A Statement in solidarity with the London Anarchist Bookfair

Below we share a statement regarding events at the London Anarchist Bookfair 2017, written by some supporters of the Bookfair.

Please share as widely as possible.

On Saturday 28th October the 2017 London Anarchist Bookfair took place in North London. As usual several thousand anarchists and fellow travellers from diverse tendencies attended, ran stalls, held meetings and other activities.

The Bookfair is organised by a small voluntary collective of five, with a wider group of supporters who help out with setting up, facilitating areas or aspects of the events on the day, collecting donations to cover costs of this free event, tidying up at the end, and so on. It is a monumental amount of work, that generally falls on this small group of people (with families and lives, like the rest of us), who come together to spend much of the year running up to October facilitating the staging of an event and a space for several thousand others in the movement. The Bookfair Collective have always shown willing to take on board suggestions, follow up ideas, and include people and organisations with a view to broadening the range of ideas encompassed and the diversity of the program. They have always been open to more involvement in running the Bookfair.

Saturday’s events and the Open Letter

There were a series of incidents at the Bookfair this year which included distribution of leaflets about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act being consulted on and an ensuing stand-off. Several people intervened to stop what looked like a developing potentially physically violent incident against a lone woman activist by a group of people. We would hope that most people reading this would do the same.

Some of the people who intervened to do this were members of the Bookfair Collective but they were not doing so as a group in ‘authority’ on the situation, but as individuals and friends supporting a comrade; just as other bookfair-goers in the past have stepped up to stop others being chucked out. We would suggest it is a misinterpretation of events, and the role of the collective, to see this as a ‘Bookfair Collective intervention’ in order to stop the self-organisation of the group involved.

In the wake of the events on Saturday, an Open Letter has been written and circulated online, calling for changes to, and a potential boycott and/or picket of, next year’s Bookfair.

(Other public statements are also being discussed around withdrawal/disaffiliation with the Bookfair for instance here)
The open letter claims

“a pattern of response from Bookfair organisers where incidents of transphobia, anti-semitism, islamophobia, racism and misogyny are ignored” and “organisers have stepped in to defend and support those who use oppressive, violent and dehumanising language to perpetuate racist, colonial and patriarchal systems of oppression.” and the collective “allows racist imperialism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny and ableism to ingratiate themselves as part of the culture of the Bookfair”

We would dispute this and would call for specific examples for any of the above, and evidence that we can reasonably judge from, enough to prove a pattern that the Bookfair Collective have refused to deal with them when raised.

What is the Anarchist Bookfair?

More fundamentally, we would ask to whom are the demands in the open letter really directed?
The Bookfair is not set up to be the representative body for anarchists, nor can it be. It is neither a membership organisation, nor are members of the collective Mediation Practitioners, there to settle the sometimes seismic differences and different perspectives that attendees bring to the event.

Come the day of the Bookfair that space the organisers have facilitated is filled with the politics brought into it by the anarchist movement itself, in all its initiatives, vivid colours and traditions. If a chasm of difference exists over issues that flare up, such as last weekend, the Bookfair Collective are not in a position, nor have the physical resources to arbitrate. So we ask: whose responsibility is this and how do disagreements (sometimes leading to threats of violence or actual violence) get dealt with? The existing statement on these issues can be found on the Bookfair’s website

We are left to wonder whether anarchist practice has become so inculcated by ‘customer service’ culture that even the Bookfair is attended by consumers forgetting the fundamental essence of DIY, self-organisation and self-regulation of events.

The Bookfair Collective operates on the principle that it is not for the small collective that organises it to take on defining and enforcing a rigid policy on safety and behaviour; it is for the wider movement that takes part in the Bookfair to do so, along anarchist principles of opposing centralized authority with dispersed and grassroots responsibility.

Points raised in the open letter call for a radically different event, with a much more centralised program, organised or tightly overseen by the collective. If we as a movement, decide that this is what we want, many more of us will need to commit time and energy to organising and supporting this annual event.

Where next?

We reject transphobia and have all actively supported struggles against oppression. We support the right of trans identifying people to live their lives free from harassment and abuse, to organise, campaign and engage in debate with whoever they choose; and to be addressed by the gender pronouns of their choice. We support the rights of all women to be heard. We recognise that both trans activists and gender critical feminists are currently feeling attacked, at times to the level of their very existence and identities. We would hope that everyone participating in London Anarchist Bookfair would treat each other respectfully and continue to believe that dialogue is possible so that we can strengthen our struggle against oppression and build a better world. We reject bullying and intimidation – in physical or written form.

