This appeared in Transgressions, A journal of Urban Exploration Issue 4 Spring 1998
It’s a grisly business being given a book about your own past: there’s this vaguely iconic photo of one’s younger self and the feeling that you’re trapped in a sheaf of yellowing news clippings or, as in this book, some imagined golden age of the years of ’68, an age of enviable commitment, mass struggles and unlimited horizons. Personally I’ve found it painful thinking about the past, doing it for the first time in a very long time. I don’t regret what I did like I said to the only person who ever asked me, a screw after my conviction but the me of then seems very distant and though I respect what I did, have felt critical and not wholly sympathetic. Some of the rhetoric and righteousness of AB communiqués now makes me cringe. Unfortunately it’s exactly it’s the most over-the-top rhetoric this book is keen on. Other things I was involved in writing like the Daily Grind supplement of International Times or Strike newspaper stand up much better.
In 1971-72 I was convicted in the Angry Brigade trial and spent 7 years in jail. In my case, the police framed a guilty man. This book about Tom Vague did not bring back that past but made me think about it. If your own past life is going to be given an airing, far better a Tom Clear than a Tom Vague. This book is vague enough: a lazy cut-and-paste job (and that mostly of a cut-and-paste book of 20 odd years ago) and evasive in its own voice with nothing to say other than to make a vague connection to the Sex Pistols just so as no one misses the point of the book, the presentation of icons of cultural rebellion of the English sort, them and us.
The laziness means that for example there are no interviews with anyone involved in the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Committee which, not uncommonly, was more interesting than the AB itself, a widely-based, politically creative organisation of very different people. There is no sense of how people broadly supporting a democratic communist view of the world felt, behaved and organised at that time, or of what was happening in the world at that time. These things are evidently not what is now grotesquely called ‘sexy’. Ideology by default is not so unusual, in this book the Angry Brigade is allowed to stand in splendid romanticised isolation.
The AB’s attacks on property targets mostly occurred in the time span of Mr Edward Heath’s government though attacks continued all over the country well into the seventies, something which partially validated the AB not being a tight-knit clandestine organisation which it never was. Until the recent election when the Conservative Party became almost immediately of no interest to anyone, Mr Heath was presented as a genial, troublesome old boy representing opposition to hard-line free-market capitalism, something which made me feel old and the actions of the AB somewhat farcical.
At the time however, Mr Heath was not like this, his Selsdon Man policy was hard-line free-market capitalism. At the time this was shocking. It failed partly because of the especially strong and not-legalistic opposition of the organised working class and also because the decisive use made by capital globally of the oil price shock of 1973 had not yet shifted the balance of forces in favour of capital. By the time Mrs Thatcher came to power it was a fait accompli. The Selsdon Man policy was also accompanied by a brutalisation of state power. Looked at now the fact that there were only one or two deaths in custody or that the first police computer was put to use must make it seem like a truly innocent time, but that is not how it felt. These were shocking things. David Oluwale’s death in custody was especially shocking.
I can only say that my own experience was one of ambivalent innocence. On the one hand as a member of the Claimant’s Union I had experienced concerted self-organisation winning tangible victories but also as a scruffy resident of Notting Hill an increased level of police repression where we also organised in the battle to turn private squares into communal playgrounds. A feeling that victories could and should be gained and another, less conscious, that the state and capital had had a gutful of our victories and were going to come down hard.
They were then the early days of a cusp, heady days of working class self-confidence but signs of international capital and its guarantor nation states having had enough of it. This was not analysed or theorised until around 1973-74 and when it came it was not from the Bolshevik left but from the Italian autonomist movement; from Toni Negri, Sergio Bologna and Ferrucio Gambino. They were also the years when de-skilling computerisation was first applied to production. We were all very young at the time, I had just turned 23 when I was arrested, and cannot pretend we understood all of this: we shared the class confidence of the time but had a gut feeling that this was being challenged, by the Ford Motor Company for example, and by the British state most of all.
We were arrested in August 1971. In this month, two years ahead of the oil price shock, President Nixon made a key move in favour of global capital by ending the relationship between gold and the dollar, creating the conditions for floating exchange rates. In the same month the British state interned Republicans in the Six Counties. The last action before our arrest was to bomb an army hall in London in response.
