John Olday: Artist and Figher for Social Revolution - Peter Peterson

Artwork by John Olday
Artwork by John Olday

Article on anarchist John Olday, translated from German publication Trafik 21.

Libcom also hosts a more reliable biography of John Olday here.

Submitted by Fozzie on December 27, 2020

John Olday, born Arthur William, came into the world in the year 1905.1 The illegitemate2 son of a German woman and a Scotsman, he spent his childhood almost entirely in the environs of the Hamburg harbor. Very early on, he learned about the social revolutionary ideas which were widespread among the Hamburg sailors and dockworkers. At the age of eleven, he joined in the Hamburg hunger riots of 1916, in the middle of the First World War. Two years later, he participated in the sailors' mutiny and the workers' uprisings, acting as an ammunition hauler for a Sparticist machine gun emplacement. Following the crushing defeat of this year-long struggle, Olday had to make a last minute escape, barely avoiding capture and certain execution.

In the early twenties, as an agitator with the 'Communist Youth', Olday got involved in plundering and looting by masses of starving people, who were suffering from continual food shortages. Olday was, however, quickly expelled from the 'Communist Youth' due to his "anarchist deviations". Shortly thereafter he became a member of the "Anarcho-Sparticists". He fought in one of their guerrilla squads during the workers' uprisings in October 1923, which were bloodily suppressed. Throughout the next year, he was active in the Ruhr-Gebiet, the important mining and industrial region in western Germany, under French occupation at the time. As a revolutionary anarchist, he agitated for the reassertion of the movement for workers' councils.

In 1925 and through the next several years, Olday withdrew from the revolutionary movement so as to devote his energies primarily to artistic creation. Based on his extraordinary talents as a draughtsman, he soon developed into a recognized political cartoonist and expressionistic graphic artist. His socially critical theater-pieces, performed in Hamburg cabarets, also brought him renown. During this period, it appears that he spent his time completely on a career as a graphic artist and author. He did re-establish his contacts with his Sparticist friends at some point in time before the National Socialists (NSDAP) came to power in 1933. For his friends, he illustrated flyers with very incisive anti-Nazi caricatures. After 1933, he continued to work with these social-revolutionary activists who had not yet been arrested by the fascists. One activity of his comrades was to reduce the size of Olday's drawings and their texts. In doing this, these much smaller revolutionary tracts could be sent unnoticed through the German mail, disguised as the instructions for the use of accompanying kitchen appliances.

At the same time, Olday played the role of an eccentric gay artist. This gained him admission to the highest circles of the Hamburg NSDAP. In this way, he secured first-hand information, which he then passed on to the anti-Nazi underground. In doing this he was able to give timely warnings to many comrades about impending arrests. He saved many friends from almost inevitable death in concentration camps. As for Olday himself, his popularity as a satirist and his close connection with leading Hamburg Nazis, who wished to maintain a semblance of artistic freedom in Hitler's Germany, meant that he could continue to work on in Germany. That is, until 1938. Political and intellectual repression sharpened, and it became impossible for Olday to remain in Germany any longer. So, with a Gestapo commando group hurrying to arrest him, Olday fled for Great Britain.

Olday quickly found good contacts among pacifists in London, when he arrived. In 1939, they helped him to publish a collection of his drawings entitled The Kingdom of Rags. Pictured in his strongly angular graphic style, he offered an impressive representation of the horrors of the Nazi regime to the British public, and thereby aided in exposing the nature of Germany's fascism. Besides his graphic talents, he also placed his considerable organizational talents at the service of the struggle against the impending war. (This opposition was quite different from that of our contemporary so-called "peace movement". Angry Workers' Bulletin typists note)

He aided in the coordination of the sinking of a German munitions ship off the coast of Holland. He planned the assassination in Antwerp of a Jewish collaborator of the Nazis.

From time to time he was able to visit Paris and work with other exiled council communists. They drew up a "Call to the German Workers" which was transmitted over Radio Strasbourg on the German language program. Remembering the successful passive resistance of, especially, the coal-miners during the French occupation of the Rheinland following the First World War, Olday called for the workers to use similar methods, including sabotage, to block the Nazi war machine.

In connection with these kind of activities, Olday, without the knowledge of even his closest friends, married Hilda Monte in 1942. She was a German Jew. They had met three years before as preparations were being made for what turned out to be a failed bomb-attentat against Adolph Hitler in a Munich beer hall. Although she was a dogmatic Marxist intellectual, (and us folks at the Angry Workers' Bulletin aren't sure just what kind of 'dogmatic marxist') Olday explained the marriage to his comrades on the grounds that he was protecting her with his British citizenship from possible deportation back to Germany. Hilda Monte's political work included editorship of various German language publications, and support work for Jewish underground resistance in regions occupied by the German Army. In 1944, she was completing a mission as a courier, when, on the Swiss-German border, she was captured, then summarily executed, by an S.S. patrol. A museum in Israel now bears her name.

