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Building “The Smallest Mass Party”

Ian Birchall

History of the International Socialists

Part 1: From theory into practice

(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1976, pp. 16–24.
Republished in 1981 as Part 1 of Building “The Smallest Mass Party in the World”: The Socialist Workers Party 1951–1979.
Copied with thanks from the Revolutionary History Archive.
Edited & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN THE last year or two the International Socialists have grown into an organisation capable of small but significant interventions in the class struggle, and with a real possibility of laying the foundations for a revolutionary party in Britain. Many comrades who have joined IS in this period, or who have worked alongside us, quite rightly want to know where we have sprung from.

The following article will sketch out the history of the International Socialists (and their predecessor organisation, the Socialist Review group) over the last 24 years. The aim is not to answer all the slanders thrown at us by rival groupings; nor is it to prove that we were always right – we certainly weren’t.

‘Without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice,’ said leninh in a much quoted phrase, But, as Lenin’s whole life shows, correct theory is necessary, but not enough. If the theory is not adopted and fought for by real workers, it is a worthless abstraction. The history of IS is teh history of the continued attempt to turn theory into practice.

The First Ten Years

THE ORIGINS of the International Socialists are in the Trotskyist movement. The historical achievement of Trotskyism was to keep alive the Marxist method and its insistence on the revolutionary role of the working class in the face of the barbarous distortions of Stalinism. Some excellent revolutionaries swallowed every barbarity and change of line from Moscow because there seemed to be no alternative; others were so sickened with Stalinism that they wrote off the Russian Revolution altogether and became social democrats or even drifted to the extreme right. The achievement of Trotskyism in preserving Marxist ideas and keeping together a small group of Marxist cadres far outweighs any theoretical errors or incidental absurdities.

But the 15 years that followed the Second World War offered a very hostile environment for revolutionaries, an environment in which throughout the world anti-Stalinist Marxists found themselves confined to tiny groups on the margins of the working class.

There were two main reasons for this. Firstly the Cold War, beginning in 1947, led to a massive political and ideological assault on the Left. While there was nothing comparable to McCarthyism in Britain, there was a systematic witch-hunt of Communists in the trade union movement, while publishing houses turned out floods of pseudo-intellectual ‘refutations’ of Marxism.

Secondly, and even more fundamentally, the prolonged post-war boom made it exceptionally hard to relate political ideas to the actual experience of workers. The political and economic struggles seemed to be totally separated. In the ten years from 1953 to 1962 there were only 30 ‘constitutional’ stoppages in the engineering industry, and in the five years from 1954 to 1958 there were none at all. As The Economist rather sadly commented [1]:

full employment since the war has not led to more strikes because the unions, now more highly organised than ever, have been getting their own way without recourse to them.

In short, workers were able to solve their immediate problems without any kind of generalisation. The fifties saw the growth of the shop stewards movement as we know it today, but they also saw the Tory Party re-elected with increased majorities at three successive elections.

Things had changed radically since the early years of Trotskyism, and the movement had to reconsider the basis of its politics. Very briefly, there were two main issues. [2] Firstly, Trotsky’s perspective for the immediate pre-war period had been that the coming war would end in a massive crisis with great revolutionary possibilities. He was wrong. In the short term the mass Communist Parties headed off revolution; in the longer term Marshall Aid and the development of the arms economy opened up a new period of capitalist expansion. This meant a need to re-examine radically theoretical views of modern capitalism.

The second question that confronted the movement was one that had already been much discussed – the so-called ‘Russian question’. Up to his death Trotsky had always argued that Russia, despite Stalin’s crimes, remained a workers’ state, though a ‘degenerated’ one; he rejected the view that Russia had reverted to capitalism, or that a new form of class society had grown up there. By the late forties, however, a new element entered the debate. Following the great carve-up of the world at the end of the Second World War, Russia had taken over a number of countries in Eastern Europe and established regimes there which were becoming more or less identical with the set-up in Russia. The question that arose was – were these too workers’ states? If not, how come they seemed to function in exactly the same way as Russia? If they were, then didn’t that mean you could have a workers’ state without a workers’ revolution and without an independent, revolutionary party?

It was in this situation that a grouping within the British Trotskyist movement developed the theory that Russia, and the East European states, were ‘state capitalist’. [3] The main theoretical elaboration was the work of Tony Cliff. The theoretical confusion in the Trotskyist movement was accompanied by a degeneration in the organisation and the standard of internal debate. As a result the comrades who held the ‘state capitalist’ position were either expelled or left, and late in 1950 began to publish a duplicated paper Socialist Review. The new group, taking its name from the paper, held its founding conference at Whitsuntide 1951.

To an outsider the debate about the ‘class nature of Russia’ often seems arid and almost theological: But the. issue was a very real one. The ‘state capitalist’ theory stressed that what was central to the class nature of a society was not formal ownership, but control. The absence of workers’ control in Russia was not a defect in an otherwise progressive system, it was a clear indication that the system was in no sense a workers’ state. The central position that ‘workers’ control’ always had in IS’s political analyses and industrial strategy derives directly from the theory of state capitalism.

It is sometimes alleged that the creation of the Socialist Review group represented some sort of concession to Cold War pressure at the time of the Korean War. In fact, the Korean War was not the issue at the heart of the split. Rather it was the shamelessly opportunist support for Tito’s Yugoslavia by the rest of the Trotskyist movement [4] from 1948 onwards that highlighted the principled differences. Moreover, anyone who in 1950 wanted to ‘capitulate’ to pro-American pressures had plenty of other and more comfortable openings available; one could become a right-wing witch-hunter in the Labour Party or trade union movement, or join the circles of Washington financed anti-Communist intellectuals.

