I had initially intended to avoid writing anything directly about the dramas that have erupted around the London Anarchist Bookfair – partly because I think there are more important issues, but also because I wasn’t there on the day, I haven’t been in a while, and I don’t really consider myself to be connected to the London activisty scene in any meaningful sense at this point. But as the controversy has rolled on and deepened, I think it’s gone beyond just being an issue for those who were directly involved, and seems to have become an important event for UK anarchism in general, and at the risk of being grandiose, it might even illustrate something broader about the possibilities that exist for the non-Labour-affiliated class-struggle left at this point in time – as I say, I may be being grandiose there, but apart from us, who else is there at the moment?
And, on a personal level, it’s nagged away at me, which is usually as good a reason as anyone has for writing anything, I think. More precisely, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else articulate some of the things I find uncomfortable about the situation, and I certainly haven’t seen them all put together in one place, so here goes. Since I wasn’t there, I’ll try as far as possible to avoid commenting on the events of the day itself, which I’m not really qualified to judge, and try to stick to discussing the more general political forces in play.
On the campaign against the gender recognition act:
To lay my cards on the table: I think transphobia is a form of bigotry, whether it calls itself “feminist” or not, and so to me excluding terfs is a no-brainer, the same way that someone like Troy Southgate wouldn’t and shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms. I understand that not everyone feels this way, and that there are people who, for instance, don’t have a firm opinion one way or the other on whether trans people should be treated as being the gender that they identify as; this is a subject that rests on some quite deep philosophical questions, like “what is a man?” or “what is a woman?”, and it seems futile to expect everyone to come to agreement on these points before any discussion can be had.
So, for the sake of argument, I want to leave aside the question of whether trans-exclusionary feminisms are bigoted or not, and look at the other features of the current campaign against the GRA. A few things stand out: that prominent members of this campaign are actively working with hardline tory MPs like David Davies – not just “being on the same side” in the way that, for instance, everyone who voted Leave is “on the same side as Boris Johnson and UKIP” and everyone who voted Remain is “on the same side as David Cameron and the CBI”, but actively collaborating with him and speaking at meetings he organises. Similarly, these people are happy to sell pictures to the Mail on Sunday, do interviews with Ian Miles “Hitler is my fucking idol” Cheong and write articles for the Sun, are quite open about their contempt for anarchism, and are so lacking in any connections to anarchism that they had to send an actual standing-for-Parliament-and-not-even-for-Class-War-or-the-SPGB politician to leaflet the bookfair.
Also, people who bring the police into political disputes are extremely dangerous, both to themselves and to those around them. This isn’t to say that I’d automatically condemn anyone who rings the cops in any situation, but I think that it’s only an understandable response in very extreme situations, and a bit of flailing around in a park doesn’t come close to crossing that line. In case anyone thinks I’m downplaying this, it’s worth being aware that after the Hyde Park fracas, Maria MacLachan took to social media to brag about “thrashing [someone] around like a ragdoll”, which makes the whole thing sound more like a form of mutually-agreeable letting off of steam, along the lines of roller derby, a moshpit or low-level football hooliganism, than a serious attack. I’m not saying this because I think violence is a good way of settling disputes, but because I recognise that bringing the police in means escalating the violence of a situation, not defusing it. This kind of stuff should be basic for anyone who has any kind of a critique of the state – which, just to reiterate, Maria MacLachan clearly doesn’t.
So, what do we draw from this? As far as I can see, a group like Momentum – or, for that matter, the Socialist Party, the Revolutionary Communist Group, Counterfire, RS21, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Communist Party, etc – is far less at odds with anarchist principles than the TERF crowd are. Not only is there the small matter of Momentum et al not basing their entire activity around demonising a marginalised and oppressed group, but also, to the best of my knowledge, they’re not currently collaborating with any hardline Tory MPs, working with the Daily Mail and the Sun, giving interviews to anti-feminist alt-right trolls, and so on. But, despite all this, if they asked for space to give out literature at an anarchist event, I would hope that they would be politely yet firmly instructed to jog on, a position that I would hope might be uncontroversial among anarchists.
