How can revolutionaries build an organisation from sometimes tiny beginnings? In this second part of an interview with Colin Wilson, Colin Barker recalls how IS grew in 1960s Manchester – making links with engineers and building workers, and campaigning against racist police violence.
I came to Manchester in the autumn of ’63. I was the only member in Manchester, the nearest member, Ray Challinor, was in Wigan. I was on my own, and when you’re on your own there’s not much you can do. I organised a meeting about South Africa in the Students Union with two white Communist Party members who had escaped from jail and got out of South Africa, they were touring the country talking about apartheid. We got quite a big meeting, which I persuaded the professor of sociology – who was South African – to chair.
Then the idea came up in the Labour Club – again, I was in the Labour Club – that there should be a public meeting, a debate about “What is Socialism?” with different speakers. I proposed the name of Tony Cliff. There were four speakers: Tony Cliff for the International Socialists, a guy called Ronnie Frankenberg for the Communist Party, Cliff Slaughter for the Socialist Labour League and Brian Manning for the Labour Party. They took them in alphabetical order, so Cliff went first. He did a very simple talk, he took Hal Draper’s idea that there are two souls of socialism and ran with it for ten minutes – we are for socialism from below. He got a terrific round of applause. Cliff Slaughter was heckled by the CP because he spent his time attacking the Communist Party. Brian Manning was incredibly boring – he moved to the left later. I can’t remember a word of what Ronnie Frankenberg said. Anyway, the next night, Cliff stayed over – I slept on the floor and he slept in my bed in my student room – and we had a meeting in my room. I’d invited some friends, and we got three other people to come to the meeting. They sat in a row on the bed and Cliff had the chair. Cliff spoke for an hour. There was discussion, and at the end of it we had a branch of four!
Hal Draper: an American socialist who argued for “socialism from below” as opposed to Stalinism or reformism
So we started having meetings. Basically, we were struggling. What should we talk about? Sometimes, we didn’t really know what we were talking about. But we began to attract other people – one here, one there, that sort of thing. This is all on the basis of ideas, not activity. Cliff said to me, “Colin, you have to get out of the university.” There were two things we did. We heard that there was an apprentices’ strike in Trafford Park, this big industrial estate. Myself and a comrade called Mike went down early in the morning. We got up early and went on the bus with all the workers into Trafford Park, and we went to this cafe where we were told all these apprentices were. We bought a cup of tea, and we sat, and we looked at each other, and we didn’t dare speak to them. We didn’t know how to speak to them. So we bought another cup of tea. Anyway, we went over and said “We’re students from the university and we support you.” They said “would you like a cup of tea?” So we spent a week, going there more or less every day marching around Trafford Park, them trying to pull apprentices out of other factories. We got absolutely nothing out of it – I think we might have sold a couple of copies of Labour Worker – but we’d broken the ice. We didn’t try to argue anything, we were just there being supportive. One of these apprentices said he would take a few copies of the next edition to sell in his workplace. So, fantastic! This is our breakthrough! We had no transport, so I posted him six copies. Then a few days later there was a ring on my doorbell – his father had come over on his bike, handed them back to me and said “he doesn’t want them.” So that was our first attempt to break through to the working class, not very successful.
There wasn’t that much going on in the city. There was a New Left Club which had occasional meetings – I went to those, sometimes with other people in our tiny little branch, and met a few people through that. We decided we should join CND, which was run by the CP, but they were nice people and they were very pleased to see young people coming. We managed to get Mike Kidron invited to talk about the theory of the permanent arms economy, which they did not like at all. They had a university lecturer, an economist, who tried to attack Mike. Then they agreed we could have Nigel Harris speak – they loved Nigel. He had brown skin, and they didn’t have many speakers with brown skin, and he gave them a world survey. They thought he was wonderful.
The “New Left” originated in 1956, when its founders left the CP in protest at its support for the Russian suppression of the revolution in Hungary.
Nigel Harris was a leading member of IS/SWP until the 1980s, and wrote about China and development issues.
