Not Just Spanish Bombs: The Return of The Christie File [My Granny made me an Anarchist, The Christie file part 1 1946-64] [Review]

Stuart Christie's greatest notoriety is for having been imprisoned in 1964 for his part in an assassination attempt on Franco. Christie points out that he was not the only Briton involved in such courier work, only the one who got caught. He himself has always said he'd rather be remembered for his role in reviving the Anarchist Black Cross than as one of the many who tried and failed to remove Franco. My Granny made me an Anarchist, first part of an expanded version of The Christie File, shows his development up to going to Spain; the ordinary life story of someone who lived through extraordinary events because 'freedom' and 'anti-fascism' were not just words to pay lip service to.

This work (and especially the appendices) provide an insight into the workings of the Spanish libertarian movement in exile making it indispensable for students of Spanish anarchism for the background information it provides on the Anarchist resistance and its operations. Not only does it synthesise information not readily available in English, some of this is new in any language. Some readers will already know the importance of people like Octavio Alberola in revitalising the resistance in the 1960s, but it's interesting to see the recognition of the contribution of veterans like Cipriano Mera and Juan Garcia Oliver. English-speaking comrades will mainly know Garcia Oliver as Civil War government collaborationist, while Mera, I suspect, is almost completely unknown.

The analysis of the Spanish resistance points out the failure of the attempt to run a clandestine armed campaign (the Defensa Interior) as part of a legal body (the CNT in exile.) This contributed to a lack of security and allowed quietists to withhold money voted for the work. Extensive information is given on the 1961 hijacking of the Portuguese liner Santa Maria: a protest against Europe's last two remaining fascist dictatorships by the DRIL - Iberian Revolutionary Directorate of Liberation. It highlights choices faced by the libertarian resistance: after the hijacking, the plan to sail to Africa to foment revolt in the Portuguese colonies was thwarted because the news broke once seriously wounded crew were put ashore for treatment. That they did not act as 'professionals' who can disregard 'collateral damage' but as 'amateurs' who chanced the 'failure' of the mission rather than risk innocent lives should not be a reproach to libertarians.

This raises the larger question of the effectiveness of the resistance, though it doesn't pretend to offer the last word. It's interesting to see the extent that the revitalised resistance of the 60s echoed popular discontent; discounting the 'vanguardist' image that some people (and not always statist academics) give to any armed struggle. No-one believed that illegal activity brings freedom on a plate, but that it operates alongside popular struggle, influencing and being influenced is obvious. Symbolic attacks maintained pressure on the regime already trying to contain a new series of struggles. More detail could have been given on why Franco was targeted - the fragility of authoritarian regimes being that the 'great leader' balances the competing sections of the ruling class. Had Franco been assassinated would there have been just a change of figurehead or the carefully choreographed 'regime change' of the 1970s which saw 'democracy' return on condition the proles were kept in their place - or something much more challenging?

It's a pity we have to wait for volume two ('General Franco made me a terrorist' out Feb 2003) for the detail of Christie's Spanish mission. This is where Christie's sense of humour - which here is really the humour of horrors survived - makes the tension bearable. His account of entering Spain, carrying explosives strapped to his body - in a woolly jumper in a Spanish August - and having to push a broken down car is truly terrible and amusing at the same time.

Volume two provides plenty of tips in this story for those wanting a 'how not to do it' of illegal activity: hang out with radical exiles so the secret police can photograph you, go to a country not speaking the language, and make sure to have the instructions for your rendezvous written down…

Even those with absolutely no interest in Spain will find plenty to keep their minds busy. Christie's account of his political awakening in the dying years of consensus politics (which the nostalgic reformists see as some sort of golden age, but one clearly based on everyone knowing their place - rather like the updated version Blair is trying to sell us now) rings many bells for the here and now. Where the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the world, we now have the War On Terrorism. It's easy to think that peace movements are made from the great and good, but Christie thankfully gives voice to the stroppy buggers: "we are not in this movement to opt out of a burden on our consciences, but to fight for what we believe in" (p146, from the poetically titled 'Beyond Counting Arses'). Where CND in the '60s struggled with the problem that however liberal the democracy was supposed to be, mere mass protest had little effect ('we reached the point where demos were more damaging to us') the more radical wing was reaching for new tactics - often the same tactics - that activists now have used from sabotage to mass blockades.

If the title doesn't give it away, the making of Anarchists is a major concern of this book - not of course, that his granny used to slip pictures of Bakunin under his pillow, but that the dissenting Protestant tradition can lead to a concern with social justice rather than dour conformism. It's safe to say that the rebellious heritage of the Scottish working class also played its part in turning him toward the struggle for a better world. He shows a trajectory through the Left marked by his impatience with the petty tribalism of packing committees as a revolutionary strategy; but his portraits of the many true rebels he encountered is both a tribute and an inspiration.

The first edition of 'the Christie file' is hard to find, and this version, written with both Franco and his secret police safely out of the way, can be less sketchy about details. This is a very limited edition, and deluxe in both price and size. As such it's unlikely to reach those activists (as opposed to academics) with most to gain from it. Like farmers pray for rain, activists should pray for a cheap (and portable) edition. And if you don't put your trust in prayers? Make plans for the reprint.

Stuart Christie, My Granny made me an Anarchist, The Christie file part 1 1946-64. ISBN 1-873976-14-3

A4, 257 pages. £30 plus postage:

or PO Box 35, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 2UX, UK