IS in the 60s: Building a revolutionary group from the ground up

How can revolutionaries build an organisation from sometimes tiny beginnings? Over the next four days we’ll be publishing an interview with Colin Barker by Colin Wilson that provides some answers to that crucial question. Colin Barker joined the International Socialists (IS) while at Oxford University in the early 60s, and played a key role in building the group in Manchester. His experiences are relevant and inspiring for anyone building the left today – but they also took place in a very different world, where strikes were commonplace, the Communist Party dominated the left and the role of women in the movement involved making the tea.

Today’s piece describes how IS grew from tiny beginnings at Oxford University, and what drew people to the group.

ISCovers

When did you join the IS and why?

I was a student at Oxford. In my second year, 1962, it so happened, a complete accident, there were two members in my college of the IS (at that time still known as the Socialist Review Group), the only ones in Oxford. My first encounter with them happened because I wore a CND badge. I didn’t do anything, I didn’t go on marches, but I wore a badge because I was just horrified by the bomb. So Dave Peers came and knocked on my door and said “would you like a copy of International Socialism magazine?” I said “no, thank you!” and shut the door.

But there was a room attached to the library where you could smoke, and that’s where all the political discussions took place. And within a few weeks I had bought the IS journal, and read it, and re-read it – I think it was number six, there was a debate between Kidron and some others on reform and revolution.

I thought this was fantastic. I didn’t know anything about politics, my parents were liberals, Liberal voters, the first political thing I did anything about was the campaign against capital punishment. Anyway, I chatted to them – my vision of communism was of people who’d want to attach electrodes to my genitals, I talked to them and they told me about the theory of state capitalism, Russia is in no way socialist, it’s the opposite of socialism. Well, that made sense. Here’s a different vision of socialism. And then comes the crunching argument – if you want to get rid of the bomb, you have to get rid of the society that produces it. So I’ve heard these two really good arguments and I got more and more interested and eventually I said, in a very hesitant way, “would it be all right if I came to one of your meetings?” I wasn’t dragged along, I solicited permission.

I went to a meeting in Alasdair MacIntyre’s rooms – Alasdair MacIntyre gave a talk without notes for forty minutes about C. Wright Mills, who had just died – Mills was an eminent American radical sociologist. I’d never heard of C. Wright Mills. I just sat there, I never said a word, I thought “Christ, these people are clever. I want more.”

Alasdair McIntyre, in the 60s an IS member, later rejected Marxism and is best known as a philosopher

So, over the course of the next year, I joined the IS. I’d become increasingly convinced that I was a revolutionary socialist, though I didn’t know much. I remember asking Alasdair MacIntyre in the summer of ’62 what I could read about socialism. He gave me some pamphlets by someone from Solidarity which was Chris Pallis’s group – Socialisme ou Barbarie, Castoriadis, that sort of stuff. All about self-emancipation.

Socialisme ou Barbarie were a French socialist group which existed from 1948 to 1965 and stressed the importance of workers’ self-emancipation

So he didn’t give you IS pamphlets, pamphlets by Cliff?

There weren’t any. We had hardly any literature. We had Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia. We had Cliff’s book on Rosa Luxemburg. We had a quarterly magazine, International Socialism, which had just been re-started. That was it. We’d just given up the paper Socialist Review – later on we had a paper called Labour Worker. It was quite hard to get hold of Marxist literature. You had to go to the Communist Party bookshop and buy your editions of Marx and Engels and Lenin, which I regularly did.

Tony Cliff was one of the founders of the IS/SWP, and the single most important figure in its history.

