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ireland / britain / the left / non-anarchist press Wednesday February 27, 2019 18:03 byJeremy Gilbert
It’s the changing nature of class and capital that’s caused this split – and should shape the Left’s response to it. But discussing class meaningfully is the last media taboo.This week’s split of several MPs from the Parliamentary Labour Party comes as no surprise at all. It’s been clear since the moment of Corbyn’s election as leader that a section of the most right-wing and/or most ambitious MPs would simply never be able to reconcile themselves either to his leadership or to a Labour Party composed mainly of his supporters. This is probably a large section: about a third of the current PLP would be a reasonable estimate.
This isn’t just because of the political differences between them. It definitely isn’t because Corbyn is an anti-semite, or indifferent to antisemitism. It has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the leadership’s stance on Brexit. It has everything to do with the fact that that stance has not been dictated by the City of London and the CBI.
The politics of the Labour Right
It’s interesting to try to parse the precise political affiliates and character of the eight. The collection of MPs who have left might seem to come from notionally different strands of the Labour Right. Although he has flirted with a Blue Labour, anti-immigration position (as he has with many others), Chuka Umunna has had most success at convincing Blairite true believers that he is their natural leader: cosmopolitan, pro-business and rich. Mike Gapes, by contrast, belongs to that strand of the traditional, Gaitskellite Labour right that has never really got over its disappointment at the end of the cold war, and tries to compensate by hating pro-Palestinian campaigners and millennial Corbynites as much as they once hated the USSR. But they both nominated Blairite candidate Liz Kendall for the leadership: as did all of the eight apart from Luciana Berger and Chris Leslie.
In fact what seems apparent is that the notional difference between an ‘old right’ tradition represented by the Labour First organisation and the Blairite faction represented by Progress has now almost entirely broken down. Since the moment of Corbyn’s leadership election the two networks have been acting entirely in concert in their efforts to prevent Momentum from gaining influence in constituency parties and to undermine Corbyn and his supporters at every available opportunity. There is no longer any clear or stable ideological difference between them, and it seems evident that the clearest way of understanding their position is in basic Marxist terms. They are the section of the party that is ultimately allied to the interests of capital. Some may advocate for social reform and for some measure of redistribution, some may dislike the nationalism and endemic snobbery of the Tories more than others; but they will all ruthlessly oppose any attempt to limit or oppose the power of capital and those who hold it.
One reason for the erasure of difference between them is the changing composition of the British capitalist class itself. Going back to the 1940s, the old Labour Right was traditionally allied to industrial capital: manufacturers and the extraction industries. The Blairites have always been allied to the City and the Soho-based PR industry. But the long decline of British manufacturing, and the financialisation of the whole economy, has left a situation in which industrial capital is now an almost negligible fraction of that class. Today, in the UK, all capital is finance capital. So on the Labour Right, they’re all Blairites nowadays. A very similar process can be observed taking place in the centrist mainstream of US politics right now, as anti-Trump neocon Republicans and Clintonite, Third Way Democrats increasingly converge upon a common political agenda (this observation was made very persuasively by Lyle Jeremy Rubin on the latest episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast).
Whatever their political lineage, most MPs and their supporters on the Labour Right are therefore not just reluctant to engage in any radical project of social transformation. They are deeply and implacably opposed to any such project. This isn’t to say that they are bad people. It’s a perfectly reasonable position for anyone to take, in the Britain of 2019, that there is simply no point making vain efforts to limit or oppose the awesome power of the City and the institutions that it represents. In the era of globalisation, of China’s rise and the Trump presidency, anyone could conclude that it can only be counterproductive to try to work against it. Many of us take a different view, believing that without severely limiting the power of capital, and soon, the planet itself is probably doomed. But a difference of view is what it is. It shouldn’t lead to moral condemnation.
Appalled and disgusted?
A good example of the latter is the model motion circulated earlier this week by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (a long-standing, small, Bennite factional organisation) for their supporters to take to their local party meetings. The motion begins with the line “This Constituency Labour Party is appalled and disgusted that seven MPs elected by Labour voters have rejected our party and crossed the floor to assist our opponents.”
I regard myself as sharing almost all of the politics, objectives and analysis of CLPD. But this is unhelpful. Apart from anything else, it is disingenuous. We all know that the Blairites simply have a completely different conception of politics, of the useful function of the Labour Party, and of the kind of role they want to play, than do we on the Labour Left. No supporter of Corbyn or CLPD wants to have these people representing us in parliament. To claim that we are disgusted is to imply that somehow, we naively imagined that we were all on the same side. This is, at best, to admit to profound naivety and stupidity. At worst, it is simply dishonest. Why pretend? Why not just accept, calmly and clearly, that these perspectives simply cannot be contained within the same party, and wish the splitters all the best in pursuing their own agendas?
By all means, we should be pointing out that the splitters, and the allies who have just joined them from the Tory Party, are clearly servants of a very particular set of class interests and a very narrow conception of what progressive politics looks like in the 21st century. But the language of outrage only makes us look like we don’t understand the situation.
As I’ve pointed out before most of the Blairite MPs became Labour MPs on the basis of a particular implicit understanding of what that role entailed. According to this understanding, the purpose of a Labour MP is to try to persuade the richest and most powerful individuals, groups and institutions to make minor concessions to the interests of the disadvantaged, while persuading the latter to accept that these minor concessions are the best that they can hope for. That job description might well entail some occasional grandstanding when corporate institutions are engaged in particularly egregious forms of behaviour (such as making loans to very poor people at clearly exorbitant rates), or when the political right is engaged in explicit displays of racism or misogyny. But it doesn’t entail any actual attempt to change the underlying distributions of power in British society; and in fact it does necessarily, and structurally, entail extreme hostility towards anybody who proposes to do that.
It is crucial to understand that what I’m describing here is not a moral or ethical disposition. It doesn’t make you a bad person to have taken up the role I’ve just described. It’s the simple logic of having a particular place in a system of social relationships, and being allied to a particular set of interests within it.
