Keith Nathan (1948-2023) A critical assessment

Keith Nathan

A short article on the political trajectory of Keith Nathan active in the UK anarchist movement in the 1960s-1970s.

Author
Submitted by Battlescarred on March 9, 2023

Keith Nathan played an important role within the anarchist movement in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. What follows is a critical assessment of his political trajectory, an assessment that I hope will be soon as honest, even if some may see it as brutal.

Born on 25th September 1948,Keith Edwards-Nathan became a driving force in the very active Harlow Anarchist Group in the 1960s, after a brief flirtation with the Posadist Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist)- yes, the “Flying Saucer Trots” to which he joined via Labour Party Young Socialists. Keith and others founded the Harlow Anarchist Group in 1966, and in a report a year later, it was reported that discussion meetings had been held with speakers like Dave Coull, Laurens Otter and Bob Barltrop, that there was constant leafleting and selling of Freedom, the then weekly anarchist paper, as well as public gatherings that attracted “a crowd of hundreds”.

Keith then became a student at York University where he helped found a group with his then partner Ro Atkins and with Nigel Wilson, another active anarchist who wrote regularly for Freedom. This group, like the Harlow Anarchist Group, was very active and even set up a short-lived anarchist Bookshop, the Black Pudding. In obscure circumstances, Nathan was involved in the expulsion of Wilson and others from the York University Anarchist Group, and Wilson removed himself from the movement.

Keith Nathan was also involved in the setting up of the short-lived Libertarian Students’ Federation in 1969 which produced a duplicated magazine Blackguard. He was also instrumental in producing a British edition of Murray Bookchin’s Listen Marxist! The York group was the main organiser of the anti-electoral conference held at York University in 1970.

Later in that year Keith Nathan and Ro Atkins, along with one Colin Williams produced a document called Towards a History and Critique of the Anarchist Movement in Modern Times as a discussion paper for a conference of Northern Anarchists in November 1970, he Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB).. Later comrades in Lancaster, Leeds, Manchester and York put a motion to the Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB) that it call a ‘reorganisation conference’ to discuss the criticisms raised” (from The Newsletter, bulletin of the ORA May 1971). The Critique and a joint statement produced by all the critics was taken from the conference to the AFB conference in Liverpool the same month. It should be pointed out that this critical current was made up of both anarchist communists and anarcho-syndicalists as well as those who had no specific identification other than Anarchist.

Following on from the Liverpool Conference the group in York decided to set up the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists to act as a ginger group within the AFB. The attention at this time was not to leave the AFB. It wanted the AFB to open its doors to other libertarian tendencies e.g. Solidarity. “…The ORA people do not want to form another sect-we see our role as acting within and on the libertarian movement in general, as well as initiating our own work...we hope it can act as a link and a catalyst not only for ORA and the AFB but also to all libertarians”. (ORA Newsletter see above).

ORA’s objections to the traditional anarchist movement then, were more on the level of organisation than of theory. Their advocacy of collective responsibility, the use of a Chair and voting to take decisions at meetings, formal membership and a paper under the control of its “writers, sellers and readers” while warmly greeted in some quarters for example the May 1971 Scottish Anarchist Federation Conference was viciously attacked by others.

But the ORA itself was a hotch-potch including all sorts of anarchists, including syndicalists and those who argued for a pacifist strategy. When the ORA decided to bring out a monthly paper, Libertarian Struggle, in February 1973, it proved to be a forcing house for the development of the group, and these elements fell away. Also significant were contacts with the Organisation Revolutionnaire Anarchiste in France which had developed along similar lines within the Federation Anarchiste.

Through the French ORA the British discovered the pamphlet the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists which had been written by a group of Russian and Ukrainian Anarchists, including Nestor Makhno and Piotr Arshinov. This argued for a specific anarchist communist organisation, and ideological and tactical unity.

The ORA produced a number of pamphlets and a regular monthly paper. At first this was lacking in theoretical content, in the main consisting of short factual articles on various struggles. Quite correctly, Libertarian Struggle gave extensive coverage to both industrial struggles and struggles outside the workplace, including tenants struggles, squatting, women’s liberation and gay liberation.

