The Anarchist Federation in Nottingham
There has been some interest since Saturday 5th May (2012) about who we are locally, what we do, and even what we own! The following tells you something about us in those contexts, which is why we’ll stress some things about ourselves in contrast to others. It isn’t intended to be a comprehensive statement of what we think and do, and so there might be elements we can clarify if asked. But we wanted to give our own perspective on this year’s May Day as soon as we had the chance.
Who are we in Nottingham?
We currently have 10 members in the Nottingham group, which is formally structured around a fee-paying membership in full agreement with the ‘Aims and Principles’ of the Anarchist Federation nationally: http://www.afed.org.uk/organisation/aims-and-principles.html . Beyond that, as a local AF group we have autonomy to operate. We meet fortnightly formally, and informally in between times. Amongst our members locally are public-sector workers, students (HE and FE) who also work part-time, casual workers, and people in receipt of benefits. Those in full-time work are amongst the most active trade members in their workplaces. Those who are students are very active in their own and other people’s struggles, and actively supported and worked towards the recent public sector strikes and supported picket lines on the day. There have been suggestions on two blogs that these younger comrades are somehow misguided, or in it for kicks. We find this all the more offensive coming, as we know it does, from education workers. However, we feel that it does rather typify the attitude of the left groupings in Nottingham towards student struggles. But first…
Who we are not! To set the record straight in relation to what was said on Saturday and about it since, we are not the anarchist movement in Nottingham. Not everyone who opposed Sir Alan Meale vocally or did so with placards held in front of him are in the AF. Furthermore, not all of them are anarchists! The AF takes neither the credit or blame for Saturday’s intervention. The intervention cannot be dismissed as stemming from one group or tendency.
In fact there are many more people in Nottingham identifying and working as anarchists than are in the AF. There are a variety of anarchist approaches in Nottingham but we work together regularly and on similar issues. To generalise – and not to try to put words in other anarchists’ mouths – from the AF’s perspective we mainly differ with some others on the need or otherwise to establish long-term anarchist organisations such as the AF (or the Solidarity Federation, the other major anarchist grouping, not represented in Nottingham as yet), in order to reach a revolutionary situation in the best way. So, not only does the AF in Nottingham not dominate numerically, it would not mean much to any anarchists in Nottingham if we did. Certainly not all anarchists present and making an intervention on Saturday were doing so because the AF were. Had the AF gone home when the majority of the people on the march did – i.e. before the rally –a protest would have taken place nonetheless by the non-aligned anarchists and the others.
What do we believe in? We are ‘anarchist communists’, also termed ‘libertarian communists’, or (more broadly, and especially in Europe) ‘social anarchists’. This means that we want to create a society without political authority and without money. We consider it the case that humanity can live without hierarchical political structures and that all resources should be shared equally. Furthermore, we consider the vast majority of what is wrong in the world as resulting from the unequal distribution of resources and their ownership by the few. This is not so different from the ultimate communist society that Marx envisaged. But we see the revolutionary process as what ushers in this society and consider the concept of a ‘transitional stage’ as counter-revolutionary, authoritarian and, more importantly, not necessary. Human beings are capable of running society without higher authority. This is one way in which we differ from Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyists, and even more so Maoists and Stalinists (a few of whom locally have told us over the years that we’d have to be ‘up against the wall’ ‘come the Revolution’). As such, we critique the state in the here and now as something that rather disempowers people, as opposed to supporting them. So we work to undermine government, whatever its colour, at the same time as fighting to defend public services (they don’t have to be run by the state, and would in fact be better run in an economy without money). All of this is addressed in more detail in our publications at: http://www.afed.org.uk
What do we think about democracy? Quite a few people called us ‘undemocratic’. There are two issues here, not necessarily related. The first concerns who had the right to make decisions about what would happen at Nottingham May Day 2012. That’s addressed in our other document and is not particular to the AF. Here we want to point out that we consider ourselves democratic but use the word differently from the way it is understood constitutionally within the trade union or party-political process. In fact, we consider ourselves more democratic because we make decisions by ‘direct democracy’. This is a very different thing from the representative democracy by which we are governed and through which trade unions operate at the level of a branch or town group and above.
