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(en) 40 years of British anarchism by Nick Heath - Anarchist Federation

Date Wed, 15 Nov 2006 19:12:27 +0200

Nick reflects on his experiences in the UK anarchist movement since the 1960s,
and the lessons on organisation and politics he finds valid for narchists today.
Organisational responsibility and discipline should not be controversial. They
are the travelling companions of the practice of social anarchism -Nestor Makhno
I have been involved in the anarchist movement since the mid-1960s. I came into
a movement that appeared to be active and on the up. This vitality seemed to be
accentuated by the forthcoming events of May 68. British anarchism seemed to be
coming into its own, in a way not seen since before the First World War.
As I write, I have before me a photocopy of the inside front page of Freedom
from 26th October 1968, the day before a large contingent of anarchists,
numbering several hundreds had marched under the folds of black and red and
black banners on the massive demonstration against the Vietnam War. Under the
heading Anarchist Federation of Britain there is a list of almost 60 groups or
grouplets, with federations in Wales, Scotland, Essex and East Herts, the
North-west, Sussex, East London, as well as a number of student groups.

Alas, the view that is given by all of this was a false one. A slightly more
than cursory look at the Anarchist Federation of Britain reveals that it was a
house of straw, soon to be blown to the ground by the Big Bad Wolf of unfolding
political events. Albert Meltzer comments: “The looseness of structure of the
Anarchist Federation in the late sixties- having been revived in the early
sixties-led to its disintegration into unrepresentative conferences, at which
anyone could attend”. (The Anarchists in London 1935-1955)

Stuart Christie in his Edward Heath Made Me Angry remarks that the AFB “wasn’t
really a federation at all, more an ad hoc body convened for a particular
purpose then disbanded again”.

This was indeed the reality of the AFB and its conferences, several of which I
attended. The anarchist movement of the late 1950sand early 1960s,if one can
judge from the pages of the Freedom of the time, appeared to be more cohesive
and theoretically united than was later the case. A small number of people were
involved, and these were mostly based in London. If this small movement
sometimes appeared uninviting, exclusive and secretive, this may just as much be
explained as due to the repression of the post-war years (the trial of the War
Commentary editors) as by isolation of the movement itself.

The events of Hungary 1956 were to have an effect in the drift of intellectuals
and others out of the Communist Party and the gradual establishment of the New
Left. The movement against the Bomb, expressed in the Campaign For Nuclear
Disarmament and the Direct Action Committee which later transformed into the
Committee of 100, attracted both a number of these ex-CP militants and
increasing layers of disaffected young people. This marked a break with the
preceding period of “apathy” used by the old Left to explain lack of movement
within the working class. The Gaitskellite leadership of the Labour Party had
justified their politics with the outmodedness of the class struggle and the
apparent embourgeoisement of the working class. The Tory leader Macmillan’s
remarks that the British people had “never had its so good” epitomised this
period of relative class peace and stability. A revolt, often inchoate and
unarticulated, among young people against this complacency meant some were
attracted to this new movement.

Involvement in action and debate and a wide variety of political views, many
never before encountered by these new activists meant at the broadest level,
numbers of them providing the base for local Labour Parties to campaign for the
victory of Harold Wilson as leader of the Labour Party and ultimately as Prime
Minister in 1964. The direct action tactics of the C100 influenced others so
that the threat of The Bomb was replaced by a realisation that the problem lay
in the nature of the State and of capitalism. Many were still trapped in
single-issue politics, and were still enamoured of the concept of non-violence,
elevated to an abstract concept rather than a sometimes useful tactic.

It was the interaction between the two different groups which eventually
provided both the core for the forthcoming increasing radicalisation and the
base of the new groups of the extreme Left that were born or strengthened around
this time. The C100 had proved to be a school of radicalisation, whilst some of
the broader layers, who had gone into the Labour Party or the Young Communist
League (youth wing of the Communist Party) had become progressively
disillusioned with these groupings.

The small anarchist movement had not ignored this new peace movement. In fact
many working class anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists had earlier or later
recognised the importance in directing activity in that direction. This included
people like Ken Hawkes, Tom Brown, Bill Christopher, Pete Turner and others. The
Syndicalist Workers Federation in which many of these activists were involved
benefited from the burgeoning peace movement so much that it was to increase
from a small core of activists to an organisation of 500 for a short time. But
all of this was at a price. The anarchist revival which led to the listing in
Freedom I talked about above was in part due to a first wave of activists who
had broken with the orthodoxy of the Labour and Communist Parties and consensus
politics, through Suez, Hungary and the experience of Gaitskellism, and via the
C100 had entered the anarchist movement. The second wave was the far larger
number of young people whose first political experience was CND/C100 and for
whom the initial enthusiasm for the election victory of Wilson had quickly been
replaced by bitter disappointment. This disappointment was expressed in a
rejection of orthodox politics, but it was often couched in extreme moralistic
positions. (I was one of the latter).

