What can M. Gilliland’s The Free contribute to an understanding of the conceptual structure of modern British class struggle anarchism? There’s a General Strike on, and thousands were still arriving from the North suburbs who had missed the battle. People have marvelled at it, my prisoners were saying it, but to us it came natural. I saw a school full of prisoners, and street kitchens starting up, first aid stations, people queuing to give blood, lorries starting to get in and each building being checked over. In one shop they found six armed soldiers hiding in the toilet, and a dozen rioters hiding in the next room! It’s horrible in some ways, how life goes on. Later in the night we saw houses already being occupied, and jams of CoOp lorries moving out goods and supplies. There was plenty of personal looting. But one thing is cleared up, there’s no more question of us laying down our arms. We have stolen the entire city, maybe the whole country, and one day the whole world! The Revolution is happening and I seen it! [capitals as original]
What can M. Gilliland’s The Free contribute to an understanding of the conceptual structure of modern British class struggle anarchism?
There’s a General Strike on, and thousands were still arriving from the North suburbs who had missed the battle. People have marvelled at it, my prisoners were saying it, but to us it came natural. I saw a school full of prisoners, and street kitchens starting up, first aid stations, people queuing to give blood, lorries starting to get in and each building being checked over. In one shop they found six armed soldiers hiding in the toilet, and a dozen rioters hiding in the next room! It’s horrible in some ways, how life goes on. Later in the night we saw houses already being occupied, and jams of CoOp lorries moving out goods and supplies. There was plenty of personal looting. But one thing is cleared up, there’s no more question of us laying down our arms. We have stolen the entire city, maybe the whole country, and one day the whole world! The Revolution is happening and I seen it! [capitals as original]
The quote above - from Barney one of the central characters – outlines some of the assumptions of both the book and of modern British class struggle anarchism. The belief in working class self organisation (in the workplace and community) and the necessity of violent revolution to engender a new dawn of non-hierarchical libertarian communism are explicitly expressed in both The Free and in the aims and principles of class struggle anarchist groups such as Class War (CW) [which split into two factions in 1997s] and the Anarchist Communist Federation (ACF).
The Free is what Susan Suleiman calls an ideological novel, that is "novels that seek through the vehicle of fiction, to persuade their readers of the ‘correctness’ of a particular way of interpreting the world." She defines ideology for this purpose as "a recognised body of doctrine or system of ideas". It could equally be defined as a propagandist device or as Ellul says an "enterprise for perverting the significance of events". The events that are being examined in the novel are of the building up of a parallel illegal money-less economy based on co-operatives and syndicalist unions. This is all set within the failing economy of what appears to be, (although it is never named as such), a future Northern Ireland. The resulting bloody revolution and NATO backed counter-revolution are portrayed as forced upon the revolutionary organisations, (The Free), by the forces of capitalism and state power. A liberal capitalist interpretation (as given in the book as an example of state propaganda) would be of terrorists overthrowing a democratically elected government by force.
There have been many attempts by anarchists and libertarian communists to produce ideological novels. Examples include: William Morris’ News From Nowhere, (which was originally serialised in the late Nineteenth Century, Socialist League publication Commonweal); Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; J. Daniels’ Breaking Free; and G. A. Matiasz’s End Time. These novels are all very different, the thing that unites them (and The Free) is the positive way in which they portray anarchist aspirations. They could be seen as an anarchist sub-genre of Suleiman’s ideological novel genre: "a novelistic genre that proclaims its own status as both overtly ideological and as fictional". The books themselves are not explicitly propounding an ideology with little mention of anarchism or anarchist organisations in the text. Le Guin’s is the least obvious example (as can be seen in the illustration below) the cover gives nothing away.
She is an established science fiction writer, published by a mainstream publisher. The other modern examples are all ‘given away’ by their anarchist publishing houses such as that of The Free below.
Despite the circled A on the cover there is only one direct reference to anarchist principles in the text: when central character Max says
You’re making the whole thing sound mechanical like, like a fucking history book we’re talking about people man, our struggle for a better way of life you don’t even mention the basic things like the anarchist principles we fought for
With the link between The Free and anarchist aspirations suggested it is necessary to briefly look at what these groups are and what they say their conceptual structure is.