In representative democracy, an elected or otherwise chosen representative is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the people who elected them, and for a fixed term, without necessarily and routinely referring back to their electors. However much they sell out those electors, it is extremely rare for the representative not to survive this fixed term, because they are supported by other representatives benefitting from the same set-up, and also because being in powerful circles for any length of time enables them to build establish support structures even beyond that immediate bureaucratic circle. As such, they can effectively use this position to further their own personal, or their party’s, objective including in areas where they have no real mandate. We see this happening in trade unions as well as in parliament. Decisions are made by people who have had power handed over to them, however temporarily. In direct democracy, a delegate is mandated on specific issues only and must represent the people who have chosen them only according to that specific mandate. If they misrepresent or go overstep the mark, they are immediately recalled. We operate this system as anarchists and believe that it can be scaled up to regional and even supra-regional levels (there would be no ‘countries’ or borders in an anarchist world). That’s a crude summary. In reality, many decisions can be made just by consensus, and new technology makes it even easier for everyone to take part in decision making at every level. For more detail on democracy and the trades unions, see our pamphlet ‘On the Front Line’ at http://www.afed.org.uk
What we do. We engage in many broad-based campaigns and political activity – often doing donkey work with no reward for our organisation. But no one has criticised us on that front so we won’t start what would be a very lengthy list of activities. But if you haven’t heard of us until recently, that’s because we get on with stuff and aren’t especially interested in recruiting, or at least don’t prioritise poaching members from the hierarchically-structured left. We have no members locally who are from a party-political background, and very few nationally.
It was in the context of the founding of Notts SOS that we became more concerned with saying who we were. We wanted it to be a long-standing, inclusive campaign that would grow and grow and force the issue with the council. As such, it was essential that the vast majority involved were not stale hacks used to working in a stagnant relationship with other rival political organisations with a view to taking over the campaign. This is what we saw the left as being like. We wanted the people new to political organising (there were dozens of them at the start of SOS) to understand that people on the left ‘shift between registers’, shall we say, if not forced to show their hand. So we managed to establish a process at SOS meetings where people in left groupings would say which party they are in, if any, rather than pretend just to be in this or that union, as though they were hardworking but disinterested in political advantage. More straightforwardly, skilled operators on the left will do things like force a vote so that, before the non-initiated know what is happening, some motion that benefits their political organisation will have become at the same time ‘constitutional’ and official, but also ultimately divisive. So that’s probably how most people who know us, know us. We have won respect for making it clear who is who and what is going on in meetings.
What is less well-known about us except through recent misrepresentation is our specifically anarchist activity and resources. Two of us established and remain involved in the Sparrows’ Nest library, which we call a ‘centre for anarchist culture and education’: http://thesparrowsnest.org.uk Please contact us if you would like to ask further questions about the Nest and its relationship to the AF. In brief, the library collections and wider project are run by a collective, consisting most immediately of 4 other people. Two are non-AF anarchists and two do not call themselves anarchists. The major activity of the project is collecting and curating books and archival materials relevant to anarchism in general, and historical materials related to local anarchist and broadly left activism. In the latter, we overlap with local radical historians ‘Peoples’ Histreh’, who also base their collection in the building.
We have never been a resource centre nor been considered or used as one (unless by the truly desperate!). Aside from thousands and thousands of books and papers, we have two old computers, an obsolete printer, and a badge-making machine which is used by activist groups of various kinds including trades union branches (it’s currently with a UCU branch on strike on May 10th). We do not have access to any trade union printing facilities that can be used for essentially unrelated political purposes by people with access to them through their position in a union – shall we say the NUT. Nor do we have any funding for our activities other than what we raise ourselves.
