Monday, 31 March 2014

Freedom: End of an Era!

March 2014 for Freedom, the anarchist paper, will mark the date of the last printed issue of the paper after being published, with a some interruption in the 1930s, for 128 years, ever since 1886.  That makes Freedom the oldest publication on the British left.  1886 was a year in which, according to the writer Sarah Wise, in her book 'The Blackest Streets' on a Victorian East End slum 'the Old Nichol' ,'... for a short while in early 1886, it looked as though the revolution was finally getting under way.'   '   It was not always thus, and she later quoted Kropotkin:
'... who complained of London as a city of old-fashion Radical/ Republican pragmatists and isolationists:  “Better a French prison than this grave, he said, when he realised what stony ground London would be in which to plant the seeds of Anarchist revolution and international fraternalism”.'  
The afternoon of Monday the 8th, February 1886 witnessed the first of a series of mass demonstrations of the unemployed of London.  Unemployment had reached 10% up from a 'norm' of 2-3% for skilled workers, and much worse for the unskilled.  It was in these circumstances Prince Kropotkin went on to help found Freedom- the anarchist journal in 1886.   
But England was not Spain, and anarchism in this country did not naturally take root in London of the nineteenth century any more than it has done today.  Sarah Wise writes that though 'the British anarchists were violent in print only ... this was quite enough to cause most leading British Socialists to severe their connections with them.'   As a Socialist League member at that time, Bruce Glasier recalled: 
'There appeared to be something mysterious in its origin and mode of diffusion.  It was hardly to be ascribed to any circumstances in the political or industrial situation of the time...  Nowhere did anarchism spring up spontaneously in the country, as Socialism so often did.  It grew and spread only within the Socialist Movement, parasitically in the branches...  Anarchism is not an innate predisposition in man; it is an acquired state of mind, and a very unstable one...'  
Judging by the rapid and seemingly natural development of anarchism in Spain, and some other Latin countries, it would be easy to refute Glasier's claim that anarchism is simply an 'acquired' characteristic.  And yet, the Glasier claim that anarchism in its English manifestation and for most of its history in this country, has often been, and usually is a 'parasitical' development rings tragically true.  This explains the disappearance of Freedom from the political arena for a time in the 1930s, only to re-emerge as 'Spain & the World' in the period of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, and later to be reborn as 'War Commentary' during World War II.  
Following the War members of the Freedom group, including Vernon Richards who became the principal editor of the Freedom newspaper until the 1960s, were involved in the treason trials.  In the 1940s there was a split between the Italian and Spanish schools of anarchism at Freedom Press, between the insurrectionist approach of Malatesta, and  the syndicalist strategy of trade unionism and the general strike.  It involved personalities and two distinct approaches to the history of events both during the Spanish War and World War II in which some Spaniards had supported the Allies, in the forelorn hope that this would ultimately lead to their defeat of Franco as one of the last Fascists.  
Vernon Richards edited Freedom throughout the 1950s into the 1960s when politics in Britain appeared to be on the threshold of a new world, and Colin Ward raised the case for sociology and sociological analysis in contrast to studying the historical entrails: believing that English anarchists were too interested in history and too blind about the everyday society around them.  The emergence of Colin Ward's ideas and his journal of anarchist ideas – 'Anarchy' – contrasted with the Vernon Richards's concept of the anarchism of insurrection at a time when CND, Committee of 100, the peace movement and non-violent direct action were taking off.  Around 1960 Mr. Ward, as I recall, argued that a weekly publication or propaganda sheet like Freedom was too slick or impulsive or frivolous to deal satisfactorily with the issues of the day.  What was needed was a journal of ideas that had time to digest all the aspects of a problem and to offer well-thought through and practical alternatives to authoritarian government; calling for an end to the everlastingly offerings of on-the-hoof cookbook solutions to the problems of the day or worse still the anticipation of some miraculous transformation coming out of some catastrophic social breakdown.        
In their closing statement in the current paper the Freedom Group explain their decision to close down Freedom
'An underlying problem has been a lack of capacity to sustain it.  We had hoped that Freedom would be adopted as the paper of the anarchist movement.  Despite a great deal of goodwill from anarchist groups and individuals over the years, sadly this has not been the case.'

