Ian Birchall

 

Facing the crisis

(1981)


Part 3 of Ian H. Birchall, The Smallest Mass Party in the World, SWP 1981.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford for Revolutionary History.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.


The election of a Labour Government in February 1974 was to mean, to a greater extent than anyone at the time realised, a sharp change in the rhythm of class struggle. Labour had been brought to power, not by the positive virtues of its programme or leaders, but by the success of the working-class opposition to the Heath Government. While Labour received a lower vote than at any election since 1945, an anti-Tory vote going to minor parties thrust Wilson into power. In this potentially unstable situation the Labour Government took on a left face, with Tony Benn and Michael Foot brought into the cabinet, and the former leaders of the left in the TUC, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, brought into ever closer association with the government. After just over a year of a loosely-worded “social contract”, during which some quite substantial wage rises were won, the Labour Government attacked its supporters head-on by introducing a series of compulsory incomes policies.

The Labour Government produced a major change in the pattern of industrial struggle. Sharp struggles continued throughout the five years of Labour rule – the Scottish strikes of 1974-75, the wave of struggles in 1977 (including Grunwicks) culminating in the unsuccesslul firemen’s strike, and the so-called “winter of discontent” in the last months of the Callaghan government. But no section of workers was to emulate the miners in 1972 and 1974; increasingly struggles were fragmented and defensive, even though enormous reserves of fighting spirit were still evident. Rising unemployment helped to discipline workers.

In this situation a slow but steady movement to the right affected all levels of the labour movement. On the shop-floor, ideological and social factors combined to whittle away the periphery of the revolutionary left. The growing role of full-time convenors, and the revived attraction of’ reformism as being at least a lesser evil, reduced the number of militants who were open to revolutionary ideas. At the 1974 TUC, Ken Gill, the first Comunist Party member on the General Council for over twenty years, withdrew his union’s resolution against the Social Contract “in the interests of the broadest unity”. Many people who in 1968 and after had been active revolutionaries began to drift back into the Labour Party.

1974 was also a year in which repression against the left began to be more noticeable. In the pre-election period there were many reports of police harassment of paper-sellers and flyposters. In June a Warwick student, Kevin Gately, was killed by police on an anti-National Front demonstration. The next week two thousand IS members marched through London with placards reading “Murdered by Police”. Socialist Worker was cautioned by the police with a threat of action for criminal libel. And in October Socialist Worker was fined 500 with 5,000 costs for naming wealthy witnesses in the Janie Jones blackmail case. Attacks, from both the state and the trade union bureaucracy, continued throughout the 1970s making it much more uncomfortable to be a revolutionary socialist.

 

The period up to the February 1974 election had been one of rapid growth for IS. Membership was approaching 4,000, with a higher proportion of manual trade unionists than ever before. 56 factory branches had been formed. though about ten of these lasted only a few months. In election week the print order of Socialist Worker had risen to 52,000, with a paid sale of at least 35,000. There were obviously problem of changing gear from the mood of urgency and enthusiasm that had characterised the last months of the Heath Government.

Initially the perspective developed by IS was that the Labour Government would merely offer a “breathing space”, a brief “honeymoon” period of a few months before massive struggles of the 1972-3 type would break out again. But by early 1975 it was becoming clear that such a perspective was telescoping the real course of events. A document prepared for the 1975 Annual Conference put it as follows:

We predicted, in our perspectives for last September’s IS conference, that the rising level of unemployment and the acceleration of prices would put the Social Contract under pressure from two opposed directions – from workers inspired by the success of the miners in breaking the Tories’ Phase Three, and from the ruling class intent on pushing down workers’ living standards.

Our economic perspective in general was correct. But it was mistaken in one important respect.

We overestimated the speed with which the economic crisis would drive workers to draw revolutionary political conclusions.

One alternative open to IS in face of the general drift to the right was to follow the example of other revolutionary tendencies, and either enter, or orient more closely on the Labour Party. Instead IS chose to develop a position which came to be summed up by the slogan “Steer Left”. In effect this meant attempting to relate to those sections of the class that were prepared to fight, even if they were in a small minority.

The strategy earned IS (sometimes from within its own ranks as well as from outside) the label of “ultra-left”. This was misplaced. At no time was there any suggestion that the mass organisations of workers could be by-passed. But in a period when the level of struggle had fallen (there were thirteen million days strike in 1974, only three million in 1975), concentrating all the organisation’s efforts on routine trade union work would have inevitably meant getting caught up in the drift to the right. Moreover, it was necessary for IS to distinguish itself clearly from the various “broad left” groupings in the unions which had no real strategy to offer.

The meaning of isolation and of “steering left” was shown in March 1975, when the Labour government alleging a “health hazard”, sent troops to break a strike by dustcart drivers in Glasgow. Trade union bureaucrats and left MPs spoke scarcely a word of protest. When the Glasgow IS issued a leaflet to troops asking “Would you have to act like this if you had your own trade union?”, the Communist Party secretary of Glasgow Trades Council told the bourgeois press that IS were “fleas in a bed who turn up at other people’s picketing.” [30]

The change of tempo did not take place smoothly. The 1973-75 period saw the biggest internal crisis in the organisation’s history, culminating in a serious split.

