Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Significance of Roberts Arundel in the 1960s

by Brian Bamford

Northern trade unionists confront police at Roberts Arundel

IN Nov 2006, the anarchist historian, Nick Heath* reflected upon his experiences in the UK anarchist movement since the 1960s, and the lessons on organisation and politics he finds valid for anarchists today.  His observations include the idea that '[o]rganisational responsibility and discipline should not be controversial'. [see 'The UK anarchist movement - Looking back and forward' posted on libcom].

Part way through his long account he ponders the problems of the failures of anarchists since its high point in the early to mid-1960s during the rise of the peace movement:
'One of the shortcomings that they had highlighted was the lack of industrial activity.  As Brian Bamford, whom I do not often agree with, has pointed out:  “At the time of disputes at Roberts-Arundel in Stockport**, Pilkington’s Glassworks in St Helens***, the strikes and stay-in occupations at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and in engineering, the miners struggles in the 1970s, the anarchist influence was tiny” (Freedom 6 August 1994)'

This year it is the 50th anniversary of the Roberts Arundel strike in Stockport, and Stockport Trade Union Council has put on an exhibition to commemorate the occasion.

At the time of the strike at Roberts-Arundel in 1966, mentioned in the above quote from Freedom, the Manchester Anarchist Group [MAG] was far bigger than the small International Socialist body with only 20 members locally and most of whom were students.   Both Colin Barker and his then friend and fellow sociologist John Lee, who later like me became an ethnomethodologist, were anxious to engage with me and some of the local working-class anarchists.  They knew that I had been involved in the national strikes of the engineering apprentices in the early 1960s, and still edited the apprentice paper Industrial Youth that came out of those disputes; both Colin and John were keen to collaborate with us with a view of building up their own I.S. group.  The trouble then was that most of the Manchester anarchists in the MAG didn't have any affinity with factory workers and trade unionists.  They were good on peace demos etc. waving their black and red flags, but it was as if they were frightened of engaging with genuine workers at their places of work.

When I was sacked for supporting the apprentices at Robinsons in Rochdale in 1965, the MAG refused to come down because they said they didn't want to be 'authoritarian', and tell the apprentices what to do!  Again in 1966, when I was given my marching orders at Tomlinsons up Milnrow the MAG held aloof yet again steering clear of the factory gates.  In similar circumstances I doubt that Colin Barker and I.S. would have been so timid, but by that time I had already decided to return to Spain, where I had a job waiting among the more practical and proletarian Gibraltar anarchists.

Under the influence of Ron Marsden, and Alan Barlow**** when the Manchester anarchists discussed the Roberts-Arundel dispute at a meeting at Mother Macs pub in central Manchester, the meeting was swayed and persuaded to not attend a support meeting called by the International Socialists [IS] to support the Roberts-Arundel strikers, the reasoning at that time being that they didn't want to swell the support for the trotskyists in IS.  This is significant and relevant to what Mr. Heath is saying, yet I believe both he and Colin Barker draw the wrong conclusions in arguing that the anarchists and international socialists needed a national organisation or party.

In an interview with Colin Barker, now a retired sociology lecturer, in 2015 in the publication RS21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century) vividly describes the situation he found himself with the IS in 1966 at the time of the Roberts-Arundel dispute:
'We were a group of about twenty people.  We’d got the building workers, and we were talking on very friendly terms with one or two CP engineers.  By then I think we’d recruited one or two.  We look as if we’re going to recruit significant numbers of militant workers to the branch – I don’t want to exaggerate, but we’re a little bit confident, a little bit rooted.  We’re distinctive.  We don’t know that you can’t do things – that’s quite important, we don’t know of any limits to what we can do.  So we take initiatives, try things out, sometimes they don’t work and sometimes they do.  This is in ’67 – the next year of course everything changed.'  (on

Clearly the advantage that the Manchester International Socialist had in 1965 was not that of a mass organised party, but rather that of disciplined organised body but rather an imaginative tendency that was willing to act on its own initiative.  By acting outside the box the IS was enabled to have a great impact in regional industrial disputes such as Roberts-Arundel in Stockpost and at Pilkingtons in St Helens.  Meanwhile, the Manchsester anarchists who were so heroic in the peace demos in central Manchester were too timid when it came to turning up at the factory gates.