And for those who resisted the pressure to give in to Western imperialism, there was still the danger of submitting to Stalinist pressure – of taking. a more or less uncritical attitude to Yugoslavia, North Korea or other Stalinist states. It was precisely this trap that the rest of the Trotskyist movement was falling into. By so doing it was abandoning the very essence of Trotskyism, namely, independence of both Western imperialism and Stalinism.

From the beginning the Socialist Review group made no concessions to the Western Alliance and the South Korean dictatorship it supported. ‘The Labour movement must oppose the alliance with Truman, Adenauer, Syngman Rhee and the other representatives of ‘Western Democracy’; they must fight for an alliance with the millions of toilers of Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world.’ [5] It denounced the ‘full-scale colonial wars’ in Vietnam and Malaya. [6]

The logic of the position that the Eastern European states were ‘workers’ states’ was, of course, that revolutionary parties were not necessary for the establishment of workers’ states. The Socialist Review group, on the other hand, stressed that only the working class could establish socialism; and that it was necessary to build independent workers’ parties. As a resolution carried at an early national meeting of the group [7] put it,

Our grouping, based on the conception of Russia as a state-capitalist country, is the nucleus of that new Marxist party, and can be built firmly ONLY on the acceptance of party discipline in the tradition of Bolshevism under Lenin’s leadership.

The other essential component of IS’s basic theory was also developed at this time. This was the idea of the ‘permanent arms economy’ [8], which sought to explain how the prolonged post-war boom was possible. The argument that it was arms expenditure that was postponing capitalist crisis was vital for an argument on two fronts. On the one hand the Communist Party and most sections of the Trotskyist movement refused to recognise any significant change in the capitalist system; slump was predicted every time the unemployment figures went up a few hundred. On the other hand theorists of the Labour Party right – such as Anthony Crosland – argued that the. system had been fundamentally transformed and that expansion and reforms could continue indefinitely.

Against this the arms economy theory argued that the post-war boom was a prolonged and deep-rooted phenomenon, and that revolutionaries must plan their strategy accordingly. But against the reformists it argued that capitalist stability was bought only at the price of creating weapons that could destroy humanity itself; moreover, that the crisis could not be put off indefinitely:

The war economy may thus less and less serve as a cure for over-production, a stabiliser of capitalist prosperity. When the war economy becomes expendable, the knell of the capitalist boom will surely toll. [9]

Together with ‘state capitalism’ the arms economy theory equipped the meagre forces of the Socialist Review group to face reality.

Splits are not to be undertaken lightly in the revolutionary movement. Unity of action combined with full and fraternal debate is often a preferable solution. But when the whole question of political direction and strategy is at stake, a split becomes inevitable. In these terms the split of 1950 was justified.

Marxists are not fatalists, and in any historical period there is something for a revolutionary to do. But there are historical situations where objective factors prevent revolutionary ideas from reaching a mass audience. In such a situation small groups can play a vital role simply in keeping the revolutionary flame alight. Marx in a letter to Bolte wrote:

Sects are justified (historically) so long as the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement. [10]

But to accept the necessity for a sect is not to justify sectarianism: A correct analysis, on its own, guarantees nothing. A number of other groupings with a state capitalist analysis of Russia emerged around this time in various parts of the world. Most of them either just disappeared, or got lost in the lunatic fringe of sectarian politics.

Such dangers were very real ones for the newly formed Socialist Review group. At the first recorded meeting (September 1950) there were just 33 members represented. Groups existed in London, Thames Valley, Crewe, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester. 19 of the 33 were in the Labour League of Youth. Although it was claimed this 33 represented a quarter of the total forces of British Trotskyism, it was nonetheless a minute force. 350 copies of the first issue of the paper were produced; sales were apparently sufficiently encouraging for the figure to be raised for the second issue ... to 375!

For any small group there are two opposite pitfalls. One is to see itself as the centre of the universe, and thus become obsessed with defending itself against its equally insignificant rivals. The other is to surrender to its own impotence, and therefore to project the job of making the revolution on to someone else – the colonial revolution, the left trade union leaders, or whatever. Examples of both errors abound.

The Socialist Review group was, throughout the fifties, a purely propaganda group; it was not able to make any meaningful intervention in the class struggle. But propaganda has to have an audience; and unless a revolutionary group remains in intimate contact with its audience, the dangers of falling into a complete fantasy world are great indeed. Throughout the fifties the Socialist Review group, despite its limited numbers, always strove to relate to the actual problems of the working class. Minutes of the discussion of the paper Socialist Review dating from 1951 [11] show a concern to make the paper relate.

The main points were that there was not enough on Britain, and editorials should be on British matters.

It was generally felt to be still too much composed of anti-Stalinist articles.

In practice this meant work in the Labour Party. All members were expected to be active in the Labour Party; before the 1951 General Election a directive was issued stating:

It is most necessary that our comrades become known to the working class in their local areas as the most energetic and anti-Tory Labour Party workers.

