BOOK REVIEW No 2

Anarchism In North East England 1882-1992. Tyneside Anarchist Archive. Published by Active Distribution May 2021

“I’ve just finished reading what I think is as important and remarkable a work of working class and anarchist history as any I’ve read. It deserves a place in the literary canon of anarchist and working class struggle. It gives us an example; a template, that comrades in every city and region would do well to emulate.

Firstly it’s important to acknowledge that this is not an exhaustive generalised account of popular working class struggle, rebellion, organization, radicalism in the North East of England. You can find those elsewhere. And they are still being written. Anarchism in North East England has a more specific purpose. It sets out to provide a meticulous and thoroughly researched history of the activity of anarchists in the region over a period of 110 years. As such the book can be understood as a work of political archaeology; turning over every page of every newspaper and journal, local and national mainstream press as well as the countrywide anarchist press, to find any mention of anarchism and anarchists in the region. Sometimes the evidence of activity is scarce; anarchists as all organized workers; ‘enemies within’ as Thatcher described us; have always periodically been forced underground, vilified, imprisoned and disappeared by the capitalist state. There has been a class and regional bias that has left a mass working class movement without record in the wider anarchist movement. This book is painstaking in redressing that and revealing the story.

As a work of political archaeology it leaves no stone unturned and presents everything to the reader: letters and columns written by anarchists in mainstream local newspapers are identified, summarised and put into context; every correspondent, subscriber and distributor to Freedom and other UK anarchist newspapers with an address between Teesside and Berwick-upon tweed is given mention. If you thought this thorough approach would produce a book that was worthy but a bit dry you could not be further from the truth. While it is thorough and detailed it ends up doing so much more. For this is a story inhabited by people, fellow workers, comrades; a political history populated by communities, families, characters and as such it delivers a vivid, exciting and unique social and political history of the region. The reason for this becomes clear as you read: this is written by a working class activist for whom anarchism is no abstract ideology divorced from working class lives but a movement of our class, an expression of class struggle.

And so, in the telling of the history of anarchism in the region we get a powerful and unique insight into our communities, the lives lived, the struggles waged. The book weaves a golden thread of black and red through the story of anarchism from 1882 to 1992 and reveals a hitherto untold history of the working classes of the North East of England. That thread gives us a perspective that is breathtaking in it’s scope and giddying in the way it trips through the decades. It connects the teenage anarchist punk fanzines and squats of the 1970s and 80s all the way back to the Clousden Hill commune of the 1890s. It links the Chopwell militant anarchist colliers of 1911 to the striking mining communities of Northumberland and Durham in the great strike of 1984/5. It connects the fight against the police in places like Birtley during the 1926 General Strike with the 1992 riots in Meadow Well which is where the book ends. And it’s a fitting end. Newcastle anarchists in 1992 were able to give a credible account of estate riots at that time because they were from those estates and dealing with the same aggressive policing.

505 pages

The author has done a monumental amount of research, as a Geordie anarchist knowing where to look and dig, who to talk to and what to ask and gaining access to material that would be beyond the ken of any academic historian. The book is made all the livelier by the presence of all that primary contemporary material: editorials in the local press attacking anarchists, excerpts from diaries, pamphlets, articles, minutes of meetings, zines, interviews, leaflets, speeches, flyers, graffiti. The writer deals with the class division and the London-provincial/north-south divide within the Anarchist movement (in the way that huge and significant anarchist movements outside the capital were so often been ignored or patronized by London based anarchists at Freedom Press) both politically, and personally because of the obstacle this has presented to the researcher and archivist. Throughout the book the author isn’t afraid of sticking their oar in and making it personal and that sense of this being a self-written history is very powerful. It lends insight, humour, ownership and the ability to criticize, empathise and understand: these are our comrades no matter if they lived 10 or 140 years ago; the struggle is the same and is waged in the very same streets.

The narrative style itself is lively and changes throughout the book depending on what’s happening: the voice goes from the traditional historical past tense to the present tense as we are taken through the weekly and monthly events. Although never anecdotal, at times it’s like listening to an elder passing tales of a colorful family history on to the next generation. The way it links our movement through the generations at times gives it something of the quality of a family bible – if you’ve been involved in anarchism in North East England you can trace your political lineage directly back to those comrades in 1882.

To me this book is as important as any book on anarchism and should be as widely read. I confess that I struggle to read works of anarchist political theory and philosophy. I have only been able to understand ideas when they’re made real by reading books and pamphlets about people and events written by contemporary active participants. I think Anarchism in North east England sits alongside these: Maximoff’s account of the Russian counter-revolution: The Guillotine At Work, and direct accounts of the Spanish revolution by people like Gaston Leval and Augustin Souchy-Bauer for example.

Anarchism In North East England sets an example and it would be wonderful to see it applied elsewhere and for comrades to tell the story of anarchism in their own cities and regions. Anarchism in North East England was researched and written in the writer’s spare hours between full time employment and single parenting. It has been edited, proofed, published, printed and distributed at the author’s and publishers expense. The original manuscript was filled with illustrations: photos, pictures, press cuttings, images of covers of literature etc. These were lost in the process of editing for a number of reasons. It would be great if we were to be able to have the money to produce an illustrated two volume edition. Order your copy of this remarkable book and you could help that become a reality.”

Dave Francis. Wallsend, Tyneside. August 2021

Anarchism in North East England, 1882 – 1992. Available now from numerous ‘outlets’ including Active Distribution, PM Press, AK Press, Freedom Press / Bookshop, Five Leaves Bookshop, Amorphous Pieces, Ebay, Amazon ! etc etc etc

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