.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}


As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, October 27, 2017

Crass : the freedom of the will

On 7 September 1979, a benefit gig for the Persons Unknown Anarchist Conspiracy trial defendants in the Conway Hall, London was disrupted by about 40 neo-Nazi skinheads. The British Movement skinheads were then very physically driven out of the hall by a group of about 20 anti-fascists.

As Matthew Worley in ‘No Future Punk Politics and British Youth Culture 1976-1984’  (Cambridge University press, 2017, p. 2)  has described it - ‘Bottles smashed, fists flew, and the once bullish ‘sieg heils’  that had punctuated the evening were stifled.’

Crass issued a three page statement which blamed violence at their gigs on the politicisation of punk by Rock Against Racism.

At its start, punk was a cry for anarchy and freedom, it was individuals doing their own thing, then the organised left moved in with RAR and once had what been once OUR playground became THEIR battlefield, the troops wore gaily coloured stars and anyone else retreated into confusion and sometimes anger.
Why had THEY chosen to make punk political, yes the Pistols had spoken about anarchy, but that was not POLITICS, it was PEOPLE; who cares a fuck about Marx, Hitler, Stalin, the whole fucking lot of them? What did any of them ever do for us?  All at once everything became either left or right, you had to be one side or the other…
Was n’t it supposed to be OUR music?  The music of the people? Suddenly it was THEIRS again, not the big business boys again but the POLITICOS, not the capitalist overlord but the socialist on. BIG BROTHER RAR is here to sell OUR music with THEIR message. Yet for all the propaganda and badges, nothing has been achieved but a terrible division of youth and the mindless violence that goes with that. You either supported the RAR/SWP angle or you were a ‘fucking Nazi’; no wonder there is violence at gigs now.

The full text plus a review of the new Crass album ‘Stations of the Crass’ was printed in Kill Your Pet Puppy 1. Tony Drayton of the Puppy Collective was the first person to interview Crass in Ripped and Torn 16, January 1979.

A year later and enthusiasm had given way to concern. Crass’ pacifism seemed to be preventing them from challenging the violence which disrupted their gigs. Crass claimed to be anarchists, but their version was at odds with the social revolutionary/ class struggle anarchism of the Persons Unknown defendants.

The four page Crass section of KYPP 1 was therefore followed by a letter asking Crass to consider the contradiction between anarchism and pacifism.

Penny Rimbaud of Crass replied and his reply was published in KYPP 2, February/March 1980.

I posted this :

"I believe that the ‘will of the individual’ is the only TRUE course of change; acts of individual conscience I can judge on merit; acts of political/social motivation I condemn outright. I believe that the only freedom is the freedom of the will. "

from Rimbaud’s response on Facebook without attribution and asked ‘Who said this?’ Among the replies were Aleister Crowley, Ayn Rand, Frederick Nietzsche, Max Stirner [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Stirner ] or one of the Futurists.

No-one suggested any anarchists, although Stirner’s extreme individualism extended to a belief that social institutions- including the state- were ‘illusions’ and he has been claimed as an anarchist on that account.

Ben Franks in his 2006 study of British anarchisms discusses liberal anarchism.

The liberal versions of anarchism had a position of dominance within the relatively restrictive anarchist milieu between the post-Second World War period and the Miners' Strike of 1984-5; however, since then liberal anarchism has gone into decline, as class struggle groupings have become predominant. The contrast and often  conflict between class struggle and liberal traditions is mirrored in America in the clash between social and lifestyle libertarians.  The latter, ‘self-centred' or liberal anarchists, consider the individual to be an ahistoric 'free-booting, self-seeking, egoistic monad ...  immensely de-individuated for want of any aim beyond the satisfaction of their own needs and pleasures'.
Liberal, or lifestyle, anarchists have a view of the individual which is fixed and conforms to the criteria of rational egoism associated with capitalism. The social or class struggle anarchist, by contrast, whilst recognising that individuals are self-motivated and capable of autonomous decision-making, also maintains that agents are historically and socially located. The way individuals act and see themselves is partly a result of their social context, and this formative environment is constantly changing. (Rebel Alliances, The means and ends of contemporary British anarchism, AK Press, 2006, p. 17)

However, I am not sure if  the boundaries of even liberal anarchism are  wide enough to include Rimbaud’s individual anarchism.