The Bookfair can never be the ‘dreamed of Utopia’ the open letter imagines, despite all our desires and dedication. We agree with the open letter on one thing, that we should all always be challenging ourselves and each other to widen liberation and ensure the Bookfair is a safe and respectful event, drawing in communities, and reflecting them. But we also believe it needs to allow for discussion and dissent, while excluding hatred and oppression.

We are not members of the Bookfair Collective but some of us have been in the past, and some of us have been involved in wider support work for Bookfairs. All of us are long-time attendees of the Bookfair. As such we hope that it continues, we offer our solidarity and practical support to the Bookfair Collective. We urge the Collective to look beyond the signatories of the open letter to the many wider groups and individuals who attend and take part in the event every year, and to realise that they do have a groundswell of support out there.

Rather than calling for a boycott of the Bookfair, we would challenge the writers of the open letter to engage meaningfully with the Collective and others to help create the change they want. In the light of the statement’s refusal to engage with the Collective until their minimum demands are met, the Bookfair Collective would be reasonably entitled to ignore the open letter.

So we stand by the Bookfair Collective, and salute how the Bookfair is organised; recognising the immense work done in making it happen every year. But it remains up to all of us who attend and take part in it to ensure that it measures up to the standards of love, solidarity and empowerment that we all desire. It is not possible for the small collective that currently facilitates the space to police them. Nor is it fundamentally anarchism.

This statement is online at:
https://bookfair248.wordpress.com/

Comments and practical contributions to what is likely to be an ongoing discussion about the future of the London Anarchist Bookfair are welcome on this site.

For a statement by Helen Steel on the events at the bookfair:
https://helensteelbookfairstatement.wordpress.com/

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Today in mystic socialist history: the Fellowship of the New Life formally founded, 1882.

The Fellowship of the New Life, was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.

Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…

An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’

The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:

“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”

Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.

From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.

According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Anarchism over breakfast

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.

A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.

One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.”  
However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

The Fabian Society

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…

The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.

According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.

Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Central London Squatting History Walk

Thursday 15th June

back by unpopular demand – Come see a slice of Central London squatting history;
• See the square where squatters and tenants half succeeded in fighting off the encroachment of office blocks,
• See the hotel which ex-soldiers and others occupied in 1946,
• See one of the Really Free School buildings from the recent struggles against cuts and the privatization of education and knowledge,
• See places that were homes to hundreds, alternative bookshops, women’s centres, the starting places for wholefood empires ……

meet Tolmers Square,  London, NW1 6 for 6.30, Thursday 15 June 2017.

Today in London’s legal history: Kyd Wake found guilty of heckling the king, 1796.

“In the kings bench came on the trial of Kyd Wake, indicted for a misdemeanor in hissing and booing the king as his majesty was going to the parliament-house, on the first day of the present sessions, and likewise crying “down with George, no war,” &c. Mr Stockdale, the bookseller, and Mr Walford, the linen draper, who acted as constables on the day, were examined, and fully proved the facts charged in the indictment; upon which the jury without hesitation, found a verdict, guilty. A great number of person attended on the part of the prisoner; but as they could only speak to his general character, and not to the case in point, Mr Erskine, the prisoner’s counsel, declined calling upon them, reserving their testimony to be offered in mitigation of the punishment, on the first day of next term, when the prisoner will be brought up to the king’s bench to receive judgment…

Kyd Wake, who was convicted at the sittings… of having… insulted his majesty in hos passage… received the judgment of the court; viz ‘That he be imprisoned, and kept to hard labour in Gloucester gaol, during the tem of five years; that during the first three months of his imprisonment, he do stand for one hour, between the hours of eleven and two, in the pillory, in one of the public streets in Gloucester, on a market-day; and that, at the expiration of his sentence, he do find security for £1000 for his good behaviour for ten years.” (Annual Register, 1796.)

