A history of the International Socialist Tradition in 13 books


Jim Higgins, A Socialist Review (International Socialism, 1965)

The first collection of articles from Socialist Review, the magazine of the SWP’s distant predecessors the Socialist Review Group (SRG: 1948-1962), it includes Cliff at his most iconoclastic (“The Permanent Way Economy”, “Economic Roots of Reformism”), Peter Sedgwick on “The Pretenders” (http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1959/01/pretenders.htm), Eric Heffer then of the SRG calling for a return to the industrial unionism of pre-1914 syndicalism, Henry Collins on William Morris, C. Dallas (Chanie Rosenberg) on the Colour Bar. “In Socialist Review there never was a “party line”, Jim Higgins notes in his introduction, “The pages of the paper were always open to articles from all individuals and tendencies on the left…”

Tony Cliff and Colin Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards (International Socialism, 1966), http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1966/incomespol/

Introduced by Reg Birch of the engineers union, this pamphlet confronted the central issue facing trade unionists in the mid-1960s; the attempts under Labour to keep inflation down by confronting unofficial strikes. Workers in Britain are better off than they ever have been before, Cliff and Barker write, explaining this success in terms of victories on the shop floor: “The decline of reformism from above in Britain means a new possibility in British politics once again, the possibility of the rebirth of a revolutionary working class movement. For wherever workers are fighting for themselves, fighting for better wages, fighting in defence of their shop stewards and fighting for their right to control the conditions of their work, wherever they are doing things for themselves and not leaving it to their leaders, they are growing in self-confidence and growing in their ability to run things for themselves. Wherever they are doing these things, they are destroying the tradition of reformism from above. They are developing a new tradition, of “do it yourself” reforms, that expresses their growing self-reliance and self-assertiveness…”

Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolution (OUP, 1963), extracts here (http://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1945/memoirs/ch01a.htm), here (http://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1945/memoirs/ch03a.htm), here (http://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1945/memoirs/ch04x.htm) and here (http://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1945/memoirs/ch04a.htm)

“The guns thundered, and Europe was at war, a prey to contending hysterias, bleeding from all her veins, and yet, in the middle of the slaughter, pretty comfortably off. Behind the lines business was good, the world was still solid! Paris ominous at night, but almost gay in the day-time; Barcelona, full of birds, dancing-girls, and anarchos, the trains packed with tough, warn-out soldiers … without knowing it the world was sliding towards the maelstrom … Suddenly the Europe of revolutions was born at Petrograd.” Translated by Peter Sedgwick of the International Socialists (IS: the SWP’s immediate predecessors, 1962-1978), Serge account of living the rise and defeat of 1917, was the book which the revolutionaries of 1968 read first.

Chris Harman et al, Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt (International Socialism, 1968)

Most of IS’s rapid recruitment in 1968 was among students, including at LSE, where students occupied in response to the Six Day War. Written by activists from this campaign, including Richard Kuper and Martin Shaw as well as Chris Harman, this pamphlet observes the massive increase in the numbers of people attending universities, the part of these institutions in the attempted restructuring of British capitalism, the relative privileged place of academics within society, the prevalence of arguments about making university education more useful for business, the emergence of students as an “important, politically active force”, sharing some of the problems and opportunities of workers (a bureaucratised “union”; a rank and file with its own vanguard) and the same challenge, of taking control of their institutions.

Nigel Harris and John Palmer (ed), World Crisis (Hutchinson, 1971)

Brought out by a mainstream publisher Hutchinson, this is a collection of eight longer pieces by the liveliest of IS authors: Peter Sedgwick on the decay of the old 1950s labour movement, Paul Foot on the decline of parliamentary socialism and of people’s hopes in Labour, Nigel Harris on imperialism, Nigel Kidron on state capitalism, and Duncan Hallas setting out IS’ perspective, that the declining ideological power of Stalinism made possible for the first time in fifty years a genuine revolutionary party, democratic and polyphonic, “a variety of views is necessary and inevitable … the heresy hunting of characteristic of certain sects is self-defeating.”

