Looking Back at Anger
Andrew Stevens interviews the Angry Brigade’s trial defendant, Stuart Christie — the man who tried to assassinate General Franco.
SC: I have always had my own publishing operation, from Simian, Cienfuegos Press in the early 1970s, through Refract Publications in the 1980s, the Meltzer Press in the 1990s to the current ChristieBooks. The Kate Sharpley Library has recently published John Patten’s annotated bibliography of our output between 1969-1987 under the title Islands of Anarchy. My view has always been if you want something published, particularly in the field of anarchist or libertarian history, commentary, biography or whatever, then do it yourself. Few if any commercial publishers will look at the books we do, and frankly I couldn’t be arsed trying to sell ideas to them, then argue the toss as to content, what can and can’t be said, and the word-length or pagination of the book.
Publishing books on anarchism is not normally a commercial proposition, at least at the moment. At ChristieBooks I do short-run editions, 200 copies maximum, of books I feel ought to be in the public domain as a matter of record, as and when I can afford to print them. They are pricey at a retail price of around thirty pounds, but the actual printing and binding costs work out at around ten pounds, to say nothing of the pre-press costs.
3:AM: So you don’t think there’s a wider market for the Gordon Carr book, not even after all the ’30 years on’ interest in the Angry Brigade recently or the wider ‘Prada Meinhof’ romanticism of today?
SC: There probably would be a wide demand today for Gordon Carr’s book, but I don’t have the money, resources or inclination to be a mass market publisher. If someone is prepared to finance a trade paperback I’d certainly discuss it with them. In fact, I’m currently writing a one-volume version of my ‘memoirs’ (My Granny Made Me An Anarchist) for Simon and Schuster, which is due for publication in September/October this year. This also covers the years 1967 to 1975, which includes, among other things, the Angry Brigade and its context. It certainly doesn’t romanticise the Angry Brigade, but it does try to put it into a political perspective.
Incidentally, I am also currently working on a documentary on the background to the Spanish Civil War and Revolution. It’s called Red Years, Black Years and covers the history of the Second Republic (1931-1936); the history of the Spanish anarchist and labour movement; the employers’ hit squads of the 1920s; the military uprising of July 1936; the CNT‘s put-down of that uprising in Catalonia, Aragon, the Levante and Castille and the subsequent social revolution between 1936 and 1937; the Stalinist repression and the collapse of the Republic; the role of the Spanish anarchists in the Allied escape networks from Nazi-occupied France, their role in the Resistance and the Liberation of France; the post-war Franco-ist repression and the mass murders of 1939 to the late 1940s which have only been talked about openly over the past two years. It’s in the early stages at the moment, but we’ll only be able to finish it if we get a commission from a TV channel or a grant from someone.
3:AM: On a stylistic note, you use pictures within the text in all of your books…
SC: The reason for juxtaposing pictures (and poetry, quotes and songs) with the relevant text is to try to give a documentary feel to the books. They help bring the people, objects and situations described, to life.
3:AM: You describe your birth era as that of the baby-boomers brought into the world during an era of Keynesian consensus — what effect did this have on your later life and convictions?
SC: When I was old enough to understand at least a little of what was going on in the world, that is between the ages of 15 to 17, I joined the Labour Party Young Socialists. Being exposed to the machinations and power struggles within the Glasgow Labour Party had the effect of turning me against the Party, and stimulating my libertarian instincts. I soon realised that the strong sense of idealism, justice and fairness that had led me to socialism and which I had confused with the Labour Party, as exemplified by Clause 4 of its Constitution*, was being exploited for crass local political power plays: electoral canvassing, party-building, office-grabbing and contending sectarian power agendas. The bottom line was that there was no difference between the parties. Parliamentary politics was all about ruling elites trying to acquire or hang on to power. So, you can see, the Labour Party was not for the likes of me. I then became more deeply involved in the libertarian socialist group, Solidarity, and the direct-action oriented Scottish Committee of 100, and from there to my natural political home, anarchism.
[*“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their Industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”]
3:AM: Similarly, could you say something about the “secular Calvinism” which you claimed as an influence?