The early days of England’s long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France coincided with a growing movement for radical political reform in Britain. As the 1790s wore on, the war brought hardship and recession, and resentment from the lower orders mingled with calls for political change. There were riots against the activities of the ‘crimpers’, who kidnapped men for the armed forces; food riots, and general tumults against war, the government and the king. In response, the government engaged in charging leading radicals with treason, and targeted printers who published anything questioning the status quo – and anyone caught expressing opposition…

In October 1795, while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage, King George III became the target of a crowd protesting the war and demanding bread. “Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship.” Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War,” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labour – a severe sentence for a moment of angry protest. An example was being set. Wake may have had some background of association with reformers and attending radical meetings.

In prison Wake “had his head shaved, and wore the prison dress, consisting of a blue and yellow jacket and trousers, a woollen cap, and a pair of wooden shoes.”

Kyd Wake’s wife made an engraving to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was captioned with Kyd Wake’s plea against solitary confinement:

Five years’ confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.

Wake survived his sentence to become a printer again, but died tragically in 1807, being crushed to death between a post and the wheels of a wagon in St Paul’s churchyard. In his obituary it was suggested that he possibly only served two years. A much more reasonable sentence for heckling, methinks…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s radical history: Jewish anarchist club opens in Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, 1906.

“The Jubilee Street Club played a great part in East End Jewish life because it was open to everyone. Anyone could use our library and reading room or join the adult education classes without being asked for a membership card…” (Rudolf Rocker)

In the late nineteenth century, a powerful Yiddish speaking working class movements evolved among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion, though it soon became associated with anarchism. More on the history of Arbeter Fraint here

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement, one of the largest sections of which took on a strongly anarchist character. The group around Der Arbeter Fraint was associated with a number of meeting places in Whitechapel – the international club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, and most famously the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel (the building has since been demolished – it’s now under Jarman House). In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

“The club had a main hall that could hold 800 people, and a number of smaller rooms and halls. One hall on the ground floor was used as a library and reading room. A smaller building adjoining the club served as the editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint.” (Rocker)

The opening night, 3rd February 1906, was packed – hundreds attended, and large numbers were locked out as there was no more room. “Almost every Jewish trade union in the country had sent us messages of congratulation. There were also messages from Malatesta, Louise Michel and Tarrida del Marmol. I was reading out the messages when a storm of cheering and clapping cut me short. Peter Kropotkin had arrived. His doctors had warned him not to appear at any more public gatherings, because of his heart. But this was an occasion from which he felt he must not stay away.

I begged him not to speak. He waved me aside. He spoke for over half an hour…” (Rocker)

The club was destined to play a central role in the political, social and intellectual life of the Jewish east End for a decade. It had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist who by now was at the heart of the group, spoke regularly. Rocker’s view was that workers who could think for themselves were in a much better position to combat their bosses, and escape the clutches of political parties and religious leaders, which exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses.

Cultural activities were a major part of the Club’s appeal, “in a world where there was a thirst for modern culture alongside a deep attachment to tradition.”

However, the lack of an official membership, while allowing a freer access to many, did have its drawbacks, as it “made it impossible for us to sell drinks in the club, from which most of the other clubs got the greater part of their revenue. For the law restricted the sale of intoxicants in clubs to club members. We sold only tea and coffee and food. So we had to fins other ways of meeting our running costs.”

Rocker recalled that the groups who met there regularly included trade unions, the Jewish Workers’ Circle (an important workers society), a Russian Social Revolutionary party branch, and English anarchist groups.

Descriptions of the Jubilee Street Club can also be found in police records, this time because suspects and witnesses of the 1911 Sidney Street gunfight frequented the club. Nicolai Tockmacoff was a seam-presser born in Moscow who was interviewed by the police. He played the balalaika at the Workers Friend:.

“I used to go to the [Workers’ Friend] Club for entertainment and theatrical performances… There is a hall there and refreshment room for tea and coffee. Anyone can go in. There are all sorts of people there, English and Russian… There is a library which anyone can go into… There was a Lettish [Lithuanian] Concert on one occasion… Men and women go to the Club to borrow books.”

William Fishman’s oral history interviews provide other glimpses of the Club. Millie Sabel recalled her kitchen duties, preparing gefilte fish, chopped liver and pickled herring, and that Lenin would drink Russian tea when he came by. Rose Robins recalled synagogue-going Jews on days of fasting sneaking into the Club to eat the extra food the Club had to prepare on holy days .

