‘Not a good look’? Reading Dave Cope on British anarchist publishing history

Dave Cope is a veteran radical bookseller and part of the Radical Bookselling History group. He has written an article on ‘Anarchist Papers, Publishing and Bookshops’.[1] This is part of his project to write ‘a history of the Radical Book and Book Trade from 1780’[2] in Britain. The article is a synthesis based mainly on reading and comparing two books: Albert Meltzer’s I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation (1996) and Rob Ray’s A Beautiful Idea: History of the Freedom Press Anarchists (2018). Cope’s article contains many errors (some of which seem to arise when Cope rewrites his source material). It’s been hard to know how to respond. I worry that errors in print develop a life of their own; but is it possible to make corrections without looking vindictive (or worse, suggesting you don’t make mistakes)? Is it better to get on with your own work? I disagree with some of Cope’s interpretations but there are already some pieces in the KSL bulletin that I think shed some light on them.

Albert, memory and Workers in Uniform 

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels is a memoir and Albert’s coming to terms with the past. Every memoir depends on hindsight and should be treated as a starting point, to be checked against primary sources, rather than a finished history. For example, Albert refers to Workers in Uniform as a wartime bulletin of the Anarchist Federation;[3] in his earlier memoir he described it as ‘a privately circulated bulletin’[4] I think this is possibly Albert’s memory of working on the (untitled) circular letters that Freedom Press issued to members of the armed forces during WW2 (copies are preserved in the National Archives).[5] Ray describes Workers in Uniform as a bulletin; in Cope it’s described as a paper.[6] I mention the split of 1945 several times below. Albert’s accounts are always influenced by a certain amount of hindsight: at the time he stood alongside Freedom Press.[7] 

Albert, ‘sectarianism’ and conflict

Cope reacts badly to Albert’s self-declared sectarianism. He treats it as a synonym for ‘prejudice’, rather than asking what positive value Albert saw in it:

What is wrong with sectarianism? It is the opposites of “catholic” – a movement based on “catholic” principles is authoritarian, because it wishes to include all tendencies but subject them to one discipline and one thought. The Communist Party and the Vatican are typical. But a sectarian lets each tendency “gang its ain gait” [go its own way] and contribute to a general aim.’[8]

Cope introduces Albert like this: ‘Meltzer was unapologetically sectarian, scornful of the Freedom tradition in particular, but he was active for over 60 years in the movement, read widely, knew many of the main activists in the different trends and had a sense of history and of the need to record it.’[9] Given that Albert wrote in Spain and the World, Revolt!, War Commentary and Freedom – this makes me wonder what ‘the Freedom tradition’ is, and who invents it? When did Freedom Press stop being Anarcho-Syndicalist? When did Albert become a critic of Freedom Press?

Later, Cope claims ‘Anarchist publishing’s most damaging feud was the long-standing enmity between Meltzer (1920-1996) and [Vernon/Vero] Richards (1915-2001). Meltzer’s paper Black Flag has been described by David Goodway as “cantankerously militant”. This also describes his autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels. Meltzer proudly claims he never changed any opinion from the age of 15, which is generally not a good look for anyone interested in politics.’ […] ‘He was an activist and very well read but not a thinker and despised academics. He dismissed CND and the New Left as “a diversion from the class struggle”. His endlessly repeated outbursts against the Freedom group do not help his cause: “bourgeois-pacifist”, “Failed Mandarins”, etc. just become a bore.’[10]

I have my doubts about much of this. I think that the idea that Albert’s criticism of Freedom Press arose from and amounted to a personal conflict with Vero is a narrative constructed to downplay his political differences with Freedom Press generally (see mention of the Wooden Shoe bookshop below). Cope obviously agrees with Goodway’s verdict[11] but what did people outside the Freedom Press circle make of Black Flag at different times? Were Freedom Press ever ‘sectarian’ (in either sense)? Cope doesn’t think so: don’t they claim to be ‘open to all trends’?[12] and ‘We have seen the help Freedom gave to other organisations.’[13] One insight of Ray’s that Cope ignores is that Nicolas Walter’s ‘attempt to disqualify [the Angry Brigade] through definitional pedantry’ […] ‘went down extremely badly in the wider movement’.[14] Cope mentions various British anarchist papers of the 1970’s and that ‘all were critical of Freedom’[15] but neglects to ask why.

