I reviewed Ben Franks examination of contemporary British Anarchism in issue 91 of Class War (Winter 2006). I may as well put the review on here so it gets a further airing. Here you go!
Rebel Alliances – The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms by Benjamin Franks (AK Press, £15 although currently a lot less that on Amazon!)
Good books on Anarchism are pretty rare. Books about the UK anarchist movement are even rarer. In “Rebel Alliances” Benjamin Franks has not only managed to avoid the car crash of earlier summaries (such as “Demanding The Impossible” by Peter Marshall, or “Anarchism” by George Woodcock) but has given a serious overview of what anarchists attempt to do, and why.
The first success is that the book largely covers the period from 1984-2002. Rather than addressing past texts by noted beards, Rebel Alliances concentrates on recent actions, the groups involved, and their motivations. This is not to say no lessons can be learned from the small amount of historical information included – it is worth noting that historically Jewish anarchists in Whitechapel defied the authority of the Rabbi’s – compare that to the behaviour of “socialists” in Tower Hamlets today towards the local mullah’s.
Franks sets out the process by which anarchists in the UK ceased tail-ending the Leninist left, and created their own agenda. Events like the 1992 Anti-Election Alliance march were pivotal to this process, as of course was the slow but steady decline of the old Marxist-Leninist left. Whilst the last century left waited around for the trades unions to “defeat” the Poll Tax – anarchists correctly identified just who had the tools to do the job – working class communities themselves. All too often politics really is a very simple process, made complicated by that bane on us all – politicians!
Methods of anarchist organisation are also set out – from uniting around “The Platform” through to the “Open Cells” of groups like the Angry Brigade or the Hit Squads in the Miners strike. The books greatest strength lies in the authors ability to spot when theory is undermined by reality. Whilst squatting is fine as a principle, it brings with it the danger of creating an “alternative” economy based around the sorts of goods and services that often appeal to squatters and their friends. Such alternative economies can and do assist in the gentrification of working class areas.
This is possibly not a book for someone brand new to reading about Anarchism. There are occasionally times when Rebel Alliances will have you groping for your dictionary – the author seems particularly attached to the word “prefigurative” – and the section on propaganda is far more fun than the heavier section on ethics. Franks can be a tad PC – is it really “old prejudice” to say that feminists of the Greenham Common variety were weakening class struggle? To many working class women the living conditions at the camp would have been eccentric at best, abhorrent at worst. Also - where are those feminists now?
Given its national emphasis, good local anarchist campaigns are, perhaps inevitably, overlooked. Some, like the successes of Anarchists in Sheffield in the 1980s, really need to be evaluated somewhere. It is also worth noting that anarchist campaigns do not exist in a vacuum, and those opposed to anarchism are not passive players. The Carnival Against Global Capitalism on June 18 1999 is discussed in detail, but since then the police have more than regained the upper hand, to the extent that for many activists it is now virtually impossible to even have a drink in the west end on the day of a big demonstration.
These are however minor gripes – Rebel Alliances is likely to become the standard work on our movement for some years. Given he is known to so many people involved in class struggle anarchism, no one is better placed to examine the contemporary British anarchist movement than Ben Franks. Steal this book at the first opportunity.