The Coasts of Bohemia
The first Anarchist meeting I attended was at the old National Trade Union Club in New Oxford Street. The speaker was the well-known Emma Goldman, who was on that occasion talking about arms manufacture, not Anarchism as such. As I was the only stranger at the meeting, attention turned to me when enquiries elicited the fact that I had never heard of Emma Goldman and more particularly when I had the temerity to contradict her. I believe it was on the fallacy that as ‘aggression’ caused war, boxing, which I then esteemed highly, taught aggression. I was overawed by my elders being surprised at my audacity, and did not continue after her scornful dismissal of the argument. She felt thereafter that she had brought me into the movement from knowing nothing about Anarchism and regretted my intransigence in it, which she never appreciated was an integral part of it, for others as well as herself.
What was left of the Anarchist movement in 1935 was the rump of what had once been an important factor in the British working class movement. As it had not attracted any historically referrable persons according to the notions of bourgeois intellectuals it had been overlooked by history, which, along with the conventional English view that all history appertains to the ruling monarch, works on the principle that workers’ actions and opinions must be related to the nearest respectably quotable person available, preferably distinguished in other spheres, and for which purpose women, other than the occasional token ‘name’, do not exist.
As a working class movement with a high proportion of women activists Anarchism had been totally written off; and so ultimately became in more recent times a virgin field for scholars, when the mass production of theses in the booming university industry has used up all the names associated with Marxism and reformism, and those in search of original material are forced to look round for others as near to the standard criteria as possible.
Though I knew so far as Anarchism was concerned I was backing a lost cause, it didn’t seem to matter as every other cause had won at some time but that of the people themselves. At least it threw so hard a light on any other political persuasion.
I never had any illusions about any of them. Years later when the press deigned to take notice of us, if it was not by shock horror but kindly condescension, which I always felt came ill from people who fell for one absurdity after another, whether from State communism, fascism, the prospects for capitalism, reformism, or whatever idol was going around for adulation.
Billy and I did our best to extend the Glasgow Anarchists’ tradition of struggle to London, and even extend their workshop agitation there, though he was most of the time at sea and I was still at school. The London Anarchists then were a few veterans, and our appearance among them was somewhat of a cultural shock for both sides. They called themselves the London Freedom Group, met at the Trade Union Club, access to which had been guaranteed by John Turner, editor of the paper and trade union leader. They still spasmodically published a paper “Freedom” which had been founded by Peter Kropotkin, though lost to them a few years before when their printer Tom Keell retired with the printing press and moveable assets to Gloucestershire.
Since then the paper’s presumed history has become a minor historical cult with some historians selecting its contents for background material. Some tend to think that the paper was continuous from its foundation in 1886, and that the London Freedom Group period did not exist. The editor John Turner, a trade union secretary in his working hours, had died, and the paper was being run by George Cores and a few others, being printed on a clapped-out press in Chalk Farm by John Humphrey, whose other interest was phrenology. Some old-fashioned atheists then felt it had superseded religion, which is the sort of thing I suppose that old reactionary G.K. Chesterton had in mind when he said that when you cease to believe in God you don’t believe in nothing, but in anything.
I was sceptical of the value of most of the activities of the London Freedom Group, which consisted of weekly lectures and occasional dinners more in the nature of veterans’ unions, and the struggles of years ago seemed to have no relevance. Billy soon found it too much of a bore, but deputed me to go along and see what turned up there.
One of the few who did his best to make it relevant was Mat Kavanagh, who lived in Southend but often came up on a Sunday to speak at Hyde Park, and who was my next mentor in Anarchism. He had worked all his life as a labourer on building sites, propagandising in the open air in his spare time. Later, in his old age during the Second World War, he became a barber — a pretty terrible one by all accounts. As he once shaved George Orwell, whom he lectured (as barbers do) enough to impress his client, his name has actually been preserved in some professors’ books.
Few of the many brilliant organisers and speakers that I met in those pre-war days achieved so much! But among the odd assortment of what was then London’s Bohemia (when Soho was still ‘Sohobohemia’) who drifted past the London Freedom Group like exotic birds of passage but found its regular meetings irresistible, and came to explain that anarchism was all wrong, many became famous and several of them passed into world prominence.
The Bohemians thought the Anarchists were eccentric because they worked for a living and yet dissented from the State. Of these were many who attained fame, if sometimes for five minutes and not always that for what they would have preferred. For instance, there was Count de Potocki, who considered himself rightful King of Poland. In truth, though originally a New Zealand milkman, he did have some sort of a claim to be considered, if the Poles ever decided they would revert to elective monarchy. He admitted though, the Pope would have been surprised if they chose a declared Pagan, whose daughter was being brought up by her mother as a Unitarian, to rule the Catholic kingdom. He now and again turned up to suggest that monarchy, being the rule of but one, ought not be so abhorrent to Anarchists, as the rule of many. He thought them the largest party in the country, as the group meetings were often twice as big as the local Conservative and Labour parties. He attended all meetings to try to sell his bonds against payment by his court when established. He stopped coming when it was decided he was too much of a bore, and someone emptied half-a-pint of beer over him. He stormed out shouting ‘Sans-culottism’ and started his own royalist party. During the war he lived in the same house as a gentleman who considered himself Hitler’s U.K. representative. When they quarrelled over women Potocki stripped him of all the titles he had conferred on him, and in turn was listed for immediate internment in a concentration camp. However he neither returned to his kingdom in Poland nor went to Auschwitz. After the war, his poetasting failing, the last of the once feared Potockis returned to his New Zealand milk round.
