Reaching out – a few thoughts

Dave – the editor

On the weekend of 17/18th October, the 2020 Anarchist Bookfair in London took place, with all of the proceedings taking place online. For information purposes, here’s the link to the main website for the fair, the programme of events and a list of participating groups and organisations:

Welcome to the 2020 Anarchist Bookfair in London https://anarchistbookfair.london/

Programme https://anarchistbookfair.london/events

Groups https://anarchistbookfair.london/groups

I’ve read some criticism of the event along the lines of it supposedly not having a strong relationship to ongoing workplace and community struggles. I would urge you to look at the links above and make your own judgements about the event. The only point I would make is that if some people feel that the 2020 Anarchist Bookfair in London was run by anarchists for other anarchists, then in my experience, it’s far from being alone in this respect! To be honest, most of the anarchist bookfairs I’ve been to have tended to feel a little bit inward looking. Having said that, I’ll acknowledge the efforts made in the run up to the 2017 London Anarchist Bookfair to engage the local community where it was held in Haringey. Sadly, ‘events’ at that particular bookfair and the subsequent fall out and falling outs overshadowed those efforts at local engagement.

The thing about being an anarchist and operating on an autonomous basis, is that there’s nothing to stop us organising an event of our own if we don’t particularly fancy what’s on offer. That applies to pretty much any other activity undertaken by anarchists such as producing and distributing propaganda. Which is how D.i.Y.CULTURE started off with a couple of us feeling constrained in what we could and couldn’t do on another publication and deciding to start something new. D.i.Y.CULTURE now has a range of international contributors and a global audience – not bad for what started off as a breakaway in the early part of 2019.

These days, I’m not one for slagging off an anarchist event or publication if it doesn’t suit my politics. I’m certainly not one for trying to change the culture of a group or an organisation if it doesn’t work for me. What I do support is if something doesn’t suit, building something that does suit. If it works and offers an extra option for people interested in anarchism but who want a different approach, that’s great. If it’s not working, then terminate it, tie up any loose ends, reflect on why it didn’t work, learn the lesson from that and after a bit, start something new. The important thing is to try and avoid toxic and divisive fall outs that end up damaging working relationships for years afterwards. This is something I’ve learnt from bitter experience and the mistakes I’ve made by getting involved in rows when I should have walked away.

So, would a fair of some sort focusing on workplace and community struggles be worth the effort of organising? If it’s genuinely open to workplace organisers and community groups who should take the lead role in building the event, then yes, it would be worth it. What it would mean is dropping preconceived notions of what a bookfair or a radical event should look like and starting from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. Because it would be the people in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods building the event, apart from offering logistical experience and support, it would be best if those of us with long experience of anarchist bookfairs took a bit of a back seat.

What should be the aims of such an event? The first is to get a range of workplace and community groups networking with each other so they can offer mutual support as and when needed and also learn from each other’s experiences. The second is to get people who are angry about the way things are going in through the door to see what’s already being done in terms of resistance. They may find something they can join up and work with. Alternatively and often better, they may find the inspiration and support needed for them to walk out the door at the end of the day and start to build something themselves.

An aim is facilitating ordinary working class people to start organising and fighting back. However, we should not be blind to some pretty impressive levels of working class self organising from people never previously involved in any form of activism that are now happening. These were written about in this post: Stirrings. We must never make the mistake of thinking that just because we’re in a movement, we know it all because trust me, we don’t. So, a third and very important aim would be for us to learn from the grassroots organising that’s starting to spring up independently of any established movement.

Regarding who should participate in any event promoting working class grassroots activism, we have to be prepared to move out of our comfort zones. Given my experience of involvement with the Independent Working Class Association and standing two years in succession as a candidate for them in the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward (Thurrock) in the local elections in 2007 and 2008, I’ll freely admit that I’m probably pretty well suited to working well outside of any ‘comfort zone’ I may have had. My first experience of door knocking was is still one of the most educative political experiences I’ve ever had. Namely that after knocking on about ten doors, it became pretty obvious that a) most people are apolitical and b) it’s not easy to pin people down on the political spectrum. It also made me learn how to listen to other people to work out where they’re coming from before engaging in any discussion.

When you look at the local campaigns across London against the botched imposition of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods or at the protests against lockdown / the new normal’, again, they seem to attract people who up until this point were probably apolitical, hard to pin down on the political spectrum and simply just wanted to get on with their lives. Like it or not, the fact is that when it comes to resistance to the crap we’re getting from the government and the local authorities who presume to rule over us, it’s these people who are playing a part in the opposition. Refusing to engage with them because they don’t meet activist ‘purity tests’ will create a political vacuum. You don’t need me to tell you that political vacuums are dangerous.

As written in Stirrings we need to learn to take a few risks, open ourselves out and step outside of any bubbles we may have got ourselves into. Suffice to say, the kind of grassroots event sketched out above would be unlike any anarchist / radical bookfair I’ve ever attended. No disrespect is intended to any of the organisers of those events but doing something completely different with a firm grounding in our class would be a welcome breath of fresh air.

However, if we’re looking at a physical event, we have to be mindful of the situation we’re in with lockdown and the new ‘normal’. The three weeks to ‘flatten the curve’ has turned into eight months and counting with seemingly no end in sight. That’s leading to a growing level of despair but is also generating a lot of anger. Planning a physical event for the summer of 2021 without addressing the issue of lockdown / the new ‘normal’ and the ‘reset’ agenda that seems to be emerging would to put it bluntly, be an abandonment of responsibly. If we don’t step up to the plate to address this, then quite frankly, we can forget about ever holding a physical, real life, face to face radical event sagain because the authorities will not allow us to do so.

This is why in Stirrings and in this piece, I’m banging on about the need to drop a lot of our preconceived ideas, embrace risk and uncertainty, and reach out to the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of coming to an anarchist event. We have a narrow window of opportunity to turn things around if we’re willing to take the chances that are on offer to us. We potentially have everything to win but if we fail, we have literally everything to lose…

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