Anarchism is often associated with chaos, which is one reason it makes headlines whenever there's a riot on the British mainland. However, the Anarchy in the UK festival in London this week demonstrates that the vast majority of anarchists have little interest in throwing bricks and bottles at the police.
While anarchism as a political doctrine has never exerted much influence outside Spain and the Ukraine, the impact of anarchist ideas on the arts has been enormous. Bohemianism is a quintessentially anarchist pursuit and it is this, principally in its subcultural guises, that forms the focus for the 10-day festival, which began on Friday.
The event is the brainchild of Ian Bone, a founder member of the Class War newspaper and Class War Federation. His past activities do little to inspire trust among old hands at anarchist politics. At one point, he left the federation to set up the rival Class War Organisation, which collapsed after publishing just one issue of its national newspaper. Among revolutionary anarchists, Anarchy in the UK is derisively referred to as the Bone Show.
While the festival will thrill all rebellious punk squatters, the major British anarchist groups are refusing to participate in what they perceive as a desperate attempt to revive the careers of some second-rate rock bands.
An obsession with autonomy, or freedom, is what characterises all anarchist thought. Naturally, this leads to sectarianism. One of the major divisions within anarchist thinking is between collectivist and individualist ideologies. While anarcho-individualists have never attempted to build mass political organisations, their collectivist brethren find that although there is a great deal of support for anarchist ideas, very few people are willing to become paid-up members of the movement. Indeed, no British anarchist group has more than one hundred active members.
In this context, it seems absurd to claim, as the tabloid press has done, that the Class War Federation is responsible for the rioting during recent demonstrations against the Criminal Justice Bill. Class War is in no position to organise riots; almost all its time and energy is put into producing and selling its newspaper. Most of the Class War groups around the country consist of one or two people with a post-box address and a can of spray paint. While some people participating in riots may have become sympathetic to anarchist ideas after experiencing unemployment and heavy-handed policing, very few are members of any political organisation.
The most active strand of British anarchism throughout the Eighties was that of pacifism and non-violence. Many anarchists, who are happy to glue shut the locks of butchers' shops and participate in animal rights campaigns, would never dream of taking part in a riot. Likewise, anarcho-individualists and anarcho-capitalists are generally contemptuous of demonstrations and acts of public disorder.
Many of the younger and more committed class-struggle anarchists, who do view rioting as a viable political tactic, quickly leave the movement. They often find themselves unable to resist the lure of left-communist splinter groups. In attacking democracy as a bourgeois distraction, organisations such as the International Communist Current provide a much more coherent ideology than the anarchist movement.
One of the attractions of anarchism is that it can be practised without a great deal of commitment. Bohemian types may voice support for Class War, but they are unlikely to join a group which demands they stand on street corners selling political literature and attend boring meetings. Likewise, squatters may find the doctrine of anarcho-syndicalism appealing, without actually wanting to go into an industrial workplace to participate in rank and file activism.
Class War began as a witty attack on both the left and anarcho-pacifism. …