 

The dispute can be traced back to the summer of 1973, when the National Committee, believing the Executive to be out of touch with developments in the rapidly growing organisation, replaced it with a new Executive which included a number of provincial full-time organisers. The disagreements over this change led to the resignation of the national secretary, Jim Higgins.

The second phase of the dispute erupted in the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election, with a debate about the future role of Socialist Worker. The position presented by Tony Cliff, and eventually accepted by the national committee, was, firstly, that the paper was mainly aimed at a younger generation of militants without much experience of the reformist and trade union organisations, and therefore should present its arguments in a simpler fashion without taking so much for granted; and secondly that more of the paper should actually be written by workers. Roger Protz, the editor of the paper since 1968, disagreed sharply, arguing that the paper still had to relate to “advanced workers”.

When Protz’s position was defeated, Protz and Jim Higgins were removed from the Editorial Board of the paper, with Paul Foot taking over as editor. This led to an extremely stormy two-day meeting of the National Committee in May 1974, leading to the election of new Executive seeking to reconcile the different currents in the organisation.

Unfortunately that was to be far from the end of the argument.

In the run-up to the conference in the autumn of 1974 a group of comrades produced a document called Our Traditions, in which they broadened the debate from Socialist Worker to the whole strategy for building the organisation. They argued that the current IS leadership had developed a “Youth Vanguard” thesis and was turning its back on its traditional emphasis on shop stewards’ organisation.

(It is true that this argument reflected a reality of the organisation’s development. In any revolutionary organisation that has grown beyond the level of a monolithic sect, there will be a section of the membership which has acquired real roots in the established labour movement and is thereby strongly exposed to its pressures; and another section of the membership, often more youthful and newer to politics, that is impatient of the traditions and routines of the mass labour movement. A serious revolutionary organisation can be built only by reconciling these layers in creative tension. The debate in 1974-5 served on the contrary to force an unnecessary polarisation.]

The annual conference in 1975 made a number of major constitutional changes. Since 1968 the leading body of the organisation had been a National Committee of some forty members, elected by conference, and consisting of both full-timers and lay members. This in turn elected an Executive of full-timers which actually ran the organisation but which was not directly accountable to the organisation. The conference voted to end this separation of power and responsibility and establish a Central Committee of full-timers directly elected by conference, with a Party Council as an advisory body. The conference also voted to strengthen district organisation.

There was some opposition to the constitutional changes, alleging that they involved a reduction of internal democracy. But the long-standing internal dispute finally came to a head in the autumn of 1975 over the question of strategy towards the Broad Left in the AUEW. The majority of comrades in the AUEW fraction had decided that, in the light of the decline of the Broad Left. they should support a rank-and-file candidate for the post of AUEW national organiser. A number of IS members it the Birmingham area AUEW refused to accept this perspective, broke discipline and were expelled.

This led to a revival of opposition by a number of those who had been in disagreement with the majority since 1973, and a faction, calling itself the “IS Opposition”, was re-established. This refused a requirement from the December 1975 Party Council that the faction be dissolved, arguing that “we are concerned that the present lurch to ultra-leftism will destroy any working-class base, while it may generate the sort of self-perpetuating irrelevant work that we assocate with the WRP”. Faced with the a choice of dissolving the faction or being excluded from IS, about 150 members left, including such former Executive members its Jim Higgins, John Palmer, Granville Williams and Roger Protz. [32]

 

Despite difficulties and disagreements, the central focus of IS’s political strategy continued to he the rank and file movement. The two large conferences in 1974 which established the National Rank and File Movement showed the potential for rank and file organisation. And objectively, the need for this became greater as the Labour Government’s term dragged on.

The decline of the traditional left in the unions was dramatically highlighted by Terry Duffy’s victory in the AUEW. The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions came to life once a year to hold rather boring and stage-managed conferences, then vanished again. Above all, the growing cooperation of the TUC leaders with the government made independent rank and file organisation imperative. Yet the move to the right made it increasingly difficult to maintain effective rank and file organisation. The bureaucracy, moreover, took any opportunity to try to silence militants. In 1974 Ian Gibson was removed from the Executive of ASTMS for having written an article in Socialist Worker critical of the union leadership.

In the early period of the Labour Government it was possible for the Rank and File Movement to make a number of interventions in real struggles. When workers at the Strachan’s factory near Southampton occupied their factory in 1974 against the threat of closure, the AUEW refused to organise blacking on the grounds that this would he illegal under legislation remaining from the Tory Government. The Rank and File Organising Committee (set up by the first Rank and File Conference in March 1974) circulated an appeal for blacking and helped to organise the only effective action that was taken.

Again, in late 1974, when the Intex textile factory in Manchester embarked on an eight-week strike, the sole response of the union leadership (the National Union of Dyers and Bleachers) was to expel two of the strike leaders from the union. The Rank and File Organising Committee convened a meeting of over a hundred trade unionists from the Manchester area which agreed to organise blacking, raise money, and defend strike leaders from threats of violence received from fascists.

