Wednesday, 10 February 2010

International Socialists in the 1960s (Part 1)

The 1960s was a decade of huge growth for the International Socialists (predecessors of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK). A thousand members by the end of the tumultuous year of 1968 may not seem special, but the organisation was tiny - around 60 members - at the start of the decade. To grow from 60 to 1000 in less than ten years is extraordinary. It is interesting to survey this period of growth and identify some crucial factors and turning points.

IS entered the 1960s as the Socialist Review Group, founded in 1950 due to a split from the main Trotskyist organisation in the country, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). It barely grew up to 1960, but then things changed. By 1964 there were at least 200 IS members (the name had changed in December 1962) and by the start of 1968 this had doubled to 400. During the course of '68 a sharp orientation on radicalised students and the anti-war movement helped enable a surge in membership.

The organisation was theoretically distinctive mainly because of its theory of state capitalism, which understood the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe as a particular form of capitalism - this distinguished the group even from other Trotskyists. The core idea was summed up by the line 'Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism', whereas most Trotskyists (never mind the broader left) viewed the Soviet Union as at least a degenerated form of workers' state. The group's theorising was primarily associated with Tony Cliff.

But just as important as the theory and political analysis was an orientation on interventions (however small) in the outside world, unlike far-left sects that tended to bicker with each other and pay little attention to what lay beyond. This reflected a deep concern with recovering the real tradition of revolutionary Marxism - the red thread of authentic socialism from below - and commitment to embodying and applying that (rather than seeking ideological purity). Theoretical clarity and an external orientation were vital in pushing the small group forward in a climate dominated by much larger forces like the Communist Party.

CND's activities in the early 60s proved a useful milieu for SR group members, but it was involvement in the newly-launched Labour Party Young Socialists that drove membership and levels of activity forward in the early 1960s. Ian Birchall, historian of IS/SWP (his biography of Cliff is forthcoming), writes: '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...

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 spool of fresh fish, and every Trotskyist grouping in existence was getting its fishing rod ready.'

The SR group launched a new paper called Young Guard, in September 1961, to relate to this phenomenon. It wasn't exclusively the group's preserve, but SR group members were central to it. This publication and the network around it were somewhat unconventional, at the same time as remaining faithful to Marxist politics: '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.'

One of the interesting things about this period is how different elements - Marxist ideas, class struggle, movement work - related to each other. Here's Birchall: 'The young people who were turning to socialism in this period were mainly workers – 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.'

It is interesting to note that young workers constituted a high proportion of new members and periphery, but they weren't from traditional union backgrounds (and this was at a time when unions were stronger, with deeper traditions of shop stewards organisation, than today). Relating systematically to a wider movement - CND, in this case - was evidently vital for SRG/IS connecting with these young workers. It is also obvious from this account that the publication, Young Guard, was vital in forging those links.

Birchall also indicates the centrality of ideas - of a high political level and theoretical clarity - in strengthening the fledgling organisation: 'Recruits were being made on the basis of ideas rather than activity. Indeed, IS did not have activity of its own, 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.'

It was Marxist ideas that allowed the group to recruit and grow rapidly, despite not having its own independent activity. Immersion in broader campaigns and forums - with a highly flexible approach - combined with political clarity and distinctiveness took the group from 60 to 200 members in just a few years. By 1964 problems of sectarianism in YS, together with the Labour Party's animosity towards it, meant it was no longer a productive milieu for IS - and consequently tactics and orientation changed.

Birchall writes, of the mid-60s: '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 tent 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.

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.'

I quote this at length because, it seems to me, both those aspects are vitally important. The orientation on wider movements and struggles prevented a sense of isolation while keeping members in constant contact with reality. It encouraged an open, non-sectarian attitude. Part of this was a series of attempts to relate to workplace resistance, in however modest a way. A paper Industrial Worker (renamed Labour Worker shortly after) was launched in 1961 and included articles written by industrial militants. Birchall writes: '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. 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.'

This is Part 1 of 2. The second part will take this brief history up to the end of 1968.

Picture: CND's Ban the Bomb march from Aldermaston, 1 March 1963


  1. The founders of the SRG did not split from the RCP. The RCP had been dissolved earlier and did not exist. It is impossible to split from something that does not exist!

    What did exist was The Club the Trotskyist group led by Gerry healy then doing entry work within the Labour party. It was from that body that the Birmingham members of what was to become the SRG were expelled. The rest effectively walked out of The Club from what I can tell. Cliff could not be expelled by the lovely Healy as he was technically a member of the Irish section of the Fourth International.


  2. Yes Ken Tarbuck gives a vivid warts-and-all account of the early days of the Cliff Group which was published online by Revolutionary History:

  3. The Club evolved from the RCP, and the SLL later evolved from the Club. I'm not quite geeky enough about the history of Trotskyism to worry about exactly when each change took place - it was the RCP tradition that Cliff's small group broke from in order to organise independently.

  4. Hey when is part II coming? I'd love to read it.

  5. I've had a rough draft for a little while - going to knock it into shape and get it on here within the next few days, so very soon now!