Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rhythms that carry

Last night, I attended Liverpool 1911- A City on the Edge 'Rhythms that Carry'. Taking place as part of the Writing on the Wall festival, it was an exploration of the broad tendencies and influences on Liverpool in 1911 as well as a look at where we are now, 100 years later.

The event was split into two halves. First, a talk by Steve Higginson and Tony Wailey on the sprawling tensions of Liverpool 1911 and the influence of wider cultural, educational and musical movements on the Liverpool General Transport Strike. This was followed by an open session for questions and contributions from the crowd, largely a discussion over these various issues but also of how they relate to the present.

Of late, 1911 has held an increasing fascination for me. Not least because it, and the period of the Great Unrest within which it occurred, have breathed life into a period rendered dull and dry by history textbooks.  If I were to go purely on what I was taught at school, I would believe that noth much of import happened between the Great Exhibition and World War One. This is always the case, of course, official history being written from the perspective of the ruling class and the class antagonisms that defined eras largely buried. As both a history geek and a working class militant, it's thus always interesting to unearth such hidden histories.

Looking at that year, and the surrounding timeframe, we see the truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It was noted, both in the main talk and in the on the open discussion, that a sense of solidarity and collective strength existed then that doesn't really exist now. Hence why, as different sections of the working class came out on strike in a wave, those who had already won concessions were able to declare that they wouldn't go back in until the next group had won - and so on.

It was a strength that not only brought Liverpool to a standstill, but put the entire country on the brink of revolution. This is why it was a strength to which the government's response was soldiers on the streets and a warship in the Mersey. A city under effective martial law, still able to win strikes.

But where that strength (or rather, that awareness of strength) isn't around today, and where the ports and railroads no longer hold the strategic value that they once did, other things remain the same. The talk noted that this period in history represented the birth of "speed up capitalism" - a notion amply demonstrated by a clip from the film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin - who was educated and who danced in Liverpool prior to 1911.

Today, the same repressive conditions parodied by Chaplin, monitored every second on the job and even as he went to the toilet, will be most familiar to call centre workers. We have in the last thirty years seen a return to a similar level of casualised work as there was in 1911. But now, without the same level of class consciousness and active solidarity.

We also have, as was the case then, an extremely top-down trade union movement slow to react to the interests of workers and a burgeoning, militant rank-and-file looking to act for themselves.

A case in point of this was the growing influence of anarchist and radical syndicalist tendencies upon Liverpool. Liverpool dock worker James Larkin was at the forefront of calling for more democratic trade unions, whilst Liverpool seafarers who came under the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World on the New York Waterfront were central to the resurrection of the Seaman's Union.

James and Nellie Dick, respectively a Liverpool seafarer and an Eastern European immigrant, launched a short-lived "Modern School" in 1908, inspired by the free school model of Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer. It was Huyton-born Lenny Abbot who would take the movement to New York in 1911.

A more in-depth look at anarchism, and particularly anarcho-syndicalist tendencies in the Liverpool labour movement can be found in the book Building the Union: Studies on the growth of the workers' movement: Merseyside, 1756-1967. Key passages are reproduced by a comrade from Liverpool SolFed here.

The importance of these currents were summed up by Steve Higginson after the event was over. Referring to the Communist Party assessment of Liverpool as "an anarchic place where spontaneity and the flamboyant gesture are preferred to the disciplines of tactical thinking and planned interventions" and "an organiser's graveyard," he noted that "it was just a Communist organiser's graveyard" and that "anarchism was the big influence on 1911."

This is important because it offers hope today. It reminds us that libertarian values and rank-and-file organising are not new ideas but borne of a long and proud tradition. One that we can learn from, yes - the mistakes and failures as well as the successes, to build up a genuinely radical resistance today.