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.
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