Drawing up a neat historical narrative
Like all historians Mr. Heath provides us with neat narrative to explain what was wrong, and how the anarchist decline could have been avoided in the past, but also how its continuing fall in the present and in the future can be stemmed:
i]  The historic issue, according to Mr. Heath, was that there was 'The increasing frustration with the swamp of pacifism, liberalism and vague humanism'.

ii]  Two now defunct bodies entitled ASA (Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance) and ORA (Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists) were potentially Mr. Heath's ideal tools for social change, but he writes the 'ASA ran out of steam pretty quickly'.
[I personally was one of the founding members of this short-lived ASA organisation, which was set-up around 1970 from remnants of the old Manchester Syndicalist Workers Federation, and went on to play a role in the Courtaulds Arrow Mill strike involving mainly Asian workers in Rochdale, and later to successful campaign for shop stewards in textiles inside the National Union of Textile & Allied Workers*****].

iii} On the other hand, Heath writes that 'The ORA had started moving away from the swamp as a result of the dockers and miners struggles and the influences of French libertarian communists.'

Mr. Heath quotes from an ORA booklet entitled 'Towards a history and critique of the anarchist movement in recent times' by K. Nathan. R. Atkins, C. Williams [ORA pamphlet no1. 1971] to support his diagnoses about the rise of Trotskyism and the fall of anarchism in the late 1960s and earlier 1970s:
'The IS [the International Socialists which later became the SWP] would not have attained their size and influence such as it is if a decent libertarian organisation had existed.  It is an unholy mixture of libertarian and Leninist groups.  The attempt by Cliffe (sic) to compete with IMG by out-trotting Mandel will make this alliance increasingly unstable. BUT do we have any capacity to attract these comrades?  In fact, the flow has been the other way. Good comrades (for the most part industrial militants rather than students) have been lost without anyone attempting to understand why.'

He argues that that was a true analysis and remains so today.   Hence, he claims, that in spite of what he calls 'the decline of Leninism' it was a 'lack of effective organisation', that has meant that anarchism will be at a standstill until we rectify this problem of organisation.

What this shows is that Nick Heath has a mechanistic Marxist approach to organisation that is rooted in a form of deterministic thinking that is part of the problem.  The main problem among the anarchists, which has been amply demonstrated in most recent times at the London Anarchist Bookfair etc., is a psychological inability to engage with real people in the real world.  Some of the left don't have an engaging relationship with working people.  This has been a long term problem which no amount of management, membership cards, statements aims and principle, mission statements, or tick lists can solve. 

Because Mr. Heath has been a white-collar office worker (a librarian) for much of his life he looks at the problem in a top-down way so that all he comes up with are cookbook solutions.  In the same way his close colleague Mike Ballard - now a retired local authority housing manager - has a similar cultural problem.  Commenting in another essay entitled 'Anarchist communism in Britain, 1870-1919', on the libertarian organisation founded in 1960 called 'SOLIDARITY', Mr. Heath writes:
'Their wilful failure to translate this into the establishment of a national organisation was a disaster, as International Socialism (the precursor of the Socialist Workers Party) was able to build on this territory abandoned by Solidarity (and by the Anarchist Federation of Britain).  They failed to engage as fully with the Anarchist movement as much as they could have, as their contributions at meetings and conferences could have considerably strengthened the class struggle current within it.' 

Thoughts on aspects of northern anarchism
There were some protests from southerners and Mr. Heath's type of 'organisational anarchists', when on November 2011, Sidney Huffman wrote his interesting  'Message from a North East Anarchists' on libcom:

'We believe the anarchists may actually be the single largest radical tendency in the North-East and wider North, yet we remain largely invisible, rarely initiating action ourselves and instead just tagging along in ones and twos with events organised by the left and liberals.  We have repeatedly found anarchists who have joined Trotskyist parties simply because they couldn't find an organised anarchist presence here.  Older comrades coming out of premature retirement spend 6 months looking for political anarchists and cannot find any during that time.  It is not good enough.  If we are serious about change, we have to step up and make ourselves visible.'

