Reports from the 2006 London anarchist bookfair

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In October ten members of the WSM travelled to London to attend the annual anarchist bookfair there. This is a massive event with around eighty individual stalls, films and forty or so meetings held by various groups. Thousands of people pass through the door of the bookfair over the day.The WSM has had a stall at the bookfair most years in the previous decade (the bookfair itself has been running for twenty years). Having a stall is a good way to maintain contact with anarchists in Britain – pretty much every group that is in any way active will have a stall and/or meetings at the bookfair. This year we shared our table with RAG (Revolutionary Anarca – Feminist Group) a new Dublin based organisation that was selling copies of their recently produced magazine ‘the RAG’.

What follows in this article are a couple of individual accounts from WSM members who attended the bookfair of what they thought of it and what meetings they attended.

Campaign for Real Anarchism meeting and some general impressions

I spent a good part of the day on the WSM stall as I enjoy it and it’s a good way to meet with people as they circulate around the fair. Most years we manage to produce and issue Red and Black Revolution just before the bookfair so most years a major function of the stall is to sell the first large numbers of a new issue. I think this year we sold around 80 which would be fairly typical as well as another 40 or so copies of various back issues of the magazine and PDF pamphlets on particular subjects. In addition both off our stall and off the ‘free stuff’ table at the entrance to the book we distributed hundreds of copies of the current issue and back issues of Workers Solidarity and of ‘The Libertarian’ as well as 50 copies of the introduction to leaflet. Distribution of the free material is only limited by the quantity we could physically carry over – all of it ran out well before the end.

I only attended one meeting which was the ‘Campaign for Real Anarchism’. This had been put on by some of the older (ex?) members of Class War – a group that in the 1980’s achieved a remarkable level of media coverage for their size culminating in the attempt by sections of the media to blame them for the 1990 Poll Tax riot. However that level of media exposure never really translated into membership numbers and at the Nottingham conference in March 1997 Class War split with a majority of around 60% deciding to wind up the organisation. Their reasons for doing so are outlined at length at in the ‘last’ issue of their paper along with a later reply from one of those who decided to keep the organisation going.

The meeting was chaired and introduced by an ex-member of the now defunct Wombles who like Class War managed to attract a huge quantity of hostile media coverage and police attention for an organisation that never had a large membership. There is a logical connection between the two as both organisations had tried to re-invigorate the anarchist movement through arguing that standing up to the state in set piece confrontations would attract people to anarchism far quicker then theoretical arguments or long term local or workplace activity. Not that they argued against either of these – indeed they were also involved in both – but what distinguished them was the central emphasis on particular forms of action.

Around half the meeting was given over to presentations from two of the oldest Class War members who have also recently published biographies on the organisation. The first speaker outlined at great length his opinion that the anarchist movement in Britain was in decline because it had failed to pull off any spectaculars since J18 (when 10,000 people took part in a protest in the City of London which among other things saw an attempts to storm the Futures exchange.) The style was passionate if a little rambling but not much of real substance was said beyond this and that northern Ireland demonstrated that despite its vast resources the state could not successfully suppress oppositional movements as easily as people feared.

This first contribution used up most of the time leaving the second speaker Ian Bone only a few minutes. Ian was the ‘face’ of Class War through a lot of its existence – he was the one willing to speak to the media and go on the television to defend and indeed advocate rioting as a legitimate tactic. At one point ‘The Sun’ called him ‘The most dangerous man in Britain’. Within the movement as a whole he was a controversial figure with more than a few considering him an egoist and a joker whose antics (including running for election) did more hard than good. Certainly he annoyed WSM members at a previous bookfair when his drunken heckling at a meeting we had organised after and about the anti World Bank riots that closed down their 2000 summit in Prague caused considerable disruption of what we had hoped would be a constructive meeting.

All this aside he is a good speaker with considerable charm and at the age of 59 has given a considerable fraction of his life to the movement. Indeed one of the interesting features of the book fair is that its importance and the non sectarian nature of its organisation means that for one day you get large amounts of people thrown together who would normally loudly proclaim how they would never be seen in each others company. Despite this and often bitter disputes there is little aggro at the bookfair, the only violence I ever witnessed was many years ago when some ‘3rd position’ fascist was daft enough to try and walk through a section of it!

Ian’s speech was short and to the point, he sketched out an idea of a new big stunt through which he hoped to mobilise working class hatred for Tony Blair in the manner of the ‘Orange Revolution’ in the Ukraine.

The discussion was then opened to the floor and around 15 people took the opportunity to contribute. Contributions ranged from the very sensible (we need to organise in our workplaces and neighbourhoods) to the super bizarre (the middle class rather than the working class were the agents of revolutionary change). An example, which perhaps demonstrates the high level of tolerance for dissenting voices at the bookfair.

My overall impression though was that this was a meeting that could, and indeed did happen at many bookfairs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. On the surface the argument was compelling – in the past the anarchist movement was prominent and it could be made prominent again. But beyond this every movement will see its up and downs – there needs to be a concept of getting somewhere that goes well beyond simply advocating another up. Can the ‘Campaign for Real Anarchism’ really be reduced to the campaign for the next headline grabbing spectacular or is this fixation with spectacles perhaps part of the problem that limits the growth of real anarchism. (Other meetings addressed this very topic and we should have reports from other WSM members of these meetings.)

