Sunday, 24 April 2016

Review: 'Slow Burning Fuse' & Anarchist Aspects


by Brian Bamford
Reviews:  'The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the

British Anarchists' by John Quail, published by Freedom Press [2014] price £15.,
and 'Aspects of Anarchism' published by the

Anarchist Federation price £1.  Both available from

Freedom Press: 84b, Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX. 

IN concluding his book 'The Slow Burning Fuse; The Lost History of the British Anarchists', John Quail writes:

'...the anarchists of England have paid for the gap between their day-to-day activities and their utopian aspirations.  This gap consists basically of a lack of strategy, a lack of sense of how various activities fit together to form a whole, a lack of ability to assess a general situation and initiate a general project which is consistent with the anarchist utopia, and which is not only consistent with anarchist tactics but inspires them.' 

Mr. Quail admits that 'Such general Anarchist projects have existed, perhaps the best examples being the anarcho-syndicalist trades unions of Spain and France.' 

In his Forword to the Freedom Press 2014 edition of Quail's book Nick Heath* writes 'I would take issue, as very much an organisational anarchist, with some of (Quail's) comments on organisation in his conclusion.'    

John Quail's book fundamentally emphasises the reactionary nature of English anarchism:  only capable of responding in a series of fits-and-starts to specifically social and political conditions.  In contrast to Quail, Mr. Heath no doubt believes what is documented in his Anarchist Federation's pamphlet 'Aspects of Anarchism' (2003) that 'The structure (of an anarchist communist organisation) must increase the ability of the organisation to perpetuate itself while its ends remain un-realised'. 

The historical characteristic of the British left in general has been to react to the agenda set by the establishment and initiatives developed by governments.  The Anarchist Federation in Britain is well within this defensive tradition of reactionary responses as is shown in their pamphlet under review 'Aspects of Anarchism' in the closing paragraphs of this booklet under the subheading 'Our Role' the author writes:  'Large demonstrations and strikes can often turn to violence and we should accept the need for self-defence.' 

Or the author writes:  'In non-revolutionary periods anarchist communists will be a conscious minority with “the leadership of ideas”.'  

There is much talk of 'revolution' here, but the writer mentions 'self-defence' because the nature of British politics is so much about reacting to the authorities in a tactical way rather than developing a serious strategy for social change.  And in the very next sentence the writer continues:  'Groups like the hit squads arising from the miners strike (1984-5) are genuine expressions of working class resistance.'  And then the writer goes on to argue 'we will need to defend ourselves against the violence of our enemies.'  This is all about 'defence' and 'resistance'  not about a pro-active program for social transformation, what's so revolutionary about that? 

The fact is that this is typical of the British left over the ages, and of the most memorable struggles in this country from the General Strike of 1926, to the Peace Movement of the 1960s, to the Miner's Strike of 1984-5, have been reactionary in that they have been responses to the actions of governments. 

Much of the rest of the AF's pamphlet in an act of belief in commitment or act of faith and of solving the problem of 'other minds', or as the writer puts it: 

'Determination and Solidarity:  To create effective organisations we must know our own and other's  [sic] minds, therefore there must be a high degree of communication, of sharing. We must set about creating aspiration, setting achievable targets, celebrating success, rededicating ourselves again and again to the reasons why we have formed or participate in organisation.'

When at random I compare this kind of feeble analyse to an interview in 1977, between the Spanish anarchist, Juan Garcia Oliver entitled 'My revolutionary life' the nature of the abstraction of 'Aspects of Anarchism' becomes clear.  When the questioner, Freddy Gomez asks 'What were the circumstances in which you became active in the libertarian movement and the CNT?'

Garcia Oliver answers:  'We need to be precise about this.  The idea of the “libertarian movement” surfaced well after the period we are talking about.  The CNT, on the other hand, was a long-established battle organisation which in those days marshalled revolutionary syndicalists, especially in Catalonia and therefore throughout Spain.  I join as a 17 year old.  I was working in the hospitality trade, as cafe waiter.  We had just seen the “La Canadiense” strike which is still famous because it was handled to perfection and won by the CNT's Light and Power Union.'

