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It is testimony to the spirit of trust and unity created by the organisers of the recent Anarchist Movement Conference in London that it was possible to take a photograph of the 200-plus people who gathered for the final plenary of the gathering. Given that many of those present seemed to be the kind of people used to masking up in public, allowing a mass photograph felt like a significant departure.
The 6-7 June conference, held at Queen Mary & Westfield College in east London, looked like it was going to be a damp squib at 10am on the first day (were there even 15 people in the room?). Then over 100 people spilled into the opening plenary, and it was clear something substantial was going to happen.
The call for the conference, organised by many of those who put on the excellent Anarchist Bookfair every autumn in the same venue, asked whether “the Anarchist Movement” was relevant, and whether it existed “in a form coherent enough to actually be called a movement.”
The aim was said to be to create “a historical turning point, a point where we manage collectively to come together to look at the problems and work towards the solutions”, and to “rebuild ourselves”.
The invitation had gone out to anarchists “from every federation, network and local group, those involved in diverse struggles from environmental direct-action to community work, trade unionism to DIY projects”.
The long weekend
The structure of the conference drew criticism ahead of time, as people were asked to register in advance, so that they could be split up from their friends and associates into one of 15 small groups for discussion.
The weekend started with a brief and challenging speech (and an appeal for mutual respect), and then we broke up into our small groups for discussion for the next 12 hours of meeting time (11am-6pm on Saturday; 10am-2pm on Sunday).
The third stage of the process was a Sunday afternoon plenary where all the groups reported back briefly (I had to leave during this and missed the feminist takeover of the plenary – with sound system, masks and film projection).
The final section was an action-oriented breakdown into new groups discussing proposals that had been made.
Another criticism that was made ahead of time was that the organisers shouldn’t have found and allocated facilitators for the meetings. Given that we spent 12 hours in the same room with a group of strangers discussing class, the state of the movement, how we could translate our ideas into reality and “resistance” (I think this meant any kind of political action), the need for skilled facilitators was pretty overwhelming.
The quality and style of facilitation varied enormously, as far as I could make out. An internet report says that one group had five facilitators!
One group seems to have used an inflexible, turn-based, uninterruptible system, where people were called strictly in the order in which they’d put their hands up; they could then speak for as long as they wished….
Our group was very mixed. We had several immigrants: a north American woman, a Spanish woman, an Italian woman, a Czech woman, and me. We ranged in age from just-reached-adulthood to very-experienced (a Freedom reader who became committed to anarchism in 1973).
Interestingly, out of the 14 people who participated in our group, there were three Asians (men), a strikingly high proportion, I thought, and not representative of the conference so far as I could make out.
During the conversation on social-economic class, we worked out that nine of the 12 people in the room at that point identified as coming from a working class background, and that nine of us had also been to university.
The real achievement (in our group) was the sense of unity developed between the class-struggle anti-fascist-actioners and nonviolence-committed folk; the unaffiliated and anarchist-group members; and people of all ages and experiences.
No doubt the unity was built by deferring arguments as well as by showing mutual respect, but it was valuable nonetheless.
For me, the highlight of the weekend came at the beginning when our Spanish friend talked about her experiences of being in the famous anarchist trade union, the CNT, in both Spain and Australia – and the differences she found between that and the anarchist activist scene in London.
One of the most interesting divergences that came up was over the use of consensus decision-making, which many of the participants felt was now central to “being an anarchist”. “I wouldn’t be in a group that didn’t use consensus,” said one experienced activist.
Food for thought. Our group suggested themed debate sessions at the next gathering: consensus vs voting; green vs red (what if the miners’ strike happened now?); perhaps violence vs nonviolence. The conference was an impressive achievement. It cost £6000 to put on, and charged from £5 to £50+ for entry.