The crisis of the political class
In wider British society, the immediate political base for the centrist MPs is obviously wider than City millionaires; though not much wider. It is in fact very narrowly rooted in the managerial class: very senior managers in the public and voluntary sectors, a larger section of affluent, property-owning salaried employees in the private sector. Any anthropological investigation of a local Labour Party branch is likely to confirm this claim: it is precisely the people from this narrow demographic who are still the most enthusiastic about Blair, or Umunna, and the most vitriolic in their detestation of Corbynism. Of course there are many exceptions to this characterisation (there always are), but the general tendency is clear and unsurprising. The narrow professional political elite of journalists, lobbyists and politicians is, in a certain sense, the leading cadre of this wider managerial class; so it is natural that the latter look up to the former.
Again: there’s nothing wrong or morally reprehensible about this. There’s nothing wrong with being a senior manager, with a vague commitment to an ideal of social mobility and a dislike of the Tories’ explicitly reactionary politics, who really admires Chuka Umunna. There’s nothing wrong with being that, and with violently disliking the people to your left, who probably wouldn’t do that much to limit your own wealth and immediate institutional power if they got into office, but who wouldn’t let you or people like you or the people you most admire run the country to quite the extent that you are used to.
The problem is that in British public life (well, English public life in particular), there is a strong prohibition on ever acknowledging that there are such things as class differences and class interests. And no social group dislikes thinking in such terms more intensely than the professional and managerial classes (and this includes most journalists and political pundits). It is absolutely central to their specific view of the world that such vulgar realities never be acknowledged or discussed, and to assume that only Communists or violent right-wing populists could possibly want to break this liberal taboo.
This is arguably quite different from the perspectives of actual full-blooded capitalists for example: who, when pressed, will often admit that their only aim in life is to make money and keep it, and that they really don’t give much of a damn about ideology, or about the question of who gets hurt. The political elite, along with its most enthusiastic followers in the managerial class, cannot make any such admission to others or to themselves, partly because their whole job is to come up with clever stories about the world and to mediate between the interests of different social groups. If they can’t present themselves as neutral, honest, professionals just trying to make the world a better place, then just what good are they for anything? (This is why the fantasy narratives of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing, are such a key element of their culture: Sorkinism presents a universe in which political wonks, journalists and tv personnel are all just honest, hard-working professionals doing their best to make the world a better place, and doing a damned good job of it. Again, see Chapo Trap House’s several dedicated episodes for the best critique available of this phenomenon.)
This is also the political elite who cannot acknowledge even to themselves that what is motivating their politics right now is a defence of a set of elite privileges. Which is why they need a narrative like the one about ‘Labour antisemitism’ in order to justify their actions to themselves and others. It would be very difficult indeed for any objective observer to concur with Joan Ryan's claim today that Tony Blair and all previous Labour leaders unstintingly "[stood] up to racism in all its forms", and that antisemitism "simply did not exist in the party before [Corbyn's] election as leader" (as Ryan should presumably know if she’s actually spoken to Luciana Berger). It would be clear to an objective observer that the right has been using the claims that Labour is "institutionally anti-semitic", and blind and inactive where issues do arise, in a cynical and shameless fashion to try to justify their implacable hostility to Corbyn.
For months, campaigners on the Right insisted that the only way Corbyn could demonstrate his commitment to fighting antisemitism was by accepting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full, despite the fact that even the original author of that definition had publicly disowned it as not fit for purpose, and Labour’s modification of it was a clear legal improvement. No sooner had the Labour NEC finally accepted the definition, then campaigners switched to claims that ‘complaints of antisemitism were not being properly investigated’, despite the evidence that complaints were now being investigated considerably more thoroughly than they were whilst the Right, under McNicol, retained control of the party bureaucracy.
So it is important to understand why a certain section of the public are so willing to believe this narrative. The reason is that they are members of a particular social group that crystallised and came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, as the traditional professional classes declined (having been subsumed into the public sector during the post-war years, then battered into resentful compliance along with the rest of that sector by Thatcher and her successors). It is this group - the professional political elite and their most loyal followers amongst the wider managerial class - that is now suffering a traumatic and disorienting existential crisis.
Neither the professional elite nor the managerial class ever enjoyed much authentic legitimacy amongst the wider public. The broader public deferred to their new bosses for as long as they got the compensations offered by an ever-expanding consumer culture, enabled by cheap credit and Chinese imports. Since 2008, fewer and fewer members of that wider public have been offered the same compensations, and so the authority and legitimacy of the political / managerial class has been in terminal decline. Both Corbynism and the Brexit vote are symptoms and examples of the public finally refusing their authority.
That is why Brexit represents such a traumatic existential crisis for these elites, and why they cannot separate it from Corbynism in their collective imagination. It is clearly absurd, in objective historical terms, to blame Corbyn for Brexit, or to keep demanding that he ‘come out’ against it when his doing so would make no difference at all to the parliamentary reality (there is no majority in the house of commons for a people’s vote). But the members of this declining, delegitimated social elite have experienced both Brexit and Corbynism as part of exactly the same process; the process by which the people that they have governed and managed for a generation have turned around and rejected their authority and their world-view. Embracing the idea that Labour is institutionally antisemitic and racist, and that Brexit is Corbyn’s fault, are understandable psychosocial responses to the experience of this historical trauma. (And again, Chapo Trap House’s excellent recent analysis of the way in which claims of antisemitism have been mobilised against the Left in the US is pertinent). Such a response allows the members and partisans of this elite to tell themselves that they are defenders of liberal values, so that they do not have to face up to the fact that, in opposing Corbyn, they are defending nothing but their own sectional privileges and those of their corporate liege lords. What these stories are not is rational, descriptive accounts of any kind of objective social reality, that can be reasoned with politically or morally.
What do we do?