The importance of this too, something more immediately repressive than seemingly technical moves in the world of international money, and a lot closer to home, is lost in the Tom Vague book. Internment, that is the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of people not because they had committed anything designated as a crime but because their families or history of open political resistance made it legitimate to the government of Edward Heath, is surely something that would be even more shocking were it to happen now. It was certainly shocking then but perversely welcome from a theoretical viewpoint, the modern British state played by the rules until it suited them to unilaterally suspend them. It’s what we’d known all along. A year later 13 citizens of Derry on a peaceful demonstration were shot dead by the armed agencies of the British state. I was in prison then and it felt like the British state wanted the IRA, they wanted a militarisation of the struggle in Ireland as preferable to Free Derry and democratic communism in practice.
These dates ignored by Tom Vague had real consequences. Those of us convicted were weighed off in December 1972. By the next year a serious IRA bombing campaign had begun in England. I was in the Scrubs when the Old Bailey bomb went off, the whole jail celebrated and I was relieved I’d already got my sentence. Bombing had got a lot heavier and we’d have got heavier sentences.
Romanticising as in this book requires a timeless context as if doing a rebellious act was heroic whatever the circumstances. I respect my past because the anger and commitment felt were real enough but it was not heroic. I was very young, didn’t know seriously serious repression, and the AB actions were all before the IRA made bombing a serious business.
As it happened we were due for 15 years: Jake Prescott had copped this in earlier trial with less against him; the screw in charge of our escort to the Bailey had money on it; and finally the judge said that is what he would have given were it not for the jury’s plea for clemency. I was much better at defending myself at the Old Bailey than as an urban guerrilla. In snide mode I’d say, par for the course for an ex-Cambridge student. True but it was also more suited politically. Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelson and me defended ourselves (which I would strongly recommend at least one person doing at any joint trial) and were able to speak directly to 12 other citizens without mediation except for the judge interrupting and lying when it really mattered which he did because in my case the police really had framed a guilty man and there were holes in the frame. Looked at now I think, poor fuckers, a captive audience for six long months. Equally, first sign of them abolishing the jury system and I’m off, out of the country. One of the great moments of the recent past was the Liverpool jury acquitting the serious women to damaged a warplane destined for Indonesia and its vicious colonialism. The jury system is something exceptional in the representative democracies of present day capitalism, the only time when institutionally ordinary people have real power.
This book deals at some length with the trial but once again without context. It is not so disrespectful to see the trial as one of the few achievements of the AB and that this was so because it was no longer clandestine. For democratic communists wanting the mass democracy of a knowledgeable, critically intelligent citizenry, clandestinity is a contradiction in terms, exactly the Bolshevik-Bakuninist bullshit we detested in everyday life. The courtroom was made into an open forum by some defendants defending themselves and the jury did me a massive favour, 10 years instead of the allotted 15. It was before the first IRA bombs in London, true, but it was the jury saved me five years bang-up. After he’d given the verdicts and acquitted half of us, the nervous foreman stood up and said clearly that the jury had asked for clemency on our behalf. Some fucking moment. Like it was a vindication of the politics, the critically intelligent citizenry in action even if I was sick to be going down at all: a guilty man had been framed up and there were so many holes in the frame I’d had my hopes.
If the trial then was a vindication of sorts, what then of my record as an urban guerrilla? It’s hard this, some attacks were real carried out, as with the attacks on Italian state property in response to the police murder of the anarchist comrade Pinelli, appropriate. On the other hand it didn’t last very long, a little under two years, and this when everything was in our favour: security in this pre-IRA era was very weak compared to what goes down these days; and since most of us did not belong to any of the many known leftist parties and groupesecules of the time, we had a head start when it came to political police files. Given that my/our not lasting very long points to a terrible lack of nous, that’s clear, but since writing this review at all is painful enough it’s worth trying to be scrupulous in de-constructing this lack of nous. I lived in relatively innocent times, had not experienced repression beyond a police cosh ‘n arrest at a Vietnam demonstration, and had never been in prison. This, unheroically, encouraged the belief that I would be very unlucky to be caught. Some AB actions, recorded and unrecorded require a degree of planning and nerve, but I contributed massively to my own unluck.