Nathan was now active in London within the ORA. Another acrimonious dispute saw Nathan involved in the expulsion of Roy Heath (no relation) and others from the South London ORA. Nathan then moved up to Leeds where he remained for the rest of his life.

The events of 1974, the Miners’ Strike and the 3-Day week, led many to think (falsely) that revolution was just around the corner. This led to the formation of the Left Tendency inside the ORA. They concluded that it was in the nature of anarchism that the attempts to form a national organisation were bound to fail, and turned to Trotskyism. Most of this group ended up in the horrific authoritarian Healyite outfit, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), whilst others joined IS. Nathan himself, whilst not a supporter of the Left Tendency, also left at this time to join the WRP.

Nathan was one of the 200 members including the well-known industrial militant Alan Thornett expelled from the WRP in late 1974. He was one of the one hundred or so who went on to found, with Thornett, the Workers Socialist League (WSL) the following year.

Keith Nathan then joined the Anarchist Workers Association (AWA) in 1976. The AWA was created from the surviving anarchist members of the ORA in 1975.

The organisation went through a vicious split between Spring 1976 and Spring 1977. The Towards a Programme (TAP) Tendency was founded primarily to change the 1976 Conference decision on Ireland, where the majority had argued for an abstentionist, anti-Republican position on Ireland, and that “Troops Out” was only meaningful if they withdrew through united class action. The TAP kept to the classic ‘Troops Out’ formula as well as the leftist “Self-determination for the Irish people as a whole”. The TAP also argued for a less “ultra-left“ position on the unions that is for “democratisation of the unions”, “extend unionisation” etc. This tendency included Nathan.

Eventually at a conference in May 1977, on a motion sprung from the floor at the instigation of Nathan expulsions against the opposition to the TAP tendency was carried by 2 votes, with no prior notice or discussion at previous meetings or in the Internal Bulletin. Others left the organisation in disgust.

Those who remained in the AWA, changed the name of the organisation to the Libertarian Communist Group. The LCG supported a slate run by an anti-cuts group called Resistance (Keith Nathan and friends) for council elections in Leeds.

The LCG moved for fusion with the “libertarian Marxist” group Big Flame in 1980. Keith Nathan was one of those who refused to join Big Flame and after this his trajectory over the next forty years or so was for work within the Labour Party, and sometimes within the Alliance for Green Socialism for which he ran for council elections in Leeds in 2010. At one point he left Labour under Blairism but returned to it with the Corbynist phenomenon. In the last few years of his life he was very active within the Leeds branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and was one of those from a Jewish back ground who wasfiercely anti-Zionist. He died on the night of January 23rd 2023 of a heart attack.

I kept in contact with him in a desultory fashion in the ensuing years, and he helpfully sent me some ORA/AWA documents that assisted me in my historical research of the movement. The last time I came in contact with him was when he recently requested the updated version of the Organisational Platform recently produced by the Anarchist Communist Group. His death has an added poignancy for me as he was born in the same month and year as myself.

Keith Nathan was a controversial figure within the British anarchist movement. On one hand he was important in the development of organised class struggle anarchism in Britain. On the other hand, his modus operandi was sometimes harsh and divisive. A veteran war gamer, his manipulation of pieces on the battlefield sometimes translated in real life to methods lacking in feeling for others. In the end, like many others, he succumbed to leftism and social democratic politics. Nevertheless, his contribution to the anarchist movement in the 1960s and 1970s should not be underestimated.

Nick Heath

Comments

Battlescarred

1 year 3 months ago

Submitted by Battlescarred on March 10, 2023

Keith and London groups of the ORA were very active in organising pickets and demos in solidarity with Pietro Vapreda. Aso during the 17th May 1972 demo of 1,000 school students organised by the Schools Action Union Keith was one of 22 arrested, in his case just for handing out leaflets.