Potocki’s right wing lot had illusions no greater than some on the left, like Jomo Kenyatta, who came to meetings — any socialist meetings, not just ours — dressed in full tribal costume complete with feathers and fly whisk — announcing he would one day go back and become the Kikuyu chief in Kenya. Some of us thought him another nutter like Potocki but he was so convinced he was the great liberator of his country that when he did indeed go back to Kenya after the war, the authorities promptly interned him. The struggle for independence took place while he was out of the way; but by then everyone took him at face value, and when the government wanted to hand over power to someone who had nothing to do with the Mau Mau resistance, the alleged organisation for which they had imprisoned him, the Colonial Office naturally chose him, perhaps being aware of the utter improbability of their courts having dealt justice.
The one in the Freedom Group most in touch with Bohemia was Charles Lahr, a German anarchist who had come to London to avoid military service and stayed forty years. At first there was a suspicion by the police that he had come to shoot the Kaiser, who had unwittingly decided to pay England a visit at the same time, though he did not stay so long. Charlie was shadowed by Special Branch until one cold night he took pity on the detective staying outside the bakery where he worked, and came out to explain to him that the baker himself took sufficient precautions to see none of his nightworkers got away before time either to go playing cards or shoot visiting potentates according to their taste. A few years later the war broke out and he was interned in Alexandra Palace as an enemy alien and was interviewed by the same detective. ‘You thought I’d come to shoot the Kaiser,’ chuckled Charlie. ‘Pity you didn’t,’ said the detective in a decided change of position.
In his Bloomsbury bookshop in the twenties and thirties, Charlie had been a focus point for the literary set, a few of whom lingered on when I first met him. Charles Duff was one of them. I think he worked in the Foreign Office at the time but he was an authority on the Castilian (and possibly the Catalan) language, like Allison Peers. Both of them had written school textbooks I was using. He was intrigued at my passing on my Castilian lessons to Billy Campbell so he could talk with his Basque girl friend in her own tongue without either of us realising it was a separate language.
In those days newsbills used to announce the startling events of the day more prominently than they do now and they were mass printed. Charlie had a trick of slicing them in the middle and sticking them together again — to make up some such headline as Pope to Abdicate or The King to Marry Mae West. On the 20th anniversary of the Zeppelin shot down at Cuffley, there was to be a memorial service to which distinguished local German residents were invited. Some less than knowledgeable or perhaps cynical Embassy official had sent an invitation to Charlie. He turned up as the herrenvolk had solemnly entered the church, top hats on arms, and set up a soapbox newsstand with a saucer full of coppers, and the banner headline Hitler Assasinated — needless to say, with no papers to back it.
As the procession solemnly came out, von Ribbentrop among them, they looked at the bill and dashed helter skelter for the railway station. When the train came in with the evening paper every copy was grabbed by Embassy officials to the protests of the station master, while indignant shouts came from people pulled out of telephone booths by impatient Nazis wanting to use the phone, but the news of that happy event did not appear for another ten years or so.
The Bloomsbury Set was still in existence in 1935 and centred on Lahr’s bookshop in Red Lion Street, Holborn. I met Mark Gertler (not until years after his death did I realise he was a famous artist) who was passionately for the Spanish Revolution and said he would kill himself if it were defeated. When Franco won, he committed suicide. So far as I know, no art historian has recorded the reason.
One of the few who had an influence on me for a long time, so far as religion was concerned, was the writer Frank Ridley, whom I first met as a spectator at the boxing ring. We continued to be friends until his death at 92. He was a distinguished if neglected socialist and freethought writer, totally unappreciated by the literary establishment and only recognised by a coterie on the socialist left. He spent five years on a book on the Jesuits, for about five pounds in royalties, which became a standard work of reference for dozens of other writers.
Years later when Jose Peirats was writing his works of reference on the Spanish struggle while earning his living sewing trousers by candlelight, and dignified and overpaid professors were quoting his works in their books written at public expense, I thought of Ridley. I have often regarded ‘op cit’ as standing for oppressive plagiarism.
Perhaps influenced by so much literary talent around, I started a small paper The Struggle in 1937, when I had just left school, with Billy (writing under the name of McCullough, his mother’s original name) and I contributing. But it didn’t last long. The duplicator was re-possessed by the hirers. I did not know then that being a minor I could have repudiated the debt. I never learned that point of law until I was past 21, too late make use of it.
I lived in several compartmentalised worlds when I was fifteen. While still a fifth-former and studying for matriculation I was going along to Andy’s gym and learning how to box along with much older lads (though they accepted me as an equal), some of whom subsequently became pros. I was never very good nor did it help my studies much. Languages and history were all I was interested in and I got on well with Spanish despite the total collapse of lessons when an incompetent master resigned and went to work in a South American bank, for which I hope he did not need Spanish. However I emerged streets ahead of everyone in that language, perhaps because I was using it to some purpose.
Once I entered schoolboy amateur boxing championships and to the excitement of my friends at school I reached the semi-finals. I was matched against the local Jesuit college — to face to my dismay an enormous West Indian lad (rarely if ever encountered then in our neck of the woods): Rod Strong (by nature as well as name), a couple of years older than I was, and solid muscle. He had furthermore the advantage of two Jesuit priests in black dresses in his corner, clearly praying against me — in contravention, I am sure, of the spirit of the Queensberry Rules. It was like my clash with Billy Campbell all over again.