For the Labour left, the political conclusions to be drawn from this analysis are stark, but important. As I’ve already suggested - we should not be responding to the behaviour of the centrists with simple moral indignation. Their entire project is to wrap up their defence of their own elite interests in a language of moral indignation – accusing the Left of racism, of being responsible for Brexit, of ‘bullying’ (ie expecting elected representatives to be accountable to members and constituents). But the more that we respond to them with our own language of outrage and betrayal, the more that we legitimate these fairy-tales, rather than exposing them for what they are.
By the same token, it is crucial not to fall into the sentimental trap of imagining that if only we are nice enough to them, then we will be able to prevent the Right from doing everything in their power to prevent the success of Corbynism. The split was always going to happen, and the only thing we could truly do to stop it would be to let the neoliberal centrists have control of the party once again. Tom Watson’s recent interventions make this very clear. He calls movingly for a kinder and gentler approach to politics, expressing moral outrage over the horror of antisemitism. But what he wants is a shadow cabinet reshuffle to represent ‘the balance of opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party’. Presumably he doesn’t want one that would actually represent the politics and views of the current membership: if it did, then it probably wouldn’t include Tom Watson.
Either we’re going to give them what they want - full control of the party once again - or we’re not. And if we’re not, then they will do everything in their power to damage our cause. Because there can be no real doubt that this is the aim of the split, and that the long-term split is planned to come in waves rather than all at once, and this has been planned not because it is the most effective way to launch a new party, but because it will maximise the long-term damage to Corbyn’s Labour.
This is a surprisingly unpopular view amongst mainstream Corbynites. The caricature of Corbynites is that they are all wild-eyed sectarians, hell-bent on deselecting every MP to the right of Chris Williamson. This isn’t true at all. Frankly, I think it isn’t true because many Corbyn supporters are actually rather naive about the political character of the Labour Right. They, like Corbyn himself, do not actually see the world in terms of Marxist (or Gramscian) political sociology; rather they see it in moral terms, as a conflict between decency and justice on the one hand, greed and militarism on the other. They know that the majority of even the most right-wing Labour MPs are not Bad People, and so they assume that sooner or later they will come round to supporting Corbyn, if only he shows willing to address their legitimate concerns on Brexit and antisemitism.
This is just a categorical analytical mistake. Corbyn could convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s Vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party; or at least to commit to a policy agenda approved by Merrill Lynch.
The view that there is no point trying to prevent the right from splitting is also unpopular because, for all of its radicalism and democratic potential, mainstream Corbynism remains a left-wing version of Labourism. Labourism is the ideology that assumes that the Labour Party and only the Labour Party must be the vehicle to bring socialism to the UK, and that the only route to that objective must lie through the securing of a parliamentary majority for Labour in the House of Commons. The problem now is that if there is a significant split in the party, then it will put Labour back in the position it seemed to be before the 2017 election: unable to realistically aspire to a parliamentary majority of its own, forced to face (if not to answer) uncomfortable questions about its possible future relationships with the SNP, the Greens, even the Liberal Democrats, in a complex ecology of parties, factions and tendencies. The Labourist imaginary abhors this vision. It wants to live in a world in which the Labour Party, alone, united under a relatively progressive leadership, can win a large parliamentary majority against a once clearly-defined opponent (the Tories), and implement a progressive programme. It wants, very very much, to live in 1945.
The trouble is we don’t. We don’t live in 1945, and the ideological differences between the Blairites and the Corbynites are of a different existential order to the ones between Bevanites and Bevinites in the 1940s. They may have hated each other, they may have had entirely different attitudes to both capitalism and communism. But they didn’t represent social constituencies whose interests simply could not be reconciled even in the short term. The miners, the skilled engineers and even the manufacturers all stood to make immediate gains from the success of Labour’s programme, as did all their leaders.
This is unlike the current situation in some key ways, although it is similar to it in others. Many of the managerial class in fact have a great deal to gain from a Corbyn victory, because their own children are suffering so badly from labour-market precarity and unaffordable housing (and this, as much as Brexit, is why so many of them voted Labour in 2017). But if they are going to achieve those gains, then they will have to make some significant concessions to groups lower down the social hierarchy. In the public sector, for example, senior managers may well have to accept some relative reduction in their salaries and some increase in the autonomy of those they manage. This potential loss puts them in an ambivalent position, potentially supportive of Corbyn’s agenda, but anxious about what it might cost them. But their symbolic leaders in the media and full-time political elite have absolutely nothing to gain, and can only lose, from the success of Corbynism. For this reason, they simply will not stop trying to do everything in their power to drive a wedge between their followers and the rest of the Labour Party. There’s no point pretending that they might.
At the same time, there is no point pretending that in the volatile world of 21st century politics, the political divide between those inside the party and outside of it is the most important one that matters. There are members of every other party - even the Tories - who have more in common with Corbyn’s ideological agenda and more sympathy for his political programme than do those MPs who are reported to be considering joining the split. More importantly, there are members of every other party - even, indeed, the Tories - who are less clearly aligned with class interests that are inimical to Labour’s project.
Political success is always about leading complex coalitions of interests. The Labourist fantasy is that all elements of such a coalition can always be contained inside the Labour Party. As the split deepens, it will become apparent that Labour’s remaining vote and support will not be enough on its own, or even after another period of considerable growth, to win the battles that Labour needs to win.
Labour must seek to lead a coalition of progressive forces. All parts of that formula are important. It cannot keep pretending that all sections of the Labour Party are even potentially progressive in character. It cannot afford to ignore the existence of progressive forces outside of Labour or the need to make common cause with them. It must seek to lead that coalition. Nobody is suggesting that it submerge its identity or dilute its programme: that isn’t what leadership means.
But Labour must also be alive to the specific political objective of the ‘Independent Group’. There is a clear international precedent for the path that they are taking, in trying to establish a centrist party that could only ever be small, only ever appeal to the managerial class, and never hope to command a mass base, while pursuing a pure neoliberal agenda. In Germany, the Free Democratic Party conforms to precisely this description, only ever winning around 10% of the vote. From this position, it has held the balance of power in almost every West German and German parliament since 1948.