The existence of anarchist groups and their class struggle anarchist ideology in late Twentieth Century Britain can be explained by a number of factors. Historically they have existed in various forms since Morris’ and Peter Kropotkin’s time. They have always been marginal ineffective organisations, in terms of achieving their objective of world wide revolution. This is a description which CW would agree with. They go further and admit that there has in fact been a decline in numbers in the last issue of the pre-split CW:
The opposition - and by this we mean everybody who has an explicitly revolutionary outlook on the problems of the world - is few in number. We are marginal, fragmented and declining in influence. In short, what passes for a revolutionary movement in this country is pitiful.
Most of the existing groups were formed in the mid-Eighties or later, CW in 1983, ACF 1986 and Solidarity Federation (an anarcho-syndicalist group) in 1994. Despite their short lifespans they claim ancestry stretching back to the Fourteenth Century as CW say:
The Class War Federation [CWF] in Britain is part of a long and honourable tradition of working class resistance to oppression. We stand with the peasant revolts of 1381, 1450 and 1549, the Edinburgh ‘Porteous’ rising of 1736, the Levellers in the English Civil War . . .
This desire for an honourable past and the craving for a successful future indicated by the ideological fiction mentioned above comes from an unsuccessful present. As Attack International (a late 1980s anarchist publishing group) say about Breaking Free:
Unfortunately, this book is a work of fiction. We really wish it wasn’t. Every day it gets clearer and clearer that revolution is the only real option left to us. It might sound ridiculous to talk about "revolution" at the moment; but it’s much more ridiculous to talk about carrying on as we are.
Breaking Free ends with a successful revolution and as can be seen below a united working class determined to maintain their hard won autonomy.
The direct action, which the anarchist groups aspire to is not merely labour history and science fiction, they are genuinely involved in community and workplace activity in the present. The Battle of Trafalgar, Poll Tax conflict between demonstrators and armoured riot police (Trafalgar Square, 31 March 1990) was blamed at the time on anarchist organisations, a laughable accusation considering the size of the battle and the total membership of CW at the time of less than 300. However, CW and other anarchist groups were involved in anti-Poll Tax activity as can be seen from the front page below:
On the day of the battle only CW were prepared to publicly support the demonstrators with Andy Murphy (CW spokesperson) saying:
Those Poll Tax protesters who fought back against armoured riot police, with bits of stick and their bare hands were no less than working class heroes and get our full support
It is however the converting of these ‘working class heroes’ into revolutionaries which the anarchist groups long for.
The Free illustrates anarchists’ anticipation of the working class self-organising as a revolutionary class engendering our own emancipation. More importantly it also illustrates the belief that capitalism holds the seeds of its own destruction and that the working class need to be organised and ready to organise after the inevitable collapse of the present order. CW made this point in 1991:
By 1999, the urban war will be a permanent feature of everyday life in every benighted city on this septic isle. There will be guns and deaths on both sides, as the cops mutate into daleks, and a host of scrapheap geniuses become the weaponsmiths of the ghettoes. The army will be there, either in an advisory/intelligence role (as they were in Brixton in 1981), or on the streets dressed as cops (as they were in the miners strike), or both. Increasingly, the cost of maintaining civil order, both in casualties and finance, will be more than the state is prepared to pay in the rotting heartlands of our cities. . . . If we’re not careful, the 1990s in the cities could be the choice between these two options – occupation by brutal psycho-cops or terrorisation by criminal scum.
However anarchist groups do not see themselves as being the basis of this organisation but as propagandist organisations encouraging the working class to take this step. For example in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign anarchist groups sought to encourage the formation of anti poll tax unions and joined them as individual members unlike other leftist groups such as Militant who saw the campaign as an excuse to form a vanguardist front organisation. Barney one of The Free’s central characters makes this point at the beginning of the book prior to the setting up of the Free CoOps and Unions when he says:
See I know very well what’s going on, and all these so called Revolutionaries are doing is building up more power mad organisations, in exactly the same mould, if you know what I mean. That’s the way it always was, I suppose, only now the whole thing’s falling apart, it can’t go on much longer.
