Rob Ray takes a unique run through the pages of Freedom in 1950, a time when anarchism was in a pretty dire state, but was starting to gain traction via a focus fighting issues such as capital punishment, nuclear weapons and militarism, which would characterise some of anarchism’s biggest campaigns later in the decade.
The 1950s saw what remained of the anarchist movement very much on its uppers, hit hard by both the war and the seeming success of Bolshevism — the Communist Party of Britain being able to pull out 2,000 people at a time for debates and as yet untarnished by the Hungary invasion. Much of the first part of the year’s reporting was taken up with a series of translations of the happenings of the 1949 International Anarchist Congress, alongside comment on issues which would help to define the movement, including Korea, the atom bomb and a scathing approach to TUC union chiefs.
Noteable was the small number of groups listed in the regular Meetings and Announcements list, which outside London included only Glasgow, Liverpool, Colne & Nelson, and Hampstead. By the end of the year only London and Glasgow were reporting back, and times would be tough until the close of the decade.
In November 1949 a major international anarchist gathering had taken place in Paris, which Freedom opened the year with and would translate over the course of several months for readers. The conference claimed direct descent from the 1872 Congress of St Imier, saying:
As the first five decades of this century have passed, the federalist and anti-authoritarian solution of the social problem has become a more and more pressing necessity.
The month started with a general election and a four-page denunciation, at a time when it was still plausible to vote for a communist candidate as opposed to merely a social democratic one, of the:
Appalling waste of energy and paper which has resulted from the frantic efforts of political people to acquaint you of the benefits of full employment, the iniquity of controls, the upsurge of liberalism or how everything would be wonderful if only Britain would trade with Russia …
The Union of Anarchist Groups meanwhile (of which Freedom was a member) had Albert Meltzer talking on “the futility of elections,” John Hewetson on birth control and a debate on whether workers’ control would be established by industrial action alone.
[Feb 18th pdf]
Much was made of the end of the Peckham Experiment after 25 years, a fascinating and successful experiment in self-actuated community social life and positive health lost due to a lack of financial support from the government. Freedom noted:
The newspapers have suggested that the LCC (city authority) should take over the Peckham Centre to serve as a model health centre under the National Health Service. Nothing could more completely misconceive the aims of Peckham ….
Two considerations ought to be clearly in the minds of those who watch anxiously the future of the centre. First, the aim of researching into positive health, to study human behaviour in conditions of freedom. And the second (which really stems from it), is that the member families shall be allowed to follow their own inclinations without organisers or masters of ceremonies or any other kind of busybodies.
Meanwhile on the London Docks, 1,200 people were holding an overtime ban — because the T&G (now part of Unite) had expelled three trade unionists who had been members of an unofficial Port Workers’ Committee during a major strike the year before. Freedom mused that the timing of the expulsions, which essentially made it impossible for the trio to work in what was a closed shop workplace, was deliberate — March being a slack period of the year.
On April 29th however the paper reported that the overtime ban had become a strike. Union leaders confirmed the expulsion on April 14th, feeding into a wildcat walkout over “resentment of union authority” which saw 12,000 people down tools and 60 ships left idle.
Freedom’s front-page denunciation of flogging was part of a long-running battle to stop the practice, which was finally won for good in 1967 with the abolition of flogging in prisons. The paper wrote:
The act of flogging requires the services of a brute to administer the lash, or else it brutalises a less harsh nature. Then there are all the trappings: the fastening of the malefactor to the tripod; the dipping of the birch twigs in brine; the doctor who examines the victim before and during the punishment and gives his opinion as to whether he is “fit” to receive or continue it — these modern refinements make the procedure even more morally abnormal than the medieval and renaissance torture chambers. For anarchists there can be no nice weighing up of “pros” and “cons” — the whole business is revolting.
Marie Louise Berneri had died the previous year and throughout 1950 there were updates on fundraising and tributes to her life. Berneri was a key figure at the Press and much-loved, upwards of 100 people contributed to the memorial committee.