My usual technique when faced with an opponent I couldn’t outbox (though subsequently it was impossible for me to think of either Strong or Campbell as opponents) was to stand and take punishment and then hit out with a wallop, but with the first blow this time I was out cold to the consternation of the referee and concern of my opponent. It was partly the inevitable consequence of my skipping practice for political meetings.
Delighted acquaintances told me how terrible I’d been, and asked if I hadn’t heard them warning me of the blow coming, how my best friends had been surreptitiously betting on me and they hadn’t thought I’d have let them down, and similar words of consolation, while I was still reeling. Rod, who’d knocked me down, helped me home (and invented a suitable alibi, something about my having fallen downstairs, for the benefit of my mother who disapproved of the noble art. She must have thought me accident-prone, so often were such alibis necessary).
Rod and I became friends, though he never took the same interest in politics as Billy and myself. He always insisted on my being his second and not going into the ring myself; I was a bit disenchanted with it anyway after exciting so much derision even from kids who had never put a glove on and would have preferred an embroidery class any day.
Going along to Hackney Stadium with Billy and Rod to a match, we were quite unexpectedly attacked walking over the marshes by a gang of some two dozen local fascists. At the time Sir Oswald Mosley was supported around the periphery of East London. I might have ignored taunts directed at me and walked on, but my two friends held the opinion often voiced by our boxing ‘professor’ Johnny Hicks, and to which I have since subscribed, that in such circumstances that is the worst thing to do. It is best to single out one or two of them and give ‘em hell or take it. At worst they can only kill you and they would do that anyway if they wanted to and could.
We gave a good account of ourselves and left a few noses oozing blood and mouths spitting teeth, but in the end they all ran away because a police car had arrived. I had the presence of mind to take my grammar school cap from my pocket and put it on my head, and to walk up casually to a policeman and ask the way, while my two friends stood by respectfully. As a result the police didn’t connect us with the brawl but asked me impatiently if I’d seen it, and which way they went.
It is ironical that when I got home nursing a black eye this was the first occasion my mother rebelled at my explanation that the Blackshirts had attacked me, and insisted that I had been going in for that dreadful sport in spite of her admonitions. At least, though, I was spared the humiliation of having to say afterwards, as some people did, that they were chased round Hackney by the local fascisti. Fascists attracted those gang-loving youths who liked bullying for its own sake but didn’t like being beaten up. Once you got known (however unjustly) for being the sort of thug who’d hit back even if alone, they respected you accordingly and warned others off.
There were other types of fascist than the Hackney variety. The young men who came from the lower middle class, or at least thought that they did, were quite a different lot: there were one or two even at my school. They were prepared to listen to argument, though in the finish they landed in their natural home, the Conservative Party. In the country generally they included that displaced minority, the Irish Catholic Loyalist, unwanted by Republicans who thought of them as Castle Catholics, or by Protestants to whom they were Papists nonetheless. They were enthusiasts for General Franco and stayed on in their morass until disillusioned by their other hero Hitler. There were also a few lower middle class homosexuals who were chasing the rough trade and stuck to fascism in good days and bad. It was, after all, a more congenial hunting ground than prison, and they would never have scored in the Navy.
Mosley himself was an upper-class twit who wandered into the Labour Party by accident after meeting working class people for the first time when he was a WW1 officer, a role for which like many of his type he still hankered. Though he passed his days in high society, once he founded his independent New Party and its cult of Youth with capital a Y, he was easily bamboozled by Jeffrey Hamm into thinking he could get the support of the working class with this tactic rather than by pursuing his ‘the old men betrayed us’ theme which he was still echoing in his seventies.
Hamm realised there were a few streets in Bethnal Green which had been a no-go area for police until WWI, around which Jewish immigration had circled but not dared enter. It was isolated from the rest of the East End, and knowing Jews only as landlords or employers in the sweatshops, was intensely anti-semitic. After Mosley visited Hitler he was easily persuaded to play the anti-semitic card for trumps and Hamm took him through the ‘East End’ — the same few streets, night after night. Mosley never knew the difference. He thought he was being acclaimed by the ‘East End workers’, throwing open their windows and giving the heil. In a way he was, but he thought it wider than it really was and it went to his head.
He could have come to dominate the Conservative Party as a right wing pressure politician, and with precious little opposition maybe have become Prime Minister. He sacrificed it to become a ‘great national leader’ in his own right, little realising he had turned everyone against him, from the working-class even to the old-fashioned Tory. He plunged on thinking himself Adolf Hitler, and when war came that’s exactly who people thought he was.
Steve, one of my mates at school who was going on to university, rare then, to study political science, asked me once to take him round the East End. Truth to tell, I didn’t know it too well myself at the time, but gamely took him around what I did know, the neighbourhood of Ridley Road (Dalston). We ran by accident into a fascist demo. Seeing the way the Mosley motorcade moved through the crowds like a conquering army, though these were called fascist demonstrations, they were really police demonstrations with a kernel of fascists in the middle. Steve, a generous lad, was carried away by indignant remarks around us by elderly market women who had been roughly pushed aside.
He picked up a stone and threw it at Mosley as he passed, hand in the air. It missed Sir Oswald and landed on the cheek of a multi-braided police officer narrowly missing his eye. Steve stood out in a fairly sallow and weedy East End crowd for his height and shock of red hair. He was an excellent athlete, whom I thought of as an accurate bowler until that day, and ran. Fortunately he wasn’t caught. I didn’t attempt to flee, due not to excess of courage but of weight, and discreetly entered a tobacconist, where I found a sympathetic Jewish lady behind the counter prepared to let me out of the back way thinking the lad with the school cap now back on his head was escaping from the nazi hoodlums. She told me one had even tried to put a police officer’s eye out with a brick.
