Fragments d’Histoire de la gauche radicale
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Article published on 30 July 2017

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Presentation [1]

The Solidarity group was born out of both a tradition of direct action trade-unionism expressed by shop stewards and the militant anti-nuclear movement. This background allowed it to have contacts with a lot of people and influenced it at least as much as its formal ideas. Although it expressed ideas close to those of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group in France it was this contact which allowed it to have an important influence on social struggles during the years of its existence.

“The evidence for Solidarity’s importance for the ultra-left in Britain is the fact that the British communist left all have their origins in Solidarity" and that in the 1960s and 1970s, the pamphlets and articles it published were widely discussed in far-left circles.

The two most central figures throughout Solidarity’s existence, and two of the founders of the group, were Ken Weller, who was expelled from the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League in May 1960, and Chris Pallis who left this group shortly thereafter.

“Pallis first met Cornelius Castoriadis in [the 1950s], through his friend Georges Petit who, ‘tore [Pallis] to pieces’ during their discussions on Trotskyism, whilst he was in France. Castoriadis and the Socialisme ou Barbarie group would have a profound influence over Pallis and consequently Solidarity.”

(...)

After the series of expulsions and departures from the Trotskyist S.L.L. [2] which occurred between May and June 1960, discussions took place between those who were out to join and create another group. Several tendencies existed, notably one around Brian Behan, who founded the short-lived ’Workers’ Party’. “Discussions between the Pallis-Pennington and Weller-[Meacock] groupings moved quickly and by August 1960 a group of between 12 and 15 people, including ; [Chris] Pallis, his wife [Jeanne], [Bob] Pennington, [Ken] Weller, [Norma Meacock], Nick Ralph, Sylvia Bishop and Eric Morse were in negotiations with a view to produce a common platform. Largely written by Pallis, it was released as a leaflet in October 1960 and served as an early basis of agreement for the small collective. Introduced as an ‘outline [of] certain ideas which might form a basis for a regroupment of revolutionary socialists’, it was a summarised version of an article from the first issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie and according to Weller, it was written with the aim of stripping away all the jargon and clichés that accompanied typical socialist articles in an attempt to communicate their message more clearly.

With this statement distributed, the early days of the group were productive. In the spirit of their reaction against the Leninist form of organisation Socialism Reaffirmed [later to be named Solidarity] had no constitution or formal membership, as this was a small group of likeminded people with a similar back-story. This was no problem in the early days and much could be produced with little or no arguments along the way. A journal called Agitator ; [and then  Agitator: For Workers’ Power] was produced from November 1960 and appeared monthly for at least the first five issues”, before it was turned into Solidarity: For Workers Power. The subtitle of the journal was reminiscent of the title of Socialisme ou Barbarie’s monthly paper, Pouvoir ouvrier.

(...)

“Solidarity would become very involved with the [...] Committee of 100 [, which had broke away from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in October 1960 to promote the case for direct action]. The attraction for Solidarity was the emphasis on direct action, which could be seen as a revival of the older syndicalist tradition and the potential for an internationalist outlook for the campaign. Solidarity stressed the need to be against all nuclear weapons, not just those in Britain. This was in opposition to the Stalinists and Trotskyists who refused to come out against the ‘workers’ bomb’ of the Soviet Union and were ridiculed for this by Solidarity forthwith. Solidarity’s most high profile achievement in this period was the distribution in the streets of Moscow of an article penned by Ken Weller headed ‘Against All Bombs’ in July 1962." [3]

(...)

Between 1960 and 1982, “There were many autonomous Solidarity groups and supporters outside of London, especially in the earliest years". To this day, little information about them has been compiled and published. Only the short notices relating to autonomous groups published in Solidarity allow us a glimpse into what they were. "The first mention of an autonomous Solidarity group outside of London is in September 1962, when a group was set up in the Dartford area of Kent, John Quail suspects that Andy Anderson, who split members away from the SLL in the area, may have formed this. They reprinted Victor Serge’s Kronstadt 1921 but do not appear again in the London magazine after that." Subsequently, the existence of autonomous groups was reported in the following parts of Britain: Ilford, Merseyside, Durham, Manchester, Swansea, Dundee..., and ’supporters’ groups’ in Gravesend and Exeter.

"In mid-1963 the following passage appears in Solidarity, ‘We have just been notified of the formation of another autonomous Solidarity group, in Glasgow. They have just published their first leaflet entitled Mass Action or Mass Graves.’ This [... ]demonstrates the ease [with] which people were able to enter ‘the Solidarity movement’, informing the founders in London when there had possibly been no contact between them beforehand. A leaflet was issued stating their objectives, emphasising ‘action’ :

The object of the group is to help create working class consciousness and solidarity, by propaganda and struggle, and create sympathy for strikes and other working class action among the public, who are too easily turned against their fellow workers by the vicious propaganda of the yellow press.[original emphasis]”

Later there would be tensions between a tendency to try to submit the regional groups to a national grouping and those who aspired to maintain their autonomy.

