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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bloody revolutionaries? Splitters!

In his review of the Steve Ignorant/ Feeding the 5000 gig ( blogged below) , John Marshall said:

So the band went off and Steve came on alone. He said about this gig being controversial and people saying it was wrong. He said that people from all over the world had come to see it and for him it was well worth it and seeing the reaction he had done the right thing and it meant a lot to him after 30 years that these songs still meant something. Who could argue with that? Well I'm sure some stuck up git could…

Was/is Nigel Fox a ‘stuck up git’? He certainly didn’t think much of Crass when he wrote this slag - off of them/ anarcho-punk for ‘Socialism from Below’ aka the Anarchist Workers Group…The Anarchist Workers Group existed in Britain from 1988 to 1992 when it changed its name to Socialism from Below and then disintegrated. It was born out of a split from the Direct Action Movement, led a controversial existence and when it fell apart a few of its leading members ended up in various Trotskyist groups. It never had more than 20 members. The following is either a searing attack on the ‘militant liberal lifestylism’ of anarcho-punks or a wonderful piece of postmodern ironicism

Bloody revolutionaries. Splitters I call ’em.

[Note : the AWG had it in for Class War, the Direction Action Movement and Black Flag (guilty of ‘supportism’) as well :

Class War- in the final analysis a rainbow coalition of disaffected non-pacifists- was an organisation who's predominant ideas were neither revolutionary nor anarchist but populist, never getting very far beyond generalised anti-rich anti-state rhetoric and betraying a poor understanding of class- politics. It was an organisation in the business not of encouraging working class militancy but of glorifying working class violence. The central problem with the DAM, though was the lack of any unified industrial strategy until the national conference in 1988. This meant it could not until this date, argue with workers as an organisation, what tactics were necessary, in its view, to win struggles - an appalling state of affairs for an anarcho-syndicalist organisation which, by definition, should have its industrial strategy as a central plank in its raison d'etre. Therefore during the Miners Strike and Wapping its role was reduced, in common with Black Flag to one of mere "supportism" where good work was done but anarchist politics were not on the agenda.]


For the first time in years, the start of the decade [1980?1880?1970?1360?] saw a real increase in the number of people referring to themselves as anarchists. This growing movement of mainly young people was in no small way influenced by the rock group 'Crass' and the imitators they spawned. Their "anarchy and peace" agit-prop was in part inspired by the "do-it yourself" ethos of the punk-rock explosion, and in part hankered back to the pacifistic "alternative lifestyle" tradition that had become a major facet of what passed for the British anarchist movement in the previous 20 years.

Anarchism has always had, to varying degrees, its liberal wing. This is partly because terms bandied around by anarchists, such as anti-authoritarian, freedom and justice, are in themselves meaningless and open to a wide range of interpretations when divorced from their specifically anarchist context: the day to day realities of class society, and an understanding of capitalism and why and how it should be smashed.

Going right back to the days of the First International. there were those anarchists who in contrast with Bakunin (1)
"Abandoned the field of struggle of the working class in favour of a particular form of radicalised liberalism."

In Britain in the 1980s anarchism was still tightly in the grip of a rot that set in during the heyday of the l950's peace movement. Many rank and file anti-nuclear activists (7% of the movement during 1958-65(2)) disillusioned with limitations, in terms of politics, leadership and strategy, of the CND adopted anarchism: in part as a reaction to this, and often not fully aware of the political legacy behind their new label, confusing anarchism "with a more militant liberalism" (3). Their confusion was not helped by the sectarianism of the existing - and increasingly isolated - anarchist movement who made little effort to provide a political lead or a class perspective to the new 'anarchists'.
Living in a state of blissful ignorance of class struggle, they promoted their ideas in "Freedom", "Anarchy Magazine" and "Peace News", taking on board and developing the ideas of pacifism, personal liberation and alternative lifestyle.