I got away but it nearly ended in disaster for all when Steve had feelings of guilt at having left me to face arrest on my own and came back looking for me. As it happened he wasn’t recognised by the police. He didn’t look the type who would attack an innocent would-be dictator. He survived to confine his feelings about fascism to such restrained outlets as piloting a bomber plane, years later becoming chair of a major quango. If he had been known to be a premature anti-fascist, and if he had been convicted of a violent offence, he would never have been accepted into the Royal Air Force, possibly failed to get into the war against fascism and might have been anti-authoritarian to this day.
The Battle of Cable Street
“Don’t forget to tell them about the battle of Cable Street!” is a familiar exhortation to any labour old-timer about to speak on an anti-fascist platform. Someone asked me eagerly only the other day, “You were around then, weren’t you? Tell them how we stopped the fascists marching through the East End”.
As in the mid-thirties the fascists marched through the East End in greater or smaller number in days before and after “Cable Street”, it is hard to know what the great victory was, even if the legend sounds as if it ought to be true. There was certainly real local outrage over this particular march, billed as something special, mixed up with and confused with news from Germany. People the CP normally influenced panicked, and put so much pressure on the local CP and YCL that the party cancelled its own meeting in Trafalgar Square and urged everyone to stop the blackshirts marching through the East End. A barricade was erected at Cable Street though it’s hard to say what would have happened if Mosley had carried on with the march — surrounded as he inevitably was with a huge police contingent.
I was a few streets away at an open-air meeting, the first one I ever spoke at, and my first time in the East End proper. Inspired by the incident at Ridley Road, I hadn’t known about the march. When I looked back at the three boxing club supporters I brought with me, I found they had all gone off to watch the fun at Cable Street, and I had to make up my mind what to do. I carried on until all the crowd vanished, whether attracted by the noise or bored by me. Abandoning the attempt at enlightenment, I walked up to Gardiner’s Corner where I saw Fenner Brockway looking very excited. Later I learned he telephoned the Home Secretary to warn him of possible bloodshed, and the Home Secretary contacted the police and they called the Mosley march off and they went back. No way would the Mosleyites have proceeded without their police guard. The CP version has passed into myth, but that was how Fenner Brockway stopped the police marching through the East End.
Matters were somewhat different in Glasgow. I wasn’t there, but apparently the police chief met Mosley at the station and asked him to take his supporters back to London on the next train. He had the station guarded off but said he could not take the risk of letting him into the city as the crowd around would have torn him apart and his officers faced mayhem. When I did visit Glasgow I heard Frank Leech tell a meeting that Mosley should be recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize, as he had got the whole working class, for the first time, including the Taig and Proddy street gangs, united as one to keep him out.
Being streetwise, a no-hope amateur pugilist, and a bookish schoolboy at a mixed grammar school made a curious cocktail with being an anarchist at fifteen and sixteen, still at school. In these present times the latter at least is quite common, when sometimes entire fifth forms are anarchists, at any rate cheerfully accepting the name while lumping it with a whole range of more or less contradictory concepts, though conscious anarchists are at any rate not unknown. In those days it was unique for anyone to have come to anarchism without having inherited it from family connections.
Anarchism had once been fairly widespread in the working class movement; indeed, anarcho-syndicalism had been almost an equal rival with State socialism at one time though never to the extent it was in some countries but lack of sectarianism had diminished its working class base. The miners were typical in seeing no difference between the ultimate aims of either, many supporting one or the other simultaneously, going for direct action when it paid off, and electing MPs, usually out of retired militants, for whatever crumbs it afforded. When the Communist Party came along, with the glamour value of the Russian Revolution tagged on to it, it swept all aside: under the influence of Lenin’s vitriolic attacks on “Left Wing Communism” many anarchist and syndicalist militants, in the Clyde, in Tyneside and in the coalfields, abandoned what they saw as the bourgeois influence on anarchism and entered the Labour or Communist Party, to finish in knee breeches and ceremonial costumes as Privy Counsellors.
Further, the pool in which the Anarchists had swum had now been drained: the First World War had isolated the whole socialist movement from the working class, except in the heavy industrial areas where class struggle went on regardless of the war. Many had chosen conscientious objection, then a hard option, but this, however admirable, left them isolated from the mass in the Army, though if they joined the Army they often silently disappeared and it was thought they were lost in the general casualty list.
Years later an old militant who had been in the anarchist and shop stewards movements, Kate Sharpley, revealed to me that every one of the Deptford Anarchist males disappeared that way. She lost her boyfriend, brother and father in the War, the former (an Anarchist) almost certainly by ‘disappearance’ rather than casualty, and she had thrown their medals when presented in Queen Mary’s face.
Though possibly the Anarchists did not lose as great a number to other parties as is sometimes supposed, they rarely recruited anyone in Britain either in the 1920s and early 30s; waxing and waning according to birth and death like a doomed Indian tribe. Everyone in the old London Freedom Group (give or take a few, usually second generation libertarians) was up to fifty years old, or a lot over that. I was a rare exception, and I must be given credit for durability if not for flexibility in that I survived to the days when I am well over seventy, in association with people in their early twenties.
Being a helpless male as far as practical matters were concerned, I was lost when it came to repairs on a coat torn at an open air meeting and some of the older women comrades, like Molly Paul, were inclined to mother me. Matilda Green, a German who had worked with Johann Most on the London Freiheit before that international revolutionary went to America, often used to help me with my German homework, which would have surprised the school if they’d known of it. Someone who had helped translate Most’s textbook of dynamite had no difficulty in helping me struggle through “Lotte in Weimar” or “Emil und die Detektive”, and could have done wonders for me in chemistry if it had not been an alternative to modern languages on the curriculum.