The Rank and File Organising Committee also took a number of initiatives in defence of the building workers’ pickets jailed at Shrewsbury in late 1973, and ran a campaign to get work permits for Chilean refugees. Various rank and file groups led struggles in their own industries: thus supporters of Rank and File Teacher led unofficial strikes in the campaign for the London Allowance in 1974. All these were in themselves limited and modest initiatives, but they showed the potential for a rank and file movement. The Communist Party showed its awareness of rank and file movements influenced by IS when its theoretical journal published a critique of IS’s rank and file strategy. [33]

Yet the maintenance of rank and file organisation became increasingly difficult. A further Rank and File Conference was not held until November 1977 ᰫ in size it was no larger than the two conferences held in 1974. Some impact was made by running rank and file candidates for trade union elections, not in the hope of winning positions, but in order to fight for alternative policies and provide a basis for organising within the union. When Willie Lee stood for National Organiser of the AUEW in 1974, he spoke to meetings up and down the country, national leaflets were issued, and the first number of Engineers Charter was published. He gained a respectable total of some ten thousand votes. Similar campaigns were run in a number of other unions, the most successful being that for Tommy Riley in the election for general secretary of the TGWU in 1977; Riley came fifth with over 27,000 votes.

Naturally many critics on the right (and left) tried to smear the National Rank and File Movement by alleging that it was simply an “IS front”. The charge worried many IS members, and there was some internal discussion as to the “independence” of the Rank and File Movement. In many ways, however, was a false debate. The real problem the labour movement was, of course not the excessive influence of IS, but the continuing dominance of reformism. To the extent that IS was largely isolated in the struggle against reformist idea most of the burden of taking initiatives and maintaining the apparatus of the Rank and File Movement fell on the shoulders of IS members. For them have refused to take the burden, abstain in the name of some mythic “spontaneity” of the rank and file, would have been nothing but pure political abdication. [34]

Yet, in a period of industrial down-turn, a rank-and-file strategy was not enough. Indeed, there were grave dangers that a correct emphasis on organisation in the workplace could lead comrades to bury themselves in the minutiae of routine trade-unionism. The IS tradition had always consisted two components – on the one hand strategic insistence on the centrality of the working class, and on the other a willingness to be involved wherever significant number of people were engaged in militant action. In the 1960s that had meant participating in mass movements such as CND and VSC and fighting for a class line. In the 1970s, IS, while still being a tiny force on the stage of British politics, was able to take some significant initiatives, in launching movements. The two most import; were in the struggle against unemployment and against racism.

The need for an initiative on unemployment became apparent in the autumn of 1975. Unemployment had officially topped the million figure (in fact it was considerably higher), with women, blacks and young people especially badly affected. At the same time the acceptance of the Labour Goverment’s income policy by most trade Union leaders meant a damping down of struggle on the wages front. The Right to Work Campaign was launched in October 1975, as an initiative from the Rank and File Organising Committees. In fact, for the next couple of years, the Right to Work Campaign came to overshadow the Rank and File Movement.

The Right to Work Campaign in practice depended very largely on the initiatives of IS members, and was, not surprisingly, smeared as an IS front, although a significant number of non-IS members were involved. Politically the Right to Work Campaign sought to put into practice three main principles:

One: That the unemployed had to have a voice for themselves in the struggle. The Broad Left approach, which stressed that everything must be done through the “official channels”, left the unemployed simply as the recipients of fine words and promises. For example, in the Spring of 1976 an Assembly on Unemployment (called as a Broad Left initiative by the London Co-op and the No.8 London Confed District Committee) attracted three thousand trade union delegates. There were many speakers on the evils of unemployment, but the only unemployed worker who got to the microphone was John Deason of the Right to Work Campaign.

In particular unemployed school-leavers, a significant section of the jobless, could not fight through the unions because they had never been able to belong to one. Local Right to Work Committees and Right to Work Marches provided a possibility for self-activity by the unemployed.

Two: At the same time it had to be recognised that the unemployed alone could not fight unemployment. It was necessary to fight for the unity of employed and unemployed, to confront employed workers with their responsibility in the fight for jobs. This meant taking the struggle for sponsorship of the Right to Work Campaign into the workplaces and trade union branches. This also provided a means of countering the routinism and economism into which revolutionaries in trade unions could so easily lapse in a period of relative passivity.

The first Right to Work March, from Manchester to London in March 1976, was sponsored by over four hundred trade union bodies, including seventy shop stewards committees. This was possible despite the ambiguous attitude of the Communist Party. In some areas Communist Party members opposed the March in a grossly sectarian manner, but in other places they recognised that IS was now taking initiatives of the sort the Communist Party had made in the thirties, and gave full and constructive support.

Three: The Campaign had to be based on direct action as well as on propaganda. It had to show that initiatives, albeit on a small scale, were possible even in the immediate short term. The first Right to Work March was significant, not just for the support it obtained, but for the style it adopted. Throughout the course of the March marchers joined picket lines and even entered factories where sackings were being threatened in order to encourage workers to fight against unemployment. This marked a big step forward from the “hunger marches” of the thirties, which had great difficulty in making contact with employed trade unionists, and scarcely ever succeeded in actually entering workplaces.

The success of the first March was shown, not only by the 5,500 people who turned out to greet it at the Albert Hall, but by the fact that the March had sufficiently irritated the upholders of “law and order” for the police to attack it as it entered London. 44 arrests were made. A number of marchers were sentenced to imprisonment, but the campaign against the repression provided an important focus fur the Right to Work in the coming months. The most serious charges, against Campaign Secretary John Deacon, were dropped on the second day of the trial because of inadequate police evidence.

