A beautiful idea: history of the Freedom Press anarchists by Rob Ray [Book review]

Rob Ray’s book begins with the disarming confession that he imagined writing a ‘relatively short pamphlet’ (p3). 300 pages later you’ve been given a whistle-stop tour of Freedom’s history (both newspaper and publishing house). Thankfully, while he draws on previous histories, he includes some new accounts and comments from other people connected with Freedom Press.

There are two places where he might have made more of Freedom’s achievements. The 1915 ‘International Anarchist Manifesto On The War’ doesn’t get a mention, despite Freedom being central to putting it together and publishing it.[1] Freedom Press books and pamphlets get a brief mention on page 15. It’s not completely clear what time period is being discussed, or what they actually published: they never did The conquest of bread, for example. Giving more titles and dates might have shown the importance of Freedom Press as the largest English-language anarchist publisher between 1900 and at least the First World War.

Thinking about Freedom’s conflicts

Freedom has regularly been a source of conflict within the British anarchist movement. If we want to learn about and from the past these conflicts give us the opportunity to see what people thought was important.

Those running Freedom (from the Fabian Charlotte Wilson on) were often keen to guard their autonomy from ‘the movement’. The intellectuals were not going to be held to account by the militants! In some ways, fair enough, let them go their own way. But the same people expected to be seen as the intellectual leadership of the movement. Why, for example, are people from Freedom involved in the removal of David Nicoll from the editorship of the Commonweal (in 1893)? (p26)

Tensions around class and tactics come through in Ray’s quote of the report in Freedom of an 1897 conference:

Freedom was described as a philosophical, middle-class organ, not intelligible to the working classes, not up to date in late information and in O’Shea’s eyes less revolutionary than Comic Cuts … It was edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers.’ (p31) John Quail’s verdict on this seems relevant: ‘since the emphasis in the movement was so much on propaganda, the sole remaining Anarchist paper had assumptions thrust upon it which it was not only designed to disappoint but which it hardly seemed to recognize.’[2]

1944-45 split. The split between the Freedom Press Group and some anarcho-syndicalists in the Anarchist Federation of Britain (who would go on to form the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation) revolved around control of Freedom. We may never know the full story. There are materials on this in the Vernon Richards papers in Amsterdam, though you would expect it to be covered in Tom Brown’s missing memoirs too.[3] Albert Meltzer at this point stuck with Freedom, though he bitterly regretted it later.[4]

1952 executions. 1952 saw a large trial of militants from the anarchist resistance in Barcelona. The main text quotes Philip Sansom’s account in Freedom: A Hundred Years which concentrates on who came to speak at the London protest meeting: ‘A couple of weeks later we heard that the wave of shooting had been halted. It’s wonderful what you can do with a few big names!’ (p101). The London protest took place after five men had been shot, and was part of a wider campaign with an earlier protest in London and meeting in Paris, addressed by Breton, Camus and Sartre. There’s an unmentioned connection with Freedom here: one of those saved from the firing squad was Miguel Garcia, later of Black Flag and the Anarchist Black Cross who spoke at a meeting at Freedom Press after his release.[5]

1963 executions. In the issue of 24 August 1963, Freedom reprinted a leaflet from the Notting Hill Anarchist Group protesting against the judicial murder of the anarchists Granado and Delgado and calling for a tourist boycott. Since Vernon Richard (who owned and controlled Freedom Press) led tours to Spain, this was followed by an editorial on the benefits of tourism. The NHAG replied, saying that there was no way they could have ‘insisted’ on the leaflet being reprinted: ‘We have been told enough times by the editors that Freedom has never been, is not, and never will be the organ of the anarchist movement in this country’.[6]

The Wooden Shoe, or When did Albert give up on Freedom?

