Spirit of Revolt: A Review

Cat Boyd reviews the exhibition of Glasgow's radical history currently on display in the Mitchell library,

“We say that any culture that is not driven by social justice is a sick, shallow and worthless culture. It is this city of defiance that is the face of Glasgow.” (The Glasgow Keelie, 1990)

The Mitchell Library in Glasgow is one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Squeezed next to a motorway, some good pubs and across from some of Glasgow’s seedy establishments, the green-copper dome has been part of the city’s skyline since the 1800s. The Library houses huge collections of books and has a vast archive of documents relating to many aspects of Glasgow’s history- the NHS, churches, the trade union movement and more. Just now, in the newer part of the building, tucked alongside the trendy new café and learning centre, is a small exhibition whose significance to the city, far outweighs the space it is placed in.

The Spirit of Revolt (SOR) anarchist collective is presenting an exhibition documenting the radical presses of Glasgow. Four glass cabinets, and two newspaper stands hold artefacts dating back to 1897 (reproduction of 1897 publication of Voltairine de Cleyre poem) and travel through grassroots campaigns and actions, anarchist propaganda and theory to modern pamphlets on austerity and democracy.

I spoke to some of the people involved in the collective to find out how this exhibition came to be, and where these treasures had been uncovered. The catalyst for the SOR seems to be a man called John Couzin, who wrote Radical Glasgow and has been involved in anarchist and grassroots campaigns for a long time. Couzin was looking into parts of Guy Aldred and Ethel MacDonald’s archives, when he decided to approach the archives section of the Mitchell Library. The Mitchell is world renowned for its archives, but when Couzin approached them, he quickly discovered that the material he wanted was difficult to locate: hundreds of pamphlets, leaflets, community newsletters, stickers and posters; un-catalogued, languishing in boxes- and even more, with the families and friends of those who had once produced them.

This memorabilia is central to the real history of Glasgow- the one that belongs to the people. SOR are cataloguing these previously forgotten materials, scanning them, and making them fully accessible on the Mitchell library catalogue. Another activist from SOR told me of how the collective are trying to track down family members and friends of those involved in the radical presses: “We’ve found minutes from meetings, court papers, legal documents, tactical ideas, occupation advice, toolkits for action and for dealing with police confrontations. These are things we can learn from, we need these things for the struggle now.” And now thanks to the volunteers at SOR, these things are obtainable to those of us who want to fight against the current onslaught.

Undoubtedly, there are political differences between the SOR and myself, but we share a similar passion for the history of radical Glasgow. Some of the material on show certainly crosses the city boundaries; from photographs of the Castlemilk sit-ins, to articles on Malaga and Catalonia in “Regeneración!” an English language paper published in 1937on the situation in Spain. This paper has an address under its title; “published by G.A. Aldred, 145 Queen Street, Glasgow”. Another noteworthy piece is a second edition publication of Valerie Solanis’ “S.C.U.M Manifesto”. The publisher? Black Widow Publications, 1980, 488 Great Western Road, Glasgow. What stands at these addresses now? Depressingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, an estate agents and a late night take-away.

The story of SOR seems almost allegorical for our modern media and our pathways to information. If you look hard enough, you can find gems. You can find alternative voices, and alternative politics. Our generation has the luxury of new technologies. From where these radical presses once printed and distributed their propaganda, stand 2 symbols of modern capitalism and alienation: one of an inflated private property market and the other of a disposable, consumer culture. Underneath the increasing commercialisation of the city centre, the controversial revamp of George Square and the so-called regeneration of the East End for the Commonwealth Games, are the green shoots of resistance to unbridled capitalism, and austerity measures. From one of the agitational papers on Glasgow’s “city of culture” bid, was a quote on how the city council wanted to “kick out the homeless…in case they offended the genteel tourists.” The publication is dated 1990. Today, Glasgow City Council cannot deny that it has “kicked out” vulnerable people to clear Dalmarnock for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.

The Spirit of Revolt collective is a long running project, and much work is still to be done. These volunteers are working towards collating a whole history of Glasgow; from anarchism to anti-poll tax campaigns. SOR are making these documents accessible tools for people to learn from and to use for today. To know where we are going; we must know where we have come from; this is the people’s history of our city, and I am so pleased that there are people willing and working to preserve it.

The Spirit of Revolt Collection of anarchist writings and actions is on display at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow until 19th January. Open till 8pm. Entry is free.

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