Brief historical notes on the organisation the Anarchist Youth Network (AYN). The AYN was a loosely-organised grouping of young anarchists, supposed to be based in Britain and Ireland.
Lasting only from 2002 to 2004, it suffered many of the weaknesses common in the contemporary anarchist movement of the English speaking world.
These notes are the personal views and recollections of one early London AYN member, which has been checked for accuracy with several other former members from London and Essex. This article was written rapidly in one evening, is heavily London-centric in its view and is not intended as a complete history, nor as a flawless analysis but more a summary of the lessons that I took from my experiences in the group.
Against the background of a lively "anti-capitalist movement" based largely around mass demonstrations at international financial and governmental summits, the AYN was founded in 2002 by two members of the anarchist-communist Anarchist Federation.
They set up a meeting in a café in London's Leicester Square with about 10 other young people who had expressed interest in the idea of an anarchist youth organisation. The people in attendance were mostly male, and from 14 to 20 years of age. Most were school students, with a couple of university students and one or two young wage workers. Three of those present had been involved in the small-scale action-oriented anarchist group the Wombles, one of whom was also in the AF. Apart from the other AF member none to my knowledge had any previous involvement with anarchist organisations. One or two of these had been loosely involved in state socialist groups, as had one or two of the others, including Revolution (youth group of Trotskyist grouplet Workers' Power), the Young Communist League and the Socialist Workers Party.
Much of the initial discussion was deciding on a name, and with all new suggestions, such as The Edelweiss Pirates1, being rejected the provisional name of "Anarchist Youth Network" was adopted. An email list was set up and a further meeting organised to bring together a larger group of people to officially start the organisation.
The meeting took place at the Radical Dairy squatted social centre in Stoke Newington, East London (pictured, right) and the AYN was official. It was decided that it should be a network of autonomous groups which would keep in touch via email lists, internet discussion forums and regular network "Gatherings". All local groups and affiliated individuals (though there was no official membership) would be entitled to use the AYN name. No political points of unity were established, other than the group was "anarchist", and no strategy was developed other than attempting to grow the network and undertake small group direct actions.
It quickly became the UK's fastest-growing anarchist organisation, as young people who had been radicalised by the anti-capitalist movement and weren't interested in bureaucratic, hierarchical Trotskyist parties sought to put their new ideas into practise.
At its height in mid to late 2003 there were around 70 to 95 people who were involved in some AYN-affiliated group. There were some other dispersed individuals who had contact with the network via the internet, including one in Northern Ireland, who was the reason for the AYN being called Anarchist Youth Network: Britain and Ireland, even though contact was lost with him by late 2003.
The majority of people who became involved with the organisation had no previous involvement with other socialist or anarchist groups, though many had involvement with single-issue politics such as anti-war, anti-GM or animal rights campaigns. There were people involved between the ages of 13 and 26, with the majority being 15-20 years old.
Nominally affiliated groups were located in the following places, with the following estimates of peak numbers involved, the names of the local groups if they had them, and additional information about the groups:
3-6 - Bristol Anarchist Action (BAA) - short-lived group founded by a former Swindon group member.
3-4 - Essex Youth Resistance (EYR) - Two or three people were heavily involved in the network, the group had a class struggle bent.
3 - A group if I recall correctly called Glasgow Anarchist Students seemed to consider themselves linked to the AYN only very briefly in its early stages. When the students were all expelled from university for political activity there we heard nothing more from them.
3-4 - Herefordshire Anarchist Group (HAG) , who later requested to be listed as an all ages group but whose young members were still linked to AYN. Had members in the Anarchist Federation.
30-40 - London Anarchist Youth (LAY) - At its peak the London group was having fortnightly meetings of around 40 people. Two main nuclei – one class struggle, one individualist (albeit both highly activist) with a large periphery who were not very active in organisational work or decision-making.
6-12 - Manchester Anarchist Youth (MAY) - This group was the second largest in the AYN, and had a generally affinity with green, Earth First style "direct action" politics.
2-3 - North East Anarchist Youth - Two individuals from in and around Newcastle who came to one network gathering attempting to form a group which never got off the ground.
