Look back in anger

The 1960s gave us The Beatles, the Moon landing and Woodstock. They also gave rise to groups prepared to use armed struggle to achieve their aims. How should we remember these militant groups?

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On the evening of 9 October 1970 a co-ordinated bombing campaign unfolded across England that targeted Italian consulate buildings in three major cities: Manchester, Birmingham and London. The suspect devices in Manchester and Birmingham failed to detonate, while the one planted in the Italian Trade Centre in Cork Street, Mayfair went off. The building was damaged, but fortunately no one was killed.

A communiqué issued soon after the explosion linked the bombs to Giuseppe Pinelli, an Italian anarchist who had died the previous year in police custody. “The manner of my death cannot be concealed,” said Pinelli in his ghostly address, referring to the not-so whispered rumour that in late 1969 the Milanese police had thrown him from a fourth-floor window. “Lotta Continua!” ended the missive: a clear reference to Continuous Struggle, the far-left group that had formed in 1969 out of the strikes and industrial disputes of Turin’s “Hot Autumn”.

On reading the communiqué, London’s Special Branch did not immediately catch a plane to Turin. Instead, they increased their domestic surveillance of one Stuart Christie. Christie, a young Scottish anarchist living in London, was known to have had contact with Pinelli and he’d also spent three years, 1964-67, in a Spanish jail after an alleged attempt to assassinate General Franco with plastic explosives. As the investigation continued fingerprints were found on the Manchester device – a homemade bomb wrapped in pages from Rolling Stone magazine – which were later linked to a young woman from Stockport, Anna Mendelson. In August 1971 she and five others – Christie, John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Christopher Bott – were arrested during a police raid on an address in Stoke Newington, London.

The group were charged not just in connection with the October plot but a much wider campaign that dated back to 1968. This had included the bombing of a BBC van outside the Albert Hall on the evening of the 1970 Miss World contest, the machine gunning of the Spanish Embassy in London and a double bomb attack on the home of Robert Carr, then employment secretary in Edward Heath’s Conservative government.

With connections established to Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott, who were already facing trial on charges relating to the Albert Hall bomb, Scotland Yard felt confident they had finally cornered the group that called itself the Angry Brigade. The problem was, their influence seemed to stretch beyond this gaggle of disaffected ex-students. An earlier communiqué had claimed “The Angry Brigade is the man or woman sitting next to you,” and when a massive explosion gutted a floor of London’s Post Office tower on 30 October 1971 it’s easy to imagine this line ringing true for Special Branch. Even with the alleged conspirators in custody, the campaign continued. There were either many more members in the Brigade than first thought or the Brigade was not the only group then waging war against the establishment.

This year has brought the 1960s and their legacy, once again, into the spotlight. It’s been 50 years since the Moon landing, the Woodstock festival and such fondly remembered albums as The Beatles’ Abbey Road. These are the cultural milestones we tend to hold up when presented with the darker elements of 1969 like the Manson murders and the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway. The career of the Angry Brigade, however, sheds light on an aspect of the 1960s inheritance that’s much more difficult to deal with: the shift at the end of the decade to armed struggle on the part of groups across the political spectrum, particularly the far left.

When we think of the 1960s and protest culture we tend to think of non-violent activism, peaceful occupations, flowers placed into gun barrels and potentially hostile encounters met with the language of love and tolerance. While this may have been the case in the early to mid-1960s for certain sectors of the Civil Rights movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the mood changed after 1968. High-profile episodes like the occupation of New York’s Columbia University and anti-war demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square had been met with heavy-handed responses. The events of May 1968 in Paris, while promising a revolutionary accord between the city’s student contingent and its industrial workers, also failed to bring lasting change. By the turn of the decade, Richard Nixon, Edward Heath and Georges Pompidou had brought the political right back into power.

