The Mutual Aid Centre (Liverpool)

This is a brief history of the Mutual Aid Centre. Its a shortened version of a piece written, in March 1996, for anarcho-syndicalists in Sheffield Solidarity Federation. A list of abbreviations has been added at the end:

The first MAC was squatted in 1987 and lasted for 3 months of 24 hours high profile occupation (coverage in the local papers and radio). At the end of that the MAC was evicted and the deputy Council leader’s office was occupied in protest (the council was the landlord). A few months later the second MAC was squatted. This lasted until early 1995, when it was finally evicted. The second MAC was fairly low profile, with negotiations with the Council for the first few years (then the landlord changed and we were left alone mostly). The second MAC wasn’t occupied 24 hours a day but it was a centre of fairly intense activity for years, until it all fizzled out a couple of years ago.

Activities included (in no particular order): strike support, discussion meetings/ videos, anti-fascism (effectively smashing Liverpool BNP), anti-poll tax, women’s group, anti-sexism, visits to Northern Ireland and support for Troops Out, anti-poll tax, anti-militarism, street stalls, support for Sri Lankan refugee Viraj Mendis until after he was deported, animal rights work, Anarchist Black Cross and prisoner support, food co-op, etc., etc…. Most of this activity was generated by activists in the then Liverpool Anarchist Group. Whether the MAC was an Anarchist Centre run by the LAG or a libertarian centre run by all participating groups never really got sorted (partly because of negotiations with landlords). All the work was done by anarchists. From 1988 to 1992 LAG produced 32 issues of the Merseyside Anarchist Newsletter, which gave a good idea of what Liverpool Anarchists were into (back copies available on request). Other groups that used the centre included Clause 28 and other lesbian and gay groups, a women’s sexual abuse group, Namibia support group, unemployed activist group, unemployed rambling group, Earth First!, writers’ workshop, squatting advice, etc. Some of these groups/ campaigns were short lived (eg writers’ workshops), some lasted throughout the MAC’s existence (eg anti-fascism). The MAC also had silkscreen equipment, a duplicator, a weights bench, etc., as well as having an office (the building had three floors). One of the rooms was originally for woman only, though the women’s group didn’t last so this changed. The MAC was used for regional DAM and AFA meetings, national unemployed meetings, a national anarchist ‘Propaganda’ weekend, a Class War national women’s meeting, an international ABC meeting (delegates from USA, Greece..) etc.. LAG eventually folded at the end of 1991 as people joined Class War or DAM.

MAC business was originally dealt with at LAG meetings, though later a committee (accountable to LAG) was set up to deal with MAC business separately. When the LAG ended the committee was re-organised to ensure equal CW, DAM, and non-aligned representation. All other user groups were encouraged to send an observer. A constitution was drawn up when it seemed the centre might get a lease (based on various constitutions, including Bradford’s 1 in 12 Club), but the negotiations with landlords (they changed three times) went nowhere. The Charity Commission also didn’t buy the application for charitable status. Money was raised to pay for electricity bills and repairs and to fund various groups (DIWU, DAM, CW, TOM, AFA, etc..) by regular parties. These had bands downstairs, beer and veggie food was sold, with half the money for the MAC and half to the group concerned. Towards the end people were also charged 50p in. Hundreds of people came to these. Quite a lot of young people who didn’t come to meetings, but would come out against the fascists or come to parties, were politicised during all this, though not in the sense that they all want to pay subs… The MAC had a lot more support than the LAG itself. Towards the end the MAC was also used by various bands as rehearsal rooms, and occasionally outside groups - such as Red Rope or various Greens - hired the premises for parties.

What lessons can be learnt from all this? First, the original LAG in 1987 was full of mostly young people already active in other areas - CND, NVDA, animal rights, DAM, etc. A lot were vegans, influenced by lifestyle anarchism, though everyone (just about) was prepared to get stuck in. By the time the LAG folded in 1991 those left supported class struggle anarchism, though some had gone back to single issue campaigns with no connection to the MAC (eg hunt sabs).

The centre wasn’t a ‘local’ as the Solidarity Federation would envisage. In the first MAC it was a fight to stop pagan posters going up, and even then there was a list of what wasn’t to happen in the Centre (‘no sexism… no meat eating’ etc.). Most of the moral puritanism vanished as time went on. DAM campaigns - eg for Arbride strikers (Boycott Laura Ashley), or over Tricia Jennings’ sacking - did get support. DAM involvement meant the MAC sign was black and red, and DAM activity and the emerging DAM strategy of building industrial networks were all put forward at LAG meetings. Mostly the LAG was activities based. Theory/ ideas tended to be put in the Newsletter, or be discussed at specific meetings (eg on the State, Syndicalism, Ecology, etc.). Much activity happened outside the MAC, with the MAC operating as a base. In a lot of activities - anti-fascism, anti-poll tax - which organisation you were in (DAM, Class War, or non-aligned) was pretty much irrelevant.

Some things to note:

• The MAC had run its course before the final eviction, mainly because the activist core declined as people went on to do other things, became less committed, became burnt out, or got jobs. Campaigns like the poll tax also took a lot out of people. Enthusiasm for running the place dried up (though the parties were as popular as ever). Activism continued in other areas.

• Because the MAC was a squat, some necessary work was done, but no-one would or could raise the £!,000’s needed to do the place up properly. As a squat - run by committed activists living on fresh air - the MAC went as far as it could go.

• The MAC was eventually evicted but it lasted a long time - over 7 years. Everyone involved got a lot out of it, and lot of people are still around. There’s now a much bigger anarchist base in Liverpool than there was in the early 1980’s. Its something that can be built on.

• Things to avoid in a Centre? The main one is to not be inward-looking, and not to get bogged down with trying to live up to impossible standards of behaviour. Lifestyle anarchism isn’t what you wear its how you think. Trying to create a pure ‘island of Anarchy’ leads to all sorts of problems, people falling out, accusations over nothing etc… Its totally irrelevant to the real world. Anarchism isn’t about being ‘pure’, its about solidarity in the class struggle, direct action, self-management. Its about being effective in the fight for social change and social revolution. Local centres can be an important part of this - as a focus for organising, and to link together struggles in the same area. They’re tools, not ends in themselves.

Some Abbreviations:
ABC: Anarchist Black Cross (class struggle prisoner support - anarchist prisoner support in particular).
AFA: Anti-Fascist Action (militant wing of anti-fascist movement).
CW: Class War (anarchist organisation. High media profile, especially during poll tax 1990/91).
CND: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (there was a big upsurge in anti-militarism, including CND, in the early to mid-1980’s).
DAM: Direct Action Movement (anarcho-syndicalist. Evolved into Solidarity Federation in 1994).
DIWU: Dispatch Industry Workers Union (anarcho-syndicalist union set up by DAM members in London in late 1980’s).
LAG: Liverpool Anarchist Group.
MAC: Mutual Aid Centre.
NVDA: Non-Violent Direct Action (anti-militarist affinity groups, active inside and outside of CND).
TOM: Troops Out Movement (troops out of Northern Ireland).

Bradford’s 1 in 12 Club is a club run on anarchist principles. It was set up by Bradford Claimants’ Union in 1981, acquired premises some years later, and is still going from strength to strength.

The Solidarity Federation is an anarcho-syndicalist organisation affiliated to the International Workers’ Association. It was formed in 1994 from the merging of the DAM with industrial networks in the public sector, education, and the transport industry. SF activity is aimed at building a libertarian workers’ movement, based in both industry and the community.