 Kill Your Pet Puppy 1 January 1980 page 16.

Peaceful Pro- “Crass”-tination - a critical look at Crass’ peaceful anarchy stance in relation to violence at their gigs by Buenaventura Makhno.

Any social revolution will be confronted by violence from its opponents. When this happens, anarchists, as social revolutionaries will have to fight or perish. Recently there has been much discussion about violence at Crass gigs and how to deal with it.

The people who go to Crass gigs (regardless of being a skinhead or not) with the sole intention of trashing it, are imposing upon the people who go to see Crass. These gig trashing dickheads are, consciously or unconsciously, cops without uniforms. By taking a pacifist stance, Crass are encouraging people to passively accept violence meted  to them by the dickheads.

To be an anarchist means, in part, to confront the state in all its manifestations (e.g. cops, preachers, dole officers, dickheads). The state when confronted or attacked will react violently- so how can you be a pacifist and an anarchist?

 On the subject of violence at gigs, I think Crass should encourage people to at least try to defend themselves en masse. If Crass are so opposed to “ the system” they must agree to fight war- yet the cry “fight war not wars”!

As the jew said to the SS officer  “I don’t blame you, you are a product of the system.” We can say the same to the dickheads who bottle our faces to shit.

I invite Crass to consider the  contradiction between Anarchism and Pacifism (“peace”) and invite them to reply.

Kill Your Pet Puppy 2 February/ March 1980
Penny Rimbaud’s reply.

OK here is your answer. Anarchy/Peace/Contradiction. ‘Peaceful Pro ’Crass’ tination’. You asked us to consider the contradiction between anarchy and pacifism; we have considered and concluded that there is no contradiction.

Pacifism is NOT passivity, to me it represents a deep repulsion at the ‘taking of life’, for that reason I am also a vegetarian, as are all the band. The idea that pacifism is passivity is as naïve as  the idea of anarchy being chaos, anarchy is the politics of the free mind, that which has no allegiance to formal attitudes, but has its own will, determined by its own conscience.

I could not stand by as the gas taps  turn, nor will I permit myself to be abused  physically or  verbally by another, exactly WHAT I would do would be determined by  the situation itself, NOT by some preconceived notion of how ‘I” ought to act. There are occasions when I feel capable defending myself from attack, others when I feel afraid and nervous, I am not able to predetermine my response to things.

As a pacifist, I stand against organised militarism, believing that the use of power to control people is a violation of human dignity, if I were to find myself in a position where that power threatened to directly violate me, I would stand against in WHATEVER  way was necessary to prevent I, in that situation I do not rule out the possibility of force.

As an anarchist, I stand against all authority (it would seem to me on this level an anarchist is almost by nature a pacifist) and in so doing I must recognise  that if I stand against authority imposed from outside, I have NO RIGHT to impose  on others MY authority.

At the root of anarchist thought is the belief of the ‘right of the individual’ to do and be whosoever and whatsoever they choose; it is in that belief  that there lays the paradox. If I as an individual  demand self-autonomy I am bound to recognise it in others, thus if I choose to act in a situation, for example the prevention of gig violence, I have no right to expect help with MY actions, I have every right to HOPE that someone might help me, but I CAN not and WILL not implicate others in my decisions as it would represent the deepest contradictions of my basic beliefs.

You have asked us to consider the present atmosphere of gig violence and to offer answers; WE CAN OFFER NO ANSWERS. Each situation is unique, has its own set of conditions, to say to people ‘fight back’ would be bloody stupid, some people feel capable of fighting back and do, others feel unable to and don’t., they are both forms of defence.