Arrests in Spain were front page of Freedom as Franco’s police swept through Barcelona detaining people, including Jose Iglesias Paz, a national delegate of the banned CNT union who had been a member of the Durruti column. The police said 13 men were part of a team which had committed multiple robberies and assassinations in the area. Five would eventually be executed, while the rest were sentenced to 30 years in prison each. Paz would serve 10 years before being granted amnesty and eventually going into political exile in Switzerland.
Freedom took a contrarian view of de-rationing as the government relaxed its regime, suggesting:
The whole conception of price control and the attempt to secure equitable distribution through rationing drives from the recognition — belated and incomplete that it is — that all men have a right to at least the necessities of life. It is unquestionably a progress that such a conception should now be common property. But it is also indicative of society and of the administrative class that this conception is thought to have application only during wartime.
One of the trends of Freedom in 1950 was that, in the absence of major anarchist upheavals at home the content largely revolved around a vocal support of unofficial union action in Britain and the more spectacular efforts of anarchists in other countries. A court case in Genoa was a good example of this, with three anarchists, Buscio, Deluchi and Mancuso going on trial for forcing their way into the Spanish Consulate with a plan to assassinate the Consul. The man himself being away, they let off a hand grenade in the office.
A full rundown of what happened, and the astonishing outcome, can be found at the Kate Sharpley Library.
The Korean War had just begun, and Freedom’s opinion was strident:
We are witnessing the great powers hiring out the territory of a backward, divided puppet as a battlefield, fighting behind other men’s lives. It is not the first time we have seen such a pattern.
For us, as anarchists, there remains the question — what about the Koreans? In the context of the cold war, such a question appears almost an irrelevancy! In Korea today it is not what the Koreans want; the decisions are not made on either side of the 38th parallel, but thousands of miles away in Washington and Moscow. Propaganda cries about the aspirations of a people, or the establishment of effective democracy become quite meaningless from this perspective.
The biggest event of the year for Freedom Press was a summer school held at “the Trade Union Club” in London on the August bank holiday weekend (26th-28th), instructive for where the anarchist movement was drawing its support from at the time, as it listed attendees from Glasgow, Liverpool, Cone, Newcastle, Gosport, Crewe, the Isle of Man, York, Bradford and Birmingham.
Talks were offered on the Saturday by John Hewetson on “aspects of anarchism,” Sam Fanaroff on “agriculture, industry and the commune,” Alex Comfort on how the new-fangled psychology of “delinquency” could append better to MPs than petty crooks, Jimm Raeside on “anarchism and resistance to war” and Albert Meltzer on “anarchism and the word picture.” Characteristically, Meltzer refused to soft soap in his lecture, admitting that “anarchism, as a force, hardly appeared on the world scene” and complaining that the syndicalist unions were tending to treat anarchism as “the poor relation.” Many of the lectures were subsequently written up as articles for following issues.
On the Sunday afternoon, an open-air meeting at Hyde Park saw Eddie Shaw and Jimmy Raeside spoke to “a very large and interested crowd” at Speakers Corner, followed by “a social with a Dixieland-style jazz band (and singing by George Melly, featured below) providing the entertainment.” The young Albert Meltzer and Vernon Richards dancing the night away to Melly’s cheerful patter, all of them parts of a tiny movement that was yet to see its 1960s growth spurt, or the vicious feuding that would later characterise both Meltzer and Vero’s lives, is a thoroughly charming and poignant image.
Freedom was spot on the money about the Korean war when it noted that:
The American government in particular is so deeply committed that, no matter what the cost in soldiers’ lives, it must continue to defend what its own advisers considered to be strategically undefendable. Defeat in Korea would be so disastrous that, however great the losses, the government whose prestige is at stake dare not end the war. Men may die, the country may be utterly ruined, but prestige must not be lost.
The paper was by now also beginning to be able to report on the activities of libertarians in Britain itself, with one of a series of writeups of lectures given by anarchists at the Summer School and a piece on the state of the movement, based on a meeting from the same event.