By the mid-1960s, there was a move away from the peace movement which proved to be permanent, or lasted at least until the 1980s second wave of the anti-nuclear movement.

In 1965, the group decided to change the production of the paper into printed form - it had been duplicated since the first issue of the journal. “however the status of Solidarity : For Workers’ Power as a printed paper was brief, reverting back to duplicated format by Spring 1967. The same could be said of the move towards a formal membership that evidently failed[. It] was therefore necessary to issue further statements on organisational structures. This came in the form of [a] reflective piece, ‘Six Hard Years’ [in] March 1967, co-authored by Pallis and John Sullivan [4]. Those labelled by Sullivan as ‘anarcho-pacifists’ had remained in the group, despite the lack of coverage in Solidarity of the peace movement, they attempted to have the sub-heading ‘For Workers’ Power’ removed from the paper but failed as a small majority of the group opposed this. It seems the pacifists began to leave [shortly after] [...] Because the formal membership structure had failed to materialise those [who] disagreed with this position simply ‘took their distance from the group’, without any formal statement or act of resignation being made.”

Readers who were not familiar with Solidarity may have had doubt about what their position on anarchism and pacifism was. In November 1966, (vol. IV, no. 4), “the magazine carried articles, both signed by Sullivan, criticising part of the Spanish CNT for co-operating with the Spanish fascist government and another attacking the peace movement as ‘a semi-religious cult with its own rituals, customs and uniform’. The article concluded with the following paragraph :

... It is time for socialists to abandon this stinking corpse before the Christians and the pseudo-anarchists are joined by spiritualists, phrenologists, and all the sad company of utopians. It may be difficult for many socialist to sever their connection with the pacifist movement — after all many of them came from it. But continued association with it is now not merely time-wasting but deeply compromising.”

This, however, should not be considered as a statement committing the views of all Solidarity members and sympathisers. Rather, it illustrates the fact that Solidarity was more a forum for discussion than the magazine of a political group with a fixed ideology.

(...)

One of the most useful documents to date “relating to Solidarity is Sullivan and Hillier’s ‘Solidarity Forever ?’ Written in 1969 by two ex-members as they left to join the International Socialists, [...] it attempts to shed light on the internal workings of the group. Solidarity is credited as an ‘attempt to transcend the usual form of political organization [sic]’, but in the final analysis, ‘was a group of friends who formed a retinue around the leader, M.B.’ [5] a ‘group of friends’, being noted as an organisation exclusive as any vanguard party, by Solidarity itself. Further described as an ‘ambiguous’ and ‘ideologically fuzzy’ group, these features ‘prevented it from being torn apart by the doctrinal quarrels which have split Marxist groups.’” Hillier and Sullivan left Solidarity for the International Socialists precisely when the latter organisation grew more doctrinal and tended to adopt a more Leninist approach of organisation.  “although Solidarity could become a broad church for political views, ‘there was no need to quarrel about abstract matters ... the failure to think or discuss had fatal consequences [and] reflected the suppressed realization [sic] that the group contained incompatible elements.

These ‘incompatible elements’ refer to the two different strands of origin in Solidarity, the ‘anarcho-pacifists’, older members who had been involved with the Committee of 100 [...] and the ‘syndicalists’, more interested in industrial issues.

There also appears to have been a poor political culture inside Solidarity, as many of the pamphlets produced by the group were often not discussed amongst the membership, appearing “out of the blue and would be issued without discussion after having been read by one or two people.” An ex-member who was part of the London group from August 1971 to September 1972 confirms this state of affairs as ‘a classic example of tyranny of structurelessness’, recalling that he never participated in a single vote during his time there. By no fault of their own, the group would be dominated by older members who were more knowledgeable or could fall back on a ‘party piece’. [The oldest members were] Joe Jacobs[, who] had taken part in the battle of cable street, ‘Arnie’ [Feldman, who] had been a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Ken Weller [who] was a founding member and as a shop steward in the motor industry was responsible for most of their popular industrial reports and Pallis [who] was one of the country’s leading brain surgeons as well as being a former leading member of the SLL. There would be discussion of current events at weekly meetings and time was spent deciding what would be written for the next issue of the paper and on the finer points of the publication of ‘As We Don’t See It’ but especially when the reproduction of Paul Cardan’s pamphlets was concerned ‘Chris would propose and we would agree’. The younger members of the group could not have been well read enough to have challenged Paul Cardan’s anti-Marxism or objected to his conclusions. The most negative aspect of this gap in ability is that when translating Paul Cardan’s ‘Workers Councils and the Economics of A Self-Managed Society’, Pallis would tone down some of the least communist aspects of the pamphlet, as revealed by Adam Buick of the SPGB [6].”

