New Statesman & Society, 21 October 1994
Levitating parliament, an anarchist football match and a Smut Fest mark this week's 'Ten Days That Shook The World' festival. But will the likes of Class War ever move beyond the political subculture, asks Paul Anderson
The right-wing tabloids reacted predictably after the police fed them copies of a leaflet supposedly proving that last week's Criminal Justice Bill riot in Hyde Park was all the fault of anarchists – in the words of Chief Superintendent Richard Cullen, "a hardcore of six or seven hundred people... the same old faces who try to hijack all these events".
"Anarchist thugs drew up sick plans to smash cops," screamed the Sun headline above a story reproducing the leaflet, published by the anarchist group Class War, which urged CJB demonstrators to "have a pop at the bill" and advised: "We should pick our own pitch for the battle." The Daily Star described the anarchists as "scum" – "the truncheon is the only law they will respect," it opined – and the Mail splashed "Blueprint for a riot" across its front page, above a lead story billed as the "truth about anarchists who planned the violence weeks before".
It was all sensationalist nonsense, of course. True, Class War had produced and distributed the leaflet. True, there were a few people, some of them members of Class War, who had gone on the demo "tooled up" and looking for an opportunity to "have a pop" – much to the dismay of the march organisers, many of whom are anarchists or direct actionists themselves but of a non-violent kind ("fluffies", as Class War newspaper disdainfully calls them). But the idea that a riot can be "organised" in advance by anyone, let alone by a declining group that has at most a couple of hundred supporters nationally, is ludicrous: what happened in Hyde Park, as Tim Malyon and Steve Platt argued last week in NSS, would not have happened had the police not adopted such stupid tactics.
Still, Class War isn't complaining about the coverage. It never makes a fuss when newspapers claim that it is the shadowy force behind public disorder – which they do regularly. Since the group was set up in 1982, it has been blamed for the 1985 inner-city riots, fighting on CND demonstrations, the 1990 poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square, last year's fracas on the Anti-Nazi League march in Welling and a whole lot more besides. And each time it has revelled in its notoriety. Anarchists feel good when they are portrayed as outlaws, and anyway it's a massive hoot when straight-laced hacks take seriously Class War's comic-book enthusiasm for "working-class" violence againstthecops.
Not that Class War isn't serious – indeed, it has grown ever more serious in the past few years, acquiring many of the trappings of the Leninist revolutionary groups it so despises: a statement of "What we believe" prominently displayed in each issue of the paper, a national membership organisation complete with national secretary and a tele-phone hotline, and a dire "theoretical" journal (The Heavy Stuff). After 64 issues, Class War the paper is still selling well (it claims a circulation of 10,000), but these days it is more like Socialist Worker than the scurrilous rag it once was, its irreverence dissipated by long boring articles on political strategy. Partly because of this, it needs the publicity. The word elsewhere on the anarchist scene is that Class War has lost its touch and is on the way out. "They're really just a few dozen old-fashioned lefties these days," says a former sympathiser from the early 1980s.
One reason for Class War's problems is that the moving spirit behind the group for its first decade is no longer with it. Ian Bone, a talented publicist whose exploits had included an anarchist punk band and several alternative local papers, formed Class War in 1982 after moving to London from Wales, aided by a handful of kindred spirits associated with the late and much lamented Rising Free bookshop in Islington: it was his sense of humour, his populist instincts and his unerring ability to provoke outrage that gave Class War the paper its distinctive flavour. But he left three years ago after an acrimonious dispute over the group's political direction. Typically, although he now says he was "completely stale and knackered", he didn't go into political retirement for long. Last year, after the annual anarchist book fair in London, he and a few mates decided that it would be a good idea to hold an anarchist festival after this year's book fair.
The idea caught on, and this weekend London sees the start of "Anarchy in the UK: Ten Days That Shookthe World", an extravaganza of political meetings, theatrical performances, films, parties and music that is expected to attract several thousand anarchists, including many from abroad. There are more than 100 events listed in the programme: the highlights include a "levitation of parliament" this Sunday, gigs by The Levellers and Conflict (among others), a "Smut Fest" of anarchist strippers and other erotic artistes, an exhibition of "autonomous publishing" at an anarchist centre in Brixton, and an anarchist football contest. Bone has cast his net wide, getting everyone from anarchist academics to practitioners in "Thelemic Magick" to organise discussion meetings.
"I reckon it's going to be the biggest anarchist get-together ever in Britain," says Bone, "certainly the biggest gathering of revolutionaries since 1968. It's really taken off – and the reason is the Criminal Justice Bill. It's really brought people together – the fucking lot. The great thing about the festival is the sheer diversity. There's greens, animal rights people, Spanish veterans from the 1930s, even some comrades from Nigeria. The bands have been incredibly supportive. Everyone is going to be there."
