Notes on internationalist anarchism in Britain: Part one

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This text is not meant to be a thorough survey of the history of the anarchist movement in Britain as written from a marxist starting point, nor of its relationship with marxist traditions. Such a task is necessary but it will take time, reflection and discussion. The aim of these notes is much more modest: to serve as a basis for recognising and understanding that anarchism in Britain, as elsewhere, has its revolutionary, internationalist wing, thus enabling us to correct certain significant errors we have made towards some of its organised expressions. Its focus on these organised expressions can never give a complete picture of anarchism, which almost by definition contains a large number of ‘unorganised’ individuals[1], but it is a necessary route to understanding the principal historic currents in the UK anarchist movement.     

1) Anarchism in Britain does claim its specific forebears: Winstanley in the English civil war, William Godwin and William Blake at the end of the 18th century, the poet Shelley. But there are no equivalents to the major figures of anarchism in the ascendant period, such as Proudhon, whose artisan vision was already being left behind by the development of industrial capital and of an organised workers’ movement in Britain. Similarly, Bakuninism had little impact in the British sections of the International in the 1869s and 70s. However, a variety of Bakuninism – with its emphasis on conspiratorial organisation and violent insurrectionism shading off into terrorism – did implant itself in the movement in the UK in the 1880s, via ‘immigrants’ like Johann Most. This type of anarchism was quite strong in the anarchist exile clubs which sprang up in the East End of London in particular, and was to have a largely negative impact on the development of anarchism in Britain. This milieu was a fertile soil for cops and informers of all kinds, as for example in the role played by Auguste Coulon in the 1892 trial and imprisonment of the Walsall anarchists[2], whom he had lured into a ridiculous bomb-making plot.

2) But there were plenty of anarchists who attempted to relate to the workers’ movement, in both its economic and political dimensions, and in the 1880s, both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, there was not yet a rigid line between anarchists and socialists. Elements like Joseph Lane and Frank Kitz were more or less libertarian communists, who were from the beginning opposed to all forms of parliamentarism. Nevertheless they joined the Social Democratic Federation and then split from it in the company of William Morris, Eleanor Marx and others to form the Socialist League in 1885. The SL was itself soon torn by disagreements between the tendency around Marx and Aveling – supported by Engels - and the anti-parliamentary current which was at first led by Morris but increasingly assumed an anarchist direction. Lane’s Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto was the most distinctive statement of this tendency. The growing rift between the two tendencies was a classic manifestation of the difficulties in elaborating a clear revolutionary orientation in this period of triumphant capitalist growth. On the one hand, Engels, Eleanor Marx and Aveling rightly insisted on the need for the socialist groups to break with sectarian isolation and involve themselves in the real evolution of the workers’ movement, which in the 1880s was above all taking the form of strikes and the formation of more inclusive ‘New Unions’. The negative side of this insistence was a difficulty in resisting the growth of reformism and opportunism, which were a particularly strong danger in the parliamentary and municipal spheres, as indicated by the development of purely reformist currents like the Fabians. This in turn reinforced the temptation of Morris and others to fall back into a kind of abstract purism which – like today’s SPGB – saw its main field of action ‘the making of socialists’; parallel to this, a number of the anarchist elements in the League were drawn towards the worst kind of adventurism and violent posturing, which led Morris himself to quit the League in 1890.

3) Alongside these developments, anarchism in the UK in the late 19th century found other expressions. There was the more sober, theoretical anarchist communism of Kropotkin, whose thoughts on evolution in Mutual Aid and on the future society in works such as Fields, Factories and Workshops are still worthy of consideration. In contrast to Proudhon’s ‘mutualism’, which envisaged a future society founded explicitly on exchange relations, and Bakunin’s ‘collectivism’, which was a kind of half-way house between Proudhon and communism, Kropotkin explicitly advocated a communist mode of production based on the abolition of wage labour and commodity production. Kroptkin and Morris certainly saw eye to eye on the nature of the society they were aiming for and the ‘anarchist Prince’ was an occasional speaker at the meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist Society in which Morris maintained his militant activity after splitting from the League. Also important was the contribution of the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker whose main field of activity was among the Jewish anarchists of the East End and the publication Arbeter Fraint. As recounted in William Fishman’s book East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, the Arbeter Fraint group was directly connected to real workers’ struggles, especially in the great garment industry strikes of the 1900s. Rocker took up an internationalist position on the First World War, openly opposing Kroptkin’s views.  A further strand of anarchism in the UK is represented by the more artistic and utopian forms represented by figures like Edward Carpenter.

4) The approach of a new epoch in the life of capitalism and the class struggle brought significant developments to the anarchist movement. The 1900s saw a major upsurge in the class struggle and the search for new forms of organisation which could go beyond both the bureaucracy and reformism of the established trade unions, and the arid parliamentarism of groups like the SDF. The answer of many militant workers was to turn towards syndicalism or industrial unionism, although there was no British equivalent to either the CNT in Spain, the CGT in France or the IWW in the USA, which were able to function as real organs of struggle. Groups like the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, formed in 1910, were never really more than groups of propaganda for revolutionary unions. Despite this syndicalism did develop a real presence in some key industries like the railways and the mines, as well as playing a key part in the emergence of the shop stewards’ movement during the war.  The majority of the elements involved in this movement were definitely internationalist, actively participating in strikes in the arms industry and elsewhere, and came out in support of the October revolution and the Third International in its initial phase.

