‘I have a sense of both fear and repugnance when I see comrades who hate their past or, worse still, who mystify it. I’m not denying my past, for example my workerist past; on the contrary, I claim it. If we toss everything away, we live in a condition of permanent schizophrenia.’ (Sergio Bologna quoted in Wright 1996)
This account of the movement through anarcho-punk to class politics in the 1980s is very much based on our own experiences. We think that it is worth talking about because it is also relevant to other times and situations. Questions about animals and the environment are often associated with so-called ‘counter-cultural’ scenes, and tend to be jettisoned as people engage with more traditional radical politics. We can see parallels with the way significant numbers of politicised ‘hippies’ were absorbed by the International Socialists (now the SWP) and similar groups in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Today with numbers of anti-roads protesters adopting or moving towards communist positions, its as well to point out the errors that were made by the early 80’s generation. Adopting communist analyses can be a step forward, but not if it means abandoning what is already subversive in your activity.
In the early 1980s the anarchist movement in Britain got the kick up the arse it sorely needed with an influx of politicised punk activists. The anarcho-punk scene was associated with nationally-known bands like Crass, the Poison Girls, and Conflict but in towns across the country (and indeed across Europe and beyond) thousands of people formed bands, put on squat gigs and generally raged against the machine. Politically the emphasis was on a mixture of lifestylist abstention from ‘the system’ (refusal to work, boycotts of everything under the sun) and direct action against ‘multi-death corporations’. The high point in Britain came in 1983/84 when thousands of people converged on the financial centre of London for the Stop the City actions, particularly targeting firms associated with the arms trade, ecological destruction and animal exploitation.
Animal liberation was central to anarcho-punk. Seemingly every band had at least one song about hunting or vivisection, and record sleeves featured graphic images of animals in various postures of suffering. Many punks adopted a vegan lifestyle and threw themselves into animal activism - punks made up the majority of many hunt sab groups.
The same period saw the direct action animal liberation movement reach new heights. The Animal Liberation Front had been established in 1976 and by the early 1980s raids to rescue animals from laboratories and acts of economic sabotage against hunting, factory farming and vivisection targets were becoming increasingly common and enjoying widespread support. The ALF was, and remains, an organisation of decentralised cells, with a parallel supporters group structure putting people in touch with each other, handling press releases, and helping organise prisoner support. As well as the core of regular activists there was a broader fringe of people using the name as a flag of convenience for acts of low-level sabotage such as breaking windows and gluing up locks.
Alongside the ALF there was a wider movement of direct action, including militant demonstrations (2000 people entered the military’s Porton Down lab site in 1982) and mass raids on laboratories to gather evidence of animal cruelty (rather than to liberate animals). In 1984 hundreds of people took part in Northern, South East and Eastern Animal Liberation League raids on major laboratories including ICI, Unilever and Wickham. Inevitably state repression and the criminalisation of the movement was stepped up - 25 people were jailed for the Unilever action.
1984 also saw the start of the longest and bitterest fought episode in the class struggle for many years in Britain - the miners’ strike. The strike posed a major, and ultimately terminal challenge for anarcho-punk ideology. Crudely, this world view tended to moralistically divide the world into two camps - the good (people who thought and acted like anarcho punks) and the bad (those who collaborated with the system). At the start of the strike many punks would have put the miners in the latter category - after all didn’t most of them eat meat, and weren’t they only fighting because they wanted to work? Facing with increasing social polarisation around the strike, and the inspiring resistance of militant miners, almost everybody jumped the right way off the fence. Led by the Leeds-based Chumbawamba (years before their Top of the Pops days), most anarcho bands including Crass had played miners benefits by the end of the strike.
The violence of the miners’ strike also weakened the hold of pacifism on the punk scene. The new mood was given expression in the paper Class War, launched in 1983, which combined punk style graphics and imagery with a language of class violence and revolution. The early Class War was fairly clear that animal liberation was part of the revolutionary movement against capitalist society. Announcing the launch of its 1984 ‘Spring Offensive’ against the rich, the front cover of the paper featured a picture of a fox hunter and the slogan ‘you rich fucking scumbag - we’re gonna get you’. An article in the same issue declared: ‘Class War fully supports the movement for animal liberation. Many of us are active in Hunt Saboteurs and take part in attacks on animal exploitation labs and factories around the country’.