I think she was the only one among the anarchists, as well as few of the boxing fraternity, who realised I was still at school. George Cores, in his Personal Recollections gives a comprehensive account of supporters of the old Freedom Group, with the occupation of every person he names, except mine. He was probably genuinely puzzled, since I never let on that I was still a schoolboy (we never called it being a student then). Similarly, Leah Feldman (whose militancy went back as far as Nestor Makhno’s army, which fought both Reds and Whites in the Ukraine) could not understand why when we made appeals among our friends for solidarity, she managed to collect pounds but me only pence. It did not occur to her that while she was working as a fur machinist I was spending my working hours mixing with people whose income came from parental pocket money or paper rounds. I have no idea now, when youth is a lost asset, why I was ashamed to admit how young I was.
Solidarity appeals became an important part of our activity as the Spanish war loomed: originally these were for political prisoners, but when these were released in the spring of 1936 it was appreciated by many of these ordinary men and women that stocks of clothing would be needed in the event of fighting. From seeing the people who called themselves intellectuals and who helped mould public opinion, through the window of the Freedom Group — it never ceased to amaze me how totally ignorant they were.
For them only an idealised version of state communism or in some cases of fascism existed; the press was still in the process of thinking anarchism=shock horror bombs and things. Even people like Charles Duff, who knew Spain inside out and actually resigned his Foreign Office job when he realised how the establishment was almost solidly pro-fascist and was prepared to sacrifice not just Spain but Britain to fascism, had very little clue as to the beliefs of what must have been the majority of workers in that country.
Castles in Spain
In a book on his early life, misinformed as usual about things out of his class or appertaining to struggle, Professor George Woodcock, who established an academic niche by misrepresenting Anarchism, sneered at my being ‘self-educated’ (I would have thought it an undeserved compliment) and so arrogant that I thought I knew more than he. I admit it still seems to me I knew more than a great many fully-fledged mandarins even at sixteen, so maybe for once he was well informed.
John Langdon-Davies was a great authority on Catalan life and literature. When the Spanish war broke out he published a book on Catalonia (Behind the Spanish Barricades, London 1936) apologising for the anarchists in a patronising way. He explained their naiveté in a somewhat more simplistic way than Gerald Brenan, who put their beliefs down to disappointment with religion. When the course of events made the Communist Party twist his arm to be more condemnatory, Langdon-Davies changed his views on them, but meanwhile, like some other writers, treated them in the same manner as sections of the English press now treats the Irish, all clowns and dynamite.
I read that ‘after calling for the burning of all churches and cathedrals, for no greater reason than that the bishop might be inside, the anarchist declares solemnly that he swears vengeance on all clerics in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.’ I knew better than these learned writers on Spain even before I’d finished “Zalacain el Aventurero” annotated for matric. If I was indeed arrogant, small wonder. And unlike Langdon-Davies and other learned gentlemen I never felt the need to revise my opinions on the Communist Party.
I attended an Allison Peers lecture at the London Polytechnic soon after the 1936 uprising began. I already knew how the Revolution had succeeded behind the war lines, and the workers had taken control, and thought it interesting to hear this as a language student of Spanish. Peers only knew about atrocities which he described as being committed by ‘Anarchists with bloodstained overalls’ converging on the square where the heroic army was defending itself against the unarmed population that provided its salary: I asked how they came to have bloodstained overalls so soon in the fighting — was it their own blood, were they supposed to have been cutting throats, or what? He answered equally sarcastically that he presumed it was not in the course of peaceful persuasion. It was not until years later I learned from Miguel Garcia, a leading participant, of how Peers might have been right about the bloodstained overalls, even if, typical of his kind, wrong about the explanation.
When the army rose, the Barcelona workers had rushed to the nearest CNT union headquarters next to Columbus Square, the Sindicato de Gastronomica, where the city abattoir workers were holding an hastily-called emergency conference. They obviously joined in, and were prominent among the crowd, which explained the bloody overalls; but the good professor never found out, and to his death must have wept for the innocent nuns and priests whose blood he thought it was.
Billy married Melchita in Bilbao in 1936 and they spent their honeymoon in Paris. I went over on a weekend trip to greet them, my first visit abroad, and met not only Edward VIII’s newly acquired but unlikely subject Mrs Campbell, but many Spanish comrades for the first time. A few came through all the tribulations of the next four decades and survived. Many of them had come with lorries, loading up with what arms they could knowing of the coming coup which took the professional politicians, Government agents, spies and skilled journalists by surprise.
Among the CNT contingent was Miguel Garcia Garcia, though we never met at the time. He was with a fruit lorry which was taking back weapons of the type that could still be bought privately. The Grand Old Man of French Anarchism, the orator Sebastien Faure, who had been fighting French and Spanish obscurantism since the days of the Dreyfusards and the trial of Francisco Ferrer, and was in his eighties still a bonnie fighter, presented Miguel at a meeting with a revolver that had some history. It probably had been used in the Paris Commune of 1871, not that anything that could be bought was of modern vintage. “Give this to Buenaventura Durruti,” he said impressively. “Tell him to be sure this is the one he carries with him into the glorious battle.” Durruti, a tough railroad worker and guerrilla fighter, who became the Civil War’s most famous General by sheer charisma, though he never had a rank, had no false sentimentality. I was told by Miguel that when he gave it to him and passed off the message, Durruti took one look, and said “Pooh! It’s a toy!” and tossed it aside. Fortunately Sebastien Faure, ever one for the grand gesture, never knew, and possibly told with fervour to many an audience that Durruti carried it until his death at the Madrid front in November.