SC: Although I was an atheist, I suppose my Presbyterian upbringing helped inasmuch as it was rooted in the principles of popular sovereignty, the perfectibility of man, and the belief that it was neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience.
3:AM: Can you say a few words about your involvement in the Committee of 100?
SC: I became involved fairly early on in the campaign to stop US Polaris missiles being based in the Holy Loch. It was a very serious development having the US Polaris submarine fleet based in the Holy Loch. It effectively turned Glasgow into ground zero for any Soviet pre-emptive nuclear missile strike. There was also a strong sense of anti-American feeling at the time, particularly as a result of the aggressive imperialist policies of the Kennedy administration. I’m thinking in particular of the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. In spite of Castro’s authoritarian Marxist regime, Cuba was a revolutionary beacon in those years, and it was the only country to have the bollocks to stand up to America.
Anyway, my libertarian instincts had begun to develop around this period and I quickly became disenchanted with the passive celebrity-and-politician-dominated CND, especially its obsession with influencing the Labour Party. It was for this reason I became involved with the more libertarian and action-oriented Scottish Committee of 100 soon after it was set up in Glasgow, and was involved in most of the demonstrations, almost from the time the submarines arrived.
I was never really into civil disobedience and sit-downs. That part of the Committee of 100 never really took off in Glasgow, certainly with my generation, although there were lots of fine and brave people who did sit down out of principle and got carted off to jail and paid fines. We became more involved in research and direct action projects such as locating and publicising secret government shelters and military installations around central Scotland… and so on.
One thing led to another, particularly after the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 which seriously impacted on a lot of my generation, and I began to see a lot more clearly that it wasn’t the weapons themselves that were the problem, it was the states that possessed them and appeared willing to use them for their own strategic geopolitical advantage, no matter what the cost. After the Cuban missile crisis I became a lot more focused on issues from a specifically anarchist perspective.
3:AM: How did this fit in with what was going on culturally at the time?
SC: I’m sure our take on politics, society and justice/fairness was part and parcel of everything that was going on at the time. I’m talking about the 1950s and very early 1960s here. It was an apocalyptic world run by shabby and deceitful politicians for their own self-serving ends. The dynamic and enthusiasm for change was in the air. We were remaking society by default. The future was ours. We had moved beyond the instigation and control of the political parties — including the Communist Party. Culturally, you could see it in our dress and hairstyles, the music — skiffle, folk songs and rock’n’roll — television, cinema, and satire. We no longer deferred to authority, that went out with Profumo, Private Eye and That Was The Week That Was. I suppose television had a lot to do with it. It was the most important element in my case inasmuch as it provided me with role models who showed me how the world worked: how to get things done, and how to right wrongs, Zorro, The Lone Ranger… and the subversive Sergeant Bilko among others.
We also saw lots and lots of wonderful old films on TV which we could never have seen at the cinema. Some of these had real transcendental and moving moments of great insight as to how people should — and could — behave. These were people driven by passion and ideas of honour and fairness. There are too many to recall, but I’m thinking in particular of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Leslie Howard in Pimpernel Smith, in which he plays the unassuming Professor Horatio Smith who is in reality a totally committed anti-Nazi (which he was in real life). Howard’s monologue in the final scene in which he confronts the Gestapo chief on a railway platform on the eve of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. In the cinema itself the films which spoke for their time were, in my view: High Noon, The Night of the Hunter, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Wild One, The Blackboard Jungle which introduced Bill Haley and rock’n’roll, Paths of Glory, Twelve Angry Men, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr Strangelove, Seven Days in May — not forgetting, of course Spartacus. Mad Magazine was also influential in lots of ways, particularly in helping wee Glaswegians get our heads around American culture, and seeing that Americans could be sophisticated and self-critical as well as being crass rednecks, megalomaniac right-wingers and imperialists. The Lady Chatterley trial was also quite pivotal in terms of weakening the Establishment’s McCarthyite control over what we could and couldn’t read. The appearance of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement in the early 1960s was also a progressive development I suppose. It opened up a new era in dramatic international photo-journalism which did resonate and contribute to our political awareness.