On the one hand the club was very much based in the mass movement of the East End, but it was also frequented by the celebrities of the left. Anarchist guru Kropotkin spoke at its opening night. Among those who hung out at the Club were Tsarist secret agents, future Soviet ministers (such as Chicherin) and terrorists (including the Latvian revolutionaries involved in the Siege of Sidney Street). A non-Jewish anarchist close to Rocker, John Turner, leader of the shop assistants’ trade union, took the young Guy Aldred (then writing for anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour paper, which Turner edited) to the Jubilee Street Club, where Rocker asked him to speak one night when Kropotkin couldn’t make it. Ironically Aldred used the occasion to criticize Kropotkin for abandoning revolutionary Bakuninism and becoming a respectable suburban intellectual – which didn’t go down well with the Club regulars.

The Club was also a centre of Yiddish culture: the Yiddishists and cultural nationalists Chaim Zhitlovsky and Ber Borokhov both spoke there; many of the great Yiddish poets read there. Fishman records that there was a great deal of interaction between the Jubilee Streeters and Poale Zionists (labour Zionists) in the years after the 1906 tailors’ strike: people like radical Zionist journalists Kalman Marmor and Dr Wortsman.

The Arbeter Fraint group was throughout its existence very much involved in the struggles of the Jewish tailoring workers, in their strikes, struggles against sweating and other poor working conditions. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. In 1889 and 1906, huge strikes that united 1000s of East End tailors saw mass solidarity; but a 1912 strike in both East and West End tailoring ended with victory on all fronts, largely due to Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group’s activities. The groups was also central in organising solidarity for dockers’ strikes, especially in 1912, where Jewish workers supported dock families facing starvations and took over 300 dockers children to be looked after in Jewish homes.

The strong Jewish labour and anarchist movements faced immediate repression when World War 1 broke out. The Arbeter Fraint group opposed the war from the start. The Jubilee Street Club was forced to close down. Rudolf Rocker was arrested in December 1914, and spent the war in internment camps.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint continued to publish, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by the state. Rocker moved eventually to the USA, where he became influential in the Jewish anarchist movement there.

If you want some seriously inspiring reading, check out:

The London Years, Rudolf Rocker.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William Fishman.

Citizenship and Belonging, Ben Gidley

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Public History Discussion Group: ‘Blind Dates: Compiling & Producing the London Rebel History Calendar

For various reasons past tense has been a bit quiet recently, been concentrating on producing the 2017 London Rebel History Calendar, so for those of you who have missing our blog posts, apologies for the recent radio silence… Soon as our heads are screwed back on we’ll get it back up and running.

Meanwhile, here’s an event next week we are part of… hope some of you can come along:

Public History Discussion Group

Saturday 26 November

11 am tea and coffee, room 609
11:30 talk

Room 209 Institute of Archaeology, UCL 31-34 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PY

‘Blind Dates: compiling and producing the London Rebel History Calendar’

Alex Hodson from Past Tense, a collective project that explores working class, social, subversive and underground history and geography in London Autumn 2017 sees the publication of the 4th edition of Past Tense’s London Rebel History Calendar, with radical, subversive and inspiring anniversaries for every day of the year from London’s turbulent past… Who produces it? How is it compiled? How is it being extended into ‘new technologies’? Alex Hodson sheds some light on research, production methods, and some of the pitfalls of the Calendar’s format.

The 2017 London Rebel History Calendar is of course available now: buy it online here

Today in London’s radical history: Black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn disputes with utopian socialist Robert Owen, (maybe), 1817.

As I have said before, this blog is mainly not written by professional historians (more like talentless amateurs); we are interested in events, ideas, social struggles and rebellious personalities of the past, and try to spread what we learn, often as we learn it. Partly for inspiration, partly as it links to our own experiences, partly to keep memories alive. We don’t claim to be especially original, or even very dedicated in our research; to some extent we don’t have time.

Bearing that in mind, we freely admit that this post contains serious gaps, where we haven’t really had a chance to dig deep to discover what some might consider crucial facts. Because the personalities and ideas involved are interesting to us, here it is anyway. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject of this post, or where to find out more, we’d love to hear from them…

We start with a picture: the image above, which shows black anti-slavery activist, radical agitator, insurrectionist, and blasphemous preacher Robert Wedderburn, climbing onto a platform to argue with utopian socialist Robert Owen.