The most incredible misreporting followed the outbreak of civil war on 19 July. What need to repeat it? Even the story of how the workers prevented the army takeover and in many places took over industry themselves and formed their own militia, has been told, though much less often and without penetrating popular knowledge to this day. But look to the contemporary press hard and long and you will find hardly a mention, though some popular papers did seize on the interesting sideline to workers control, that the prostitutes were running the brothels themselves.
Whenever one told the academically qualified intellectual moulders of opinion about the collectivisation and revolution and the fact that Spain was not just the arena for a struggle between democracy and fascism, or Moscow barbarianism versus Christianity, they dismissed everything one said as lies without adducing a single real fact. They had taken sides.
It can be imagined how the success of the CNT-FAI affected every anarchist group in the world; everyone wanted to be in on the act. We had by now in London a few youngsters around, like Tom (Paddy) Burke, who came out of the Young Communist League disillusioned with state communism, and Scottish anarchists drifting to London for employment in the south, like Alec and Jessie White, Jim Murray and so on, which gave us a small foothold in industry. But whereas in Barcelona they had been able to rally in crisis to their union halls, all we had to rally to was the London Freedom Group, and it was in a bad way, age having caught up with it at last and its never-ending weekly ‘lectures’ we thought a poor substitute for action.
An attempt to reform it from within by Ralph Barr, who had been a local National Unemployed Workers Movement secretary in Hammersmith, led to George Cores, Leonard Harvey (a speaker at street corners in the days when it was still possible to earn a bare living at it) and John Humphrey breaking away. Ralph Barr agreed to the suggestion that the paper Freedom be wound up and incorporated with Frank Leech’s Glasgow paper Fighting Call. Leah Feldman clinched the argument by pointing out that the Italian group in London, whose most vigorous protagonist was Dr Galasso, had started a paper devoted to the Spanish struggle called Spain and the World — edited by Vero Recchioni, son of an old militant Emilio Recchioni, and it was fair to give it a chance without another competitor in the field, albeit with a circulation of hundreds only. As Recchioni junior (who later changed his name to Vernon Richards) was still at University, the paper was ostensibly published by Tom Keell, which did not endear it to the old Freedom Group, who were not told this was a legal fiction, and still resented Keell’s apparent reappearance, after taking the physical assets in 1927 on retirement. Nor did it appreciate the sacrifice of Freedom which one way and another had been published since 1886.
Meanwhile Ralph Barr, together with a German, Werner Droescher who was on his way to join the DAS (German anarcho-syndicalist) Column in Spain, started the Anarcho-Syndicalist Union, which at first received a large number of younger supporters, thinking it was going to be a real anarcho-syndicalist union, rather than a talking shop like the Freedom Group. At the same time Barr announced that the famous Emma Goldman was setting up a kind of embassy for the Spanish libertarian movement, the CNT-FAI Bureau, and we were welcome to support its work through the CNT-FAI Committee.
This was exciting news, because just about that time the International Brigade was starting up, and it was thought this would be a version of the same thing. Few, if any, saw the International Brigade in its real light: a propaganda gimmick by the Communist Party — which it had not even thought up itself — and subsequent hype has made it appear this was not just a brigade, but a division, even an army. The myth resembled the Easter Rising in 1916, which must have begun in the biggest Post Office in the world, holding half a million Irishmen who fought to the last beside Connolly and Pearse, to judge from the testimony of people who for years afterwards announced in pubs they were there, or the huge cast of “Casey’s Court”, judging by the thousands of broken down music hall artists one met in bars who gave Charlie Chaplin his first encouragement and taught him his tricks, to be ignored by him later.
It really started with the alternative Olympics being held in Barcelona (as a counter-blast to Berlin). Some East End CP-ers stopped over, or went over specially, and volunteered to fight. There were scarcely any Party members in Spain, and the Comintern quickly seized the opportunity of getting in on the act. The rival Marxist Party (POUM) was also recruiting foreign volunteers, partly because it too was small, though much larger than the Communist Party. The Independent Labour Party (affiliated to the POUM internationally) sent volunteers, and as George Orwell joined the POUM militia and became famous in an entirely different field years later, one might be forgiven today, going by scholastic hype, for thinking he was a major military figure in an important part of the armed struggle.
Certainly we thought Emma Goldman had come over with a mission to recruit for the armed struggle. The first meeting of the CNT-FAI Committee at the Food Reform Restaurant in Holborn, was, to the surprise of veterans had not seen such a sight since the early days of the Russian Revolution, packed with keen young enthusiasts all raring to pack a bag and be off to Barcelona.
One of the reasons for our enthusiasm at that meeting was that a friend of ours, Kitty Lamb, then in the ILP but an anarchist as heart, as she later became, told us of a similar meeting held by John McNair where he had appealed for volunteers to match the International Brigade, specifically for the POUM militia. Several had already enlisted, like Walter Padley (later an MP), but the ILP had a revolutionary socialist programme far beyond the grasp of most of its membership, which consisted of the older type of sentimental socialist who had no real difference with those who went into the Labour Party. There were also the younger pacifists who were now coming into the party, plus a handful of Trotskyists and a few independent socialists who had no other home to which to go. After years of ‘united fronts’ with the Communist Party, the Socialist League and finally the Trots, the party had gradually lost its vitality and there were no takers at the meeting, until one middle-aged man got up and said that he didn’t get on with his wife, and he’d go.
