Thoughts on Anarchism in ‘the Thatcher years’

I should be more careful what I wish for. I’d like to see an account of the (rather messy) history of British anarchism in the 1980s. I saw that a chapter on ‘British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism’ by Rich Cross was due to be published in ‘Against the grain’ (a volume of essays on ‘the British far left from 1956’, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley). Only a chapter, but that might be a start (even if the hardback did cost £70). Three years later it’s out in paperback.

To start at the end, Cross finishes off with ‘By the close of the decade, the cyclical nature of British anarchism’s advance and retreat appeared to be reconfirmed. Neither the anarcho-punk experiment nor the Class War dalliance with unreconstructed “class politics of the mob” had settled the key questions facing the movement. The issues of organisation, practice, alliance formation, the relationship between reform and revolutionary ambition, resilience, flexibility and more – none of these had been decisively resolved.’ [p148] I’m not sure about this ‘advance and retreat’ idea, since it leaves out the context in which the movement operated. And as to the list of unresolved issues: what was missing – some perfect conference resolution? When are such issues ever ‘resolved’, except in practice?

He concludes ‘perhaps the contemporary outcome of the “restorative” political efforts of the agents of Class War and of anarcho-punk has been to contribute to the convergence of an anarchist politic able to see value in the battles being fought in both the counter-cultural and the class wars.’ By which he’s referring to ‘New forms of mobilisation […] such as Reclaim the Streets, anti-roads protests, Earth First! And more recently the world-wide Occupy! initiative’ that ‘have evoked more echoes of the activist-centred anarchist punk practice than the orthodox class perspectives of [the] 1970s.’ [p148]

I’m not sure that those ‘orthodox class perspectives’ were quite as simplistic as Cross thinks. I suspect some stalwarts of the class struggle – whether in the 1960s or the 1980s – may have partaken of counter-cultural musical delights and been influenced by ‘new social movements’ like feminism without losing the fire in their bellies. That might not fit Cross’s neat narrative of anarchist progress, though. Why should we be surprised that class struggle anarchism looks different when the class struggle is less on the boil?

I’d feel less annoyed if this chapter was called ‘Anarcho punk and Class War in the era of Thatcherism’. Other groups are mentioned, but a mention is pretty much all they get. The ‘celebrated 1982 Zig Zag squat gig’ takes up more space than the miners strike (1984-85). Which says more about what Cross wants to focus on than it does about the history of ‘British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism’.

Anarcho-punk certainly was self-expression and it did bond together a subculture. But I have my doubts about just how successful it was at making ‘the anarchist case’ [p137]. Which of course was a subject for debate then and in retrospect. This comment stuck with me: ‘Endless arguments about Miners eating meat were never the real issue. The point was that these were the very Mums and Dads you spiked your hair up to piss off in the first place! By supporting them anarchopunks became anarchists – became genuinely political’ [1]

Writing a chapter really puts you on the spot because you must leave so much out. Cross and I obviously disagree about what’s most important. But what’s the upshot? The editors of the collection in their intro – inevitably – lean on what the authors of the chapters say (or imply) and come out with this pearl: ‘Class War became the primary anarchist group of the late 1980s’ [p11] To speak plainly, that’s wrong. Yes, they were there and they were good comrades. But ‘primary’? Utter bollocks. But we’ll see it endlessly repeated now it’s in print. That’s the danger of history. Not everything has been written down, and the stuff that’s most visible isn’t always the most informative!

Class War never needed to be asked if they would like to join the struggle. They produced some memorable lines. Cross reports Class War’s Andy Murphy defending the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax rioters as ‘working-class heroes’ [p143]. Could the Direct Action Movement have come up with that without three months and a special conference? Class War were good at self-promotion leavened with humour. But there were other class struggle anarchists – does ‘less visible’ equal ‘less important’?

Dave Douglass said something along the lines of: During the miners’ strike, the anarchist press was gladly received in the pit villages: Class War for amusement; Black Flag for analysis. No-one I’ve asked has been able to find the quote, though Dave did comment: ‘Yes I wrote that, not sure where it was quoted, its true though, Class War influenced the young miners and struck a cord with them in their demeanour, rebellion and lack of reverence.’ It’s ironic that the quote has escaped into the shadows of history. But I think it suggests how much more digging needs doing before we rest on our laurels.

Still, rather than moan about the deficiencies of academic writing on anarchism (have you heard that one already?) should we not take this as a kick up the arse to put down what we know? Not for their benefit, but ours. If any comrades would like to write in with their recollections and analysis of anarchism in the Thatcher years, we’d like to hear from them.[2]

1, ‘Nostalgia in the UK’ by The Bash Street Kids in Smash Hits number 3 (Autumn 1998), p.3

2, see Tell me a story - anarchist history project:

[And if you can pin down the Dave Douglass quote, drop us a line…]