But Labour Party work was not undertaken on the basis of impending crisis; there was no expectation of imminent split, no hope of capturing the leadership of a section of the Party. In a period of stability, when the traditional Labour Left was declining in strength and power to mobilise, such a perspective could have led to dangerous opportunism (as was the case with Socialist Outlook – published by the forerunners of the Socialist Labour League [now the Workers Revolutionary Party] – which opened its columns to Party bureaucrats like Bessie Braddock9. The Labour Party was seen as an arena which made it possible to keep contact with the working class movement, and as a source oaf recruits. The latter was, of course, particularly applicable in the case of the youth movement. A resolution carried in December 1950 stated:

That we concentrate in the next period on recruiting, and direct our primary efforts towards the League of Youth, accepting all elements who will accept our theoretical position, even though their theoretical level is low.

Trade union intervention was necessarily very limited for a small group with few industrial workers. But priority was always given to the few opportunities that did exist. Minutes of the first few months of the group’s existence record discussion of the coming USDAW Conference, at which a comrade was to be a delegate, and the recommendation that a comrade should stand for the NEC of NALGO. There was regular work on the Birmingham Trades Council.

And in 1959 Geoff Carlsson, a founder member of the group and convenor at the ENV factory in North West London, ran for the Presidency of the AEU. The number of AEU members in the group could have been counted on the fingers of one hand, and there was no intervention other than the work of individuals. But candidates had the right to circulate an election address, and Carlsson used this to put forward an alternative policy for the union. After criticising the right-wing leadership of the union for failing to give a lead over wages or redundancies, he went on:

In the elections over the past years, members have bad to choose between candidates backed by the right-wing Labour or the Communist Party. The choice bas not been easy. Although most members owe allegiance to the Labour Party, they cannot accept the policies pursued by the right-wing of the Trade Unions and Labour Party when these have included wage-freezing, class-collaboration and “sell-outs”. Alternatively, although they respect the militant activities of the individual Communist Party member in the daily struggles on the shop floor, they cannot ignore the external loyalties of the Communist Party to Russia; nor forget the anti-working-class measures adopted by that country in East Berlin, Poznan, Hungary, etc.

That there was some response to this position was shown by the voting; Carlsson, without any machine at his disposal, got 5,615 votes out of a total of 91,400, against 57,127 for right-winger Carron and 19,799 for Communist Party member Birch.

It was not the concrete achievements of any of the activities of the fifties that mattered; they were, of course, quite negligible. What did matter was an orientation to the working class, an orientation that was to make intervention possible when things hotted up in the sixties.

1960–64: New Openings

IN 1960 the Socialist Review group was not significantly bigger than it had been ten years earlier. Its small size had prevented it benefitting from the events of 1956 – the radicalisation caused by the Tory invasion of Egypt and the split in the Communist Party following the Hungarian Revolution. But now new possibilities beckoned.

The nuclear arms race had brought relative stability to the Western economies. But, ironically, it was the nuclear arms race which sparked off what was to be the biggest mass movement on the left since the thirties. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, calling for unconditional unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons by Britain, was set up by a handful of intellectuals and pacifists in 1958. The movement grew rapidly out of the control of its launchers, and at Easter 1960 and 1961 about a hundred thousand people took part in the marches from Aldermaston – most of them young and a significant proportion working class. At the Scarborough Labour Party Conference in 1960 a resolution for unilateral disarmament was carried against the resistance of the Party leader, Gaitskell, and the right-wing platform.

Most important of all, the demonstrations and local CND groups provided an initiation into politics for a whole new generation of young people. Most of them had little experience of the Labour Party, though some of them later moved into its youth movement. The Communist Party, too, was absent in the early years of the Campaign, arguing that it was ‘divisive’. [12]

Of course it couldn’t last long. The 1961 Labour Party Conference saw the machine get back on top, and with the approach of a General Election the Labour Left began to retreat in the name of ‘unity’. By 1963 the Campaign was definitely on the decline.

For the Socialist Review group this new upsurge offered the chance to break out of the routine of Labour Party and trade union work. Without abandoning its fundamental orientation on the working class, Socialist Review (now printed fortnightly) tried to find an audience among those newly radicalised by the CND.

Socialist Review’s rejection of capitalism East and West – summed up in the slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism’ – clearly meant that it condemned equally British, American and Russian H-bombs. This distinguished it from the Communist Party, and from certain ‘orthodox’ Trotskyist groupings – notably the SLL – which argued that the Soviet possession of H-bombs (and by implication their possible use against Western workers) was somehow different. The Socialist Review position was certainly closer to the impulsive reactions of the majority of CND supporters, even if most of them did not have a very clear analysis to back it up. As a result of its politics and activity, the Socialist Review group was able, in the early sixties, to recruit a new set of cadres to supplement the small number who had survived the pressures of the fifties.

But while Socialist Review supporters were active in all the work of CND, they were also concerned to direct the campaign towards the working class, the only force that could actually win the fight against war. The newly launched journal International Socialism (1960) welcomed the unilateralist victory at Scarborough, but pointed out that the Party machine could easily reverse the decision unless it was concretely related to the industrial struggle:

The Left is in no position to face Gaitskell’s machine with one of its own. Our organisational resources reflect our weakness in policy magnified by the greater stress we place on convictions and on the spontaneous recruitment of people to implement them. Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life on which workers have shown unshakeable convictions to the point of heroism.

From this angle, it is significant that those sectors of workers that have been engaged in industrial struggle latterly – railwaymen, engineers, transport workers – are in general the most outspokenly unilateralist. It is even more significant that the Central London busmen, highly critical as they are of Cousins’ leadership on industrial matters, are solidly behind him on the Bomb issue. It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle. [13]

It is against the background of the growth of the CND that the decision by the Labour Party, in February 1960, to launch a new national youth movement, the Young Socialists, must be seen. The Labour leaders were deeply distressed by a decade out of office, a continuing inability to attract young voters, and the sight of thousands of energetic young potential canvassers wasting their time on anti-Bomb marches. They had no affection for youth movements, which were traditionally inclined to be well to the left of the Party. The League of Youth had been disbanded in 1955, and since then the local youth sections had deteriorated, so that by the late fifties there were probably only around four thousand members, mainly middle class.

