A Lost World and The People We Lose: An Obituary for Ken Weller

The Hungarian revolution 1956

On 25 January Ken Weller – engineer, trade union militant, libertarian socialist and radical peace activist – died at the age of 85 after a period of poor health. The sad news of Ken Weller’s death means another living link to the post-war milieu of radical politics, has been broken. Weller’s politics were shaped like a generation of Britain’s left by the fallout from the 1956 Hungarian revolution, which cascaded into various domestic streams of radical politics including CND and the direct action of the Committee of 100. All this took place against the backdrop of intensifying industrial struggle in the 1960s and 1970s which Weller – an electrical engineer, revolutionary and AEU shop steward – also directly participated in.

Of course Weller will forever be associated with the pioneering libertarian socialist group Solidarity which he co-founded with the group’s most well known member and Weller’s comrade in arms, the neurosurgeon Chris Pallis, also known as Maurice Brinton (1923-2005). Solidarity was truly distinctive among the many revolutionary groups that emerged on the British left – a classic example of a group whose influence far outweighed its modest size. Solidarity was responsible for translating and transmitting the distinct ideas of the French revolutionary group Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB) in particular those of its leading member, Cornelius Castoriadis, whose works appeared in a number of Solidarity pamphlets in the 1960s and 1970s under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Weller’s own contribution to Solidarity, aside from his activism, was a series of trenchant articles and pamphlets using his experience as an electrical engineer and AEU shop steward to explore worker autonomy in the workplace struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Transmission belt for Castoriadis in the Anglophone world

Ken Weller was born 30 June 1935 at the Royal Free hospital Kings Cross in north London and grew up in a working class family nearby in Islington. As a teenager Weller joined the Young Communist League (YCL), not uncommon for working class youths with a basic ‘us against the bosses’ socialist outlook. Other family members had also passed through the CPGB. Indeed in Britain the war and immediate post-war years marked a highpoint for CPGB membership (there were 56,000 members in 1942) due partly to opposition to fascism and defence of the only extant ‘socialist state’ as well as Stalin’s belated alliance with Britain and the US. Weller was still young when a radicalised working class helped Atlee’s Labour party win its 1945 electoral landslide. Compared to the CPGB – not to speak of the Labour Party – the radical left from Trotskyism to anarchism, was miniscule and deeply unappealing to most workers.

Participation in the struggles of the 1950s to the 1970s must have been exhilarating in such ‘interesting times’ but many radicals, especially industrial militants, paid a price (whether periods of joblessness resulting from victimisation or blacklisting or the attritional impact of activism on their personal life). When the tide of struggle receded many militants experienced acute isolation. This was doubly true of those like Weller belonging to the fringe of a radical fringe and he experienced more than his fair share of lows in life it seems. In 1970 Weller was returning from a night shift at Ford’s Dagenham plant in East London on his motorbike when he was struck by a car being driven by a driver under the influence breaking an arm, leg and his pelvis. Weller was unable to work and a year after his accident he separated from his partner Gwen and began raising his young son Owen as a single dad.

From the mid to late 1970s shop floor or industrial struggle was becoming more defensive on a number of measures even before Margaret Thatcher’s electoral triumph in 1979. A longer term process of proletarian decomposition/recomposition was already occurring (declining proportion of manual workers, the inflation of immaterial labour, the growth of services, the end of full employment and so on), contributing to the erosion of patterns of industrial, workplace and trade union organisation basically laid down in the 1930s and the Second World War. This meant a whole universe of manual labour with its ecology of rugged shop floor organisation and struggle began to disappear. Between 1979-85 the Tory governments savage deflation of the economy led to the loss of one in four manufacturing jobs. Allied to the impact of the Tory anti-union laws, these trends decisively fed what CP historian Raphael Samuel characterised as the waning of collectivity as worker solidarity withered on the vine.

Solidarity began life in 1960 as a small group organised around a journal briefly named Socialism Reaffirmed and then the Agitator before settling on Solidarity with its sixth issue. The origin of the group was the political ferment created by the impact of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. When Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) journalist Peter Fryer reported factually on the workers opposition to the Russian Red Army’s intervention in Budapest and the reality of workers councils, his reports in the Daily Worker were censored or suppressed prompting many rank and file CP members to tear up their membership cards and head for the exit. Ken Weller was among them. Politically some moved to the right and others to the left. Weller belonged to the latter and joined the main political beneficiary on the left Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group ‘The Club’, which became the Socialist Labour League (SLL) in 1959 and later the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). In Britain there were three main currents of Trotskyism that emerged when the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) broke up in 1949, the only organisation in Britain that ever succeeded in uniting all of Britain’s Trotskyists albeit briefly between 1944-49. Healy’s group ‘The Club’ was by far the largest of the group’s to come from the RCP and it was ‘The Club’ where Weller first met Pallis in London. Pallis was a consultant neurologist at Hammersmith hospital. Born 1923 Pallis’s political journey also began in the CPGB in 1941 albeit briefly before he was expelled for criticising the party’s policy on the war and was drawn to wartime Trotskyism.

