Ian Birchall


Towards a Revolutionary Party


Ian H. Birchall, History of the International Socialists – Part 2: Towards a Revolutionary Party, in International Socialism 77 (1st series), April 1975.
Re-printed as part 2 of 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.

1968 as a year offered unprecedented opportunities to the revolutionary left. Revolutionary ideas achieved widespread currency, indeed became trendy in some circles. Revolutionary socialists suddenly found themselves swimming with the stream-an alarming experience for those long practised in swimming against it.

Internationally it was a year of momentous events. In January the National Liberation Front in Vietnam launched the “Tet offensive”, in which they scored striking successes against the far superior military forces of the United States. The international movement against the war received enormous encouragement. In May student demonstrations in France led to a crisis which resulted in a general strike of ten million workers. The groups of the revolutionary left succeeded in gaining wide currency for their ideas. And in August the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia led to a deep internal upheaval in the world’s Communist Parties, a number of which dissociated themselves from Russian action for the first time in their history.

In Britain it was a year of both hopes and threats. The rapid decline of support for the Labour government meant that less and less people were looking to the Labour Party as a focus for political action. The main impetus for the left came from outside the traditional organisations. There was an upsurge of militancy among students – beginning with the London School of Economics occupation in 1967, and spreading throughout Higher Education in 1968. This was paralleled by the growth of a large and demonstrative movement against the Vietnam war.

But the vacuum left by declining support for Labour also produced more sinister developments. Enoch Powell, trying to find a racial scapegoat for economic discontent, made an hysterical speech in favour of tighter immigration control. He was promptly dismissed from the Tory Shadow Cabinet, but won considerable support among sections of workers. In particular, London dockers struck and marched in his support.

All this underlined two things. One, that there was now a real possibility of building a socialist organisation outside the Labour Party; and secondly, that it was becoming increasingly urgent to do so. Amid the frenzied activity of 1968, IS had not only to respond to events, but to transform itself in the process.

The student movement was an international phenomenon, produced by the massive expansion of higher education needed by modern capitalism. Thousands of young people were exposed to the contradictions between the ideals of education and the need for capitalism to train low-level functionaries.

The student movement generated more than its fair share of romantic nonsense. Some theories – “red bases” and the “student vanguard” – saw students as replacing the working class as the agency of social change; others – “the student-worker alliance” – more modestly but equally unrealistically saw students and workers as equal partners.

But despite this the student movement could not be ignored by any serious revolutionaries. Firstly, because the majority of the students in struggle would go on to join the growing ranks of white collar trade unionists. And secondly, even if the majority of student revolutionaries would soon submit to social pressures and drop out, a number of them could be won to a revolutionary organisation and be integrated into it.

Before the London School of Economics occupation in 1967, IS students had played little systematic part in student politics, and certainly had no thought-out strategy for student work. But a number of IS comrades played a leading role in the LSE struggle, and a number of other student activists were recruited to IS. A similar pattern was repeated in the student battles which took place up and down the country during 1968 and 1969.

The overall political analysis that IS had developed was vital for the intervention in the student field. The two theses that IS had always stressed were self-activity and the primacy of the working class. IS’s stress on the working class prevented it from giving in to the theories of the “student vanguard” that were widespread at the time. IS comrades always laid emphasis on the necessity for solidarity with working class struggles, and in general IS’s recruitment among students was on the basis of its orientation to the working class. At the same time, IS had no truck with those like the Communist Party, who used an abstract invocation of the working class as an excuse for keeping out of actual ongoing struggles, and continuing to immerse themselves in manoeuvres in the National Union of Students.

The student movement was not concerned solely with struggles inside the colleges; it was inextricably bound up with the growing movement against the war in. Vietnam. When the US bombing of North Vietnam began in 1965, the struggle against the war was initially coordinated by the CP-dominated British Council for Peace in Vietnam, the main activity of which was loving up to clergymen and Labour peers, rather than mass mobilisation.