So the bureaucrats gritted their teeth and launched the Young Socialists – and moreover gave it a relatively liberal constitution. In the short term it paid off – by the Spring of 1961 Transport House was claiming 726 YS branches, and the first national conference had over three hundred delegates. There was a large new pool of fresh fish, and every Trotskyist grouping in existence was getting its fishing rod ready.

The Socialist Review group’s intervention was through a paper called Young Guard. This was not the sole property of Socialist Review, it came into existence as a broad front of left tendencies within the Young Socialists. It first appeared in September 1961, following the fusion of two papers, Rebel and Rally, and was also supported by a group of young socialists who had been involved in the apprentices’ strike of 1960, mainly from Glasgow, and by a number of Tribunites and CND supporters. But Socialist Review provided the editor, and increasingly came to dominate the political line. The paper had a democratic constitution, and its columns reflected a wide range of views on political and cultural matters. The letters column debated such questions as whether Cuba was socialist and what should be a socialist’s attitude to religion.

It was part of the success of Young Guard that it was able to break out of the traditional milieu of revolutionary politics. The cultural atmosphere around Young Guard – characterised mainly by beer-drinking and folk-singing – may not have met the approval of revolutionary purists or puritans, but it enabled a new generation of young workers to move towards the traditions of Marxist politics.

But Young Guard did not merely adapt to a milieu; it also fought to relate this milieu to the class struggle. The young people who were turning to socialism in this period were mainly worker – manual or white-collar – but they had no traditions of trade union organisation. The typical political evolution of a young comrade at this time was as follows: first get involved in CND demonstrations, then join the Young Socialists, and, via Young Guard, come into IS. It was probably only after this that the comrade was persuaded of the importance of going to his union branch meeting. Recruits were being made on the basis of ideas rather than activity – indeed, IS did not have activity of its own as distinct from participating in the activities of the Young Socialists and CND. And the process was not, in strict terms, a radicalisation inside the Labour Party. Those who came to IS at this time were not longstanding Labour Party members, but young people who had come in around the CND mobilisation.

Despite the absence of any real links with the trade union movement, Young Guard tried to relate the political and industrial struggles. Throughout its existence it gave central importance to the apprentices’ movement, and the various struggles that developed between 1960 and 1965 for better pay, shorter hours, longer holidays, day-release and negotiating rights for apprentices. Despite the intrinsic difficulties of organising apprentices, and the confusion caused by various political tendencies trying to take over the movement, the apprentices’ struggles provided a vital bridge between the political and economic fights, and helped to save Young Guard from sinking into a morass of sectarianism.

For, from the very outset, the Young Socialists was a cockpit of embittered factional dispute. The main responsibility for this lay on the Labour Party bureaucrats in Transport House, who, hypersensitive about their electoral image, clamped down on left-wingers in the Young Socialists with proscriptions, expulsions and closures of branches.

But some share of the blame lies also on Young Guard’s main political rival in the Young Socialists, Keep Left. Keep Left had the same politics as the Socialist Labour League (already proscribed by the Labour Party) and was eventually itself proscribed. The politics of Keep Left and the SLL differed from those of IS [14] on a number of specific points. These included the Russian question; the SLL’s belief that Russia was a degenerate workers’ state led it to argue that Russian H-Bombs and even Russian nuclear tests were somehow a gain for the working class. Their perspective led them to see every flicker of the economy as an indication of impending slump and every outburst of racialism as an omen of imminent fascism.

But even more important than particular positions was the SLL’s style of politics. A concern about the need for leadership was transformed into a belief that the fight for leadership consisted of proclaiming the correctness of one’s own positions. This led at best to severe sectarianism making any practical co-operation impossible, at worst to a form of megalomania which put the SLL at the centre of the political universe:

From Transport House and the Communist Party headquarters at King Street, down to the much smaller groups of Mr Cliff and his so-called Socialist Review state capitalists and the tiny Pabloite fragments, there is unanimous agreement that the Socialist Labour League should be destroyed. [15]

IS comrades generally responded with a healthy, if ribald, cynicism. But any hope of a united struggle against the right wing was destroyed. By 1964 the factionalism had grown so poisonous that it threatened the very existence of the Young Socialists. Keep Left and Young Guard supporters could not meet without accusations of ‘political scabbing’, ‘collaboration with the right wing’, and so on. Whereas a couple of years earlier the Young Socialists had been a place where young people could receive a first introduction to revolutionary politics, a Young Socialists meeting was now such as to frighten away for life any uninitiated youth who might happen to stray in by accident.

In the end the Young Socialists tore itself to pieces much more effectively than the right wing could have done. Keep Left walked out just before the 1964 election, and the repeated rumours that the Young Socialists would be dissolved never materialised; it simply faded and became a rump.

For IS the experience in the Young Socialists had produced a qualitative advance. The group had grown numerically and by 1964 it had topped the two hundred mark. Even more important, the new recruits had played a leading role in what was, albeit briefly, a mass movement. They had rapidly acquired a degree of political sophistication, in some ways an excessive one.