It’s hard to see how this can be squared with some of the mug defences that have been offered of the TERF presence at the bookfair – after all, if “we will only remove literature or people from the Bookfair in extreme circumstances and not just because we disagree with it or them, even if they do cause offence”, then on what grounds could we possibly object to people filling a bookfair with comparatively innocuous stuff like Labour Party leaflets, the Socialist, Fight Racism Fight Imperialism, Counterfire, the Morning Star and so on? It does seem remarkable that some people can be so understanding of the idea that cis people need special cis people spaces because of some weird biological essentialism, and yet have so much difficulty with the principle that anarchist spaces should be used to promote ideas and campaigns that have some basic level of compatibility with anarchism.
I’ve seen people worrying that incidents like the Hyde Park and bookfair kerfuffles mean that it’s becoming impossible to have conversations about gender or what it means to be a woman. I don’t think that these people are bigots, but I do think they’re letting themselves be manipulated by some quite unpleasant forces. To offer an analogy: I personally am opposed to immigration controls, and I think that any support for border controls is a reactionary, anti-working-class position, but I recognise that other people’s opinions differ, and I think it’s legitimate to offer space for these discussions without just closing it down by branding everyone as a racist. However, if a meeting to discuss immigration was organised with Tommy Robinson, Nick Griffin and Paul Golding as featured speakers, I would hope that, at the very least, there would be some opposition to it, and if someone attending that meeting went up to the counter-protesters, stuck a cameraphone in their faces and refused to stop filming when asked, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that person ended up getting a slap.
If all that hypothetically happened, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over “conversations about immigration being closed down”, because I can grasp that there’s a subtle distinction between “you can’t have a conversation about these issues without being attacked” and “you can’t organise a discussion about these issues featuring extremely controversial speakers, then walk over to some people with a different opinion, start filming them and then refuse to stop filming when asked, without being attacked”. But whatever, I’m not the boss of anyone, so if people want to spend their time worrying about how the voices of “gender-critical feminists” are being suppressed so effectively that we can’t begin to hear about their perspectives, other than by reading their articles in the Sun or paying attention to the meetings that they’re invited to address in parliament, then they’re free to do that, I suppose.
Similarly, to run with the immigration comparison, there are some in the trade union movement, especially around the RMT, who argue for increased immigration controls from what they see as a left-wing, pro-working class perspective. I think these people are wrong, but I don’t think they’re fascists or anything similar, and it should be possible to discuss things with them, but at the same time, if they insisted on turning up to a meeting about coordinating practical resistance to immigration raids and the border regime, and trying to turn the conversation into a discussion of how they would imagine socialist immigration controls working under a hypothetical future Labour government, it would be perfectly reasonable to show them the door, because again there’s nothing wrong with wanting a basic minimum of political clarity.
That was really shit, counterproductive and embarrassing, and the nicest, most charitable thing I can find to say about it is that it was clearly the work of people whose conception of anarchism has been reduced to just the empty, unthinking repetition of a set of “radical” gestures. Just as I find myself suspicious of pro-bookfair takes and statements that gloss over the fact that politicians allied with grasses and tabloid/alt-right collaborators have no place at an anarchist bookfair, I’m equally suspicious of people from the anti-TERF side who fail to mention how shit and cringeworthy the banner-burning stunt was.
On the open letter:
Again, this was politics at the level of a pose, clearly not intended to be taken remotely seriously. The most obviously ludicrous thing about the letter is that a document demanding “A commitment to continue the “no cameras” and “no filming” rule without exception given” is signed by someone who has proudly and openly breached that rule and made the results public (I can’t provide a link, as they now seem to have taken it down, or at least made the post slightly more private, but if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you know who I mean) – god only knows what was going through that person’s head when they decided to attach their name to this letter, but for whoever’s coordinating it to accept that person’s signature, when they must be aware of that situation, would seem to indicate that they actually mean “no exceptions, unless it’s one of our mates”.