Several years ago the feminist movement  encouraged women to learn the art of self-defence, judo/karate; maybe t is time for us to all learn the art of self-defence, if the situation has become grave enough to warrant  consideration, it has become grave enough to DO SOMETHING. It is suicidal to talk about fighting back if one does n’t know HOW TO, so IF one believes  that the situation is irrevocable it is a time to learn HOW to deal with it and not expect other people to do it for you, but IT MUST BE YOUR DECISION.

I believe it is highly dangerous to polarise an ‘enemy’, personally I feel no more animosity towards the right  than I do to the left, I don’t believe in power-politics and that is, however on looks at it, what they represent. I don’t believe that any REAL change can come through the mere shifting of power, it is just the replacement of one corruption with another. Government is government and government is power. The politic of power is fascism, whether right or left.

I believe that the ‘will of the individual’ is the only TRUE course of change; acts of individual conscience I can judge on merit; acts of political/social motivation I condemn outright. I believe that the only freedom is the freedom of the will.

The pacifist stance that we, Crass take, is one of opposition to ALL authority be it in the forms of the military, or in the form of the more insidious forms of violence (state/education etc.), as anarchists we stand against these identical forms as well. We are NOT prepared  to polarise our audience into political groups of left/right/ right/wrong, THEY ARE NOT representatives of THE STATE and as such  MUST be respected as individuals.

I personally object to RAR but I would not criticise the individual wearing the star any more than someone wearing a union-jack, in my view it is a display of bigotry, but that is THEIR decision.

What IS important  is that WE ALL learn, on the one hand to RESPECT each other, and on the other hand to deal with those that WILL NOT RESPECT US. On several occasions we have intervened in violent situations at our gigs, each out of OUR OWN conviction, we DO NOT expect help, like I said earlier, we can HOPE, but it is NOT FOR US TO EXPECT/ DEMAND or even request help.

If we see a gig being smashed up and it matters to us, it is up to us  each as individuals, to decide how to act. We can only hope that in time everyone will come to realise THAT IT IS AS MUCH THEIR RESPONSIBILITY AS ANYONE ELSES.

Organised anarchy is a complete contradiction of terms, even with the band we have differences over HOW things should be handled, it is for this reason that I have had to use ’I’ instead of ’WE’ for much of this letter, I am not prepared to assume that all the band would agree with every point I have made , I am sure however, that there would be a broad agreement. Some of us COMPLETELY reject the idea of violence as a means, some of us believe that in certain situations it may be the only answer.

 As pacifists we oppose the employment of authoritarian violence as a means of control, but recognise that ALL individuals SHOULD be treated with INDIVIDUAL respect. We believe that the INDIVIDUAL is greater than the identity he/she adopt, that is we believe that a squaddy is NOT automatically wrong, the system that he represents is IRREVOCABLY  wrong,  HE IS NOT NECESSARILY.

We are all constantly oppressed by SYTEMS  that are upheld by INDIVIDUALS, there is little chance of destroying the systems, but THERE IS EVERY CHANCE OF PERSUADING THE INDIVIDUAL to employ his or herself elsewhere.

Whereas we would condemn outright the state vandalism of, for example, the use of farm-land for building power stations, we would Not necessarily condemn the individual act of conscience that might lead to the blowing-up of a motorway bridge. If the execution of surgeons performing lobotomies was a viable way of stopping  that HIDEOUS violation of individuals it MIGHT  be worth considering, BUT IT IS UP TO THE INDIVIDUAL TO DECIDE. The replacement of one system by another WILL NOT create change.

We believe that the EROSION/UNDERMINING is the most creative method of ‘attack’, if social wrongs are pin-pointed it is possible that the ’will of the individual’ will rise against those wrongs, how that will present itself as actionis not for us to decide or to predetermine.


