Tag Archives: left

The International Socialists and the 1960s

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I spoke ten days ago at a Socialist Resistance event on the origins of 1968; the other speakers were Jane Shallice, Penny Duggan, Ernie Tate, Ian Birchall and Alan Thornett. The videos of the full event are here. It was a well-attended occasion, with warm-hearted contribution from veterans of the decade. Invited to speak about IS, I did so, and I have attached below the full version of my notes, for those who can’t stand (as I can’t) to watch the video, and with the links to the original texts, which are livelier in the original than any commentary. In reposting the link, I thought it would be useful to say a few things which occurred to me only when reflecting back on the event.

The first is that when trying to understand the revolutionary events of 1968, the real context (i.e. far beyond the history of any left-wing group) is the first signs of decay of a welfare state consensus which went back to the second world war. A number of post-war Conservatives (including Macmillan) seem to have felt a genuine dread at the thought of any return to mass unemployment. The first breaches in the taboo had come under Labour. The most perceptive of all the authors in the Widgery collection, for this understanding, is probably Alasdair Macintyre, whose 1968 radio broadcast, “The Strange Death of Social Democratic England”, appears midway through the book.

Here Macintyre spoke of “the strange death of social democracy … in the period from 1900 to 1955 in Britain social democracy could provide a viable expression for interests that the working class were able to recognise as their own … the acceptance of the new technocratic growth-oriented capitalism by the British Labour Party has necessarily severed this link” (TLIB, p237). He predicted a future “in which inequality of income and status must be maintained [and] … What people are promised as their rights will … not be performed”.

Between 1965 and 1975, the first pre-emptive hints of what we would now consider neo-liberalism pushed most societies to the left. In Britain, this took place through a shift leftwards in the ideas held by two generations: first the young (ie those born between about 1950 and 1960) and second (although this has hardly been documented) among enough of their parents’ generation so as to provide the sympathetic parents, aunts, uncles, whose support was needed to coalesce a demographic of single-issue radicals into an generation of sustained activists.

The International Socialists flourished because they could relate to the mixed combination of pro- and anti-mood which these days tends to be subscribed within the flawed phrase “anti-politics”: yes, against all politicians, and against the Establishment but also the 1960s generation was in favour of seeing the citizens of both East and West as equal, and for drugs, music, sex… A good case could be made that IS’ rapid growth in 1968 came about because they were seen generally as the  most consistent local representatives of a generational mood of anti-politics (“Neither Washington nor Moscow…”)

(This incidentally can only make sense to people like me who are recent refugees from the SWP if we emancipate ourselves from the fallacy that a left-wing group prospers only because its ideas are proved right by history. That theories such as state capitalism or deflected permanent revolution were “correct” and this explains why the group grew from 100 members in 1960 to 1000 ten years later. If that logic worked, does the SWP’s demise from 10,000 members in 1993 to around one thousand two decades later prove the ideas retrospectively flawed? We need to grasp that size, ability to put a programme into effect and momentum are all part of  what makes political communication effective, not merely the content of a programme)

And that takes me on to the idea of anti-politics itself. I am troubled by several of my friends’ shared assumption that this kind of negative dialectics is innately anti-left. Of course, it can be (just look at the EDL) but it does not have to be. It should be obvious that every time a person defines their politics negatively (eg as an “anti-fascist”) they are also saying something about what positively they stand for (in the case of any anti-fascists worth the name, opposition to authoritarian government, solidarity with all groups of the oppressed…).

Grasping the complexity of “anti-politics”, and accurately diagnosing its hidden positives in the present (what would this revolution be that millions of people are so clearly longing for?) might be “a” way of reorienting our own disoriented left in the very different circumstances of neo-liberalism’s 40-year ascendancy.  

