Cargo cult interview with John

How and when was the KSL established? What made you decide to start?

The KSL was started in 1979 in London. The original idea was to have a 'resource centre' for anarchists and radicals, but that fell by the wayside because it was just not practical. To cover everything (housing, economics, fascism etc etc) would need a huge building and lots of money! Also, housing and other issues could be found in most libraries, but decent material on Anarchism definitely couldn't. It was decided to develop a really good collection just on Anarchism, since that's what the people who started it were into.

It was felt that unless this kind of library existed, anarchists would have to rely on academics (who can be ignorant or downright hostile) to tell them their history rather than knowing it themselves, and that, if no effort was made to collect it, a lot of historical material would be lost. It's happened more than once that the papers of an important militant have been binned by the family when they died. That means a lifetime's worth of experience is gone.

Could you tell me a bit about the library itself? What sort of things do you have, and how large is it? Where does the stuff come from?

We focus on politics that is opposed to both the state and capitalism. Anarchism is obviously the main focus, but we also have stuff on the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), Council-Communism (Marxists who don't believe in the supremacy of 'The Party'), Situationism etc. We don't bother with capitalists who call themselves 'libertarian' just because they want people with money 'freed' from state regulation. We have stuff produced by Anarchists, studies of Anarchist history and diatribes against anarchism. Obviously we have less 19th than 20th century material, because it's harder to get hold of, but we have stuff from all over the world, from the Orkneys to Australia and in many languages.

The bulk of stuff in the library has been donated by comrades. Some people have been able to provide a couple of newspapers, others have given whole files of research material. If someone donates something we already have, we can either sell it cheap at the Anarchist Bookfair (which means income for us, and more titles in circulation) or swap it with another archive for something else we need. We also buy some books second-hand where we know that there's no way we'll ever get given a copy.

If someone is interested in making use of the library, how would they go about it?

In the first instance, people write to our box [KSL, BM Hurricane, London WC1N 3XX] to ask what they need to know. Sometimes people are looking for small things, and we can give them a straight answer or photocopy something for them. If people are doing a large research project, they visit the actual location of the library.

When and how did you begin publishing pamphlets? How much has been published and what is still in print?

From the very first, it's been important for us to put stuff back into circulation by publishing it, either in pamphlet or book form, or in our bulletin. We think everything we produce has something in it of relevance for anarchists today. Also, each reprint makes it harder for academic 'official' history to deliberately get it wrong.

As well as our own pamphlets, we have co-published books with AK Press and we also distribute a small number of titles, like those by The Meltzer Press. We currently have 20 pamphlets and 4 books in print, and we're gradually reprinting most of our early pamphlets, so hopefully those numbers will go up and up!

How do you decide what to publish and where does it originate?

We publish a wide range of stuff. Some of our titles (for example, The Walsall Anarchists by David Nicoll or British Syndicalism by Tom Brown) are reprints of stuff that would be impossible to get hold of nowadays. We also translate book and pamphlets into English — For example, No Gods, No Masters (one of the best anarchist anthologies) by Daniel Guérin was only available in French and Italian until the KSL and AK press put it out in 1998. We also have some completely new titles that are original research, like the Yiddish Anarchist Bibliography or new memoirs like Bash the Fash.

We have a good selection of manuscripts that Cienfuegos Press never got round to publishing, many of which have never been published in English before. We also are in touch with Anarchist historians around the world, which means we keep our finger on the pulse of current research. We're always happy to see manuscripts that discusses stuff we're interested in. We're also happy to get donations so we can publish more!

How long has the KSL bulletin been going? How widely is it circulated?

The KSL has always had a bulletin, but it's been going regularly since 1997. We're now up to issue 27. There's approximately 800 address on the mailing list and basically the Bulletin goes all over the world: the UK, the USA, Europe, South America, Australasia … The bulletin contains historic reprints, reviews and news to help keep people in touch with what we're doing.

Who was Kate Sharpley and why did you name the library after her?

Kate Sharpley was a South London anarchist who was active at the time of the first world war. When she was given medals on behalf of her dead father and brother, she threw them into the queen's face saying "If you like them so much you can have them!" following which she was beaten up by the police. She was chosen to represent all the countless unknown anarchists (unknown because they didn't give speeches or write in papers) who made up the backbone of the movement.

To read some books on anarchist history, you'd think that the movement only existed because a few 'big names' ran around agitating. That's the very opposite of the truth: we've heard their names because they were the 'tip of the iceberg' of the movement — they were merely saying what the bulk of the movement either felt or had worked out in practice.

What would be the five books you'd recommend as the most influential or inspiring you've ever read?

I think books are great, but we mustn't underestimate how influential other writings can be: Anyone who sits down to read a great thick tome is probably interested already, if not convinced. Given that Anarchism is based on simple ideas (the state is not there to look after you, but to keep you quiet; your employer only cares as long as you're profitable) you should never underestimate how effective a piece of graffiti, a leaflet or a sarcastic line in a magazine can be. Also, I'm not a great believer in turgid revolutionary prose: if it makes sense, you should be able to say it simply, I reckon. That said, here are my candidates:

A Day Mournful and Overcast. Written by a front-line anarchist fighter in the Spanish Civil War, a great account of why he became an anarchist and what it was the revolutionary militias were fighting for.

I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels, Albert Meltzer. Autobiography of one of the people who (among many other things) helped to start the KSL. Not only is this a story of (recent) anarchist history in Britain, it's also a very funny read.

Paperboys: One man's accounts of picketing at Wapping. To some of your readers Wapping may be ancient history, but this is a really well written account of the war against Murdoch.

Panic at Peregonovka (anonymous) Again, I've put this one in because it's very well written — and the story of one battle of Makhno's against the counter- revolutionaries in the Ukraine sheds some light on what the Russian revolution could have been. As the writer says "it would have made a great movie."

As for the fifth, I'm afraid I have to cop out and give honourable mentions to things like The Floodgates of Anarchy, The Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review (the only anarchist magazine I know that got up to 184 A4 pages!), Black Flag (the voice of class-struggle anarchism in this country for over 30 years), Breaking Free (Tintin the Anarchist in a full-length graphic novel of revolution)

What are your thoughts on the state of the anarchist movement today? Are there any lessons from the past which we should take heed of?

The past is full of lessons: Don't trust leaders who say 'power to the people', don't give the state a break. I think the most important one for the Anarchist movement to confront is that there's a lot more to be gained by becoming a mass movement than becoming a bigger pressure group. I think we also need to develop our thinking — both critical and positive. It's both amusing and annoying to see events like Mayday being 'explained' by people who have as little interest in overthrowing capitalism or building a completely different world as bears do in flush toilets…We need to work out ideas on how we get from where we are now to where we actually want to be, and then share those with ordinary people. Anarchism's not a place for people with funny surnames to end up: its about changing the world!

What are your plans for the future of KSL?

In the short term, we hope to flog more books and pamphlets, so that we can print some more of the brilliant pieces we've got lined up. We do have other plans to increase the discussion of Anarchist ideas, but they're still at an early stage.

In the long term, after the revolution, we're planning to produce a 30-volume 'who's who' of anarchist militants, based on captured police documents.

Any final words?

Think more!

From: This interview originally appeared in "Cargo Cult", issue 3 (Cargo Cult, PO Box HP171, Leeds, LS6 1XX, UK).