward" and written in 2006 for an issue of Black Flag.