Inevitably neither Weller or Pallis were destined to last in Healy’s outfit. Healy, notorious for his short temper, heresy hunting and iron authority, struggled to tolerate ‘opposition’ (other viewpoints). Though Healy initially kept his autocratic inclinations in check with the boon in members, such restraint couldn’t last. 6-7,000 members of the CPGB left their party over its support for the Stalinist repression of the Hungarian revolution. ‘The Club’ (SLL) was the greatest beneficiary. Yet many ex-CPGBers and others soon found themselves outside Healy’s group. Among them was Weller and Pallis. Weller was expelled with a small group he belonged to by the SLL’s national committee which ironically Pallis sat on. Months later Pallis was himself expelled from the SLL.

Though Solidarity began life in the milieu of British Trotskyism the group rapidly left the tradition behind for libertarian socialism and would shortly take the brave lucid step of rejecting Marxism strongly influenced by Cardan/Castoriadis’s brilliant demonstration of Marxism’s redundancy. As we noted, Solidarity played a pioneering role in purveying the work of Cardan/Castoriadis of SouB to the Anglophone world. The main themes of Cardan/Castoriadis’s as they appeared in a series of Solidarity pamphlets printed between 1961 and 1978 were: the nature of modern bureaucratic capitalism in the West and the East (not identical according to Cardan but both forms of capitalism), the division of society between a minority of order givers (directors) and order takers (executants) that overlaid and cut across social classes, the emphasis on working class autonomy and worker management (autogestion) and rejection of traditional left politics – Social Democracy but also the revolutionary or Marxist left on grounds of Marxism’s eclipse and degeneration into ideology. Such perspective pointed to new radical directions for libertarian socialism and autonomy.

Despite its tiny size Solidarity was at the heart of Britain’s anti-nuclear peace movement in the early 1960s and played a major, outsized part in shifting the strategy of the anti-nuclear peace movement from the CND’s high profile marches on Aldermaston and trying to win the Labour Party to a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The problem wasn’t only Labour’s leaders were strongly committed to maintaining Britain’s nuclear ‘defence’ (Attlee’s Labour government after all started building Britain’s bomb) but the victories were symbolic and reversible. So the unilateral disarmament policy won at Labour’s Scarborough conference in 1960 was reversed the following year. More relevantly it was the Conservatives who were in power.

CND on the march in the early 1960s

In October 1960 the direct action Committee of 100 was set up leading to the demise of the Direct Action Committee (DAC). The DAC was hitherto the organisational focus of non-violent direct action including the trespass at the nuclear submarine base Holy Loch in Scotland. The Committee of 100 was notionally made up of 100 individuals – signatories who sponsored the Committee of 100 and its aims, many of them prominent figures in British life such as philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell who resigned from the presidency of CND to take part in the Committee of 100.

Despite its ‘big names’ signatories the Committee of 100 was in practice an umbrella enabling younger, more energetic activists to set the direct action agenda. Throughout 1961 a number of sit downs in central London took place. Thousands were arrested including an 89 year old Russell. For Russell escalating civil disobedience and direct action could awaken a sleeping British public. Others in the CND leadership were uneasy with direct action tactics and breaking the law except in the most anodyne tradition of genteel civil disobedience. Yet it was widely known the national press and media was devoting less attention to CND’s marches and protests firing up the more radical voices. The Committee of 100 was made up of thirteen regional committees and this effectively decentralised the protest. Some argued for more militant action while Solidarity also suggested linking anti-nuclear protest to the working class shop floor struggles that were taking place. Such links were difficult to achieve though Pat Arrowsmith – working full time for Merseyside CND – had some modest but impressive success in 1962 when 800-1000 workers building the Carrington petro-chemical site, halted work to protest the resumption of atmospheric tests by the US. However such working class action was rare and the Carrington protest failed to spark a wave of similar action.

The previous non-violent protests like sit downs failed to disrupt the warfare state. Such protest required many who were willing to be arrested and even imprisoned. But the protest movement over-estimated the degree of disruption such tactics would cause while the publicity barely justified the ‘sacrifice’ required of protestors facing aggressive and intimidating policing. Such state intransigence was effective if apathy or fatalism was the dominant tenor of the public mood and growing despondency among the protestors was inevitable.