The "punk anarchy" of Crass and their camp was but a continuation of this: a dressed up version of militant liberalism with electric guitars and a brand new haircut, but the same tired face.
But it did catch on, striking a chord with the disaffected, young rebels - without a cause but on the look out for one. The small groupings of class - struggle anarchists "active" in the early 1980's repeated the mistakes of the l950's by failing to acknowledge - let alone give a lead to - the new generation who were left to their own devices to "reinvent" "anarchy". In this case it meant inventing a loose, anti-statist pacifist "movement" that left the theory question of class conflict to the trots, instead proclaiming that
"Anarchists believe that if each individual can learn to act out of conscience, rather than greed the machinery of power will collapse." (4)

The small groupings that started to spring up around the country responding to Crass's challenge were soon to be seen on CND demos clustered around their ragged black flags and handing out their leaflets and fanzines, telling the world;
"Don't give in to the authorities, make them give in to you" (5) but never quite managing to go so far as to suggest a way that this awesome task might be achieved. In some of the literature of the time, however, the way forward for anarchists was spelled out a bit more clearly.

And reading it, you would be forgiven for believing that the anarchist movement was less a political current, more a bizarre religious cult:
"to give back to life what we have taken from it ... understand the seasons, the weather, the soil .. reject the grey filth and shit" (6). It seems there was quite an obsession with shit. Stripping away the mystical nonsense we are left with naked personal politics: the revolution begins - and ends - within. There are, for those whose imaginations have perhaps been tainted by years of dealing with the "grey filth" some useful practical examples of how this discovery of self can be put into practise. And it's the classic lifestylist romanticism of a small band of worthy converts struggling to build the society within the shell of the old with: "housing co-ops or communes ... gardening groups to squat and farm disused land ... and grow medicinal herbs to cure each others headaches " (7)

All very commendable and laudable stuff, but about as revolutionary and "anarchist" as sharing your 1ast Rolo with someone you love. Of course there is nothing wrong with being nice to your mates and eating a lot of organic garlic, the danger was that this was substituted for the more pressing and difficult task of developing and testing out a coherent and workable revolutionary strategy that could win people over to the struggle against capitalism. Bakunin asserted that: "the serious realisation of liberty, justice and peace will not be possible whilst the majority of the population remains dispossessed. (8)

However, the punk anarchists hadn't cottoned on to this, and busily sought personal solutions to social problems. Therefore, the groups were little more than consciousness-raising rap groups existing in navel gazing isolation from the real world, helping their participants along on the quest for personal purity. The movement in the early eighties displayed the worst kind of elitism - the politics of "if everyone was like me wouldn't the world be a wonderful place."

The concept of working class mass self-activity didn't get a look-in because there was no understanding - or will to understand the class nature of society. In fact the working class categorised as "grey-nobodies", as people who were:
"in their willingness to bow down to authority ... the real fascist threat." (9) So count out the working class in terms of having any positive role to play in fighting. The action to be taken - aside from changing your own life - was to be taken by the anarchists on behalf of the class and amounted to little more than adventurism and propaganda by deed: "jam up the locks of banks and of with superglue or cut down fences around government installations ... sabotage operations at work." (10)

Aside from that, ever living for kicks you'd be more likely to find an anarchist a on a hunt sab than a picket line, at a free festival than a march against deportations, advocating shoplifting than fighting cuts in welfare provisions. After all, we're trying to get away from the grey filth and we mustn't forget that: "boredom is counter-revolutionary militants are people for whom boredom is part of the struggle and being miserable and downtrodden is part of the revolution. (11)

This phase of modern day anarchism had its swan song in the "Stop the City" demonstrations in 1983-4. These were mass demonstrations of anarchists. pacifists and other members of the counterculture that took place in the City of London with the aim of closing it down for the day.
Little attempt was made to broaden them beyond the lifestyle ghetto and although they received national media coverage. They were not much more than adventures of the same type as the beloved super gluing expeditions, albeit on a larger scale. They were a spectacle, and a substitute for the hard work of building and organising the fight back, and there were those in the anarchist movement who were beginning to recognise this:

"If we are to build a meaningful anarchist movement we have to go beyond Stop Business as Usual and be prepared to argue our case in the workplace and the community." (12)


1 "Putting the Record Straight on Michael Bakunin" Libertarian Communist Review 1976
2 R Taylor, C Pritchard "The Protest Makers" Oxford 1980

3 A Meltzer "The Anarchists in London 1935-1955" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
4 P Rimbaud "The Last of the Hippies" in "A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums" Existence Press 1982
5 "Prisoners of War" No 1 1983 Page 7
6 P Rimbaud ibid
7 R Rimbaud ibid
8 G Maximof "The Political Philosophy of Bakunin" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
9 P Rimbaud ibid
10 P Rimbaud ibid
11 The Beano No 3 June 1986
12 Steve T "Anarchosyndicalism?" Virus No 7


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