Book Review: Roses and Revolutionists

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ISBN: 978-1-910170-17-5
Price: £6.99
Pages: 106
Publisher: Five Leaves Books

Nominally a work of history, Nigel Todd’s book on the founding, growth and eventual collapse of the Clousden Hill anarchist co-operative feels as though it could be written now with only a few technological twists. For anyone with more than a passing interest in the libertarian co-op scene, largely organised through Radical Routes these days, the internal tensions of Tyneside’s once famed commune will be all too familiar.

Founded in 1895, largely through the extraordinarily enthusiastic efforts of anarchist tailor Franz Kapir (later Frank Kapper), Clousden was intended to be a non sectarian part of a growing socialist “back to the land” self-sufficiency movement of the time. Based “15 minutes’ walk” from what was then Forest Hall Station (now the Flying Scotsman pub) it made a splash both in Newcastle and the broad anarchist movement when initial funding was secured from social reformist William Key, a businessman whose main income came from selling food and clothing to the British Army.

Freedom Newspaper was a particularly strong backer of Kapper’s vision, regularly printing appeals for cash and reports on progress at the colony, much of which was impressive with a greenhousing system put together largely through trial and error guided by “experienced gardeners” and steadily improving output. While not a co-operativist, Peter Kropotkin visited and offered praise for the project, which he saw as mostly very sensibly constructed. Fuelled largely by the charisma of Kapper and Key’s cash in its early years, it would fold by 1901.

Todd’s writing is engaging, well researched and full of primary sources, including scans of the colony’s Statement of Objects and Principles, news reports, letters and accounting sheets, but where it shines is in the human detail. In one passage he explains why a policy of restricted membership was instituted after a period of allowing anyone to come and stay:

“Kapper and the other colonists had been joined in the spring of 1896 by a group of allegedly “Tolstoyan anarchists” (or more likely, Russian Doukhobors). This group stuck firmly to the principle that everyone was ‘free to work when and where’ they chose. It was a different approach to work than the collectivist principles envisaged in the colony’s constitution, and just how different was soon revealed when ‘one planted a diminutive orchard in a most unsuitable position, another tried duck-breeding without the slightest knowledge of the subject, while yet another insisted that social salvation lay in rearing goats’.”

Which made me laugh out loud, as it so perfectly reflects well-intentioned but sometimes poorly-considered individual decisions made in anarchist projects today, and the battles co-operative groups often face to agree some sort of collective approach. Such short but poignant vignettes pepper Todd’s writing, and his description of the co-op finally falling apart is heart-breakingly recognisible.

For all that Roses and Revolutionists paints a somewhat downbeat picture in some ways, highlighting failings from 120 years ago that still dog us today, what encourages is that some of its lessons have been taken to heart. The closest analogues to Clousden Hill now are probably the co-operative members of Radical Routes, and indeed the radical co-ops which remain such as the Cowley Club in Brighton, 1 in 12 in Bradford, or even Freedom itself.

Where Clousden collapsed under the weight of its debts and lack of internal political cohesion, today’s co-ops, though often still struggling, are far more savvy to the risks and in the case of Radical Routes, maintains a significant collectively-maintained set of resources on both ways to run disparate co-op collectives without fermenting immediate splits and ways to sustainably build up projects without running up cash deficits. It’s tough on politics, on the rights of housemates and on the amount of work members are expected to put in, using the experience gained from decades of effort. In that sense the lessons of Clousden Hill and projects like it remain with us, and Todd’s book means its activists’ work was not in vain.