So with the appearance of the Committee of 100 Solidarity came into its own in London which was the Committee’s dominant region. As the historian of the British anti-nuclear peace movement in this period, Richard Taylor observed, Solidarity and a handful of anarchist activists formed the core of the Committee of 100 in 1962 and 1963. They would circulate the Beyond Counting Arses document diagnosing the CND’s impasse while making the case for direct action to jam up the machinery of the warfare state. Weller was the convenor of the industrial sub-committee and he was the heart of various direct action initiatives including occupying the Russian embassy to protest the so-called ‘workers bomb’ in autumn 1963. Also it was Weller who penned a leaflet addressed to Russian workers, explaining the aims of the British peace movement and declaring workers West and East faced a common enemy. A Russian translation of the leaflet was distributed in Red Square Moscow.

Weller was also one of the eight Spies for Peace activists who severely embarrassed the Macmillan government when they broke into a secret bunker – a Regional Seat of Government – at Warren Row in Berkshire in 1963. The RSG was part of the state’s countrywide network of bunkers intended to allow government officials and civil servants to ‘govern’ the country in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The Spies for Peace duplicated 3,000 copies of a pamphlet exposing the state’s callous ‘civil defence’ plans, posting copies to journalists, prominent individuals and MPs. The pamphlet was also distributed on CND’s Aldermaston march. Efforts by the police and security service to identify the culprits behind the Spies for Peace failed. The Spies for Peace were careful in covering their tracks. They left no fingerprints at Warren Row and the typewriter used to write their exposure was thrown into a canal. Neither the police or MI5 were able to identify the Spies for Peace despite raiding Weller’s home. Yet Harold Wilson’s 1964 election victory effectively delivered a coup de grace to the peace movement and the issue of Britain’s suicidal nuclear weapons policy wouldn’t become a major political question again until the late 1970s when British governments decided to host US Cruise and Pershing missiles on British soil.

Car workers vote in open air union meeting

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Weller was mainly responsible for Solidarity’s excellent ‘industrial’ coverage that frequently focused on the unofficial action generated by the shop floor or rank and file militancy which detoured the trade union officials to beat the bosses and challenge their ‘right to manage’. The relatively high level of industrial struggle measured in official and unofficial action, strike days ‘lost’ and so on, appeared to strikingly confirm the global possibilities contained in the autonomous activity of the working class which was at the centre of SouB and Solidarity’s socialism.

Weller – an AEU shop steward – provided sharp insight on the tactics and strategy of the employers, the machinations of the trade union officials but most importantly the workers rank and file action in a variety of disputes mainly in engineering in numerous articles that appeared both in Solidarity’s journal and as pamphlets including: What Next For Engineers? (the 10 week strike at Ford Dagenham in 1962), Standard Triumph Strike 1961 (a strike of 126 workers in the repair shop penned by Weller and others), BLSP Dispute: The Story of the Strike 1961 (a strike at the steel factory which was undermined by the union leaders), The Truth About Vauxhall (Weller’s look in 1961 at the cost of ‘industrial peace’ American management style at Vauxhall’s new Ellesmere Port factory), Busmen: What Next? (written by workers in London bus garages with Weller’s aid in 1964), What Happened at Ford’s? (written by Weller and Ernie Stanton dissecting the reasons for a 1962 defeat), G.M.W.U.: Scab Union (written in 1970 by Weller using the pseudonym Mark Fore), Strategy for Industrial Struggle (a general analysis of Heath’s 1972 Industrial Relations Bill and how to defeat its anti-working class provisions), The Lordstown Struggle and the Real Crisis of Production (an analysis of the struggles of American auto workers in the early 1970s which also focused on the nature of modern manufacturing production).

Ken Weller

Weller’s 1972 pamphlet Strategy for Industrial Struggle attracted the unwelcome attention of the News of the World (a nasty but now defunct tabloid acquired by Murdoch in 1969). Weller examined different forms of industrial and workplace resistance to the employers including strike action, ‘go slows’ and work to rules, occupations and sit downs and what he termed “industrial sabotage.” The NoW executed a hatchet job on Weller – “the man with no job” (no mention was made of Weller being in recovery from a serious motorcycle accident) – as the tabloids routinely did in this period elevating a few among the tens of thousands of faceless active socialists, trade union militants, shop stewards and conveners, to be demonised (like Alan Thornett, Trotskyist shop steward at British Leyland’s Cowley plant) alongside serial killers, ‘deviants’ from normopathy, miscreant celebrities, prominent leftists and other ‘wreckers of civilization.’ Thus the NoW dubbed Weller a “disciple of industrial sabotage.”

Weller’s 1972 Solidarity pamphlet addressed the shortcomings of what he called “reflex” action by workers in resisting their bosses. Too often energy was expended trying to get all workers out on strike when quicker, more flexible or cleverer tactics might be suitable before the union head office could intervene and potentially scupper a quick victory. Workers needed to have tactical and strategical nous when defending pay and conditions or trying to improve them. The backdrop for Weller’s argument was the Edward Heath’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act whose premise was militancy and unofficial action in the workplace was the root of Britain’s economic malaise. So the Act proposed making union officials and leaders responsible for legally enforceable collective agreements – opening the door to the courts to wade into disputes between bosses and workers in a concerted effort to stifle or outlaw wildcats and unofficial action. The Act prompted much resistance and a refusal to comply by many trade unions supported by the TUC, demonstrations, strike action and protest. Therefore an Act designed to curtail worker action and “lawbreaking” instead created flashpoints and resistance.

Weller insisted the resistance would need to be resolute to secure victory and prevent victimisation and it was in this context he outlined five different modes of struggle. Briefly they were:

(a) informal resistance to production (any method where workers collectively imposed their own interests on production in the struggle at the ‘frontier of control’ in opposition to scientific management, the bosses prerogatives and so on).

(b) sabotage – less sensational that it sounded, sabotage was a part of the informal daily resistance that could exist in the workplace (and was a reality in Britain’s factories in this period) including absenteeism, neglecting machinery, damaging machinery, losing tools, literally obeying employers orders even if it was understood they would harm production and so on.

(c) the go slow and work to rule.

(d) the ‘good work’ strike (strikes often faced some hostility from the public especially in sectors like transport. If workers could win the public opinion battle they should – for example striking rail or tube workers allowing commuters/passengers to travel free.

(e) occupations and sit ins.

(f) the adoption of any method that increase the effectiveness of ‘normal’ strikes.

https://archivesautonomies.org/IMG/pdf/nonfrenchpublications/english/solidarity60-77/pamphlets/solidarity-pamphlet-n37.pdf

The stiff resistance the Tories Industrial Relations Act met eventually led to its repeal in 1974 following Labour’s election. So from proposing an armoury of tactics for the industrial struggle, Weller linked these tactics to the final objective: a “socialist society based on the management of production by the producers themselves.”

Let us make two final observations concerning Weller’s ‘global’ argument about working class struggle in the workplace. Firstly, Weller concluded that such methods as formulated and used by workers themselves at the cutting edge of workplace struggle was distant from the preoccupations of the ‘revolutionary intellectuals’ or ‘leaders’ analysing ‘economic trends’ and formulating the ‘correct’ demands based on something called ‘scientific socialism’. The second point, is simply that much of this universe – an organised powerful working class, if not always on the front foot but able to react strongly against the bosses – has simply disappeared in the ‘neoliberal’ era of globalised late capitalism. The disaggregation of the working class and the profound retreat of the last four decades is a huge topic that cannot be addressed here but anyone who is interested in radical democracy or autonomy or even the more modest place of the ‘actually existing’ working class in such a project after the end of the working class as the revolutionary subject of History, must appreciate what was lost. In an important sense Weller’s industrial writings help us to appreciate what is gone by providing a glimpse of that ‘lost world.’

***

Later in life Weller turned to a project close to his heart researching, writing and publishing an account of the north London militant pacifism during the First World War entitled “Don’t Be A Soldier!” The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918 (https://libcom.org/files/don’t%20be%20a%20soldier.pdf).

About 2000 Weller had his kneecap surgically replaced. In his last years Weller’s physical condition worsened and he was cared for in east London by his son Owen who returned home to look after his Dad. Weller is survived by his ex-wife, Owen and a sister. In 2022 PM Press have a welcome plan to publish a selection of Ken Weller’s writings.

Jules Alford February 2021

The author would like to acknowledge that a variety of sources were used to write this obituary (and appreciation) for Ken Weller, including David Goodway’s Anarchist Seeds Beneath The Snow (2012 edition), Richard Taylor’s Against The Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-65 (1987), Natasha Walter’s account of her father – Nicholas Walter – and his involvement in the Spies for Peace, Chris Spannos’s two obituaries of Ken Weller (one for The Guardian and the other lengthier obituary for PM Press), as well as various articles by Pallis and Weller themselves.

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