It’s always been logical that the legatees of the Third Way would eventually opt for this as their ideal political model. Labour, the traditional party of the organised working class, was always a strange and uncomfortable home for them in many ways. The problem for Labour is that if this group manage to establish this position for themselves, then they will pose a permanent obstacle to progressive government unless a very broad-based movement can be built to stop them. In 2016 and 2017 many of us hoped that the dream of Labour becoming a million-member party might be realised. There seems little chance of that now. Ultimately the social and political terrain of 21st century Britain is still too complex and too variegated for any one organisation to unite that many people. But we still need a million-member movement, if any chance of real progress is going to come onto the horizon. This is the movement that Labour must seek to lead, and must accept that it can never entirely contain.
If the Labour leadership really wanted to engage with the current situation meaningfully, this is what it would do. It would not retreat into ideological purism. It would not lift another finger to prevent the Blairites from leaving the party. It would convene a national conference, inviting Greens, social democrats, communists, socialists, liberals, Scottish and Welsh nationalists, trade unionists, NGOs and others to discuss the political and social crisis facing the country. The explicit aim of the conference would be to find an inclusive and effective road-map to take the country beyond neoliberalism. Those who share no such commitment need not be included. But everyone who shares it should, including those stalwart social democrats of the old Labour right who retain some authentic commitment to a political objective other than defeating Corbynism. This would be a meaningful way of neutralising the charge that Labour is not a broad church, and would help to isolate those elements who want to claim the mantle of diversity in order to sustain the neoliberal order.
Is this exactly the right solution? I don’t know. Maybe there are many other possible answers. But I know that the question is the right one: how do we assemble all of the potential allies at our disposal, to build an alternative to neoliberal hegemony, without getting bogged down in pointless debates with those who only want to defend it? That’s the question that the party and the leadership must now answer, if the splitters – who want nothing more than to maintain neoliberal hegemony – are not to get their way.
Rob Ray’s book begins with the disarming confession that he imagined writing a ‘relatively short pamphlet’ (p3). 300 pages later you’ve been given a whistle-stop tour of Freedom’s history (both newspaper and publishing house). Thankfully, while he draws on previous histories, he includes some new accounts and comments from other people connected with Freedom Press.There are two places where he might have made more of Freedom’s achievements. The 1915 ‘International Anarchist Manifesto On The War’ doesn’t get a mention, despite Freedom being central to putting it together and publishing it. Freedom Press books and pamphlets get a brief mention on page 15. It’s not completely clear what time period is being discussed, or what they actually published: they never did The conquest of bread, for example. Giving more titles and dates might have shown the importance of Freedom Press as the largest English-language anarchist publisher between 1900 and at least the First World War.
Thinking about Freedom’s conflicts
Freedom has regularly been a source of conflict within the British anarchist movement. If we want to learn about and from the past these conflicts give us the opportunity to see what people thought was important.
Those running Freedom (from the Fabian Charlotte Wilson on) were often keen to guard their autonomy from ‘the movement’. The intellectuals were not going to be held to account by the militants! In some ways, fair enough, let them go their own way. But the same people expected to be seen as the intellectual leadership of the movement. Why, for example, are people from Freedom involved in the removal of David Nicoll from the editorship of the Commonweal (in 1893)? (p26)
Tensions around class and tactics come through in Ray’s quote of the report in Freedom of an 1897 conference:
‘Freedom was described as a philosophical, middle-class organ, not intelligible to the working classes, not up to date in late information and in O’Shea’s eyes less revolutionary than Comic Cuts … It was edited and managed by an inaccessible group of arrogant persons worse than the Pope and his seventy cardinals and written by fossilised old quilldrivers.’ (p31) John Quail’s verdict on this seems relevant: ‘since the emphasis in the movement was so much on propaganda, the sole remaining Anarchist paper had assumptions thrust upon it which it was not only designed to disappoint but which it hardly seemed to recognize.’
1944-45 split. The split between the Freedom Press Group and some anarcho-syndicalists in the Anarchist Federation of Britain (who would go on to form the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation) revolved around control of Freedom. We may never know the full story. There are materials on this in the Vernon Richards papers in Amsterdam, though you would expect it to be covered in Tom Brown’s missing memoirs too. Albert Meltzer at this point stuck with Freedom, though he bitterly regretted it later.
1952 executions. 1952 saw a large trial of militants from the anarchist resistance in Barcelona. The main text quotes Philip Sansom’s account in Freedom: A Hundred Years which concentrates on who came to speak at the London protest meeting: ‘A couple of weeks later we heard that the wave of shooting had been halted. It’s wonderful what you can do with a few big names!’ (p101). The London protest took place after five men had been shot, and was part of a wider campaign with an earlier protest in London and meeting in Paris, addressed by Breton, Camus and Sartre. There’s an unmentioned connection with Freedom here: one of those saved from the firing squad was Miguel Garcia, later of Black Flag and the Anarchist Black Cross who spoke at a meeting at Freedom Press after his release.
1963 executions. In the issue of 24 August 1963, Freedom reprinted a leaflet from the Notting Hill Anarchist Group protesting against the judicial murder of the anarchists Granado and Delgado and calling for a tourist boycott. Since Vernon Richard (who owned and controlled Freedom Press) led tours to Spain, this was followed by an editorial on the benefits of tourism. The NHAG replied, saying that there was no way they could have ‘insisted’ on the leaflet being reprinted: ‘We have been told enough times by the editors that Freedom has never been, is not, and never will be the organ of the anarchist movement in this country’.
The Wooden Shoe, or When did Albert give up on Freedom?
