12 March 2005
SOLIDARITY AND ME
Several people have asked me about my involvement with the libertarian socialist group Solidarity. So here – at risk of appearing self-obsessed – is what I wrote last year for John Quail, who is putting together a history of the group.
I first came across a copy of Solidarity magazine in summer 1978: I bought it from the Essex University anarchists’ stall at a hippy fair in Suffolk during my year off between school and university. But it wasn’t until later that year, after I’d gone up to Oxford to study PPE, that I came across a member of the organisation, the irrepressible Graham Jimpson. Graham, who was then a youth worker in Rose Hill, one of the working-class estates in east Oxford, started coming along to meetings of the (largely student) Oxford Anarchist Group.
I joined the anarchist group in my first week at university along with 30 or so other enthusiastic freshers, and I think it’s fair to say that we revived it almost from the dead. We ran a vigorous campaign on the Persons Unknown case. We got on to the front page of The Times by distributing copies of “The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name”, the James Kirkup poem at the centre of the Gay News blasphemy trial, while the elections for the Oxford poetry professorship were taking place in the Sheldonian Theatre. And, most important, the members of the group had gelled socially: more than 25 years on, some of my best friends are people I first met in the Oxford Anarchist Group in my first few weeks at university.
Graham had been a member of the anarchist group as a student some years before but had dropped out of it some time after getting a job in the real world (he was five or six years older than the rest of us). Now he became one of its stalwarts again, and for the next couple of years he, I and 40 or so others had a merry time playing at revolution just as it was going out of fashion.
There were countless demos, innumerable meetings and conferences, hundreds of heated arguments and lots of sex and drugs and rock and roll. The OAG was the biggest group on the Oxford student left scene apart from the Labour club and one of the biggest anarchist groups in the country. We had weekly public meetings and pub nights, ran the university left newspaper, Red Herring, turned up on all the major national demonstrations with our banner and organised two big national anarchist conferences (1980 and 1981). What I remember with particular fondness, however, is our stunts – handing out leaflets urging abstention outside polling booths in the 1979 general election, heckling a giant Billy Graham meeting in Oxford town hall and turning on the sprinkler system, disrupting the Miss Oxford pageant, organising a 20-strong demonstration against West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt that inadvertently caused the Thames Valley police to mount a giant show of counter-terrorist strength.
When I joined the anarchist group I was a Stirnerite individualist, which had something to do with punk, something to do with youthful enthusiasm for the Beat poets and something to do with disillusionment with the Socialist Workers’ Party, which I’d come close to joining as a schoolboy in Ipswich and which had dominated the local Anti-Nazi League. But by early 1979 I’d decided that I was a social anarchist; a few months later, thanks to Graham, I’d read my way through a fair selection of Solidarity’s pamphlets; and some time after that, after meeting various Solidarity members and going to Solidarity conferences – my first one was in Manchester -- I took the plunge and joined.
Precisely when, I don’t remember: my guess is spring 1980, but it could have been earlier. At the time, the Oxford Solidarity group was tiny: the only other members apart from Graham when I joined were Ed Pope and Dave Levy, though if I remember rightly a few other people joined from the student anarchist group about the same time as me or shortly afterwards. I was definitely a member by summer 1980, when the Oxford group produced the issue of Solidarity for Social Revolution that included a special supplement by the London group on Poland: I laid out quite a bit of the mag on Graham’s living room floor. Apart from selling the magazine and doing the production work when its turn came around, Oxford Solidarity didn’t do much as a group, though Graham, Ed and I were all involved in producing Back Street Bugle, Oxford’s alternative paper, as was Bob Hammersley, who was recently ex-Solid.
What made me join? It was only partly that I’d come to the conclusion that Solidarity had the right ideas: at that time I was almost as much in agreement with the Libertarian Communist Group or the anarcho-syndicalists, although I’d definitely acquired a taste for Maurice Brinton and Paul Cardan (one of the pseudonyms Cornelius Castoriadis used for Socialisme ou Barbarie and the one his work had been published under by Solidarity). Much more important was the social buzz of Solidarity. I particularly remember Bill Beveridge, Nick van Hear and George Williamson, all of whom pitched up in Oxford before I joined. (The first time was for a party at Graham’s, when Ed Pope scandalised Graham’s social-worker colleagues by taking all his clothes off and wandering around the kitchen enthusing about naturism.) Then, when I started going to the conferences, I met more people I liked. By the time I signed up, Chris and Jeanne Pallis were semi-detached from the organisation, and the arguments that would eventually lead to the group splitting in 1981 were well under way, with one group arguing for a much more orthodox left-communist perspective and another, part-situationist in inspiration, railing against supposed capitulation to the trad left. But the only things wrong with Solidarity from my point of view were that it was overwhelmingly male (which is not a feminist point) and most of the members seemed to be getting on a bit (though actually most were younger than I am now).
I went to all the conferences in the run-up to the 1981 split, and for some perverse reason found myself getting more involved in the group just as nearly everyone else was giving it up as a lost cause. I volunteered to be international secretary and wrote more and more for the magazine. When the split finally came, my sense of facing political homelessness was unexpectedly disorientating. I was one of the people who argued most strongly for the organisation and, more importantly, the magazine to continue, and my sense that we shouldn’t let it all go increased when I found myself back in Ipswich after university taking a year out doing odd jobs before starting a postgraduate journalism course at the London College of Printing.