3:AM: What was the impetus for your ‘trip to Spain’ and your involvement in the attempt on General Franco’s life?
SC: The reason I went to Spain in 1964 was directly as a result of the judicial murder the previous August by garrote-vil of two young anarchists, Joaquin Delgado and Francisco Granado, for actions in which they did not participate and which killed no one — the bombing of Franco’s secret police headquarters and the fascist union headquarters. Also, the Spanish Civil War and Revolution played an important part in the political culture and history of the West of Scotland. Lots of people from the area — all over Scotland in fact — had gone to fight fascism in the International Brigades and the militia columns. There was also a strong working-class anarchist tradition around the Scottish industrial belt and the sacrifices and achievements of the social revolution and revolutionaries in Spain between 1936 and 1939 had become the stuff of legend when I was in my formative years. By 1963-1964, Franco was at it again. The repression was worsening, trade unionists were being arrested, brutalised, tortured, imprisoned and in some cases shot and murdered. None of the European democracies were doing anything and we didn’t have the Bush-Blair doctrine of pre-emptive invasion in place. So, like George Orwell in 1936, because at that time, in that atmosphere, it was the only honourable thing to do.
3:AM: Why do you think the likes of Bertrand Russell campaigned for your release?
SC: The Franco regime was detested across the political spectrum, except of course by the US Administration, the far right and the traditional and fundamentalist elements within the Catholic Church. My arrest and conviction by a Francoist drumhead court martial was seen by many as the latest development in the Spanish Civil War, or as a reminder that the last of the Axis dictators was still among us. It was unfinished business. I had a lot of support from all sorts of people, mostly ordinary people, who saw what I had done in terms of the struggle against fascism and injustice. But I also had support from European intellectuals such as Jean Paul Sartre and, as you say, Bertrand Russell, even though he was a committed pacifist. Russell had been closely involved with various international anarchist movements throughout his life and many of his best friends were anarchists, even though I’m not sure he would have described himself as one. But his works, as they say had the ‘tendency’. Also, Russell was a great campaigner for ‘just’ causes and he certainly wasn’t exclusive when it came to people like me being arrested with explosives. Remember, he had supported imprisoned anarchists from the time of the Bolshevik repression in Russia, through to the justice for Sacco and Vanzetti campaign, and had also written in support of a British visa for Emma Goldman. None of these people were pacifists.
Also, I had been involved with the Committee of 100 so that might have had something to do with it as well. Personally, I think it was because anti-Francoism was the last great cause of the time.
3:AM: A relatively short time after your incarceration in Spain, once again you were accused of terrorist activities. Did you feel your previous conviction would prejudice the Angry Brigade case?
SC: It was three years between my release from a Francoist jail and my arrest under the right-wing Conservative government of Edward Heath. The reason I was arrested was because the Special Branch, the British political police, had my card marked as a ‘likely candidate’ in the Angry Brigade investigation: I had the knowledge, the experience and the connections, ipso facto I was in the frame. The fact that I turned up at the house where the four main suspects had been living — the day after their arrest — also helped. The police and the prosecution hoped that my previous conviction in Spain would clinch their case for them, but the jury thought otherwise. In fact I think it had the opposite effect and probably helped the jury find in my favour. They heard lots of evidence as to the degree of surveillance and harassment I had been subjected to since my return from Spain. Detective Superintendent Habershon, the officer leading the Angry Brigade investigation had turned it into a vendetta almost, something which the jury picked up on — and they acquitted me on all charges, including possession of two detonators which the police had planted in my car. The positive and important thing that came out of the Angry Brigade case in my view, was — apart from the trial providing us, the defendants, with a public platform — the fact that the jury system shone out as the last defender of justice over law. Once the jury goes, we all go…
3:AM: Do you view the Angry Brigade as a specifically British political response to life at that time or as having some form of correlation with the more infamous European groupings?