Despite some investigation, it’s uncertain to us whether this confrontation actually took place or not, or is a representation of an argument that took place in the pages of the radical press… If it did take place, it seems likely was either on the 21st of August 1817, during one of Robert Owen’s public meetings at the London Tavern, in Bishopsgate (the site today occupied by Nos 1-3 Bishopsgate).

Owen was touring the country propagating his ideas in a widely publicised series of public meetings, including a series of celebrated meetings at the City of London tavern in August 1817. A well-attended public meeting on the 14th had been ‘adjourned’ and re-assembled on the 21st.

Robert Owen had risen from artisan beginnings to become first the manager of succession of cotton mills in Manchester, before he found fame running the New Lanark mills in Scotland. Intelligent, self-taught (and somewhat convinced of his own importance) Owen turned New Lanark into a model factory and model village: the 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers, a school for the children (as long as the parents could afford for them not to work). He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift.

New Lanark’s factory and village became famous and by Owen’s count between 1814 and 1824 about 2,000 visitors a year came to observe what he had created.

Owen is often called ‘the father of English socialism’. He is also referred to as a utopian socialist, which is not inappropriate, in that like More’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal society was of an order imposed from above on a people who needed to be told how to live. In his view social change meant trying to create a changed working man. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual’s personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. But Owen was intolerant of criticism from below, becoming increasingly dogmatic and coming to regard himself as a prophet and visionary. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual.

“the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his management as so many negro slaves…” (Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819)

Owen’s conception of socialism was a society based on a network of ‘Villages of Mutual Co-operation’, which he put began to put into practice in his US utopian colony’ New Harmony in 1825. French utopian socialist Fourier called his similar concept a ‘phalanstery’. Based on the practical developments of New Lanark, the villages were to be the “kernel of a rural community which would be self-sufficient through agricultural and manufacturing produce, a monumental square of terraced housing within which a green, tree-filled space was interspersed with communal buildings – schools, kitchens and a library. Radiating outwards in successive belts were the phalanstery gardens, manufacturing buildings screened by trees, and agricultural land…”

The village or phalanstery would organise labourers and poor people without work into communes of 1000-1200 people, either working in agriculture or in manufacturing; their labour would guarantee them “an ample supply of the necessities and comforts of life”. In addition an important element of the ethos of his communes was to be education in mutual co-operation, moral training and “economy in the lodging and living of people”. While the ethos of a “population united through ideological commitment” would be central to the project, Owen always saw the workforce in these ‘deal communities’ to be a passive mass, motivated by the need to survive. Just as at New Lanark he had run the mills as a “benevolent dictator”, each village would be directed by a Superintendent. His vision was always of a better world brought in from the top down, not created by the occupants of the communes themself. As he wrote in 1816, he believed that “Human character is often formed FOR, and not BY, the individual.” Since human character was the basis of social change as he saw it, he proposed to mould human character, removing the power to change the world from most of the humans involved. In reality, rather than being a utopian socialist, Owen was an originator of a strand of benevolent capitalism.

Owen always saw his socialism as preventing social upheaval and disorder, exerting control by ensuring “a population socialsied into dependence on capitalist benevolence”: “The people were slaves at my mercy; kiabke at any time to be dismissed, and knowing that, in that case, they must go into misery, compared with such limited happiness as they now enjoyed.” Thanks Rob!

An unsympathetic commentator (not a radical) remarked that this was “not far removed from a well-regulated parish workhouse”. Which is ironic, as Owen’s ideas bore fruit in many capitalist enterprises in the succeeding decades. While traditionally Owen’s greatest effect was seen to be his influence on the co-operative movements that spread out in the mid-19th century, the lessons of new Lanark and Owen’s ideas of ‘moral management’ can also be seen in the utilitarians’ developments of social control through architecture, surveillance and, benevolence and force (or at least pressure) mingled together. ‘Enlightened’ employers adopted Owen’s model in their plans for benevolent capitalist model villages like Saltaire; utilitarians drew up plans for coercive insitituions like asylums and prison, but with an eye to Owen’s model. Later still, Owen’s carrot and stick blueprint, the offer of better conditions for those wiling to submit to moral and behaviourial oversight was also integrated into the beginnings of social housing, the model dwellings… Into the 20th century and utopian architects were still drawing up plans for ideal communities in tower blocks.