What's interesting about this statement and some of the protesting comments that followed it, is the implied organisational and activist nature of what is being proclaimed.  Sidney Huffmann writes about 'tagging along in ones and twos' on other people's events tail-ending other left protests.

In response to Mr. Huffman, Tom Harrison wrote on libcom that the 'SF [Solidarity Federation] and AF [Anarchist Federation] have been turning out regularly at the sparks strikes/demos/blockades in London, bolstering picket lines and generally providing the much needed solidarity for these workers. There was a particularly good SF turnout at the sparks demo on November 9th ... just watch this vid and you can see their placards at many point.  We're also organising and attempting to link student militancy with worker militancy.'

Mr. Heath will recognise from this that despite his efforts nothing has changed today from the stagnant pond from which anarchists seems unable to escape.  Of course, anarchists in London may have put out more flags as seen on the video on the electrician's demo, but that is not news.  What would have been news would have been if like Tameside Trade Union Council they had been in the forefront of the campaign against the blacklist moving motions to the TUC, manning lonely picket lines in the early hours since 2003, in the DAF dispute or at the Manchester Royal Infirmary in 2009.  If Mr. Harrison is saying the anarchists are a kind of rent-a-mob available on street demos well that is part of the problem, because despite all the talk of organisating they don't seem to have the initiative to build serious enterprises themselves apart from bookfairs.  Now because of narrow-mindedness of some anarchists even bookfairs are becoming a problem for the anarchists to organise.

What Mr. Heath failed to grasp when he considered the Roberts Arundel strike (in his quote from Freedom above) was that the lesson from that strike was that the Manchester anarchists in 1967 failed to engage with the workers in dispute because they were afraid of real workers at the factory gate.  They didn't know how to address a real worker then, and they still have problems today.  Even in the run up to the campaign against the blacklist in the naughties people like Nick Heath's mate Mike Ballard, a former housing manager at Manchester City Council, was describing the Manchester electricians as not being involved in class struggle because they were taking 'individualuist'  actions by setting up pickets rather than collectivist actions.  Mr. Ballard came up with that claim at a meeting of the NAN in Burnley, of course it was before the Information Commissioner made his successful raid on Ian Kerr's office in 2009, and before Kerr pleaded guilty for keeping an illegal data-base at his trial at Knutsford Crown Court.

Abstract Anarchists & the ethnographic approach
The folly of the mechanistic managerialist approach of both Mr. Heath and Mr. Ballard is evident given that the subsequent development of the struggle of the 'Boys on the Blacklist' in Manchester, which Tameside TUC has been in the forefront of since 2003: had this handful of electricians often acting in opposition to the official union, using their own initiative not engaged in a series of small pickets around Manchester after 2003, the office of the Consulting Association, managed by Ian Kerr, would never have been raided by the Information Commissioner in  Droitwich Spa in 2009.  Consequently, the blacklist with over 3,000 names of building workers would never have been exposed.

In the mid-1970s, the criminologist Ian Smith and other anarchists used to talk about the contrast between the 'sectarian syndicalists' and 'shop-floor syndicalists' in the ASA,  Now we have very opportunistic 'abstract anarchists' like Mr. Heath and Mr. Ballard to contrast with more ethnographic approaches of others anxious to listen to the public.

What Nick Heath may have in mind when he envisages a future anarchist organisation is something like what Ken Weller and member of SOLIDARITY, talked about when he described the influence of the British Communist Party in 1956:
'People can’t realise how big an apparatus it was.  There were the embassies, the Friendship Societies, the printshops, the front organisations, the unions; 120 were employed by the Electrical Trades Union alone.  There were all the agencies of the Soviet government, Tass [the Soviet news agency], the Moscow Narodny Bank, all these sorts of things were full of people; I mean, the Soviet Weekly alone employed a network of people who were distributing agents for the paper, and so on.'