Reg Groves, The Balham Group (Pluto 1974) http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/balham/index.htm

A first account of the early history of British Trotskyism, from 1932 to 1939, Groves’ account was serialised in International Socialism and then published by IS’ then in-house publishers Pluto. It describes how the first Trotskyist groups emerged within the old Communist Party: “Forty years ago it took enormous courage to be a revolutionary. Capitalism had survived war and attack. Communist Parties were becoming Stalinist machines. Few people were up to the task in Britain – less than a dozen, centered on Balham in South London.” The implied message behind its publication was that the IS would be an attractive home to former CPers, disillusioned with their Party but still calling themselves Marxists.

Mike Kidron, Capitalism and Theory (Pluto, 1974)

Eight essays by Kidron, on Marx’s Theory of Value, Ernest Mandel’s “Maginot Marxism”, the fallacy of unequal exchange. Behind all of them are different facets of the Permanent Arms Economy, Kidron’s explanation of the stabilisation of the world economy, by the internationalisation of production and by increasing arms spending, waste production, which diminished capitalism’s otherwise tendency to overheat. The world was no longer “imperialist” in the sense in which Lenin had used the term, Kidron insisted: “it is difficult to see what value there is still using the word imperialism to describe the system of big power aggression and coercion of today unless it lies in the reassurance to be derived from familiar sounds.”

Martin Shaw, Marxism and Social Sciences (Pluto, 1975)

The IS of the mid-1970s saw itself as a party in embryo; as such it required original theories of social science, music and literature. Shaw’s book tackles the first of these. Under the long boom, new academic disciplines had gained in popularity, reflecting the desire of students for forms of knowledge capable of speaking to their lives, and the demands of business for practicality. Both groups regarded the humanities as outmoded, and rejected economics, which had traded theoretical for technical sophistication. Shaw portrays even the social sciences as in crisis and polemicises for Marxism, the only alternative with a coherent world view. A mere footnote, at page 120, records the author’s criticism of his own party, the IS, “who alone of all the revolutionary tendencies have accomplished a fairly full emancipation of marxist theory from the deformations of the stalinist period”, but “has responded much more adequately to some levels of struggle – chiefly in the workplaces – than to others. IS’ failure to articulate theoretically and relate practically to the growing movement for women’s liberation is perhaps the most glaring instance.”

Paul O’Flinn, Them and Us in Literature (Pluto, 1975), http://www.marxists.de/culture/them-n-us/

The writers of the English Literature canon, Shakespeare, William Goulding, George Orwell, E. M. Foster, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and DH Lawrence read for their message of class rule and class defiance. A Passage to India is “one of the best records of the mess capitalism makes of our relationships”, Orwell, “a writer theorising gloomily out of the centre of a combined and interconnected Stalinist stranglehold and broken working-class militancy”, and the entertainment industry “the soft ideological equivalent of the policeman’s truncheon – weapons for keeping people in their places and preserving things as they are.

Phil Evans, The Joke Works (Bookmarks, 1981)

“Our Norman” (an engineer in a boiler suit), “prices” in the forms of a galloping elephant but “wages” merely a scurrying mouse, this collection of the cartoons of Phil Evans, Socialist Worker cartoonist during the paper’s mid-70s heyday captures the party at its most assured, purest, workerism. “If Evans is anything to go by”, Steve Irons writes in one of the books half dozen postscripts, his “world-view consists of the following elements … marxism, leninism, trotskyism, workerism, economism, feminism, optismis, rank and file-ism, right-to-workism, victory-to-the-NLF-ism, troops-out-of-ireland-ism, stuff-the-jubileeism”.

