Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Who Killed Freedom?: an unauthorised history 1.

Christopher Draper

FREEDOM the world’s oldest anarchist newspaper is no more. Founded in London in October 1886, for over a century FREEDOM was universally recognised as the most thoughtful, open-minded, newspaper of the British anarchist movement.  In October 2014 this unique institution, having survived police raids, violent attacks and two world wars, was declared dead by its editorial collective.  FREEDOM blamed its demise on the combined effects of declining interest in print media and insufficient support from the anarchist movement.  The truth is rather different.  FREEDOM was destroyed by three young men deficient in knowledge and authoritarian in practice and one old man who knew better yet encouraged these miscreants to do their worst.  The consequence, though tragic, was utterly avoidable. 

Democratic Clique

FREEDOM was never officially the newspaper of the anarchist movement. It was started in London in 1886 by a small band of anarchists with no formal ties to any other political organisation.  As David Goodway observed:  'It was published monthly as a sober and thoughtful journal surviving while other publications appeared and soon folded in the tempestuous and often violent world of contemporary anarchist activism.'  Despite initially promoting debate between individualist anarchists and those of a more socialist persuasion FREEDOM soon adopted an explicitly anarchist-communist outlook. Other interpretations of anarchism continued to be expressed and debated within the paper and throughout its long, varied and sometimes interrupted history FREEDOM continued to provide open-minded, unsectarian coverage of anarchist affairs.  Although nominally controlled by a self-elected libertarian collective FREEDOM not infrequently relied on key individuals within the group to safeguard the newspaper’s anarchist integrity.  When Tom Keell in 1915 acted precipitously to keep the paper out of the hands of Kropotkin’s pro-war faction he was denounced as a dictator by fellow editor George Cores but backed by the wider anarchist movement. Once again in 1928 FREEDOM was kept alive as an irregular bulletin through the dedication of Keell who published it from his home at Whiteway Colony.  From 1930 until his death in 1934, John Turner carried the editorial baton and then after a two year gap the paper was revived in a new guise by Vernon (Vero) Richards. 

Benevolent Dictator

The role of Vernon Richards in maintaining the libertarian character of the paper for over sixty years cannot be overestimated. From the launch of Spain and the World in 1936 through War Commentary, renamed as FREEDOM in 1945, Richards actively edited the paper until 1968 and then for another 30 years remained the power behind the editorial throne.
In 1944 Vero and Mari-Louise Berneri even resisted an armed stick-up staged by syndicalists Tom Brown, Cliff Holden and Ken Hawks, who demanded control of the paper but finally settled for £25 to start their own organ, Direct Action.  Throughout the post-war years Vero's money and determination kept the paper out of the hands of class war dogmatists like Albert Meltzer and his Black Flag followers.  Until Vero’s death in 2001 FREEDOM’s columns remained open to anarchists from across the spectrum of the movement.
Born Vero Benvenuto Constantino Recchiono (anglicised to Vernon Richards) in 1915, Vero was far from the woolly liberal claimed by the current clique at FREEDOM.  His father had been a comrade of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta and Richards described himself as an anarchist-communist in the Malatesta mould.  Assisting his father with propaganda work against Mussolini he was arrested in Paris and extradited from France in 1935.  Imprisoned for nine months for inciting disaffection in the armed forces in 1945, his publications include, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution and Errico Malatesta - His Life and Ideas
Ironically, it was FREEDOM’s undemocratic structure that prevented it falling into the hands of any of the more zealous anarchist factions that came and went throughout the course of the twentieth century. Whilst controversies and antagonisms were reported in the paper, FREEDOM maintained a certain gravitas that never allowed it to be entirely blown off course.
Although Vero gradually withdrew from day to day oversight of the paper to tend his Essex smallholding, whenever he considered FREEDOM’s essential character was in danger he returned to exercise proprietary oversight. It wasn’t ideal but it was effective. Vero finally ceded control just before he died in December 2001.  Then, as a representative of the current collective described in a published interview (Oxford Left Review) there was, 'a shift in the people attracted to FREEDOM. Until 2002, it was virtually owned by someone who was of a rather liberal bent and that has shifted'.  The 'shift' was significant, the oblique reference to Vero a self-serving lie.  The changes were disastrous. 