“CW” (likely Colin Ward) noted the ongoing Union of Anarchist Groups, which had formed in December 1945 at a conference in Glasgow and to which the London Anarchist Group (linked at the time to Freedom) belonged. Ward was relaxed about a lack of coherence in the organisation, described as “nebulous,” declaring “let the organisers organise, and the non-organisers abstain from organising.”
Later in the month a front page piece reported on the stymied efforts of the Chemical Workers’ Union to replace the TUC’s bureaucratic model of organising with a full industrial democracy. TUC council member Lincoln Evans was extremely unamused by the suggestion, saying it smacked of syndicalism, a charge denied by the CWU rep Robert Edwards (who would later go on to become an MP).
A fascinating report arrived at Freedom via the International Anarchist Congress, well-timed to provide a stark contrast with the conflict in full flow of war in Korea, from W Karim, general secretary of the General Federation of Korean Anarchists.
In his essay on their efforts against both Stalin and the US, Karim said around 3,000 active members with influence over a further 600,000 people had in previous years conducted a highly successful anti-imperial struggle to get Japanese oppressors off the peninsular, but had struggled after 1945 as a popular front Workers Union had been largely manipulated and seized on by pro-Bolshevik forces. Shifting to their own groups, including the Agricultural Workers’ Party, Independent Workers and the General Students’ Federation, the anarchists were at the time of writing running two daily papers and one weekly, using their own presses.
Later that month, a review of Stalin’s Anarchism or Socialism remarked on the old man’s “usual myopia” on what anarchism is and remarked, with bitter humour, that despite accusing anarchists of unfair rumour-mongering about the reactionary nature of the Bolshevik regime:
“Stalin has lately proclaimed that the state will not ‘wither away’ in Russia and is, furthermore, to be strengthened. So much for the ‘tittle-tattle’ of the anarchists, which seemed to have some foundation, after all.”
Six year later, the invasion of Hungary would put paid to Bolshevik pretensions for good, starting the long collapse of the Communist Party of Great Britain almost at a stroke.
In the 1939-45 period following the Spanish Civil War, thousands of people loyal to the Communist Party fled first to France and the to Russia, a country they believed would grant them asylum. According to accounts published by Freedom however, Stalin and the NKVD were less than welcoming:
The defeat of the Spanish workers by Franco’s army and the betrayal of their revolutionary aspirations by such leaders as El Campesino was accompanied by a mass exodus to France of anarchists, socialists, communists who feared reprisal. El Campesino (now) tells us that in France a committee of communist leaders was created to ‘screen’ those CPers who were seeking asylum in Russia. Priority was given to three categories of ‘comrades’: members of the NKVD (secret police); well-known militant whose position was compromising; Spanish and foreign militants ‘who had given signs of lukewarmness during the civil war or who knew too much. Not having been able to liquidate them in Spain, as had been the case for a number of their friends, they were to be sent to Russia to disappear.’
The first contingent, under the direction of Tegliatti, Modesto and Lister, left in April 1939. Altogether 3,961 Spanish refugees arrived in Russia this way. They had been preceeded by 1,700 children accompanied by 102 teachers.
El Campesino claims that of nearly 6,000 Spanish refugees in Russia, only 1,200 are still alive today, and challenges the Communists to disprove his figures.
The Peace Pledge Union is still the oldest pacifist organisation of its kind in Britain, having first emerged in 1934, and was strongly influenced by the anarchists.
PPU member Alex Comfort, also a writer in Freedom, had published an anti-war pamphlet through it which, Freedom reported in December, had perturbed Westminster enough to spark a debate over whether such writing should be somehow banned. The leaflet, Civil Defence – what you should do now, was worried at by Labour Home Secretary James Ede and Tory MP Harmar Nicholls for potentially “hindering recruitment for Civil Defence by circulating a defeatist pamphlet.” It was duly given a partial reprint in Freedom.