Scoeman

1 year 3 months ago

Submitted by Scoeman on March 16, 2023

Mention of Harlow anarchists, does anyone else remember the Maoist-style street wall poster they produced in the mid-60s? Well-laid-out slogans and quotes useful for graffitists, including "Tower blocks are the English Sierra Maestra" and my own favourite, " Provincial but not horse-drawn". I would love to see a copy.

asn

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by asn on March 17, 2023

"Quite correctly, Libertarian Struggle gave extensive coverage to both industrial struggles and struggles outside the workplace, including tenants struggles, squatting, women’s liberation and gay liberation. "
Well no. This content would most likely alienate many militant workers outside the leftist milieu - which we need to win over but in line with oppression mongering and guilt tripping associated with the outlook of the radical student and middle class leftist milieu.(1) And also in line with recruitment for sect/party building informed by the contemporary Trot groups and the Stalinist legacy. My impression is that these social layers would particularly inform the social base of such groups as the ORA/AWA etc. In contrast to the mostly blue collar social base of the anarchist groups in the years around WWI and the syndicalist upsurge and in the Clyde in the 30's 40's. Keith Nathan and his coterie would certainly fit in the above sociological context. His background in the Trot groups - would lead him to see anarchist activity/organisation through the prism of the Trot groups in terms of the big emphasis on recruitment and numbers games and getting into all manner of issues/activity and going all with emerging the above 'identity politics' for recruitment. (In contrast to the 'ultra liberalism' and alternative lifestylism of many in the Anarchist Federation of those years influenced by the Freedom Press/Colin Ward's Anarchy publications but with a similar social base.) Also according to the above article he was adopting their manipulative ways of the Trot groups/Stalinist legacy. (In Australia and elsewhere in the Anglo world today - there is this disturbing "unconscious Stalinism" which seems hegemonic in most the student/middle class leftist milieu. Particularly associated with adopting of navel gazing 'political correctness displays' safe spaces policies and in Oz 'indigenous welcomes' etc and setting up poor photocopies of the Trot groups. This malady has manifested with the crop of Anarcho-Stalinist poisonous toad stools heavily informed by identity politics which has mushroomed in Oz in recent years. (2)
A more appropriate approach re the revolutionary project and breaking the power of the union bureaucracy and the influence of the British Labour Party (and for anarcho-syndicalists mass syndicalist unions via major splits from the bureaucratic/corporate unions) would be the focus on one strategic sector linking up via salting with militant networks to initiate the strike wave phenomena. The problem in those days -70's would be the particular predominance of Marxist Leninist groups in many of these sectors marginalising and erecting major obstacles to such an initiative and work place paper influence.
Battlescared has in a previous post many years back re the ORA that he bemoaned it only ever had 73 or such members . Again the numbers game and presumably rivalry with the Trot and other Marxist Leninist groups. However in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall and over the years demoralisation and major splits in M-L groups and rightward shift- space would open up for the above initiative but obviously in much harsher conditions - particularly demoralisation following various Thatcherite victories on the industrial front, new surveillance techniques etc. However such numbers in this radically different situation could play an important role in getting the above industrial strategy going via intensely assisting militant networks activity. Particularly via editing/ production of an industrial paper/s and getting the periphery around the 73 to help out with distro or even do interviews with workers in the context of the periphery members normal daily routines. In contrast to the Angry Workers World activity in West London factories some years back involving unsustainable work place paper distro and psychologically wearing out the periphery and themselves eg distro very early in the morning and over committing themselves with activity in the local community.
Another problem I see with the move by ORA/AWA for formal organisation on a national level along Arshinov Platform lines - is the problem of cop/deep state infiltration. This occurred with the AWA.
So if they were focusing on strategic industrial organising - in the context of major space opened on the industrial front their efforts are likely also to be stymied - due to militants targeted for the sack etc. This has occurred with those Trot groups which engaged in the 'industrialisation' approach in the 70's, prior to the much later rightward shift . For example in Australia the SWP(Socialist Workers Party now DSP/Socialist Alliance) had many of its members it 'salted' in the auto industry in the lead to major restructuring/plant closures prior to the close down of the auto industry in the 70's sacked due to infiltration by ASIO (Oz political cops). (3) So the conducting of this strategic industrial organising would need to involve a radically different organisational approach based on informal/networks avoiding formal organisation and adopting such security approaches : "need to know", compartmentalism and vetting.
Notes
1. See Report on the Workers Control Conference re outlook of middle class layers on capitalist society on archive section www.rebelworker.org
2. see google search: New Orgs in Sydney on Libcom.org
3. See John Percy's History of Resistance and DSP volume 2.