Albert the unchanging?

I have not seen any written claim by Albert that ‘he never changed any opinion from the age of 15’. I assume that is Cope’s interpretation of ‘The Anarchism I advocated from the start, and never varied from is that born of the class struggle, which was certainly taken into account by philosophers but came out of the working class. It had a proud fighting history in the struggle against Statism and every exploitative system.’[16] I would think claiming loyalty to basic principles, or even ‘I never give up’[17] is common in political memoirs.

Albert’s attitudes did change over time, which shows even in his autobiography. He tells of worrying what a workmate and wife would think of his young anarchist comrades: ‘She looked a treat, but I wondered what she would make of her first sight all those scruffy individuals in torn jeans sitting around on the lawn smoking pot, with children and dogs running around them, listening to Jimi Hendrix. To my surprise, she thoroughly enjoyed herself. And it was nice for me to lose a prejudice too. I thought I had none to lose.’[18]

I suspect the problem is not that Albert is ‘not a thinker’ (which makes you wonder how he wrote books and articles) but that he is the wrong sort of thinker. ‘Albert Meltzer and the fight for working class history’ pointed out that Albert’s historical writing was ‘punchy, humorous and anecdotal.’[19] I think Albert took on the role of remembering and recording anarchist history that Mat Kavanagh had filled before him. Phil Ruff declared Albert ‘was a perfect example of a working-class intellectual who had never been to university’.[20] To Albert, remembering what people in the movement had told him was far more important than ‘looking up dated reference books, and passing it off as knowledge.’[21]

Who did Albert react badly to?

Albert certainly despised George Woodcock for his lies about Spanish Anarchists.[22] It’s worth noting that Albert and Woodcock were both, for their own reasons, happy to backdate their conflict to the 1940s; yet the documents from the time don’t show any such friction. Albert did react badly to ‘progressive’ intellectuals, whether they claimed to lead the working class or to have reinvented anarchism. Albert had friendships with other working class radicals like Frank Ridley (ILP)[23] and Joe Thomas (council communist).[24] He respected the working class writer Ethel Mannin.[25] Even when he criticised Herbert Read as a liberal, he appreciated that ‘he did put his money where mouth was when his ear was bashed.’ […] which ‘greatly relieved Pa Chin [Ba Jin]’s position.’[26]

Albert was willing to work with people from privileged backgrounds: he wrote a warm tribute to Audrey Beecham of Somerville College, Oxford because she had aided the anarchist resistance to Franco.[27] Albert seemed to react most badly when people from outside the working class, like Nicolas Walter, decided they were best qualified to judge what anarchism is – over the objections of working class anarchists. Albert moved away from Freedom Press from the 1960s onwards as it became increasingly identified with the ideas and concerns of middle class intellectuals. Not everyone felt as strongly: in 1986 Albert lamented ‘Responses to Freedom Press clique have been described by our friends as “terminally boring” but can we let everything pass?’[28] Yet Albert was not alone in turning away from Freedom Press. The ‘sectarianism’ that Cope laments enabled Albert to connect with younger generations of anarchists: ‘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.’[29]

Ray, Rooum and the Wooden Shoe

Cope embraces Rob Ray, declaring him ‘a model of fairness’[30], taking his proclaimed neutrality at face value. A Beautiful Idea is an attempt to write a balanced history of Freedom Press but I’m not sure Ray is as neutral as he thinks he is. Over time I’ve noticed how A Beautiful Idea is a synthesis of previous stories. Ray incorporates stories from Donald Rooum without checking them against primary sources. For example, Ray repeats the story that the Wooden Shoe Bookshop is the source of the conflict between Albert and Freedom Press, trusting that the story (written forty years after the event) is true while attempting to refine the details.[31]. 