Upon Britain's entry into World War Two in 1940, the government had instituted compulsory military service. Olday was to have been included in this patriotic duty as well. He would have served as a sapper3 , had he not successfully deserted before he could be sent into the imperialist war. Supported by anarchists of the "Freedom" group, who provided him with false identity papers, he remained at large until 1944. During those years, he put all his energies towards the anti-militarist fight. In 1942, he was made a member of the War Commentary editorial board. He maintained his involvement as an editor when the new journal Freedom emerged from the War Commentary journal in 1945. Throughout these years, Olday —signing himself "xxx"— created political cartoons and caricatures, whose satire grew more and more caustic as the war raged on.

Olday, together with Marie Louise Berneri and Vernon Richards (both of whom were well known as libertarian activists) wrote a broadsheet that appeared every two weeks for the soldiers of the British Army. Entirely within the tradition of revolutionary anti-militarism, (as opposed to pacifism and "peace movements" Angry Workers' Bulletin note) Olday used the pages of that publication to argue for the construction of workers' and soldiers' councils, similar to those that he had fought for in the mutinous upheavals in Hamburg after World War One. For Olday, the goal of the power of the councils was the libertarian-communist reorganization of society. This propaganda, very well-planned and widely distributed, soon had a telling effect on workers in Britain's war industries. Naturally, the government became rather upset. Soon, growing numbers of anarchist militants were being arrested. Fortunately, an unshakable solidarity kept all but a few cases of sabotage from being proven.

During the war, Olday endeavoured to aid the few social revolutionaries left in Hamburg in the underground war against the German regime. He facilitated the conveyance of information and supplies to Hamburg with the help of members of the anarcho-syndicalist 'International Workers Association'. They were Scandinavian sailors and merchant marines whose work still carried them regularly into German ports even during the war, For their paper, the Industrial Worker, Olday produced a constant supply of drawings and poems. Contacts formed here would later prove quite valuable to him. With the dedicated backing of his friends from the 'Freedom' group and from comrades in the I.W.A., Olday was able to publish a second collection of political drawings, called The March of Death, in 1943. In his characteristic, sharp graphic style, he unmasked the similarities between the ruling powers —whether they had a capitalist, imperialist, fascist or "socialist" ideological veneer— in their oppression of "their" populations. Without any superfluous detail in the forty-one works, he showed not only the comparable mechanisms of statist manipulations in the different systems of political power, but also the consequent results: almost inevitable war-like conflicts becoming a "march of death" for the people. Inside of a year and a half, they sold ten thousand copies of The March of Death, an unexcelled classic of anarchist anti-militarist propaganda...

...Finally, in 1944, Olday was nabbed as he tried to procure a typewriter for the 'Freedom' group. Though the suspicion of theft was quickly proved to be false, Olday's true identity could not be kept secret. He was sentenced in January 1945 to a year's imprisonment, having been found guilty of "theft through the finding and fraudulent use of an identity card". After serving eight months, Olday was granted an early release. Immediately, the military authorities took him to a prison camp where he began serving another two years for desertion... However, by means of a massive public campaign, and with the aid of sympathetic individuals like Herbert Reed, George Orwell, and George Woodcock, Olday's friends of the 'Freedom Press Defense Campaign' engineered his release after only three months.

Based on his contacts with German prisoners of war held in Britain, Olday initiated the formation of a new revolutionary propaganda organization, the 'Internationalist Bakunin-Group' (IB-G), with the aim of revitalizing the anarchist movement, especially in Germany. This was in August of 1946. Their proclaimed goals were "the destruction of statism in every form and the construction of a non-authoritarian commonwealth centered on the system of workers' and communal councils."

The IB-G drew a lesson from the collapse of the labor unions and leftist parties in the face of Naziism in 1933:

"The class struggle can only be carried forward individually and through small groups, since true revolutionary mass organizations will not be tolerated by either state-capitalism or state-socialism."

