Thursday, 8 April 2010

International Socialists in the 1960s (Part 2)

See HERE for Part 1. The present article's publication is timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary (tomorrow) of the death of Tony Cliff, founding member of the International Socialists.

In 1964 Harold Wilson led Labour back into government, after 13 years of Tory rule. Around this time the small International Socialists (IS) organisation, with around 200 members, abandoned working in Labour Party's Young Socialists, which had in any case only ever been a temporary tactical orientation.

Having grown from just 60 members a few years earlier, IS was a young group in both senses: still a fairly new organisation, at least for most members, young recruits comprised a high proportion of members. It was during 1960-64 that Paul Foot and Chris Harman had both joined IS, as did Ian Birchall whose history of IS provides valuable material (as does Tony Cliff's memoir, A World to Win). They were part of a generation of recruits who went on to build an organisation that by the end of 1968 would have 1000 members and a weekly newspaper (the weekly Socialist Worker was launched in September 1968).

A crucial feature of the mid-1960s for IS was an increased orientation on the workplaces. Shop stewards organisation in the trade unions was strong at this time: rank and file militancy often won concessions from employers, without the union bureaucracy having much of a role. IS sought to relate its politics to these grassroots workplace militants. There were successes and failures in this, but there were enough successes to help IS increase its membership to over 400 by the start of 1968.

The most important single initative here was a pamphlet called 'Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards', written by IS members Tony Cliff and Colin Barker. Despite IS only numbering in the hundreds, an estimated 10,000 copies were sold. Shop stewards themselves constituted a high proportion of those buying and reading this pamphlet, which articulated a distinctively socialist analysis of current government polices and advocated resistance through the power of organised workers.

The pamphlet was more than just a recruiting tool - it was evidently very useful in winning respect for IS from a layer of left-wing workplace reps. It helped give the organisation, which had few members in union positions, a sharper orientation on the rank and file of the trade union movement. Birchall recalls: '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.'

The IS newspaper Labour Worker reflected the group's orientation, as indicated by the title, and served as an agitational tool. There was some success in involving workers in writing for the paper, which had a circulation of about 2000 in the middle of the decade (remarkably impressive for an organisation of that size). Together with the Incomes Policy pamphlet, the paper was clearly crucial in applying IS politics concretely and enabling a modest group to reach a much wider audience.

The more theoretical publication, International Socialism, played a central part in giving IS distinctive theoretical and political positions. Its theoretical edge was an important part of why socialists didn't just join IS but became actively involved and remained members in the long term. Birchall writes: '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 break-through of 1968 could not have taken place.'

1968 was indeed the big breakthrough: membership more than doubled in less than a year. Just as importantly, IS members were actively involved in a mass movement - the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign mobilised tens of thousands in demonstrations. Opposition to the US war in Vietnam reached its peak, against the backdrop of political upheavals internationally that fed a radical political atmosphere amongst a layer of British youth.

In this climate IS was able to take decisive initiatives like launching a weekly newspaper, as well as intervening in anti-war protests, playing a leading role in student direct action and recruting students in large numbers. The weekly Socialist Worker launched in September was only 4 pages and had modest circulation. But by 1972 it had grown to 16 pages and circulation increased enormously.

There was nothing inevitable about IS building successfully out of the events of 1968. It required a sharp turn to organising in the colleges and thorough, non-sectarian involvement in the Vietnam solidarity movement. Tony Cliff, for example, records in his memoir that he personally spent several weeks visiting the London School of Econmoics (LSE) every day and debating with students in the canteen. Intervening in the big anti-war demonstrations meant enthusiastic particpation but also a willingness to engage in serious arguments. Simply repeating anti-war slogans wasn't enough to win increasingly radical students and young workers to revolutionary Marxism.

Some IS old-timers - which in that context meant those who had been members for 5 years or so - were unsettled by the influx of new members, worrying about the politics being liquidated and so on. There were serious tensions, as a consequence of rapid growth combined with the heady atmosphere of 1968 creating such upheaval in the organisation, but IS survived the debates and intense factional disputes.

The majority of the leadership, around Tony Cliff, argued successfully for greater centralism and cohesion. For example, the new Socialist Worker needed to carry a clear editorial line on issues of the day. This required an elected national leadership providing political direction, with a small team of journalists accountable to the organisation.

Democracy at every level was essential. Local groups of IS members had to discuss and plan local activity in a nationally-agreed framework. Free, open discussion and debate were vital. At the same time it couldn't be feasible for every headline in the newspaper to be subject to votes at members' meetings! A democratic centralist combination of free discussion and cohesive action and organisation was required.

The organisation of 1000 grew to over 3000 by 1974. During those years Socialist Worker's circulation rose to a peak of up to 40,000. IS developed, in these years of upturn for working class struggle, a significant implantation in grassroots union organisation (and at one stage there were as many as 40 factory-based branches).

The early 1970s were far more favourable times for revolutionary socialists than most of the previous decade, largely due to high levels of industrial militancy and the way in which strikes cohered to challenge the Tory government's authority. It was possible for a revolutionary organisation to take leaps forward. However, it was only in a position to do so because of the persistent work in the 1960s, transforming a tiny group of 60 into a credible organisation of 1000 by the close of 1968.

Picture: anti-Vietnam war protest, 1968

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