2-3 - Stroud Valleys Anarchists (SVA) - Pre-existing group which joined AYN and had one member (who was also in Class War but later left) heavily involved in the network. Had a somewhat crude class struggle politics.
8-9 - Surrey Anarchist Group (SAG) had a young contingent who were among the founders of the AYN, and were originally a Woking Wombles-linked group, with one member in the Anarchist Federation, and one ex-YCL.
2-4 - Swindon Organised Subversives (SOS) - Two people were heavily involved in AYN throughout, and were ultra-lifestylist primitivists. For an example of the discussions we had with them, see their article, The distraction of class.
4-6 - West Midlands Anarchists (WMA) - all ages group with its young members loosely associated with the AYN.
2-3 - Worthing Anarchist Youth (WAY) - linked to AYN for a time. Small group action-oriented politics.
The AYN had bi-annual Gatherings to co-ordinate and to help people keep in touch and maintain the identity of a unified organisation. Two large gatherings of 20-45 people were held in London by LAY, with two smaller ones of 10-15 in Manchester by MAY and Birmingham, by WMA.
The AYN and groups within it undertook various activities during its lifetime. These were almost entirely ill-thought out with no look at long-term goals or objectives. In London at least they were centred around involvement in demonstrations and small direct actions, and producing some propaganda.
The AYN's first attempt at a reasonable large-scale initiative was an anti-capitalist bloc on the September 28th demonstration against the looming war on Iraq (pictured, right). Initiated by the London group and taken up as well by various people around the Wombles, the aim was to lead a break-off from the main march to try and invade the nearby London Soldier army recruitment event and cause as much disruption (or damage) as possible. On the day a block of about 150 people came together with a reinforced banned in front, which was quickly surrounded and escorted by police. The army event was closed with large barriers around it, ITV news stating it was shut down due to fears anarchists would disrupt it.
Following this perceived success, the AYN organised other, less successful anti-capitalist or "libertarian blocs" (as they were later named) on demonstrations, in an attempt to unite the anarchist movement and show the anarchist movement as a sizeable, serious force.
The London AYN group also produced a small amount of AYN propaganda, written almost entirely by two or three people, and printed almost entirely by one person. Leaflets were made explaining what anarchism was, and an anti-war leaflet linking opposition to war with opposition to capitalism was made. Only a few hundred to a couple of thousand were distributed. LAY also printed a couple of hundred older theoretical and historical pamphlets written by other people, which were distributed on a few AYN stalls at anti-war or big socialist events.
AYN attempted to start anti-war group Direct Action Against the War Now (DAAWN), which never got off the ground, before the Wombles started the similar Disobedience, which also floundered albeit slightly less disastrously. A big emphasis by some of us was put on attempting to escalate confrontations on peaceful anti-war demonstrations. This was attempting to import an atmosphere some of us had experienced in the big European summit demonstration, which apart from not being particularly politically useful, simply did not translate into a UK setting where political violence has not been as prevalent as on the continent.
Some AYN members were individually involved in organising and participating in the mass walk-outs of school students against the war. This inspiring movement could have been one arena in which an organised intervention of the network could have had an impact. However the network just did not have the coherence for any concerted activity. Similarly, during the national firefighters strike individuals in London and Essex supported the strike by producing and distributing leaflets, and raising money for the strike fund but again there was no coordination, and the majority of the network failed to see the importance of the strike.
One or two small-scale direct actions were undertaken, such as an attempt with some non-aligned anarchists (embarrassingly including myself - I was young and foolish) to storm the Israeli embassy in opposition to the killings of Palestinian civilians, immediately after the failure of which the activists foolishly thought it would be a good idea to then try to storm the Israeli airline El-Al's offices instead. This action led to several house-raids and arrests of AYN members and other anarchists involved. They were originally threatened with charges of Violent Disorder, which carries a 5-year prison term. This together with having their houses raided was disturbing for some of the members involved. One DAAWN/AYN-peripheral individual who was arrested after apparently being mistaken for me threatened to grass me up. This individual - "Squealer Andy" as he came to be known - was one of the several absolute nutters and arseholes who hung around AYN and were tolerated, when they should have been rapidly shown the door. See also this snapshot of AYN local groups' activities.