Secondly, there’s the whole issue of the conclusion – if the letter’s signatories really do believe that having big, public anarchist events is a desirable thing, and that it’s possible to organise a big, public anarchist event that totally avoids all the problems they discuss, then the only reasonable conclusion would be “if our demands are not met, then we will take it upon ourselves to organise an alternative event that will be loads better and dead inclusive and accessible, and will be really welcoming to everyone and no-one with any dodgy attitudes will turn up. As a sign of how serious we are about this, here is the affordable, accessible, appropriately-sized venue we’ve found which is free on a weekend that doesn’t clash with the UFFC march or anything similarly important.” Instead of this, there’s just a threat to picket the next bookfair, which seems like an implicit admission that the signatories don’t really think it’s possible to have a big public event that avoids the problems they discuss – or at least they don’t think it’s possible for them to organise it, which raises the question of how they expect the far smaller bookfair collective to do so.
Anyway, those are two glaringly obvious reasons why that open letter was a bad joke, but the problems don’t stop there. Instead of just complaining about the recent incident, it makes a much wider spread of allegations about: “a pattern of response from Bookfair organisers where incidents of transphobia, anti-semitism, islamophobia, racism and misogyny are ignored” and “racist imperialism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and ableism [becoming] part of the culture of the Bookfair”. Some of this I can at least see the reasoning for, with the stuff about misogyny presumably referring to things like the Assange fanboys who turned up a while back, but the claims about ableism and anti-semitism, for instance, are considerably more mysterious.
Since the letter’s organisers have refused to respond to repeated attempts to engage them in conversation, we have to do a bit of guesswork here. I’m still completely in the dark about what this supposed ableism involves, but I suspect the claim of “anti-semitism” is a reference to the drama about Active Distribution’s anti-religious banner. I can at least sort of understand why some people view this aggressively secularist/atheist position as being Islamophobic, as there has been a fair bit of crossover in recent years between militant atheism and active discrimination against Muslims, with secularism being invoked as an ideal by everyone from hijab-banning neoliberal/centrist politicians to the EDL; but, and this is important, there’s no kind of comparable overlap with anti-semitism. If we look at the strategies used by anti-semites in recent years, the most important ones would probably be spreading their influence in the general conspiracy theory milieu, and hiding their views in plain sight by exploiting internet cultures of irony and hyperbole (which, as people have noted, is a tactic that was identified back in the 1940s).
I can’t think of any contemporary examples of campaigns against Jews disguised as an atheist defence of secularism, which means that it’s pretty unworkable to try and claim that a general anti-religious banner is somehow anti-semitic. And, of course, the culture of traditional East End Yiddish anarchism had a strong and unapologetic anti-religious streak, which, among anarchist workers from Jewish backgrounds, manifested itself as a specific critique of Jewish institutions, so if a generic atheist banner can be taken as proof of anti-semitism, then the likes of Feigenbaum, Yanovsky and the Arbeiter Fraint group must have been tremendously racist against themselves.
Of course, the use of allegations of anti-semitism as a weapon is nothing new. Historically, defenders of the violence of the Israeli state have been keen to seize on the real anti-semitism displayed by some elements within the Palestine solidarity movement to try and portray all anti-zionism as being anti-semitic, and more recently the Labour right have been doing the same thing with Corbynism. As against this, I’ve always been sympathetic to the “boy who cried wolf” argument, often put forward by Jewish anti-zionists, which points out that anti-semitism is still mostly taboo and politically toxic, as can be seen by the way that even contemporary far-right populist movements like the EDL are more likely to fly Israeli flags than nazi ones. The argument goes that associating legitimate positions with anti-semitism, as if everyone who thinks that house demolitions aren’t really OK, or that it’d be nice to bring back British Rail, must be keeping a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion under the bed, may in the short term be an effective way of discrediting those positions, but in the long term it serves to destigmatize anti-semitism – over time, the taboo becomes much less powerful if the term becomes more associated with people asking you not to buy Jaffa oranges than with gas chambers.
Probably the best practical example of this kind of progressive destigmatization is the declining fortunes of red-baiting in America – having been an effective weapon against the left for generations, the word “socialism” and even “communism” has lost its sting, and “socialism” understood as mildly redistributive social democracy is now an increasingly mainstream option.
It’s this that makes the unthinking, indiscriminate use of “anti-semitism” in the bookfair open letter so troubling: if a generic anti-religious banner that does not mention Jews or Judaism at all can be anti-semitic, then everything can be anti-semitic, and if everything is anti-semitic then nothing can be meaningfully identified or criticised as anti-semitic… and I can think of one group who would benefit from that being the case, and it certainly isn’t Jews.
