00 Introduction to 'I couldn't paint golden angels'

I couldn’t paint golden angels - Introduction

“A person is strong only when he stands upon his own truth, when he speaks and acts with his deepest convictions. Then, whatever the situation he may be in, he always knows what he must say and do. He may fall, but he cannot bring shame upon himself or his cause. If we seek the liberation of the people by means of a lie, we will surely grow confused, go astray, and lose sight of our objective, and if we have any influence at all on the people we will lead them astray as well — in other words, we will be acting in the spirit of reaction and to its benefit.”
(Michael Bakunin — Statism and Anarchy, 1873)

Two tactics of Communism (Marxist and Anarchist) have existed ever since Marx and Bakunin clashed in the First International of the 1860s, over the question of the State. Both agreed that the goal of Communism should be a classless society which had no need of the state; their differences were only on how to reach it. The Bakuninists favoured an immediate, total destruction of the bourgeois state, and its replacement with a federal, decentralised system of free communes and labour organisations. The Marxists, whilst agreeing that the bourgeois state should be destroyed, believed that a new type of state machine, the dictatorship of the proletariat, was needed in order to oversee the dismantling of the old class system during a period of transition to full Communism. This temporary dictatorship would, of necessity, be strictly centralised. Marx attacked the ideas of Bakunin as ‘Utopian’ and unworkable. Bakunin, in turn, pointed to the dangers of a new class of ‘Savants’ (intellectuals) being created, in whose hands all power of decision making would be concentrated, leading inevitably to the emasculation of the revolution and a new form of slavery for the people.

The International was strongest in those countries where the workers’ movement was more deeply imbued with the libertarian principles of federalism, decentralisation and antipathy to state control. When the International split, and a separate anarchist movement came into existence, it was natural that Anarchism should prosper best among the working class of those countries which had been most resistant to the ideas of Marx: Italy, Switzerland, France and Spain. Spain, more than anywhere else in Europe, proved to be the testing ground for anarchism in action. In the sixty years between the death of Bakunin (1876) and the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936), uninterrupted capitalist repression and unrelenting anarchist activity (“tyranny tempered by assassination”, as someone once described Russia under the Tsar) combined to produce a working class anarchist movement that not only resisted Franco’s military assault on the Republic, but conducted a social revolution that went much further than anything that had taken place before it in Russia. It was this example of a libertarian revolution that had no need of Marxist leadership, and was outside of Comintern control, which moved Stalin to act against it in Spain.

The tradition of working class anarchism in England, though never as organisationally successful as in Spain, went back just as far. So too did its internationalism. The anarchist movement in England welcomed fraternal exiles from everywhere in the world; some, like the Italians, Russians and Jews formed sizeable colonies, others achieved lasting notoriety through episodes of resistance which, in the case of the Latvians, culminated in the “Siege of Sidney Street” (1911).

The movement in England (and Scotland and Wales) received its strength from being solidly working class. Only under the decimating impact of the First World War, and the fatal attraction of Soviet Communism, did the anarchist movement go into decline. But by the mid-1930s the experience of class struggle anarchism was still sufficiently recent, and there were still enough survivors of the ‘old’ movement, to pass on the fighting tradition to a likely young rebel from Tottenham who was coming to anarchism for the first time. And the news from Spain was all of revolution.

The Russian revolutionist Emma Goldman possessed many sterling qualities, but her scathing dismissal of the 17 year-old Albert Meltzer as a “hooligan”, in 1937, proved only that being a good judge of character was not one of them. An officer in the Special Branch came closer to the mark in 1977, with a back-handed compliment made as an aside to Black Cross members raided in Huddersfield, referring to Albert as “the doyen of the British anarchist movement”. After knowing Albert for something over twenty years, I confess that I have never met a more reliable or dependable man. If anyone could be said to qualify as a senior Ambassador of Anarchism, it is Albert Meltzer.

Albert is best known internationally for his championing of the Spanish Resistance during the Franco years, but there can barely be a country in the world where someone does not owe him a debt of thanks for his unassuming solidarity and unceasing commitment in sixty years of activity for the anarchist cause. This is not revolutionary rhetoric. The struggles Albert has been part of have all been real. To my own knowledge, he has never run away from a fight, even when it has not been of his choosing, and all too often he has had to suffer the unwanted, if not unwarranted, attentions of various police forces because of the derring-do or stupidity of others.