In any case, Cliff regularly read Solidarity – he got a lot of ideas from them. The stuff about rank and file activity, the rank and file against the bureaucracy and so on. Solidarity used to make fun of us, but there wasn’t a clear ideological divide between them and us. A few years later there was a debate, with Alasdair MacIntyre representing the IS and Chris Pallis for Solidarity. Mike Kidron turned up at this debate, and said “it’s a pity there are two speakers for the same position.” MacIntyre was closer to Solidarity than what was very unclearly understood to be the IS position – but the IS position was unclear. Cliff’s book on Rosa Luxemburg, which was very influential for my generation, argued in the first edition that Luxemburg had been more correct than Lenin on the question of organisation. In the second edition, after the May 68 events, Cliff just reversed the position in the appropriate paragraph. There is an edition where you can actually see this because the typeface is different. He’s just inserted the opposite point of view.

So what distinguished IS from other groups at the time? Why did people join?

I think because we were lively. We were humorous, I think that’s very important – the tone was set by people like Cliff and Kidron above all, and they were funny. That was very necessary. Remember that alongside us was a much bigger group, the SLL, Gerry Healy’s lot, and they were “Bolsheviks” – we were almost defining ourselves against the SLL. They were “proletarian revolutionaries”. They were incredibly dogmatic. They used physical violence against their dissident members – when he was asked why he’d left the SLL, MacIntyre said “because I didn’t want to get beaten up.”

The Socialist Labour League (SLL) continued to exist, as the Workers Revolutionary Party, until it collapsed in the 1980s after Gerry Healy was accused of sexually assaulting dozens of female members.

So we were revolutionaries, but we made mock of people who claimed to be the party, the leadership. We laughed at ideas of leadership. We were state caps, that was one of the things. We had a clear line on Russia. It was nothing to do with socialism, it wasn’t a degenerated workers’ state. That was a position, of course, which Cliff had developed from the 1940s, through much personal agony – it took him six months to make up his mind. The position of the SLL was that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state and you must defend it. I remember there was a satirical song about their position:

Then raise the workers’ bomb on high,
Beneath its cloud we’ll gladly die,
For though it sends us all to hell,
It kills the ruling class as well.

We just adopted that song, we thought it completely expressed our politics. So “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” was a founding proposition.

So, there were three or four members of IS in my last year as an undergraduate. Then I stayed on as a postgraduate for another year, and in that year we got to twelve members, and it was a pretty impressive roster of members – Richard Kirkwood, Merilyn Moos, Richard Hyman, Ian Birchall, Peter Binns, Sandra Peers, Dave Peers, Richard Condon.  The SLL didn’t really exist in Oxford. We were the predominant revolutionary group among the students.

All the political debates happened in the framework of the Labour Club, and we managed to persuade the committee of the Labour Club to invite Mike Kidron to speak. So Anthony Crosland was down to speak one week, and the next week the title was Mike Kidron: Crosland Refuted. Mike said to me, “go to Crosland’s meeting and just write down everything he says, send it to me.” So I went to Crosland’s meeting, and Crosland was ill. In his place came Tony Benn, Anthony Wedgwood Benn MP, who was of course on the right wing of the party at the time. He was extremely charming and very relaxed, but he didn’t say a word of general politics, he talked about how if a Labour government got elected he hoped to be the Postmaster General – which was the job he did get – and how he was going to introduce seats in Post Office vans in villages, thereby solving the problem of rural transport with one blow. That was the extent of his reformism. So I had to say to Kidron, “I’m very sorry about this, but Crosland never came.”

Anthony  Crosland was a leading figure of the Labour right.

So Kidron came the following week to talk about Crosland Refuted, and there were a lot of Croslandites in the Labour Club, all of them wanting to be Labour MPs and God knows what. Mike was absolutely brilliant – he started off by saying “Now I’m going to present the ideas of Anthony Crosland to you, and then I’ll stop, and you can tell me if I’ve got anything wrong.” So he spent the first twenty minutes laying out Crosland’s ideas, and the Croslandites said “yes, that’s what he says” – then he did a demolition job for the next twenty minutes. They were very impressed. [Part of Kidron’s critique of Anthony Crosland is available at www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1963/xx/bright.htm]

So we were intellectually hegemonic on the left, this little group, within the tiny world of the Oxford University Labour Club. As regards industrial workers, the entire time I was in Oxford, I couldn’t have told you where the car factory even was. We never had any connections outside the university. When I came to Manchester in the autumn of ’63 it was different.

