Title media by
Lina Petronino

Squeezed between a KFC and a nail salon, down a dark London alleyway reeking of urine, cornered by brick walls tottering under countless coats of graffiti, the revolution smoulders on. I didn’t know it yet, but volunteering in the oldest Anarchist bookstore in the English-speaking world would teach me a valuable lesson in radical education, international solidarity, and the meaning of freedom itself. 

It was the start of a seemingly uneventful weekend when I, a new student in a strange land, was out looking for a Tesco. As I was crossing a busy street, a small red-and-black sign above an alleyway (illegally installed, I would later learn) caught my eye. The sign’s heading read “Freedom,”  with “Anarchist and secondhand books,” below. I didn’t know much about anarchism, and I was ambivalent on the topic of freedom, but I knew where I stood with secondhand books. Down the dark alley I went, wrinkling my nose at the smell, until I stood in a small dead-end courtyard, obscured by the three-story buildings on either side. Through the doorway to the left, up the flimsy wheelchair ramp, past the creaking door subsumed by a mass of stickers, I found Freedom Press. 

“Through the long ages of grinding slavery behind us, Freedom, that unknown goal of human pilgrimage, has hovered, a veiled splendor, upon the horizon of men’s hopes.”


Thus begins the inaugural edition of the newspaper Freedom, published October of 1886. Founded by famous leftists Peter Kropotkin, Charlotte Wilson, Francesco Merlino and others, Freedom Press’ first publication was its eponymous monthly broadsheet, with a circulation of a few thousand amongst the British working class. For the cost of a penny, inquisitive citizens could read anonymous articles attacking rogue individualists in the anarchist movement (“As a cube is not a ball, so “individualism” is not anarchism,” one such piece proclaims), an overly optimistic prediction of the impending global revolution (“We are living on the eve of great events...”), and the aforementioned declaration of principles simply entitled “Freedom”. 

“We dream…of free scope for the social impulses, now distorted and compressed by Property, and its guardian the Law; of free scope for that individual sense of responsibility, of respect for self and others...we claim for each and all the personal right and social obligation to be free.” 

With these words, Freedom Press chose a name for itself, and set its course for a liberated future. 

Freedom Press itself has moved frequently as financial and political pressures necessitated, eventually finding a permanent home at 84b Whitechapel High Street, where I stumbled upon it in lieu of a Tesco (I never did find that Tesco). In its current configuration, Freedom Press acts primarily as a bookshop, with the printing press operating off-premises. Ensconced at the end of Angel Alley, it still opens at noon every day of the week. 

Volunteer shifts at Freedom Press are long—from 12 pm to 6 pm. When the shop is empty, those of us on duty might debate theory, swap war stories and rumors or just look out the window, watching shadows lean across the courtyard as the sun crosses the sky far above. Sitting behind the desk during my shifts, it was difficult not to contemplate the century of struggle that connects the scorch marks behind the bookshelves to the new credit-card reader near the register. 

Through the end of the 1800s and into the early 19th century, Freedom Press flourished through a dizzying dance of alliances and falling-outs between external organizations like the Socialist League as well as conflict internally. 

Various eminent radical writers drifted in and out of the Freedom collective’s orbit, including Errico Malatesta, Max Netlau and Emma Goldman. World War I split the collective between the pro-Allies faction, led by author and legendary anarchist Peter Bakunin, and the Pacifist faction, led by editor Tom Keell. For the Freedom Press movement, this break was a paradigm shift, especially because of multiple police raids on the Freedom premises that lead to the imprisonment of Keell and his partner under the Defense of the Realm Act

Historical wars, past and present, have inspired Freedom Press’ community to many escalations in anarchist organizing, such as during the Spanish Civil War and the modern Western incursions into the Middle East. As parallel leftist movements rose and fell around Freedom Press well into the 2000s, the Freedom broadsheet variously critiqued, encouraged and reflected on them all. For example, the Leninists born out of the 1917 Revolution, their bitter enemies the Trotskyists, the endless Sinocentric procession of Maoists, Hoxhaists, and Dengists and more recently the anti-nuclear Greens and the non-violent waves of climate activism were subject to Freedom Press’ evaluation

The most violent element in society is ignorance.

—Emma Goldman, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For”

We live today in a future that none of the anarchist theorists of the past could have predicted. The anticipated revolutions have come and gone, crushed by reactionaries in some places, dominated by dictators and bureaucrats in others, leaving in their wake a political left divided and shackled to its past. In all but a few liberated toeholds, the Earth remains clutched in the twin grasps of capitalism and its lackey the State. New threats to liberty mirror the old, and old threats mirror the new. The specter of nuclear annihilation seems wan and insubstantial beside the ecological catastrophe of climate change. 

But some threats never seem to change. In the United States, books about the lives of queer people and racial minorities are being banned in schools at unprecedented rates. Over 2,500 different book bans have impacted schools across 32 US states during the 2021-2022 school year. Far-right groups are now taking a more direct course of action against radical bookshops. Some 20 members of the neo-nazi group, NSC-131, protested outside the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston, Massachusetts, and a few weeks later, tried to disrupt a reading at Red Ink Community Library in Providence, Rhode Island by appearing at the latter with a swastika flag and punching one of the organizers in the face. 

When volunteering at Freedom Press, these incidents are never far from mind. An old claw hammer stashed under the register is a remnant of the desperate, violent raids on the shop by neo-nazi group, Combat 18, in the 90s. And the chipped broom handle with duct-tape grips leaning in a corner, serves as a warning against any such repeat customers. A great deal of this building’s turbulent past is summed up in the two words written on the broom handle in shaky black marker: “Fascist Stick.” 

But why all of this violence? Why have the police raided Freedom Press nearly a dozen times (by this writer’s count), infiltrated its collective, and jailed and harassed its organizers? Why has the shop suffered two arson attacks, in 1993 and 2013? When we take into account the judicial and extrajudicial oppression of leftists and anarchists, we can clearly see that those in power, and those who covet power, feel that the ideals of the Freedom Presses of the world represent a serious threat. 

These ideas — the supposed menace of freethought, the principled disruption at the heart of anarchism—highlight the true value of Freedom Press, and its purpose in the world. The moment the police stop surveilling them, the moment fascists stop trying to burn them down, the moment reactionaries stop trying to ban the stories they tell, that is the moment when the powers that be have failed. Because anarchism is a radical skepticism in the face of all authority, a sneer at every badge and every uniform, at every talking head behind a podium or in Parliament. Anarchism is blind to the nationalism that carves borders into the borderless earth, numb to sentimental attachments to failed leftist projects of the past, ruthlessly critiquing all systems of domination without exception or compromise. 

Rather than a sterile monument to old struggles, Freedom Press is in constant conversation with itself and its community. Homeless people leave their phones with volunteers to charge, local authors regularly come in unannounced to discuss their latest projects with us, and every visitor has something to say about what the world is coming to these days. Freedom Press is a living dialogue caught between four walls. And as organizational energy pours towards the political center, as liberal parties around the world remain content to rebuke the rise of fascism with a vision of the status quo, Freedom Press and all places like it serve as a beacon for hope, a lightning rod for the discontent that gathers on the margins of society. 

In the soul of Freedom Press are ideas that do not burn. In its pages are words spoken from balconies and the gallows and overturned police cars. On its shelves are a thousand revolutions — a revolution for each of us if we want it.