Olday was assigned the task of developing organizational prerequisites in an ideas-and-actions campaign in the English camps for German prisoners of war. He not only got leaflets and pamphlets smuggled into the camps, but also helped to build small anarchist groups linked together by couriers. The work progressed so well that by 1947 many well known anarchists were able to speak in front of the prisoners, under the cover of presenting an educational series on proper democratic practices for the undemocratic Germans. The German prisoners were scheduled to be released from the camps in 1948. Olday developed a plan for the extension of the IB-G's agitational and educational work. He suggested that the German anarchist movement could re-emerge by means of a "three-to-a-group" system.4 The idea was for three German anarchists to form a clandestine group, with the aim of "gnawing like moles at the roots of the State." Since he felt it would be fairly simple for each anarchist to win two new sympathizing comrades, to then form second generation groups and so on, he felt that in this manner "anarchism will grow like a stout tree and break the foundation of the State." From their uncompromising revolutionary sensibilities and "an unrelenting rejection of all half-measures", the IB-G endorsed this policy of working in small, clandestine groups. They rejected every sort of collaboration in governmental institutions as reformist. Olday was assigned to generally oversee the new German section of the 'IB-G'.

The success of the British anarchists propaganda work was demonstrated shortly after the repatriation of prisoners of war to Germany. By the summer, the anarchists were fully involved in hunger-riots in the Rheinland. In an illegal manifesto, the German 'IB-G' called on the starving people to join in forming revolutionary councils. From London, Olday sent a periodic information bulletin containing suggestions, which ranged from rent strikes to consumer boycotts. Unhappily, because he lacked specific information concerning the immediate situation in Germany, his particular recommendations missed the mark and failed to have any lasting resonance. However, a new opportunity for the expression of his social revolutionary concepts was soon to appear.

In war-ravaged and now geopolitically divided Germany, the few surviving comrades confronted an atmosphere of complete social despair and loss of perspective. Rudolf Rocker was one of the few who made it. Between the First and the Second World Wars, he had been one of the leading militants of the anarcho-syndicalist 'Free Workers Union-Germany' (FAU-D). At the behest of his friends, he wrote the pamphlet, A View of the Situation in Germany – the Possibilties for a Libertarian Movement. His main concern here was the question of the re-emergence of anarchism in Germany. He thought this would depend on an understanding between the remaining libertarian activists and on the preservation of the historical and theoretical heritage of libertarian socialism. Rocker's central theme addressed the reconstruction of Germany from not only the economic and political but social and cultural angles as well. The rebuilding he envisioned required an all-encompassing cultural activity in order to bring about the broad effective dissemination of the libertarian perspective, in an atmosphere of renewed intellectual and spiritual clarity. Therefore, he spoke out to a communitarian socialism as the sole form appropriate for the effective transformation of social life. To Rocker, only the community (Gemeinde) structure was a suitable arena for social change, because he felt that the intervention of the state could be excluded from it. At the community level, real mutual aid for the general good might bring actual form and content to the ideas of socialism and freedom. Resistance to both state-capitalism and state-"socialist" systems demanded participation in all social movements of mutual aid such as workers' unions, participation in communal administrations(?), and the establishment of decentralized small industry and consumer cooperatives. Only in this way, he felt, could the new society --a confederation of communal regions-- begin to emerge, wherein all economic and political activities would proceed on the ethical foundations of human freedom...

Rocker recommended that all those who consider themselves to be, in this sense, anarcho-communalists, should form a 'Libertarian Federalist Alliance', and in doing this protect the remaining German anarchists from complete atomization and isolation.

Responses to Rocker's well-intentioned plea ranged from respectful agreement to contemptuous rejection. The sharpest critique came from John Olday in London. For him, the revolution could only be achieved by revolutionary means. Any compromise must be rejected. Olday accused Rocker of having forgotten the revolutionary upheavals of the German proletariat in 1919, 1921 and 1923. He accused him of having abandoned the revolutionary principles of the 'FAU-D'.5

Olday was enraged against Rocker's spirit for communal and cooperative self-organization. Olday called it self-managed capitalism, not essentially different from Western state capitalism. Though a purportedly "communalist" system, the exploitation of human beings by other human beings would continue. As for Rocker's recommendation of a coalition of all Federalists, Olday countered with the argument for a revolutionary association of all anti-authoritarian socialists, council communists and anarchists. These revolutionaries ought to unite, he thought, in a new 'Sparticist Alliance', based on anarcho-communist principles, without internal bureaucracy or rigid discipline. Each illegal group composing the 'Sparticist Alliance', in accordance with their own assessment of the current situation and of the immediate possibilities, should autonomously agitate and act to realize the guiding ideas of a massive and purposeful attack on and destruction of the state by the revolutionary proletariat. This assessment of the workers' councils, which in his opinion constituted the model for a non-authoritarian society, brought him into conflict with the other members of the 'IB-G', who considered it "Bolshevism". So Olday left the 'IB-G' in February 1948. He proceeded to build up an organization which more adequately expressed his thinking. Quite soon he was working with a network of "Sparticist Groups" in Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Saarland6 , and Britain. In Germany alone, sixty groups were involved, primarily in the Soviet-occupied Eastern zone. Terribly, the Stalinist secret police "liquidated" the eastern zone groups near the end of the year. Olday's informational bulletin, with its name changed from Anarchist to Council-Anarchist, only appeared in small numbers per issue. At the end of the 1940's, Olday abruptly dropped out of activity in the international anarchist movement. The "Spartacist Groups", now lacking his burning spirit, faded and finally disappeared.