The reason they believe is that:  'Although Freedom Press has changed from a political group with a particular point of view to a resource for anarchism as a whole, we have not managed to shake the legacy of the past and get different groups to back it as a collective project.'

What they mean by 'the legacy of the past', and what they mean by 'get different groups to back it as a collective project', they do not specify.  Perhaps the 'past' here refers to Vernon Richards long term influential editorship of Freedom from the late 1940s to the 1960s and beyond, and the resulting conflict with other tendencies within the anarchist movement   Mr. Richards was as critical of the peace movement as he had been of the syndicalists, yet it was he who was editor of the paper when the great flowering of anarchism in the 1960s took place, and when Freedom Press under Colin Ward published 'Anarchy', which some believe was the best anarchist publication ever in the anarchist movement.  Whatever the case it would seem very bad form to now seek to attribute blame to someone who died in the last century, and ceased to be editor decades ago.   

Attempts were made to give Freedom a regional flavour in the 1990s when Charles Crute took over  the editorship:  a northern editor was adopted for several years, and Freedom gained readers and influence in the north of England when the Northern Anarchist Network was set up in 1995: in this period one critic wrote that Freedom seemed to have been 'taken over by northern working men'.   In the 21st century this came to an end when Toby Crow took over as editor and Freedom became more centralised, focusing on the affiliated anarchist groups that failed to sustain or deliver either publishable material, or sales, or structure.   This centralising tendency; basing the paper on a London bias and the shallow superficial sectarianism of the affiliated anarchist groups based in London, probably explains Freedom's current decline. And today anarchism in England is in the same situation as it was in the 19th century; as Bruce Gasier then wrote:  'It (anarchism) was hardly to be ascribed to any circumstance in the political or industrial situation of the time...'

Curiously, I read my first Freedom in about 1959 when it was on sale on a coast-to-coast CND march that passed through Rochdale, but I still didn't identify myself as an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist until after my experiences in the national strike of engineering apprentices in May 1960.  Thus, unlike today, anarchism did then have political relevance to the national politics of the 1960s, and anarcho-syndicalism seemed to have some real significance to my knowledge of the shop-floor environment, organisation and structure.  Though some aspects of the anarchism of the 1960s may suggest a degree of innocence, the movement then had greater integrity and more relevance for ordinary people especially the young than it does today.  I suggest that this was because it had a serious sociological imput and empathy that was reflected in the ideas of Colin Ward, which related to the special conditions of the English people at that time, and which it and the British left totally lacks today.   For well over a decade Freedom and much of the British left has kidded itself that by preaching a message without regard for or serious attempt to understand what the general public want is sufficient.  In the end under the influence of ultimately religious people like Toby Crow; this led to a kind of ideological / sectarian focus group mentality remote from the real world producing make-believe formulas and wish list headlines.


Supporter of Freedom said...

Almost the last word of the current Freedom editors was
'We had hoped that Freedom would be adopted as the paper of the anarchist movement. Despite a great deal of goodwill from anarchist groups and individuals over the years, sadly this has not been the case.'

In truth Freedom had many enemies within the ranks of those who describe themselves as anarchists. Despite this, those who spent their time attacking Freedom rarely produced anything of great consequence themselves, and there is now no significant anarchist movement.

Life of Brian said...

Trust bullshit Bamford to turn an epitaph into yet another chapter of the Thoughts of Chairman Me and the Gang of 3.

This deluded tool really sees himself as the vanguard of anarchism in the north.

He couldn't run a bath. Although the soap wouldn't go amiss with the crusty collective.