The polarisation of ’groups’  of individuals  as representative of some attitude is dangerous and ill-conceived. Very few skinheads are actually BM members, but because of widespread generalisations, mostly in the leftist press, skinhead has become almost synonymous with BM, and this in turn has given both a legitimacy they would otherwise not have. The BM have caused no more trouble at our gigs than the SWP.

We have had two gigs stopped by individuals, skinhead and long-haired, claiming to be from the right and one gig stopped by individuals claiming to be from the left . Who the fuck CARES where they’re from, the FACT is they have managed to fuck up a gig. We have all got to find ways of dealing with that, maybe seeing that everyone IS an individual is the first step towards overcoming fear.

On occasions that violence has broken out at our gigs one or other or all of the band has intervened. It is VERY RARELY that any of the audience has offered to help. I would again stress that it is not for us to tell people what to do or expect anything, BUT WE CAN HOPE.

I am aware that people claiming to be BM members have  been attacking people wearing Crass badges; WHAT CAN WE SAY? Don’t wear them? Carry a gun? Don’t go out? Whatever the answer, there can be NO BLANKET POLICY. One person may be able to fight  back, another may not. There is CERTAINLY no point in making this into a WAR. For everyone BM skin there are ten/twenty skins who would NOT hurt or  attack an innocent bystander, and not every BM skin is going to be  so mindless either, there just IS NOT any hard and fast RULE. Isn’t it better to start with an assumption, an old anarchist one, that people are inherently good and work from there , rather than just deciding that that group or this group are ‘the enemy’?

You talk about the ‘class war; what is the class war? We are ALL oppressed by the same system, is it any different WHAT class you’re from, oppression knows NO barriers. Who is responsible for an army? The general? The private? In my view they are BOTH EQUALLY RESPONSIBLE. If privates refused to fight war, there would be no war, so who are the RULING CLASSES?

I’m running out of space/ It’s fucking difficult sitting in an empty room trying to put  onto two sheets of paper thoughts that have run in and out of my head for years/ I’ll try to cram in the rest/I’ve covered the BM bit, to suggest that we don’t condemn those activities is SHIT, we’re NOT LEADERS, WE DON’T PLAY POWER GAMES, we oppose violence left/right whatever/ It’s a bit shitty to criticise the price of the new album, £3 for a double can’t be bad, we want people to hear us live, this was a way to do it OK?

Crass, Penny Rimbaud

Crass did not become a forgotten fad. They gave rise to a subculture called anarcho-punk. However, in the many hundreds,  of pages written about Crass and anarcho-punk I have never seen any discussion of Rimbaud’s letter to Kill Your Pet Puppy.

This is curious because the letter raises a question about what kind of anarchists Crass were. Rimbaud rejects the notion of a ‘class war’ so they were not class struggle anarchists.

In the letter Rimbaud uses the word ‘individual/individuals’ 20 times. This fits with Ben Frank’s ’liberal anarchism’  which is based on  ‘a view of the individual which is fixed and conforms to the criteria of rational egoism associated with capitalism.’

Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families’. Thatcher was not an anarchist, but in her rejection of society she was closer to an extreme liberalism than traditional conservatism. The economic policies pursued by Thatcher’s government used to be described as ‘Thatcherism’ but are now seen as part of ‘neoliberalism’- a broader but vaguer term.

The shift to neoliberalism occurred as the post-war era of social consensus was broken down from the right. During World War Two, the liberal democracies -the UK and USA - were forced to socialise capitalism in order to fight a total war against fascism.

After 1945 the struggle shifted to the ‘cold war’  against communism. It was believed that both fascism and communism had benefited from the economic crisis of the Great Depression which resulted in mass unemployment. This led to economic polices designed to provide full employment- even if these policies placed limits on the capitalist ’free’ market. But as the war time survival imperative receded into history, the post-war social consensus was perceived as a restraint not only on the market economy but also on the expression of ‘individuality’ by the post-war generation.