(Incidentally, Right to Work supporters who had gathered to picket the Old Bailey in support of Deason celebrated the acquittal by travelling to the Grunwicks factory in North London staging what was to be the first picket of that factory. One struggle thus fired another.)

A march from London to the Brighton TUC took place in September 1976, and as unemployment continued to rise. the Right to Work Campaign remained a central area of activity for IS members.

 

Unemployment and the Labour Government’s betrayal of even the miserable reforms it had promised inevitably bred racism. From the time of the Red Lion Square demonstration in 1974, where Kevin Gately was killed, it became clear that the National Front was a threat that could not be ignored, anti that the police could be relied on to side against the anti-fascists. In August and September 1974 the NF staged marches through Leicester and London. On both occasions IS took the initiative in organising counter-demonstrations: at Leicester in particular the IS mobilisation was successful, with the IS contingent forming half of the 5,000-strong anti-fascist demonstration.

The fight against racism and fascism continued to he a priority. The IS strategy was based on two parallel lines. On the one hand, it had to he clear that racism and fascism were a product of a system in crisis. People would look for black scapegoats if they could see no other solution to their problems. So systematic anti-racist propaganda in the workplaces and communities had to be combined with a critique of the system as a whole, and above all, with a lead in fighting what could be fought here and now. But at the same time, organised fascism had to he confronted physically. There could be no question of “free speech” for an organisation that was building a machine that aimed to use violence against blacks and trade unionists. Above all, militaristic marches through the streets were an essential part of the fascists’ attempt to build a mass or organisation; they had to be stopped from marching by any means necessary.

So for the next couple of years IS members took to the streets to confront the National Front whenever they tried to demonstrate. Often this had to be done in almost total isolation, as most of the rest of the left still tended towards the view that if the NF were simply ignored they would disappear.

But the level of the racist threat rose sharply in May 1976. A vicious press attack on Malawi Asians alleged to be receiving huge state benefits was followed by an outburst from Enoch Powell and an upsurge of NF activity, in the course of which three black youths were killed and scores of other blacks were subjected to physical assaults. Socialist Worker took on the whole question of immigration controls head-on, with a front-page headline “They’re Welcome Here”. This was followed by a flood of propaganda. In one week in June 1976 the IS printshop turned out 1,200 placards, 30,000 posters and 80,000 stickers to carry the anti-racist message.

Everywhere the Nazis appeared they were confronted on the streets. In July 1976 a Nazi, Robert Relf, achieved press notoriety by displaying on his home the sign “For Sale to an English Family”. The National Front, National Party, British Movement and others planned to capitalise on the impotent liberal protests at this by using it as a focus for a major racist demonstration in London.

But members of the International Socialists took possession of the offending sign and publicly burnt it, thwarting the Nazi plans.

 

For another year the threat of racist violence persisted, coupled with growing electoral success by the NF, with more and more of the left becoming aware that the Nazi menace could not simply be ignored. The turning point came on 13 August 1977 at Lewisham. Here a massive counter-demonstration to an NF march succeeded in physically stopping the Nazis, although the success was followed by vicious attacks by the police on the anti-fascist demonstrators.

The success of Lewisham was made possible by a number of factors. Many of the people who had participated in the exhilarating mass pickets at Grunwicks earlier in the summer joined the anti-Nazi protest at Lewisham. But far more important was the fact that the anti-fascist forces were no longer confined to the organised extreme left. Large numbers of local inhabitants – both black and white – joined the struggle on the street.

For the press this was a signal for an all-out witch-hunt against the Socialist Workers Party. [36] SWP comrades were accused of inciting violence, and of using knives and ammonia against the fascists (no-one troubled to recall that a month earlier Nazis in Lewisham had attacked an anti-racist demonstration with the deadly poisonous weedkiller Paraquat). The Communist Party, which had issued a leaflet urging people not to take part in the “provocative march planned by the Socialist Workers Party”, also helped to suggest that the SWP was responsible for the violence. And the Nazis themselves were in no doubt as to who had been responsible for their setback. At the end of August the Cottons Gardens warehouse, which had been the IS/SWP headquarters since 1969, was petrol-bombed and partly destroyed.

Lewisham helped to establish the SWP’s credentials as an anti-racist force. But a major difficulty remained. While many white anti-racists were drawn to work with and even join the SWP, the Party made little impact in the black community. During the seventies Chingari, an Asian paper published in various Asian languages, and Flame, a paper aimed at West Indians, had been launched, but had failed to build any substantial base of support. There were to be no short-cuts or easy gains here. The deep distrust felt by most black militants towards the white left in Britain could only be broken down by a long period of patient and regular anti-racist work.

By late 1977 electoral support for the Nazis was already beginning to decline: a clear indication that the strategy of confrontation had been justified. But the success of Lewisham also created the conditions in which a much wider anti-fascist movement could be built. In November 1977 the Anti Nazi League was launched. The original initiative was taken by Paul Holborow of the SWP, who approached Ernie Roberts and Peter Hain; the three agreed to launch a movement. Within a month or two the ANL had acquired a wide range of sponsors; as well as many leading Labour Party MPs and trade union leaders, it was also backed by a wide range of well-known journalists, writers and entertainers-such diverse figures as Brian Clough, Arnold Wesker, Keith Waterhouse, Warren Mitchell and many more. After initial hesitation the Communist Party gave its support.