Ray reports the idea that Albert Meltzer’s differences with Freedom arose from him being refused space in their building for the Wooden Shoe Bookshop, (p143) though he downgrades it from a ‘cause’ to a ‘final straw’. (p146) The Wooden Shoe Bookshop was started by the Cuddon’s Cosmopolitan Review group. The only issue of their magazine announces that ‘Ted Kavanagh is in charge (process servers from Camden Borough Council, note)’ which shows the precarious state of their finances, and that it was not simply Albert’s project. The refusal might have happened: presumably there would be evidence in the Freedom Press archives in Amsterdam if so. There are curious echoes here of Albert’s offer to share space with Emma Goldman in Frith Street in 1939. Either way, it sounds a rather convenient explanation for a broader conflict. Let’s look at a couple of pieces from Freedom’s more-theoretical supplement Anarchy in 1966 and 1967: John Pilgrim declared that ‘the majority of the working class today are more interested in defending their higher living standard than in freedom or justice’ which Albert Meltzer derided as a hangover of Christian Socialist attitudes: ‘unless the working man became moral, he could not hope for economic or social betterment.’
There’s an issue of movement-defining here: who gets to say ‘you’re nothing to do with us’? It’s also a replay of the perennial tactical debate: physical or moral force? To only talk about Albert ignores Stuart Christie’s role in energising and polarising the British anarchist movement after his return from Spain. Their partnership was more than the sum of its parts: in Mark Hendy’s words ‘Albert before 1967 was Albert without Stuart. From late 1967 onwards he was Albert with Stuart – two very different beasts!’
The conflict between Black Flag and Freedom (and others) shows fundamental disagreements about what anarchism could be in the 1960s. They are laid out in Black Flag’s statement to the 1968 conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain. Black Flag had no problem acknowledging the validity of Vernon Richards’ critique in Lessons of the Spanish Revolution of unaccountable exiled bureaucrats like Federica Montseny of the CNT. The problem was they saw him occupying a similar position in the British movement.
Ray tries to ‘close off’ some of these historic disagreements. He laments that Richards and Meltzer couldn’t take a step back and have a ‘gentler personal relationship’. (p148) Unfortunately he himself ‘steps back’ from assessing Richards on the grounds that he never knew him. The historian isn’t obliged to take sides but this misses the chance to ask what political factors were at work in people falling out with Richards – and in people happily involving themselves in what was always his project.
Where Ray does recognise political divisions, he feels that Freedom did more good than harm (though, as you can see, he’s not blind to some of the faults)
‘In places the old issues of Freedom are so dry and dense as to be barely readable to a layperson. There is often listless navel-gazing, sometimes a tendency towards smugness and pontification largely academicised away from anything that would much benefit working-class people. I have a powerful distrust of any anarchist endeavour that can be dictated to by a boss, and of any approach that becomes overly concerned with gaining plaudits from intellectuals.
‘None of the above, however, even in the most villainous renditions, could have significantly slowed a genuine direct action anarchism from emerging under its own steam and in fact it manifestly didn’t. […]
‘There is a separate value in fostering the sort of thoughtful analytical work that characterises the best of Freedom Press’s output through the second half of the 20th century, and at least some in having allies with access to the platform afforded by “respectability” (at least when brave enough to avoid repudiating rabble rousers).’ (p96-97)
This from a comrade who has had to climb over unsold boxes of the Raven (p213), yet believes that ‘the money it swallowed… would not have found its way to other front lines in the press’s absence’ (p97) – an interesting claim, given that Freedom was financially supported by veteran Italian-American Galleanisti.
Twentieth century British class-struggle anarchism certainly defined itself against Freedom’s ‘liberal’ approach. Rob Ray acknowledges but possibly doesn’t fully appreciate the anger that still exists about the role that Freedom Press played. But then, rather than being unaware, perhaps he’s made a deliberate choice to keep his account upbeat? Unfortunately, minimising these conflicts means we get less context for Freedom’s story.
I liked Rob Ray’s own account of the challenges of publishing a fortnightly paper – and spending 15 years ‘trying to get other people to do it instead’! (p215) I enjoyed some of the stories he’s gathered, like Martin Peacock’s account of ‘being woken in the early hours by two men trying to smash their way into the building. […] They were repelled by books dropped from the third floor. I particularly remember Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution doing significant damage.’ (p171). A beautiful idea is thought-provoking (especially where I disagree with his conclusions) but best read with a critical eye: I think it may not be the final word on the history of Freedom Press.
1, see NO DESPONDENCY: The International Anarchist Manifesto On The War February 1915 https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/mpg5xs
2, John Quail, The slow burning fuse p212
4, Mark Hendy, email to the author 28 December 2018.
5, Nine members of the anarchist resistance were sentenced to death. Four (Miguel Garcia Garcia, Domingo Ibars Juanias, José Corral Martin and Antonio Moreno Alarcon) had their sentences commuted the night before the executions. Pedro Adrover Font, Santiago Amir Gruanas, Jorge Pons Argiles, Jose Pérez Pedrero and Gines Urrea Pina were shot on the 14th of March, 1952. See ‘1952: Barcelona executions, global protests’ in this issue [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/nzs92j] and http://kslnotes.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/a-leaflet/ Reports about the protest campaign appear in Freedom from 16 February 1952 onwards (see https://freedomnews.org.uk/archive). The London protest meeting took place on 27 March.
Miguel’s tribute to Jose Pérez Pedrero is at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/7m0d65. There’s a report on Miguel’s meeting in Freedom 21 February 1970. Stuart Christie says ‘Don’t know where they got that about John Rety reading out Miguel’s talk. I interpreted for him that night and he certainly never had any speech prepared, all his talks were extempore, he was a natural.’ (email to the author, 23 January 2019). Correction: “John Rety may well have read out Miguel’s speech: [when freed] he lost his voice for around 6 or 7 months (possibly psychological).” [SC] See also Stuart Christie’s tribute: https://kslnotes.wordpress.com/2010/11/28/remembering-miguel-garc...stie/
6, ‘Tourism and Spain: A Rejoinder from the Notting Hill Group’ Freedom 21 September 1963. Joaquin Delgado Martínez and Francisco Granado Gata (often referred to as Granados and Delgado) have been called ‘the Spanish Sacco and Vanzetti’. Octavio Alberola says they were executed (despite their innocence) ‘to show, above all, that State security was working and that it would show no mercy to those daring to oppose the regime’ (Revolutionary activism: the Spanish resistance in context, KSL 2000). If you doubt that Richards ‘surrounded himself with people who were more than capable of putting a degree of venom into their copy when required’, (p148) you should read Philip Sansom’s attack on the NHAG in Freedom, 28 Sept. 1963.