Rooum’s story was challenged in ‘The Wooden Shoe is on the other foot: examining a myth’: ‘There never was a plan for the Wooden Shoe to move in with Freedom Press, it was the other way round; and the bookshop closed before Freedom Press moved to Whitechapel in 1968.’ ‘Rooum’s tale of the conflict as a personal one between Albert and Vero is an attempt to rewrite what happened (from an enthusiastic participant in the conflict). There’s no doubt that Albert criticised Vero but I suspect initially the problem was not Vero’s ideas but his inaction. In 1973 Albert lamented “The weekly ‘Freedom’ was built up by the Anarchist Movement as a whole. It was taken over by the Freedom Press Group (not the same thing as Freedom Press which had existed many years before). The last survivors of this group have let it drift into the hands of a body we can only describe as Non-Violent Fascists.”’[32] The context of Albert’s invention of ‘Non-Violent Fascism’ (for ‘non-violent’ authoritarianism) can be seen in his exchange with Nicolas Walter in 1975.[33]

On other occasions, Ray includes Rooum’s stories without indicating their origin. So, Cope’s account of the purchase of Express Printers repeats[34] Rooum’s story that ‘another printer lent money on condition of keeping the Hebrew type’. Rooum recounts this story in 2008; it appears nowhere else until Ray repeats it.[35] Contemporary records give this breakdown of where the money came from: ‘Members of the present Freedom Press Group raised 26% [of the cost]; [VR crossed out] FP by mean of [‘a private’ crossed out] loans raised from sympathisers raised 55%; The Comrades of the Anarchist Federation raised 15%; Comrades not in AF or FP Groups raised 4%’[36] Maybe this is another instance where there might be more details in the Freedom Press or Vernon Richards Papers at the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam?

Legends of the Split

Following the split of 1945 Vernon Richards and Marie Louise Berneri were confronted at home, at gunpoint, on the 30th of January 1946 by Tom Brown, Ken Hawkes, Bill Borland and Tom Reilly who demanded money to start a new anarchist publication. They were given a cheque for £25 ‘after considerable discussion’. The cheque ‘was presented on Friday afternoon, February 1st. 1946, by Bill Borland, who endorsed it. Borland was photographed as he left the bank by comrades who were indignant at the incident of Wednesday morning, and were determined no denials should be possible.’ This is described in the summation of what happened, produced by the London Anarchist Group for a conference of all sides in the split, held on 30th of March 1946.[37] 

It seems not to have been mentioned again until Woodcock wrote that opponents of Freedom Press ‘extorted money at gunpoint from two members of our group whose apartment they raided.’[38] In 2015 David Goodway reported that ‘Cliff Holden, a former member of the War Commentary collective who was to become a painter as David Bomberg’s pupil at the famous Borough Polytechnic class, tells me how he marched Berneri with a pistol in her back to withdraw money from the bank.’[39] Holden dramatised the split, inserting himself into it in the most dramatic fashion. The contemporary sources show Holden was not there, so could not have been one of those who held a gun, and no-one was marched to the bank.

In 2018 Rob Ray’s account is even more dramatic. ‘The tales about what happened next are varied, but David Goodway managed to track down a definitive member of the four, Cliff Holden, who recounted that he was the one who put a pistol to the back of Berneri’s head and marched her to the bank’.[40] Cope says ‘It appears that a group of them forced Berneri to go to the bank – one putting a gun to her head – and give them £25’.[41] By this point, though Holden is not mentioned, Ray’s story about a gun being put to Berneri’s head is repeated as true. No contemporary documents or memories report a gun being put to anyone’s back or head. A story evolves and is presented as ‘history’.

Lilian Wolfe

Wolfe was a major figure in the history of Freedom Press. Cope speculates that she ‘presumably’ sold anarchist literature at her health food shop.[42] I have found no evidence for this beyond one comment from her son: ‘Q. What did she sell in her shop? As well as food – literature? T. Not much in the way of literature. She also sold herbs…’[43] Which doesn’t strike me as a cast-iron confirmation.