The ANL had thus succeeded in creating a far broader united front than had ever been possible for the Right to Work Campaign. But the success of the ANL was not to be measured simply by its ability to win support within the existing labour movement. It was also able to win a very wide measure of support among young people with hitherto no political affiliations. This was substantially due to the existence of Rock Against Racism. RAR had been launched some time before the ANL, in autumn 1976, by IS members and others in response to openly pro-racist statements by pop musician Eric Clapton and pro-fascist remarks by singer David Bowie. [37]

It was the coming together of these different strands that made it possible for the ANL to break out of the weary old demonstration routine. On 30 April 1975 the ANL held a Carnival in London, with a march to Victoria Park where the Tom Robinson Band, the Clash, Steel Pulse, X-Ray-Spex and others entertained a crowd of some eighty thousand. It was a mobilisation comparable to the peaks of CND and VSC. A second Carnival was held in September 1975, and the involvement of youth led to the setting up of such organisations as SKAN (School Kids Against the Nazis).

Attempts were made to smear the ANL as an “SWP Front”. But although SWP activists often played a key role in building the ANL at local level, the breadth of support won by the ANL was so great that such smears never looked at all convincing. The problem for the SWP was rather to distinguish its own revolutionary politics within the broader movement. Thus, for example, the ANL did not have a position of opposition to immigration controls.

It is undoubtedly true that in the early stages of the building of the ANL, the SWP had such influence that it could have forced the adoption of such a position. Had it done so, however, it is unlikely that the ANL would have been able to grow so fast. SWP members, however, argued for their position to the broader audience offered by the ANL. Thus Socialist Worker vigorously criticised Sid Bidwell, a sponsor of the ANL, for his support for immigration controls on the Parliamentary Select Committee on race and immigration. [38]

Likewise the SWP continued to call for physical confrontation with the Nazis where necessary. Thus during the summer of 1975 SWP members fought to clear the Nazis out of Brick Lane, a Bengali area in Fast London.

In general the ANL was an important and valuable experience of how revolutionaries can work in a broader mass movement. But one serious mistake was made. At the time of the Second Carnival in South London in September 1975, the NF announced that on the same day they would march to Brick Lane. Obviously they hoped to wreck the Carnival by attracting a large section of the supporters to the defence of Brick Lane. The SWP took the position that the Carnival must go ahead, and that the SWP would not be split from other forces in the ANL; but that a sufficient force should be mobilised to defend Brick Lane. The line was right but the organisation arithmetic was wrong; too few comrades arrived at Brick Lane and too late. [39]

The ANL’s work continued up to the General Election in Spring 1979, and particularly the mobilisation in Southall on 23 April. Here, as at Lewisham, the demonstrators were joined by large numbers of local youth determined to drive the Nazis off their streets. Here, too, Blair Peach, an East London teacher and an SWP-member, was beaten to death by the police Special Patrol Group (SPG). He was the Party’s first martyr. At his funeral in June, attended by several thousand people, Ken Gill of the TUC General Council and Tony Cliff of the SWP spoke from the platform. Cliff concluded “It is no use building monuments of brass and stone ... let us mourn, but let us organise and mobilise.” Despite continued agitation, it was not possible to expose the full truth of how Blair Peach was murdered.

 

The mid-1970s was also a period in which IS extended and diversified its activity. In the early 1970s IS was often accused by others on the left of “workerism”, of an exclusive preoccupation with industrial workers at the expense of other struggles and other oppressed sectors of society. The criticism was easy to make; to suggest an alternative was somewhat harder. A small revolutionary group of necessity has to have priorities; if it seeks to be present everywhere, it is effective nowhere, and rapidly demoralises its membership. To transform IS from an overwhelmingly student organisation, as it had been in 1965, into what it was by 1973, an organisation with some real roots in the organised working class, could he achieved only by “stick-bending”, by a conscious neglect of other tasks.

But there was a price to be paid for such neglect. Important areas of struggle were missed, and the seeds of future difficulties were sown. In particular IS can be criticised for the fact that in the early 1970s the organisation as a whole failed to recognise the importance of the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and to make a serious enough intervention in it.

IS women were, of course, involved from the beginning. Some fifty IS women attended the Oxford Women’s Liberation Conference early in 1970, which can be seen as one of the starting-points of the movement in Britain. There was a major debate on Women’s Liberation at the Easter Conference of IS in 1970. In June 1971 IS women organised a “Conference on Women” attended by some 300 people, although a report noted that “almost all of those who spoke were students, lecturers or teachers.” And in the summer of 1972 the first issue of Women’s Voice appeared.

However, the work tended to be left to the small group of women who took the initiative, with little guidance or encouragement from the central leadership of the organisation. There was a tendency for many comrades to suggest that only women working in factories were of any real interest to the organisation; and that Women’s Voice was a diversion from getting adequate coverage of women’s struggles in Socialist Worker.