It must have been exactly like George Orwell said in the 1930s about it paying some folk to adopt a commie position, but to accomplish that kind of body among the anarchists would require something more substantial than what Nick Health has to offer with his own small-scale Anarchist Federation (AF) with all of its one hundred members paying their fees, and with perhaps a possible trans-gender platform to stand upon with its own estimated constituency of 0.1% of the national populous.  That would in any case be a very different approach from that experienced by anarchists in the early 1960s, when anarchism was at last part of a genuine social movement; that is the peace movement and the Committee of 100.

With the 'People in the Streets', as Vernon Richards described the peace movement in Freedom in the 1960s, the anarchists had a significant role to play on Ban the Bomb demos and in the Committee of 100 sit downsYet when the social struggle moved to the picket lines, trade unions and factories after the Roberts Arundel strike in 1967, where the communists had the great advantage, the Manchester anarchists had very little grasp of what was required.  Only in the struggles for shop stewards up in Oldham and Rochdale in the failing textile industry such as at Courtaulds Arrow Mill in 1972, did the anarchists of Manchester have an impact, and then again in London in the building workers' struggles, anarchists like Peter Turner had a role to play.   None-the-less, in the significant disputes of the late 1960s at Pilkington Glassworks in St Helens, Upper Clyde Shipbuilding [UCS] and in engineering sit-ins, the miners struggles in the 1970s, the anarchist influence was tiny.

*     Nick Heath leader of the Anarchist Federation.
**   Roberts Arundel strike from 1966-68 of engineering workers against dilution and cheap labour.
*** Pilkington strike in St Helens of glass-workers in the Municipal & General Workers Union [now GMB] in which the workers, frustrated by both the union and the bosses, attempted to set up an independent union.
****  Ron Marsden and Alan Barlow came to Manchester in 1964 and joined the Manchester Anarchist group [MAG], which was then meeting st that meeting in the Lord Nelson in Salford.   The MAG had been founded earlier by Graham Lee and James Pinkerton, then International Secretary of the Syndicalist Workers Federation [SWF].  Marsden from Preston, and Barlow originally from Liverpool, had recently become members of the SWF, and were hoping with the help of the Liverpudlian Vincent Johnson also of the SWF, to form a faction within the MAG and drive it in a 'class struggle' direction. 
*****   COURTAULDS INSIDE OUT:  CIS ANTI REPORT No.10.  Produced in co-operation with The Transitional Institute.


John Pearson said...

Thanks Brian - a very interesting article.

Martin Ralph said...

Can you tell me what the placard Vietnam not Stockport means in the context of the strike?

N.V. Editor said...

Can anyone shed any light on this?

Martin Ralph said...

Also do you have material on the pilkington new union?

Geoff Brown said...

Thanks for this. As you may know, I'm interested in the history 'from below' in the 60s and 70s in the Manchester area. I've read some of the RAP reports of the disputes you were involved in. Can you suggest any other sources I can look at?

John Pearson said...

"Hi Martin,

I think there was a lot of anti-American sentiment amongst the strikers and the union officials - a feeling that Pomerantz was importing foreign industrial relations practices and that his acquisition of the old Stockport family firm and subsequent aggressive attitude towards the workers was of a piece with American chauvinism towards the people of countries like Vietnam.

The anti-American sentiment is referred to in Jim Arnison's book, 'The Million Pound Strike' (Lawrence & Wishart 1971) - the book is still available via Abe Books.

See also slide 32 - Colin Barker produced a pamphlet and the Strike Committee reprinted it with a new cover with a 'Yanks go home' placard. By the way, Geoff Brown told me yesterday that Colin wrote a version 2 of the pamphlet that was never published but he is thinking of publishing it now for the 50th anniversary comemmorations.

Finally, see Geoff's conclusion at slide 91.

The exhibition was taken down yesterday. We are offering it to the Working Class Movement Library for curation.
It has been a good project by Stockport Trades Council.
In solidarity,