This sudden growth of the anarchist movement resulted in a transformation. The
small numbers of experienced anarchists were overwhelmed by many who had little
understanding of social anarchism and proceeded to describe their own brand of
radicalised liberalism as anarchism.

This radicalised liberalism was expressed not just in terms of a vague humanism,
rejecting the concepts of class struggle that were seen as identical with the
moribund politics of the Communist Party, but in a fear of organisation and of

The first conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain had been held in
1963 in Bristol. A secretariat was set up at this congress to establish some
sort of continuity, but over the years this was criticised and abandoned.

Each conference of the AFB attracted all and sundry. On one hand
anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist-communists, on the other individualists,
radicalised liberals and pacifists and prophets of the counter-culture. These
conferences were glorified talking shops where few decisions were ever agreed
on, and even fewer carried out. There was no structure as such. Positions became
shared by default. They were not usually discussed at the conferences, adopted
or agreed upon, as there was no recognised way for doing such a thing. These
gatherings were large and attracted representatives from many local groups like
for instance the Harlow Anarchist Group, the Manchester Anarchists and the
Brighton Anarchists, who were very active.

It was no surprise that many who had been initially attracted to anarchism were
deterred by its chronic disorganisation and lack of effectiveness. Some of these
turned to groups like International Socialism (precursor of the Socialist
Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group. Digger Walsh, active in the
Black Flag group of the period, was to be quoted in a national paper as
lamenting the fact that 800 militants had gone over to the Trotskyists.

“Disjointed local activity; often moving from one ‘issue’ to another; unable
even to create a small scale programme of work over a period, characterise our
‘practice’. In the event of a degree of small scale organising e.g. squatters
(1946 and 1968); the campaign to turn Morriston Fire Station into a Youth Centre
(1970) etc; the lack of theory and its consequence is exposed par excellence."
(Towards a history and critique of the anarchist movement in recent times. K.
Nathan. R. Atkins, C. Williams ORA pamphlet no1. 1971)

In the face of this impasse, a number of developments occurred in the AFB. One
of these was the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, as the title says an alliance
of anarchists and syndicalists who attempted to relate to the industrial unrest
and to the huge demonstration that had taken place in 1971 against the
Industrial Relations Bill. It attempted to orientate towards industrial
activity, although a lack of perspective meant that it started reporting on
counter-cultural activity in its paper Black and Red Outlook. A lack of
structure also meant it repeated many of the errors of the AFB. Another group
that emerged within the AFB was the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists
originally conceived as a ginger group within the AFB. It argued for formal
membership organisation and structure. I remember being involved in writing a
leaflet produced by Brighton Anarchists for an AFB conference at the Toynbee
Hall in the East End of London that argued against such ideas and putting
forward the counter-argument that an organisation would emerge but as the result
of ‘natural organic growth’ of local groups starting up and eventually federating.

The increasing frustration with the swamp of pacifism, liberalism and vague
humanism meant that both groups estranged themselves from the AFB, which was now
spiralling into terminal decline. The ASA ran out of steam pretty quickly,
whilst the ORA seemed to be full of dynamism and drive and was able to produce a
monthly paper that both reported on struggles in industry, among the unemployed
and the squatting movement, but made a good attempt at anarchist and working
class history as well as theory. The ORA had started moving away from the swamp
as a result of the dockers and miners struggles and the influences of French
libertarian communists.

In the pamphlet I quoted above you can read that: “The IS would not have
attained their size and influence such as it is if a decent libertarian
organisation had existed. It is an unholy mixture of libertarian and Leninist
groups. The attempt by Cliffe (sic) to compete with IMG by out-trotting Mandel
will make this alliance increasingly unstable. BUT do we have any capacity to
attract these comrades? In fact, the flow has been the other way. Good comrades
(for the most part industrial militants rather than students) have been lost
without anyone attempting to understand why.” This was true and remains true
today. A lack of effective organisation, in spite of the decline of Leninism,
means we will be at a standstill until we rectify this problem.

All serious anarchist militants were concerned about the rapid growth of IS, IMG
and the Socialist Labour League with no corresponding growth in the anarchist
movement. Ultimately, though, the founders of the ORA were looking for too quick
a fix. They thought that just by creating a revolutionary anarchist organisation
the problems of the anarchist movement would be solved. They did not take into
account dogged and determined work over a number of years. So, with the miners
strike, the 3-day week and the fall of the Heath government, they concluded that
a revolutionary crisis was about to happen and that the anarchist movement,
still stalled by chronic disorganisation as it was, was inadequate. They
decamped to various Leninist organisations, chiefly to the SLL which had always
been parroting on about an impending revolutionary crisis (in much the way
Trotskyists had done at the end of World War II).

