Notes on internationalist anarchism in the UK (part 2): From the 1950s to today

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This is the concluding part of a contribution aimed at clarifying the ICC’s analysis of the main anarchist groups in Britain. (The first part was published in the previous issue of World Revolution).

7) The 1950s have been described as a “period of somnolence” for anarchism in Britain[1]. But the upheavals of the 1960s brought a revival of libertarian ideas on various fronts, for example as a radical wing of the CND protests or as an element in the emergence of ‘movements’ around sexual politics, the environment, and daily life in general. British anarchism in the late 60s and early 70s also had a brief flirtation with Propaganda by the Deed in the form of the Angry Brigade. Also important was the work of the Solidarity group descended from Socialisme ou Barbarie, and like the latter initiated by people who had broken away from Trotskyism. Though closer to councilism than anarchism, Solidarity’s publications had a big impact on a much wider anarchist/libertarian audience[2]. In 1963 a new Anarchist Federation of Britain was set up to bring together all the various strands of anarchist activity, but as Nick Heath (a founding member of the present-day AF) recalls in his essay on the anarchist movement since the ‘60s[3] this was not even a Federation but a mosaic of contradictory tendencies from anarcho-syndicalists and anarchist-communists to individualists, pacifists and ‘lifestylers’. Heath even uses the term “swamp” to describe the weight of anarcho-liberalism and faddism of all kinds in the AFB.

8) Under the impact of the international revival of workers’ struggles after May 1968, there was a reaction against this swamp and various attempts to develop a class struggle anarchist tendency with a more effective form of organisation. The Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, formed around 1970,was an attempt to put this effort into practice, mainly by relating to the The Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists produced in 1926 by Arshinov, Ida Mett, Makhno and other fugitives from the defeat in Russia. The Platform had, quite correctly, argued that one of the reasons for the crushing of resistance to the counter-revolution in Russia had been that those doing the resisting, and in particular the anarchists, had lacked any organisational and programmatic coherence. This was fundamentally a healthy class response to the problem of opposing the degeneration of the revolution. Unfortunately, the history of platformism seems to have been one in which the search for such a coherence has led to the bourgeois consistency of leftism, generally in its Trotskyist form. The fate of ORA underlined the strength of this difficulty, with a large part of its elements sliding towards different forms of leftism – some towards Trotskyism pure and simple, some towards a more libertarian brand of the same thing, as exemplified by the Libertarian Communist Group of the 1970s, part of which fused with the neo-Maoists of Big Flame. More recent forms of this kind of ‘anarcho-Trotskyism’ include the Anarchist Workers Group, which supported the Saddam regime against ‘imperialism’ in the first Gulf war, and the current Workers’ Solidarity Movement in Ireland which doesn’t hesitate to call for the nationalisation of Irish resources and pledges support for the ‘anti-imperialist’ (i.e. nationalist) struggle in Ireland.

9) In the middle to late 80s, there were two main developments in the organised anarchist movement: the spectacular rise of Class War, and the more modest but ultimately more substantial development of the Anarchist Communist Federation, today the AF. On Class War, Nick Heath’s summary of these developments, from his essay mentioned above, can be quoted in full: “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”.

The next quote is from ‘ACF- The first ten years: “The shipwreck of anarchist communism in the late 70s meant that there was no anarchist communist organisation, not even a skeletal one, that could relate to the riots of 1981 and to the miners strike of 1984-5 as well as to mobilisations like the Stop the City actions of 1984. But in autumn 1984 two comrades, one a veteran of the ORA/AWA/LCG, had returned from France where they had been living and working and where they had been involved in the libertarian communist movement. A decision was made to set up the Libertarian Communist Discussion Group (LCDG) with the aim of creating a specific organisation. Copies of the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, left over from the AWA/LCG days, were distributed to bookshops, with a contact address for the Anarchist-Communist Discussion Group (ACDG). Progress was slow, until contact with the comrade who produced Virus, a duplicated magazine that defined itself as ‘Anarcho-socialist’. This comrade had broken with the politics of the SWP and rapidly moved in an anarchist direction. Apart from its sense of humour, Virus was defined to a certain extent by its critiques of Leninism and of Marxism-not surprising considering the comrade’s past experiences. From issue 5 Virus became the mouthpiece of the LCDG, and there were a series of articles on libertarian organisation. Other people were attracted to the group, and it transformed itself into the ACDG, which proclaimed a long-term aim of setting up a national anarchist-communist organisation. This came much sooner than expected, with the growth of the group, and a splinter from the Direct Action Movement, Syndicalist Fight, merging with the group. In March 1986 the Anarchist Communist Federation was officially founded, with an agreed set of aims and principles and constitutional structure that had been developed in the previous six months”[4].