The many and various people who did AB things were not very comfortable with clandestinity which is inevitably elitist when it doesn’t come out of a mass movement. Looked at now that is inescapable and the looseness of the clandestinity doesn’t help: one of the most important texts of the time was ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ which showed how informal leaderships were especially undemocratic and is especially relevant now when ideologies of the Internet distort its democratic potential with their holistic flimflam. There was at least not that naiveté-from-ego which demands you tell the whole world what you’re doing, but still. For one thing we were libertarian communists believing in the mass movement and for another we were NOT THAT SERIOUS. Put baldly like this it sounds especially arrogant, Yeah man, we never took it seriously anyway: what I mean is that like many young people then and now we smoked a lot of dope and spent a lot of time having a good time. We had none of the vanguardist assumptions of the Red Army Faction in Germany (heroic though they were) or the Red Brigades of Italy (infiltrated and manipulated as they were). To be serious about your beliefs and wanting a good time in the process may have been part of those innocent times but is not some eternal psychological impossibility, a contradiction written in stone. The respect element of the critical respect I feel now is that we were serious about what we felt and thought and acted on it. Doing it and having a good time was largely financed by cheque fraud. This too left trails but neither these nor our untrained clandestinity lead directly to my short lived-ness as an urban guerrilla.
Early in 1971 one of the advantages we had, of not being known to the police in the AB context, had gone. And yet we continued. The middle-aged man I now am can wave the finger at this, it was fucking madness. We continued out of stubbornness, the AB having a dynamic of its own, and most of all from a naive, romantic sense of loyalty. Two comrades who had been arrested should not be deserted, left on their own, even though our addresses or names had been in a captured address book. Continuing in these circumstances was not being serious taken to a new level, it was foolhardy; the youthful feeling that nothing very terrible could happen to us and Fuck them, We’ll show them.
The lack of any sense of historical context in this book and the romanticism that makes for, is not limited to the balance of class forces nationally and internationally: there is no sense of culture or political culture of the time. It was a great time as what had been bohemian broke out of that enclave; there was energy, enthusiasm, not much money and a creative belief that anything was possible. On the other hand a large number of songs of the time were still those of male self-pity, and ‘the left’ still spoke as a taken-for-granted WE, we the unitary oppressed. In the period of class self-confidence leftist parties and groupescules had a constituency and not exclusively in universities. Some had places in trade union committees, some were complete nutters capable of two hour windy speeches with a front row of uptight acolytes ready to snarl at anyone who might yawn or laugh. What they had in common, like the Christian Bolsheviks of our present government, was an absolute self-confidence in speaking for a unitary WE.
The AB communiqués were right in their criticism of the authoritarian left but they too tend to adopt the WE voice. Looked at now there is a comfortably sectarian ring to them, as if ‘the left’ was the only problem, a small world one could have an impact on. In part ‘the left’ was the problem but the real questioning of it came from women and black people, rightly sceptical of the We. It is hard to imagine now how sexist the left was. An Anarchist conference sticks in the mind, it was appalling.
The critical distant me of now also sees how much political activity of the time was gestural. For myself, becoming an AB activist as well as being active in open struggles that affected me, was ironically prompted by disgust at the gestural nature of more conventional leftist politics. This disgust took off at a planning meeting for a Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration at the Toynbe Hall, Whitechapel by which time I’d already been arrested twice on such demos and got a coshing on one.
The American war against Vietnam is barely mentioned in this Tom Vague book but the movement against it was on a huge scale and it was international. There was debate in the libertarian left, why support the authoritarian communists of Hanoi, but correctly I think, most comrades said that if the Americans were to win there was no possibility of any progressive movement there and that it would be massively discouraging to libertarian struggles across the ‘Third World’. It was a time we did at least try to think internationally and I do respect our attacks on Spanish and Italian targets in solidarity with imprisoned and murdered comrades there.
Anyway, so some of us turned up to this Vietnam planning meeting. Tariq Ali was in the chair, and among those present were four guys who were quite obviously cops. We said it was ridiculous to go on with them there, but no no, said the chair, we must continue. We continued to make our point and in fact the four cops plus one we hadn’t noticed got up and left themselves. It made us feel that demonstrations were simply routine and that all that could happen, with the leadership safely in the rear, was the people at the front getting whacked and arrested.
But why then bombing, a 19th century tactic, easily labelled as anarchist which we were not, necessarily clandestine, and given that we did not want to hurt anyone necessarily limited in the damage it would do. Isn’t that essentially gestural? At the time it didn’t seem like that, having been beaten on gestural Grosvenor Square demonstrations, it felt like it was hurting them without hurting ourselves. It also came from frustration and an anger channelled this way, here were these guys in government and corporations making decisions that had a seriously bad impact on the lives of thousands of people with impunity, nothing bad was going to happen to them personally, what they did a mealy-mouthed necessity. It also came from that feeling that we were at a cusp in terms of the balance of class power, and that there was a need for action not constrained by capitalistically defined legality. Within a year the mass movement won two major victories by disregarding legality at Saltley and at Pentonville prison. It would be tempting to think there was some connection but that too would be romantic and all that connects them is that they were of a period. Within another two years this same mass movement was being terrorised by its own leadership with much-publicised talk of possible right wing coups, and at Windsor a FREE rock festival was systematically smashed up by the cops.