Tomorrow: building a group from scratch in Manchester – making links with engineers and building workers – campaigning against police racism

There are 8 comments

  1. Mike

    “The SLL didn’t really exist in Oxford. We were the predominant revolutionary group among the students.”

    “As regards industrial workers, the entire time I was in Oxford, I couldn’t have told you where the car factory even was. We never had any connections outside the university.”

    That needs a bit of fleshing out I think, as the author is talking about 1962-63 and left Oxford subsequently and it doesn’t really tally with what happened very soon afterwards. The final paragraph makes it clear what a subjective experience it was. We need to appreciate the fact that, unlike some other university cities of the time notably Cambridge, there were by that time actually “Two Oxfords” – one comprising the hallowed medieval quadrangless of the University colleges and one comprising the huge industrial car plants of Cowley, employing tens of thousands of workers and expanding rapidly in the post-war economy.

    According to Alan Thornett’s first autobiographical work (“From Militancy to Marxism”, 1987), he was approached in 1963 by a newly formed SLL branch with students and others in it, including historian Michael Woodhouse (later to become author with Brian Pearce of a distinguished set of writings on the history of the CPGB and who at that time lived in Southmoor Road Oxford, distributing the SLL’s journal “Fourth International”).

    Alan Thornett had joined the CPGB in the 1950s and led a large group of CPGB members and worker leaders in the Cowley car factories. In his book, Thornett also mentions that the SLL were building a branch in Oxford at the time he came across Mike Innwood, Adam Westoby, Alan Clinton and George Myers. Thornett goes on to describe how the group of car workers broke from the CPGB and approached Peter Sedgwick to organise a public debate in Oxford between the IS and the SLL leader Gerry Healy. At the conference organised by Socialist Resistance recently on the history of the British left in the 1960s (where David Renton and Ian Birchall spoke), Alan Thornett also said that Cliff himself came to meet the Cowley car workers to try to persuade them to join IS. However, as is well known, by 1964, they rejected Cliff and IS, all joining the SLL and built a very big branch in Oxford with arguably the most significant group of militant and revolutionary working class leaders in British industry at that time and for a long period.

    When I arrived in Oxford in the mid-1970s, the group led by Alan Thornett had just been expelled from the WRP (as the SLL had become) and had formed the Workers Socialist League (mark 1). The IS were used to being the biggest group on the revolutionary left in most university cities and they had been one of the first groups I had encountered. But at that time the WSL were by far the largest group in Oxford, and the IMG (International Marxist Group. Fourth International) were the second largest group with students (some of whom were FI members from other countries giving them a distinctively internationalist profile) and were present in both the University and the Polytechnic (where they led the Students Union, from which IS were entirely absent). Despite the claim that they were an entirely student based organistion at the time, the IMG even had a few industrial workers including a small group in the car factories, at least one of whom was a significant working class militant leader, and a presence on the Trades Council (and later the Labour Party). The IS, shortly to become SWP, were the third largest group and largely isolated and university-based, a situation that was not in accordance with the general experience in other towns and cities. It led to some student-based self-indulgent excesses (for example there was an ultra left walk out by IS/SWP of the significant Oxford Anti Fascist Committee on the grounds that it ‘capitulated to liberal sentiments’ – which caused much amusement when they invited a local vicar to launch the ANL in of all places, that bastion of privilege represented by the Oxford Union!).

    As a left wing student, in my experience it made the IS/SWP quite unattractive, compared to the more dynamic (though different) activities of WSL and IMG.

    These personal histories of the revolutionary left such as the interviews with Colin are extremely interesting and valuable and RS21 is to be congratulated on undertaking a reappraisal of the IS tradition, strengths and weaknesses. I’ve enjoyed reading the interviews. However they are subjective and do also need to be cross-referenced with the experience of others.