One of the main factors leading to a change of emphasis came in 1975, with the emergence of a mass movement against attempts to cut back on women’s right to abortion. In June 1975 a demonstration of forty thousand women and men in London demanded rejection of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. IS comrades were active in the National Abortion Campaign, although this posed some problems, since NAC did not have an effective structure with an elected and responsible committee; its “open committee” form meant that it was constantly liable to reverse its own decisions, and laid it wide open to packing by a variety of tendencies. This made NAC, after June 1975, often unable to take the necessary initiatives. At times in 1976-7 Women’s Voice supporters found that there was no way of getting a proposal for action considered by NAC except to take the initiative and announce that it was going to take place.

The growing importance of Women’s Voice was reflected by the 600-strong Women’s Voice Rally held in Manchester in November 1975. The rally closed with Sheila McGregor, the first full-time IS women’s organiser, declaring:

We’ve got to lead the struggle for socialist revolution. We don’t want just to be a voice in the movement. We want to he central to the movement so we can be central to the socialist revolution. [40]

And in June 1978 a Women’s Voice Rally in Sheffield attracted a thousand women.

A recognition of the need for self-criticism on IS’s line on women appeared in a Socialist Worker editorial in 1978:

Just like those male socialists 60 years ago, we on Socialist Worker have tended to turn our back on that movement: to denounce it (is ‘middle class’, to protest that we were fighting for the rights of all workers and to ignore the discrimination against women. The women in the Socialist Workers Party refused to accept this bias. They acted, as part of the women’s movement, to change the party.

They organised themselves in Women’s Voice groups and changed the face and tone of their paper Women’s Voice. They tapped a great well of anger and enthusiasm which men-only socialism had never come near. [41]

The 1978 SWP Conference decided that Women’s Voice should not be simply a publication, but an organisation, and Women’s Voice groups were set up in many localities. [42] This was a recognition of the need for a campaigning organisation that could take up a variety of women’s issues, as well as of the fact that there was a small but significant periphery of women open to revolutionary politics, but who could not be won directly through Socialist Worker.

The success of’ Women’s Voice as an organisation in turn led to a sharp but constructive debate as to how far Women’s Voice should be independent of the SWP. The 1979 SWP Conference decided that, within the limits of the present level of struggle, Women’s Voice could not be “politically independent” of the SWP. As the impact of the Thatcher government’s programme of cuts began to fall especially heavily on women campaigning in defence of abortion rights, and on the questions of women’s health and women’s employment became established as an important part of the SWP’s work.

Similar problems affected the attempt to establish a gay group in IS. In 1973 the National Committee issued a document forbidding IS members to work politically in the Gay Liberation Front (the main gay organisation at the time and dissolving the IS gay group, arguing that this work could not be a priority at the present time. However, after extensive discussion, the 1976 Conference reversed this position. Socialist Worker added to the Where We Stand column “We are for an end to all forms of discrimination against homosexuals”, and a new IS Gay Group was established: since then the organisation has continued to campaign and make publicity around the gay question. [43]

Another important development of the mid-1970s was the recognition of the growing importance of the battle of ideas. The ruling-class offensive was no purely economic, but thrust a whole number of’ ideological and cultural factors into the centre of the arena.

Books have always been a crucial weapon in the struggle for socialist ideas. The IS Book Service began in 1967 in a suitcase. By 1973 a bookshop had been opened in Finsbury Park, followed by some nine or ten others in various parts of the country. In 1977 the Bookmarx bookclub was launched making socialist books available at low prices. The Socialist Bookbus provided mobile bookshop which toured the country organising showings of left wing films.

In 1978, faced with a new audience offered by the growing anti-Nazi movement, the SWP reorganised its own publications. For some time the monthly International Socialism had been a uneasy compromise between a magazine and a theoretical journal. In April 1978, Socialist Review was launched as popular socialist magazine, combing news analysis with a wide cultural coverage and a forum for debate with other sections of the left. International Socialism began a new series as a quarterly theoretical journal.

A range of cultural and educational events were also launched. 1976 saw the first of the annual Easter Rallies held in the Derbyshire Miners Holiday Camp at Skegness, combining political meetings with films, football and children’s activities. And 1977 saw the holding of Marxism 77, a week-long series of lectures and discussions on a wide range of political, theoretical, historical and cultural topics.

In 1977 too the “Stuff the Jubilee” campaign, with badges, stickers and a special Socialist Worker, proved highly popular among those sickened by royal hypocrisy and extravagance.

In the early 1970s IS, reacting against its roots in the 1968 upsurge, tended to downgrade work among students, but by 1974 this neglect began to be corrected. In 1974 NOISS (National Organisation of IS Societies) was founded (subsequently to become SWSO), as an organisation of students closely associated with IS and as a means of bringing students towards the organisation. NOISS/SWSO participated in many student struggles notably against closure of colleges of education and increased fees for overseas students. In 1977 a leading SWP student militant, Andy Strouthous, was jailed for refusing to carry out a court order which would have prevented him carrying out his job as Students Union president at North East London Polytechnic.

Another area of IS’s work which began to be more developed in this period was internationalism. If IS’s politics had always been internationalist, involvement in the international movement had been limited; it was always argued that it was pointless to build international structures until the organisation had a real base at home. Two international conferences (sponsored jointly with Lutte Ouvriere in France and the International Socialists in the USA) in 1970 and 1971 bore little fruit.