For people like Nick Heath they want to create an organisation or anarchist movement before there are anarchists, were as Garcia Oliver realises that it is in the practical life of the social body of the working class that anarchists are formed and from which the political organisation may then arise. I became an anarchist out of my experiences in the national strikes of engineering apprentices in the early 1960s; those experiences showed me first-hand how the bosses operated, and how the trade union officials and the local politicians operated, just as Garcia Oliver learnt through his experiences in the strikes of waiters for the abolition of tipping.

The point is the theory and the ideas evolve out of the shopfloor struggle.   It is this half-baked idea of the struggle developing out of the theory that is wrong with the approach of the Anarchist Federation: theirs is a form of cookbook anarchism in which the chef knows best. 

The dispute over what Peter Kropotkin stood for 'anarcho-communism', and what Bakunin believed 'collectivism', according to the anthropologist Gerald Brenan in his 'The Spanish Labyrinth' (1962), divided the Regional Federation of Spanish anarchists in 1888:  the argument was about whether anarchist organisations should consist just of convinced Anarchists or if all workers should be included if they were willing to join.  Brenan writes: 

'...with the introduction of Anarcho-Syndicalism in 1909, it was finally decided in accordance with Bakunin's ideas, the question of the nature of the future form of society became less importance.'

It is necessary to mention that this Spanish experience because the history of anarchism there is significant as a consequence of its success in that country.  Garcia Oliver responding to a question about the time when in about 1920 he joined the anarchist 'Bandera Negra' about 'some sort of understanding between syndicalists and anarchists' said:  'We were still a long way from what came later – anarcho-syndicalism – which overcame this dichotomy.  Anarcho-syndicalism allowed anarchism to become part and parcel of trade unionist groups which were imbued with anarchist thinking'.  Garcia Oliver said that he had joined 'Bandera Negra' by mistake and implies that at that time he ought to have been more syndicalist or 'revolutionary syndicalist', because 'Bandera Negra' (Black Flag) 'spent its time liaising – nationally and internationally – with other groups and its main activity was reading incoming correspondence and replying to it.'  The Spanish 'Bandera Negra', according to Garcia Oliver, like the Anarchist Federation was firmly against trade unionism and the CNT.

John Quail recalls the International Anarchist Congress of 1881 in London thus:

'The International Congress was basically an affair of and for Continental and Russian revolutionaries.  The minutes ... reveal that the English delegates played little part; yet many of the people involved were ... exiles in London and the British socialists that a more sophisticated libertarian philosophy was to develop relevant to British conditions.'  

Brenan has written of the same 1881 Congress;

'The Spanish delegate, when he went back to Madrid, took several new ideas with him.  (But) Spaniards lived then at a great distance from the rest of Europe.  Besides, anarchism had still a large proletarian following.  Under such conditions terrorist action was madness and would not find any encouragement among workers.  The new Regional Federation had in any case no need to appeal for violent methods.  Its progress during the first year or two of its existence was rapid.  A Congresss held in Seville in 1882 represented some 50,000 workers, of whom 30,000 came from Andalusia and most of the rest from Catalonia.'

In England, John Quail has demonstrated in his conclusion:

'The anarchist movement in England has shown itself capable of a progression of initiatives taken according to circumstances.  Take, for example, the beginnings of the squatters movement in London.'

Quail realises that the English anarchists are prisoner's of historical circumstances when he argues 'it is only when anarchist strategies develop [and] move from pin-prick defiance and piecemeal defence to confront and change all this that the anarchist movement will make history instead of being dependent on it.'  But this is true of the British left in general and even the trade unions, nay especially the British trade unions in this country, in so far as they are always reacting to events.  Perhaps it is because he now sees change in this respect as such an hopeless expectation in this country that I understand Mr. Quail is no longer sees himself as an anarchist.  As one northern anarchist once said to me:  'Each new batch of English anarchists have to learn the same old lessons every few decades, until in the end some of them give it up as a bad job.'

Starting in 1881, Quail identifies 'the first systematic propaganda defining itself as anarchist that had any effect within the (English) socialist movement came from America the shape of Benjamin Tucker's paper Liberty'.  It seems that Liberty was a 'lively and far ranging and even (Tucker) was prepared to give space for the Anarchist Communist view', though according to Quail, Tucker had 'a good eye for revolutionary humbug'.  And, on the English left there is so much 'humbug' about.