SC: No. I don’t believe that the Angry Brigade reflected any national characteristic distinct from any other at the time. Remember — apart from the First of May Group, which had a long history of clandestine activity rooted in the anti-Francoist Resistance — all the other groups begin to appear in 1969, such as the Tupamaros West Berlin, or in 1970 — the 2 June Group, the Red Army Fraction, the Weather Underground, the Red Brigades, the Partisan Action Group — and the Angry Brigade. They all grow out of the aftermath of May 1968, state repression, discontent with the poor moral and ethical quality of people’s lives, but probably mainly in response to a widespread perception of incipient class war, all aggravated by Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam war and the invasion of Cambodia. I’m sure none of the people in the groups started out with the intention of killing or injuring innocent people, certainly not in the case of the Angry Brigade.
The same applied with the First of May Group. Their members did not get involved in any criminal actions, such as bank robberies. They came together to do whatever they had to do — which did not involve killing or injuring people — and then went back to their everyday jobs, until the next time. The problems for groups such as 2 June, the Red Army Fraction, the Red Brigades and so on began with the descent into clandestinity as a result of shoot-outs in botched bank jobs or deaths as a result of bombings, accidental probably at first. But these things have a dynamic of their own.
In clandestinity the activists become removed from the idealism and reality which motivated them in the first place, and what started out as gestural means towards ends become ends in themselves. Then the inexorable spiral into criminality begins. In the case of the Red Brigades, I am convinced they were infiltrated very early on — probably around 1974/1975 — by one or more of the Italian intelligence service at the behest of the Americans. The murder of Aldo Moro for example, in May 1978 was one of the maddest, stupidest criminal acts which served only the Italian right and the Americans.
Fortunately, the Angry Brigade didn’t go the same way, not because they were British but because they kept a firm grip on reality. Also, they had luck on their side and they didn’t go out tooled up.
3:AM: How do you feel about the whole terror chic/Prada Meinhof phenomenon?
SC: They’re having a laugh, aren’t they? I suppose it’s being going on at least since that iconic Christ-like image of Che Guevara began appearing on T-shirts and posters in the 1960s. It’s what the Situationists called ‘recuperation’. All I can say is I haven’t seen my photo on any T-shirts recently. But then again, maybe my books are part of this process. Mind you, they are too big to stick in the back pocket of designer jeans.
3:AM: In that light, how do you view the political situation 30 years on?
SC: Well, all I can say is that we couldn’t know then what we could only know today. Things that appeared possible 30 years ago — and the way to achieve those ends — wouldn’t work today. Times change, as do tactics and strategies. The currency of that particular form of gestural protest has been debased since the mid-1970s with the murderous campaigns targeting innocent bystanders run by the IRA and ETA, culminating in the crusade-like slaughters of 11 September and the recent Madrid train-bombings. The philosophy and attitude of these guys is exactly the same as Franco’s old Foreign Legion commander, General Millan Astray whose constant watchword was “Viva la muerte!” [“Long live death!”]. His most famous outburst came after listening to a wonderfully brave speech to the great and the good of the new Franco regime delivered by Miguel de Unamuno, Spain’s leading intellectual in 1936:
“I have always, whatever the proverb may say, been a prophet in my own land. You will win, but you will not convince. You will win, because you possess more than enough brute force, but you will not convince, because to convince means to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack — reason and right in the struggle. I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain. I have finished.”
When Unamuno sat down Millan Astray rose to his feet and shouted “Muera la inteligencia!” [“Death to intelligence!”].
Their objective is to spread terror among the wider population through a strategy of tension by the random slaughter of innocent bystanders. These people don’t even pretend to target the individual political-military-industrial leaders. But the good thing is that new forms of anti-capitalist protest have emerged, and these are constantly being developed and adapting to the changing situation. The new kids on the block are finding more imaginative and exemplary ways to make the bad guys uncomfortable than blowing them, or their houses, up.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
There are two published volumes of Stuart Christie‘s biography in print, My Granny Made Me An Anarchist (1946-1964) and General Franco Made Me A Terrorist (1964-1967), with a third instalment (Edward Heath Made Me Angry, 1967-1980) to follow. Gordon Carr’s book on the Angry Brigade has also recently been republished by ChristieBooks, with new introductions and some additional sections.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 23rd, 2004.