Albert has skimmed the surface of his long association with anarchism before, in The Anarchists in London 1935-1955 (Cienfuegos Press, 1976), but this is the first time the story has been told in full and brought up to date. It is a unique account of working class rebellion.

One of the great things about writing history is that it can only be done after the event, but it can only be understood by keeping an eye on the future. Unlike the Canadian Professor George Woodcock, who ignored the possibility that libertarian ideas were primed to detonate a fresh explosion of revolutionary struggle when he wrote off the anarchist movement as finished in 1962, Albert Meltzer writes about the past ever hopeful that the final chapter of anarchist history is still to come. He should know. He, more than most, inspired the generation that passed Woodcock by and embraced revolutionary anarchism in the 1960s.

The restructuring of the Spanish Resistance on an international level in 1962 was instrumental in reviving anarchist movements throughout Western Europe and beyond. The “British Connection” was first highlighted by the arrest of Stuart Christie in 1964, during an abortive attempt to assassinate the Spanish dictator, but many more anarchists from these islands made their contribution over the years. Through the Anarchist Black Cross, formed after Christie’s return from Spain in 1967, Albert helped to turn the defence of class struggle prisoners into a springboard to action by others. And he was the driving force behind Black Flag, launched in 1970 when the Bulletin of the Anarchist Black Cross changed its name. From these modest but very practical endeavours came a new Anarchist International that defined its existence through activity, not organisational affiliation. The target for intense police reaction, including the murder of three of its Secretaries (Giuseppi Pinelli in Milan, Tommy Weissbecker and Georg Von Rauch in Germany) and the arrest again of Christie in London, the Black Cross scored an impressive string of victories in bringing aid to revolutionaries imprisoned around the world. Miguel Garcia and Juan-Jose Garcia (Spain), Goliardio Fiaschi (Italy) and Martin Sostre (USA) are among those who in some degree owed their release to the ABC and to Albert Meltzer.

Albert’s appearance as a witness in the 1972 “Angry Brigade” trial, one of his many calls to the witness box, but for the prosecution (something they bitterly regretted), was thereafter seized upon by the press, to cast him in the role of benevolent anarchist “Godfather”, linked to every real or imagined act of resistance during the 1970s. Police fears of a “new Angry Brigade” culminated in the 1979 “Persons Unknown” trial, at which Albert was also called to testify, this time for the defence. State paranoia aside, police preoccupation with the spectre of libertarian resistance does acknowledge that there are anarchists who take anarchism seriously. In this respect, Albert Meltzer stands among the “guilty”, and is proud of it.

The 1960s and 70s were the years of Albert’s outstanding achievement, but he has done much, before and since, of lasting merit. Many episodes in this book, particularly from Albert’s early life, will be new even to people who know him. From the attack by anarchists that destroyed a British fascist exhibition about Franco, for which Albert was castigated by Emma Goldman in 1937, to the movement of soldiers’ councils in Egypt at the end of the Second World War, Albert’s first-hand account chronicles a period of working class anarchism ignored by academic historians.

Albert’s refusal to kowtow to the pacifist-liberal Mafia who sought to re-invent anarchism in their own image after the war, and his scepticism of the New Left in the 1960s, have earned him a reputation for “sectarianism”. Paradoxically, it was the discovery of class struggle anarchism through the “sectarianism” of Black Flag under Albert’s editorship that convinced so many anarchists of my generation to become active in the movement.

Where many younger people have felt content to withdraw from activity, having “done their bit” (often very little) for anarchism, Albert has soldiered on past retirement age, through the 1980s and into the “post Cold War” era of the mid-1990s. Despite his age, he is still travelling the world as an Ambassador of Anarchism, still publishing Black Flag, and still an inspiration for those who believe that the ideal of liberation must be fought for if it is to materialise. “Reasonable” people will always be slaves. Only the “hooligans” of this world will ever live in freedom.

Philip Ruff
London, January 1995

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© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).