7, ‘Genesis of our group’ The wooden shoe no.1 p10 (summer 1967) at https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/83bmcw (thanks to CIRA Lausanne).
8, A copy is in the folder (134) of Nicolas Walter’s papers in Amsterdam devoted to Albert Meltzer.
9, John Pilgrim ‘Salvation by the working class: is it an outmoded myth?’ p291 Anarchy 68, October 1966 p289-300; Albert Meltzer ‘Anarchism and the working class: a reply’ p41 Anarchy 72, February 1967 p39-49
10, Mark Hendy, email to the author 28 December 2018.
11, Statement by the Black Flag Group to the Liverpool Conference of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, Sept., 1968 [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/5x6bxp]
12, See ‘In-joke for anarchists’ Black Flag, v.2, no.12, (June 1972) and the review of Lessons in Black Flag v.2, n.13 (30 July 1972)
13, followers of Luigi Galleani (anti-organisational anarchist communist): they had been associated with the newspaper L’Adunata dei refrattari.
Corrections and queries
There are some unsupported opinions and factual errors in the book. Such errors can become ‘received wisdom’ if left unchallenged.
16 Kropotkin’s ‘hostility towards propaganda by the deed’ may have been known privately but ‘Never once in all his revolutionary career has our comrade passed judgment on those whom most so-called revolutionists had only too willingly shaken off – partly because of ignorance and partly because of cowardice – those who had committed political acts of violence’ (Emma Goldman in the December 1912 Mother Earth celebrating his 70th birthday). Indeed his letters to Berkman (imprisoned for his attempt to assassinate Frick) in prison always had the title ‘political prisoner’ in the address and he tried to see him in the Western Penitentiary but was refused.
17 Bloody Sunday 1886 is described as a ‘boost’. John Quail (The slow burning fuse, p72) describes it as ‘a defeat but this did not in itself represent a defeat for a policy of riot.’
22 There were no ‘Walsall bombings’. Coulon the provocateur only arranged for the casting of a shell which could be used to make a bomb.
23 The May Day protest (1892) was not part of the campaign for Mowbray and Nicoll. John Quail sees the number of anarchists speaking that day as ‘an indication of growing Anarchist strength’ (The slow burning fuse, p129)
25 Don’t rely on Ford Madox Ford too much: ‘William Michael was not her Majesty’s Secretary to the Inland Revenue but rather a clerk in the Excise Office’ (Jennifer Shaddock’s intro to the reprint of A Girl Among the Anarchists p.vii)
31 In 1891 Emma Goldman was an active supporter of the German language anarchist paper Die Autonomie: Anarchistisch-Communistisches Organ which republished parts of The Conquest of Bread. Meeting Kropotkin (in 1895) may well have refined her understanding but she was an anarchist communist well before she met him.
37 Heiner Becker in Freedom: A Hundred Years says Turner did ‘no more than lend his name for the letterhead’ of the Voice of Labour ie he took the official role of publisher (p12). I assume this is where the idea Turner has his name ‘on the masthead as publisher’ comes from? [At the bottom of the last page of each issue is ‘Printed and published for the proprietor by T. H. Keell, 127 Ossulton St, London N.W.’]
42 W. C. Owen was writing from Hayward, California – not Mexico.
50 ‘Senex’ here isn’t Mark Schmidt but William C. Owen reappearing under a pen name.
57 Freedom Bulletin ended in 1932 (not 1937).
59 Emidio Recchioni did finance plots against Mussolini. ‘Allegedly’ is better reserved for cases where we really can’t tell. See https://christiebooks.co.uk/2012/02/the-story-of-king-bomba-emidi...1934/
63 Why is it untypical for Nettlau to support Montseny?
66 Workers in Uniform wasn’t the official bulletin of the Anarchist Federation of Britain, but rather a secret bulletin for the armed forces.
87 Frank Leech lived for 8 years after the end of the War, dying in 1953; The new Freedom did have a change of title. It became Freedom through Anarchism rather than Freedom: A journal of Anarchist Communism.
119 Anarchy second series was not only edited by Phil Ruff – see his account in this issue [https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/pc87wq]
139 The raid on Freedom in February 1968 was on the same explosives warrant used to search the home of Stuart Christie because a mortar was found facing the Greek embassy in January. This and other raids were not related to Northern Ireland (British troops were deployed there 18 months later).
153 The Angry Brigade was not the only post-war anarchist ‘illegalist revolutionary group’. See the First of May Group, the Second of June Movement and the MIL (Iberian Liberation Movement), amongst others.
167 To mention the Direct Action Movement without discussing the miners’ strike or anti-poll tax campaign seems shortsighted.
280 Freedom Press organised a protest meeting after five CNT members were executed in Barcelona. That some death sentences were commuted was due to a broader protest campaign. See note five above.
A Beautiful Idea: history of the Freedom Press anarchists by Rob Ray. 300 pages. Freedom Press, 2018, ISBN 9781904491309, £9.50 https://freedompress.org.uk/product/a-beautiful-idea-history-of-t...ists/
ireland / britain / anarchist movement / other libertarian press Monday January 14, 2019 18:34 byWoke Anarchists Collective
Anarchism in the UK is a joke. Once symbolising hard-fought struggles for freedom, the word has been stripped bare to make way for narrow-minded, separatist and hateful identity politics by middle class activists keen to protect their own privileges. We write this leaflet to reclaim anarchism from these identity politicians.We write as self-identified anarchists who see our roots in the political struggles of the past. We are anti-fascists, anti-racists, feminists. We want to see an end to all oppressions and we take an active part in those fights. Our starting point though is not the dense language of lefty liberal academics, but anarchism and its principles: freedom, cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity and equality for all regardless. Hierarchies of power, however they manifest, are our enemies.
Identity politics is part of the society we want to destroy.