The comrades also had to fight against a number of other currents of thought which, in general, stemmed from a sense of defeatism at the weakness of the left. For example, IS engaged in a polemic with the group which published The Week (forerunner of the IMG) about whether Marxists should give unqualified opposition to incomes policy. The Week argued that the left must not isolate itself from those workers who had illusions in the Labour Government and called IS’s uncompromising hostility to all incomes policies ‘sectarian’:

The left must find a way of opposing the incomes policy with slogans which will appear reasonable to those sections of workers. With due humility we would again put forward our particular slogan: “No negotiations on an incomes policy until the books are open to the workers”. [16]

it claimed.

Another manifestation of this defeatism was the ‘Third Worldism’ which flourished in many parts of the left. The dramatic struggles in Algeria, Cuba, etc became a substitute for the more down-to-earth tasks faced at home. New Left Review [17] published an article on The Third World by one Keith Buchanan. After praising the ‘royal socialism’ of Cambodia, Buchanan – writing from the vantage-point of a professorship in New Zealand – declared:

Having tasted the delights of affluence, European workers have tended to become “embourgeoisé” and ever more Europo-centric and parochial in their attitudes. A Fanon may cry that the well-being and progress of Europe have been built with the sweat and corpses of black man and yellow man, Indian and Arab – but the cry is unheard amid the distractions of a new and delightful opulence.;

Others, who attached some importance to Marxist orthodoxy, did not feel able to abandon the working class so lightly. Instead they solved the problem by changing the meanings of words so that a state established by a peasant-based national liberation struggle became a ‘workers’ state’:

The Algerian revolution has in reality entered into its decisive phase. Whilst revolutionary measures increase in the direction of a transformation of the country into a state having the economic and social structure of a workers’ state, the threats against the internal and external revolutionaries are becoming clearer. [18]

IS was certainly not free from tactical errors in this period; but the emphases and analyses derived from its basic theory enabled it to escape the more obvious pitfalls.

It was during this time that the political and organisational style which was to characterise IS began to develop. This had two main features. The first was a sense of proportion, of the relative insignificance of IS as an organisation. When IS had two hundred members, and the SLL, at best, twice that many, the question at stake was not the ‘crisis of leadership’, the struggle for control between groups of which 98 per cent of workers had never heard. It was the much more modest task of educating those who were around to listen and of striking roots in the class in a small way where this was possible.

IS members in this period were well aware of their own insignificance. (The present writer remembers posting the entire out-of-London circulation of Labour Worker in a pillar-box in Finsbury Park). Indeed, one of the things that distinguished IS from most other revolutionary groupings at the time was an ability to look at itself with a sense of humour, at times a self-deprecating one.

The second feature was an awareness that the revolutionary organisation had to be built inside the working class and not in isolation from it. The question was one of involving and developing comrades, not of building walls to preserve the purity of the embryonic party. Hence the flexible attitude to membership taken by the IS group. New comrades were involved in activity, participated in meetings and – somewhat unsystematically – were introduced to the group’s political positions. This was important in that the comrades, while being aware that they were in a tiny minority, felt themselves part of a broader movement – CND or Labour Party left – and thus never had the sense of isolation from reality so easily generated by sectarian politics.

But these positive characteristics had their negative aspect. It was from these years that IS members inherited a somewhat libertarian attitude to organisation, a tendency to distrust discipline or any kind of formalised or centralised structure. As the situation changed over the following years one of the obstacles IS had to overcome was the libertarianism of its own traditions.

Although the youth movement was at the centre of the arena during this period, IS never dropped its concern with the industrial struggle. More workers were being recruited to IS, though they were being recruited as individuals on the basis of general politics rather than on the basis of an industrial strategy, and most of them were too young to have any decisive influence at their place of work. But for the future they provided the basis for a new industrial cadre. .

The industrial orientation was also encouraged by the launching, in 1961, of a new paper, Industrial Worker, soon to be renamed Labour Worker, intended to be more agitational, more geared to ongoing industrial struggles, than Socialist Review had been. It was uneven in quality, and sometimes seemed to consist of nothing more than a series of strike reports. But at best it was lively and contained a significant number of articles by industrial militants (for example, the March 1964 issue contained signed articles by members of the TGWU [two], ETU and UPW). Its politics – unconditional support for unofficial strikes and total opposition to incomes policy even under a Labour government – distinguished it from most other publications on the left.

By 1964 Labour Worker had achieved a circulation of over 2,000, and in April 1964 the first Labour Worker conference was held in London, attracting about 150 people. [19] This put the main stress on the coming Labour government and the threat of incomes policy. Steps were being taken to prepare for the struggles to come.

1964–67: The Labour Government

THE ELECTION of a Labour Government in 1964 was greeted with considerable enthusiasm by ordinary members of the labour movement, who had endured 13 years of Tory rule, and now hoped, not for the socialist millenium, but at least for some radical reforms. Paradoxically, Labour’s arrival in power was also welcomed by large sections of the ruling class, basically because they hoped that Labour might be able to impose a successful incomes policy and keep the trade unions in their place. Clearly there was a contradiction here; and though Wilson was able to, obtain a massive victory in the 1966 election, the contradictions could not be permanently suppressed.

Incomes policy itself had been on the cards for quite a long time, but even many pro-Labour trade unionists could not stomach the forms it took. Many more of Wilson’s supporters were alienated by his vicious red-baiting attacks on the striking seamen in 1966, by the tightening up of immigration controls, and by the fawning support for US policy in Vietnam.

Since long before Labour came to power, IS had taken a firm position of unconditional opposition to all incomes policy under capitalism. This position left it almost completely isolated from the rest of the left. For example, at a Conference organised by the Institute for Workers’ Control in April 1964, the two IS members present were the only people to take a position of all-out opposition to incomes policy.