Again, all of this is operating under the assumption that the charge of anti-semitism relates to that atheist banner; if there are other, more serious pieces of evidence for the claim, then they certainly haven’t been discussed widely. Since the publication of the letter I have also seen people raise the issue of David Rovics, who apparently has dodgy views on the subject, being booked to play at an afterparty, but that’s the first time I’d seen any mention of it – there certainly doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of objections raised beforehand, let alone any evidence of the collective dismissing it.
So, if I’m right about the charge of anti-semitism being extremely shaky, and the claims of ableism and imperialism having been similarly plucked out of thin air, then why did so many people sign a document making such strong claims with no attempt to back them up? Again, this is sheer guesswork on my part, but I suppose the most charitable/plausible explanation would be some people just not really bothering to read and adding their names in a general spirit of support for trans comrades and opposition to TERFs; more sinisterly, it might be that some people have arrived at a position where, since the bookfair collective have been found guilty of being a bit terfy, or at least soft on those who are, they are now so far beyond the pale that all methods are permissible against them.
This may sound a bit harsh, but I do feel that, unless there’s some really really convincing evidence of widespread anti-semitism, imperialism and ableism that for some reason no-one has bothered making public, it’s unlikely that everyone who signed the letter really believes those charges have been proved; if I’m right, and there are people in the milieu who are willing to put their name to an accusation that they don’t personally believe to be true, then that would suggest that they have arrived at a place where they don’t really care whether people are enabling anti-semitism or not, where the question just isn’t important enough to make a fuss about. For fairly obvious reasons, I think that thought is at least as disturbing as anything the bookfair collective are alleged to have done, or to have turned a blind eye to.
On the bigger picture:
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the whole drama unfurled at roughly the same time as libertarian/autonomist group Plan C were publishing their series of flirtations with the Labour Party, but it sort of feels like there’s a connection to be drawn there. Certainly, it’s too early to say what effect Corbynism will end up having on the class struggle in general, but I think it’s probably safe to say it’s had a negative effect on the anarchist movement, with people who, in another time and another place, might have been good anarchists ending up in the Labour Party; and, if this is what the alternative we can offer looks like, I really can’t blame anyone who prefers to spend their time elsewhere.
Of course, if the anarchist movement was in a better and healthier state, that by itself wouldn’t stop bigoted politicians from trying to latch on to our events, or numpties and flakes from running around starting fires and writing meaningless letters in response; but, if we had a slightly bigger teacup, these storms might seem less important, and it’d be easier to focus on things like all the people out there defeating landlords or organising in warehouses.
Among the many daft things that have been said about this issue, one that stuck in my head was a throwaway comment about “if you’re a young person getting into radical left politics as it’s about to take state power, difficult to understand why anyone would get into anarchism in 2017 tbh. like i can see how 10 years ago some people may have found it via all the occupy stuff but now… nah”. Leaving aside the obvious idiocy of someone thinking that 2011/2 was 10 years ago, and the self-confident smugness, surely the point has to be that, when “the radical left” is supposedly “about to take state power”, that is precisely when you most need people with a realistic understanding of the contradictions and limitations of trying to use state institutions to bring about radical change.
As charmingly enthusiastic as the fresh-faced new social democrats may be, I’m not convinced that many of them have an understanding of history that goes back as far as July 2015. And so, while we may not be able to beat them, or even out-organise them, I don’t think joining them is really an option either.
It probably won’t be particularly easy or gratifying to be an anarchist in the weeks, months, or years to come, for all sorts of reasons, but then that’s never the point. It does feel sad that, 100 years after the anarchist sailor Anatoli Zhelezniakov stormed the Winter Palace and helped usher in a regime that would brutally destroy the anarchist movement, some of us are still so easily manipulated by people who clearly don’t have our best interests at heart. If you’re still reading this, and you live in that part of the world, it might be nice if you fancy coming to the Manchester & Salford Bookfair at the start of December, but maybe, while you’re there, try and avoid giving out any provocatively bigoted leaflets, setting anything on fire, or throwing around massively serious political claims that you don’t feel like substantiating.