The Albert Memorial: The Anarchist Life and Times of Albert Meltzer (2016 edition) [Book review]

I only met Albert Meltzer a couple of times, and then only briefly. But the firm impression was of a man, in many ways quite ordinary, who had led an extraordinary existence, someone amiable and unassuming but deeply, deeply committed, prepared to put his life and his liberty on the line. Someone, also, not concerned with airy attitudes or with the metaphysics of freedom, but always with an eye on the practicalities of political action.

The Albert Memorial. Not that Albert shied away from theory; his thinking was clear, sharp, and to the point, as the short excerpts from his writings here remind us. At the core of the book is Phil Ruff’s thirty page appreciation of his life and work, fascinating and highly readable, and complemented by some great photos and by a cluster of shorter tributes and comments, some added especially for this edition.

But the sheer groundedness of Albert’s approach comes through again and again, particularly in the context of the work of the Anarchist Black Cross. It’s cheering to read, for instance, his defence of Kropotkin’s sometimes derided assertion that, for the actual work done and for their voluntary ethos, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the International Red Cross can be reckoned “supreme examples of the principle of Mutual Aid between mankind,” whatever their limitations and whoever their less desirable patrons might happen to be. In the end, the point is to make a difference .

Another side to this groundedness was Albert’s unerring and consistent opposition to privilege and to careerism – of any style or shade. A darker thread running through the book is the long bitterness generated by the division between him and some of his erstwhile comrades and their followers grouped around the Freedom Press, who in their class detachment remodelled anarchism as literary attitude, perpetual protest, lifestyle choice, cultural diffusion.

Browsing recently through copies of Now, George Woodcock’s anarcho-literary magazine of the ‘forties, I’m struck by just how much, during WW2, a diluted version of anarchism had become the default posture for whole cadres of bohemians, a theoretical underpinning for a generalised neo-romanticism in British writing. In its own sphere this may have had some value, and at the time it might have seemed like a political advance, but how wise Albert was to warn of what was at stake, and how alert he was to the dangers of careerism.

Inevitably, it all evaporated. Philosophical “anarchism” soon morphed into an existentialist “personalism” – and then worse. In 1946, to take one example, the “Apocalyptic” writer Henry Treece, sitting at the feet of Herbert Read, had confidently proclaimed anarchism as “an antidote to left-wing Audenism as much as to right-wing Squirearchy.” By the early fifties, having successfully “ponced off the ideology,” as Albert later put it, he was a nostalgic Tory individualist, and very much at home among the squires. Those of us (myself included) who have long since stepped back from activism, and are these days inclined to sample our anarchism on paper, should take note!

There is bitterness here too over the appalling attacks on Albert’s reputation after his death in 1996, and some of that still makes for uncomfortable reading. But thankfully it’s more than offset by the overwhelming warmth of this tribute, which takes us from aid for the Spanish revolution to the Cairo Mutiny of 1946 to Black Flag and beyond. In the process we learn that Albert once earned a living (among many other things) as a joke writer, that Emma Goldman was opposed to boxing, and much else of curious interest. But most of all, this valuable little book narrates and celebrates a remarkable life, lived with courage, compassion and a consistent concern for the possibilities of revolutionary change. Hats off to the man!

The Albert Memorial: The Anarchist Life and Times of Albert Meltzer (7 January 1920–7 May 1996)

Second edition (2016) ISBN 9781849352802

Photo: Albert at the typewriter, source: Phil Ruff