Their analyses had been right in many instances. One of the shortcomings that
they had highlighted was the lack of industrial activity. As Brian Bamford, whom
I do not often agree with, has pointed out: “At the time of disputes at
Roberts-Arundel in Stockport, Pilkington’s Glassworks in St Helens, the strikes
and stay-in occupations at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and in engineering, the
miners struggles in the 1970s, the anarchist influence was tiny”. (Freedom 6
August 1994)

What was left of the ORA painfully reconstituted itself as the Anarchist Workers
Association and soldiered on into the beginning of the 80s when it transformed
itself into the Libertarian Communist Group and eventually went into the leftist
organisation Big Flame. This tradition - ORA/AWA/LCG - was distinguished by its
steady adherence to class struggle and its critique of the anti-organisational
and liberal humanist strands in the ‘movement’. Set against these plus points
were its leftism, which meant it tailended the leftist organisations, got itself
involved in the Socialist Unity electoral alliance alongside IMG and Big Flame,
and eventually dissolved itself into an organisation that had been previously
described in the pages of its paper as schizoid libertarian Leninist.

Alongside these developments in the early 70s were moves in other directions.
Notable among these were the Angry Brigade actions .The general illusion that
there was a mass movement capable of carrying out a revolution, common in many
quarters, led these libertarians, active in claimants and squatters struggles,
to engage in a number of attacks on property, including the homes of Ministers
and capitalists seen as instrumental in bringing down repression on the working
class. The Angry Brigade activities were meant as supplementary to the actions
of the mass movement. However they had failed to understand the nature of this
movement and had overestimated its revolutionary capabilities.

The Black Flag group itself had many cogent criticisms of the failings of the
AFB. However, promised and much heralded creations by this group failed to
materialise. In fact, the Black Flag group aligned themselves with the Angry
Brigade through uncritical cheerleading in the pages of its journal.

Of course, the humanist and pacifist elements that rejected class struggle
continued to peddle their forms of radical liberalism within the pages of
Freedom and Anarchy.

“Like federalism itself, of which it is one of its principal elements,
collective responsibility exercises itself in two ways- upwards and downwards.
It makes an obligation of the individual to explain their acts to the
collective, and for the latter to explain their acts before the
individual…collective responsibility consacrates and clarifies individual
responsibility”.(my translation) Pierre Besnard, entry on Responsibility in the
Encyclopedie Anarchiste 1933.

The 1980s

The beginning of the1980s saw another upsurge in anarchism. A number of young
people began to refer themselves as anarchists. This had its origins in the
birth of the punk movement in the late 70s and the influence of the Crass group.
The politics pushed by Crass in its music were a mixture of the aggressive
stances of then punk movement coupled with a pacifist ethos that referred back
to both the hippy movement and the pacifist elements within the anarchist

Small groups began to spring up and these were increasingly to be seen at the
demonstrations called by CND, itself going through a revival as a result of the
political climate of the Thatcher-Reagan years. Some of the demonstrations
mounted by CND were very large, something not seen since the previous period of

This new wave was very much defined by lifestyle and ultimately a form of
elitism that frowned upon the mass of the working class for its failure to act.

At the same time, the small number of existing class struggle anarchists failed
to engage and to offer an alternative and to argue class struggle politics to
these new activists.

The high point of this particular wave were the Stop the City demonstrations in
1983-4 which involved an alliance of anarchists, pacifists, ecological and
anti-nuclear activists. These actions were exciting and inventive. They
challenged the apathy and inertia of the period and the routinism of the Left.
However, they made little effort to reach out beyond the ghetto of activism.

Some anarchists were beginning to question this and to argue that we had to go
beyond the Stop Business As Usual and to argue our ideas in the workplace and

The Great Miners Strike of 1984-5 was a challenge for this movement as was the
Wapping dispute that followed shortly after. Some refused to be involved. As one
said, “Suddenly all our aims and dreams are thrown aside in the euphoria of
class struggle…playing the capitalist money game”(The Beano, June 1986).

Others discovered the class struggle roots of anarchism and reinforced the small
class struggle anarchist movement.