'A Philosophical Middle Class Organ'

In 2000 neither the form nor contents of FREEDOM were cutting edge, but they never had been. Back in 1897 a bunch of impatient, class war warriors demanding to replace the paper with a weekly agit-prop newssheet denounced FREEDOM as:
'a philosophical, middle-class organ , not intelligible to the working classes, not up to date in late information and…less revolutionary than Comic Cuts…edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers.'
They had a point.  There have frequently appeared more militant, racy and visually appealing anarchist papers but none survived for long.  FREEDOM’s uniquely enduring appeal lay in its open, carefully considered, tolerant and invariably polite approach to anarchist politics. Freedom was never perfect and production was never entirely regular but at a minimum it continued to provide an invaluable newsletter and propaganda medium for the wider anarchist movement.  FREEDOM didn’t pretend revolution was just around the corner but carefully reported and encouraged cooperative forms of social organisation as much as it denounced authoritarian injustice and inequality.   FREEDOM was in it for the long haul, promoting the germ of the new society within the shell of the old.  Class-struggle was not denied but neither was it over-emphasised.
In 1926. Max Nettlau perfectly captured the unique essence of the paper:
'FREEDOM was always kind and gentle, faithful and hopeful, fair and reasoning, tasteful and well-proportioned. It excels by such qualities ever so many Anarchist periodicals and other publications which…are the mouthpieces of vigorous organisations with all that is inseparable from organised life, predominating creeds, uncharitable criticism of dissenters…All this may create a stronger impression for the moment, but it passes away…But to FREEDOM one turns back with pleasure…the basis of all was unswerving faith in freedom, fairness in reasoning, and gentleness in feeling'.
Sixty-six years later Peter Marshall, in his magisterial history of anarchism, 'Demanding the Impossible', could still fairly claim, 'The thoughtful centre of anarchism in Britain has remained the Freedom Press Group'. 

The Politics of FREEDOM

Colin Ward and Nicolas Walter were familiar exponents of the FREEDOM approach. In his best selling FREEDOM booklet, 'ABOUT ANARCHISM' Walter explained 'Anarchism may be seen as a development from either liberalism or socialism, or from both liberalism and socialism. Like liberals, anarchists want freedom: like socialists, anarchists want equality.  But we are not satisfied by liberalism alone (my emphasis) or by socialism alone.'   Claims dismissing pre-2001 FREEDOM as “liberal” are either uninformed or lies.  Assertions that FREEDOM was pacifist are similarly incorrect, for Walter emphasised, 'To repeat (anarchists) are anti-militarists, but not necessarily pacifists.'

Walter explained that, 'Anarchists do not agree with Marxists that the basic unit of society is the class.'  The problem is authority.  'If we refused to obey rulers, authority would disappear…if we refused to work for the rich and powerful, property would disappear. For anarchists, property is based on authority and not the other way round…But at least it is agreed that the present system of property must be destroyed together with the present system of authority.'
Colin Ward maintained FREEDOM’s constructive approach to anarchism, 'far from being a speculative vision of a future society…(anarchism) is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends in society.'  FREEDOM demonstrated, 'an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and the bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.'
As Walter explained, FREEDOM, 'always tried both to give a clear voice to a broad central interpretation of anarchism and to give a fair hearing to all other varieties of anarchism.'

Friends of Freedom

In 1981 Vero set up, The Friends of Freedom Press Ltd, an inactive company legally responsible for the assets of FREEDOM PRESS. Four old stalwarts of FREEDOM were appointed to serve as Directors of this holding company.  The most valuable material asset is the building in Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High Street, London, bought by Richards in 1968 to provide a permanent home for FREEDOM.
When Vero died in 2001 FREEDOM retained a hardcore of regular writers, hundreds of subscribers and thousands of readers and supporters.  Two of Vero’s personal appointments had long been in place, Charles Crute had been editor for a decade and Kevin McFaul had managed the bookshop for just as long.  Aldgate Press had printed the paper for twenty years, Jayne Clementson had laid out the paper for ages whilst cartoonist, columnist and collective member Donald Rooum had chalked up a half-century at FREEDOM, so no-one expected dramatic change to arrive with the dawning of the new millennium. 

'There is No Such Thing as Human Society!'

…said Margaret Thatcher (or something similar) but she was merely quoting FREEDOM stalwart Donald Rooum as the phrase opens Rooum’s article, 'Anarchism is About Individuals' in FREEDOM’s 1986 centenary edition which elaborates his Stirnerite philosophy.   So the movement naturally looked to Donald to safeguard FREEDOM’s profoundly libertarian character after Richards’ death. Having supported Vero’s mission to keep crude class war politics at bay for fifty years, just as Richards was fading Donald became smitten with 'a big, energetic, young man' (Donald Rooum’s own description) who promised to boost the paper. Donald had apparently decided his long-time co-workers at FREEDOM Charles and Kevin 'meant well but persisted with wasteful practices' and should be replaced.
In 2001, Toby Crowe, Donald’s 'big energetic, young man' was installed at FREEDOM, nominally as 'joint-editor' alongside Charles but it was immediately clear to everyone that henceforth, Toby was in charge. Crowe and Rooum then acted in concert to cancel the 'stipends', that had operated for 15 years, paid to Charles and Kevin making them effectively unemployed (Charles went off to fill shelves at Sainsburys to earn a crust).
It was a complete volte-face for Donald who replaced Richards’ appointments, the guardians of FREEDOM’s integrity with a 'big energetic' Marxist, Toby Crowe, a past General Secretary of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB).  I wasn’t the only correspondent to find this editorial appointment inappropriate and inexplicable but our criticisms fell on deaf ears. 