Ironically, however, in 1817, and for much of his life, Owen’s plans were never taken seriously enough by many of the men of substance he hoped to attract to his scheme. Some because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children. Owen also made ‘a vigorous denunciation of religion’ as part of his address at the meetings, and also questioned the role of the traditional family; this in fact probably alienated more potential supporters, both among the movers and shakers that Owen concentrated on, and among the working class. Christianity was still fundamentally crucial to the daily life of most of the people of Britain (and beyond), drummed into all from an early age, (and if not always enforced, it was still then compulsory to attend church). If people thought Owen’s communes impractical or expensive, attacking religion was seriously shocking. On a purely tactical level, Owen had blundered by bringing god into it- but tactics were never Owen’s strongpoint.

Robert Wedderburn’s bone of contention seems not to have been primarily with Owen’s religious views though. Born in Jamaica, his father a white owner, his mother a slave, raped by his father and then sold after his birth… An ex-sailor, who arrived in London in time to take part in the Gordon Riots, he became a Methodist street preacher, but developed a fierce millenarian radical voice. He became a follower of communist Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the enclosures of the commons in England. Spence was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs, tracts, pamphlets and periodicals; under his influence Wedderburn became a provocative and blasphemous publisher and agitator, founding a chapel in Soho where tumultuous meetings and theatricals were held… did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house.

He plotted revolution with radicals, former soldiers, and probably narrowly escaped joining his comrades the Cato Street Conspirators on the gallows… His most transcendental activity was publishing his Axe Laid to the Root, powerfully linking the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism, and identifying the overthrow of slavery and capitalism as one and the same. A beguiling, harrowing and intensely inspiring figure, Wedderburn represented everything about social change from below that Owen tried to control – insurgent, enraged and apocalyptic.

But did Wedderburn really intervene physically to attack Owen’s ideas? Is the image of him rising to challenge Owen on the stage a drawing from life? He certainly did in print, publishing a letter in the Forlorn Hope warning Owen that “the lower classes are pretty well convinced that he is the tool of the landholders to divert the attention of the public from contemplating on the obstinacy and ignorance of their governors.”

Perceptive, seeing the intimate connections that underlay the daily experience of the poor, knowing unlike Owen that the liberation he desperately saw was needed can only be created by our own hands, from below… Wedderburn hits the nail on the head. He wasn’t alone in suspecting Owen’s doctrines – for the next 40 years, through the early history of co-operation, Owen’s flirtation with trade unionism in the 1830s, and his increasingly wacked out later career, Owen’s dictatorial and messianic approach would divide and alienate even his followers.

This article owes much to Patrick Eyres, Et in Utopia Ego: Social Control: the architectural legacy of Robert Owen, explored through the model villages of Saltaire and Quarry Hill, published in the magnificent New Arcadian Journal (no 28).

For more on the brilliant Robert Wedderburn, a good start is chapter in Peter Linebaugh, The Many Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, or Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: attempted royal assassin James Hadfield escapes Bedlam, 1802.

After his unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to shoot king George III failed to kickstart a wondrous Millennium, (see our earlier post) and his subsequent trial and acquittal on the grounds of insanity, James Hadfield was sent back to his cell in Newgate immediately after his trial, but was escorted to Bethlem Royal Hospital a few months later by the Newgate ‘keeper’.

He had been sentenced to imprisonment in ‘Bedlam’ for the rest of his life. His case led Parliament to pass the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, allowing the law the power to detain people such as Hadfield until “His Majesty’s pleasure be known”. Giving birth to the concept of criminally insane, and eventually of the ‘Special Hospitals’ as we know them today (Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton).

However, two years later, Hadfield and another inmate, John Dunlop, escaped, and Hadfield seems to have got as far as Dover, attempting to flee to France, before being retaken and returned to Newgate. The steward of Bethlem was formally censured by the governors for going in immediate pursuit of him without reporting his absence, or obtaining official permission, but the minute of censure was later obliterated, although it is still legible.

What kind of ‘treatment’ might Hadfield been subject to?Hadfield was returned to Bedlam, where he spent the next 39 years of his life.