So we began to know the odd person here, the odd person there. Then the CND full-time organiser said to me one day, “you’re interested in workers, aren’t you?” So I said yes, and he said “there’s a group of building workers who have started a rank and file newspaper, and they want someone to do the typing for them, would you be interested?” Yes, I would! So I met this small group of half-a-dozen dissident Communist Party members, ex-SLL members, and learned how to drink with building workers – when they ask if you want a drink you say “a half, please!” because they would drink six or eight pints in the course of an evening and really two is my capacity. So I got to know them – I remember I got James Hinton to write a piece about the struggle for workers’ control in the First World War in their rank and file newspaper.
James Hinton: historian, in particular of the labour movement.
So our little branch had gradually got out of the university, and we were now meeting in a grotty pub in the middle of Manchester. By about ’67 we had a group of four or five building workers. The students and building workers got on – the building workers liked the fact that there were girls, we used the word “girls” in those days. We got one member, Jack, to speak to our branch, he was the brickies’ steward on the building on Piccadilly Station Approach, he talked about being a shop steward. He said, “you might think that if you’re a militant in the building industry, you walk on the site, you raise the red flag, everybody rallies round and then you call a strike. It’s not like that. I went on that site and there was already a steward, and he was bloody useless. So I spent the first few weeks going round saying to everyone ‘he’s bloody useless’ and they said ‘well, why don’t you be the steward?’ So I was elected, and then I had to make my mark. So I told all the lads to stay in the cabin, where they kept their street clothes, and I said ‘make a lot of noise.’ Then I went over to see the manager, and said “I can’t control them. We need a broom to sweep the floor in cabin. Can we have a broom?” The manager said, “of course you can.” So then I went back, and said “oh I told him – if you don’t give us a broom…” So gradually, by conniving and deceiving, it became a 100 percent organised site. They got the things they wanted – they never had a strike. He said, it isn’t always a question of strikes. This was a world of funny stories, in the building industry. Jack was celebrated by Jim Allen in a play called The Lump, a social realist TV drama.
Jim Allen, 1926-99, was a socialist playwright from Manchester best known for working with Ken Loach.
And you were all in the Labour Party?
That’s another part of the story. We were in the Labour Party, IS was in the Labour Party. So I joined the local Labour Party In Longsight. It really was three old men and a dog, and one young guy.
Anyway, so we’re now into the second half of the 60s. Two things happened. You don’t ever just do one thing, you do a number of things. There had been a organisation formed called the Campaign against Racial Discrimination. So we joined – well, I did, I was a bit like a full-timer, though I was a post-grad student. A black guy from Moss Side, his brother was arrested and he went into Moss Side police station to ask about his brother, and he came out with a broken nose. There were a whole number of stories about violence against black people in Moss Side, near the centre of Manchester. So myself and another guy from the Campaign against Racial Discrimination – Berry Edwards, he was a former champion weightlifter in Guyana – produced a leaflet calling for a demonstration in Moss Side against police violence. And then the campaign panicked and called it off. The campaign was led by a Methodist minister, and it had in it leading petty bourgeois intellectuals from the Pakistani community and so on, and they didn’t want to have anything to do with having a demonstration against the police. There were two responses to this from the police. In those days, when you produced a leaflet, you put your name and address on it as the publisher, so my name and Berry Edwards’ names appeared. The police raided Berry’s house and frightened his children – they claimed they were looking for drugs. I, however, received a message from an Inspector Fowler, the newly-appointed community relations officer for the Manchester police, who said he would like to meet me. By then I’d just started working at Manchester Poly and I said I would meet him, but in the staff common room at the college, I wasn’t going to meet him in private. He basically attempted to recruit me. I said “what are you going to do about police violence against black people in Moss Side?” He said, “the problem in Moss Side is illegal shebeens. You know that area, you know the people. You let us know where the shebeens are, and we’ll get rid of all these problems. Here’s my card.” So I pushed his card back across the table. He wanted to recruit me as a police spy.
The other really important thing that happened round that time was that a strike started in Stockport, at an engineering factory called Roberts-Arundel, over union recognition.
Tomorrow: two thousand workers with bricks in their pockets – the story of the militant strike at Roberts-Arundel