5) The First World War split the anarchist movement as it did the marxists. Most famously, Kropotkin openly abandoned internationalism, supporting ‘democratic’ France against German militarism, and inevitably others followed in his wake. The majority of anarchists opposed him, though some from an essentially pacifist standpoint. The pages of Freedom, the paper that Kropotkin had helped to found, were given over to violent polemics on the question of the war. It is noticeable, however, that there seems to have been little in the way of an organised, specifically anarchist opposition to the war. The period of the war is glossed over in Woodcock’s chapter dealing with anarchism in Britain[3], seen as a period of declining fortunes due to state repression, and the Anarchist Federation’s quite detailed history of anarcho-communism in the UK[4] talks mainly about the work anarchists did in groups like the North London Herald League alongside socialists, or the group animated by Guy Aldred. The Solidarity Federation’s history of syndicalism in the UK[5] is even sparser in dealing with this crucial period. This heightens the importance of Aldred’s Glasgow-based group which published the Spur (and later the Red Commune). Within the anarchist movement in Britain, the Aldred group took the clearest position on the war and tried to bridge the gap between anarchism and marxism, working with elements of the Socialist Labour Party and ardently supporting the Bolsheviks in the first phase of the Russian revolution. Aldred can be considered as the UK equivalent of the ‘Soviet anarchist’ tendency during the revolutionary wave and as a key element in the ‘anti-parliamentary communist’ tradition which united elements of internationalist anarchism and council communism. The Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation was formed in 1921 and maintained activity for over 20 years, although Aldred split with the APCF in 1934 and went off searching for wider unity via the United Socialist Movement, sometimes veering off in rather dubious directions. The APCF, which changed its name to the Workers Revolutionary League in 1941, took up a rigorously internationalist position against the second world war, defining it as imperialist on both sides: this is documented by Mark Shipway’s book Anti-Parliamentary Communism, The Movement for Workers Councils in Britain 1917-1945, published in 1988, as well as in our own book on the British communist left. This British council communist tradition essentially disappeared after 1945 but it was briefly revived by the publication Black Star in the 1980s.  

6) The anarchist movement, like the left communists around the Workers’ Dreadnought, seems to have gone through a period of decline from the mid-20s to the mid-30s, corresponding to the victory of the counter-revolution. The war in Spain led to a revival of anarchist ideas but it is noteworthy that the movement in Britain contained a left wing around Marie-Louise Berneri and Vernon Richards, which was very critical of the errors and outright betrayals of the CNT’s higher echelons in relation to the Republican state, and it was this same tendency, through the magazine War Commentary, which maintained an internationalist stance during the second world war (this is also recounted in our book on the British communist left)[6]. In 1944, the editors of War Commentary were put on trial for sedition. After 1945 War Commentary was replaced by a new series of Freedom which has continued ever since, although not necessarily with the same class struggle politics. In parallel to this, a clandestine Anarchist Federation of Britain was set up at the beginning of the war; by 1944, the AFB was strongly influenced by a group of anarcho-syndicalists who in 1954 formed the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation, publishing Direct Action and aligned to the International Workers’ Association. This group took a clear position on the Labour Party’s post-war nationalisation programme and published one of the few contemporary accounts of the Hungarian workers’ uprising from a proletarian perspective. The difficulties of political engagement in the 1950s also led to the shrinking of the SWF to one group in Manchester, but the latter joined with other elements to form the Direct Action Movement in 1979, which in turn became the Solidarity Federation in 1994.  Thus, contrary to the article published in WR 109, November 1987, which argued that the DAM was at root a form of rank and fileist leftism, Solfed is actually the heir of a workers’ tradition which – for all its ambiguities on the trade union and other questions –has its roots in internationalism.

Amos, April 2011.

To be continued



[1] A prime example being the extraordinary Dan Chatterton, who singlehandedly published the Atheistic Communist Scorcher from 1884 till his death in 1895.

[2] This was the period in which the anarchist stereotype of the caped figure brandishing a bomb began to gain credence. It is of course a stereotype: anarchism has never been reducible to its terrorist wing. Nevertheless, John Quail’s unique study, The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists (1978) devotes a good deal of its investigation of the movement in the UK to this form of anarchism and seems to show that the influence of this minority tendency was far wider (and thus more pernicious) than its actual size. On the international level, the 1880s and 1890s was also the period of the Bonnot gang in France and of anarchists in other countries carrying out ‘attentats’ against hated figures of authority, or simply degenerating into a kind of social banditry.

[3] George Woodcock, Anarchism: A history of libertarian ideas and movements, first published 1962, revised edition 1986.

[6] A collection of articles from War Commentary was published as Neither East nor West, selected writings of Marie Louise Berneri by Freedom Press, 1952.

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