What should an anarchist bookfair set out to achieve?
This piece has been prompted by our experience on the joint South Essex Radical Media / Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) stall at the London Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 28th October. We went along to this event to talk to people about our grassroots approach to promoting our politics. This year, we produced a special edition of the Stirrer paper to explain our approach and deal briefly with our frustrations with what passes for the anarchist ‘movement’: Here it is…
The London Anarchist Bookfair has grown from humble beginnings to a large, packed event. The question that should be getting asked every year is this – what should the bookfair be trying to achieve? From our experiences of being on a stall, talking to punters and just generally people watching, our impression is that the bookfair seems to be an event put on by anarchists and radicals for the benefit of other anarchists and radicals. On the one hand, it does provide an opportunity for activists to meet, catch up with each other, swap ideas, debate issues and on occasions, start scrapping with each other (more on this later). On the other hand, if you were a non-political person curious enough to attend the event to find out what anarchism is and whether it’s something you’d want to pursue, would you leave any the wiser?
From what we’ve seen of the bookfair over the last few years, the answer to that question is that someone wanting to find out about anarchism would more likely than not be leaving not much the wiser. Granted, with the range of groups and individuals attending and speaking at the bookfair, getting a coherent vision of what anarchism is across to a newcomer is a tough call. That’s partly down to the range of interpretations of what actually constitutes anarchism. We don’t have a problem with that – anarchism is something that should be constantly evolving and trying out different strategies and tactics to see what does and doesn’t work. However, we all could be better at communicating the fluidity of anarchism and how it evolves and develops to newcomers.
For the last two years, the London Anarchist Bookfair has been held in an area of Harringay that so far has escaped the ravages of gentrification and still feels like a community. For the last two years that we’ve been to the bookfair in Harringay, it feels as if it’s an alien presence that has landed in the middle of a neighbourhood but has yet to develop any real connection with it. Given what’s been going on in the area with the Harringay Development Vehicle which is the local (Labour controlled) council offloading housing estates and other assets to Lendlease, a development company, the bookfair should be an ideal opportunity to get local community activists talking to anarchists and vice-versa.
Granted, some activists we know in the area were pulling out the stops to do that and their work deserves to be applauded. Also with some of the talks and film showings, there was a decent effort to put class politics back on the agenda which has to be welcomed. There were some positive signs at this year’s bookfair of a recognition of the need to engage with working class people if we’re ever going to build a movement that will bring about real change. However, walking back down West Green Road to Seven Sisters station on the way home, the disconnect between the attendees at the bookfair and the people out and about on the surrounding streets was only too clear. If the bookfair is going to continue to be located in Harringay, there has to be a concerted effort from the organisers to engage the local community.
You don’t need us to tell you that we’re living in uncertain, unpredictable and increasingly dangerous times. The kind of times when the need for a viable, progressive political alternative is greater than ever before. The kind of times when the varying strands of anarchism that make up the movement need to have a sense of urgency and be pulling out the stops to reach a wider audience. The kind of times when some of the navel gazing that characterises certain strands of anarchism and radicalism needs to be put to one side. The kind of times when an anarchist bookfair should be throwing its doors open to the working class community that surrounds the venue by involving them in organising the event so their voices are heard.
We judge events like the London Anarchist Bookfair on the basis of whether we’d bring along a new, relatively apolitical contact from one of the estates we operate on with BASHA to give them a flavour of what anarchism is about. If we’d brought someone along in the morning and they’d departed by the early afternoon, given what the event was like up until that point, they could well have left with a fairly positive impression. If they’d been around after the early afternoon, they would most likely have been lost to the cause of anarchism for good.
From what we can gather, there was an ongoing confrontation resulting from a number of radical feminists targeting transgender people. From mid-afternoon onwards we kept hearing shouting and heard anecdotal reports of people being verbally abused, shoved and mobbed, and stalls disrupted. Fortunately, our stall was located a fair way from the main locus of the confrontations and we were able to carry on operating but the deterioration in the atmosphere was noticeable. As we’re mainly class struggle and housing activists, albeit with some green tinges, we’re not well versed as to why some radical feminists have such a problem with transgender people and target them in the way they do. We’re doing some reading up on the matter and the more we read, the more baffled we are as to why, given how charged the whole issue is, material that any neutral observer would have seen as provoking confrontations was allowed to be circulated.
If I was a curious newcomer to the bookfair, one not well versed in gender politics, and was a witness to what went on with the confrontations, my reaction would have been ‘what the ***k is going on here?’ and my response would have been to walk out and dismiss the idea of anarchism as a viable political option. Seriously, is this the face the London Anarchist Bookfair collective wants to show to newcomers, particularly new contacts we may want to bring along in the future and especially to anyone from the estates surrounding the bookfair venue? What happened from mid afternoon onwards hasn’t done the movement any favours at a time where we have to be focused on drawing in as many people as possible…
Dave (the editor)