Ian Birchall


The Smallest Mass Party in the World




The first two sections of this pamphlet were written in 1973, at the suggestion of Roger Rosewell (shortly before he began his long journey to the right). It was rejected for publication in International Socialism by Chris Harman, but accepted in 1975 when Duncan Hallas became editor. The final section was written in early 1981. It offers an outline history of the Socialist Review Group/International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party over a period of thirty years.

The section on the fifties is, admittedly, weak, as I was only able to consult a very small number of documents. Between 1963 and 1974 I was a member of various leading committees and editorial boards, and it is for this period that the pamphlet may be of most value as a personal testimony. However, the account is substantiated from documents wherever possible, and I tried not to rely on purely personal recollections. Thus in 1969 I was one of the minority in the debate on the troops in Ireland; but I endeavoured to present here the majority position as fairly as possible.

The pamphlet has been widely denounced. Much criticism has come from expelled or former members of the organisation, often on the grounds that the circumstances of their own departure were not given sufficient attention. But despite claims that it is a sycophantic “official” history, the pamphlet has often been regarded with suspicion within the SWP and it has never been reissued. One reason for this is that it was written during the prolonged and heated internal debate on the role of the Women’s Voice organisation and magazine within the party. I tried to give a fair representation of the argument at the time of writing, but by the time the published pamphlet appeared the situation had developed rapidly, culminating in the closure of Women’s Voice in July 1982. However, none of the pamphlet’s critics has ever been able to point to any serious error of fact.

The pamphlet is referred to positively, though not uncritically, in Tony Cliff’s autobiography A World to Win (Bookmarks, London, 2000) and for that reason it seemed to me useful to make it available again to anyone interested in reading it as a complement to Cliff’s account. [Other relevant works are Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust (London, 1997), a critical account by a former National Secretary expelled in 1975, and David Widgery, Beating Time (London, 1986), on the Anti-Nazi League.]

Whether a fuller history of the SWP and its predecessor organisations is ever written will depend on whether we deserve it by what we achieve in the real world of the class struggle. Until then this pamphlet may be of some interest to historians of the British far left.

If I were to rewrite the pamphlet today I should doubtless not do it in quite the same way. However, I conclude by saying that I stand by the political judgements made in the pamphlet, and that I remain proud to be a member of the SWP.

Ian Birchall
October 2000


Last updated on 31.3.2001