In June 1999, a housewife and mother of three was pulled over by the police at a stop sign in St Paul’s, Minnesota and addressed by a name she hadn’t used for 25 years. Kathleen Ann Soliah had been a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the revolutionary group that kidnapped and supposedly converted the newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Six members of the group – among them, its leader, Donald DeFreeze – died in a Los Angeles police shoot-out in May 1974, and a further three (including Hearst) were arrested 14 months later. Escaping arrest, Soliah had gone underground, changed her name to Sara Jane Olson and built a new life for herself as the wife of a suburban doctor. In December 2001, she was sentenced to five years and four months’ imprisonment (later extended to 14 years) for attempting to blow up two Los Angeles police cars with a pipe bomb in 1975.
A year later, Soliah was on trial again, sharing the dock with five other SLA veterans, three of whom had served sentences in the late 1970s and were now living openly (one was a computer consultant for MGM, another worked as a private detective). This time they were charged with the murder of a bystander during a 1975 bank robbery in Sacramento, a case that had lain dormant for three decades but was reopened in the wake of 9/11. ‘We have an opportunity,’ a police spokesman said, ‘to stop at least one more radical terrorist group from performing another act.’ There was no evidence that any of the SLA veterans had been involved in any kind of violent activity for two and a half decades.
The SLA was not the only paramilitary left grouping whose graduates came to public attention during the early months of the war against terror. The Weather Underground, a much more serious organisation, was an offshoot of the anti-war movement Students for a Democratic Society, and carried out a series of bombings on government targets in the early 1970s. Bill Ayers, one of its leaders, had the misfortune to publish a memoir of his time as a revolutionary fugitive a week before the attacks on New York and Washington; the Wall Street Journal mounted a campaign for his wife and fellow activist, Bernardine Dohrn, to lose her job in the law school at Northwestern.
The long shadow of the urban guerrilla falls across Europe too. Former members of the Italian paramilitary left, granted sanctuary by Mitterrand, are now threatened with extradition to face trial in their homeland. One of the lawyers for the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof gang) is now a Green member of the German parliament, another is the notably illiberal interior minister, a third is Gerhard Schroeder. (In the 1970s, Schroeder defended Horst Mahler, who had himself acted for RAF members and is now a supporter of the far right NDP.) Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Roehl sought to undermine the credibility of the foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, by producing photographs of him beating a fallen policeman during a demonstration in Frankfurt in 1973.
Beside all this, the urban guerrilla movement in Britain seems small potatoes. Even in the heady days of the late 1960s, when demonstrators besieged the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, British protests were overshadowed by those across the Channel and on the other side of the Atlantic (in France and America they occupied great universities: here, students took over colleges of art). The FBI put Ayers and Dohrn at the top of its ‘most wanted’ lists; in Germany, the violent actions, trials and suicides of the RAF leaders dominated and defined the political culture of the mid-1970s. It’s hard to conceive of Tony Blair launching his career by defending the Angry Brigade.
Despite having planted bombs at the homes of leading Conservative ministers (and the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police), the Angries have received little mainstream historical attention. An instant ‘documentary novel’ by Alan Burns sought to explore the minds of the Brigade in the immediate aftermath of the 1972 trial of eight alleged members. Various documentary compilations were produced by left-wing publishing houses. A play by Dennis Potter, which he intended to call ‘The Angrier Brigade’, was commissioned by the BBC but abandoned due to a recurrence of the author’s psoriasis. A book by Tom Vague, published in 1997, was dismissed by one of the convicted Angry Brigaders as ‘a characteristically sloppy and romanticised book’ from a purveyor of ‘anarchist chic’. The quality and rigour of a 2003 TV drama-documentary can be judged from a statement by its director, Ian Lilley, that ‘it was hard to pin down what the Angry Brigade stood for because their communiqués were quite unintelligible.’ One reputable and another considerable book have now been produced, however, or more accurately reproduced, which deal with what the cover of one of them describes as ‘Britain’s first urban guerrilla group’.