Almost completely politically isolated – just about the only thing happening in 1981-82 in Suffolk was CND, and the local group was a less-than-inspiring coalition of ageing Quakers, Stalinists and Labour leftists – I travelled down to the meetings of the London Solidarity group at Ken Weller’s place whenever I could. After I moved down to London in summer 1982, I went to every meeting.
Unfortunately, London Solidarity in those days was hardly thriving. The regulars at the meetings were Ken Weller, Ken’s dog, me, Stuart Hathaway, Ian Pirie, Andy Brown and Nick Terdre, with occasional visits from Alex Castle, Alex Economou, Terry Liddle, Liz Willis and Sharif Gemie (who was living in Norwich at the time). We’d decided to revive the magazine as our main activity – it soon became our sole activity – and over the next couple of years we produced five issues, with Stuart doing all the typing and me doing all the layout. The magazine was printed by Aldgate Press, a spin-off from the Freedom bookshop in Aldgate, which was run by a couple of anarchist friends.
Those early numbers in the final series of Solidarity were a very mixed bag, but I think they improved. What it needed was someone to take it all in hand and bring it together as a magazine. It found it in Richard Schofield, then working as a graphic designer at the National Union of Students, who joined the group in 1983 or 1984 and soon became the de facto editor of the magazine. My own involvement waned at around the same time Richard arrived: from early 1984 I was employed by European Nuclear Disarmament to deputy-edit its magazine END Journal, which was more than a full-time job. Although I kept in touch with Richard and Ken, and went to a few editorial meetings, for the rest of the magazine’s life I was no more than an irregular contributor.
I was doing plenty of other politics during the time I was most involved with the magazine. From 1982 until 1984, I was a regular at the London Workers’ Group meetings every week above the Metropolitan pub in Farringdon Road, where a disparate bunch of syndicalists, anarchists, situationists and council communists met to chew the cud and plan interventions – among them Joe Thomas, Henri Simon, Dave Morris and others who had been involved in the recently deceased Rising Free bookshop. I particularly remember the evening that Ian Bone, newly arrived from Swansea, announced his plans to form a new propagandist and direct-action organisation (it was what became Class War) and denounced those of us who were sceptical as a bunch of wankers before flouncing out into the public bar. Around the same time, I was peripherally involved in the Brixton squatting scene – I opened a squat in Arlingford Road with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, in 1983, though I didn’t live there very long – and got to know the Black Flag types around the 121 Bookshop in Railton Road and some of the Villa Road squatters. At the London College of Printing in 1982 – where I was taught sub-editing by Wynford Hicks, the former editor of the early-1970s libertarian magazine Inside Story – I met Rick Walker, once of Liverpool Solidarity and by now the brains behind South Atlantic Souvenirs greetings cards, and we set up a club that took over the student union bar once a month to put on anarchist films and gigs. A little later, through Aleks Sierz, an ex-situationist I’d met through the London Workers’ Group, I got involved in the committee supporting the Italian autonomists rounded up and jailed in April 1979. I spent summer 1983 working for City Limits magazine, where another veteran libertarian, Duncan Campbell, was news editor and yet another, Diana Shelley, was in charge of the agitprop listings. In 1983-84, I was tied up in a high-profile industrial dispute over the introduction of new technology at Coastalpress, where I got my first proper job after the LCP (written up in issue five of the new series of Solidarity).
I never actually left Solidarity, but from 1984 onwards I drifted away, largely because the jobs I was paid to do left very little time for anything else. I moved from END Journal to Tribune as reviews editor – George Orwell’s old job, for heaven’s sake: who wouldn’t sell out for that? – then became Tribune editor in 1991 and then moved to the New Statesman as deputy editor, a job from which I was fired in 1996 when the magazine was taken over by Geoffrey Robinson. I spent a year working with Nyta Mann on a book about the Labour Party (published by Granta in 1997 as Safety First: The Making of New Labour, was Red Pepper news editor from 1998 to 1999 (while earning a living teaching at the London College of Printing), then in 1999-2000 was deputy editor of New Times, a monthly magazine published by Democratic Left, which had once been the Communist Party but had long since relented. Since the plug was pulled on that, I’ve been earning a living as a lecturer at City University and as a sub-editor on the Guardian’s comment pages.
I still call myself a libertarian socialist, but I’m no longer a revolutionary, and haven’t been for a long time. I think the critical moment for me was probably the 1983 general election. For some reason, I’d thought that the Tories would lose it and that a Labour or Labour-Alliance government would return Britain to Keynesian corporatist business as usual. I watched the election results programme round at Andy Brown’s place in Wandsworth in a state of mounting drunken disbelief as the Tories won a landslide. In their second term they set about destroying trade union power and massively expanding the private sector. I decided that even soggy social democracy was a marked improvement on them and, swallowing hard, joined the Labour Party, I think in 1987. I’ve been a member ever since, though I haven’t been very active since the early 1990s.
I look back on Solidarity with great affection. Its best days were over by the time I discovered it. It was in its death throes as an organisation, and the magazine it produced in the late 1970s, Solidarity for Social Revolution, was a pale shadow of Solidarity for Workers’ Power at its best. SfSR nevertheless had its moments, and the final series of Solidarity produced by the London group from 1982 to 1992 was much better, particularly after Richard took it in hand. I still think of the people I met through Solidarity as the best bunch I’ve ever done politics with.