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I have been asked to speak on the International Socialists (or “IS”) and the roots of 1968

This I will do through a reading of the late David Widgery’s book The Left in Britain 1956-1968, the nearest thing there is to an “official” IS history of the 1960s

I will make three points

First, that in Widgery and IS’ history of the 1960s the group prospered by being part of a revolutionary milieu

Secondly, that that according to Widgery the IS had no separate tradition from the rest of that revolutionary milieu

Third, that the moment at which IS acquired a different approach was, according to Widgery, only during 1968

Finally, while of course my remarks will be limited to IS – I hope that they shed light on the activities of other groups who were close to IS, and shaped by the same events

The first idea I will speak to is that of a revolutionary milieu

Published by Penguin in 1976, The Left in Britain is a collection of 55 articles and speeches purporting to tell, through its participants own words, the story of the left in Britain between about 1957 (i.e. after the crisis in the Communist Party had ended) and 1968. The editor speaks mainly through an initial Introduction by Widgery’s IS comrade Peter Sedgwick.

IS and its predecessors had previously published collections of IS journalism (including a 1965 collection, edited by Jim Higgins of pieces from the group’s magazine Socialist Review), and a collection of theoretical pieces, World Crisis, edited by Nigel Harris and John Palmer and published by Hutchinson in 1971 containing pieces by the likes of Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron.

By contrast of the 55 pieces in Widgery’s collection only 20 or so, or less than half, were written by members or former members of IS and this includes several (Bob Rowthorn and Sheila Rowbotham…) whose stay in IS was brief

If the non-Stalinist left had been able to organise a single weekend conference with many different tendencies represented, these might have been the contributors: workers, revolutionary students, peaceniks, Labour’s equivocal supporters and its critics.

Several of the shorter pieces are by “names” who could hardly have been excluded: Edward Thompson and John Saville, the editors of Socialist Register, and who by breaking from the Communist Party publicly in 1956-7 had made themselves the effective founders of the first British New Left, Peggy Duff the CND organiser and Alex Comfort of the Committee of 100, the striking Hull seamen (including John Prescott) who Prime Minister Wilson had smeared in 1966 as a “tightly knit group of politically motivated men”.

As well as the top table, the book also features the “people in the audience” with whom IS sought a relationship: Ken Weller of Solidarity arguing against both Soviet and British bombs, Brian Behan, sometime of the SLL, on the South Bank building dispute, and his fellow building worker Lou Lewis (later a veteran sponsor of the activists who have become the present-day Blacklist Support Group), Rose Boland of the Ford equal pay strike, and the activists of the Revolutionary Socialist Student Federation.

Ken Coates, a founder of the International Group (the forerunner of the IMG) and a participant in the New Left of 1956 criticised The Left in Britain 1956-1968 in Socialist Register as an “act of cultural imperialism, attempting to incorporate all of the post-1956 British New left under the hegemony of the International Socialists, a rather shrill, if also intellectually infertile, sectarian grouping”. (Widgery’s reply is here)

The accusation is not groundless – The Left in Britain is a subtle, party history of the 1960s, but here I emphasise its subtlety. Widgery tells IS’s history as part of, not in contrast to, the rest of the revolutionary left

My second theme is tradition

For several of the contributors to the book, the glue holding together the relationship between what used to be called “the party” and “the class” was tradition.

EP Thompson gives the clearest statement of this idea: explaining how the original New Left (i.e. the former Communists of 1956-7) embodied a radical English inheritance: In his words, “We sought to rehabilitate the rational, human and libertarian strand within the Communist tradition, with which men of great courage and honour – from Tom Mann to Ralph Fox – have been identified: a tradition which the elect of King Street have brought into shifty disrepute” (TLIB, p90).

For Thompson this was a tradition expressed first through people (Tom Mann, the former leader of the 1889 Dock Strike, Ralph Fox, a British Communist journalist who had been killed in Spain) rather than through ideas or through institutions. The main reference to a party is “King Street” – the Communist Party’s headquarters.