Submitted by Steven. on March 17, 2023

asn wrote: "Quite correctly, Libertarian Struggle gave extensive coverage to both industrial struggles and struggles outside the workplace, including tenants struggles, squatting, women’s liberation and gay liberation. "
Well no. This content would most likely alienate many militant workers outside the leftist milieu

I'm quite used to seeing your nonsense comments on here, but this one really takes the biscuit. So now, according to you, workers don't include women, gay people or tenants? That's hilarious.
In terms of squatting, it also seems like you don't understand the situation in the UK at the time, because there was a mass, working class squatting movement in many parts of the country, where people would take over and live in empty homes.

asn

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by asn on March 18, 2023

I'm not saying that at all - But I am looking at based on my experience the impression given to certain layers in strategic sectors I certainly don't mean all workers - particularly in the context of low morale - and the need to avoid alienating them - in the context of raised morale and strike movement, the emergence of mass syndicalist unionism or like the NSW BLF in the late 1960's early 1970's- things would be different -certainly the Trot press here which would have similarities to ORA/AWA newspapers gives a very bad impression amongst these layers.

Red Marriott

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by Red Marriott on March 19, 2023

asn's narrow workerist position would most likely alienate those working class gays, squatters, tenants & women whose housing, gender & sexuality issues were deemed irrelevant by him. If your economic reductionism blinds you to the obvious – at least to most workers if not this syndicalist ideologue – link between wages and housing costs then maybe stand down from your self-appointed role as judge & jury of ‘legitimate’ working class interests.

Auld-bod

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by Auld-bod on March 19, 2023

I feel the assessment above is a fair reflection of my opinion of Keith. I remember him as a very committed individual, who sometimes made crap decisions (a fault I no doubt share). I always found him friendly and sometimes displaying an impish sense of humour.

I smiled at asn’s concern regarding ORA/AWA and the problem of ‘cop/deep state infiltration’. This was discussed inside the ORA and if memory serves, the prevailing attitude was, “If you’re doing worthwhile stuff you’ll get known anyway – class war is not a conspiracy”.

Several years ago a comrade told me that Billy Connolly, the Glasgow comic, had been asked if he’d met any anarchists in Glasgow. He said only students. Well at least twice I had tried to sell him a ‘Libertarian Struggle’ in ‘The Old Scotia Bar’, where I used to drink on the weekend. He didn’t buy one. At the time the ORA didn’t have a single student member in Glasgow. Those student anarchists at the time preferred the hippy druggy culture, and were unsurprisingly known to the Glasgow drug squad. At the time, Billy, dressed in his bell bottom suit didn’t look like a banjo playing welder, just goes to show appearances are deceptive.

Submitted by Steven. on March 20, 2023

asn wrote: I'm not saying that at all - But I am looking at based on my experience the impression given to certain layers in strategic sectors I certainly don't mean all workers - particularly in the context of low morale - and the need to avoid alienating them - in the context of raised morale and strike movement, the emergence of mass syndicalist unionism or like the NSW BLF in the late 1960's early 1970's- things would be different