Originally published in 1975, Gordon Carr’s book is a big-format, bite-sized narrative of the Brigade and the trials of its alleged members, supplemented by a selective chronology of the ‘angry decade’ of 1965-75. Its protagonists are a group of young student militants, inspired by the May Events in Paris in 1968, who had dropped out of Essex and Cambridge (two of them ripped up their finals papers), moved into communes in West and North-East London and become active in the squatting and claimants’ movements. During the first year of the 1970-74 Heath government, a series of bombs was planted and responsibility claimed by a group called the Angry Brigade, the language of whose communiqués (identified by a stamp made from a John Bull printing set) led the Met Bomb Squad to Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott (the former a left-wing activist, previously convicted for throwing a petrol bomb at the Ulster Office during a demonstration; the latter a drug-user and small-time criminal who’d met Purdie in prison). Having read Purdie and Prescott’s address books, the police went after two couples wanted for cheque fraud who were living in a commune in Amhurst Road in Stoke Newington. The house was searched and alleged to contain guns, explosives and detonators. At the first Angry Brigade trial, Purdie and Prescott were charged with conspiring with the others to cause explosions, a charge of which Purdie was acquitted and Prescott found guilty on the basis of a police cell boast to an informer and his handwriting on three envelopes containing communiqués. Six months later, the Stoke Newington Four plus another four libertarian and anarchist activists entered the dock at the Old Bailey for what was to prove the longest criminal trial in Britain. After six months, the original four (John Barker, Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelson and Jim Greenfield) were convicted by a majority verdict of conspiracy ‘with persons unknown’ but not of causing explosions, and the other four were acquitted on all charges. Ascribing their politics to ‘a warped understanding of sociology’, Mr Justice James sentenced the four to ten years’ imprisonment, reducing Prescott’s 15-year sentence to match. By this stage, supporters were going round London with badges proclaiming ‘I am a member of the Angry Brigade,’ and Time Out was running as front-page headlines ‘Now We Are All Angry’ (on the Prescott/Purdie trial) and, more circumspectly, ‘The Verdict of an Uneasy Majority’ (in the case of the Stoke Newington Eight).
None of the accused has ever admitted to any specific acts, though Jake Prescott wrote to one bomb victim, Robert Carr, apologising for the attack on him (an apology graciously accepted), and John Barker has stated that ‘the police framed a guilty man.’ The convicted Anna Mendelson publishes poetry under another name and the acquitted Angela Weir became the director of Stonewall and was awarded an OBE. In February 2002, Hilary Creek gave an interview to the Observer which implied that she had been involved with the Angries, though she didn’t admit to any specific act. One of the acquitted wrote that ‘some of the people on trial had indeed taken part in Angry Brigade actions’ while ‘some had not.’
This delicately equivocal formulation comes from Stuart Christie, whose hugely engaging memoir includes an account of the Angry Brigade trial. Granny Made Me an Anarchist describes how, after a short flirtation with the flute band of his local Orange lodge in Glasgow, the teenage Christie quickly graduated to the militant wing of CND. But his main political passion was Spain and the legacy of its Civil War, ‘the last purely idealistic cause of the 20th century’ and anarchism’s finest hour. Appalled by the normalisation of relations with the Franco regime after the Second World War (a ‘25 years of peace’ celebration in 1964 was attended by the then minister of trade, Edward Heath), the 18-year-old Christie volunteered to help the resistance, and found himself transporting plastic explosives under a baggy jumper from the Pyrenees to a rendezvous at an American Express office in Madrid, outside which he was arrested. Theoretically facing a death sentence, he mistook the police photography equipment for Franco’s notorious mechanical garotte, and remembers asking himself ‘whether this was the right time to shout something defiant and noble’.
Sentenced not to death but to 20 years’ imprisonment, Christie found himself getting on with former SS members and a notorious prison guard nicknamed Pedro el Cruel (earlier, following a joint appearance on television, he had developed an unlikely but long-lasting friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge). After he had served three years, a plea from his mother to Franco secured his early release. He returned home in 1967 to a rapacious press, the transformed world of 1960s London, and, as his involvement in anti-war violence increased, the considerable attentions of the Metropolitan Police. The day after the Stoke Newington Four were arrested in August 1971, Christie stopped by to borrow some money from John Barker, was met by the Bomb Squad, and, as he put it, ‘walked into a trap they didn’t even know they’d set’. (He was charged on the basis of two detonators found in his car, though his acquittal implies that this evidence was questionable.) Even before his arrest, Christie had been set up by the press and by a police force eager to find an organisation with a ‘leader, a membership and fixed plans’. In the absence of such an organisation, the police invented one and put it on trial at the Old Bailey.