  2. Michael Rosen

    My time in Oxford comes exactly between these two testimonies i.e. 65-69. I arrived as a left Labourite with origins in the CP of my parents. I stayed out of politics till about 67 when several things started to happen both around student activity re university organisation, racism (re Powell and a racist hairdressers in town) and industrial re the right of students to take part in town politics. I knew Adam Westoby through his and my parents both being ex-CP-ers, I knew Brian Pearce as he was a lodger in our house when I was a kid having been my father’s best pal at college 1939-1942. The streams of left and marxist politics at this time at the university itself were dominated by three or four tendencies: ‘third worlders’, IS (both Hitchens’ bros being v.active) along with Stephen Marks (who could give all this much more detail), sundry maoists, the ‘weasels’ Ie WDL around Thornett and Westoby, and the CP – most notably one Martin Kettle (!). Debate through 67-69 was pretty fierce and active peaking with the setting up of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation across all campuses with branches in each university….

  3. Mike

    The WSL was not formed until 1974, Michael. Before that point Alan Thornett was in the SLL and (briefly) the WRP which was formed in 1973. Thornett has a chapter in “From Militancy to Marxism” on the SLL in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It it he describes their big growth among industrial workers and how in 1971 they took 150 from Oxford to an SLL event at Alexandra Palace, 50 of whom were workers at the car factory. The ‘Western Area’ of the SLL (Oxford Reading and Swindon) had 500 SLL members then, with around 30 attending the weekly meeting of the Cowley car workers branch, the majority shop stewards or convenors..

    Despite Tariq Ali being their most high profile recruit and a former Oxford student, the IMG didn’t become of significance among Oxford students until the early 1970s, though as the leadership of the VSC it was of national significance. I’ve been told John Ross was recruited while an Oxford student from IS to IMG by Bob Pennington around the end of the 1960s when Bob constantly visited him in hospital; this was much to Bob’s later regret after he saw how Ross turned out, he told me in the 1980s when he returned for a short period to Oxford. Ross might have been a fellow IS contemporary of Michael and Stephen, if only briefly. Ernie Tate’s memoir of the period 1965-1970 has recently been published by Socialist Resistance and is a “cracking good read”. Ernie is still very much alive and well in Canada and came over last year to an excellent SR event.

  4. Di Parkin

    Yes Mike is entirely right. I moved to Oxford in 1973, was a single mother and member of IS. By 1974 I realised that the WSL were the only serious political force, left IS and joined them. I remember WSL classes in Marxist theory at the Tree pub, where over 30 carworkers debated economics, such as the Gold Standard. It was a real worker led organisation and made me understand how the bolsheviks with similar people had made a revolution. Initially WSL held onto old Healyite antipathy to other arenas of struggle, but a number of women suceeded in changing its mind on that and other non workplace issues. We used to hand out leaflets at “The factory” and people formed an orderly queue to take them. The WSL was in and of the class. I regret I left it for madder shores at the end of the decade

  5. Mike

    Thanks Di. Good to hear from you again. The core leadership of the Oxford WSL when it was formed in 1974 are still working together today through Socialist Resistance. After a bad undemocratic experience with the Matgamna grouplet in the 1980s, they fused with a section of the former IMG in the late 1980s to form the ISG, later becoming SR /Fourth International in Britain. It’s one of the few fusions on the British revolutionary left that has stood the test of time. Alan Thornett’s third volume of memoirs about Cowley car workers “Militant Years” was published a few years ago by Resistance Books and is still available. More recently SR have published Ernie Tate’s second volume of memoirs about the British left in the 1960s.
    http://resistancebooks.org/product/militant-years/
    http://resistancebooks.org/product/54/
    These and other SR books will be available at the SR Bookstall at the dayschool on “Imperialism, Globalisation and Climate Change” in London on September 26th (where Alan will also be speaking), and also at the Historical Materialism conference in November, or can be ordered from Resistance Books. Forthcoming books include Bankocracy by Eric Toussaint, Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco’s autobiography and a collection of writings on the far right in Europe.

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