Over time contradictions within the AYN began to worsen. As the wider anti-capitalist movement ran out of steam the network stopped bringing in new members, activities continued to have diminishing returns and this accelerated the progression of these contradictions
The main problems with the actual political organisation were, in my opinion:
Most people involved in the AYN were not active in any sense or than in a subcultural social respect. People would turn up to meetings and hang out, chat on email lists, chat rooms and internet forums but would not carry out organisation work like write and produce outreach materials, organise, facilitate and minute meetings, hand out leaflets, raise money etc. Almost all organisational work in London was carried out by about 4-5 people (including myself), and almost all national AYN network work - such as organising gatherings, moderating forums and lists, updating the website, checking email, etc. - carried out by those same people. In retrospect it is clear that this was partly due to the aimlessness of the group, but mostly was due to lack of commitment of most people involved.
The AYN had two main political problems - one was internal political differences, the other was political immaturity. There were two main broad tendencies within the network: class struggle, social anarchists and more individualist, anti-organisational anarchists. Some of the class struggle anarchists in London undertook most of the AYN's organisational work.
There was a general anti-intellectualism within the group that saw politics all being boring, irrelevant "dead men with beards stuff." This hampered any political discussion. When discussion was held it was on the useless terrain of "green" versus "red" anarchism - neo-primitivism versus anarcho-syndicalism or -communism.
The political immaturity of the entire membership cause one of the founding AF members to leave the AYN almost immediately. Even the class struggle anarchists within AYN were confined entirely within an activistoid framework, with no conception of how radical politics can relate to people's everyday lives. We were viewing class struggle in terms of the "actions" of anti-capitalists, which would "attack capitalism", and get bigger and bigger, effectively attempting to "kick the system till it broke."
We did not stop to think about how capitalism was reproduced every day due to the everyday actions of billions of people, and how real social change can come about only due to the slow processes of transforming all of our lives and activities, slowly attempting to build on currents of working class solidarity and mutual aid.
We had no idea of what would be useful political activities which could increase our and our fellow workers' class confidence and help ourselves collectively take back control over our own lives and surroundings. As such we devoted our time to organising "actions", and attempting via propaganda to make more people into anti-capitalists and anarchists. We did not look at the problems in our everyday lives and attempt to apply anarchist solutions of direct action and solidarity to them alongside other workers similarly affected, to try to slowly help build an independent, militant working class movement to advance its class interests.
I believe most of the membership were not actually anarchists, as they had no understanding of what capitalism -which they were meant to oppose - actually was. This reflected the nature of most of the so-called "anti-capitalist movement" which Aufheben magazine effectively demolishes in this editorial. This state of affairs could have been changed had there been effective means of educating ourselves and our membership.
People began to drift away as it was clear the network was not achieving anything. People got older and left, and local groups disintegrated as key people left the area to go to university. There was an attempt to revive the organisation by starting university-based groups. Contacts were made at the following unis:
University of Bristol, University of Birmingham, Cambridge University (Anti-Capitalist Action), Cardiff University (Alt&Shift), University of East Anglia (Norwich Anarchist Students), Keele University, Oxford University (Oxford Students Activist Network), Goldsmiths College (Goldsmiths Anarchist Society), London School of Economics, Royal Holloway, School of African and Oriental Studies, London University College London (M12 Collective), and possibly more.
This attempt to find direction, however, failed since the problems of the network were far more fundamental.
The informal grouping of class struggle anarchists in London who had done the bulk of the organising work called a meeting of LAY in which we said we would no longer do any organisational work, and that if other people wanted to take it up they were welcome, and could continue the network. No one in London did.
The Bristol group attempted this briefly but was unable to, and a brief attempt was made to resurrect the London group as an explicitly class struggle, membership organisation but by now it had totally run out of steam.
Some local anarchist groups like WMA remained, just no longer linked to the AYN, and the London group split into two principle factions - the class struggle anarchists, and the more action-oriented, individualist and "post-leftist" anarchists.