10) Given that some of the elements involved in the formation of the AF had been through the route which led from the ORA to the neo- leftist Libertarian Communist Group, it is not altogether surprising that the ICC originally saw the Anarchist Communist Federation as another expression of this leftist type of anarchism[5], especially because from the start many of its activities appeared to offer little more than an anarchist gloss on a whole plethora of leftist campaigns, not least its involvement in anti-fascism. However, what this assessment missed was the fact that the ACF contained components that indicated an attempt to avoid a complete descent into leftism. The desertion to Trotskyism by some of ORA’s founding members did not go unopposed at the time and resulted in splits that gave rise to various short-lived groups such as the Anarchist Workers’ Association; but perhaps more importantly, those who formed ACF tried to draw some key lessons from this whole experience, not least on the questions of unions and national liberation: “What should be remarked upon is the quantum leap that the ACF made in its critique of the unions. A critique of anarcho-syndicalism was deepened and strengthened. At the same time the ACF broke with the ideas of rank-and-filism which had characterised the ORA/AWA/LCG period, as well as any false notions about national liberation and self-determination” (‘ACF – the first ten years’). At the same time, rather than dogmatically adhering to the ‘platformist’ tradition, the ACF saw a number of different currents as part of its inheritance, as can be seen in the series of articles ‘In the tradition’ that began in Organise 52. These included the 26 platform, the Friends of Durruti, Socialisme ou Barbarie, situationism and the left communists of Germany, Holland and Britain. But lacking a real understanding of the internationalist tendencies in anarchism, and convinced that the ACF had emerged out of leftism without ever really questioning its origins, we responded to these developments by dismissing the ACF’s interest in the communist left as a form of parasitism, even though the ACF hardly fulfilled our definition of a parasitic organisation[6]. These false assumptions were reinforced by the ACF’s decision to drop the ‘communist’ from its name at the end of the ‘90s.

11) In London in 1896, at a stormy Congress of the Socialist International, the application of the anarchist delegations to join the organisation was rejected, marking the definitive exclusion of the anarchists from the International. The vote to exclude them was conducted on a basis that has been disputed in some quarters, and a number of the socialists present in body or spirit (including Keir Hardie and William Morris) opposed the decision. This is not the place to evaluate these events; but they do illustrate the difficult and often traumatic relationship between the anarchist and Marxist wings of the workers’ movement, which had only recently been through the split between Marx and Bakunin at the end of the First International. Moments of attraction and repulsion continued to occur throughout the history of the movement. The tremendous vistas opened up by the revolutionary wave that began in 1917 also gave rise to hopes that the traditional split between Marxist and anarchist revolutionaries would be healed, with anarcho-syndicalists attending the first congresses of the Third International and anarchists fighting alongside Bolsheviks in the overthrow of bourgeois power in Russia. These hopes were to be dashed very quickly, to a considerable extent because the Bolsheviks, imprisoned in the new soviet state, began suppressing other expressions of the revolutionary movement within Russia, most notably the anarchists. It’s certainly true that some of the anarchists – such as those who attempted to blow up the Bolshevik Moscow HQ in 1918 – lacked all sense of revolutionary responsibility, but the repression meted out by the Bolsheviks encompassed clearly proletarian trends like the anarcho-syndicalists around Maximoff. The world-wide triumph of the counter-revolution then reinforced the isolation and separation of the remaining revolutionary minorities, although there were moments of convergence, for example between the council communists and some expressions of anarchism, between the Italian left and the group around Camillo Berneri in Spain (Camillo was the father of Marie Louise Berneri, who had been active in the War Commentary group in the UK, as mentioned in the first part of this article). But the role of the CNT in Spain, and the overt participation of some anarchist tendencies in the Resistance and even in the official armies of the ‘Liberation’, increased the divide between anarchism and the marxists, particularly those who had descended from the Italian communist left, who were inclined to conclude that anarchism as a whole had gone the way of Trotskyism in definitively abandoning internationalism, and thus the workers’ movement, during the war[7].