(...)

“ A small period of growth [occurred] for Solidarity out of the protests around the Industrial Relations Act of 1971. One of these new recruits, ‘Frank Smith’ had been a member of the International Socialists until he left to join Solidarity in 1971. When asked about the attraction of Solidarity, he recalled that he began to feel that the positions of the International Socialists were no longer revolutionary, he felt he was used as ‘demo fodder’ who had to sell the paper, canvass for Labour MPs and put pressure on union officials, he began to believe this was not the work of revolutionaries, thinking ‘is it correct to call on the TUC for a general strike when it was obvious that the trade unions were sabotaging the movement ?’ At this time Ken Weller’s pamphlet ‘G.M.W.U. Scab Union’ was influential and is recounted as being an attraction to the group, setting out a vision that it was not just the undemocratic nature of trade unions that were the problem but the trade union bureaucracy itself. It would be untrue to say that Solidarity were unique in this regard, the Liverpool based ‘Big Flame’ group, formed in 1970 and which had initially been based around shop stewards would come to a position close to left communism, [arguing] that shop stewards were becoming integrated into the union hierarchy and management, [while] Solidarity still [defended] the steward position [even though critically]. Chris Pallis’ book ‘The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control’ was also seen as important at the time” because it provided an alternative analysis of the Russian revolution between 1917 and 1921. The introduction to the book, first published in 1970, also argued for workers’ management (distinguished from ‘workers’ control’), and thus marked a difference between Solidarity and other far left groups such as the International Socialists, who demanded “nationalisation under workers control.”

(...)

“Solidarity had made a real break with the ‘traditional’ left” who were, according to Solidarity: the Trotskyists, the Communists and, to some extent, Labourites.However, Solidarity came to be criticised as traditional by a new generation of activists, as the group could not agree on a defined position on the struggles that came to the fore at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, such as the Vietnam War and the conflict in Northern Ireland. “While the International Socialists, IMG [7] and even Big Flame were calling for victory to the IRA, Solidarity featured many articles refusing to support them. Members of Solidarity from Aberdeen wrote a 1972 article entitled ‘Theses On Northern Ireland’, with their main conclusions endorsed by the London Solidarity group. This document gave no support to the IRA and condemned the ‘recruit-hungry Bolsheviks — who encourage the Nationalist backwardness of both sides’ and [stated] that ‘BOTH sides seek a military solution : both sides seek to impose their will on a minority.’ As well as pointing out that ‘Historically, the practice of supporting “progressive” forces has led to socialists being implicated in the establishment of the most ferociously reactionary regimes.’ However other articles in the journal would suggest that it was merely the militarism of the IRA that Solidarity opposed, not national liberation in general, with a May 1971 article advocating support for the ‘People’s Democracy’ group, who sought a united ‘socialist’ Ireland, describing them as the ‘most conscious revolutionaries in Northern Ireland’, ‘on the side of ... libertarian socialism’ and that they were the ‘only group where libertarian socialists can operate.’ This ambiguity is best exemplified by an article entitled ‘Whose Right To Self Determination ?’ written by Aki Orr that consistently argues against the right of nations to self-determination but then concludes by saying that, ‘Revolutionaries might decide, as a matter of political tactics, to support a struggle for self-determination.”

In May 1973 the Glasgow Solidarity group issued a text entitled How We Don’t See It in which the group denounced the growing hegemony of the London Solidarity group as well as the tendency to stifle political discussion within Solidarity. This text announced the end of their collaboration with the London group.

In December 1975, “Joe Jacobs [became] the only member ever to be expelled from the London Solidarity group [...]. He [wrote] his experiences in a pamphlet, ‘Why Was I Expelled From Solidarity (London) ?’ However, this expulsion should not be seen as Solidarity’s turn towards an ultra-bolshevised form of organisation. Jacobs had become influenced by [such ideas as those of] Jacques Camatte, that all political organisations become gangs or ‘rackets’. His daughter had also married Henri Simon, formerly of Socialisme ou Barbarie, and who held similar views.” Rather, this expulsion can be seen as a sign of the emergence in libertarian circles, by the mid-1970s, of attempts to develop new analyses and new criticisms of ‘revolutionary organisations’ and of ‘organisation’ in general. Within Solidarity, discussions on organisation had been growing since the end of the 1960s, as testify the internal documents of the group. It had particularly been thought about after the 1974 international conference in Boulogne, when ‘The new movement’ was collectively drafted — and later published by Solidarity and authored by Henri Simon.

(...)

