Monday, August 29, 2011

Anarchist history #1: Into the Nineties

This blog has been rather unfocused lately, mainly cos I didn't quite know what to do with it and didn't have much time. It was recently pointed out to me that there was not a lot of stuff written about the history of the anarchist movement in Aotearoa from the 1980s onwards. So I have decided to write some of it.

If you want to know about the anarchist movement from the nineteenth century, there a a few booklets and links here.
The only book written about the movement from the 1950s to the early 1980s is here.

Anything later than this, well, there's just me so far. what follows will probably end up being highly opinionated and biased. Since the 1960s at least, there has always been a tension between those in the movement who see anarchism as a fringe counter culture scene which they can play in for a while, and those who want to build a serious revolutionary movement. I tend to think the anarchist movement in NZ since the 1980s at least, has had a huge problem in that the serious anarchists have tolerated the drippy dropouts and allowed them to hold back the building of a serious organised movement. I say "no tolerance for drippy hippy losers!"

Anyway, here's the first in a series of anarchist history rants. this one is about how a little anarchist scene in the 1980s became involved in early 1990s radical politics. (I will put in some pretty pictures in a few days as soon as I find a scanner)


Punk dominated New Zealand anarchism in the 1980s. The early 1980s punks were influenced by the anarchism of UK bands like Crass. On November 18th 1982, anarchist and punk Neil Roberts died in an explosion at the foyer of the Police National Computer center in Wanganui. It was never clear whether he killed himself deliberately or if he made a mistake while attempting to blow up the center. Roberts had spraypainted a slogan near the scene prior to his death: "WE HAVE MAINTAINED A SILENCE CLOSELY RESEMBLING STUPIDITY" followed by the circle A anarchy sign and the words "anarchy - peace thinking". Roberts had been active in various protest movements including the 1981 anti springbok tour protests.

The punk scene was mostly concerned with DIY music and art, and formed many small collectives to organise gigs, record music, print t shirts and publish zines and art. Many punks identified themselves as anarchists, and some were involved in the beginnings of the unemployed rights movement. A TV interview with Christchurch punks in 1984 showed young unemployed youth organising their own entertainment, and talking about their anarchist politics. They talked about anti capitalism and their involvement in the unemployed rights movement, and they were very clear that they were opposed to the drudgery of work.



(The piece opens with a shot of a poster commemorating Neil Roberts, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, skip to 4min in for the main anarchist group interview)


By 1984 Wellington punks were involved in the New Zealand Anti Vivisection Society’s annual march against animal experimentation. This became a major event in the punk calendar, with punks coming from all over the country to attend the march and the punk shows held the same weekend. One of the main people pushing the punk involvement in the anti vivisection movement was a young Wellington anarchist called Simon Cottle. He presented his own anarcho pacifist radio show in Wellington. He later published his own magazine called Anarcho-Pacifist, later renamed Anti System, and finally Social Dis-Ease, from 1985 to 1990. Cottle promoted anarchism and the Aninmal Liberation Front within the punk scene, although his main activism was with the NZAVS where he was the right hand man to leader Bette Overell for many years.


Bruce Grenville grew up in Timaru where he was a printer and stamp collector. In 1977 he was involved in the small 1970s anarchist scene in Waitati, near Dunedin. By the mid 1980’s he was living in Auckland where he was in touch with many of the younger punks at a time when they were getting more politicised. In June 1987 he launched his magazine The State Adversary, which featured hand printed colour titles, and was mostly made up of letters from the various oddballs that Bruce was in contact with both in Aotearoa and overseas.. Some were conspiracy theorists and nutters, but some were anarchists and activists too. The magazine quickly became the main point of contact for anarchists in NZ. It was published by the Anarchist Alliance of Aotearoa, which in June 1988 appeared to have a membership of one (Bruce!) and a disclaimer that stated that “contributions printed here do not represent @@@ views or policy, assuming we have any”.

Over the next year or two, a new generation of anarchists appeared in New Zealand.
A right wing national Government was elected at the end of 1990 and it soon launched a series of attacks on workers and beneficiaries. Many of the younger punks became politicised by protests against the US attack on Iraq in January 1991, and the campaigns against the employment contracts act and welfare cuts. Many young anarchists were active in the unemployed rights movement.

By September 1991 the State Adversary was being produced by a group of 4-5 people, with Grenville as one of two editors. The others were all young anarchist punks who were politically active in a wide range of groups, and the magazines content was much more political, with articles about current issues, reports and photos from protest groups and campaigns in New Zealand and overseas. A regular feature was a page of zine reviews, covering local and overseas punk, anarchism, animal rights, anti war and unemployed rights newsletters. Anarchism was now spreading beyond the punk scene and attracting a lot of younger people involved in the protest groups around the country. A new group was announced in Wellington, called the Committee for the Establishment of Civilisation, which initially met at Victoria University but soon became a city-based group. Several of its members were regular contributors to the State Adversary.

The following year a “Kiwi anarchist conference” took place in Wellington. It was organised to coincide with the annual World day for Laboratory Animals march against vivisection. About sixty people, mostly from Auckland and Wellington attended. Hosted by the Committee for the Establishment of Civilisation, the conference saw the formal adoption of aims and principles for the Anarchist Alliance of Aotearoa, and the formation of the Anarcha Feminist Federation of Aotearoa. The September 1991 TSA lists five groups who were affiliated to the AAA, and one other unaffiliated group in Christchurch called Direct Action (a small group of older anarchists, including Frank Prebble, who had been active in 1970s groups).

Most anarchists were very active in the protests against the policies of the National Government under Jim Bolger at the time, mainly in the unemployed rights movement around the country. Specifically anarchist events included the annual memorial picnic for Neil Roberts in Wanganui, and anti McDonalds protests, which were initiated by London anarchists who would later be sued by McDonalds in the infamous McLibel court case. A weekend of pacifist warfare was organised in Auckland at Labour Weekend 1991. This involved large crowds of anarchists and punks having mock battles with flour bombs and rolled up newspapers, with the McGillicuddy Highland Army (the armed wing of the McGillicuddy Serious Party). This led to a big and fairly permanent intermingling of anarchists, punks and McGillicuddies that would last for most of the 1990s.

Next, Police crackdown on the unemployed rights movement

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