Ian Birchall


The Smallest Mass Party in the World




Over the past decade the Socialist Workers Party (formerly the International Socialists) has grown into an organisation capable of small but significant interventions in the class struggle, and with a real possibility of laying the foundations for a revolutionary party in Britain. Many comrades who have joined the SWP in this period, or who have worked alongside us, quite rightly wart to know where we have sprung from.

The following article will sketch out the history of the SWP and its predecessor groups over the past thirty years. The aim is not to answer all the slanders thrown at us by rival groupings; nor is it to prove that we were always right – we certainly weren’t.

“Without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice”, said Lenin in a much-quoted phrase. But, as Lenin’s whole life shows, correct theory is necessary but not enough. If the theory is not adapted and fought for by workers, it is a worthless abstraction. The history of the SWP is the history of the continued attempt to turn theory into practice.

The following brief history consists of three articles. The first two were written in early 1975 and published in International Socialism 76 and 77 in that same year. The third, which takes the story up to the 1979 Tory election victory, has been written in 1981. Readers may therefore notice certain discrepancies of style and perspective between the first two articles and the third.

In particular the closing section of the second article was written at a time when it was still not clear to any of us how long and deep the downturn in struggle that followed the Labour election victory was going to be. I have therefore dealt with this period, and the internal debate that arose during it, again in greater detail in the third article, at the price of a certain overlap. The most glaring omission in the first two articles, however, is any treatment of the development of women’s organisation it the International Socialists. I have tried to make amends for this in the third article.

A sharp attack on the account presented in the first two articles has been made by Martin Shaw, a former IS member, in The Socialist Register 1978 (Merlin Press). This article, and my reply in The Socialist Register 1979, may be of interest to any readers who want to take the argument further than is possible in this short article. Likewise, David Widgery’s The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Penguin 1976) contains much interesting material relevant to the earlier part of this history.

I should like to thank Norah Carlin and Duncan Hallas for advice and criticism during the writing of all three of these articles.

Ian Birchall March 1981


Last updated on 31.3.2001