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Reflections on Sydney's first-ever anarchist bookfair

This article was originally written for Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. By Jay Kerr & Sid Parissi.

A collective of anarchists organised a significant political event in March 2014 in Sydney, Australia. Although initiated by the Jura Collective that operates a long running bookshop, events and organising centre, it quickly grew into an autonomous collective of various groups and individuals. Previous bookfairs had been held in Melbourne, a city some 900km to the south, but none had been held elsewhere in the country. This article is an account of the preparation for the event by Jay, one of the organising collective and impressions of the day by Sid, a member of the Jura Collective.

Also, check out the collection of photos from the day.


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The Making of an Anarchist Bookfair

In the Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin discussed the notion that everything we enjoy in the present is because of the combined efforts of people in the past and people in the present; these words ring true in organising the first Sydney Anarchist Bookfair.

Over six months of preparation boiled down to a one day event that took place in March this year at Addison Road Community Centre, building on the work of anarchists around the world who have been organising anarchist bookfairs for decades and the encompassing the efforts of a dynamic anarchist movement in Sydney.

From the early days in London some thirty years ago, when the first Anarchist Bookfair was launched, the idea has spread across the globe. It was with that in mind that a few members of Jura Books got to thinking that Sydney, being the largest city in Australia, really should have its own.

A call out was made to anarchists across the city and before too long a collective was formed comprising of members from Jura and the Black Rose Social Centre in Newtown as well as independent, non-aligned anarchists. True to Australia’s composition as a ‘nation of immigrants’, several of the collective members were migrant workers from Europe; anarchists passing through or long term residents, working collectively alongside Australian born anarchists in establishing the parameters of this new addition to the tapestry of global anarchist bookfairs.

From the first collective meeting important decisions were made on the structure of the group, the desired limits in the size of the collective, and the inclusion of other groups. The collective aimed at being a nucleus, making consensus-based decisions with input and support from the wider anarchist community.  Practicalities of the event were debated and discussed ranging from who should be invited to hold a stall or give a talk; should the collective define themes for the Bookfair talks or invite topic suggestions from potential speakers; should there be childcare and how should it be run, where is the best space to hold such an event? Some tough choices had to be made.

Acknowledging the past work of comrades around the globe, emails were sent to London and Dublin for their advice. A range of suggestions were given, practical advice that stood us in good stead, indicating the importance of setting deadlines, defining the parameters and highlighting some issues that have arisen for them over the years. Who knew that the decline in fist fights at the London Bookfair over the years corresponds directly with the decline of alcohol sales?

Organising an event of this size and trying to satisfy all requests and desires of anarchists and activists in the movement is a tough job. Stress hit hard at times and in the collective tensions became frayed, while at other times consensus decision making itself was put to the test as divisions on what and, more importantly, who the Bookfair should include brought differences over anarchist politics to the fore. Where no consensus was viable the default fell to the negative with no action taken, a situation that can (and did) hit proactive organising hard and raises issues for organising on a wider scale.

But, in general, the experience of organising the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair was positive as cool heads tended to prevail.  Sydney’s anarchist community rallied to support the event with positive suggestions and contributions, promoting far and wide, from emails and online posts to flyering and poster distribution across the city; a vital part of the success of any event, especially an anarchist bookfair.

Our combined efforts were duly rewarded when between 500 and 700 people turned out to Addison Road Community Centre, browsing the stalls inside Gumbramorra Hall, and attending talks and discussions in the Latin American hut next door or over at Speakers Corner on the lawn. Anarchist Bookfairs promote anarchist ideas through attraction, offering a relaxed, non-partisan atmosphere for people to engage with others in discussing new ideas. The success of the Sydney Anarchist Bookfair, a collective effort built on the work of people from around the world, on the work of years past, offers hope for the future. Anarchist Bookfairs are worth spreading.

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Impressions of the day.

Anarchists take over a former military base! Well, not quite but we did manage to fill out a large and smaller hall and a large grassed area of a former military base that had been handed over for community use. The place is now a busy community-use area and the site of a weekly market and two reuse/recycle outfits in addition to many of its other functions. Think of a mini Christiania, but not squatted. We had a great start to the day with an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ that was given by Aboriginal Elder Ray Jackson.

Wow, what a day! Everyone smiling, talking, laughing, discussing.... 30 different stalls in the big hall, anarchist, Wobbly, union, and the largest number from community groups who each paid $50 for a table – and everyone I talked to thought it was well worth it, in fact, excited about the opportunity. It was an opportunity to spread knowledge about their group, network with other groups and generally have an anti-authoritarian festival. So, Jura ran a number of tables, including ones for PM Press and AK Press, and general anarchist books. In addition, other stalls were organised by Black Rose, Melbourne anarchists, Wobblies from Sydney and Melbourne, anti-nuclear, vegan, leftist T-shirts for sale... and many more.

Besides the stalls there was vegan food and drink, and free apples and water available from the information centre, music from individual troubadours and also from the anarchist Riff Raff Marching Band, physical stuff like yoga and women’s self defence, a join-in singing group, an open ‘DIY’ area and a ‘tune-up-your-bike’ space. One of the organisers sorted out the child care, with a certified child care worker on site – They were dressed as pirates! Then there were the discussion meetings on a variety of topics. These included: Oppression of Australia’s Indigenous People, a discussion on a university strike, on Bakunin’s 200th Birthday, the Spanish Revolution, two on feminist and anarcha-feminist topics, environmental issues, and one by Michael Schmidt on ‘Global Fire: The lmpact of Revolutionary Anarchism’.

It was great to see such a variety of people attending, from babies to an anarchist elder Jack Granchoff in his ‘80s. Most were younger, in their 20’s and 30’s, with, at a guess, a good gender balance, and perhaps even more women than men. The young children running around having fun and the range of participants demonstrated that, in many ways, this was an evolving, maturing and culturally-richer anarchist and near-anarchist milieu than in the past. From a book-sales point of view, it was really encouraging to get so many books, pamphlets and other material out to people who don’t often get to the shop. So, yes, it was a bookfair, but it was much more than just that.

This writer didn’t get to the after party, but those who went said it was a blast. And everyone’s keen to build on this year’s strengths and lessons learned, and have another next year.