Ray reports the idea that Albert Meltzer’s differences with Freedom arose from him being refused space in their building for the Wooden Shoe Bookshop, (p143) though he downgrades it from a ‘cause’ to a ‘final straw’. (p146) The Wooden Shoe Bookshop was started by the Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review group. The only issue of their magazine announces that ‘Ted Kavanagh is in charge (process servers from Camden Borough Council, note)’[7] which shows the precarious state of their finances, and that it was not simply Albert’s project. The refusal might have happened: presumably there would be evidence in the Freedom Press archives in Amsterdam if so. There are curious echoes here of Albert’s offer to share space with Emma Goldman in Frith Street in 1939.[8] Either way, it sounds a rather convenient explanation for a broader conflict. Let’s look at a couple of pieces from Freedom’s more-theoretical supplement Anarchy in 1966 and 1967: John Pilgrim declared that ‘the majority of the working class today are more interested in defending their higher living standard than in freedom or justice’ which Albert Meltzer derided as a hangover of Christian Socialist attitudes: ‘unless the working man became moral, he could not hope for economic or social betterment.’[9]

There’s an issue of movement-defining here: who gets to say ‘you’re nothing to do with us’? It’s also a replay of the perennial tactical debate: physical or moral force? To only talk about Albert ignores Stuart Christie’s role in energising and polarising the British anarchist movement after his return from Spain. Their partnership was more than the sum of its parts: in Mark Hendy’s words ‘Albert before 1967 was Albert without Stuart. From late 1967 onwards he was Albert with Stuart – two very different beasts!’[10]

The conflict between Black Flag and Freedom (and others) shows fundamental disagreements about what anarchism could be in the 1960s. They are laid out in Black Flag’s statement to the 1968 conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain.[11] Black Flag had no problem acknowledging the validity of Vernon Richards’ critique in Lessons of the Spanish Revolution of unaccountable exiled bureaucrats like Federica Montseny of the CNT. The problem was they saw him occupying a similar position in the British movement.[12]

His verdict

Ray tries to ‘close off’ some of these historic disagreements. He laments that Richards and Meltzer couldn’t take a step back and have a ‘gentler personal relationship’. (p148) Unfortunately he himself ‘steps back’ from assessing Richards on the grounds that he never knew him. The historian isn’t obliged to take sides but this misses the chance to ask what political factors were at work in people falling out with Richards – and in people happily involving themselves in what was always his project.

Where Ray does recognise political divisions, he feels that Freedom did more good than harm (though, as you can see, he’s not blind to some of the faults)

In places the old issues of Freedom are so dry and dense as to be barely readable to a layperson. There is often listless navel-gazing, sometimes a tendency towards smugness and pontification largely academicised away from anything that would much benefit working-class people. I have a powerful distrust of any anarchist endeavour that can be dictated to by a boss, and of any approach that becomes overly concerned with gaining plaudits from intellectuals.

None of the above, however, even in the most villainous renditions, could have significantly slowed a genuine direct action anarchism from emerging under its own steam and in fact it manifestly didn’t. […]

There is a separate value in fostering the sort of thoughtful analytical work that characterises the best of Freedom Press’s output through the second half of the 20th century, and at least some in having allies with access to the platform afforded by “respectability” (at least when brave enough to avoid repudiating rabble rousers).’ (p96-97)

This from a comrade who has had to climb over unsold boxes of the Raven (p213), yet believes that ‘the money it swallowed… would not have found its way to other front lines in the press’s absence’ (p97) – an interesting claim, given that Freedom was financially supported by veteran Italian-American Galleanisti.[13]

Twentieth century British class-struggle anarchism certainly defined itself against Freedom’s ‘liberal’ approach. Rob Ray acknowledges but possibly doesn’t fully appreciate the anger that still exists about the role that Freedom Press played. But then, rather than being unaware, perhaps he’s made a deliberate choice to keep his account upbeat? Unfortunately, minimising these conflicts means we get less context for Freedom’s story.

I liked Rob Ray’s own account of the challenges of publishing a fortnightly paper – and spending 15 years ‘trying to get other people to do it instead’! (p215) I enjoyed some of the stories he’s gathered, like Martin Peacock’s account of ‘being woken in the early hours by two men trying to smash their way into the building. […] They were repelled by books dropped from the third floor. I particularly remember Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution doing significant damage.’ (p171). A beautiful idea is thought-provoking (especially where I disagree with his conclusions) but best read with a critical eye: I think it may not be the final word on the history of Freedom Press.