In the first few months after the Chilean coup of 1973 IS concentrated on drawing propaganda lessons about the failure of the “parliamentary road”. By the Spring of 1974 the emphasis shifted to a more active participation in the work of the Chile Solidarity Campaign, and IS comrades were involved in such issues as “adopting” political prisoners through the trade union movement.

But it was the events in Portugal in 1975, when the whole question of state power seemed to begin the balance, that produced the biggest involvement in international activity. In August 1975 56 IS members went to Portugal on a delegation organised in conjunction with the Portuguese PRP (Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat); an SW Portuguese Solidarity Fund was established, and money sent to the PRP for the purchase of printing material.

At the same time an attempt was made to raise a political debate about the issues of the Portuguese Revolution Tony Cliff’s Portugal at the Crossroads [44] was published and distributed in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Greek and German.

Portugal led to a revision of IS’s international perspective. It was argued that the traditional labels (such as “Maoism” and “Trotskyism”) which had divided the revolutionary movement were becoming obsolete, and that in developing international links, IS should give priority to groups which had a serious practical orientation to the working class rather than those which it had the greatest degree of formal agreement about points of programme. For a while IS had close links with the Italian semi-Maoist organisation Avanguardia Operaia [45], but during the 1976 elections AO moved to the right, and shortly afterwards went into a sharp decline.

The fall in the level of struggle in Portugal and Italy after 1976 made it clear that the process of international regroupment that IS hoped for was now going to take longer than expected. As a means of developing international debate IS launched an International Discussion Bulletin in 1976, subsequently to be incorporated into the new series of International Socialism.

 

Throughout the 1970s the question of Ireland continued to confront the British left. While condemning such actions as the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974, IS continually campaigned for the withdrawal of British troops as the only solution to the problem. IS also developed close links with the Socialist Workers Movement, an Irish organisation founded in 1971 which had a similar political analysis

In the latter half of 1976 IS saw a considerable growth. The Right to Work Campaign and anti-racist activity, plus growing disillusion with the Labour Government, were producing a steady stream of recruits. They came as follows: June 64 new members; July 77 new members: August 100; September 174; October 192; November 243; Decmber 155; making a total of over a thousand new members. By mid-1977 the membership was around four thousand, compared to something not much over 2,500 a year earlier.

The advance was not simply numerical. IS’s ability to initiate activity, rather than simply join in movements launched by others, had never been greater. Industrially, there were more members than ever able to lead disputes in their own workplaces, while districts were better equipped to intervene in struggles from the outside.

But the improved nature of IS’s organisation in no way matched up to the objective needs of the situation, given the vacuum left by the rightward drift of the Labour left, the Communist Party and the union bureaucracies. One leading comrade described IS as being “the smallest mass party in the world” such was the disproportion between the still tiny organisation and the tasks facing it.

 

Another factor in the development of the organisation was the decision, in the autumn of 1976, that IS should begin to contest parliamentary by-elections. The first seat chosen was Walsall North, the constituency vacated by runaway Labour MP John Stonehouse. The objective was twofold: firstly, to offer a generalised political alternative to a small layer of people looking for something to the left of the increasingly discredited Labour Government: secondly, to use the opportunity fur propaganda to build a local branch of the organisation. The results at Walsall, while not startlingly good, seemed to suggest some validity to this perspective: 1.6% of the poll (more than the Communist Party had got in that seat in October 1974), and some twenty live recruits to the party.

It was on the basis of these developments that the decision was taken that from January 1977 IS should he renamed the Socialist Workers Party.

The perspective was that the rising level of struggle (there was a sharp rise in the number of strikes up to the defeat of the firemen’s strike at the end of the year) would offer the possibility for continued recruitment. As Tony Cliff put it in an article explaining the need for the party:

It is possible, and vital, to build the organisation quickly. But it is also a fact that many of us suffer from conservatism in doing that.

As a result of two tough years, many of us are putting the sights far too low. We are afraid of being hurt and therefore look for safety. And, of course, if you try to recruit no-one, you are 100 per cent successful.

The present members of our part y are not the salt of the earth, the select few. If any, elitism exists in our organisation it is necessary to uproot it complctely. [46]

As a propaganda tool for the launching of the Party, twenty thousand copies of a pamphlet by Paul Foot called Why You Should Be A Socialist were printed and distributed. The title was significant. It stressed that this was not the time for arguing points of detail with others already committed to socialism, the key task was to approach a whole range of people previously untouched by political ideas, but who were becoming open to revolutionary politics as a result of the crisis.

In fact things did not go so smoothly. The industrial downturn was not as dramatic as predicted, and recruitment slowed down. Moreover, by early 1978 it was clear that the electoral strategy had, on balance, been unsuccessful. A total of eight by-elections was contested. In all cases the vote was, as expected, small; but the intervention of the IMG (under the electoral guise of “Socialist Unity”) and other far left groups meant that the results were in some cases much worse than expected; moreover, experience showed that it was difficult to maintain those branches built around an election campaign.

The original intention, of standing some sixty candidates in the General Election, was dropped, and it was finally agreed not to stand any candidates at all. While some experience had been gained, and the possibility of fighting elections in the future remains, the experiment had in general proved negative.

