From Counterfire to Mutiny, by way of Brick Lane

[This post was never intended to be an obituary and existed in pre-publication draft for several weeks before I learned of the untimely death of my friend Neil Faulkner this morning. Of course I knew Neil was gravely ill but I had hoped the prognosis was better and he might have had chance to correct my reworking of his original notes. This now stands as a salute to a dear comrade.]

Whilst primarily focused on the ancient history and pre-history of the British left, at splits&fusions we also archive and try to preserve the legacy of more recent, sometimes ephemeral groups. This is sometimes confounded in the digital age by the lack of physical publications to preserve and by the difficulties of saving content from websites. Indeed, only in the last few weeks, the website of the Mutiny organisation went offline, the group itself having folded into a wider regroupment within Anti-Capitalist Resistance.

We spoke to Neil Faulkner, formerly of Mutiny and now a leading member of ACR, about its origins.

The following is edited from Neil’s notes.

“I had always been a rank-and-file member of the SWP, mainly because I was pursuing a career as an archaeologist. What galvanised me was the 2008 crash, but when I became more involved in the SWP at a national level, I soon realised that it was hopelessly degenerated.

I left the SWP with John Rees, Lindsay German, Chris Nineham and others to form Counterfire. (We hope to cover Counterfire and its publications in more detail in future S&F)

There were about 35 of us, and that meant I was pretty well automatically on the SC. I was there for four years (2010-14).

The Counterfire leadership tried to apply a crude democratic-centralist model to a tiny organisation (grown to around 100 or so when I left).

Unfortunately, as I saw it, this meant:

a) they got things wrong because there was no proper debate;

b) they turned CF into a revolving door for young activists and

c) they undermined any process of cadre development, which requires the oxygen of disagreement and debate.

It was a tragic missed opportunity, partly because they had Stop the War as a massive potential recruitment pool and partly because the student revolt kicked off just as CF was launched and we had  the president of ULU on our Steering Committee as well as a strong group at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London).

ULU and SOAS were the main organising centres of the student revolt of 2010-11.

In fact, it was a small CF contingent that broke the tapes and led a charge down Whitehall that ended up at the Tory Party offices at Millbank, which, got smashed up. That radicalised the whole thing and moved it to a new level, culminating in the Battle of Parliament Square a month later. CF was absolutely central and could have recruited a whole layer of students.

Later, I tried to get them to publish some critical papers I had written, the idea being to open up a debate among the membership. These got spiked. I remember one young comrade accusing me of breaking with Marxism for questioning the falling-rate-of-profit theory of crisis!

I was talking to a group of young CF members who were really pissed off. We met in secret, they wanted to leave and do something else, and when I suggested this – given that there was no internal democracy in CF – we just went for it. The whole CF SOAS group left plus a handful of others. I think there were about 15 of us in all. 

I asked them what they thought about trying to build stuff with young people, and that’s how Brick Lane Debates got started. It ran for about two years, I guess, with meetings of anything from 50 or so to 1,000 in the Logan Hall on one occasion, and regular events with 100, 200, even 300 or so. We regularly got 300 or so into the Bussey Building in Peckham for a Monday night course on Marxist economics! 

The organising group meet weekly, was open to all, and typically there would be around a dozen, usually with a majority women, some BAME, me almost invariably the oldest person present.

But it was eventually pulled apart by horizontalism/autonomism and Corbynism/left-reformism (with people going in these two different directions), and I relearned an old lesson: you cannot build a revolutionary organisation without a spine of revolutionary cadre.

Some BLDers ended up in the Momentum office. Others ended up in migrant-rights campaigns, that sort of thing. 

(S&F: we have one pamphlet issued by Brick Lane Debates. Titled Democracy, Equality, Survival, it is credited to Neil Faulkner who ‘wrote up the ideas’).

After BLD fell to bits, I found myself in contact with Simon H. Can’t now remember how we got talking, but we did, in the context of Brexit. This was critical, because we were both firmly anti-Brexit, while most of the left sects had a Lexit position of course.

We launched Mutiny with the aim of creating a far-left anti-Brexit pole, reaching into the Corbynista pool and  trying to pull in young people BLD-style.

We tried hard for a couple of years, but couldn’t break through. Our largest meetings were a tiny fraction of the size of BLD events. We pulled some people around us, mainly revolutionaries in the Labour Party, some of whom are now in the ACR – but we learned the hard way that Corbynism had radically altered the political landscape. The youth were pulled massively by Corbynism, but nothing was done with them, they simply became election fodder, and now of course, they’ve all drifted away.

Could the ACR provide a basis for another attempt to create something like BLD? Yes, I think so, and Mutiny is a good name for a youth thing, and the timing might be good, with the collapse of Corbynism, the acceleration of the crisis, the growing threat of the authoritarian right/fascism, the move left among the youth (on the evidence especially of the climate movement). 

Mutiny badges designed by John S

It is worth saying that BLD wasn’t just a talking shop. We did activism, and some of it was very spikey. We did a brilliant thing with the London Black Revolutionaries, where we got several thousand to Whitehall and there was a fight with the police. Got front-page headlines, and it really was BLD and LBR that made it happen.”

We have a small number of items from the Mutiny fold. Two pamphlets, both from the era of Covid- Capitalist Crisis, Coronavirus and Post-Corbynism and The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, appeared in PDF form on the Mutiny website.

The group also produced two free papers, or ‘zines. The first on the climate crisis appeared in printed form as a four page tabloid (if you scrabble around at Housman’s you can still find a few copies).

The second on the Black Lives Matter movement was intended for distribution on an anti-racism demo in March 2020 but the demo was cancelled because of the pandemic. John S tells us “At the last minute more material was submitted than would fit on four pages so there was a brief debate about bumping it up to eight but that would have cost more and taken longer to turn around. In the end, with the demo cancelled a PDF seemed like a good solution. It could be read online even if it couldn’t be printed.”

The Mutiny flags never had a proper outing…

All our Mutiny, BLD and related materials can be found below.

BRICK LANE DEBATES Archive

MUTINY Archive

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