We guffawed about this story, most thinking the ILP at that stage a bit of a joke anyway. But it confirmed our belief that Emma Goldman, with her revolutionary background, would offer a chance that quite a few would take. Jack Mason, a building worker and a jack-of-all-trades, even turned up at the meeting having given up his job, packed his bag and deposited it in Victoria Station.
The meeting was somewhat of a let down. We sat enthralled while Emma eulogised the achievements of the Spanish workers in the previous months, and how the banner of the CNT-FAI was flying over Catalonia, but we were waiting for the nitty-gritty. There were many anxious questions as to whether there would be any more compromises or the mistakes of Russia (collaboration with the Communist Party) repeated. Emma was in a difficult position there as, though a representative, she knew no more than we did. Optimistically she denied there would be, and when in fact in the space of a few weeks, there were, even to the point of entering the Generalitat of Catalonia and ultimately the Government itself, it was held against her, though she was as opposed to it as much as anyone.
But what totally deflated the atmosphere was her announcement that the CNT was entirely opposed to foreign volunteers. There was a chorus of indignation. Why not? Everybody else was intervening and the most internationally-minded of all were putting up a bar? Not so, said Emma, the CNT-FAI was forming units of Germans and Italians forced into exile and wanting to fight fascism. What they objected to was depopulating the libertarians in countries where they could put pressure on the government and otherwise support the struggle to get arms which they did not have, merely to swell numbers of fighting people which they did have. To further questions, she answered that if anyone had World War One experience, especially technical, and certainly air pilots, they would be welcome, but not otherwise.
As I now see matters, this was understandable, but not imaginative. The Communist Party made a great legend out of its brigade; on a lesser scale (thanks to Orwell) so did the POUM. The legend survived to this day and for many has excused the inexcusable, while the anarcho-syndicalist union movement which made the greatest contribution to the struggle has been passed over in silence. The Communist Party at the time, for all that, was not throwing its partisans into the fray without thought, despite the legend. When one examines the composition of the Anglo-Saxon sections of the brigade, for instance, again with the exception of a few military specialists of WWI experience, we find no one in heavy industry or with a background of industrial organisation: we see mainly Oxford undergraduates, Jewish taxi drivers, and long-term unemployed, amongst whom the CP was recruiting disproportionately and felt it had enough to spare.
Not appreciating the fact that there was not much difference in the attitudes, and knowing quite a number of Young Communists who were off to Spain, we felt humiliated at not being able to go ourselves under our own denomination, but one has to admit that all the YCL people who went were on the periphery of industry.
Emma said that she too wanted to go to the front as a nurse, but Mariano Vasquez, secretary of the CNT, had told her it would be a waste; that with her reputation she would do wonders gaining support for them in England. But this was certainly an error. They thought Emma Goldman a well known personality who would make press headlines, and this might have been so in the United States, but in England she was virtually unknown, and anyway the press would not have reported anything even if she had been. Her knowledge of Britain, for all her visits, was essentially that of a Brooklyn tourist. This comes out quite clearly in her books and published letters, with references to ‘what is not done in England’, complaints about coffee and weather, the coldness of the people and so on.
She is once more, certainly within feminist circles, being presented as a great woman, as she undoubtedly regarded herself. Emma had made an immense reputation in the States as a propagandist for Anarchism and for Free Love (rather than for feminism as nowadays understood, and for which she has become famous to a new generation in spite of herself), both of which shocked the American bourgeoisie at the time. She had been deported to Russia for opposing WWI, but soon saw through the Soviet regime, and was deported a second time, this time to Germany, finally marrying Jim Colton. a Welsh miner, who gave her British nationality and therefore the freedom to travel through Europe. Normally she lived in the South of France, making lecture tours of the British Isles. These had earlier led to criticism in anarchist circles in America, where she travelled round the bourgeois women’s clubs and businessmen’s lunches, accompanied by a manager. Her desire to entertain the bourgeoisie heavily detracted from her propagandist credibility.
For years after her return from Russia she had spoken to workers clubs on the subject of Russia, being sworn at and attacked for daring to criticise the Soviet Union. Her bitterest critics in the labour movement at the time were not so much the Communist Party, but fellow travelling Labourites like George Lansbury (later to assume the prophetic robes of a saintly pacifist) and Ernest Bevin (later to become the arch-anti-Communist and destroyer of Lansbury).
As she saved all her letters, and wrote an extensive autobiography up to 1935 (Living my Life), in which she didn’t spare anyone, including herself, her character doesn’t have to be assessed here. I was prejudiced against her before I met her having read in her autobiography that at the time of the General Strike in 1926 she ‘offered her services’ to the workers — quite genuinely, though patently in the manner of the Great Revolutionary — but her request to be allowed to help was addressed to the TUC General Council, and as it obviously didn’t reply, she flew off to the South of France (by plane, as no trains were running), to where the wealthy intelligentsia appreciated her and offered her a villa. She was the guest of the novelist Rebecca West, the mistress of press baron Lord Beaverbrook and the antithesis of what Emma stood for. I never found anyone outside novel readers who had the foggiest notion of who Miss West was (“Wasn’t she a character in Ibsen?” Cores asked me once, having read a declaration of Emma’s citing important people who were backing her).