The time period you are talking about was exactly that sort of period of time, of "raised morale and strike movement". And you mention the example of the BLF, where construction workers did make big efforts to support women and LGBT+ people. And that wasn't necessarily a simple thing to do: it is something which leading activists in the union pushed for.
But even more than this, your point doesn't even make sense because at least half of workers were women, and most of them were tenants. So those are hardly some "unpopular" minority interest groups…

asn

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by asn on March 20, 2023

But in the NSW BLF - workers had won an important victory re bread and butter issues re the margins dispute - using direct action and in this context of 'raised morale' - this was the key back drop - went on to support other groups on the environmental front re green bans etc. Yes the union officials like Jack Mundey argued for this action but it was preceded by this major direct action victory on issues re workplace situation. (1)
Today we have low morale in these strategic groups - particularly elite groups which the union hierarchy/corporate media etc via smoke and mirrors techniques, industrial campaigns set up to fail and exhaust etc - strive relentlessly to maintain this low morale and large groups in these elite groups are likely to be put off by some of the stuff in ORA/AWA and Trot press- However in the the context of raised morale via victories achieved with direct action on issues of immediate bread and butter concern - they would be likely or open to agitation to help other groups and not put off by much in the above press. Also I'm referring to certain elite groups - well paid, most own their own homes and have a lot in super - so they would not see the issue of squatting, homelessness and people unable to afford rising rents of major concern to them - many in this groups - a certain large group - won't see all this as very relevant to them and certainly would not see the urgency of taking direct action to help them out. In relation to certain such elite group - which the ASN tirelessly and relentlessly agitates amongst for many decades - many of them in the context of low morale - were quite willing to cut the throats of co workers in another grade to get a pay boost - but we were able to avert it via clever agitation and raising their morale. You would have the same situation in the UK amongst these sectors.
(1) See 'Green Bans Red Union' by Merideth and Verity Burgmann and review
in achive section - www.rebelworker.org

Red Marriott

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by Red Marriott on March 20, 2023

Worth noting that the 1960s-70s UK squatting movement was initiated by members of the Solidarity libertarian socialist group when they helped homeless working class families stuck in poor temporary council accommodation to squat empty houses. This in turn was partly inspired by the movement at the end of WWII when returning rank’n’file soldiers responded to a massive housing shortage by squatting vacant army camps.

In the 1970s a proposed UK Criminal Trespass Law, which would have made illegal both residential squatting and workplace occupations, was opposed by an alliance of squatters, trade unions and others. No doubt ORA would have written about this. They could see the connections even if asn can’t. In typical dogmatic leftist style, asn thinks he can project his rigid dogma onto any situation or period and magically understand all. So he misses the particularities and inter-connections of each individual historical moment.

asn

1 year 2 months ago

Submitted by asn on March 21, 2023

In the Anarcho and Anarcho-Syndicalist milieu in the Anglo world for many decades in the 20th Century and subsequently we are talking about very slim numbers of people capable of serious industrial work and associated resources so it needs to be strictly focused in strategic sectors and involving often these elite groups - involving a strategy such as getting the strike wave movement involving provoking major splits from the corporate unions in the context of the space occurring for it. These are very tough areas where you would be facing constant union hierarchy and management counter attacks. There is nothing dogmatic at all re the approach I'm advocating - its based on extensive experience across numerous industries, extensive study of historical precedents and constant interaction and debate with highly experienced industrial militants and via contacts/industrial paper - feedback from the grass roots - so we find out what we are doing wrong and do right so we can make appropriate changes - a dialectical relationship and scientific processes. Its led to many important defensive victories for workers in a certain sector which have flow on effects in other sectors slowing the tempo of the employer offensive and in a few cases came close to igniting the direct action strike wave. In the case of the 70's I do recognize that with groups like ORA/AWA and the SWF (Syndicalist Workers Federation) they were facing certain insurmoutable obstacles eg the predominance of M-L groups in various sectors - precluding the space for the approach I'm advocating and working at in the harsh real world of today. They were blocked from anywhere much on the industrial front.

Most leftist groups in the Antipodes are absolutely hopeless on the industrial front achieving anything positive of major significance in the class struggle - mostly acting as handmaidens of the union bosses/ALP (making things a bit worse) seems similar to what you have in the UK and USA- but we have been doing has been working with positive effects but of course not all we want - see above.