Frustration at the failure of the BCPV to do anything led to the creation, in 1966, of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). This was originally set up by an uneasy alliance of the politics of The Week (subsequently the IMG) [24] and the finances of Bertrand Russell. IS members participated in the foundation of the VSC, but for the first year of its existence the presence was a token one only.

The initial mistake of the VSC was to centre its opposition to the BCPV on programme rather than method. It was, of course, quite right to attack the disgusting opportunism of the BCPV, which refused to raise the slogan “Victory to the NLF” and centred its demands on peace. But merely to tail along behind the BCPV, shouting “correct” slogans, did nothing to help build a mass movement.

By mid-1967 the mood was changing. The NLF, despite US terror bombing, was clearly gaining ground, and thus inspiring emulation rather than pity; the anti-war movement in the US was growing; and in Britain, the student movement was looking for a cause to adopt.

It was at this point that IS – which had argued for a solidarity position from the very beginning of the war – decided to make its intervention in the VSC rather more vigorous. IS comrades argued with the existing VSC leadership for a serious approach to mass work; for long-term preparation for a demonstration, with systematic work in the colleges combined with mass leafleting of factories and estates. IS branches in the localities helped to prepare the demonstration in October 1967. The result was some thirty thousand people in Grosvenor Square (outside the US Embassy), a confrontation with the police, and the VSC’s name firmly on the political map.

Two more massive demonstrations followed, in March and October 1968; the CP, which had originally opposed the VSC for “splitting the broad movement”, eventually tagged along behind. The movement brought a whole wave of young people – including a sizeable minority of young workers – towards revolutionary politics. A New Society survey of the October 1968 demonstration showed that 68 per cent of those marching were against, not only the war, but capitalism in general.

Within this movement, IS strove to recruit on the basis of linking the anti-war struggle to the struggle at home. As a leaflet distributed on one of the big demonstrations put it:

... the battle against wage freeze; against social service cuts; against bad housing and rent increases; against bad hospitals and schools; against unemployment; against the government’s racialist policies is the same battle against the Vietnam war ... In the factories workers are fighting against the wage freeze and unemployment. On the housing estates tenants are resisting rent increases. If we are to help the Vietnamese we must go on from Grosvenor Square to fight these struggles. “A blow against the boss is a blow against the Vietnam war.”

Amid the euphoria of the Vietnam movement, the emergence of Powellism among sections of workers was a stunning shock to the left. For some it was further confirmation of how bleak things were and the need to keep one’s head down; for others, it was further proof that the working class could be written off in favour of a student vanguard.

The Communist Party, which had some influence in the docks, declined to use it to fight Powellism. Danny Lyons, one of their leading militants, felt so little confidence in Marxist arguments that he brought along; two clergymen, one Catholic and one Protestant, to try and dissuade the dockers.

IS had one docker (Terry Barrett) in membership, but he made every effort to argue the point in class terms. Barrett, together with some IS members and other revolutionaries, signed and distributed to dockers a leaflet putting the class case against Powell:

Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right-wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his Party and his class. He is a director of the vast National Discount Company (assets 224m) which pays him a salary bigger than the 3,500 a year he gets as an MP.

He lives in fashionable Belgravia and writes Greek verse.

What does he believe in? Higher Unemployment. He has consistently advocated a national average of 3 per cent unemployed. Cuts in the Social Services. He wants higher health charges, less council houses, charges for state education and lower unemployment pay. Mass Sackings in the Docks. Again and again he has argued that the docks are “grossly overmanned”.

It was the Powell affair, closely followed by the French general strike, which made it clear that it was possible to embark on the process of building an independent revolutionary party. Revolutionary parties are built, not proclaimed, and the task of transforming a small group into a party is one that requires a whole number of different stages of development. A revolutionary party has to meet criteria of size, class composition, programme and capacity to intervene. IS in 1968 could not begin to satisfy the requirement on any count.