Class War intervened at antivivisection marches denouncing ‘the bureaucrats of the BUAV’ (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) for their fear of ‘the growing militancy of the animal liberation movement, the increased daring of its attacks on property and confrontations of the police’. For their troubles they were denounced by the BUAV as agent provocateurs after clashes with police at Biorex laboratories in Islington. Class War saw the militancy of the movement as an inspiration, expressing the hope that ‘violent attacks on animal exploitation establishments will spill over into violent attacks on other parts of this shit society’. However as Class War turned itself into a national federation (without some of its founder members) embracing more traditional workerist politics, animal liberation disappeared from view.
The anarcho-punk scene began to fragment. Crass called it a day, and scenes across the country fell apart into sometimes acrimonious factions. Some people tried to just carry on as before - an anarcho-punk scene defined by the politics of the early 1980s continues to this day, albeit as a narrow subculture rather than a thriving movement. Some took the lifestyle option to its extreme, taking to the road as travellers or heading off to live on the land in Ireland. Some pursued the drugs option. Some just put it all behind them as a youthful (mis)adventure.
Some of those who remained primarily focused on animals were caught up in a spiral of increasing repression and the isolated militancy of a small number of activists. Mass direct action was increasingly eclipsed by arson campaigns, poisoning scares, and even bomb attacks claimed by the Animal Rights Militia.
Most of the (ex) anarcho-punks who remained politically engaged were moving in a completely different direction, rediscovering various forms of class struggle politics. Class War benefited most from this, but all the currents of the libertarian/communist milieu experienced an influx of new blood, including the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, the Anarchist Communist Federation and the various ultra-left and post-situationist scenes.
From the point of view of the development of a radical anti-capitalist movement this could have been a major step forward, combining the subversive practice and imagination of the anarcho-punk scene with a clearer understanding of capitalism and communism. But this didn’t happen. Instead most people simply jettisoned their previous views and adopted traditional anarchist or Marxist ideologies wholesale. Haircuts, clothes and diets changed rapidly as people rushed to adopt the dead end ‘working class identity’ that they had earlier tried so hard to escape from.
Animals were now irrelevant, and if anything eating meat was a badge of the ‘ordinary people’. Some ‘Vegan police’ who had moralistically condemned others for eating meat, now criticised vegetarians for not eating meat: the diet changed but the self-righteous attitude stayed the same. Concern about animals was derided as middle class and liberal.
These views continue to shape the perceptions of many radicals today, particularly those who trace their political development back to the 1980s split in the anarcho-punk scene.
With hindsight, the most that can be said about developments of the 1980s was that it represented a step sideways from one confused set of ideas to another. People were no more or less working class when they adopted their patronising ‘prolecult’ lifestyle than when they were punks. Being working class has got nothing to do with what you wear, eat or how you talk - it’s about being subjected to a life dominated by work (this applies not just to people in waged work, but the unemployed whose conditions of existence are determined by their relation to the labour market).
Ex-punks starting to eat meat went hand in hand with the reversal of pacifism into the advocacy of violence and terror, down to the level of ‘red-blooded’ flesh devouring communists advocating a ‘red terror’. But what was (and is) needed is not the replacement of one mistaken position with its negative, but a synthesis that goes beyond the mirror-image opposition.
Class struggle anarchists recognised the fundamental social conflicts shaping people’s experiences. But often their critique of the world went little further than a call for the working class to run things, factory farms, slaughterhouses and all. Presumably for them the problem with McDonalds was that it wasn’t democratically run on a not-for-profit basis. Despite its individualist and moralistic emphasis, anarcho-punk did in some ways pose a broader critique of capitalism as a way of life. It refused to take the products on the supermarket shelf at face value, sometimes obsessively documenting the chain of human and animal dispossession leading up to the burger in the bun.
And despite having a more coherent world view, many born-again class struggle anarchists actually had a less subversive relation to the world than before. Anarcho-punk did involve a practical critique of the way things are, not just at the level of direct action but in the development of different ways of doing things such as creating alternatives to the commercial distribution of music. For many class struggle anarchists, the development of subversive relations between people was endlessly deferred until after the revolution, or at least until after the next paper sale. We can even see the resurgence of traditional workerist politics as the reintegration of a radical questioning of life under capitalism.
Animal liberation may have been
written out of the personal biographies and political histories of revolutionary
politics, but we would argue that it has made a significant contribution to the
development of the communist movement. It has equipped people with a range of
practical skills that can be applied in different situations. It has also helped
pose the fundamental social question of the relationship between humans and the
rest of the natural world.