During his ‘stay’ Bethlem changed massively. The old regime of simply locking mentally ill (or just strange) people up and charging people to come and poke fun at them had evolved (under head keeper James Haslam) into an allegedly ‘therapeutic’ approach. Haslam thought madness could be cured, rather than being simply an affliction sent by God. His therapy however involved breaking the will of the ‘patients’ through fear, intimidation and violence, before the cause of their problems could be addressed. Some of Haslam’s approach represented a step forward in medical science: the accompanying psychological and physical degradation formed a bridge between the past and the future of mental healthcare… Eventually Haslam’s regime was exposed and a scandal erupted, leading to the closure of the old Bethlem building in Moorfields and a new one’s construction south of the river, in St George’s Fields. However, bad planning and cost-cutting left the new ‘hospital’ cold and damp, and it quickly became overcrowded… It would be the 1850s before new management would usher in some serious advances in care, therapy and rehabilitation…

Hadfield spent much of his time caring for birds and cats, and writing verses – one that has survived is apparently representative of their main subject, the deaths of these pets.

Patients at Bethlem were allowed visitors: in previous eras visiting and even taunting the mad was a popular pastime in polite society. Hadfield was often visited, probably due to the fame attached to his attempt to usher in the millennium by knocking off the alleged king.  One person who visited him was the French socialist Flora Tristan (1803–1844) who recorded the visit in her Promenades dans Londres (1840):

‘He lives in a small room and he is not averse to passing the time of day with visitors.  We had rather a long visit with him; his conversation and his habits denote a sentimental and loving heart, a pressing need for affection, and he has had in succession two dogs, three cats, several birds and finally a squirrel.  He was extremely fond of his animals and was grieved at their deaths; he mounted them himself and keeps them in his room.  These remains of his beloved creatures all have epitaphs in verse which express his sorrow.  Above the verses for his squirrel there is a coloured image of the friend he lost.  I might add that he does a brisk little trade with his feelings, handing out the epitaphs to visitors who in return give him a few shillings’ (tr. Dennis Palmer and Giselle Pincetl, Flora Tristan’s London Journal, p. 163).

One surviving poem of Hadfield’s runs:

“The remains of little Dick my partner dear,
Who, with his vocal lays did aft my Spirits Cheer,
By giving him his food one fatal day,
He in the Cages wire caught his clay,
He flutter’d, trembled, panted, and then down he lied,
I took him up and in my hand he died.
Killed Oct. 3, 1806, James Hadfield”.

Another of Hadfield’s poems, written in his own hand, can be seen at the start of this post… Some of which was lifted from here

James Hadfield died of tuberculosis in Bedlam in 1841.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London rebel history: poachers proclaimed under the Black Act seek revenge, 1725

Continuing the story of poachers on Enfield Chase from July 9th

Edmonton blacksmith William ‘Vulcan’ Gates was proclaimed under the Black Act on July 20th 1725, after game-keeper Henry Best swore evidence that Gates had stolen two deer and fired on the keepers on Enfield Chase on July 9th. The Act’s terms meant a formally ‘proclaimed’ man had to surrender within forty days, and if he didn’t, was considered a felon who could be executed without trial if caught.

Poaching had become more than a way to eat better and make a bit of cash, it was a way of life for many, and had led to a state of perpetual class violence in the area of the Chase. Poachers and keepers shot at each other if they should meet; keepers were sometimes waylaid in the dark and beaten. Gates and his confederates considered Best giving evidence as provocation and were bent on revenge. On July 20th, the same day as he was ‘proclaimed’, Gates showed he had little intention to surrender himself. he and three other horsemen rode into the Chase in search of Best, threatening to shoot him. They failed to find him then, but ten days later, encountered him, and beat him up, breaking one of his legs.

Gates, Aaron Maddocks, (known as an agent for London thieftaker Jonathan Wild), Thomas James, and Enfield labourer and enthusiastic poacher, were certainly three of these men. James was hanged in Kent in early 1726 for horse-stealing. But Vulcan Gates had been picked up and sent to Newgate on another matter, under an alias. Unfortunately he let slip his secret to a prison barber, who dobbed him in for a substantial reward. As a proclaimed man who had failed to surrender, it was necessary only to prove his identity and he was then sentenced to death without a trial. Gates argued that he had never heard of the proclamation as he was out of town, and being illiterate had not read or understood any published version. He denied he had ever gone disguised or hunted armed, and nothing had been proved against him. These not unreasonable legal arguments were swept aside however. In response, Gates decided that if justice wasn’t going to play fair, he was not going to play the traditional role of willing participant in the ritual of hanging, and with other prisoners, barricaded himself in a cell and refused to come out. He was eventually persuaded out by the Sherriff of London and agreed to ride off to be hanged at Tyburn.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Police raid Fitzrovia house looking for ‘French anarchist bombers’, 1892.