 

In the summer of 1977 the SWP sent an open letter to the Communist Party, making a series of concrete suggestions for joint meetings between the two organisations to discuss cooperation around specific industrial and trade union questions. Bert Ramelson, the Communist Party’s Industrial Organiser, replied that the SWP’s “activity and propaganda is divisive and disruptive, making more difficult the development of united mass struggle.” [47]

The SWP was also approached by the IMG for cooperation in an electoral alliance. The response to this was that at the present time electoral interventions could be only a matter of propaganda, and that united fronts can be fruitful if they are based on specific and concrete demands not abstract propaganda.

In early 1978, following the defeat of the firemen’s strike, and when the main positive area of activity was the rapidly growing ANL, a new debate emerged in the organisation. Once again the question at stake was Socialist Worker, its orientation and its use as a tool for party-building. The editor, Chris Harman (who had taken over from Paul Foot some three years before), retired from the post and in February it was announced that “Socialist Worker is to he relaunched as an improved, livelier paper”. The aim was to open the paper out to “reach and involve thousands more people who are not members of the Socialist Workers Party.” [48] The new design for the paper included more cartoons, regular sports and television coverage, and a serial story The Faradays. The claim was that over the previous year or so the paper had become “boring” and “predictable”, and that the paper should now be used to reach a new periphery.

Critics of the new paper alleged that the paper was giving insufficient attention to the industrial struggle; that important political questions were being oversimplified to such an extent that the political content of the paper was diluted; and that the paper was simply reflecting and enthusing about the ANL, rather than arguing for the SWP’s distinctive politics within that milieu.

The debate carried on for some time. At the end of July four journalists who had been especially associated with the new line on the paper (Paul Foot, Jim Nicol, Laurie Flynn and Peter Marsden) resigned from full-time work on Socialist Worker, and Tony Cliff was appointed as editor. Some features of the new paper (for example, the sports column) were retained, while others disappeared. The Ford strike and the resurgence of industrial struggle in the autumn of 1978 shifted the balance of the paper back to what it had been a year earlier.

Tory victory in May 1979 brought to an end five years of Labour rule. In purely numerical terms the SWP was not significantly larger than in 1974, with a membership in 1980 of 4,100 as against 3,900 in 1974. But the serious losses of 1975-6 had been made up for, and the social composition of the Party (36 per cent manual and 32 per cent white collar workers) showed that the Party was sinking roots into the class, as did the large number of comrades holding shop-floor and trade union positions. The Rank and File “Defend our Unions” Conference in June 1979, attended by some thousand delegates, was an indication of the Party’s implantation and ability to mobilise.

In the terms of the overall class struggle, the situation was one of continued downturn, with most struggles fundamentally defensive. The Communist Party and its various “Broad Left” fronts faced further decline, while much of the revolutionary and ex-revolutionary left was bemused by a swing to the left in the Labour Party which was in fact largely confined to the rhetorical and constitutional levels. Almost alone the SWP stood for the open building of a new revolutionary party with a clear programme and a base in the working class. The problems – cuts, unemployment, racism and the new Cold War – were daunting.

But while the road before us is undoubtedly long and hard, the possibilities are enormous. On the basis of a critical understanding of its own traditions, the SWP can look forward with confidence to the struggles ahead.

 

 

Notes

29. Socialist Worker, 15 March 1975

30. Socialist Worker, 29 March 1975

31. For the record, some smaller split-offs occurred in this period. In the summer of 1973, an undeclared faction was expelled onthe grounds that it had developed a total opposition to IS politics (notably an orthodox Trotskyist attitude to programme, and a rather academic critique of the Permanent Arms Economy theory). Some members of this grouping formed the Revolutionary Communist Group, while others disappeared without trace into the Labour Party. A subsequent split in the RCG gave birth to the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. The Left Faction, whose platform stressed the importance of solidarity with the Irish struggle and a critique of IS’s “workerism” and rank and file strategy, were expelled in 1975. They formed an organisation called Workers Power, which was to fuse with Workers Fight to found the International Communist League. Most of the Workers Power members subsequently left the ICL and continued their existence as Workers Power.

32. The excluded comrades established the Workers League, which for a while published a paper Workers News. In 1978 the Workers League, together with some other ex-IS members, formed the International Socialist Alliance. This body had as its sole activity various manoeuvres for “revolutionary unity” between the SWP, IMG and others. It soon disintegrated, with some members joining the IMG.

33. Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism, Marxism Today, December 1976.

34. The best statement of the IS position of the relation of the party to the rank and file movement is in Towards a Rank and File Movement, by Andreas Nagliati, International Socialism 66.

35. Socialist Worker, 29 May 1976.

36. IS had changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party in January 1977.

37. Socialist Worker, 2 October 1976

38. Socialist Worker, 1 April 1978

39. See Socialist Worker, 30 September 1978 for a self-criticism

40. Socialist Worker, 6 December 1975

41. Socialist Worker, 10 June 1978

42. Socialist Worker, 1 July 1978

43. Compare in particular Socialist Worker, 26 August 1978

44. International Socialism (special), Nos.81-82

45. See International Socialism 84 for a record of a debate between AO and IS

46. Socialist Worker, 8 January 1977

47. Socialist Worker, 9 July 1977

48. Socialist Worker, 11 February 1978

 


Last updated on 6.3.2002