We’re sad to pass on word that Ken Weller, author of ‘Don’t be a Soldier!’ The radical anti-war movement in North London 1914-1918, has died. It made me re-read it. Here are some thoughts.
The announcement of his death on Libcom by the Working Class History group mentions that his son had done ‘so much to look after him recently’, which made the dedication to Don’t be a Soldier! even more poignant. Weller says at the start ‘I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of my son Owen without whom this text would have been finished about two years ago.’
The introduction gives a sense of both how much effort went into the book, and what a great (and groundbreaking) historical effort it was to understand the ‘rebel milieu’ on their own terms.
‘When I started to write this text I thought it would be a simple job of collating documentary material which I have been collecting for a number of years. I then managed to track down some survivors from those tumultuous times and the further I got into interviewing them the more I realised how difficult it is to do full justice to the tangle of personal and political relationships which constituted the socialist and anti-war movement in North London during the 1914-1918 war. On further reflection it occurred to me that this complexity is common to all real social movements past and present, and that if this text, warts and all, reflects that richness, it could contribute not only to an understanding of the past but even of the world of today. […]
‘What is clear – certainly in London and I suspect nationally too – was that the main origin of the radical anti-war movement was not in the established socialist groups, or among middle-class pacifists, although both these currents made a contribution (and were themselves profoundly affected by the heat of the struggle); rather it lay in the ‘rebel’ milieu which had existed before the war – the syndicalist and industrial unionist movements within industry, the radical wing of the women’s movement and the wide range of networks and organisations which by and large were very critical of the established labour movement.’
Don’t be a Soldier! is not a long book, 96 pages, and it’s written in short chapters so that if only one thing stands out from each, you can easily follow the thread of the story. Each chapter is heavily footnoted which is where you find a lot of the most interesting material. To give you an example, chapter 8, ‘The development of the NLHL [North London Herald League]’ has two pages of text and one of notes, but in those notes you get potted biographies of about five militants (including the anarchist Leonard Motler), information on six periodicals, one printshop and one book of poetry: Albert Young’s The Red Dawn: A Book of Verse for Revolutionaries and Others (1916, ‘published in later 1915’).
We have to hope that South London comrades can forgive his reference (on page 76) to ‘transpontine wastes’. Back in 2015 the Radical History Network produced ‘Comradely 80th Birthday Greetings’ for Ken Weller. Towards the end of the article there’s a quote from Cyril Pearce, on the importance of Don’t be a Soldier!:
‘Possibly the first work to contradict the assertions that from 1914 to 1918 there had been a “national” consensus in favour of war was Ken Weller’s ‘Don’t be a soldier!’ The Radical Anti-war Movement in North London, 1914–1918. It is an account of the anti-war movement in the North London boroughs of Islington, Hackney, Stoke Newington and parts of Middlesex […] Weller’s work has been influential in encouraging others to look more closely at their local war resisters.’
I don’t want you to think that this was the only thing he wrote. Earlier Weller, having left the Young Communist League, and been expelled from Gerry Healey’s Socialist Labour League, was a leading light of the Solidarity group. His contribution to their published output was remembered by Hieronymous on Libcom:
‘Years ago, when they were clearing out their archives, the Black & Red comrades in Detroit gave my Bay Area comrades a near-complete collection of Solidarity pamphlets. I was always most impressed by ones authored by Ken. My all time favorite is The Lordstown Struggle And the Real Crisis in Production, which had such an amazing grasp of the dynamics of class struggle on the other side of the world. So sad that he’s passed.’
Nick Heath ends his obituary of Weller with these words, describing Don’t be a Soldier! as ‘an important contribution to working class history in Britain. He was always open to sharing his vast knowledge of British working class history with other radical historians. Ken used to phone me regularly for chats about working class history and provided me with much information that helped me write some of my biographies of revolutionaries active in Britain, including Leonard Motler, Gertrud Guillaume-Schack, Johanna Lahr, etc. For example, I remember him sending me photocopies of correspondence by Motler, which proved most helpful. Sometimes I visited him in Lathom Road, where he drank large mugs of tea whilst talking about history and about the iniquities of Gerry Healy and the Socialist Labour League.
‘As an industrial militant, as a defender of libertarian socialism and as a chronicler of working class history, Ken’s life was inspiring and exemplary.’ 
We send our condolences to his family, friends and comrades. Have a read of Don’t be a Soldier! It’s a great work of uncovering radical history – and there’s still more to learn.
‘Don’t be a soldier!’ The radical anti-war movement in North London 1914-1918 by Ken Weller. Journeyman Press and London History Workshop Centre, 1985. ISBN 0904526569.
2, p2. If you don’t have a copy you can read it online at http://libcom.org/history/dont-be-soldier-radical-anti-war-movement-north-london-1914-1918-ken-weller
5, The whole review article that this comes from ‘Writing about Britain’s 1914-18 War Resisters’ by Cyril Pearce (from 2015) can be read at https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1779