1, see NO DESPONDENCY: The International Anarchist Manifesto On The War February 1915 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/mpg5xs

2, John Quail, The slow burning fuse p212

3, see https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/4xgzk7

4, Mark Hendy, email to the author 28 December 2018.

5, Nine members of the anarchist resistance were sentenced to death. Four (Miguel Garcia Garcia, Domingo Ibars Juanias, José Corral Martin and Antonio Moreno Alarcon) had their sentences commuted the night before the executions. Pedro Adrover Font, Santiago Amir Gruanas, Jorge Pons Argiles, Jose Pérez Pedrero and Gines Urrea Pina were shot on the 14th of March, 1952. See ‘1952: Barcelona executions, global protests’ in this issue [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/nzs92j] and http://kslnotes.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/a-leaflet/ Reports about the protest campaign appear in Freedom from 16 February 1952 onwards (see https://freedomnews.org.uk/archive). The London protest meeting took place on 27 March.

Miguel’s tribute to Jose Pérez Pedrero is at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/7m0d65. There’s a report on Miguel’s meeting in Freedom 21 February 1970. Stuart Christie says ‘Don’t know where they got that about John Rety reading out Miguel’s talk. I interpreted for him that night and he certainly never had any speech prepared, all his talks were extempore, he was a natural.’ (email to the author, 23 January 2019). Correction: “John Rety may well have read out Miguel’s speech: [when freed] he lost his voice for around 6 or 7 months (possibly psychological).” [SC] See also Stuart Christie’s tribute: https://kslnotes.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/remembering-miguel-garcia-by-stuart-christie/

6, ‘Tourism and Spain: A Rejoinder from the Notting Hill Group’ Freedom 21 September 1963. Joaquin Delgado Martínez and Francisco Granado Gata (often referred to as Granados and Delgado) have been called ‘the Spanish Sacco and Vanzetti’. Octavio Alberola says they were executed (despite their innocence) ‘to show, above all, that State security was working and that it would show no mercy to those daring to oppose the regime’ (Revolutionary activism: the Spanish resistance in context, KSL 2000). If you doubt that Richards ‘surrounded himself with people who were more than capable of putting a degree of venom into their copy when required’, (p148) you should read Philip Sansom’s attack on the NHAG in Freedom, 28 Sept. 1963.

7, ‘Genesis of our group’ The wooden shoe no.1 p10 (summer 1967) at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/83bmcw (thanks to CIRA Lausanne).

8, A copy is in the folder (134) of Nicolas Walter’s papers in Amsterdam devoted to Albert Meltzer.

9, John Pilgrim ‘Salvation by the working class: is it an outmoded myth?’ p291 Anarchy 68, October 1966 p289-300; Albert Meltzer ‘Anarchism and the working class: a reply’ p41 Anarchy 72, February 1967 p39-49

10, Mark Hendy, email to the author 28 December 2018.

11, Statement by the Black Flag Group to the Liverpool Conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, Sept., 1968 [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/5x6bxp]

12, See ‘In-joke for anarchists’ Black Flag, v.2, no.12, (June 1972) and the review of Lessons in Black Flag v.2, n.13 (30 July 1972)

13, followers of Luigi Galleani (anti-organisational anarchist communist): they had been associated with the newspaper L’Adunata dei refrattari.

Corrections and queries

There are some unsupported opinions and factual errors in the book. Such errors can become ‘received wisdom’ if left unchallenged.

16 Kropotkin’s ‘hostility towards propaganda by the deed’ may have been known privately but ‘Never once in all his revolutionary career has our comrade passed judgment on those whom most so-called revolutionists had only too willingly shaken off – partly because of ignorance and partly because of cowardice – those who had committed political acts of violence’ (Emma Goldman in the December 1912 Mother Earth celebrating his 70th birthday). Indeed his letters to Berkman (imprisoned for his attempt to assassinate Frick) in prison always had the title ‘political prisoner’ in the address and he tried to see him in the Western Penitentiary but was refused.

