So what links a local group organising prisoner solidarity, Bristol ABC, with an organisation supporting political prisoners inside Czarist Russia over 115 years ago? The answer to that is the Anarchist Black Cross. But beyond the name tags, and going a bit deeper, prisoner solidarity activist Boris Yalensky once wrote: “The work is not done for the glory, but because we believe in Mutual Aid.” (read about Yalensky, 1889 -1974, twice a refugee from repression in Russia, here & here).
Bristol ABC have been in the news here, largely because of their involvement in supporting #KillTheBill defendants & prisoners. Notably, yesterday they called for a solidarity picket for #RyanRoberts at Bristol Crown Court (there’s another protest on Wednesday 27 October starting 5/5.30pm). But they have not suddenly emerged out of thin air. They come from a long line of revolutionary & solidarity work. There’s been a Bristol ABC group on & off here since at least the early 1990’s. There may have been a group in the late 1960’s-70’s; and there may have been one around 1910-1912 (there was an active Bristol group based around the Freedom newspaper at that time, who may well have engaged in ABC type activities) – get in touch if you have any info! Presently Bristol ABC support radical & political prisoners, with a focus on #KillTheBill ones; they have also been involved with prison abolition movements & against the building of new mega-prisons; as well as looking at concepts in the realms of Transformative and Restorative Justice. There’s a page on their website that sets out why they do what they do, and some of the thoughts behind all that!
And the Russian connection maybe 115 years ago? That refers to the bloody struggles against the Czarist terror of the late 19th & early 20th century, when the masses – workers and ‘peasants’ – struggled for a better life, adopting the ideas around marxism & anarchism. The Czarist terror, and the failure of the 1905 revolution, saw many imprisoned in impossible conditions, so comrades on the outside organised to support their class truggle prisoners on the inside. As Matthew Hart in his Yalensky’s Fable: A History of the Anarchist Black Cross (2003) explains…
“A prisoner aid organization called ‘Political Red Cross’ was formed to provide support for those political prisoners kept within the confines of Tsarist prisons or labor camps. This organization not only provided aid to prisoners, but many times assisted in the planned escapes from prisons or places of exile. The great anarchist thinker, Peter Kropotkin was one of the many former political prisoners that owe their freedom to members of this organization.
Although these organizations were, in theory, non-partisan, it wasn’t long before the Social-Democrats (the followers of Karl Marx) gained control of the organization. Aid to anarchist prisoners, as well as any other political prisoner not associated with the Social-Democratic Party, soon began to dwindle.
Anarchists outside of the prisons were unaware that the funds given to the Political Red Cross were not reaching their imprisoned comrades. When made aware of such news they were infuriated by the divisiveness of the Social-Democrats. It became self-evident to the anarchists that the only way their comrades would receive the help they needed was for the anarchist community to create their own aid organization and the Anarchist Red Cross (ARC) was formed.”
The ARC had groups both inside Russia, and international ones too, often started up by refugees and other supporters. With the onset of the 1917 Russian revolution, the ARC effectively disbanded as political prisoners were set free. Only to reform in 1919 during the Russian civil war, as the Bolshevik Government turned on it’s former anarchist allies, creating new political prisoners. Around this time the ARC renamed itself the Anarchist Black Cross, in order to distinguish itself from both the ‘International Red Cross’ and the ‘Political Red Cross’.
Hart goes on to follow the ups & down of the ABC from this period upto the end of the last century. Of course the difficult terrain that the ARC/ABC existed in, be it in Russia or elsewhere, and it’s sometimes illegalist activities, makes the full history difficult to ascertain. In 2018 a new zine appeared: Starting an Anarchist Black Cross – A Guide, the result of a collaboration by different ABC groups around the world. They also compiled a history of the ABC, very similar to Harts, and also very much worth a read, but with much more useful & practical info to help ABC groups form & flourish.
The contents of the zine as available via the online Anarchist Library are:
What is The Anarchist Black Cross and Why Does It Exist?
The History of the Anarchist Black Cross
How do ABC Groups Organise?
What do ABC Groups do?
International Days of Solidarity
Fundraising: Top Tips
How to Keep an ABC Group Going
Taking Care of Each Other
Taking Care of Ourselves – Some Ideas
Building Care into our Collectives
This zine is also available via these websites – EnoughisEnough14 and Contra Info. Or download here as a 8mb pdf ABC-Zine.
Lazier readers can check out this short read from Bristol ABC (written around 2011 we believe before the current group membership were involved), also a pdf: Armed defence, illegality, expropriations & letter-writing – 24 things you should know about the ABC.
Note that some of the links to websites in the above downloads may be broken, and some of the histories may now be further updated…somewhere!
Enthused by the motivations for freedom, and solidarity? Good! Remember what we quoted at the start: “The work is not done for the glory, but because we believe in Mutual Aid.” Underpinning any longstanding & sustainable social movement is the nitty gritty day to day work carried out by the unsung many. Without it such movements, or groups, don’t survive. ABC supports across the world a whole range of prisoners. There are also sub-groups in movements, for example anti-fascism, animal rights, some radical unions such as the IWW, even indeed XR, that will carry out similar work to ABC within their movements. So plenty of choice! If you want just some sexy, fairly instant gratification, then go spray a slogan on a wall, or sit in the road/up a tree. But if you are in it for the longterm then work like this needs to be done by someone just like you. Of course it’s not necessarily an either/or, you can & should do both types of work! Good luck, stay strong.
Support Bristol’s #KillTheBill prisoners – donate to this crowdfunder. Or…donate to this crowdfunder to support #KillTheBill defendants.
(all images internet scavenged from the likes of Bristol ABC and similar)