12) The battles of May 1968 were often fought under the black and red banner – symbolically expressing an attempt to recover what was genuinely revolutionary in both the anarchist and Marxist traditions. A number of the groups that formed the ICC had begun their lives in anarchism of one kind or another, so from the beginning of our organisation there was an understanding that anarchism was anything but a monolithic bloc and that many of the new generation, in its fervent rejection of social democracy and Stalinism, would initially be attracted to the ideals of anarchism. At the same time, this more open attitude was accompanied by a need to mark ourselves off as a distinct tendency with coherent positions; and under the influence of political immaturity and a lack of historical knowledge this necessary response was often marred by a somewhat sectarian attitude. The ICC’s debate about proletarian groups in the late 70s was the first conscious attempt to go beyond these sectarian reactions. But the proletarian political milieu went through a phase of crisis at the beginning of the 1980s and this included the ‘Chenier’ affair in the ICC. To a considerable extent the crisis that affected the ICC had its epicentre in Britain, and its aftermath created a wall of suspicion around the ICC, most notably among the libertarian currents who tended to see our efforts to defend the organisation as expressions of an innate Stalinism. This wall has never really been breached. Despite moments of dialogue[8], the relationship between the ICC and the anarchist/libertarian milieu in Britain has been particularly difficult: by the end of the 1990s, the ICC had been expelled from the No War But The Class War group formed in response to the Balkans war and banned from AF meetings in London. It must also be admitted that the ICC’s own errors contributed to this poor state of affairs: in particular, a hasty dismissal of Direct Action and the AF as leftist groups, based on an ignorance of their historical background, and a schematic and heavy-handed application of the notion of political parasitism in the context of the NWBTCW group. At the same time, the anarchists’ suspicious and sometimes uncomradely attitude towards the ICC  has deeper roots in history and theory, above all in relation to the question of the organisation of revolutionaries, and these roots also need to be thoroughly examined. Despite all these obstacles, the appearance since the early 2000s of a new generation of elements attracted to revolutionary ideas, largely mediated through libertarian communism, has provided the possibility of a fresh beginning. Through our participation in online discussion forums like libcom.org, it became evident to us that there are numerous comrades calling themselves anarchists or libertarians who defend proletarian positions on unions, nationalism, and imperialist war, and that this includes members of groups or traditions we would have in the past dismissed as leftist, such as the AF and Solfed. This led to a re-evaluation on our part, reinforced by our international discussions, and even common work, with groups like the CNT-AIT in France and KRAS in Russia, or newer anarchist groups in Latin America. This re-evaluation has been welcomed by some anarchists, although many continue to see it as an opportunist ‘recruiting’ tactic’ on our part, and our relations with this milieu still goes through some alarming ups and downs. But for us, the maintenance of an active dialogue with the proletarian elements in anarchism is the only basis for overcoming the suspicions which exist between the Marxist and anarchist wings of the revolutionary movement, and arriving at a sound basis for common activity in spite of our differences.

Amos, April 2011.

 

 

[1] George Woodcock, Anarchism, A history of libertarian ideas and movements, 1986 edition, p 386. Describing the same period in France, he uses the term “official anarchism” to describe the fossilised remnants of the movement

[2] A similar phenomenon can be found in the influence of the Wildcat group and its heir Subversion in the 80s and 90s: they also developed a blend of councilism and anarchism which had a fairly wide appeal within the libertarian scene in general. A more developed history of anarchism in the UK would have to include an evaluation of these groups, whose origins lie more in a branch of left communism than anarchism per se.

[6] Thus, we have generally defined a parasitic group as one that has the same platform as an existing communist organisation and exists largely to attack it and undermine it. But the ACF’s platform was still nowhere near that of any of the left communist groups and it showed a rather consistent lack of interest in these organisations. On the other hand there have been leftist groups which have acted as destructive parasites on the communist left, such as the Iranian UCM or the Spanish Hilo Rojo group, and we based our view of the ACF on our experience with these groups. In other words, the notion of the ACF as parasitic was consequent on seeing it as leftist. 

[7] There were exceptions. For example, Marc Chirik of the French communist left maintained a very fraternal relationship with Voline during the war: Voline’s group was certainly internationalist Similarly, although the French communist left vigorously opposed inviting the main anarchist organisations to the post-war conference of internationalists in Holland, they had no objection to an old anarchist militant, a contemporary of Engels, chairing the meeting. 

[8] For example, the ICC’s participation in the meetings of the London Workers’ Group in the 1980s and in the ‘third’ incarnation of No War But The Class War around the war in Afghanistan in 2001.

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