In the 1990’s the London bookfairs played a very important role for Irish anarchists. At the time the number of active anarchists on the island was tiny, for much of this period not much more than a dozen people. An annual trip to the bookfair was inspiring in that you saw thousands of anarchists hundreds of whom were involved in useful constructive activity.

Today after a period of considerable growth for the anarchist movement in Ireland this is not so important. We have already started to hold our own bookfair capable of attracting hundreds of people. Dozens of anarchists are involved in useful activity on issues from the struggle against Shell in Rossport to helping to build the Independent Workers Union.

The London bookfair today is more of a chance to improve communication with our comrades in Britain and beyond and to contact and learn from those involved in particular projects. Every year more and more anarchists from Ireland have used the opportunity to cross the sea and meet up, this year I think there were around two dozen of us from WSM, RAG and Organise as well as individual anarchists. Hopefully these reports will give a flavour of the London bookfair and encourage others to make the trip next year.


Bookfair report: Neighbourhood Organising

I went to the meeting on local organising hosted by the Haringey Solidarity Group. Two different views were presented at the beginning.

Dave from HSG argued that as revolutionaries it was important that we were involved in building local community organisations and helping these groups to link up as residents group were a pre-condition for revolution. If a revolutionary situation arose we need to have self-organised and empowered communities - without them, and potential for meaningful change will be lost. The work to build these community organisations needs to begin now.The other speaker (whose was I think, Tony from Hackney Independent) agreed that neighbourhood organisation was important and is involved himself in this type of work. But however, he argued that there were also problems with this type of work. He outlined three main ones.

Firstly, most of the people you work with are homeowners or long-term council tenants, established in an area, and often this lead to a Not In My Back Yard type of politics. The issues these communities were interested in struggling on are not necessarily issues we would support, such as the moving on of Travellers, the eviction of squatters.Secondly, there was also the problem that the resident group could become an unpaid, service provider - just a voluntary extension of the council, with residents expecting the group to do things for them, rather than doing things for themselves. This type of clientalism has long being the backbone of politics in Ireland so I was particularly interested in hearing people’s experiences on this point. Unfortunately the meeting was too short to go into the issue in more depth.
Thirdly, this type of work always raised dilemmas as to how far do you cooperate with the police and local council - does it make sense to refuse to call the police in all positions or not?The most interesting part of the discussion for me was a contribution from Alice who is a member of a residents group in Glasgow. She added some problems of her own. Firstly though they had some 60-80 people going to meetings, the make up of those meetings was skewed towards a certain sort of person (mostly male, mostly white, mostly confident and with higher levels of education) - other members of the neighbourhood weren't participating.

Secondly, though people would come to the first or second meeting, they wouldn't come to the third or fourth - how do you maintain people involvement on issues that were often quite dull and mundane. Another speaker also noted that the issues that you end up organising around are often very boring, and it is difficult for even the seasoned political activists to motivate themselves to go to yet one more meeting about speed ramps.Thirdly Alice raised the question of what type of structure you adopt for your residents group - should it be open to all or is a committee structure better? The HSG group said they had moved to working groups which dealt with specific issues, rather than having one big meeting which dealt with everything (and so was very long and for most of the time, uninteresting to most of the people attending).
Another contributor described the residents group in the rural area he belong to as quite conservative - those involved saw themselves as the powerbrokers in the local community. However he also described the way in which local polish workers were organising themselves into polish clubs. These clubs met in a bar once a week, at which someone was elected to be the welfare officer for that week. If anyone had a problem with their employer or their landlord, the welfare officer would go meet them and try and resolve the situation. Because the polish were organised they were able to defend themselves against unscrupulous landlords and employers. Because the position of welfare officer was rotated the burden of the job was shared, while they all were gaining skills and confidence. Finally, because they met in a pub, and the meeting was connected to a social occasion, they were more likely to get attendance at meetings.Two more interesting questions were raised. Firstly, how do you move from your community issue to the revolutionary situation? Jane from HSG expressed frustration that residents groups were an unending fight over small pieces of pie. Secondly, various contributions touched on this issue of the relationship between the residents group and the community (what if you the community wants to evict the local squatters or join the local police monitoring panel, and some or all of the residents group very much oppose this).

Some of the discussion addressed the issue of whether this type of work was revolutionary or reformist - actually this was the title of the discussion. I thought it was a bit strange that the debate kept veering to defend work in residents groups against accusations of reformism - as not many in the meeting were making an argument against organising locally. Sometimes I think anarchists in England are to the 'other' (who may or may not against) at the expense of time and energy spent delving deeper into the issues raised by the type of work that they have done.In an hour, there was not enough time to explore all these issues. It was however quite inspirational to meet people who trying to confront these problems while doing work on the ground.

For the rest of the day, I was either on my stand, selling the most recent issue of Red and Black revolution (an excellent read) or in the pub ‘networking’. I met many old friends, but the Bookfair is a bit like a wedding, there never is enough time to talk. To quickly it is all over. Still we have our own one coming up in March, and I hope some of our comrades from across the water will come to continue the conversations.