The first step was to break with the small group tradition that had characterised revolutionary politics in Britain for the previous twenty years. Groups had been defined and separated from each other by fine points of analysis-natural enough in a period of propaganda organisation. Now it was necessary to bring to the fore the ideas of a combat organisation, defined not only by its analysis, but by what it fought for. It was in this spirit that IS issued an appeal to all other revolutionary groupings for unity around a basic agreement on four fundamental points of principle:

  1. Opposition to imperialism; for the victory of all genuine national liberation movements.
  2. Opposition to racism in all its forms and to controls on immigration.
  3. Opposition to state control of trade unions; – support for all progressive strikes.
  4. Workers’ control of society and industry as the only alternative to fascism.

It is important to be clear what this move meant in the context of the period. There was a big movement of youth towards socialist politics in the VSC; Many Labour Party activists were dropping out in disgust; sections of the CP were disillusioned with their Party’s passivity and impressed by the rise of the revolutionary left – a situation reinforced by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

At the same time none of the revolutionary groups had the size or credibility to serve as a focus for these potential recruits. A united organisation could have picked up many people who would otherwise have been lost.

However, if such a unified organisation had come into being, it would have been middle-class and largely student in composition, and amorphous in politics. A long fight-and probably splits-would have been necessary to transform it into a real workers’ party. As it was the unity proposals failed, the grouplets did not respond. This was probably inevitable; but they did represent a declaration of intent, a clear indication that a new style of politics and a new form of organisation was going to be necessary.

However, to be precise, the appeal for unity was not quite unsuccessful. One grouplet on the left did respond positively – Workers Fight, a tiny sect whose orthodox Trotyskist politics were indistinguishable from those of Ernest Mandel’s “Fourth International”, but who were not prepared to join it organisationally. In the euphoric atmosphere of 1968 the unity was consummated rapidly without sufficient care being given to the conditions on which the unity was to be maintained.

In fact, there was never an effective fusion. Workers Fight maintained its own organisation – with its own discipline, subscriptions and even probationary membership – inside IS. The result could only be continuing friction, legalistic disputes about factional rights, and serious disruption of IS’s work in a number of areas. The whole unfortunate situation dragged on for three years until a Special Conference in December 1971 decided to end the fusion, and to give Workers Fight supporters the chance to choose which organisation they wanted to belong to.

The recognition of the need to start building the party now implied the need for changes in IS’s structure. Over the previous years IS had changed from a propaganda group into a group that engaged in agitation in a localised and fragmented manner. Now that generalised politics was back on the agenda, it was necessary to transform it into a revolutionary combat organisation. This meant reorganising the group according to the principles of democratic centralism.

In theory this meant recognising two important principles. Firstly, unlike either the Stalinist or Social-Democratic party, the revolutionary party in the Bolshevik tradition does not substitute itself for the class; it is a conscious minority which fights for its ideas within the organisation of the class (trade unions, soviets, etc). Therefore the kind of democracy we would demand in, for example, a trade union, is not appropriate to a revolutionary organisation. Secondly, a revolutionary organisation needs democracy in order to make a scientific evaluation of the situation; but when decisions have been taken, the minority must accept the need for unity in action.

In practice this led to some fairly modest organisational proposals. Firstly, that the leading body of the organisation should be elected on a political basis – that is, by election of a national body from a national conference. Hitherto there had been a “federal” principle in operation; each branch sent a delegate. Secondly, the right of the organisation to impose discipline on all members was stated. A draft from the Political Committee (September 1968) put the matter in surprisingly moderate terms:

Branches must accept directives from the centre, unless they fundamentally disagree with them, in which case they should try to accord with them while demanding an open debate on the matter.

In retrospect all this appears more or less unexceptionable and uncontroversial. In fact it caused the greatest internal upheaval IS had ever had. Internal documents proliferated and at least five factions came into existence. It took two stormy conferences (in September and. December 1968) before a new, democratic centralist constitution could be agreed.