Tariq Mehmood, Hand on the Sun (Penguin, 1983)

A novel of the Asian Youth Movements of the early 1970s, and their activists’ complex relationship with the International Socialists: “He had been given a job of organising among the Asian community. Always he confronted the same distrust and suspicion in his friends – that these goras and their revolution were beside the point. He felt the much-head rhetoric spring to his lips: that blacks were a small minority and therefore had to stop talking about separatism. But if he stopped to think, he realised that only the white members talked about separatism.”

David Widgery, Preserving Disorder (Pluto, 1989)

Every left-wing tendency goes back to its proudest moment, seeking to recreate it through subsequent campaigns. Militant began (and ended) in Liverpool in the mid-1980s, for Counterfire politics can mean no more and no less than Stop the War in 2003. The SWP’s last similar break-through moment was the Anti-Nazi League of the late 1970s. Widgery told the story of the ANL’s ally and predecessor Rock Against Racism in a book Beating Time. This collection of 35 articles gives a clue as to why RAR was possible; it collects the memories of a generation who had seen Hendrix, read Kerouac, fought sexism and homophobia, broken the state bans on obscenity and dabbled simultaneously in psychiatry and LSD. “I was never a terribly orthodox International Socialist”, Widgery writes, and you can imagine the group’s three thousand other members echoing back, in a discordant chorus of men’s and women’s voices, “and nor was I ever Spartacus, either.”

Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai (Virago, 1980, 2013)

Republished in the year the Delta crisis broke, Porter describes the shooting of the demonstrators outside the Winter Palace on 9 January 1905 (Alexandra Kollontai was on the demonstration and described the hot sun, and the blood of the dead and wounded on the snow), her heroine’s attempts to forge a space for revolutionary politics within and against the aristocrat-led women’s movement of the Russian capital, and the tensions within Bolshevism during a revolution which had begun by promising women absolute equality with men but ended with the revolutionaries imprisoned or dead. By one of those ironies of history, it was Kollontai, a champion on the first Workers’ Opposition and one of the first dissident Bolsheviks who was the only one to survive to old age, her conscience intact.

14 responses »

  1. The Socialist Review Group was formed in 1950 not 1948. Good post however even if y choices would be a little different.

  2. This is a very interesting list. I would have chosen Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia and The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism, Paul Foot’s Why You Should Be A Socialist, Ian Birchall’s The Smallest Mass Party in the World, and Chris Harman’s How Marxism Works.

    Also quite surprising that Reg Birch wrote the intro to Cliff and Barker’s book in the 1960s!

  3. A very good selection. One other book produced within the old IS tradition which might be considered is “Before Stalin” by Sam Farber. A Cuban born revolutionary socialist who wrote for IS Journal under the name Sergio Junco, Farber’s account of the process of degeneration of the Soviet Union is a refreshing and historically convincing account of the years before the final victory of Stalinism that avoids the tired categories of “orthodox” Trotskyism. Sam Farber is still active on the marxist left in the US.

    Birch’s introduction to the Cliff/Barket book on Incomes Policy has to be seen in the context both of the deepening split in the CP between Moscowites at the time and the smaller but more militant pro-Beijing factions – and also Birch’s recognition of the growth of an independent minded shop stewards movement in engineering at that time – epitomized in west London by the ENV combine led by IS shop steward veterans such as Geoff Carlsson and Geoff Mitchell.

  4. Thank you for including Peter’s translation of the Memoirs.

    For an expanded version please see link to New York Review of Books Classic Imprint, published 2012. (The note about the translator is inaccurate in relation to Peter’s children’s donation of royalties to a translation into Arabic.)


    Apparently at the London launch, when it was suggested that Peter’s original translation had been inspirational, the response was ” It was all a long time ago…”

    • Michele, i did two launches. at Marxism 2012 and at Historical Materialism 11/12.
      i don’t know who told you this about ‘it was a long time ago …’ but the sentiments this implies certainly did not figure in any of the discussions relating to Peter’s work; quite the opposite. you might even be able to get the recording of the launch from Bookmarks Bookshop.
      i am mystified.