Emma’s idea of campaigning for the CNT-FAI was to belabour the workers in general for not coming to the support of their Spanish counterparts, but to try to garner in as many ‘intellectuals’ as possible, in which category she included not only novelists and musicians but ILP MPs. It was amusing years later for me to read in a book about Emma’s days in Britain (Vision on Fire) by David Porter that she actually wrote a letter rightly condemning people who wanted to call themselves anarchists but with no intention of doing anything whatever about it, and in the next paragraph welcoming Aldous Huxley (a distinguished member of a ‘great libertarian family’ as she said, betraying a lack of knowledge of the most distinguished but decidedly authoritarian Thomas Huxley) for calling himself one (only once, as far as I could gather), who did precisely that.
Her idea of ‘the British character’ were based on observations of upper-class twits and the Russian Jewish circle which she took to be the ‘English movement’ but which was in reality the rump of what once had been a large Russian Jewish emigrant movement. The males had gone back to Russia in 1917 (when it was possible to do so by joining the army), hoping to bring their womenfolk over when the revolution was won — which it wasn’t. The women subsequently intermingled with dockers’ families, as a legacy of the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker having successfully organised the Jewish tailors’ strike in East London, and afterwards (realising this would dispel anti-semitic feelings stirred up by marches of pauper aliens during that strike), helping the dockers’ strike by arranging for dockers’ children to be looked after by the families of tailors who had won their strike.
The so-called Jewish (by virtue of language rather than race or religion) anarchist movement disappeared long before my time, though the women survivors largely kept in touch with each other plus the males who were left, or managed to leave Russia later. The people Emma mixed with were the rump of those more concerned with their material advancement and not really committed to anarchism even in their best days, who by now were respectable business people in various parties who liked occasionally to meet, when Emma was visiting, and talk about the old days. She wondered why she could never get them to do anything.
Typical among them were William Wess, formerly a union organiser but long since in the Labour Party, who still liked to call himself an anarchist, and his sister Doris Zhouk. They had fallen out with the anarchist movement in World War One, but Emma never realised it and they never liked it mentioned in her presence. They were still going in WWII, after which they were reduced to a small group with others such as Sam Dreen, not only in the Labour Party but a Zionist to boot.
I fell out with Emma when at one of her early meetings she was, to our group’s dismay, proposing to work with the ILP officially. Though I quite liked some of the London rank-and-file, who were good comrades, the Party was even then as dead as mutton. Emma was dismissive of criticism, which we didn’t mind taking from her, but she had in the chair a ‘comrade’ named Sutton, who whatever he may have been twenty years before, was in the Liberal Party then. He went purple in the face when I mentioned this, only because it was in front of Emma, who didn’t believe it anyway, and asked what right I had because he involved himself in trying to work for social justice and whatever to speak of him as some sort of criminal. I pointed out I had not, unless membership of the Liberal Party was a criminal offence, which was less remote then than ever.
It so happened that the next time I confronted Emma Goldman at a meeting — Campbell liked to keep a kind of watching brief on what was going on for the benefit of the Glasgow people, though it scarcely affected us. On this occasion Doris Zhouk raised breathlessly the subject of someone purporting to be an anarchist burning down a fascist centre which was housing an pro-Franco exhibition, and this was clearly designed to give us a bad name, just when, after years, the press had laid off us (indeed put a blanket of silence over our existence).
Ralph Barr, who was Emma’s secretary on the committee, a former unemployed workers organiser, said it must be an agent provocateur — he always blamed any action on them! — but this was too much for me. I knew it was members of our group, then calling itself the Revolutionary Youth Federation — we kept changing the name — who were responsible. I could have named them, but didn’t like to do so, so I boldly claimed responsibility myself, knowing if it came to the attention of the police I had a perfect alibi, the school register, I was naive enough in those days to think that alibis counted.
Sutton went into a harangue about irresponsible elements, saying he might be accused of being a Liberal but … I brought out a Liberal Party handbill with his name on it and he became silent. William Wess, a dear old man with a shock of white hair, took up the refrain with a noble harangue about craftsmen who lovingly built buildings which they never intended people to burn down. Had it been constructed by me, what would I have thought? You would have thought it was Westminster Abbey rather than a hut and I always hated this phoney pacifism. Emma referred to me as a young hooligan who knew nothing about anarchism. Matilda Green was quite delighted with the incident — she had never forgiven Emma for her own youthful hooliganism in using a whip to Most, when in his old age he denounced Alexander Berkman’s attack on the industrialist Frick.
It was decent of David Porter in Vision on Fire to refer to my differences with Emma, though he seems not to have noticed they occurred when I was a teenager and she was well into her sixties, and I perhaps could be excused a little intolerant impatience, yet omit the epithets she used such as ‘rascal’ and ‘hooligan’. Emma put herself in an impossible position by being held responsible for the errors of people in the libertarian movement who had compromised with the government in Spain; she was constantly attacked by irresponsibles, including myself, for matters over which she had no control and which she deplored, yet she tried to raise the matter with Spanish comrades and give advice and was treated as irresponsible herself. Never the most patient of people, one can see how sorely tried she was. But her administration of the CNT-FAI Bureau was a total failure and a sheer waste of time and money. I hotly criticised it and was denounced for my pains in her letters to the propaganda bureau in Barcelona.
All my letters were carefully preserved and were actually taken out of Spain after the defeat, with the presumed intention of showing I had dared to criticise EG no less. Maybe they too didn’t know how old I was.
No one was readier to say how wrong I was than Ethel Mannin, the novelist, who was Emma’s right hand all during the Spanish campaign. Ethel was under the almost hypnotic influence of Emma. When the latter died, she wrote several books taking exactly the same position that I had regarding the maladministration under Emma and herself, except that she blamed it all on Emma and Ralph Barr.