Ken Weller Obituary

Ken Weller holding his son Owen, circa 1968

Ken Weller, who has died at the age of 85, was probably the last surviving member of the “Spies for Peace”, a small group of anarchists and libertarian socialists in the direct-action wing of the peace movement who in 1963 organised two break-in investigatory raids on a government bunker near Reading in Berkshire, Regional Seat of Government No 6 (RSG-6). They published a pamphlet, revealing for the first time the scale of secret preparations by the “warfare state” for elite survival after a nuclear attack, which was circulated to everyone it named and to selected journalists. It created a giant political storm. The government denounced what it described as a criminal breach of national security, and police raided dozens of homes searching for the perpetrators (including Weller’s). But the Spies had covered their tracks meticulously. It was only 25 years later that one of them, the anarchist Nicolas Walter, explicitly revealed his participation in the stunt; Weller spoke on the record of his involvement only in 2010. 

It was not the first time Weller had played a big part in headline-grabbing direct action, nor would it be the last. He and others in the libertarian socialist group Solidarity had in autumn 1961 occupied the Russian embassy in London to protest against the Soviet “workers’ bomb”, and in 1966 he was one of the demonstrators who made front pages throughout the world by disrupting the Labour conference church service to heckle Harold Wilson for supporting the US war in Vietnam.

But it was as a shopfloor activist and pamphleteer for Solidarity that Weller had his greatest impact. 

A bright working-class boy from Islington, he left school at 15 and worked in a variety of manual jobs, eventually becoming an electrical engineer. In the late 1960s, after a spell as a mature student at Coleg Harlech in north Wales, he was hired by the giant Ford motor works in Dagenham. 

Through all this he was a shopfloor union organiser – and an enthusiastic revolutionary. He joined the Young Communist League in the early 1950s but was expelled for opposing the leadership after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. He then joined Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group The Club, which was even less tolerant of dissent and expelled him (with many others) in 1959, soon after it became the Socialist Labour League. Sick of Leninist authoritarianism, he and other ex-SLLers – most notably the radical neurologist Chris Pallis – coalesced into what became Solidarity, one of the most innovative, irreverent and influential groupuscules of the 1960s and 1970s far left (and one of few that was libertarian not Leninist). 

Weller was Solidarity’s most prolific writer on what the group saw as the new phenomenon of self-managed working-class militancy against both capitalist managerialism and bureaucratic official trade unionism – a perspective influenced by the French review Socialisme ou Barbarie and its mastermind Cornelius Castoriadis. Weller wrote articles for nearly every issue of Solidarity magazine and several widely read pamphlets, among them 1972’s Strategy for Industrial Struggle, which made a page lead in the News of the World for its advocacy of sabotage, occupations and sit-ins – as well as editing a series of Motor Bulletins for workers in the vehicle industry.

At the age of 35, Weller was knocked off his motorcycle by a car driven by a drunk off-duty police officer and severely injured; a year later he and his wife Gwyn separated, leaving him to bring up their son Owen, then a toddler. Weller slowly recovered from the accident but was unable to do manual work. He continued to write, increasingly turning to historical themes – his output included a groundbreaking study of the anti-war movement in north London between 1914 and 1918, Don’t be a Soldier!, published by Journeyman Press in 1987 – and during the 1980s did more than anyone to keep Solidarity magazine going as business manager and editorial meeting host. 

In the following decades his physical health declined. In his early eighties, he almost died from sepsis when a knee replacement became infected, and in the last years of his life he was confined to bed: Owen moved back into his house to take care of him. Yet he remained cheerful and unfailingly generous in sharing his time with friends, journalists and historians until the end. He is survived by Owen, Gwyn, his sister Barbara and two nephews.

Ken Weller, activist and writer, born 30 June 1935; died 25 January 2021

PM Press will publish a collection of Ken’s writings as a Ken Weller Reader in 2022.

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