17 Bloody Sunday 1886 is described as a ‘boost’. John Quail (The slow burning fuse, p72) describes it as ‘a defeat but this did not in itself represent a defeat for a policy of riot.’

22 There were no ‘Walsall bombings’. Coulon the provocateur only arranged for the casting of a shell which could be used to make a bomb.

23 The May Day protest (1892) was not part of the campaign for Mowbray and Nicoll. John Quail sees the number of anarchists speaking that day as ‘an indication of growing Anarchist strength’ (The slow burning fuse, p129)

25 Don’t rely on Ford Madox Ford too much: ‘William Michael was not her Majesty’s Secretary to the Inland Revenue but rather a clerk in the Excise Office’ (Jennifer Shaddock’s intro to the reprint of A Girl Among the Anarchists p.vii)

31 In 1891 Emma Goldman was an active supporter of the German language anarchist paper Die Autonomie: Anarchistisch-Communistisches Organ which republished parts of The Conquest of Bread. Meeting Kropotkin (in 1895) may well have refined her understanding but she was an anarchist communist well before she met him.

37 Heiner Becker in Freedom: A Hundred Years says Turner did ‘no more than lend his name for the letterhead’ of the Voice of Labour ie he took the official role of publisher (p12). I assume this is where the idea Turner has his name ‘on the masthead as publisher’ comes from? [At the bottom of the last page of each issue is ‘Printed and published for the proprietor by T. H. Keell, 127 Ossulton St, London N.W.’]

42 W. C. Owen was writing from Hayward, California – not Mexico.

50 ‘Senex’ here isn’t Mark Schmidt but William C. Owen reappearing under a pen name.

57 Freedom Bulletin ended in 1932 (not 1937).

59 Emidio Recchioni did finance plots against Mussolini. ‘Allegedly’ is better reserved for cases where we really can’t tell. See https://web.archive.org/web/20221208231151/http://christiebooks.co.uk/2012/02/the-story-of-king-bomba-emidio-recchioni-1864-1934/

63 Why is it untypical for Nettlau to support Montseny?

66 Workers in Uniform wasn’t the official bulletin of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, but rather a secret bulletin for the armed forces.

87 Frank Leech lived for 8 years after the end of the War, dying in 1953; The new Freedom did have a change of title. It became Freedom through Anarchism rather than Freedom: A journal of Anarchist Communism.

119 Anarchy second series was not only edited by Phil Ruff – see his account in this issue [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/pc87wq]

139 The raid on Freedom in February 1968 was on the same explosives warrant used to search the home of Stuart Christie because a mortar was found facing the Greek embassy in January. This and other raids were not related to Northern Ireland (British troops were deployed there 18 months later).

153 The Angry Brigade was not the only post-war anarchist ‘illegalist revolutionary group’. See the First of May Group, the Second of June Movement and the MIL (Iberian Liberation Movement), amongst others.

167 To mention the Direct Action Movement without discussing the miners’ strike or anti-poll tax campaign seems shortsighted.

280 Freedom Press organised a protest meeting after five CNT members were executed in Barcelona. That some death sentences were commuted was due to a broader protest campaign. See note five above.

A Beautiful Idea: history of the Freedom Press anarchists by Rob Ray. 300 pages. Freedom Press, 2018, ISBN 9781904491309, £9.50 https://freedompress.org.uk/product/a-beautiful-idea-history-of-the-freedom-press-anarchists/

[April 2020 update: We have done some digging into the 1945 split in British anarchism, and the intro can be seen here: https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/73n757 with the full chronology at http://katesharpleylibrary.pbworks.com/w/page/139511268/The%201945%20split%20in%20British%20anarchism]

[March 2023 update: For more on the Wooden Shoe bookshop, see ‘The Wooden Shoe is on the other foot: examining a myth’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 109, March 2023 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/jsxnnt]