To its credit Black Flag magazine galvanised itself during both the miners
strike and during Wapping. For a while it took on a fortnightly frequency. It
gave its pages over to extensive reporting of the struggles, moving away from
its standard presentation of prisoners struggles, investigative journalism and
“armed struggle”. In this way it performed a very useful function. But once
again it failed to move on from there, failed to offer a credible anarchist
alternative and held its fire on the Scargill leadership of the miners strike.

Despite the defeat of these struggles, class struggle anarchism was reinforced.
The Direct Action Movement (successor to the SWF) welcomed many new members to
the extent that it became the biggest anarchist organisation with a membership
of 150. But again as with the SWF in the 60s, it had problems with activists
from a radicalised liberal background. As a strategy, it advanced the classic
syndicalist tactic of building revolutionary unions in the here and now and
failed to get a grip with the reality of the workplace. Class War, which had
emerged as a group around the paper of the same name in the mid 80s, transformed
itself into the Class War Federation in 1986. The latter group was made up of
activists who rejected the pacifism, lifestylism and hippyism that were dominant
tendencies within British anarchism. In this it represented a healthy kick up
the arse of that movement. Again, like the Stop the War actions, it rejected
apathy and routinism. It groped towards organisational solutions in its
development of a Federation. But it was trapped in a populism that was sometimes
crass, and in a search for stunts that would bring it to the attention of the
media. In its search for such publicity, it went so far as to immerse itself in
populist electoralism with its involvement in the Kensington by-election. These
contradictions were eventually to lead to the break-up of the old CWF, with some
offering a sometimes trenchant critique of their own politics up to that time.
However, no organisational alternative was offered beyond a conference in
Bradford that attempted to reach out to other anarchists and to offer a
non-sectarian approach at unity of those seriously interested in advancing the
movement. Alas, these moves were stillborn and many of those who had offered
critiques of the old ways of operating dropped out of activity altogether. A
rump remained that has carried on maintaining Class War as both a grouping and a
paper in the same old way.

Other groups that emerged in the aftermath of the Miners Strike were the
Anarchist Communist Federation and the Anarchist Workers Group. The former had
its roots in Virus magazine that had begun appearing during the course of the
Miners Strike and in the AWA/LCG of the 70s.It offered organisational measures,
was as its name suggests openly anarchist communist and orientated to the class
struggle. At first, it adopted Platformist positions but over the years moved
further and further away from a dogmatic Platformism, to the extent that it now
talks of the Platform as one of several reference points for its politics. It
from the first made a number of appeals for united actions with other class
struggle anarchist groups, appeals that in the main fell on deaf ears. It has
failed to construct an organisation beyond a skeletal federation of small groups
and individuals.

The Anarchist Workers Group emerged from the DAM in 1988,and pulled in a few
people who had left CW and the ACF. It repeated the mistakes of the ORA/AWA in
its leftism (including its support for national liberation struggles) and its
rankandfilism, which had been another characteristic of that organisation. It
was far more condescending than the ORA/AWA in the way that it related to the
movement, and had far less longevity and level of activity. Again, as with other
organisations, it attracted a number of activists, some of them ex-SWP, who had
no real understanding of anarchism and failed to go beyond leftism. It had
criticised other anarchist organisations for failing to educate their new
members and thus developing a two-tier system of experienced militants and raw
new members. This it failed to do itself. It thought that it alone could offer a
solution to the problems of the movement. Like the ORA it imploded. This time
there were none left to carry on, all its members dispersing into Trotskyist
groups (mainly the RCP but also Workers Power and SWP) or disappearing into
inactivity. One of the grossest mistakes it made, in direct consequence of its
leftist support for national liberation, was its support for the Saddam regime
against the Americans in the first Gulf War on spurious “anti-imperialist” grounds.

Parallel to the developments within the anarchist movement had been the
emergence of the libertarian socialist organisation Solidarity, which had been
created by ex-members of the Socialist Labour League in 1960.Solidarity had also
become involved in the anti-bomb movement via the Industrial Sub-Committee of
C100.Like the best anarchists, Solidarity had refused to endorse “non-violence"
and had to use the words of an erstwhile member, John Sullivan, participated in
the peace movement, “ because it was the only place where methods of direct
action were being carried out”. Solidarity was a theoretical engine room for the
entire libertarian movement. Its quite natural fears of developing as an
organisation after the experiences of the SLL, meant that it was ham-strung in
offering organisational alternatives to the IS, of which it had many very
trenchant criticisms.

Looking back, it would have been useful if closer ties could have been developed
between Solidarity and the different elements of class struggle anarchism. I
don’t mean that this necessarily meant a united organisation, but that closer
ties and joint activity could have been intensified (I don’t in the least think
that joint work between libertarians never took place, as cooperation was at
least attempted in East London for example via the East London Libertarian
Federation and led on to the1968-69 squatting campaign, in which libertarians
jointly worked together) But mutual suspicion, the magnifying of ideological
differences and the failure to recognise shared viewpoints had their role to
play in the failure of the libertarian movement of the period to construct a
credible alternative to Leninism.