The heat of the debate can be partly explained by the newness of the membership – a good half had been in the group only a few months, and by the fact that many of them had come straight from the heady atmosphere of student politics. But the, issues at stake were more fundamental. When the main job had been struggle in the fragments, the need had been to encourage initiative; conditions for the tenants’ struggle varied so greatly between, say, Newcastle, Sheffield and London, that unified directives would have been of little help to anyone. It was, in fact, vital to stress that comrades should not wait for directives.

Moreover, if democratic centralism was to be meaningful, it depended on some degree of maturity and experience among those participating in the internal democracy. If there was no experience to be confronted, then there was little value in a centralised structure. (As one leading comrade put it, with perhaps unnecessary brutality, “if you have a bunch of idiots, they will elect an idiot to lead them.”) It would be impossible to do justice here to the various arguments put forward, both by the libertarian opposition to democratic centralism, and by those who felt that the IS leadership was still being insufficiently “hard” on the question. Although they were of vastly differing degrees of sophistication, the faction fight was on balance positive experience. IS members, old and new alike, were forced to think and argue through the whole question of the revolutionary party. There were casualty some good activists found themselves unable to take the change and left-but they were relatively few. More important the vast majority of those who voted against democratic centralism in 1968 were won over to the position in the course of the following 12 months.

IS had grown dramatically in the course of 1968. It had begun the year with 447 members, and ended with something in excess of a thousand. (The pace of recruitment and turnover were so hectic that precise figures are hard to get). The monthly Labour Worker had given way to the weekly Socialist Worker with a vastly increased circulation. A number of full-time workers had been employed both for the paper and as regional organisers. The pace of growth had taken the members by surprise.

Yet in face of the objective tasks the group was still tiny. In the course of 1968 IS had pointed to the so-called “vacuum on the left” – the gap in the working-class movement left by the demise of the Labour left and the bankruptcy of the Communist Party. Yet IS was still far too small to fill the gap; the tasks ahead were going to be even tougher.



1969-1970: Towards a Workers’ Party

By the middle of 1969 the wave of revolutionary euphoria had subsided, and it was much clearer that the struggle ahead was to be a protracted one. The last year of Labour rule saw massive trade union opposition to the proposals for trade union legislation, and a wave of strikes, especially among sections of lower-paid workers with few tradition of militancy. And with the return of Tory government in June 1970 things hotted up even more. Heath’s policies of confrontation and wage control led to a series of big official strikes-postmen in 1971, miners and Fords in 1972, various public sector groups in 1973 and the miners again in 1974.

The new level of struggle made things, in objective terms, much easier for IS. The experience of Labour government made the argument for an independent socialist organisation right outside the Labour Party very much more plausible And the trend towards government intervention in industrial struggles was doing more than a bookshop of propaganda to break down the artificial barriers between politics and economics

But to take advantage of the situation IS had to transform itself as an organisation. IS had come out of the faction fight of 1968 with a principled commitment to the need for a revolutionary workers’ party but in terms of class composition the situation was actually worse than in 1967, a far higher proportion of the membership being students. And although these students who joined IS had done so on the basis of a commitment to the working class and a break with the more lurid forms of “student vanguardism”, there was still great confusion about what the role of students in relation to the labour movement actually was.

One expression of this was the rather frenetic leafleting of factories that took place. Students anxious to make links with the working class but not quite sure how to do it stood at factory gates with leaflets designed to “bring politics to the workers”. (In the present writer’s experience the worst example was a leaflet consisting of two tightly packed and badly duplicated sides on the question of the war in Biafra. Unfortunately for any worker who managed to read it at all, the leaflet came to no conclusion as to which side, if either, one should support in the war!)