Donald’s New Best Friend

Toby Crowe was quick to make his presence felt, 'enforcing a strict class first line…he broke with much of the old support network…severely weakened the structure of the paper…readers had been alienated, writers had stormed out, sometimes never to return' (n.b. text within quotes are throughout the words of FREEDOM insiders who prefer to remain anonymous, unless otherwise indicated).
Having been a regular contributor under Charles Crute’s editorship, I immediately noticed the effects of regime-change. As articles were delayed and altered I raised my concerns with Toby but to no avail. My experience was commonplace. It seems, 'most of the copy he got in he rewrote'.

I particularly objected to the worthless populism of, 'NEW FREEDOM', citing pieces on Eminem and Hannibal Lecter as just two typical examples. I wasn’t alone, Tom Jennings complained those particular pieces, 'gave little or no meaningful context or analysis” and simply “copied the exaggeration and false moralising used in today’s tabloid politics.'
In January 2001 John Roe submitted a letter questioning a rant posing as a film review.  His letter was severely cut 'for reasons of space' but sufficient space was evidently available to include alongside a similar sized 'smart alec' response from editor Toby Crowe.  When Roe wrote to complain Crowe appended another slice of sarcasm to this second letter. No wonder correspondents and readers deserted in droves.  Suspicions that Socialist Worker was Toby’s style guide were reinforced with his introduction of a 'What We Say' column, which I also objected to at the time. 

Crowe or Cuckoo?

Toby did not belong at FREEDOM. I could see that, numerous writers, readers and other assorted anarchists could see that and eventually even Toby recognised his incongruity.  In 2004 the Marxist reborn as an 'Anarchist' was born again, as a devout Christian.  Toby flew the nest to train as an Anglican priest at Ridley College, Cambridge.  After serving as a Canon at Alperton, near Wembley the Revd Toby Crowe was appointed Rector of Elmdon Church, near Birmingham.
I recently contacted Toby to offer him an opportunity to explain his serial conversions but he was uncharacteristically lost for words.  Having wreaked havoc at FREEDOM he feels no moral responsibility to provide any explanation to the wider anarchist movement.  It is a response shared by his successors at FREEDOM.
We are left to speculate whether the Revd. Toby shares with parishioners his past perceptions of society, 'the fucking steaming pile of horseshit we live in' (14.4.2000) or entertains the congregation with his old Hyde Park/SPGB trick of theatrically dismissing religion by throwing a bible into a litter bin.

From Bad to Worse

Toby was a control freak who single-mindedly recast FREEDOM in his own image, and then abandoned it.  It was clear to me then and should have, at least by 2004, become obvious to Donald and the rest of the FREEDOM collective that;

             Toby pursued the wrong marketing strategy

             Toby preached the wrong politics

             Toby practised the wrong editorial policy
Donald should have held up his hand, admitted his mistake and invited Charles back to edit and belatedly help FREEDOM repair the damage but he didn’t.  Toby’s 'class first' line and utter disregard for wider anarchist ideas and practice had driven away loyal readers whilst his 'editor-knows-best' rewriting and censorship had alienated long-standing contributors.  His policy of pursuing anarchist groups such as AF, Class War and SolFed for both sales and contributions was doomed to fail.  These organisations were happy to have their propaganda reprinted for free in FREEDOM but as they couldn’t sell their own papers why on earth should anyone imagine they would put any effort into selling FREEDOM ?

Toby’s regime supplanted seasoned anarchist supporters of FREEDOM and replaced them with a bunch of impatient, games playing, techno savvy, whizzkids.  Simon Saunders was the most ambitious of this new breed of internet activists attracted to FREEDOM by Toby’s class politics.  In 2004 Toby left but having learnt nothing, the new collective condemned themselves to repeat the same three cardinal errors with the appointment of Simon Saunders as editor. 
If you want to find out what Simon did the next installment of 'Who Killed Freedom' will be posted tomorrow.

3 comments:

Zyzzyzus floridanus said...

Just talked to Jim Petty, veteran Burnley anarchist, he very nearly had a heart attack laughing at what Chris has described here! It is also unbelieveable, if you didn't know the kind of people that have got hold of FREEDOM.

skadaddler said...

I see that the cabinet on Rotherham Council have all resigned over the sex abuse scandal there. Is it too much, I wonder, for the members of the FREEDOM editorial collective to resign or at least consider their positions over what has happened at FREEDOM PRESS?

Charmian said...

Please tell Chris that I found his explanation of what happened to FREEDOM interesting and helpful.

Yours for Socialism
Charmian