Alongside the development of national organisations were various attempts at
local and regional coordination. The libertarian upsurge of the 80s led not just
to the growth of organisations but the development of a number of local groups.
Some of these groups were a microcosm of the old AFB- class-struggle anarchists
jostling pacifists, individualists and lifestylers. A development occurred in
these groups – partly in response to ideas generated by class struggle anarchist
organisations – which resulted in the forming of specifically class struggle
anarchist groups. These groups were to a lesser or greater extent limited by a
parish-pump anarchism which made them leery of national organisation to which
they counterposed local and at best regional organisation.

None of the attempts by local groups to construct regional federations - as with
the Northern Anarchist Network of the 80s, the Class Struggle Anarchist Network,
the Scottish Libertarian Federation, the Midlands Anarchist Network - were to be
long-lasting as was any effort - where it was even attempted - to federate the
local groups on a national basis. The local groups were often also crippled by a
suspicion of theory, an activist mindset which meant moving from the issue of
one day to the issue of the next - all of this alongside an unwillingness to
look at coherent organisational solutions.

Today we have a movement where a number of organisations exist more as chapels
than anything else. The original intention of galvanising and organising the
movement has ended in these organisations becoming not just isolated from each
other but from what passes for a movement. The crisis of Leninism has deepened;
but what should have been a golden opportunity for British anarchism has not
been effectively capitalised upon. Where before local groups had more or less
withered away, a number of local groups have emerged. Will these repeat the
mistakes of their predecessors and remain trapped in localism, to be ephemeral
creations to be remembered by few?

Looking back after almost 40 years of anarchist activism, it would be excusable
to feel dejected. The same mistakes have often been repeated decade after
decade. Indeed, the lack of continuity in the movement ensures that these same
mistakes ARE committed again. New forms of confusionist thought have emerged
within the anarchist movement, in particular primitivism and insurrectionism,
both in many ways new forms of the old individualist scourge. (In fact these
currents seem to be converging, as with the recent Wildfire bulletin)

But on the positive side, class struggle anarchism appears to have strengthened
itself within the British movement to a certain extent. Some new local anarchist
groups have emerged and there seems to be a tentative but growing need to
cooperate and coordinate activity.

We have to drop the outlook of the chapel. The national organisations should all
be looking for ways in which they can cooperate. Whilst recognising their
differences, they should be looking for ways in which they can cooperate and
make the movement as a whole more effective. We should seriously be looking at
ways of coordinating the activities of the local groups and the national
organisations. We should be arguing strongly against localism and for the
construction of national organisations and networks. The vitally important work
of constructing strong and active local groups should not in the least rule out
the crying need to construct national organisation.

We need to have propaganda that addresses not only the Great Questions of the
day like war, racism and exploitation, but issues like housing, transport and
gentrification. Anarchism has to be become a visible movement, with mass
stickering and flyposting, and mass propaganda distributed on estates and in
neighbourhoods. Whilst demonstrations have become extremely ritualised, we must
not shirk our responsibilities in making sure there is a strong and visible
presence on such events, especially if they are large scale, with bookstalls,
mass distribution of literature, and united anarchist contingents.

In the period just before the Second World War, the Glasgow Anarchist Communist
Federation ceased publication of its journal Solidarity in order to support
Spain and the World (precursor of War Commentary , which became Freedom). In
London, the veteran Russian anarchist Leah Feldman was the chief initiator for
dropping many superfluous papers to support Spain and the World. Should we not
now be thinking along the same lines? Is there really room for 3 glossy
magazines? Could resources be pooled? Could this lead on to a new vibrancy
within British anarchism?

We have to start thinking outside of the boxes of our little groupings, and we
have to start thinking big. We must start growing and growing up. The
opportunities are there. We have to attract both those disillusioned by Leninism
and the newly radicalised youth who are emerging as a result of anti-war
activity and a revulsion at the Labour government. We have to draw back into the
movement those discouraged in the past by the ineffectiveness of our movement,
who have retreated into private life. We have to be seen as a serious movement,
not one viewed as ineffectual and passive, riddled with dilettantes and cranks.

Every serious anarchist should now be thinking and acting upon ways to maximise
our effectiveness and clout. We should be thinking of greater cooperation and
the development of forums where we can start to discuss these concerns.

Nick Heath

Test taken from LibCom.org
Article originally called "Looking back and forward" and written in 2006 for an
issue of Black Flag.
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