The situation was also bad for the workers in the organisation. In a workers’ organisation a worker is judged, not for what he is, but for what he does. In this period of student domination in IS, it was often enough to proclaim that one was a worker to win admiration and flattery. At one IS conference an industrial worker denounced a document being circulated as ‘so bad it must have been written by a sociologist.’ He was cheered to the echo by the audience, a fair percentage of whom were sociology students.

What now had to be begun was a systematic transformation of the organisation. Very crudely, it is possible to see three main phases in this process:

  1. the membership bad to be re-orientated towards the industrial working class. Students in particular had to be told that, while they should not abstain from real struggles in the Colleges, their main priority should be making propaganda and finding contacts in the labour movement;
  2. the composition of the organisation had to be changed by recruiting workers into the organisation;
  3. the workers in the organisation had to take over the political leadership. This meant, not only transforming the national leader ship, but also creating a local structure based on functional units-in particular at factory branches-in which workers would have the leading role.

In practice, of course, things did not go so smoothly. The stages of growth overlapped considerably (for example, the existence of a student base assisted IS’s credibility in intervening in the 1972 miners’ strike). Moreover there was inevitable friction and an overemphasis put on certain turns. Comrades often found difficulty in making the transitions from one stage to the next. For example, able propagandists tended to think of workers as being eternally “contacts” rather than bringing them into membership. And those who had shown great talent at recruiting and organising found it hard to hand over leadership to those they had recruited and organised. Moreover, the changes had to be made in a world that did not give IS leisure to solve its internal problems, but forced it to move ever more quickly.

The first major crisis to hit the organisation came in August 1969. Following a year of mounting struggle in the North of Ireland, fighting erupted in Derry, and British troops were sent in, ostensibly to preserve the peace. This presented IS with serious problems of tactics and principles.

On the one hand. IS had campaigned consistently for the withdrawal of British troops from the North of Ireland. However, in the immediate situation, in which the Catholic forces were very much the weaker, neither the IRA nor the People’s Democracy was demanding the immediate withdrawal of British troops, IS had to combine its internationalism (its concern to have the same position as comrades in Ireland) with its responsibility to bring home to British workers the role of British imperialism. In the event it was decided not to make “Withdraw the Troops Now” an agitational slogan. A minority of the leadership and of the membership dissented.

However, the main emphasis in Socialist Worker was on the need for Catholic self-defence and on the potential role of the troops. The week that the troops went in, Socialist Worker headlined: [25]

B-Specials disbanded
RUC disarmed
Special Powers Act abolished
Political prisoners released.

The lead article expanded:

Certainly the mass of Catholics, after three days of bitter fighting, were relieved to see the RUC and the Specials withdraw, and to this extent were glad to see the British troops. But it should not be thought that the presence of British troops can begin to solve their problems ...

The role of the British troops is not to bring any real solution to the problems of the people of Northern Ireland, but to freeze a situation that looked like getting out of hand and damaging the interests of the British ruling class in Ireland.

By early 1970 the openly repressive role of the troops had become apparent to all, and since then IS has campaigned consistently for the withdrawal of all British troops. Nonetheless solidarity work on. the Irish question caused many problems. Partly this was because at times of downturn in the struggle, the united front bodies that IS worked within became little more than meeting grounds for representatives of small groups and an excuse for sectarian backbiting. Also, however, it took time to develop a clear perspective amid the complexities of the Irish situation. IS’s position was always one of unconditional support for the IRA in the struggle against imperialism, and of links with socialist groupings (People’s Democracy) and individuals (Bernadette Devlin)in Ireland. But what also needed to be made clear was the need for an independent working-class-based revolutionary party in Ireland as the only alternative to the dead-end nationalism of the IRA. The main priority throughout this period, however, was industry. Indeed, IS was often accused of one-sidedness and “economism” because of its neglect of other sectors (e.g. students) and other areas of work (e.g. international solidarity). But given the overwhelming difficulty of winning roots in the working class, and the overriding urgency of doing so, such lack of balance was justified. In the abstract it is fine to talk of “bringing politics to workers”, but if there are no workers to bring them to, then the discussion is futile.