“In 1977 there was a merger between the group Social Revolution and Solidarity. All but one of Social Revolution’s members voted to merge whilst Solidarity’s members were more sceptical. Pallis was [at first] an enthusiastic voice for the merger in the Solidarity camp. Changes were made to ‘As We See It’, although not all of the changes were made that SR hoped to see.

Organisational changes were made as well. Elected officers for the position of International Secretary, General Secretary, General Treasurer and Publications Secretary were created and a new document concerning organisation was published that concentrated the relationship between autonomous groups and the national organisation. A new permanent internal bulletin system was also created, whereas in the past internal bulletins had only been temporary affairs.
Decisions regarding the new Solidarity magazine read as follows :

Editorial functions : the editorial group has the right of commenting politically on articles, where there is unanimity in its point of view. Each editorial group (EG) must make it clear that they are expressing the opinion of that EG — which may not be the opinion of Solidarity or SR as a whole. Where there is no unanimity, accounts should be given of disagreements, briefly, and perhaps individual, personally signed contributions accepted.

During discussions the two groups had expressed hope for a genuine fusion ‘not a coming together of factions’ and the new organisational document bureaucratically forbade the formation of formal factions. This led to a state of affairs where once again political divisions were made across geographical lines. The magazine was rotated around autonomous groups and for the first time Solidarity had solved its organisational problems and the group was not dominated from London. However, the political differences between the Marxists and the followers of Castoriadis were too great. Each issue of the magazine started to appear like it was produced by a different political group entirely. One issue would contain a long critique of the economics of Castoriadis whilst the next would carry a critique of Marx.

To make matters worse, Chris Pallis [gradually] disappeared from the group [...]. Solidarity would eventually implode in the early 1980s. As members of Solidarity became disillusioned by the constant arguments, some became involved in a solidarity campaign for the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, this angered the ex-members of SR as Solidarity had always had a clear stance towards trade unions. The final straw came when it was revealed that two members of the group in London had become members of the Labour Party, the ex-members of SR demanded that they be expelled and when that did not happen the group fell apart. The national organisation was dissolved at a meeting in June 1982. A national newspaper would be revived that lasted until 1992, edited by Paul Anderson who would become editor of Tribune. However it was only produced four times a year and the politics it contained had changed substantially, even lending support for reformist political parties in South America.

The merger of the Solidarity and Social Revolution groups was probably the correct choice at the time. Although it revealed fatal flaws in Solidarity, it would have led to the stagnation of Solidarity and disbanding of Social Revolution if it had not taken place. The merger did revive the organisation temporarily and as well as the organisational problem finally being addressed in a satisfactory manner the magazine became host to well structures and valuable debate. In retrospect it did also help to clarify the ideas of some of those involved.”

(...)

“In conclusion, Solidarity was an important political organisation. It played an important role in [criticising] the dominant trends in socialist thinking but the amount of ambiguity around political positions [within the group caused] serious problems that eventually proved fatal. The lack of an independent set of political beliefs [proved] troublesome as the group simply followed where Castoriadis led. Despite some of the most glaring problems with Castoriadis’ theories, Pallis would not publicly [criticise] any part of them until 1983. Even once it had followed Castoriadis’ anti-Marxist turn Solidarity still maintained [associations] with Marxists. This led to heated debate within the group [...]. All these Marxists would try to drive the group forward and all would fail in different respects. Solidarity’s role for the communist left was important as well, [as it provided] a space for those questioning prevailing socialist thought to develop themselves before embarking on other projects."

SOME FURTHER READING

Brinton, Maurice (ed Goodway, David). For Workers’ Power. AK Press. 2004. ISBN 1-904859-07-0
Goodway David : Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow. Liverpool University Press, (2006). ISBN 1-84631-026-1 .

The obituary piece which Richard Abernethy and George Shaw, two former Solidarity members, wrote for Chirs Pallis aka Maurice Brinton, 1923-2005, one of the founders and leaders of the group we can read the following.

Notes :

[1The following text is made up almost exclusively of excerpts taken from a 2011 dissertation, except from the parts in italics which are ours. This Master’s thesis named Solidarity History was sent to us by a former Solidarity member. We have removed the notes. We don’t know who wrote it. If you should happen to know please contact us so that we can attribute credit to the author. If you would like to have a look at it we have it here as a PDF file (with the notes).

[2Socialist Labour League.

[3Reproduced in Solidarity, for Workers’ Power, vol. II, no. 5 (Sept. 1962), pp. 1-3.

[4Published anonymously in Solidarity, for Workers’ Power,vol. IV, no. 5 (March 1967), pp. 1-6; 23.

[5M. B. :Maurice Brinton, one of the pennames of Chris Pallis.

[6Socialist Party of Great Britain.

[7International Marxist Group.


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