Cope also claims that Wolfe was a paid worker for Freedom Press: ‘The increase in printing business enabled the group to offer a wage to Lilian Wolfe to manage the Press.’[44] this expands on A Beautiful Idea where Wolfe gave up ‘her main income running a shop in Stroud to become a full-time administrator for the Press’.[45] The obituary Vero wrote for Wolfe shows that she was not paid: ‘when we tried to discuss money matters with her, we were cut short by her assuring us that there was no problem. With her pension she could manage, adding “I have budgeted to live until I am 80!” […] For her, freedom was time, and the smaller her material demands the less time would she have to spend making the money to buy those things and the more time to do the things she wanted to do – including working for no money!’[46]

Some other errors

Cope’s account of syndicalism manages to ignore its origins in France; make it identical to anarcho-syndicalism and credit it to the revolutionary industrial unionists of the IWW.[47]

He quotes Ray that War Commentary was ‘“sold in just three bookshops” – unfortunately not named (Flynn’s Bomb Shop in Bristol, Collets, and the ILP’s Socialist Bookshop would be my guess’.[48] War Commentary April 1940 identifies the shops as the Socialist Bookshop [ILP], 235 St Brides Street [London E.C.], Collets [London W.C.] and the Anarchist Bookshop, 127 George Street, Glasgow.

Cope says that Tom Brown is arrested ‘for distributing seditious leaflets’.[49] This is actually ‘Tom W. Brown (not to be confused with Tom Brown, the author of Trade Unionism or Syndicalism and The British General Strike)’.[50]

His account of the second series of Anarchy is inaccurate: ‘A new series of Anarchy was set up under Phil Ruff in 1972. This became an independent production, moved closer to ‘class struggle’ anarchism but returned to the Freedom fold briefly in the 1980s.’[51] The second series of Anarchy began in 1971, was edited by a collective which Phil Ruff joined later. ‘Returned to the fold’ is a misunderstanding of Ray’s description of them ‘working out of Angel Alley’[52] – Phil remembered ‘we received correspondence via a post box at Freedom Press, but absolutely no other assistance from them. And eventually we were told by Freedom to go elsewhere and please never darken their doors again.’[53]

More digging

Cope would like to hear from people who have worked in anarchist bookshops, or who could help ‘produce a comprehensive listing of anarchist magazines, publishers and books’.[54] The Kate Sharpley Library will try and let him know of anarchist bookshops that don’t appear in his ‘Radical Bookshops Listing’.[55] Does anyone know the names of shops we should pass on? I wonder if British anarchists just as likely to work through mail order, or street selling papers, books and pamphlets as starting their own bookshops? There’s a thread (not exclusively anarchist) on ‘What magazine/paper/periodical most shaped your political thinking?’ which has some relevant material on Urban75.[56] 

If anyone has memories (or primary sources) about the circulation of anarchist ideas in print they should get in touch. Likewise if you’re already researching how those ideas circulated in the past. There’s always more digging to be done to uncover the complexities of anarchist history.