Identity politics is not liberatory, but reformist. It is nothing but a breeding ground for aspiring middle class identity politicians. Their long-term vision is the full incorporation of traditionally oppressed groups into the hierarchical, competitive social system that is capitalism, rather than the destruction of that system. The end result is Rainbow Capitalism – a more efficient & sophisticated form of social control where everyone gets a chance to play a part! Confined to the ‘safe space’ of people like them, identity politicians become increasingly detached from the real world.
A good example is ‘queer theory’ and how it has sold out to corporate masters. The concept of queer was not long ago something subversive, suggesting indefinable sexuality, a desire to escape society’s attempts to define and study and diagnose everything, from our mental health to our sexuality. However, with little in the way of class critique, the concept was readily appropriated by identity politicians and academics to create yet another exclusive label for a cool clique that is, ironically, anything but liberatory. Increasingly, queer is a nice badge adopted by some to pretend they too are oppressed, and avoid being called out on their shit, bourgeois politics.
We don’t want hear about the next DIY event, queer night or squatter fest that excludes all but those who have the right language, dress code, or social circles.. Come back when you have something genuinely meaningful, subversive and dangerous to the status quo.
Identity politics is narrow-minded, exclusive and divisive. At a time when we need to be reaching outside of our own small circles more than ever, identity politics is all about looking inwards. That’s probably no coincidence. While claiming to be about inclusivity, it is highly exclusionary, dividing the world into two broad groupings: the Unquestionably Oppressed and the Innately Privileged. There are few grey areas allowed in practice and conflict is continually stoked between these two groups.
We do get it, it’s not all about class, but if we can’t rally together to even recognise who really holds the reigns of power then we haven’t a hope in hell of getting anywhere. If their vision were truly one of liberation for all, then theirs wouldn’t be a politics of divisiveness, constantly pitting one group against another in a manner similar to capitalism and nationalism. Things that muddy the simple binary of oppressed vs. privileged, such as personal life experiences or traumas (which cannot be neatly summed up by one’s identity as a member of an oppressed group),, or things that people may not feel comfortable talking about, such as mental health or class, are often wilfully ignored by identity politicians.
As, of course, is the most glaringly obvious point: that the problems we face go well beyond queerphobia or transphobia, but the whole fucking system of planetary enslavement, destruction, exploitation and imprisonment. We don’t want to see anyone in the prison system, whether they are black trans women, or cis white men (which, by the way, make up the vast majority of people imprisoned in the UK). It is unsurprising that politics based on such exclusivity results in constant internal clashes and seeing each other as the enemy, particularly given its vulnerability to exploitation by middle class identity-politician managers.
Identity politics is a tool of the middle classes. It is flagrantly used and abused by articulate, well-educated group representatives to entrench and maintain their own power through politicking, dogma and bullying. The comfortable backgrounds of these activists is betrayed not only through their use of academic language but through their sense of entitlement and confidence in using other activists’ time and energy to switch the focus towards them and their feelings. Indeed, a lack of work ethic, a certain fragility, and a preoccupation with safety and language rather than material conditions and meaningful change are other aspects which reveal the class background of many identity politicians.
We see this in the ease with these individuals ‘call out’ other people at the slightest deviation from the code of practice they have unilaterally imposed, assuming that everyone ought to think as they do or have the time to devote to learning it. Thus ignoring the reality of daily class struggle.
There is a false equivalence between membership of the Unquestionably Oppressed and being working class. On the contrary many in the Unquestionably Oppressed espouse liberal values rooted in capitalist ideology rather than being truly liberatory.
A politic that is based on having the right language and access to the right tone and codes is one that is inherently a tool of oppression. It is certainly not being representative of those who it claims to speak for, those at the bottom of society. An anarchist analysis recognises that though someone may be from an oppressed group, their politics, or the demands made on behalf of the Unquestionably Oppressed, may nevertheless be purely liberal, bourgeois and pro-capitalist.
Identity politics is hierarchical. By entrenching the power and status of middle class petty politicians, identity politics is hierarchical. Beyond the chicanery, imposing certain dogmas also enables this power to go unquestioned. These include: implicit hierarchies of oppression; the creation and use of loaded terms intended to provoke an emotional response (‘triggering’, ‘feeling unsafe’, ‘Terf’, ‘fascist’); those who aren’t members of specific groups being denied an opinion on the wider politics of these groups; the idea that members of the group should under no circumstances have to do any ‘labour’ of explaining their politics to non-members of the group; framing alternative discourses as ‘violence’; and the idea that one cannot question a representative or member of these groups (no matter how bad their politics) by virtue of the fact that they are Unquestionably Oppressed.
These dogmas are used to maintain norms, whether in subcultures or wider society. Anarchists should be suspicious of any tendencies that are based on unquestionable principles, particularly ones which so obviously create hierarchies.
Identity politics often exploits fear, insecurities and guilt. It is important that we recognise this on two fronts. One, it is used to disenfranchise rather than actually empower, as is claimed. It reinforces the idea that people are fragile victims rather than agents of change, and therefore need to accept leaders.
Though safer spaces and language are important, the extent of the obsession with these things is not a sign of strength but of self-perpetuating victimhood. Through social anxiety, it places on everyone else the guilt of being somehow privileged and being utterly accountable for the giant systems of oppression that actually only benefit a few. It also allows those within minority groups who benefit from state and capitalist structures off the hook from any sort of accountability for their oppressive actions or prejudiced behaviour.
An anarchist analysis means we should recognise that members of oppressed groups can hold elite and repressive positions too, and should be equally challenged, not just given a cowardly pass.
Identity politics has infected anarchist spaces.
Sadly, anarchism is being hollowed out in a rush to virtue-signal, to be ‘good allies’. Allydom is all too often enacted as blind acceptance of the politics of those who are Unquestionably Oppressed, or claim to be, no matter how shit their politics or personal behaviour is. It is willing subservience to the politics of others, the least anarchist position that can be taken and pure spinelessness.