John Quail then goes on to remind us that '[t]he introduction of specifically anarchist ideas into the working class  movement was thus going on well before the alleged Year One of English anarchism, 1886, which saw the foundation of Freedom.' (p37)  (Freedom was finally closed down in 2014, and since then there has been an ongoing disputes between those who scuttled the ship of Freedom and their critics).

In conclusion Quail [page 333] writes:

'The anarchists have since shown the same astonishing ability to suddenly come from nowhere when everyone had assumed that they were finished...  A new movement emerged out of CND and the Committee of 100 and to dispersed.  The student movement of the 1960s again showed strong libertarian proclivities.   And that too seems to have disappeared.  I do not propose to talk about these movements in this book...  A bare mention, however, is sufficient to bear out the general thesis that has emerged throughout the book that the anarchist movement grows in times of popular self-activity, feeds it and feeds off it, and declines when that self-activity declines.'

In contrast to Quail, Nick Heath wants to keep the anarchist movement alive in the fallow years with what he calls the 'leadership of ideas'.  John Quail's book is very London oriented and it fails to include what the northern anarchist  James Pinkerton sometimes called the 'anarchist fellow travellers':  for in the same way that some say 'Christianity doesn't depend on the Christians', so very often anarchism doesn't depend upon the anarchists, as people like Colin Ward seems to have been aware.  William Morris was close to anarchism politically but his influence was larger than mere politics and people like both Quail and Heath will both tend to overlook the 'Arts and Crafts movement' intellectually dominated by Morris, John Ruskin's ideas and the development of the National Trust, and self-help societies, and other kinds of cultural and intellectual spin-off. 

Colin Ward's ideas developed in around 1960 is a more recent example of this approach, which in those days he described as 'permanent protest' or as some claim 'revisionist anarchism'.   In a soon to be published memoir by the veteran anarchist Laurens Otter writes:  'Colin (while retaining the term Revisionist Anarchism) was by 1961 defining his aim as “widening the sphere of  freedom”.'    Mr. Otter then writes:  'Ward's then desired journal (which became “Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas”) would from its beginning reject any belief in progressive fundamental change.'

These ideas of Colin Ward contrast not just with the kind of intellectual bigotry of Nick Heath and the the more refine historical determinism of John Quail, but also with the whole of left-wing ideology in this country.  This rupture which Colin Ward developed in the 1960s can best be understood by considering what George Orwell has to say in his essay 'Writers and Leviathan' (1948):

'The whole of left-wing ideology, scientific and Utopian, was evolved by people who had no immediate prospect of attaining power.  It was therefore, an extremist ideology, utterly contemptuous of kings, governments, laws, prisons, police forces, armies, flags, frontiers, patriotism, religion, conventional morality, and, the whole existing scheme of things.'

Anarchism, like the rest of the British left, inherited a certain evolutionary faith associated with the Whig theory of history, or as George Orwell writes:

'Moreover the Left had inherited from Liberalism certain distinctly questionable beliefs, such as the belief that the truth will prevail and persecution defeats itself, or that man is naturally good and is only corrupted by his environment.'

Elsewhere, Orwell points out in his essay 'Inside the Whale' (1940) that no 'real revolutionary feeling' had not existed for years and that the 'pathetic membership of all extremist parties show this clearly'.  In that situation the British Communist Party became a subservient tool of Russian foreign policy and the rest of the left became for most part insignificant.


It seems to me that it is hard to see how English anarchists can escape the 'fate of history' or what Mr. Quail calls 'its pin-prick defiance and piecemeal defence' anymore than the British left can transform itself from the perpetual reactionary role of resisting changes imposed by the British establishment.  Mr. Heath and his Anarchist Fed. show no sign of capturing the public imagination with his own belief in what Wyndham Lewis once called the 'associational habit' of membership organisations.


The Spanish anarchists, as Garcia Oliver says, benefited from having the trade union 'battle ground' of the CNT, and British anarchism gained vast influence when it had the peace movement to work inside in the 1960s.  Today, anarchism lacks any focus or serious social movement to seriously promote its energies, in that situation some of us have found it more prudent to adopt politics with a regional tinge.


*  Nick Heath leads a small sectarian grouping called variously the Anarchist Federation or A.fed. which grew up in the 1980s.  Unlike John Quail, he does not embrace the broader Church of British anarchism.

No comments: