By Spiky Hedgehog
Ken Weller, who died aged 85 on January 25th, was among Britain’s brightest working-class militants. Co-founder of the irreverent libertarian socialist group Solidarity, he is remembered by many as a clear-thinking, hard-talking mentor. His political trajectory spanned the movement against nuclear weapons in the 1960s, industrial militancy, and the development of a vision of a self-managed society.
In autumn 1961 Ken and a handful of others occupied the Russian Embassy to protest against the Soviet ‘workers’ bomb’. His anti-bomb activism continued in 1963 when, as one of the ‘Spies for Peace’, Ken helped expose British state secrets in which an elite planned to govern in the wake of a nuclear attack. These revelations provoked a public crisis of confidence in the British state. A manhunt for the ‘spies’ ensued but, despite police raiding and searching Ken’s house, none of the peace activists were ever caught.
As an industrial militant, Ken also produced popular articles and pamphlets for Solidarity that drew on his experience as a worker and shop steward to advance the premise that challenges at work and in society at large could only be solved by the actions of workers themselves. Many of these pamphlets were popular in labour and social movement circles. Some also made national headlines.
In October 1972, the tabloid News of the World sensationalized Ken’s pamphlet ‘Strategy for Industrial Struggle’, penned under his nom de guerre ‘Mark Fore’, which examined informal resistance to production, sabotage, occupations and sit-ins as well as other methods of resistance, anticipating many later debates on such strategies of struggle. Ken’s 1973 pamphlet ‘The Lordstown Struggle and the Real crisis in Production’, told the story of what happened in General Motors’ Ohio plant in Lordstown between 1971 and 1972 in order to highlight trends of political struggle and their consequences for revolutionary socialists.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Ken worked in a film library in Clerkenwell, and later as an electrician for the London Electricity Board and Standard Telephones. The latter two jobs helped shape Ken’s analysis of rank-and-file conflict with management in industry.
A severe motorcycle accident at the age of 35, however, put paid to Ken’s role as an industrial militant. After studying at Coleg Harlech in Northern Wales, where he and his wife had their baby boy Owen, Ken was offered a job at Ford Dagenham in 1969.
About 18 months later, Ken was driving his motorcycle home in the early hours of the morning after a night shift, when an off-duty police officer driving under the influence of alcohol hit Ken, breaking his arm, leg and pelvis.
A year after the motorcycle accident, Ken and his wife separated. While he recovered from the accident to a degree, he was not able to work and raised Owen, then just a toddler, on his own.
Many of Ken’s relatives had passed through the Communist Party and Ken joined the Youth Communist League. Ken broke this family tradition when the Soviet Union suppressed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. This and other contemporary events helped Ken form a critical view of the Communist Party, which resulted in his expulsion.
Ken joined Gerry Healy’s even less tolerant Trotskyist group The Club, which soon changed its name to the Socialist Labour League (SLL), Ken was drawn to critical discussion by dissident party members. In May 1960, Healy and his supporters, notably the radical neurologist Chris Pallis, expelled the dissident grouping.
Soon after, Healy expelled Chris too, and later that year Chris and Ken, along with other SLL exiles, co-founded Solidarity. The two developed a close friendship.
Influenced strongly by the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie and its lead thinker Cornelius Castoriadis (pen name Paul Cardan), Solidarity sought to advance autonomous working-class action by participating in the shop steward movement, supporting industrial militants and publishing accounts of workers’ struggles. Solidarity applied Castoriadis’s analysis of society divided into order givers and order takers as a way to critique trade unions, traditional parties of the left, bureaucratic society, and authoritarianism – not least of ‘socialist’ societies.
While always firmly rooted in working class life and struggles, both in the workplace and his neighbourhood in East Ham, Ken saw earlier than most on the left the importance of the wider anti-authoritarian socio-political movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the challenges of marrying this wider movement with working class concerns. A practical expression of this was the way he hosted in his front room in East Ham in the 1970s a loose grouping called East London Libertarians, which drew together a motley crew of anarchists, anarcha-feminists, libertarian socialists and green campaigners. He had the remarkable (and sometimes irritating) skill of being able to leave the discussion room and do some domestic job, while returning 15 minutes later to pick up the thread of the discussion with a trenchant and vibrant comment.
Much (though not all) of Solidarity’s analysis and modes of socio-political organisation have stood the test of time and anticipated the approach of many of today’s anti-authoritarian struggles.
Recurring health problems eventually left Ken bed-ridden and physically disabled. Owen moved back into Ken’s house to take care of him for the last seven years of his life.
Ken was most proud of how Solidarity took direct action to support militant struggles, from the 1963 Spies for Peace action, the 1965 Kent housing struggle, and various rank-and-file labour struggles over the group’s 30-year existence.
With his fierce wit, sharp intelligence and sometimes acerbic style, Ken introduced many of us to real struggles, a vision of a better society, and a way to get there. One day we will.
Ken is survived by his ex-wife Gwyn, their son Owen, his middle sister Barbara, and two nephews.
PM Press will publish a collection of Ken’s writings in 2022.