The importance of incomes policy was that it posed a direct threat to the forms of organisation that British workers had developed during the fifties. The shift from national to localised bargaining, with the consequent growth in importance of shop-floor organisation as against the trade union bureaucracies, had led to a rise in self-confidence among workers, but also to a fragmentation and relative lack of interest in broader political issues. But if the Labour government was to have an incomes policy, it had to take on the strength of the shop-floor organisations; and whether workers wanted politics or not, they were going to have politics rammed down their throats.

The most obvious organisation to give a lead in industry was the Communist Party, which ever since the Second World War had maintained a significant influence among industrial militants. But the Communist Party was in difficulties. It had already suffered serious blows in the mid-fifties at the time of the Hungarian Revolution, and though it had regained members in the early sixties, its composition had become more middle class. Now it was inhibited from an all-out fight against the Labour government by two factors. Firstly, a number of its members and supporters had won high places in the trade union bureaucracy. The Party was not prepared to defend shop-floor organisation to the extent of offending its friends in the bureaucracy. Secondly, the Party was committed to a strategy of strengthening the left wing in the Labour Party and thus pushing Labour to the left. At a time when the Labour ‘lefts’ were moving right as fast as they could, this was a difficult strategy to carry through. In any case it prevented the Party from trying to mobilise the industrial opposition to Wilson and turn it into an independent political force.

As a result many Communist Party militants became disillusioned with the Party. Even if they did not actually leave the Party, they tended to act more and more on their own initiative rather than in a co-ordinated way. A few turned to Maoism for an alternative, though this usually led to the sterile dead-end of competing splinter groups.

Of course IS was in no position to take over from the Communist Party. But the new situation did open up the possibility for IS to transform itself, providing it was ready to radically change its style of work.

This meant a reassessment of the group’s strategic orientation to the Labour Party. All along IS had pointed to the limits of Labour Party work. Workers were getting less and less interested in the traditional reformist organisations as their shop-floor power grew. IS had given little credence to the view that a revolutionary party could be built within the Labour Party, or by a split within that Party.

At the very same time, since the opportunities for trade union work were very limited for most comrades, the Labour Party – and especially the Young Socialists – had been seen as a milieu where revolutionaries could operate, and make contact with at least some of the more class conscious workers who were around. IS members fought for their ideas in the Labour Party and to earn the right to criticise they canvassed, collected subs, organised bazaars and participated, somewhat cynically, in the whole unpolitical routine of local Labour Party life.

As the anti-working-class nature of the Labour government became clear to more and more of its former supporters, the Labour Party as a membership organisation went into even sharper decline. Many Party activists left the Party (for example, in the London Borough of Haringey, no less than six Labour councillors resigned from the Party in the period from 1966 to 1968). But in the absence of any focus to attract them, there was no possibility of an effective left regroupment.

In short, the situation was one of crumbling rather than of split, and an appropriate response was called for. A simple decision to quit the Labour Party on a given day would have been easy but mistaken. There were huge differences between the active left-wing Labour Parties in some areas and the moribund or openly racialist parties in others; the pace of disillusion varied from one individual to another; and the situation was complicated by the fact that, following the departure of Keep Left, Young Guard found itself the effective leadership of the – admittedly much diminished – Young Socialists, and the comrades were, quite rightly, reluctant to abandon this role.

What was needed was a thorough-going reorientation of the group. An IS Conference in July 1965 carried the following resolution:

The IS Group rejects the Labour Party as an instrument for social change; rejects it as a milieu for mass conversion to socialist consciousness; and sees in it primarily an arena for ideological conflict, a link to a living working-class audience and a source of individual recruitment to a revolutionary programme.

What this meant on the ground was spelled out in an article in Labour Worker:

The plain truth is, that only a small minority of Labour’s millions are in any way politically active, and a large percentage of the active are masochistically obsessed with the tote tickets and marking up electoral registers ...

Obviously Marxists should take those positions which give access to the direct workers’ organisations. But in the wards and GMCs the practice of buying the right to discuss politics by overfulfilling the canvassing norms, should cease or be reduced to the minimum. For the left the Labour Party is a platform for political discussion and the winning over of individuals to a revolutionary programme. [20]

But a phased withdrawal from the Labour Party was only half the story. The struggle in Britain was fragmented, and revolutionaries had to find their way into the fragments.

The main struggle was to be in industry, and here the IS group’s forces were still pitifully weak. There was hardly any union where IS comrades were able to intervene. In the AEU there were a number of experienced militants but they were almost all concentrated in one factory – ENV in North London. The left in the AEU was on the ascendant, preparing to replace the right-wing Carron with Hugh Scanlon, but at the same time they were in some confusion, following Reg Birch’s break with the Communist Party.

It was out of this base in the AEU that the most significant intervention in the industrial field arose. The convenor of ENV, Geoff Mitchell, was involved in a legal dispute, and following action to support him, the ENV Shop Stewards Committee decided to broaden out the struggle and convened a meeting to launch the London Shop Stewards Defence Committee. The meeting was held on 16 January 1966 and attracted some two hundred people, about three quarters of them industrial workers, from 23 different unions.

The platform speakers included two IS members from ENV, Geoff Mitchell and Geoff Carlsson, and another IS member, Jim Higgins of the POEU. There were also two Communist Party members – Reg Birch, an AEU Divisional Organiser and long-standing Communist Party militant, now severely critical of the Party’s parliamentarism, and Jim Hiles, chairman of the building workers’ Joint Sites Committee.