The concern with state and other forms of institutional power indicates two of the central "political concepts" of modern British class struggle anarchism: equality and freedom. Equality because the removal of hierarchy is designed to end oppression and exploitation. Freedom because the end of oppression allows total liberty. Of the two however the concept of equality is ‘ineliminable’ as M. Freedon defines a core concept without which the ideology would collapse. This is perhaps a surprising statement for an anarchist ideology as freedom is customarily seen as the central component, it fits well with David Miller's contention that "comunist anarchism is just a version of communitarian socialism". Both the book and the aims and objectives of class struggle anarchist organisations make this point clear. In the end stage of Gilliland’s novel, the Free reluctantly adopt a centralised "temporary War Council to coordinate all defence forces". It is made clear that it is more important to have an efficient military defence of their hard won equality than to maintain the direct democracy of decision making practised throughout the revolution. Illustrative of anarchist groups parallel views is the final paragraph of CWs latest aims and principles:
the aim of the CW Federation is to increase the militancy and self awareness of the Working Class in defending their interests and solving their problems. We do this through propaganda, active participation and debate as equals.
However, the two concepts are difficult to separate when viewed through the lens of class struggle anarchism. What is important to the ideology is the oppression of the international working class. The novel and the organisations spell this out.
The Free begins by identifying its central characters as culturally working class. Gilliland does this in the opening paragraph by writing the characters description in identifiable dialect:
sooner or later she’d tell all her fellas to fuck off, which only spurred them on more, men bein what they are. There was a whole gang of them down our way had their eye on Janice. Like a pack of randy dogs sniffing after her hole.
The Free does not present the entire revolutionary movement as working class but does insist they pursue working class aspirations. CW indicate their position by their name and devote a chapter of their book length political platform, Unfinished Business to the subject of identifying class and for the necessary victory of the working class. The ACF equally identify that:
Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. We aim for the abolition of all hierarchy, and work for the creation of a world-wide classless society: anarchist communism […] we recognise that the revolution can only be carried out by the working class.
Anarchist conceptual structure does not see economic class as the only form of hierarchy and exploitation to be opposed. Gilliland, gives Max an anarchist-feminist outlook. She criticises the Free Unions for behaving in a macho way which may threaten the gains that they have made:
it’s all men trying to force a confrontation to wank their egos, you know it’s true, it’s too far too fast. What if they use the army tomorrow! Take back the factories in the country where we’re weak, cut our supply routes to the farms, then you’ll see people turn just as quick
The ACF say "we believe that fighting racism and sexism is as important as other aspects of the class struggle", and CW have similar sentiments in their aims and principles although strangely they paraphrase Britain’s most sexist computer game advert on their latest front cover: "Get the girl, kill the baddies, save the entire planet". Irony perhaps; inexcusable hypocrisy definitely.
In conclusion the core concepts of The Free contribute much to an understanding of modern British class struggle anarchism. It can be seen as a "feel good" novel for those seeking the overthrow of capitalism. It acts as a propagandist device in the manner approved of in the aims and objectives of the organisations examined in this essay. Most importantly Gilliland’s novel creates a recognisable and believable vision of anarchist principles being put into practical use in the construction of a victorious social revolution.
ACF, Organise: for class struggle anarchism, issue No. 42, London, ACF, Spring 1996
Ed. Ian Bone, Alan Pullen and Tim Scargill, Class War: A Decade of Disorder, London, Verso, 1991
Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion, Stirling, AK Press, 1992
Class War Federation, This is Class War, Stirling, AK Distribution, 1989
Class War Federation, This is Class War, Revised edition, Stirling, AK Distribution, 1991
CW Federation, Unfinished Business: the politics of Class War, Stirling, AK Press, 1992
Class War, issue 73, Summer 1997
Class War, issue 77, Summer 1999
J. Daniels, The Adventures of TinTin: Breaking Free, London, Attack International, 1989
A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda, London, Methuen, 1983
Michael Freedon, ‘Political Concepts and Ideological Morphology’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol 2, No. 3, 1994
M. Gilliland, The Free, London, Hooligan Press, 1986
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, London, Grafton, 1975
G. A. Matiasz, End Time: Notes on the Apocalypse, Edinburgh, AK Press, 1994
David Miller, Modern Ideologies: Anarchism, London, Dent, 1984
William Morris, News From Nowhere, London, Camelot, 1970, (First published 1890)
Solidarity Federation, Direct Action, No. 10, Spring 1999
S. R. Suleiman, Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel As a Literary Genre, New York, Columbia, 1983
We’ve Got The Power, ACAB Press video,1990
George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, Second edition London, Penguin, 1986
Bill Whitehead, The Goldfish and the Revolutionary Anti-Poll Tax Campaign: The Derby Student Nurses’ Campaign Against The Poll Tax, copy held in Ruskin College Oxford, unpublished dissertation, 1996Return to essay links page Return to home page