What should an anarchist bookfair set out to achieve?

  • Posted on: 31 October 2017
  • By: thecollective

via on uncertain ground

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)



of course set out to be comprised of a collective of liberal minded dickbags who attempt to (and failed at) banning an awesome publisher predicated on some faulty claims of 'ecofascism', only to be run the fuck outta some gangsta hood with their tails between their legs!!!!


It doesn't quite feel sincere to me, perhaps primarily because of this statement: "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…" this statement feels like a veiled call-out rather than a request for input.

As most people know, there was a similar commotion at the Los Angeles book fair at the same time. This is sure to be controversial but I would lump the rabid anti-cis anti-'TERF' rhetoric in the same category as the rabid anti-primitivist anti-'eco-terrorist' rhetoric that occurred in L.A. From what I've heard, the anti-trans (i.e. 'TERF') voices at the London were absolutely abusive and should not have been tolerated. However, I also believe that there has been very little space in anarchist communities for critical discussion of the phenomenon of (primarily white) 'humans born with a penis who identify as women' who are recently loudly proclaiming dominion and entitlement to the struggles and personal spaces of women. People raising such questions are militantly shut down as if they were Richard Spencer, that is, intentionally fascist, and that is a huge problem, just as militantly shutting down discussion of 'eco-extremism' is a problem.

Is this a simple question? No. Shutting down exclusionary assholes is important. Getting mired in endless debates over ethics and space for discourse can be equally harmful. What those kinds of conversations might look like in anarchist spaces is an open question. But I didn't get the impression from this commentary that this kind of feedback was being sought. Instead it seemed that the writer had strong assumptions about what anarchist book fairs should hope to accomplish and was implicitly chastising people who don't share that vision.

Because you just aren't allowed to talk about some things, especially if it's not your place to.


nah I'm not opposed to that. I think white dudes should shut the fuck up about racism and sexism, for example. But that's different from the question of whether these conversations would happen at all. not like I'm the judge of what's correct here, but I'm questioning the logic of asking what these events should look like while simultaneously making strong assumptions about it.

I agree, but with more nuance than 'shut the fuck up white dudes'. How do they even 'work on their shit' without talking about those things? And I don't mean, explaining them in typical know it all fashion. But anyway, my sarcasm was in reference to eco-extremism: "don't talk about it" (regardless of race) and 'critical discussion of the phenomenon of (primarily white) 'humans born with a penis who identify as women' who are recently loudly proclaiming dominion and entitlement to the struggles and personal spaces of women.'

No platform for difficult thorny conversations

I apologize, my original comment wasn't clear. I didn't mean they should never talk about it, I was referring to exactly what you're referring to with the 'explaining them in typical know it all fashion' and acting as the authority on race/gender issues. I don't know about you but I see that allll the time.

Trans women are mostly white? What am I even reading?

Also, the idea that terfs should be tolerated is no different than the idea that racists should be tolerated.

That said the crap that the LA bookfair was pulling was ridiculous.

>Trans women are mostly white?

This stuck out to me as well

I didn't mean that trans women are mostly white, though that is in fact true: https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Race-and-Ethni...

(and, interestingly, although trans people are primarily white, they are more racially diverse than the overall population, which is pretty cool).

What I did say was that the people who militantly shut down people who raise questions about trans as 'TERF swine' and the like tend to be white. Admittedly, I'm making that assumption based on what I've seen online so it's probably biased... But yeah, I'm going to wager a guess that it is true.

Note also that I do absolutely believe there are asshole TERFs out there as well. I'm not trying to advocate for a correct philosophy here, just noting that when I see conversations being derailed by authoritarian rhetoric, yeah, they're usually white.

That data was collected by a survey that was administered by phone as part of a larger survey on risk behavior. Phone surveys exclusively use landlines. Poor folks don't really have land lines. non-white people are more likely to have less money, even more so if they are trans,

Theres a big push around liberal institutional trans people to have the US census ask if someone is trans. This is precisely because its hard to reach certain demographics otherwise.

So most trans women in the US who have landlines and are willing to complete a phone survey are white. Thats not the same as most trans women are white.

I think bookfairs should be spaces to have political conflicts among anarchists. There are important critiques to be made of liberal trans politics, and there are also strong currents of gender essentialism in our scenes -- avoiding tricky questions doesn't deal with this, it just guarantees that it will come out in the angriest and least productive ways. I want a space that different tendencies can come to without anyone needing to win, and I also want respect, which means in this case respecting trans individuals even if you have a larger political critique about the way trans politics are playing out.

I disagree with the writer here that an a-political person they met through a housing group is a worthwhile barometer for the value of a bookfair. Sure, ABFs are points of access for new people to anarchist ideas, but they aren't just that and accessing these ideas means also recognizing there is no "pure" anarchy and that most of us value conflict. ABFs can ideally let us talk certain things through while also cultivating a sense that in some broad ways we're on the same time -- even those like the author who seem to think that thinking about gender isn't working class.

There are important critiques to be made of liberal trans politics

For sure and the idea of maintaining a strict sex-gender link is not an important one and reinforces categorization just as much as liberal trans people except with way less self determination. It seeks to create a 1950s style view of how gender is constructed but where like every woman is butch.

The decent critiques of liberal trans politics come from trans people. LBC has a great book What is Gender Nihilism.
This essay is good too: https://libcom.org/library/gender-nihilism-anti-manifesto

damn I totally agree with this. and I don't think this was the central point you we making, but I do think that the issue of good ways to have debates and disagreements is a socially-important question.

Aren't bookfairs supposed to be about books? You know, people getting together and talking about reading, writing and publishing books, as well as the buying and selling of books? Why are bookfairs now about people yelling at each other and getting into fights? This seems to me to be a case of jocks and bullies taking over a nerd space.

I personally like the idea of nerds that aren't allergic to a little conflict, even the physical kind.

What a shame to have all the smart people convinced they need to fit in to a role characterized by weakness and anxiety.

Book fair sounds so innocuous you wouldn't really expect any trouble, like if you went to a bake sale and someone started flipping tables over because the cupcakes aren't vegan.


Shit, looks like you weren't around for the famous Chicago cupcake incident!

Anarchists have been fighting each other (with words as well as fists) since forever. It's nothing new. Funny how many people think it is. I wish there was footage of Emma Goldman horsewhipping Johann Most.

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