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Review: Anarchism in North East England 1882 – 1992

Anarchism in North East England 1882 – 1992

by Tyneside Anarchist Archive

This impressive and comprehensive contribution caps a canny few years of the careful development of the Tyneside Anarchist Archive. This phenomenon started life as bundles of leaflets and zines from the 1980s boxed in the founder’s bedroom, and subsequently – inspired by examples such as the Kate Sharpley Library in London as well as Newcastle’s Canny Little Library – has grown into an important and extensive collection of material not only from Tyneside and North East England but also books, journals and magazines representing much of the history and records of the activities of anarchists and fellow-travellers across the UK and further afield. But it is the local and regional texture which sparkles in this volume, written with the intention of providing a ‘history from below’ to match the corresponding libertarian principles of organisation.

In fact, in addition to representing one of the best of such volumes (not that there any many) tackling the politics of anarchism from the vantage point of the specifics of a particular location and its people – rather than those by the relatively ‘great and the good’, as per usual – I would argue that it could be a template, or exemplar, for comparable projects elsewhere if a ‘federalism’ of anarchist history (including of the present) were ever to be contemplated to counterbalance the top-down expertise of officially accredited or self-defined authorities and big names we usually have to make do with in excavating our own and each other’s past and current circumstances.

Therefore, the more well-known historical writings about British anarchism are generally ignored (apart from borrowing and citing concrete evidence) except to point out their drawbacks, deficiencies, and even distortions and deceptions, in favour of accounts from the grass-roots and working-class activists and militants who have always kept the spirit alive and, moreover, have been largely responsible both for whatever successes can be claimed by the movement as well as the persistent appearance, re-appearance and salience of anarchist themes, ideas, methods and tactics despite varying levels of discouraging and depressing situations.

So, after a relatively concise introductory chapter in which the aims and methodology of the work are effectively summarised without undue pretension or claims of scholarly excellence or the like, we get straight into the meat of the matter. The length and character of descriptions of the periods covered section by section in the following ‘empirical’ chapters vary considerably, depending on the detail uncovered during the author’s systematic research and material already at hand in the archive. We begin with the visits to the region from the 1880s onwards of pioneering Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, first talking about conditions in his homeland but later on wider questions of anarchist philosophy and action. Press coverage of these and subsequent decades gets some derisive attention, providing a helpful yardstick of the impact of anarchism especially when records of responses from more down-to-earth citizens or in movement publishing are even scarcer than their relative rarity in those times.

Punctuating the whole book are rumblings and eruptions of groups forming, organisational initiatives, publications more or less ephemeral, alliances and enmities, and the wider national and international contexts. Meanwhile outrage about the Chicago Haymarket martyrs, and Tom Mann’s canvassing potential for workers’ resistance to capitalism saw Tyneside and the North East immediately earmarked as fertile soil indeed for notions of revolt and freedom – a pattern repeated ever since. Of course, simmering discontent and signs of seditious organisation may barely have registered in anyone’s written records, but sporadic traces suggest collective activity flourishing despite suppression until the ultimate carnage of 1914-18 conveniently pre-empted an impending Industrial Syndicalist insurrection.

All subsequent discussions in the book through the next four decades are similarly typified by contrasts between details recovered concerning what those involved thought, said and did, and responses in anarchist publications and among those of other supposedly ‘left’ or ‘right’ political persuasions as well as representatives of the conventional press and media and establishment and anti-establishment spokespeople. Substantial intensifications of repression alongside the privations and degradations of two world wars and the ensuing Great Depression and blend of welfare state and austerity respectively mean that it is harder to pinpoint as a continuing (under)current in the first half of the 20th century, but the author – who, to correspond with his own strategy in the book, we will dub TH – convincingly suggests that anarchist activity persisted even if under degrees of cover and maybe more sporadically and irregularly given multiple difficulties.

Alongside consistently robust anti-fascism, Tom Brown kept the flame of militant workerism alive until the shop stewards movement and then others and ultimately the miners ran with it to far greater effect and, certainly, anti-war and pacifist activism paved the way for the flourishing (if ultimate failure) of anti-nuclear and pacifist tendencies, especially after the 1960s renaissance of resistance to business-as-usual. But the militant obstinacy of the industrial proletariat’s class struggle against capitalism, even in the face of determination by trade union and political party leaderships to subjugate it, had profound reverberations in grass-roots anarchism here and elsewhere. Details of this and the related socioeconomic and cultural contortions of Thatcher’s children and their precursors furnish this book with a genuine continuity of local influence and activity, especially from the sixties onwards – of which the Tyneside Anarchist Archive itself is a latter-day manifestation.

The foregoing chapters are of great value in themselves, but Part Three, and then Part Four even more so, of the book’s blend of reportage and sketching of the genealogy of revolt do exactly what it says on the tin and very accurately and skilfully reflect the contours of Anarchism in the North East of England during these years. I will say no more about this here since (full disclosure) I am cited rather more than I would have liked – but anyone with any interest in the period and subject will benefit enormously from reading it.

In general – and refreshingly – the personal qualities of individuals mentioned, however pivotal (or not) to events, are downplayed throughout the book, so that what was said, where, and to what perceptible or measurable effect is the main focus. This helps avoid the tendency especially prevalent these days on social media (although to some extent always the preferred option among state-fetishists and their media mouthpieces) to dismiss and smear anarchist expression, practices and consequences by deploying gossip, innuendo or more or (usually) less well-informed speculation about the foibles, quirks, and peccadilloes of prominent personalities.

Of course, in other types of endeavours, such as social or cultural history for example, some such attention to interpersonal dynamics and relationships could be most important and perfectly valid – but that’s not what’s being attempted here. TH is at pains to position himself as a low-paid single-parent wage-slave with no academic background or resources to immerse himself in this huge task he has undertaken in the ways ‘experts’ are normally expected to conduct themselves – but nevertheless he does provide meticulous footnotes listing sources and giving additional flavour. Such modesty and humility are, indeed, apparent throughout, as the author refrains from excessive commentary – and so, when pithy remarks do surface, you know these are genuine and direct and with no ulterior motives or ego inflation involved. Likewise, there are occasional short passages explaining some of the background of the diverse theoretical or philosophical perspectives which have given anarchism its distinctive features over several centuries – but nowhere does this overwhelm the overarching narrative of currents, connections and tendencies interacting with events, desires and collective practice.

Because of this, you do get a tangible sense of a weaving together of experiences and interpretations among ordinary folk in particular places at certain times building into a historical groundswell with rather more ambitious scope and purpose. That, in my view, is actually a pretty rare achievement – though I daresay TH will raise at least one eyebrow at such an assessment …

Tom Jennings

You can order your copy of Anarchism in North East England 1882 – 1992 here or via Active Distribution

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