He's probably right. Although Class War has studiously declined to mention the festival and the current issue of Black Flag, the anarcho-syndicalist magazine, carries an article grumbling about Bone, the event has grown to such a size that no one on the anarchist scene will risk missing it. Class War has organised a rally in London for next Wednesday that conveniently clashes with nothing on the festival agenda apart from a poetry evening and the London Pagans' Forum.
Fittingly, the fun starts with a big rally tonight (21 October) against the Criminal Justice Bill at Conway Hall. The CJB has had a tremendous mobilising effect on Britain's anarchists over the past six months, not least because many of its targets – travellers, ravers, roads demonstrators, peace movement trespassers, hunt saboteurs and squatters – are Britain's anarchists. Most of the time, they constitute less a movement than an untidy collection of disparate groups and individuals communicating with one another little if at all (and then often squabbling). But the campaign against the CJB has forced everyone together. And, although there is no shortage of disputes about how to proceed (most obviously between the likes of Class War and the proponents of non-violent direct action – who include the majority of those who have come from anti-roads, peace movement and hunt-sabbing backgrounds), there's a real sense among anarchists that they are on a roll.
Whether or not they really are is a moot point. On one hand, there's no sign that the CJB will be any less of a unifying factor once it becomes an act: if anything, the implementation of its provisions is likely to stimulate the campaign against it. More generally, the rightward drift of Labour in recent years (and Tony Blair's embrace of social conservatism on the family and civil liberties) and the quite apparent irrelevance of the Leninist sects are both likely to push disaffected young people at the very least into social movements where anarchist notions of the value of self-activity and direct action are taken for granted.
On the other hand, however, there's no sign that this anarchist revival will be any more sustained than previous ones – or that the current crop of anarchists have much idea of what they are about apart from direct action. British anarchism has had a habit of ebbing and flowing throughout this century, virtually disappearing after the first world war, finding support among the intelligentsia in the late 1930s and 1940s, declining until the first wave of CND revived it, gaining a great deal of support among revolutionary students in the late 1960s, falling back in the early 1970s, returning with CND second time around. There has never been a successful national anarchist federation here; and insofar as anarchist magazines, newspapers, publishers and bookshops survive the ebbs and flows of the me ment, it is through the persistence small groups of individuals.
Most obviously, the continued survival of Freedom, the venerable anarch newspaper first published in 1886, with its associated publishing arm and bookshop, has owed everything to the efforts of Vernon Richards, the current editor, who revived what was then a moribund title in the 1930s and has kept it go with different small groups of collaborators for most of the past 60 years.
But Freedom is not alone in its reliance on dedicated individuals. Peace News, the anarcho-pacifist monthly, would unable to continue without the commitment of its two super-exploited staff; Anarchy, the monthly edited by Colin Ward that was one of the two best magazines of the 1960s anarchist revival, went into terminal decline after he moved in 1970 after a decade in the chair; Solidarity, the other one (which owed as much to libertarian currents in Marxism as to anarchism and which also had much-admired line in pamphlets), only kept going until 1992 only by the super-human efforts of its (latterly three-strong) editorial group, finally succumbing to financial crisis and exhaustion.
Anarchy and Solidarity both made a priority of engaging with events in the real world and, equally important, people and ideas from outside the anarchist ghetto – and nothing remotely as substantial or stimulating has has emerged in recent years from the anarchist milieu. The quarterly Freedom Press journal, Raven, does its best, as does the Glasgow-based magazine Here and Now (which is heavily influenced by situationism), but most anarchist periodicals, from Green Anarchist to Black Flag, are crude agittional tools – some of them laughably quixotic. The same goes most home-grown books and pamphlets from anarchist publishers: the exceptions are the (often excellent) studies of and collections from figures from anarchism's heroic past.
The problem, simply put, is that British anarchism needs something more than on one hand, the action-oriented sub-culture celebrated by next week's fest and, on the other, the anarchist intellectuals' obsession with the creed's heroes and martyrs – something that reaches beyond the ghetto into everyday life as experienced by people who aren't hardcore punks, ravers, squatters and travellers. Until it gets it, the best that the anarchists can hope for are spectacular headlines the tabloid press. But at least they enjoy themselves. An event at which you see Jean Vigo's movie Zero de Conduite, play football, listen to Captain Sensible and levitate parliament beats Labour conference any day – and has no less influence on what Tony Blair will do when gets to Number 10.