The days of Future Past - The Lucas plan and building the peace alternative
With the parliamentary approval of the renewal of the UK's “Trident” nuclear weapons system, British activists working for nuclear disarmament and peace are looking for a new way forward.
A conference in the UK city of Birmingham that happened last year could be the beginning of that new path. Drawing on the inspirational model of the Lucas plan, its sessions and workshops showed how normal people can construct a radical democratically and green alternative to militarism in all its forms.
1976 in the UK was a time of mass social struggle. The postwar political and economic consensus was falling apart and two broad visions of the new left and the new right emerged. This era saw the rise of mass movements for the liberation of women, black people, LGBT+ people alongside a powerful peace movement, but it was class struggle that became the central struggle between the competing visions for the UK. Capital enforced its will through a “free market rationalisation” of top-down mergers, factory closures and large job loses to ensure the maximum amount of profit. Opposing this process was an increasingly powerful labour movement, driven by the ideal of a radical democratic economy controlled by, and working for, normal people. The movement's tactics included mass direct action methods of strikes, occupations and sit-ins by the trade unions, combined with radical political action of an increasingly powerful left wing of the Labour Party. Such working class struggle even extended to challenging the war machine at the point of production, most clearly played out in numerous factories of the military aerospace company Lucas. The workers at Lucas were given the false choice that military production workers face today: produce more arms for more profit, or face mass redundancies. The workers, inspired by the powerful ideals and ideas of the wider movement, rejected both in the most radical of ways: an alternative plan which was anti-militarist all the way through.
First, Lucas would produce peaceful, socially useful products, not military hardware nor products solely for profit. Their reasoning was, if they can build ever more sophisticated technology to harm people, why can't they use their skill instead make products that enhance live? Yet, the decision process as to what was a peaceful, socially useful products also rejected militarist hierarchy. All workers, alongside the wider community, used democratic egalitarian methods to assess what social needs would be address by the skills of Lucas workers. The results of these new processes were products far ahead of their time that served immediate medical needs, long term environmental needs, and much more. Relying solely on solidarity funding and support from the wider movement, the workers managed to develop prototypes of hybrid & hydrogen engines, portable kidney machines, energy efficient heating systems, a rail/road bus, and more.
This antimilitarism was not just restricted to the product design. Management would not be by unaccountable managers; the workers followed the central ideas of their movement, and the management and ownership of all aspects of production would be governed by the industrial democracy of all workers.
This antimilitarist ethos was extended even to the technology used within production itself. The workers rejected technological processes which dis-empowered and de-skilled workers. Instead they drew up new technology that would allow empowered workers to use their creative powers to their full extent. To this end they developed prototypes of telechiric devices (robots directly controlled and manipulated by humans) which would physically work with the skilled workers crafting products in a way that enhanced their skills. This can be seen in a prototype machine for carrying out complex repairs in dangerous conditions which responded to the workers' physical movements.
The Lucas workers initially tried to enforce the plan using strike action, but they quickly realised these isolated actions within Lucas' factories would not be enough to ensure their radical plan went ahead. So over the next decade, they spread their ideas to reshape the wider movement of workers, academics, activists and leftist politicians who wanted to make the Lucas plan a reality in the UK and beyond.
They helped their fellow trade unionists to create their own alternative plans, spoke at conferences and teach-ins, wrote motions, articles, leaflets and more to spread their message to grass-roots trade unionists throughout the UK and beyond. These activity led to many local trade unions developing their own alternative plans in the UK, Germany and Scandinavia.
Yet, the Lucas workers wanted to move beyond the trade union movement in spreading their radial democratic ideas. Supported by academics, they established the Centre for Alternative Industrial and Technological Systems (CAITS) to develop and disseminate the ideas behind the plan to create a new activist culture of democratic self organisation. CAITS provided educational resources and activist links that communities needed to create their alternative plans. The CAITS model was taken up in even more radical ways by activists in continental Europe. These active educational activities led the ideas of the Lucas plan to be taken up by a generation of community and political activists.
Activists beyond the trade unions had been involved the Lucas plan since its inception in the mid 1970s, but they always took a back seat to their trade union comrades;, the political environment of the early 1980s fundamentally changed this. Mass unemployment and repressive laws seriously damaged the strength of the trade unions, including those active at Lucas Aerospace. In this new context, the bosses at Lucas dismissed both the ideas of the radical plan and its key workers behind it. Yet, the movement didn't die with this defeat, as these sacked workers rapidly found employment in the new centre of the movement: metropolitan government. In cities throughout the UK, community activists and leftist politicians came together to attempt to reshape their cities to the ideals of the Lucas plan.
The radical democratic ideas of governance were embraced most actively in London. The Greater London Council developed a whole policy framework to empower communities based on the ideals of the Lucas Plan, supporting workers turning their companies into cooperatives, involve communities in economic decision making through popular planning, setting up technology networks to democratically develop socially useful products and much more. This was the Lucas plan as local government, with community activists as the driving force.
Yet, these bold experiments in city government could not escape the wider political context, as the national right-wing central government didn't want antimiliarist governments leading its major cities. So against mass popular opposition, the UK government abolished city governments in the UK, and replaced them with small governing units that were strongly controlled by the central government. This effectively ended the movement's hopes of a world purged of militarism as they no longer had an institutional framework on which to build their alternative plan for alternative peaceful world.
However, the current revival of mass radical movement politics within the UK & beyond means that the core of the Lucas plan can be revived. This could be the centre of a struggle against nuclear weapons and all forms of militarism. No longer will we only object but we will create new peaceful alternatives through our unions and communities. We have nothing to lose but our militarist chains, and we have a world of peace to win.