The latter became the Black Star Collective and became involved in squatting social centres (see the Marble Arch squat which hosted the Summer 2003 AYN Gathering, left) before rapidly shrinking, some people dissolving into other similar groups.
The former became the enrager.net web collective, later the libcom group, running the libcom.org website. Some of these people initially assisted with Black Star projects in a naïve attempt at "unity."
The majority of the London AYN group simply drifted away, as did most of the rest of the network. This confirmed my thoughts that the bulk of the membership were not actually anarchists but subcultural alternative kids enjoying the social and cultural element, and feeling "rebellious."
I believe that I learned a lot due to my involvement in AYN. Mostly a lot about how not to run a political organisation, and here's a quick summary of the key lessons I think can be gleaned from the AYN. (I apologise in advance for any rambling in this section - writing is not my strong point.)
That loose networks without defined memberships are not effective organisations. AYN was powerless to intervene effectively in any struggles due to disorganisation. Local groups were too disconnected from each other, and the joint "network identity" was only ever really used by the London group, so nationwide or large-scale publicity was impossible.
That to be politically useful organisations need clearly defined principles and points of political agreement, which are narrower than just being, as AYN was, "anarchist, young and in a network." Without basic levels of agreement on key issues we were unable to produce proper outreach materials, get involved in struggles collectively, or even decide which struggles were worth supporting.
That political groups are not social circles for subcultural types to feel at home in. If people aren't committed to the political ideas or the activities of an organisation then they should not be tolerated in it. With no membership fees organising fundraising was also the task of the small number of people who did most of the rest of the organisational work.
Without an understanding of the class nature of capitalism, (that it is based on the working class selling our ability to work as a commodity to those who own the means of life and survival) and an orientation towards attempting to increase our collective confidence, autonomy and power as a class then a "revolutionary" organisation is useless.
This is not even to mention the completely flawed conception of the role of political organisations that we held, or the utterly pointless substitutionist and juvenile activities to which we devoted most of our time. Though I feel that we were not entirely to blame for that, as we were strongly influenced by certain elements of the anarchist movement (the activistoid2 end most active in the anti-capitalist movement) who we looked up to and felt we should imitate.
We were only young, and so we emulated the activities of older anarchists, and I think we were keen on winning their approval, like they were older siblings or something. As such we were quickly sucked into the bizarre activistoid anarchist ghetto which is so far removed from mainstream society, in which valued qualities are very different to most people. It is a peer group where getting approval means adopting a weird lifestyle, fitting into a largely punk aesthetic, appearing "hardcore," glorifying violence and militant imagery, looking down on many lifestyle choices of most people like eating meat, having a job, etc. There is the social pressure to attempt to engage in more and more militant and extreme action, which while it didn't have any real negative consequences for us, it can (and has done to some extent in the US, or UK animal rights movements) when some young people get involved in pointless, elitist urban guerrilla activity, glorified within the activistoid scene, such as that practised by the ELF, Weathermen, Baader-Meinhof, etc.
Generally this is just part of the pressure to remove yourself more and more from mainstream society and become part of a self-referential subculture which revolved around informal hierarchies, petty rivalries, elitist buzzwords, misanthropy, disdain for ordinary "brainwashed" people, anti-intellectualism, and propaganda and action which has no relevance to the everyday lives of most of the population. But those too entrenched in this subculture do not realise this since they surround themselves entirely by others in the subculture, never putting their ideas to test in the real world at their jobs or amongst non-politicos.
I think that the activistoid scene in which the AYN grew was the cause of most of its problems, especially when combined with the naivety of its members. Our idea of what political activity was was shaped by this scene, and our experiences showed quite clearly that it was utterly bankrupt. I'm glad we had the good sense to call it a day.
I write this in the hopes that other people can learn from our mistakes, and do not repeat them. I have heard of the existence of an Anarchist Youth Federation from the 1980s which made many of the same errors as us, if this knowledge had been passed on maybe we could have done a better job...
Steven Johns, libcom group
- 1. Named after World War II German anti-nazi group http://libcom.org/history/articles/edelweiss-pirates
- 2. "Activistoid" meaning activists who were only interested in taking small group direct actions