The resolution unanimously adopted by the meeting was remarkable in bringing together what were to be the main issues facing British workers over the coming decade:

This Conference of rank and file Trade Unionists is deeply perturbed at the proposed, and actual, intervention by the Government into established wage negotiations.

We equally deprecate the threats of legislation against the Trade Unionists and rank and file militants who have been mainly responsible over the past years in improving the wages and conditions in Industry.

We are opposed to the Government’s Incomes Policy which has nothing in common with Socialist planning; as likewise we are opposed to those Trade Union Officials who support the Government on these issues.

It is our belief that the so-called Incomes Policy, the threats of legislation and the interference in wage negotiations can only strengthen the Employers in their efforts to smash the Shop Stewards and the rank and file movements.

The ability of IS comrades to take the initiative in helping to launch a venture of this sort was an important indication of the group’s development. But the venture itself was in some senses premature. The SSDC (and the counterparts set up in other parts of the country) aimed to unite a rank and file movement which did not yet exist. A general cross-union body of this sort is meaningful only if it brings together rank and file currents in a number of unions and industries. And in 1965 such currents did not exist. The SSDC itself was relatively short-lived, though its influence in inspiring other initiatives cannot be ignored.

One important thing which the London SSDC did achieve was the publication of the book Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards. It was written by two IS members, Tony Cliff and Colin Barker, and had an introduction by Reg Birch, written between his break with the Communist Party and his retreat into sectarian Maoism.

The book set out in a clear and non-sectarian manner the main lines of the analysis IS had been developing over the previous couple of years. It began with a general consideration of the economic situation that had led the ruling class to start imposing incomes policy. It then looked at the existing situation on the wages front and in particular showed the importance of the phenomenon of wage drift in the preceding period. It contrasted the role of shop stewards with the full-time union officials who were shown to be becoming increasingly conservative and impotent. Finally it looked at the pattern of strikes over the preceding period, in which working-class strength had been reflected by the predominance of short, unofficial and generally successful strikes, and predicted that with the introduction of legislation against trade union rights the situation would have to change.

The book closed with a call to action, stressing the need for ‘a political as well as an industrial response’.

The first essential task for any worker is that of ensuring that his own immediate organisation is in fighting shape; that every factory and place of work has a joint stewards’ committee (including all stewards regardless of their union membership, and covering white-collar workers like draughtsmen too); that every company with different factories is covered by combined stewards’ committees to co-ordinate activities and prevent "splitting" activities by the employers. More broadly, the rank and file must find forms of organisation – area rank-and-file committees, etc, – that can do the job the Trades Councils used to do. Only the new organisations must be based on the factories rather than on geographical place of residence.

Most of these tendencies are in their infancy, but the threat to the shop stewards is now so acute that the implementation of these basic tasks must be accelerated and largely achieved in a relatively short time, creating the conditions for the formation of a national shop stewards’ movement – an idea which, since the First World War, has existed almost solely in the minds of some of those whom Harold Wilson calls “wreckers” and whom we see as the potential builders of the mightiest socialist movement yet in the history of Britain. [21]

The Incomes Policy book was an important step forward for IS. It was sold systematically by a process of visiting any discoverable contact in the labour movement. It was widely read and appreciated by militants and enabled IS to be recognised as part of a real movement, rather than as a group of talented but isolated theoreticians. But the very fact that the group was now engaged in the real world made it susceptible to defeat, and a very real defeat soon followed.

As has already been mentioned, one of IS’s few industrial roots was in the North West London engineering factory ENV. ENV had been known as a militant factory since the early fifties, and had an excellent record for wages and conditions. It had a strong and democratic shop stewards’ organisation. But if ENV was an excellent example of working class strength in the fifties, it also shared the weaknesses. ENV was more or less isolated from neighbouring factories. Indeed, most of them probably felt a sense of jealousy at ENV’s superior conditions.

For a long time the Communist Party had held the political leadership of the factory. Geoff Carlsson, a founder member of the Socialist Review group, had been a steward for many years, but it was only in the mid-sixties, following internal disputes and demoralisation in the Communist Party, that he was able to attract other stewards towards IS politically. By 1966, about the time of the founding of the SSDC, it was possible to establish an IS branch at ENV – IS’s first factory branch, and a relatively strong one, having about 12 members, including the convenor and several stewards.

But by this time the whole organisation was under attack. The Labour Government’s general attack on workers was being paralleled by employers’ moves to smash shop-floor organisation in various factories. ENV had been taken over by an American company. After attempts to introduce work study and productivity bargaining, the management launched an all-out assault on the various agreements established by the workers over the previous 20 years, and then, in 1966, announced that the factory would be closed. Despite the long record of militancy, the stewards were unable to mobilise an effective struggle against the closure, and eventually the leading IS militants were sacked. After this the management announced that the factory would remain open with a reduced labour force. [22]

The ENV defeat had some important lessons for IS. Firstly, it showed that in the changed situation, militancy and organisation within one workplace was going to be increasingly inadequate. Secondly, it suggested that in a quite legitimate reaction against substitutionist notions of ‘leadership’, IS had gone too far. The question of political leadership would have to be taken more seriously.

The rest of IS’s industrial intervention in this period was largely from the outside. And although the Labour Government’s policies were raising the political level, most struggles were still localised and fragmentary. This enabled IS comrades in the localities to intervene, even if the intervention was often at the level of turning duplicator handles and mobilising support for mass pickets.

