A History of British Anarchism

slow burning fuse

The Slow Burning Fuse: the Lost History of British Anarchists

by John Quail

Granada Publishing (1978)

A number of chapters are available free on-line at Libcom.org

Book Review

The Slow Burning Fuse is the first (and only?) textbook of British anarchism, a social movement that’s virtually invisible in mainstream British history books.

According to Quail, anarchism evolved out of the 1830-48 European revolutions.* He describes it as a reaction to the ease with which electoral reform and democratic socialism snuffed out popular desire for genuine revolution. Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin were the primary architects of anarchist thought.

Although British anarchism never became the mass movement it did in France and Spain, it had a major influence on the British trade union movement and British socialism.

In the UK, anarchism grew out of the Chartist** and Radical*** clubs and their demands for an end to the aristocracy and the privilege of unearned income (enjoyed by the royal family and Church of England clergy), abolition of the House of Lords, home rule for Ireland and nationalization of major industries. The most vocal proponents were German, French and Russian refugees who fled to Britain (as Karl Marx did) following the passage of antisocialism legislation in their native countries. For many years, all German revolutionary and anarchist literature was produced in London.

British anarchism reached high points during significant periods of working class unrest (1889-94 and 1910-19). Its influence declined after 1920 for four main reasons:

1) Police infiltration and false flag events (the British police appear to be responsible for most of the major bombings attributed to British anarchists).
2) The incorporation of anarchist supporters into the fledgling Labour Party (aka Socialist Labour Party) which first assumed power in 1924
3) The absorption of anarchist supporters into the British communist party following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. News of Lenin’s brutal treatment of Russian anarchists was very slow to reach the UK. Initially most British anarchists jubilantly supported the Bolshevik Revolution.

In their heyday, British anarchists boasted an active membership (ie participating in street protests) of 4,000, although 7,000-8,000 subscribers bought their newspapers and magazines.

In the early twentieth century, members of the anarchist movement collaborated with socialists, suffragettes and trade union syndicalists in staging major strikes and mass

Anarchism experienced a brief resurgence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and campaigned for British volunteers to join the International Brigades fighting Franco’s fascist coup.


*1830 revolutions

  • France
  • Belgium
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Switzerland

1849 revolutions

  • Italy
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hungary
  • Galicia (Ukraine)
  • Switzerland
  • Poland
  • Ireland
  • Danubian principalities (Romania)
  • Schleswig (Denmark)

**Chartism was a working class movement between 1836 and 1848 with a principal aim of gaining political rights and influence for the working class.
***The Radicals were a parliamentary political grouping in the UK who helped to transform the Whigs into the Liberal Party

2 thoughts on “A History of British Anarchism

  1. I had to Google Basel-Landschaft to understand your comment. Very interesting. In general, I think small regional entities working together in loose confederation are the most democratic. It’s virtually impossible for ordinary people to have much input into enormous nation states.

    Like

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