1, Cope, ‘Anarchist Papers, Publishing and Bookshops: An Introduction’ Radical Bookselling History Newsletter no.6, (May 2023) p.49-87. https://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/pdf/Radical-Bookselling-History-Newsletter-Issue-6-May-2023.pdf and via www.radicalbooksellers.co.uk
2, Cope p.86
3, Meltzer p.93 ‘Internment and Discernment’
4, Albert Meltzer The Anarchists in London 1935-1955 p.22
5, See ‘DISTURBANCES: Anarchist organizations including the Freedom Press Anarchists: history, aims and reports on activities; War Commentry newspaper’ https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4762053 
6, Ray p.66; Cope p.60
7, Anyone attempting to understand the 1945 split is encouraged to read the chronology at http://katesharpleylibrary.pbworks.com/w/page/139511268/The%201945%20split%20in%20British%20anarchism
8, ‘The tyranny of words’ by ‘Sectarian’ Black Flag v2, n8 (1 November 1971) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/j9kg11
9, Cope p.49
10, Cope p.69
11, from ‘Freedom, 1886–2014: an Appreciation’ History Workshop Journal, v79, Issue 1, (Spring 2015) p.233-242 https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbv001
12, Cope p.64
13, Cope p.70
14, Ray p.156
15, Cope p. 71
16, Meltzer p.174 ‘Half-time summing-up’
17, Meltzer p.376 ‘Looking forward’
18, Meltzer p.323 ‘“Anarchy”’
19, ‘Albert Meltzer and the fight for working class history’ KSL Bulletin no.76, (October 2013) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/qz62j9
20, ‘Remembering Albert Meltzer 25 years on’ Freedom News website https://freedomnews.org.uk/2021/05/07/remembering-albert-meltzer-25-years-on/
21, Meltzer p.166 ‘How the Thames was lost’
22, See ‘Slaughter or slander? Notes on the Albert Meltzer-George Woodcock conflict’ KSL Bulletin no.107-108, (December 2022) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/cjt075
23, See ‘Obituary: F.A. Ridley (1897-1994)’ Black Flag no.205 (1994) https://files.libcom.org/files/blackflag205.pdf
24, See ‘Joe Thomas [obituary]’ Black Flag no.198 (May 1990) reprinted in KSL Bulletin no.106, (September 2022) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/gmsd1x 
25, See ‘Ethel Mannin (1900-1985)’ KSL Bulletin no.9, (1997) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/mpg58h
26, Meltzer p.199 ‘The Shadow of the Tong’ 
27, ‘Audrey Beecham [1915-89]’ Black Flag no.204 (Spring 1994) Reprinted with notes in KSL Bulletin no.106, (September 2022) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/tx97x7
28, ‘Liars and Liberals – the other anarchism. The Woodcock-Sansom school of falsification’ from Liars and Liberals (Black Flag supplement no.3) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/v9s6q9
29, Phil Ruff ‘Introduction’ Meltzer p.5
30, Cope p.49
31, Ray p.143
32, ‘The Wooden Shoe is on the other foot: examining a myth’ KSL Bulletin No. 109, (March 2023). https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/jsxnnt The quote is from Anon. ‘How to recapture ‘Freedom’ for the anarchist movement’ Black Flag v2, n15, (January 1973).
33, see ‘Nicolas Walter Letter on “non-violent fascism”’ Black Flag v4, no.3 (August 1975) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/93210v
34, Cope p.61
35, Donald Rooum ‘Freedom, Freedom Press and Freedom Bookshop: A short history of Freedom Press’ Information for Social Change no.27, (Summer 2008) https://ia802800.us.archive.org/9/items/information_for_social_change/ISC%2027%20Whole%20Issue.pdf and Ray p.71.
36, Briefing by London Anarchist Group (LAG) in 1946 for Conference discussing the split. 
http://katesharpleylibrary.pbworks.com/w/file/139485351/Conference%20summing%20up%20of%20affairs-LAG.pdf That the cost was £500 was recorded by Richards in Freedom: A Hundred Years p.29. 
37, Briefing (see note 36)
38, ‘Half a Life of Editing’ The Sewanee Review, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Summer, 1981) p.413 https://www.jstor.org/stable/27543876 A longer and less accurate account appeared in Woodcock’s memoir Letter to the Past in 1982.
39, David Goodway ‘Freedom, 1886–2014: an Appreciation’ History Workshop Journal, v79, Issue 1, (Spring 2015), p.233–242, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbv001
40, Ray p.77
41, Cope p.63
42, Cope p.59
43, Sharon Roughan, Ame Harper, and Judy Greenway ‘“I didn’t know I was the child of unusual parents”: Tom Keell Wolfe interview notes’, http://www.judygreenway.org.uk/wp/i-didnt-know-i-was-the-child-of-unusual-parents-tom-keell-wolfe-interview-notes/ [Her shop was Sunshine Health Stores in Stroud: KSL].
44, Cope p.61
45, Ray p.72
46, Vernon Richards ‘Remembering Lilian, 1875-1974’ Freedom (11 May 1974), reprinted in The Raven no.21. https://libcom.org/article/raven-21-feminism-anarchism-women
47, Cope p.57
48, Cope p.61
49, Cope p.62
50, ‘Anarchist Jailed [Tom W. Brown]’ War Commentary for Anarchism (October 1944) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/2bvrsb
51, Cope p.68
52, Ray p.119
53, Phil Ruff ‘The Invisible Dictatorship [a short history of Anarchy magazine (second series)]’ KSL Bulletin no.97-98, (February 2019) https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/pc87wq
54, Cope p.86
55, https://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/pdf/Radical-bookshops-Listing.pdf
56, https://www.urban75.net/forums/threads/what-magazine-paper-periodical-most-shaped-your-political-thinking.355346/