The first stage in the transformation of IS was the so-called “Turn to the Class” of 1969. In a sense this was a misnomer; IS had always been distinguished from other tendencies by its stress on the role of the working class. What the “Turn to the Class” involved was, firstly, an attempt to divert the main energies of the organisation on to work around industry and the trade unions; and secondly, an effort to make this work more serious and systematic, rather than the random activity that was going on. This meant essentially an effort of education and organisation. Comrades with no experience of the labour movement had to make great efforts to learn of its traditions and of the way the trade union movement actually operated. Groups were formed of comrades working around particular industries and combines. An attempt was made to establish the main priorities for industrial work. Leaflets had to be written in a responsible fashion, if possible with a contact inside the factory.

All this was still essentially work from the outside. There were still few industrial workers inside IS. The first job was to turn a largely student and middle-class membership into a cadre capable of making some impact in the industrial working class. This in turn provided a selection process; membership actually fell during 1969, though the group became stronger and more serious.

By the autumn of 1970, following the Tory election victory, the time had been reached for the next stage, the launching of a membership campaign. Systematic work around the factories and the production of a high standard of propaganda had won IS a considerable degree of credibility; but this was still expressed in the form of a periphery of support rather than actual worker members. The recruitment campaign launched in September 1970 aimed at five hundred new members over three months; it was followed by a further campaign in the summer of 1971. The aim was to transform the nature of the branches, to make them, in Trotsky’s phrase, “habitable for workers”. [26]

As had always been the practice in IS, the aim was to win recruits to the organisation on the basis of a minimum agreement on activity, and leave the question of education in the wider aspects of IS politics to be developed in the process of work inside the organisation. Many critics of the recruitment strategy, inside and outside IS, argued that the organisation should be more “selective” and impose more control such as probationary membership on new entrants. This was to mistake the nature of the process. There was indeed a selection – a number of those who joined subsequently left again; in some cases it was because the organisation failed to hold them, in others because they were not ready to give the commitment required for membership. But there was no way this could be forecast in advance, no magic mark engraved on the foreheads of potential recruits. Only the experience of common struggle was able to show which comrades would last the pace.

The prerequisite for the recruitment campaign was considerable enthusiasm on the part of the membership. Large public meetings – some featuring Bernadette Devlin – were held. Obviously mistakes were made and some of the new members were lost. The important thing was to establish that IS was not a closed sect seeking to reinforce its own purity, but an organisation open to the working class.

There was, however, some resistance to the membership campaign within the organisation. Indeed, the whole exercise had to be fought through on two fronts, the struggle to make IS more credible in the outside world being paralleled by a struggle to convince the existing membership.

The main argument brought against a strategy of open recruitment was the danger of so-called “dilution”. Inexperienced comrades, it was claimed, could not participate effectively in internal democracy (though in fact many of the new recruits had far more experience of the class struggle than a lot of long-standing IS members). Moreover, it was suggested, IS was sacrificing programmatic correctness in favour of sheer numerical size.

In the abstract, this position had an element of truth, and could be backed up by selected quotations from Lenin. The real point was to evaluate what were the main dangers in the current period. Although revolutionary ideas were making some impact in the working class, so that a recruiting campaign was a possibility, it just was not true that there was any danger of a mass of potentially opportunist workers waiting at the gates for the chance to flood into IS for the worst possible motives. IS membership for a worker offered some onerous responsibilities (like having to be identified in his place of work with a paper which supported the IRA and opposed immigration control) and precious few consolations. The doors may have been open, but recruits still had to be dragged through.

The arguments were debated over a period at every level in the organisation. For the issue could not be decided by a simple vote. One cannot instruct comrades to recruit; the job can be done only by people who are convinced that they want to do it.

The results are shown by the figures. At the Easter 1970 Conference IS had a membership of 880; by Easter 1972 this had risen to 2,351. A break-down of the social composition at Easter 1972 showed 26 per cent manual workers and 31 per cent white collar workers.