IS members gave continuing support to the long strike of building workers on the Myton’s site at the Barbican, London, in 1967, where management made a consistent attempt to smash all union organisation on the site. IS comrades participated in several mass pickets, including the one in October 1967 when there were sharp clashes with the police during which 24 arrests were made (about one third of those arrested were IS comrades).

Another strike around which IS comrades organised in 1967 was that at the Roberts-Arundel textile machinery factory in Stockport. This was an official strike in defence of union organisation, but much of the most dynamic solidarity action – including demonstrations of several hundred workers and clashes with the police – was organised independently of the official machine.

In these disputes, and many similar if less dramatic ones which took place up and down the country, active participation enabled good contacts to be made and a few recruits won.

Another area of work which enabled IS to begin implanting itself in the working class was the tenants struggle. Some struggles were against private landlords. For example, the Islington branch of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (a body set up in 1965 to counter growing manifestations of racialism) with full and active participation of IS members, organised a campaign in 1966 against Mrs De Lusignan. This lady was the owner of some 25 houses in North London, mainly occupied by black people, notorious for high rents and bad conditions; she further aggravated the situation by describing her tenants as ‘Rubbish People’. A demonstration achieved both considerable publicity and some reduction in the rents. Though the issue was highly localised, it provided an example of a situation where IS intervention could actually make some difference and thus help to sink roots for the organisation.

More widespread was action on council rents. The Labour Government had decided to cut housing subsidies, and thereby force dramatic rent increases. In many big cities it was Labour councils who had to carry through the increases.

The experience of the North London borough of Haringey may serve as an example of the type of intervention IS members were able to make. When the Council announced rent increases in March 1967, IS had not a single council tenant in the area. It did, however, have a number of reasonably well-known Labour Party activists. These, together with other sympathetic Labour left-wingers, including four councillors, signed a public statement to the press deploring the increases. This incurred the wrath of the Labour Party, but enabled the setting up of an Action Committee which held meetings on the estates, distributed leaflets and circulated a petition. As a result Tenants’ Associations were set up on most estates, and the Action Committee itself disappeared in favour of a Federation of Tenants’ Associations. The movement culminated with a lobby of the Council by about 500 people; a few minor concessions were gained. While IS clearly could not take all the credit, the movement would almost certainly not have developed in the same way without IS intervention.

The period 1964–67 saw IS take a decisive step away from being a mere propaganda group. Indeed, in purely propaganda terms there was a scaling down of activity. The decision to make Labour Worker a fortnightly from January 1965 was a mistake; despite some lively issues, the paper was scrappy and often irrelevant to the changed activity of the group. The paper improved markedly after the return to monthly publication in late 1966.

But the changed style of activity did present serious problems. As long as IS was within the Labour Party there was a framework within which specific issues could be related to each other. Racialism, foreign policy, housing, education and incomes policy could all be located in the context of a struggle against the Party’s right wing.

Without the Labour Party to serve as a focus, there was a tendency for IS comrades to see each struggle in isolation, to submerge themselves in a particular ‘fragment’ and postpone the question of generalisation to a remote future.

Essentially this was a healthy situation. After 1964 there were two main dangers for IS. One was ‘resolutionary socialism’, a concentration on preserving political purity by passing correct resolutions in the GMCs. The other danger was syndicalism. In the short term this was a lesser evil, since it meant that IS was able to begin to immerse itself in the working class. To use a much overworked metaphor of Lenin’s, the stick had to be bent. [23]

By the end of 1967 the membership had increased slowly but significantly – over 400 as against 200-odd when Labour came to power. More important, it was a membership geared, not simply to arguing the line, but. to making interventions, albeit usually very low-level ones, and to servicing the ongoing struggle. Without the base, and even more importantly, the orientation established in this period, the breakthrough of 1968 could not have taken place.


1. 6 April 1957.

2. For a fuller treatment of the questions see D. Hallas, Building the Leadership (IS 40), and Fourth International in Decline (IS 60); also The Origins of the International Socialists (London 1971).

3. The theory is expounded most fully in T. Cliff, Russia, A Marxist Analysis (London 1974) (an expansion of the original document from 1948). A shorter and more readable account is C. Harman, The Eastern Bloc in World Crisis, (London 1971).

4. Cf. Origins of the International Socialists, pp.49–62, 96–7, 102.

5. Editorial, Socialist Review, Vol. 1 No. 6, November–December 1951.

6. Socialist Review, Vol. 1 No. 4, May 1951.

7. 9–10 December 1950. Where no published source is given for quotations, they are taken from unpublished minutes and internal documents of the organisation.

8. Most fully expounded in M. Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War, London 1968.

9. T. Cliff, Socialist Review, May 1957.

10. Marx & Engels, Selected Correspondence, p. 326.

11. 19 September, 10 November.

12. See Zigzag: The CP and the Bomb in IS 3.

13. IS 3, Editorial.

14. The name of the group was changed from Socialist Review to International Socialism in 1962.

15. Labour Review, Summer 1962.

16. 29 October, 1964.

17. January–February 1963.

18. M. Pablo in L’Internationale – organ of the Fourth International.

19. Labour Worker, May 1964.

20. Jim Higgins, Labour Worker, September 1965.

21. Incomes Policy Legislation and Shop Stewards (London 1966), p.136.

22. For a full account and analysis, see J. Rosser & C. Barker, The ENV Story (IS 31).

23. Cf. T. Cliff, From Marxist Circle to Agitation (IS 52).

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Last updated: 16.9.2012