Self-appointed leaders who do not agree with our politics should not be given a platform by us. So, it is ironic that we have allowed groups with little or no radical politics to enter our spaces and shut down debate, and claim that anything that disagrees with their viewpoint must be fascist. It should go without saying that fascism is not something that should be trivialised in this way.
It also amazes us that obvious parallels with right-wing politics are not seen, not least in the way feminists dismissed as ‘feminazis’ is reflected in the current use of the word ‘fascist’ against radical feminists by trans rights activists, as well as slogans calling for ‘terfs’ to be killed regularly cropping up in anarchist spaces both online and real world. It is shocking that the violence of this misogyny is being celebrated, not condemned.
Anarchism is against gods. Is there any phrase that sums up anarchism better than ‘no gods, no masters’? Such hierarchy and exclusivity are antithetical to anarchism. We used to assassinate politicians, and uncountable numbers of comrades gave their lives for the struggle against power. We still reject politicians of all stripes, whether Tories, Labour or those who see themselves as leaders of movements based around identity. It is against the most basic principles of anarchism to accept leadership by others, because we believe all are equal. Likewise we do not accept the notion that we cannot question or query positions held by other activists or those who call themselves anarchists – which unfortunately identity politics all too often insists on.
Anarchism does not support patriarchal religions and anarchists have a long history of conflict with them. It is an embarrassment the way so much of what passes for anarchism in the UK today acts as apologists for those who want to avoid any challenge to their own sexism and patriarchy or even continue their oppressive religions, simply because reactionary conservatives treat them as scapegoats.
The destruction of anarchist projects is carried out and celebrated in the name of identity politics, simply to appease those who have no interest in anarchism itself. And if any do stand up and challenge it, they are met with abuse or even physical attack – behaviour that used to be challenged but is now condoned because it comes from those who are considered to be oppressed. Here more than anywhere the utter failure of anarchist politics by those who supposedly represent it is the most obvious. Lets start by calling out Freedom News for starters, whose uncritical support of groups with little in common with anarchism is shameful.
Anarchism is not identity politics. Anarchism is not just another identity as some like to claim. This is a common crass and lazy kneejerk response from the identity politicians, and a way to avoid answering actual political issues. It also shows no understanding of how identity politics is used to manipulate and subvert anarchist spaces for personal agendas. Sure, ‘anarchist’ can be claimed as an identity too, and anarchists are prone to (often rightly criticised) cliqueish behaviour. But the similarities ends there.
Unlike identity politicians or the SWP, most anarchists do not try to recruit followers, but instead attempt to spread ideas that will support communities in fighting for themselves in a way that cannot be recuperated. Our agenda is radically different and rare in that our core politics are not about furthering our own personal power and status. Anarchism encourages people to question everything, even what we ourselves have to say, in the spirit of freedom.
Unlike the inherent, exclusive characteristics of identity politics with its in-groups and out-groups, anarchism is for us a set of ethics that guide how we understand and react to the world. It is open to any who will look or listen, something anyone can feel, no matter what background they come from. Often the results will be diverse, as people combine it with their individual personalities, life experiences, and other aspects of their identities.
One doesn’t need to know the word anarchy to feel it. It is a simple and consistent set of ideas that can act as anything from guidance in a particular conflict, to the foundation of future societies. To refer to anarchist principles then when there is conflict about identity politics, makes sense when we are supposedly united by these principles.
Being gay or having brown skin does give rise to similar experiences to those who share these characteristics, and obviously means you are likely to have social links, empathy or a sense of belonging to this group. However, lived life is actually much more complex and you might have as much or more in common with a random white queer woman than you would with a fellow brown cis man. Identity politics at times mirrors the chauvinism of nationalism, with different groups seeking to carve out their own domains of power according to categories derived from the capitalist order. We, on the other hand, are internationalists who believe in justice for all. Anarchism seeks to raise up all voices, not just those of minority groups. The notion that oppression only affects minorities rather than the masses is the product of bourgeois politics that never had any interest in revolutionary change.
Identity politics is feeding the far right. On a final note, it is worth stressing how much identity politics plays into the hands of the far right. At best, ‘radical’ politics looks ever more like irrelevant navel-gazing to many. At worst, middle class identity politicians are doing an excellent job of alienating already disenfranchised cis white people, who happen to make up the large majority of people in the UK, and are increasingly gravitating towards the Right.
To ignore this fact and continue to engage in infighting over identity politics would be the height of arrogance. Yet, at a time when we are seeing fascist movements multiply, anarchists are still distracted by politics of divisiveness. For too many, identity politics is simply a game, toleration for leads to constant disruption of activist circles.
Final note. To us anarchism is cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity and fighting the real centres of power. Anarchist spaces should not be for those who merely want to fight those around them. We have a proud history of internationalism and diversity, so lets reclaim our politics for a genuinely inclusive future. This article has been formatted as an A5 pamphlet for printing.
irlanda / gran bretaña / movimiento anarquista / news report Wednesday December 26, 2018 19:07 byJosé Antonio Gutiérrez D.
El 5 de Diciembre nos embargó un dolor inmenso al escuchar de la inesperada muerte de Alan MacSimóin, veterano anarquista, sindicalista y luchador infatigable de Irlanda. El 13 de Diciembre le despedimos en el cementerio de Glasnevin en Dublín, donde yacen muchos otros revolucionarios que lo precedieron. Será recordado, sin lugar a dudas, como una de las figuras más influyentes en la izquierda irlandesa de las últimas décadas. Fue parte de un puñado de personas que comenzaron a hablar de anarquismo en Irlanda en la década de 1970 y 1980. Su trabajo para crear un espacio para la izquierda libertaria en un país dominado por el conservadurismo político y religioso, cambió por siempre la cara de la política irlandesa por siempre. Ya no sería más un asunto exclusivo de los partidos tradicionales. Si la sociedad irlandesa ha avanzado, en algún grado, durante las últimas décadas, en gran medida se lo debemos a los esfuerzos de personas como Alan.
Alan MacSimóin (1957-2018): pionero del anarquismo en Irlanda
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