IS had by now ceased to be a propaganda group. But this did not mean that propaganda had ceased to be important.

On the contrary, it was the continual flow of propaganda material that was central to its growing influence. Fundamental to this was the building of Socialist Worker. The paper had changed its name from Labour Worker to confirm the break with entry work in the Labour Party. In September 1968 the paper was launched as a weekly. It had four pages, cost two (old) pence, and looked somewhat scruffy. It was sold mainly by students outside the gates of factories and on council estates. Slowly the paper was improved; it grew to six pages in 1969, eight in 1970, twelve in 1971 and sixteen in 1972. The circulation rose from under ten thousand in 1968 to over thirty thousand some five years later. But it was not simply the sale of the paper or its journalistic quality that mattered, it was its political role. It was Socialist Worker which gave the political coherence to an organisation whose members were involved in struggles that differed widely from one from another. It was Socialist Worker that provided the main line of communication between the centre and the membership and periphery. It was Socialist Worker that provided the political basis for the membership, the political line that every member had to defend to those he sold to.

Also of great importance in increasing IS’s credibility was Tony Cliff’s book The Employers’ Offensive, [27] a study of productivity dealing and the strategy for fighting it. Two things made the work important. Firstly, Cliff was able to draw extensively on the experience of IS’s industrial membership and periphery; the work was really the result of a collective effort. Secondly, although the subject matter might seem technical, it raised crucial political issues. The trade union bureaucracy, including the “left” bureaucrats supported by the Communist Party, were heavily implicated in productivity deals. The Communist Party, despite its much greater industrial influence, could not have produced the book. The Employers’ Offensive offered a valuable way for IS branches to extend their influence and contacts. By collecting lists of local trade unionists it was possible to arrange widespread sales.

But this was still approaching the class from the outside. The problem now was to make IS part of the working-class movement. IS was greatly assisted in this by the continued. decline of the Communist Party. The Communist Party was increasingly unable to carry through any co-ordinated strategy in industry, because of the diverging interests of its rank-and-file militants and its members and friends in the bureaucracy. This led to it taking a passive role in many struggles, and to a great reluctance to participate in any rank-and-file movement. [28] For example, when the five dockers were jailed in the summer of 1972, the Communist Party, and its industrial front, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, were more or less inactive. The possibility for IS to take the lead in an increasing number of struggles was now open. But for this further changes in the structure of the organisation were necessary, which once again had to be fought for against considerable resistance.

Despite IS’s orientation to industry, its organisational structure in 1972 was still a geographical one; members belonged to branches according to the areas they lived in: Such a structure is, of course, fine for an organisation whose main concern is electoral politics; for an organisation based on struggle in the trade union and the work-place the structure was a positive impediment. The aim had to be two-fold; to develop effective union and industrial fractions, and to move, where possible, to workplace branches.

The development of effective fractions was intimately linked to the perspective of building rank-and-file movements inside the trade union movement. The ultimate aim was to repeat the successes of the Minority Movement of the 1920s, though it was clearly recognised that this could only be done with a much bigger base than was at present available.

The model was provided by the work carried out since 1967 in the National Union of Teachers. Here a small group of IS teachers had come together with some Communist Party members who were disillusioned by the increasingly conservative role of the Communist Party within the union. As a result the paper Rank and File was set up; it rapidly became the focus for the militant left in the union, and succeeded in attracting support way beyond IS and IS sympathisers.

As the role of the trade union bureaucracy as the main obstacle to shop-floor militancy became more and more obvious in the early seventies, IS members were able to participate in, and in some cases initiate, the creation of similar papers in a number of unions and industries – The Collier, The Carworker, The Hospital Worker and several others. It was in turn a number of these papers which took the initiative in calling the first conference of the National Rank and File Movement in March 1974, attended by more than 500 delegates from over 300 trade union organisations.