    • You and your family stay with us for a summer. I hope you both are well. Please have your mother contact me if possible.
      Thank you

  5. I have all of these bar the first – Brighton’s great for used books!. But I would have thrown in “The Origins of the International Socialists” (pluto 1971), Party 7 Class (essays by Cliff, Hallas, Harman & Trotsky) (pluto,1971?), and Richard Hyman’s “Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism”, and “Industrial Relations: A Marxist Introduction”(pluto 1971 & macmillan press 1975)

  6. Michele is quite right to refer to the completed version, which we owe to the scholarship and hard work of George Paizis. Reviews in Guardian, TLS etc suggest this may have led to a new interest in Serge. Since as far as we know it was the publishers, not Peter, who imposed the cuts on the original edition, we can see this as a tribute to Peter and the eventual carrying out of his wishes.
    I don’t knew who exactly said what at the “London launch”, but as one who read the Memoirs in the 1960s and who knew Peter then, I can vouch for the continuing inspirational quality of both the Memoirs and of all Peter’s writing, – even when I sharply disagreed with him, as i did over Vietnam solidarity and Che Guevara (see Peter’s writings on the MIA). It was indeed a long time ago – but some of us have not forgotten.
    Comrades may be interested to know that at this year’s Historical Materialism conference in London (November 7-10) there will be a panel devoted to Peter’s work, both psychological and political.
    Ian Birchall

  7. Four more suggestions:

    Eamonn Mc Cann : War and an Irish Town – good not just on the Irish question, but on socialism and nationalism, the united front etc.

    Paul Foot : The Politics of Harold Wilson – a devastating attack on Labourist politics.

    Alex Callinicos : The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx – by far his best book.

    Dave Renton : When We touched the Sky – why did you leave this out, Dave? Can’t have been modesty.

  8. A few more suggestions that no-one has yet mentioned:

    Tony Cliff – ”Lenin, vol 1, Building the Party” and ”Neither Washington Nor Moscow: Essays on Revolutionary Socialism”

    Chris Harman – ”The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918-23”, ”The Fire Last Time, 1968 and After” and ”The Prophet and the Proletariat” (on Islamism)

    Duncan Hallas – ”Trotsky’s Marxism” and ”The Comintern”

    Alex Callinicos ”The Changing Working Class: Essays on Class Structure Today” (with Chris Harman) and ”The Great Strike : the miners’ strike of 1984-5 and its lessons” (with Mike Simons)

    Lindsey German, ”Sex, Class and Socialism”

    John Molyneux – ”Marxism and the Party”

    Ian Birchall – ”Tony Cliff – A Marxist for His Time”

    John Rees (ed) ”Essays on Historical Materialism”

    Ray Challinor ”John S Clarke”

    Paul Foot – ”Red Shelley” and ”Race and Immigration in British Politics”

    • C, Would definitely grant the merits of The Lost Revolution and “Washington” (although there is a little overlap with the first “Socialist Review” book). Lenin 1 might go in a list for its importance, but only with a health warning.

      Ian’s book more than deserves to be included of course, and Ray’s, and Red Shelley. I would choose Peter Alexander’s Race, Class and Resistance over “Race and Immigration”, just because it ages better.

      Lindsey’s will receive its own post in due course …

  9. interesting list.
    phil evans’ our norman cartoons were the very first thing i ever looked at in the copies of SW lying on our kitchen table as a teenager. They had a great way of bringing political ideas into everyday life… (i still have the collection of the strips which was a xmas present from my mum and dad – as well as Joke Works)
    the widgery collection was such a rare thing – again dealing in the way politics affects everyday life – that it was a very special book.
    ‘them and us in literature’ was so accessible, stimulating and even inspiring. i photocopied the whole thing and handed copies out to comrade friends – they were under impressed and 20 years later helped form counterfire…

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