An anarchist guide to Bookfairs

Whether you are a regular or a new attendee to the excellent variety of anarchist bookfairs we have in the UK, the London Anarchist Bookfair Collective provided Strike with a detailed account of what to expect and the work that goes in to create a successful bookfair.

bookfairIllustration by Marco Bevilacqua

An Anarchist Guide to Bookfairs by London Anarchist Bookfair Collective

How did a few stalls of photocopied fanzines and a pool table in a broken down warehouse in Wapping go to being the all singing, all dancing London Anarchist Bookfair corporation in the space of a mere thirty years? Moreover, what is the point of travelling halfway across the country to fight your way through a hall full of crusties to buy some books you could have ordered over the internet? Why bother going to a meeting on the relevance of class struggle when you could have it out on some message board or on twitter?

Bookfairs are the mainstay of anarchist movements in dozens of countries all over the world. Even in countries where there is a substantial anarchist movement with a big presence in workplaces or on the streets, you’ll still find people hanging up the red and black flags and setting out stalls.

The fact that anarchist bookfairs here have gone from strength to strength, getting bigger and more widespread regardless of the relative strength or level of activity of the anarchist movement in the UK, is undeniable – but does it tell us anything useful?

Anarchist bookfairs are the liveliest political events across the country, and this year there’ll be four of them – Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds & Bradford – in addition to the London anarchist bookfair. On top of this the London Radical Bookfair has now re-established itself. And straightaway it’s growing too, this time with the anarchist publishers and distros as the most popular stalls.

We think bookfair success comes from two things: firstly the buzz of coming together with a huge number of people who are interested in the same thing; secondly, a desire to provide an open, welcoming introduction to the millions of people we know are sick of the political parties but still desperate to do something to take more control of their lives.

So anarchists and people interested in anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas want to get off the internet, meet people face to face and do something to break down the barriers that keep us apart. This can be asking the publisher of a communist tract what it meant, or scrabbling through punk CDs at Active’s stall instead of scrolling through some website. Its good to know that the fanzines, papers and posters are put out by real people, and you get to meet them in person at the Bookfair.

Putting on a Bookfair itself is obviously a lot of work, made possible by the fact that ultimately there are a lot of people in the anarchist movement who take responsibility, understand mutual aid and get stuck in to get things done – publicising, getting stalls there, setting up meetings, helping out setting up or on the day. In the London collective we moan sometimes but in the end it works and servesas a real example of the possibilities of self organisation.

That said we do have to take decisions and plan things and, unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy all the time.

Take the question of getting in the big names. Instinctively, anarchists are against leader figures but we have invited people like John Pilger and Paul Mason. They might not be as anarchist as we’d like, and inevitably take up positions that most anarchists would get pissed-off about, but we aren’t presenting them as anarchists. A lot more people come to these meetings, a broader group, who are sympathetic to left wing ideas but may know little about anarchism or the anarchist movement. But once they pick up a copy of Freedom, Fighting to Win or Organise, their politics and their lives are going to be changed forever. Or that’s the theory.

The media portrayal of anarchism, backed up by political rivals and opponents, is either that of masked-up thugs espousing nihilism or of head-in-the-clouds hippy idealists. And it has to be said: we sometimes play up to either or both. So getting a broad message about the possibilities of anti-authoritarian revolutionary class struggle, and getting that message out as widely as possible is key for bookfair organisers, along with everyone else who wants to make the event a success.

But if we can persuade people they want to come, we have to make sure they are able to – so access is important. Mobility, hearing and sight are things a lot of us take for granted, but bookfair organisers need to try and remove or reduce barriers to participation in the event (in the same way we should be doing with meetings and events and our movement generally). This is not just tokenism: some of the most militant and effective protest actions and organising in recent years has come from groups like DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts). Proper childcare is another aspect of making the event and the movement accessible. If having kids means you drop out of anarchist politics or you have to leave the discussions and decisions to people with no kids, then we know where that’s going to end up. So over the years the London Bookfair has moved on from the random crèches of the 80s to giving parents and carers more of a chance to get something out of the day.

Some critics might say that bookfairs should all be in squatted venues or social centres. Since the demise of the Autonomy Centre the London Bookfair has gone steadily upmarket, from the Tonbridge Club on Cromer Street to Conway Hall, until it became too big even for that. That was the last venue with any real connection to the movement. But without the security of a fixed venue we can’t have the childcare, physical access or the ability to publicise the event widely to different groups of people.

Using a venue like the Queen Mary’s college in London, as we do now, needs money, and that has to come from the stall holders and the groups putting on meetings, collections and donations (we also get sponsored a pound for every time someone says “I thought anarchists were against organisation”).

But however grown up/well organised/sterile the organisation of the event has become, the ideas behind it – that you find in the fliers, the books and magazines, on stickers or in the meetings – still have the fight and passion.

Go to any of the meetings at the London Bookfair and they are packed with dissent and questioning: dissent from the current state of the world, dissent and frustration at our own failures, but also a confidence in our history and our future. Revolutionary ideas, ideas against the current, have to court controversy and provoke argument. And you will get that whether it’s the Anarchist Federation or Sol Fed, institutions like Ian Bone and Martin Wright’s address to the movement, or meetings on organising by sex workers. And this year a group of anarcha-feminists have taken on organising AFem2014, an anarcha-feminist conference the next day, so it’ll be a full weekend of radical action.

Whatever happens at an anarchist bookfair, whatever big plans are set or packed meetings are held, whether it’s a massive french brass band falling into a pile playing punk songs, a Chinese union activist setting out the real story behind your Iphone, or a heated debate on austerity and the crisis, people have come together. And those people know that there is a whole bunch of other people that want a better world and are prepared to do something to make it happen.

The London Anarchist Bookfair Collective are the organisers of the London Anarchist Bookfair