We do plenty at the Sparrows’ Nest in addition to running a library, however. We also host talks and discussion meetings on anarchist-related politics and working class history. Work in support of asylum seekers and other stateless and homeless people has been done from there. We also engage in community activism in St. Ann’s. For example, we have hosted meetings on workfare and the EDL at the Chase Community Centre which members of local socialist parties have taken part in, have leafleted extensively about the EDL, again including with local socialists, have worked with a non-aligned local community newspaper, provide a refreshment stop for an annual guided history walk run by other local history types, and co-organised a radical education group at the Chase.
We are not particularly interested in recruiting people we work with to the AF. Unless they decide that they agree and would abide by our Aims and Principles, in which case they are most welcome. We also have a blog, which we don’t keep as up to date as we could because we are often too busy doing things to write about them: nottsblackarrow.wordpress.com. And a web page: http://www.afed.org.uk/nottingham
Finally (you’ll be pleased to hear) we are going to list and very briefly answer a couple of charges levelled at us, and relevant in the May Day context, that we have had to dispel and disprove over and over. If someone would like us to elaborate, we can.
1/ Anarchists can’t distinguish between the Labour Party and people who are in the Labour party. Not so, or we wouldn’t enter into alliances with Labour Party members in bodies such as SOS, Stop the BNP etc. What we have done is consistently opposed people speaking on platforms that represent such groups on behalf of the Labour Party. This has been accepted SOS policy since Vernon Coaker got opposed at the meeting where SOS was launched. It’s a perfectly coherent position, shared by many non-anarchists in SOS.
2/ Anarchists wanted Notts SOS to boycott May Day. We did not, or we wouldn’t have attended ourselves. We opposed the SOS logo being used in support of a platform including the pro-Cuts Meale. By this point most non-aligned people had left SOS, so it was a tough one to fight and we lost.
3/ Anarchists reject democracy. No. We opposed ‘bourgeois democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’. The first is what is given to us by the state to pacify us and leave other channels of political expression closed. We’re pretty sure that the working class has worked out the problem with that for itself. On representative democracy, see above.
And now a couple of things that they accuse us of which are true of us, which makes us wonder why they think they need to ‘expose’ us, because we state them all the time.
1/ Anarchists think that the Labour Party is as bad as the Tories or ConDem alliance. Yes, we really mean it, literally and not as rhetoric. In fact, we are worse off now after the Blair years than we were under Thatcher. Even the Tories are neither clever nor evil enough to have achieved this without Labour’s help before them. The Left is in denial about the Labour Party’s inherent class treachery. The party doesn’t even pretend that it will do anything other than ‘cut a bit less deeply and a bit more slowly’ (nice phrase, whoever came up with that). Think what would they would do in reality if re-elected?
2/ Anarchists think that the Labour Party can’t be won back for the working class. Absolutely. We can’t think in what version of 21st century material reality it is even conceivable that this could happen. Labour is in a transitional phase in which it hopes to extricate itself from needing the unions at all because of their money. It has been run by champagne socialists for decades now and they are as resourceful and ruthless as they are inherently ruling class. Give it up, comrades ‘without illusions’, and reconsider what territory it is worth fighting for.
There are other truisms and fallacies – such as anarchists won’t make demands of the state, anarchists have a love-hate relationship with the welfare state, and an ‘anarchist federation’ is a contradiction in terms. These haven’t been raised in the present context, although we are happy to discuss them. Just don’t believe everything you hear! You’ll find us far more honest about our own shortcomings than the people we expose are.
We do plenty more work that is a positive and constructive contribution to the wider struggle, including contributing to our organisation nationally. If you would like to know more about us locally, please contact us at nottingham [at] afed.org.uk
 [Nottingham AF is] ‘dominated by two or three long-time activists with a smattering of newer and student members around the edges. This could be a political weakness in some circumstances but it does mean that AFed have young and energetic activists on the ground’: http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/05/06/anarchism-anti-cuts-movement-and-working-class-politics-reply-anarchist-federation; ‘some were simply young and drawn by the exhilaration of direct action’: http://www.workersliberty.org/blogs/pete/2012/05/06/2012-mayday-demonstration-nottm-afed-throw-tantrum.