In spite of the fact that this outspoken and intense man's political activity lasted just ten years in Britain, Olday's contribution needs to be appreciated...(In the post-war era), he was among the first to renew the call: "All Power to the Workers' and Soldiers' Councils”. Unlike the ideas of Rocker, Olday's energetic declaration of anarchist principles in post-war Germany retained some significance well into the 1950's.

At the beginning of 1950, John Olday emigrated to Sydney, Australia. There he got involved with various cabarets and theaters, and was at last able to do work which could be harmonized with his social-critical and revolutionary ideas. Olday had tried before to do that sort of thing, but without noticeable success. He had been hoping to generate some public recognition as a caricaturist, novelist and playwright. He had also wanted to gather a group of artist friends around him. It was not until he reached Australia in the '50's that he found a rich opportunity for artistic realization, which brought him great popularity for the next two decades.

In the late 1960's, attracted by the explosive struggles of the new social movements, Olday returned to London by way of Hamburg and Berlin. The situation seemed to offer him another chance to intervene in political struggles with his social-revolutionary perspectives. At first, Olday worked with the two main British anarchiist papers Freedom and Black Flag. Then, in 1974, he founded the 'International Archive Team', a world-wide correspondence bureau. In connection with that, he again took up activity for council-anarchism. he worked with the I.W.W.; he published the German-English information bulletin Mit Teilung; translated materials of the I.W.W. into German; drew caricatures and kept up contact with exiles and prisoners throughout Europe and Japan. In spite of poor health, he continued to draw social-critical cartoons and worked on two new plays.

In the summer of 1977, at the age of 72, death tore him away from this last creative period. John Olday's life look place against the constant background of the anarchist and anti-militarist struggle. Olday was convinced that, due to specific social conditions, this struggle had to become an armed struggle, if a definitive negation of the state is to be achieved. Individualism and pacifism he rejected as bourgeois sicknesses in the anarchist movement. However, he knew that the armed struggle must always be very closely tied to a generalized class rebellion; otherwise, there is the risk that it would simply drift off into blind terrorism.

Peter Peterson

Trafik 21
Internationales Journal zur Kulture der Anarchie
Eduardstrasse 40, D-4330
Mulheim/Ruhr 1 BRD

{translated by CE}

  • 1Libcom note - the original article states Olday was born in Hamburg. An email correcting this was sent to the Takver website which also reprinted the article. “Correction: John Olday was born in london, not in hamburg. He spent his early childhood in new york where his mother had relocated after his birth. When she visited her native germany in 1913 she left him there with her mother. He lived in germany until 1938 when he decamped to london, where he married Hilda Monte in September. Kingdom of Rags (published 1939 by Jarrolds) is an account (288 pages) of his life in germany. The book is illustrated with 17 of his drawings. Email from the John Olday Archive, 22 September 2003”
  • 2Libcom note - “illegitimate” - A statist and religious term meaning born to parents who were not married. All children are legitimate.
  • 3Libcom note: a military engineer. The name is derived from the French word sappe (“spadework,” or “trench”)
  • 4This seems similar to the system of 'revolutionary confidential-men' among sailors of the German Navy towards the end of the First World War and the beginning of the German Revolution. Angry Worker's Bulletin note: see for example, The Wilhelmshaven Revolt by 'Icarus', Ernst Schneider. This pamphlet may be available from the Fifth Estate Bookservice. P.O.Box 02548, Detroit, MI. 48202 U.S.A.
  • 5During the movement towards civil war in Germany the 'FAU-D' denied the necessity of armed violence, and denied that the armed proletariat would have to use coercive measures against its enemies. Instead the 'FAU-D' saw a proletarian revolution as coming about simply through a big general strike where the capitalist state would vanish without any need on the part of the revolutionary forces to attack and suppress the state. This archaic syndicalist idea, criticised at the time by the revolutionaries of the Communist Workers Party of Germany (K.A.P.D.) and the revolutionary factory organizations like the A.A.U.D. and A.A.U.D.-E., is pretty clearly not an expression of a revolutionary perspective. (Angry Workers Bulletin typist note).
  • 6Libcom note: A former state in what is now the west of Germany