On the question of factory branches there was more controversy. Factory branches had always been part of IS’s tradition; indeed the first factory branch – at ENV – had been set up as early as 1966. But the Conference at Easter 1972 passed a resolution declaring opposition to factory branches – though it was carried by an alliance of those who opposed factory branches in principle and those who simply thought it premature to establish them.

The main argument against factory branches was that they tended to segregate sections of the membership, whereas the aim of a revolutionary party should be to enable each member to transcend his sectional situation and participate in the totality of the party’s work. Against this idealist view, the argument for factory branches stressed that members had to be organised for action, not discussion, and that factory branches would enable a great increase in the recruitment of workers.

The Conference held in March 1973 resolved to go ahead with the building of factory branches. At the same time the defeat of a number of sections of workers who had fought against the Tory Phase Two meant that more workers were realising the need for revolutionary politics. IS entered another phase of rapid growth, and within months about forty factory branches were established.

But events were moving quickly in the world outside also. The oil crisis and Heath’s Phase Three strategy of confrontation led to the three-day week and the miners’ strike. The weeks leading up to the February 1974 General Election led to a period of hectic propaganda activity and Socialist Worker reached a peak sale of well over forty thousand. Despite the enthusiasm of the comrades, the organisation’s resources were strained almost to breaking-point.

Labour’s hairsbreadth victory in the election led to a different situation which required further adaptation. IS had correctly identified the organisational decline of the Labour Party and therefore rejected any such strategy as entry work or concentration on “exposure” of the Labour leaders by putting demands on them. What was somewhat underestimated was Labour’s ideological influence, which enabled it to avoid any head-on confrontations for the first year in office. Although there were some big struggles, notably among sectors with no traditional links to Labour – nurses, teachers, local government workers – the situation was in general much more fragmentary than under the Tories.

IS’s growth and the changing circumstances meant the emergence of a new set of problems. While IS vas still a small organisation, it was more and more confronted with tasks that required a much bigger organisation. IS members began to face problems for which there were no precedents within the experience of most comrades. As a result there were necessarily divergences, and in the months preceding the September 1974 Conference there was a sharp internal debate.

A number of issues became closely intertwined in this debate. One main issue concerned the perspective for growth. Were the potential recruits for the organisation to be found among those workers who had already some experience of the existing political organisations, or would they come from among young workers with few traditions and little experience of work in the labour movement. This in turn raised the question of how Socialist Worker should orientate its articles.

Linked to this was the demand for more workers to be actively involved as writers for Socialist Worker. This in turn raised the whole problem of putting more and more of the responsibility for leadership at every level into the hands of workers.

A parallel argument related to the question of work within the trade union movement. Some comrades argued for considerable importance to be given to working within the official union machinery, contesting elections etc. Others argued that the main priority must be given to building within the workplace.

These developments inevitably meant the replacement of some people who had a record of long service in the organisation. Roger Protz, who had made an enormous contribution to the development of Socialist Worker since 1968, resigned as editor following disagreements about the orientation of the paper. And the September 1974 Conference re-elected less than half of the outgoing National Committee.

Nonetheless, the task of building IS into a revolutionary workers’ party is still very far from being completed. But the political analysis and experience built up over the first quarter century of the group’s existence provides the base on which this can be done.



24. The Week of 1967 – cheerleaders for Fidel Castro and black power – had little beyond the name in common with The Week of 1964, with its list of sponsoring left Labour MPs. The change in politics was accompanied by a substantial turnover of personnel. But, like the brush that had three new heads and two new handles, it was “still the same old brush”.

25. 21 August 1969. [This article is can be found in full at http://www.marxists.de/ireland/sw/troops.htm.]

26. In Defence of Marxism, (New York, 1965) p.109.

27. London 1970

28. Cf. articles by J. Townsend and C. Harman in IS62 and 63 and S. Jefferys in IS76.


Last updated on 6.3.2002