As Christie points out, the activities that were attributed to the Angry Brigade (and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Wild Bunch, the Geronimo Cell, the Moonlighters and a number of other groups) were an expression of a new, libertarian socialist movement that had emerged from the fragmentation of the left after the revolutionary moment of May 1968. That fragmentation occurred along a number of fault lines – new left v. old left, Trotskyite v. Stalinist, Communist v. anarchist, hippy v. politico. As an anarchist, Stuart Christie sets himself apart both from the hippies (the Vietnam War was ‘no way going to be stopped by good vibrations alone’) and from the libertarian Marxists of Amhurst Road. The most significant fault line, however, was between the anarchists and left libertarians, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Communist and emergent Trotskyite left.
Christie emphasises the working-class credentials of the Scottish anarchist movement, but although the Angry Brigade’s rhetoric located its politics firmly in the context of the class struggle, the day to day activities of those convicted of being members were different in several ways from those whom John Barker called the ‘Bolshevik psychos’. First, like the American radicals working in the slums of northern cities in the mid-1960s, the Brigade was less concerned with the working class than with what would later be called the underclass, the urban homeless and the unemployed. Second, again like the Civil Rights and anti-war activists in the United States, the libertarian leftists strove to reflect their politics in their personal lives, forming communes, prefiguring the kind of society they wished to build, aspiring (as Christie puts it) to a new way of living rather than ‘an abstract view of a remote future’. Third, those involved with the Angry Brigade believed that ministers, policemen and other people in power should be held personally responsible for their actions (hence the bombs planted at their homes). Finally, where the Marxist parties blamed the failure of May 1968 on a lack of coherent revolutionary leadership (and aspired to provide it), the thinking of the libertarian left was informed by the Situationist concept of a consumerist ‘spectacle’ which distracted, confused and bought off the masses (Christie himself downplays the importance of the Situationists, not least because Guy Debord was a ‘total arsehole in his everyday relationships’). In addition to attacking the homes of senior politicians and policemen, the Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for targeting an outside broadcast van at the 1970 Miss World Contest at the Albert Hall (the event was in any case disrupted by women’s liberation protesters), and later the Biba shop. In this respect, they emulated the Red Army Faction, whose first bombings were directed against Frankfurt department stores. The presence of the word ‘spectacle’ in an early communiqué first alerted a well-read Special Branch officer to the Situationist influence and pointed him in the direction of the Angries.
There was a problem, however. Britain in the early 1970s provided clear evidence that the libertarians were wrong and the traditional Marxists were right. Both Christie and Carr note the upsurge of industrial militancy which marked the years between the publication of the Industrial Relations Bill in 1970 and the 1973-74 miners’ strike, but both underestimate the support these events gave to revolutionary Marxism, and the challenge they posed to the prefigurative politics of the libertarian left (Carr’s chronology doesn’t even mention the February 1974 general election, the only time in British history that a government has been brought down by a strike). In Germany, the failure of the metropolitan masses to act led to the grandiose brutality of the Red Army Faction; in America, to the self-imposed marginalisation of the Weather Underground and the crazed fantasy of the SLA. In Britain, the success of public sector workers in bringing the country to a halt persuaded elements of the late 1960s new left that the old left had been right all along. Already, as the trial of the Angries began in the summer of 1972, it seemed that their politics had been overtaken by history.
Thirty years later, the miners’ triumph in 1974 looks hubristic, an ironic prologue to the tragedy of 1984-85. On the other hand, the libertarian socialist critique of consumerism appears surprisingly, if not uncomfortably pertinent. This is a world in which challenges to oppression have been downgraded into lifestyle choices, the political process has been turned into a form of shopping, and (to quote a Situationist slogan) the ideology of consumption has become the consumption of ideology. In the paranoid atmosphere of the early 1970s, libertarian socialists all too easily slid into moral self-righteousness, mutual intimidation and witch-hunting. But today’s anti-globalisation protests look a lot more like the political theatrics of the libertarian movement than the solemn cadre-building of neo-Bolsheviks. Crude though their implementation may have been, the anti-racist and devolutionary policies of the libertarian-dominated Labour councils of the 1980s are now seen as common sense by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Political anarchism on the model of the Spanish POUM may be a dim prospect in a world dominated by anarchy of a less benign character, but Christie’s cheerful iconoclasm appears not only more durable but also morally more sturdy than the Leninism that it sought to supplant. If the Angry Brigade was a left heresy, it’s good to be reminded what the orthodoxy was. The shadow of the 1960s may turn out to be not so insubstantial after all.