As part of this post-war generation, Penny Rimbaud’s individualist anarchism was shaped by a counterculture -’the underground’ which contained both right and left.

In the 1960s, the New Right as a particular set of institutions, ideas and theorists had yet to coalesce into an identifiable camp. Prior to the New Right's consolidation of power, assisted by the election of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party in  1975, the underground contained many concepts and some of the people which were to become associated with the Thatcher era. There was correspondence between New Right and New Left in their enemies: trade unions and their leaders, the state and the bureaucrats. The language of the New Left and soon to be New Right were also similar; both rejected 'paternalism' and 'welfarism', both wanted 'choice' and 'freedom', even if these terms were interpreted in diametrically opposed ways. Because the lines of demarcation between different ideologies and groups were unclear, orthodox Marxists, radical liberals, market libertarians and anti-market communists found themselves acting in the same loose milieu. (Rebel Alliances, p. 63)  

But for some anarchists, including Stuart Christie, the same process meant that the anarchist movement was in danger of being 'side-tracked by the new left, anti-bomb, militant-liberal- conscience element away from being a revolutionary working class movement. This was not anarchism as I understood it'. (Rebel Alliances, p. 57)

After spending three years in a Spanish prison for involvement in a plot to assassinate  Franco, Stuart returned to London in 1967 and with Albert Meltzer started a revolutionary class struggle anarchist newspaper, Black Flag. Black Flag was sent free to prisoners. In 1974 Ronan Bennett was imprisoned for a political murder in Ireland but freed in 1975 after the conviction was declared ‘unsafe’.

Ronan had read Black Flag while in prison and began writing to the paper. Iris Mills replied and after Ronan was released they lived together. In 1978 they were arrested and accused of conspiring to cause explosions ‘with persons unknown’.

In ‘The Story of Crass’ ( George Berger, Omnibus Press, 2006, p. 170) Penny Rimbaud takes up the story of what happened next..

We had a big debate , cos we didn't know, we thought, well if they are making bombs then we shouldn't really be supporting them . We turned a bit of a blind eye to the possibility they might have been. Suddenly we were hoisted on our own petard - we'd been playing around with it to some extent - using the anarchy flag just to get the left and right wing off our backs. We weren't looking at what it might otherwise involve... that was the crossover point - that was when we stopped being just a band with something to say and turned into something which was much more politically hard line and out there in the political arena.

Confusingly this contradicts the Crass statement which followed the Conway Hall Persons Unknown benefit gig-

We are ANARCHISTS because we think politics are a load of shit.

The individualist, militant-liberal-conscience anarchism position set out so forcefully in Rimbaud’s letter to Kill Your Pet Puppy is in direct contradiction to the revolutionary class struggle anarchism of the Black Flag group and of the Persons Unknown defendants.

If Rimbaud meant what he said in the letter, neither he nor Crass should have had anything to do  with the  Persons Unknown campaign. If the views expressed in the letter had been made clear to the Persons Unknown campaign at the start of the relationship, it would have been short lived.

From the  perspective of  revolutionary class struggle anarchism Crass’ ‘anti-bomb, militant-liberal-conscience’ beliefs were NOT anarchism.

Unfortunately, although printed in KYPP 2, the Crass style format of Rimbaud’s letter makes it very hard to read. Tony Drayton and Leigh Kendal of  the Puppy collective did visit Crass to discuss the ’contradictions between their pacifism and anarchism’ and concluded that Crass had very little knowledge or understanding of anarchism.

There were no features on Crass in later issues of KYPP. As a result Kill Your Pet Puppy falls outside the mainstream of Crass inspired anarcho-punk fanzines, which is probably another reason why Penny Rimbaud’s letter has been overlooked.

I have transcribed two of the three pages of Crass’ response to the Conway Hall incident and will post them soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home