Confessions of a ‘Civil Anarchist’

I am what some people call a ‘civil anarchist’, a term coined in the text “Anarchy – Civil or Subversive?” [1]. I believe in collective action, in workplace organising, and do not take part in anonymous sabotage that isn’t part of a mass-movement. Despite this, I agree with a lot of the points in “Civil or Subversive”. The past few years have seen a series of courageous attacks – around the world and especially in Bristol. Anonymous cells have burnt down a police firearms training centre, smashed the offices of a newspaper that tried to get us to snitch on rioters, and set fire to the cars of two politicians. These actions brought a smile to my face. I do not understand all of the communiques or all of the actions that have happened. But I hate the police and the rich, and I respect anyone with the courage to strike back at them! However, the response that I have seen from some anarchists – in person and in public – has been ridiculous. I will be outlining some of the actions that I think were wrong, and then responding to the attitudes I think have caused them.

UK and Bristol Indymedia collectives have both covered up insurrectionary attacks by deleting some (though not all) reports of them from their pages. Bristol Indymedia recently even attempted to ban all reports of property destruction from their site, until dissent made them soften their stance [2]. Other individuals have posted fake parody communiques to the same sites. Debating tactics is fair enough, but this kind of response is disrespectful to people risking their liberty. It might be funny when you are sitting comfortably planning the next peaceful campaign stunt, but I doubt it is funny when the police are hunting you down with the press egging them on.

The most ironic response by far is the national statement made by the Anarchist Federation against the kneecapping of a CEO [3]. Despite being a ‘class struggle’ organisation, they said nothing about the abuse of workers by the nuclear industry, or about how CEOs are the enemy. Instead they criticised the action and the people that did it, calling them “vanguardist”. The original (which was changed when people within the organisation rightly complained) even described the act as “terrorism”, echoing the language that governments use to isolate and divide us.

I have seen people justify the behavior described above by saying “But the insurrectionists hate us! In anarchy – civil or subversive, they said…” [4]. To me this sounds immature (“but they started it!”), and blames a whole tendency within the anarchist movement for something only a few people can have written. But apart from that, this attitude neglects a key point. The anti-insurrectionist behavior started before the critiques of “civil anarchism” were written. Indeed, if anything “civil or subversive” was a response to the actions of civil anarchists! Acting without humility or self-criticism only makes this division wider, and will lead to a movement that spends most of its time being introspective.

Some anarchists also claim that the informals are “vanguardist” and that their tactics are “ineffective”. Vanguardism is when one group takes leadership of a movement and tries to boss everyone else in it to their own advantage. The informals, since they have no structure beyond individual cells (so far as I am aware), do not even have the organisational capacity to do this! They do argue for others to imitate them, but then who doesn’t? In any case, I think anyone who has actually had a vanguardist party like the SWP try to take over a movement that they are in can see that there is a clear difference between vanguardists and insurrectionaries.

With regards to “ineffectiveness” I would like to know what “civil” anarchists in the UK have done to disarm the police. Anything more significant than burning down their firearms training centre? I don’t think so. During the 2011 riots, the response of most ‘civil’ anarchists felt weak and confused. Only a handful did any real work to support defendants. If they are so good at organising then why did they not start community-run defense campaigns, of the kind seen in the ’80s? [5] If they believe in the ‘leadership of ideas’, then why did we not see them standing up in support of the rioters and encouraging people not to snitch? A handful perhaps put up posters to this effect, but it can only have been a minority. [6] In this context, I think it is unreasonable to accuse people of “ineffectiveness”, when they took direct action against the press that demonised rioters, when on this issue the “civil” anarchists showed very little practical “effectiveness” themselves. “Civil or subversive” does not claim that insurrectionary anarchists have the monopoly on effectiveness, or that their actions will magically undermine capitalism all by themselves. All it says is that they are a better beginning than anything else available at present.

Ultimately, I disagree with “civil or subversive” when the authors say that groups like the Anarchist Federation or the Solidarity Federation are completely defunct. These groups (or at least, some people in them) have won small struggles that have made real differences to people’s lives [7]. But the contradictions pointed out are real ones. The criticism of their responses to the 2011 riots and to insurrectionary action is valid. The historical tactics that ‘civil’ groups tend to idolise – from forest occupations to strikes – have all involved some form of anonymous sabotage (aka ‘monkeywrenching’). Admittedly these were a relatively small part of most struggles – but times are changing. In the present surveillance state, it is impossible to organise in some workplaces without being secretive! Insurectionary tactics are a valid response to new conditions. Perhaps we disagree about individual targets – but we should start by celebrating those attacks and ideas and practices that we support! Insurrectionary action and ideas should not be dogmatically condemned, but be considered, debated and valued alongside other anarchist practices.

[1] –
[2] –
[3] –
[4] – For example this comment –
[5] –
[6] – Compare it to this interview with a member of Class War in 1990, who called people fighting the police “Working Class Heroes”:
[7] – For example


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