As we have already noted on this blog, late 19th century London was home to large numbers of exiled socialists, radicals, and anarchists.

In the early 1890s, French anarchists, very much inflamed against social injustice and repression, became obsessed with the idea of revenge and individual acts of terror against representatives of the bourgeois society that they hated.

Heavy repression against workers organising to improve conditions in 1891, including police shootins on demonstrations, resulting in nine deaths, and arrests, beatings and jailings of anarchists, sparked a campaign of bombings against members of the judiciary by the anarchist Ravachol. Ravachol’s arrest in turn led to further bomb attacks by other French anarchists.

Several of those involved were suspected of having fled to or have been based in London. Two French anarchist exiles, Theodule Meunier and Jean-Pierre Francois, were wanted for alleged involvement for a bomb attack on the Café Very, in revenge for the part a waiter there had played in informing against Ravachol.

A cabinet maker by trade, Meunier had joined the French anarchist movement during the early 1890s. It was said of Meunier that he was “…the most remarkable type of revolutionary illuminist, an ascetic and a visionary, as passionate for the search for the ideal society as Saint-Just, and as merciless as seeking his way towards it.”

On June 27th 1892, Inspector Melville of (Special Branch) and 30 officers raided the houses of Delbacque, a French exile who lived in 30 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, an area teeming with French political refugees and their projects. They smashed open doors and wrecked the place, but failed to find either Francois or Meunier. Further raids in July also netted no bombers… There were rumoured appearances by Francois (to the adulation of the faction that enthusiastically supported ‘propaganda by the deed’) at the anarchist Autonomie Club, though it was was supposed to be awash with police informers. This may or may not have resulted in the tip-off that led Melville to be seeking Francois in Poplar, where he was living in the name of Johnson. Unluckily he came across him in the street in October (it took Melville and four cops to arrest him; his wife grabbed for a gun when their lodging was raided in turn).

In fact there was little concrete evidence against Francois, although he was extradited to France.

Meunier was not nicked until 1894, when Melville grabbed him in Victoria Station. He was also extradited and sentenced to 25 years penal servitude. He died in penal colony in Cayenne in 1907, stating “I only did what I had to do. If I could start over again, I would do the same thing.”

I am not sure what happened to Francois…

Interestingly, in order to extradite Meunier to France, the British courts re-defined the idea of a political crime. To a certain extent Britain tolerated ‘political’ refugees, nationalists, socialists, so long as they fitted into certain ‘acceptable’ parameters – only operating against their own government, fighting for democratic reforms, only organizing military conflict against soldiers- broadly aiming to replace one group in power with another. Political refugees fitting in with this could often expect a reasonable hearing in the liberal British courts, and requests for extradition from abroad might well be refused.

Many anarchists however refused to abide by the ‘rules’ that liberal governments were prepared to accept: they considered all authority as an enemy, aimed at the abolition of all governments; also, increasingly in the 1880s and 90s, some active in those sections of anarchism which believe ‘propaganda by the deed’ would inspire the overthrow of hierarchical society, felt that targeting politicians for assassination was OK, and even bourgeois civilians generally were the source of oppression of the working class, so they were also fair game.

Governments could all get behind the idea that this was just not cricket. The extradition court in Meunier’s case saw the idea of a political offence re-drawn to except anarchists, who be rejecting politics, refusing to aim at the replacement of one form of domination by another, thus excluded themselves from being ruled political. And could thus be extradited without anyone’s sense of their own liberal fairness being bruised. QED.

Special Branch’s Inspector Melville was to become a leading thorn in the side of the anarchist scene in late 19th/early 20th century London. Apart from rounding up exiles where he could, he built a formidable spying apparatus which not only collected information on anarchists of various nationalities, but also sponsored fake bomb plots to get as much publicity and put away as many comrades as he could. The notorious Walsall anarchist bomb plot was thought up in his fertile mind. He later rose to head Special Branch, and then became the secret chief of what later became MI5.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online