I had been involved in other gestures and about these I feel less ambiguous, more certain that they were right. There was for example the auction of houses owned by Kensington and Chelsea Council to the private sector at which we put on suits and bid up the houses to fantastic levels till some dealer, sweating on a bargain tumbled something was up and the thing collapsed in chaos. This went back to some of the tactics of the Unemployed Workers Movement in the 1930s and to tactics of now especially from the Greens.
Or there was ripping up the Finals papers at Cambridge, a liberating experience I have never regretted. Again the times were softer, there would always be jobs, it had little or no impact in future years. It was a gesture but one that could harm no one and which did go to the heart of our libertarian communist beliefs, that elitism is the twin of exploitation, the one that mocks the rhetoric of opportunities for everyone.
Kensington and Chelsea sold that house, elitism continues to mock the rhetoric of democracy. The seizing of Powis Square, knocking down the railings of this private residential square and turning into a communal playground, this is the only victory that has survived. All that happened with the AB was that it cheered up the relatively powerless for a while. But it was too much from the outside. For example we had no idea of how attacks on the Ford Motor Company would have on workers in dispute there. Many innocent comrades had their house turned upside down by the cops. All I can say is at least we were never like some unscrupulous leftist groups that encouraged black youth to attack police stations after the death of Colin Roache and then disowned them when they did it with petrol bombs which are far more democratic than dynamite.
The AB was also ironically spectacular, given that I and others were much influenced by The Society of the Spectacle. The actions depended on publicity and have become in this book, part of a seamless spectacle, safely in a romanticised past. If there was a rationale we could take from situationist analysis it would be precisely the seamlessness of the spectacle, that no one is ever personally responsible for exploitation or repression. The Society of the Spectacle still stands up as a fine description of modern capitalism but it was never prescriptive. It is easy to mock in return and say at least there has never been an AB exhibition at the George Pompidou Centre. I say this because it is the situationist element in that AB rhetoric which often makes me cringe, that Tom Vague seizes on in this volume in his psychogeographic series. It is easy to say that spot on though it was, Guy Debord’s analysis came from a group of Bolshevik bohemians and there is an elitist tone to it. What stands out in the Tom Vague book is how comfortable he is with what we could call ‘the situationist angle’ while saying nothing about the analysis and theory that came out of the Italian movement from Potere Operaio onwards which was more important to us.
It is not surprising that the Italian theory was written as hard strategic and tactical analysis from a working class viewpoint whereas the bohemianism of the SI had made it perfect for that massive displacement of intellectual activity that has gone with the class defeat of the mid seventies. There is always displacement and morbid symptoms in periods of class defeat. It’s not that the terrain of ‘culture’; is not a weightier area in economic life but the shift of oppositional analysis almost exclusively to it and the bullshit romanticism of Guattari and Deluze for example, shows only a colossal loss of nerve.
The aim of Tom Vague’s book has surely been to romanticise specifically our sense of commitment in an age he obviously believes is dominated by that sassy irony which makes an unambiguous opposition to capitalism slightly ridiculous. In doing this he leaves me trapped in the past where I do not want to be and do not feel myself to be, and also underestimates the present. Irony is not all pervasive, and fightbacks are not gestural, life is too tough for that. The ability of so many young people having a tough time to survive and be creative is stronger than 25-30 years ago and is shown for example how they have got around the seemingly draconian powers of the Criminal Justice Act.
What has survived and flourished from the libertarian movement and especially from the women’s movement has been a scepticism about that automatic ‘we’ of traditional left politics. On the other hand in defeat the notion of autonomy (now used in mobile phone adverts) has become enmeshed in notions of personal identity. It is not just the notion of commitment but of unity that seems to be of the past. This is not true, it needs to be worked for and will be stronger than that of the automatic ‘we’ when borne of mutual respect and which can include those made furiously angry by our government of Christian Bolsheviks as their rhetoric of inclusions becomes every more excluding. If my ‘generation’ of those who believe capitalism is neither inevitable nor eternal have anything to offer I hope it will be a degree of hard-earned nous that we never had in the past and anger at what demands anger. That rather than endless hours of lame satire, weird ideologies or a fetishisation of the Angry Brigade.