It seemed that the challenges issued by the decade’s youth-led movements had been quickly neutralised as soon as the 1970s came into view. Everyone back to work. This amid a geopolitical atmosphere of war without end and continued violence meted out to those who continued to protest it. The most infamous example was the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio on 4 May 1970. After several days of increasingly tense demonstrations against American foreign policy, Ohio’s National Guardsmen tried to disperse the crowd. Possibly out of fear, possibly out of hostility, they fired on the protestors. Four students were killed and nine more were left with life-changing injuries. Set against this backdrop, preaching love and leading by ethical example suddenly seemed futile. What good are these against guns, tear gas and a boot in the face? It was time to get angry. In another of the rapid fashion changes that had previously given the 1960s their vibrancy, pacificism was out, militancy was in.

It was a change that could be detected right across the map. In 1969 the Weather Underground emerged out of the American protest group Students for a Democratic Society. The Weathermen, as they came to be known, embarked on a domestic bombing campaign aimed squarely at the overthrow of the American government that lasted until 1975, with sporadic actions thereafter. Another extended campaign was staged in Germany by the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, who in 1970 instigated a wave of bombings, shootings and robberies that resulted in 34 deaths by 1977.

In parallel, Italy’s far-left paramilitary faction, the Red Brigades, started a similar action. In what has become known as the Years of Lead, the group tried to use armed struggle to put in place a revolutionary state that would lead to Italy’s removal from Nato. This culminated in 1978 when the group kidnapped and murdered the country’s former prime minister, Aldo Moro.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Angry Brigade’s bombs were shadowed by the subversive messages of King Mob, a name that harked back to London’s Newgate Prison and the Gordon Riots of 1780. King Mob were into civil disobedience as a way of flagging up the deadening state of modern society. “Same thing day after day,” read the graffiti they left along the Hammersmith and City Line. “Tube work dinner work tube[…] how much more can you take?” As with The Angry Brigade, its key source of inspiration was Guy Debord’s seminal Situationist text, The Society of the Spectacle (1967). For Debord, the Spectacle described the insidious reach of capitalism into our physical as well as our psychic lives: the way we live to work, work to live and have our imaginations tethered by unfulfilled desire to the commodities that such work generates. In essence, but through largely polarised means, both groups were trying to instigate what Debord’s colleague Raoul Vaneigem called the revolution of  everyday life.

With their archive materials now held by the Tate, King Mob are regularly spoken of as provocative artists, the spiritual godfathers of everyone from The KLF to Banksy. As for the Angry Brigade, it’s hard to think of them as anything other than terrorists. They’ve previously been called guerrillas: a term that still carries a vaguely romantic charge, more often conjuring up Che Guevara posters and records by Rage Against the Machine than actual political violence. In this current climate, though, one ruptured by incendiary rhetoric, extremism across the board and ideologies openly maintained by force, we might wish to tread carefully before adding the memory of more violence to our culture-in-crisis. London and Manchester have had enough bombs.

That said, it is worth pausing to consider the factors motivating the groups’ aggressive project. The Angry Brigade were kicking against a world of harsh economics, political conservativism and work that was for many utterly alienating, if it was available at all. This state of affairs, they learnt from Debord, was not the failure of the capitalist system but capitalism working according to its own aggressive design. In the half century since, things have only got worse. Cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham have been gentrified in a tidal wave of capital but their workforces have suffered in the ensuing precarity, gig economics and property psychosis. Hardwired into smartphones, with our personal information held hostage by global corporations, this is the world we’re told we want, but it’s not the world we really need. The Brigade saw much of this ahead of time. As we continue to harvest the 1960s it is, of course, wrong to celebrate their methods but perhaps the time is now right to revive and share their anger.

James Riley is a Cambridge fellow from Lancashire. His book, The Bad Trip: Dark Omens, New Worlds and the End of the Sixties is out now from Icon Books (£14.99) 

Main image: The end of peaceful protest. At Kent State University four students were killed during a protest against the Vietnam War. Leading by ethical example suddenly seemed futile

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