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Keith Nathan (1948-2023) A critical assessment

Keith Nathan played an important role within the anarchist movement in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. What follows is a critical assessment of his political trajectory, an assessment that I hope will be soon as honest, even if some may see it as brutal.

Born on 25th September 1948,Keith Edwards-Nathan became a driving force in the very active Harlow Anarchist Group in the 1960s, after a brief flirtation with the Posadist Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist)- yes, the “Flying Saucer Trots” to which he joined via Labour Party Young Socialists. Keith and others founded the Harlow Anarchist Group in 1966, and in a report a year later, it was reported that discussion meetings had been held with speakers like Dave Coull, Laurens Otter and Bob Barltrop, that there was constant leafleting and selling of Freedom, the then weekly anarchist paper, as well as public gatherings that attracted “a crowd of hundreds”.

Keith then became a student at York University where he helped found a group with his then partner Ro Atkins and with Nigel Wilson, another active anarchist who wrote regularly for Freedom. This group, like the Harlow Anarchist Group, was very active and even set up a short-lived anarchist Bookshop, the Black Pudding. In obscure circumstances, Nathan was involved in the expulsion of Wilson and others from the York University Anarchist Group, and Wilson removed himself from the movement.

Keith Nathan was also involved in the setting up of the short-lived Libertarian Students’ Federation in 1969 which produced a duplicated magazine Blackguard. He was also instrumental in producing a British edition of Murray Bookchin’s Listen Marxist! The York group was the main organiser of the anti-electoral conference held at York University in 1970.

Later in that year Keith Nathan and Ro Atkins, along with one Colin Williams produced a document called Towards a History and Critique of the Anarchist Movement in Modern Times as a discussion paper for a conference of Northern Anarchists in November 1970, he Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB).. Later comrades in Lancaster, Leeds, Manchester and York put a motion to the Anarchist Federation of Britain (AFB) that it call a ‘reorganisation conference’ to discuss the criticisms raised” (from The Newsletter, bulletin of the ORA May 1971). The Critique and a joint statement produced by all the critics was taken from the conference to the AFB conference in Liverpool the same month. It should be pointed out that this critical current was made up of both anarchist communists and anarcho-syndicalists as well as those who had no specific identification other than Anarchist.

Following on from the Liverpool Conference the group in York decided to set up the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists to act as a ginger group within the AFB. The attention at this time was not to leave the AFB. It wanted the AFB to open its doors to other libertarian tendencies e.g. Solidarity. “…The ORA people do not want to form another sect-we see our role as acting within and on the libertarian movement in general, as well as initiating our own work…we hope it can act as a link and a catalyst not only for ORA and the AFB but also to all libertarians”. (ORA Newsletter see above).

ORA’s objections to the traditional anarchist movement then, were more on the level of organisation than of theory. Their advocacy of collective responsibility, the use of a Chair and voting to take decisions at meetings, formal membership and a paper under the control of its “writers, sellers and readers” while warmly greeted in some quarters for example the May 1971 Scottish Anarchist Federation Conference was viciously attacked by others.

But the ORA itself was a hotch-potch including all sorts of anarchists, including syndicalists and those who argued for a pacifist strategy. When the ORA decided to bring out a monthly paper, Libertarian Struggle, in February 1973, it proved to be a forcing house for the development of the group, and these elements fell away. Also significant were contacts with the Organisation Revolutionnaire Anarchiste in France which had developed along similar lines within the Federation Anarchiste.

Through the French ORA the British discovered the pamphlet the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists which had been written by a group of Russian and Ukrainian Anarchists, including Nestor Makhno and Piotr Arshinov. This argued for a specific anarchist communist organisation, and ideological and tactical unity.

The ORA produced a number of pamphlets and a regular monthly paper. At first this was lacking in theoretical content, in the main consisting of short factual articles on various struggles. Quite correctly, Libertarian Struggle gave extensive coverage to both industrial struggles and struggles outside the workplace, including tenants struggles, squatting, women’s liberation and gay liberation.

Nathan was now active in London within the ORA. Another acrimonious dispute saw Nathan involved in the expulsion of Roy Heath (no relation) and others from the South London ORA. Nathan then moved up to Leeds where he remained for the rest of his life.

The events of 1974, the Miners’ Strike and the 3-Day week, led many to think (falsely) that revolution was just around the corner. This led to the formation of the Left Tendency inside the ORA. They concluded that it was in the nature of anarchism that the attempts to form a national organisation were bound to fail, and turned to Trotskyism. Most of this group ended up in the horrific authoritarian Healyite outfit, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), whilst others joined IS. Nathan himself, whilst not a supporter of the Left Tendency, also left at this time to join the WRP.

Nathan was one of the 200 members including the well-known industrial militant Alan Thornett expelled from the WRP in late 1974. He was one of the one hundred or so who went on to found, with Thornett, the Workers Socialist League (WSL) the following year.

Keith Nathan then joined the Anarchist Workers Association (AWA) in 1976. The AWA was created from the surviving anarchist members of the ORA in 1975.

The organisation went through a vicious split between Spring 1976 and Spring 1977. The Towards a Programme (TAP) Tendency was founded primarily to change the 1976 Conference decision on Ireland, where the majority had argued for an abstentionist, anti-Republican position on Ireland, and that “Troops Out” was only meaningful if they withdrew through united class action. The TAP kept to the classic ‘Troops Out’ formula as well as the leftist “Self-determination for the Irish people as a whole”. The TAP also argued for a less “ultra-left“ position on the unions that is for “democratisation of the unions”, “extend unionisation” etc. This tendency included Nathan.

Eventually at a conference in May 1977, on a motion sprung from the floor at the instigation of Nathan expulsions against the opposition to the TAP tendency was carried by 2 votes, with no prior notice or discussion at previous meetings or in the Internal Bulletin. Others left the organisation in disgust.

Those who remained in the AWA, changed the name of the organisation to the Libertarian Communist Group. The LCG supported a slate run by an anti-cuts group called Resistance (Keith Nathan and friends) for council elections in Leeds.

The LCG moved for fusion with the “libertarian Marxist” group Big Flame in 1980. Keith Nathan was one of those who refused to join Big Flame and after this his trajectory over the next forty years or so was for work within the Labour Party, and sometimes within the Alliance for Green Socialism for which he ran for council elections in Leeds in 2010. At one point he left Labour under Blairism but returned to it with the Corbynist phenomenon. In the last few years of his life he was very active within the Leeds branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and was one of those from a Jewish back ground who wasfiercely anti-Zionist. He died on the night of January 23rd 2023 of a heart attack.

I kept in contact with him in a desultory fashion in the ensuing years, and he helpfully sent me some ORA/AWA documents that assisted me in my historical research of the movement. The last time I came in contact with him was when he recently requested the updated version of the Organisational Platform recently produced by the Anarchist Communist Group. His death has an added poignancy for me as he was born in the same month and year as myself.

Keith Nathan was a controversial figure within the British anarchist movement. On one hand he was important in the development of organised class struggle anarchism in Britain. On the other hand, his modus operandi was sometimes harsh and divisive. A veteran war gamer, his manipulation of pieces on the battlefield sometimes translated in real life to methods lacking in feeling for others. In the end, like many others, he succumbed to leftism and social democratic politics. Nevertheless, his contribution to the anarchist movement in the 1960s and 1970s should not be underestimated.

Nick Heath

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