It is not that Thompson was disowning his CP past, as he explained: he was proud of what the Party had done from about mid-1936 to about 1951 (ie the Popular Front) while he disowned its earlier and later sectarian periods:

“For all its confusion, its mixed motives, its moral amnesia and doctrinal arrogance, it was the major carrier of humanist aspirations in Britain in the Thirties and early Forties” (notice the dates, they are not accidental”, “it brought professional and industrial workers into a kind of association unique in the labour movement at that time; and it stimulated forms of organisation and collective intellectual endeavour from which the younger generation of socialists may still be able to learn (TLIB, p90).

Just as Widgery was selecting within a milieu in order to emphasise IS’ participation in it, Thompson was choosing within the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain to select the elements he found most congenial.

As for IS, its notion of revolutionary tradition appears in the next chapter of Widgery’s book, the text of a speech by Tony Cliff from 1967 on Revolutionary Traditions. It was perhaps the earliest statement of the idea of an “IS tradition”. As such, what is striking is Cliff’s hostility to the backwards-looking thinking that the term “tradition” implies:

“Those that simply speak in the name of tradition are bloody useless, because what really happens happened like the German Social Democrats in 1914 – they quoted Marx and Engels from 1848. Marx and Engels said in 1848, said, “Yes, we in Germany should carry the battle against Tsarist Russia,” and the Social Democrats got up in 1914 and said, as Marx and Engels said, “We have to carry the battle against Twist Russia” and that’s why they supported the war in 1914 … In other words the danger of tradition is the danger of death” (TLIB, pp92-3)

Cliff followed this passage with the insistence that there was barely any such thing as an IS tradition separable from the rest of the left “the IS Group’s tradition is a very simple one … in reality we have changed all the time, and thank heaven for that … our basic ideas are taken really from an old, old revolutionary tradition” (TLIB, p93).

Those of us who have recently been in the SWP can attest to the different universe into which its recruits are now schooled: one in which virtues of the “the tradition” overwhelm the past, all that was done in previous years was consistent and correct, and the only thing missing is a sense of what to do in the politically impoverished present.

My third point is about when, and now, IS distinguished itself from the rest of its revolutionary milieu, or to put it another way, when an IS tradition starts

It would have been open to Widgery to have included in his book pieces such as Michael Kidron’s early work on what he first called the Permanent War Economy or Tony Cliff on state capitalism, deflected permanent revolution, etc.

One reason – I believe – why Widgery didn’t do this, was an intimation that what was going to matter to IS wasn’t these theories which had been formulated in a period when IS had been very small and had among their functions a role in marking IS and its predecessors as being different from their other left competitors, but IS’ capacity for enthusiasm in the moment which reached a Britain under the influence of events in 1968 in France which seemed to prove the possibility of a 1917-style revolution in Britain.

Dave Kellaway of Socialist Resistance has captured this point in a recent article: “Whether because of, or in spite of, such theories [as State Capitalism, the Permanent Arms Economy, etc] the fact is that the IS/SWP related to the working class more effectively that the old International Marxist Group.  It was less intellectual and developed a press with a real impact – the brochures on Incomes Policy in the 1970s sold tens of thousands and helped the SWP build a base among the shop stewards movement.” He also credits the good work done by IS/SWP in the Anti-Nazi League and Stop the War.

In so far as Widgery’s book provides a historical analysis of 1956 to 1968, it is that in 1956 the left’s opportunities had been limited to the accumulation of “minorities”. By 1968 the non-Stalinist left was now in what Peter Sedgwick’s introduction described as an “Age of Majorities”. The difference between the two was about the changing class composition of the far left, and about the potential for causes to join and give rise to mass movements.

“The last era of the independent Left, from 1956 to roughly 1970, can be termed the Age of Minorities”, Sedgwick wrote, “The strength of a radical demonstration, whether numbered in hundreds, or in scores of thousands, reflected the ingathering of local weaknesses, tiny powerless groups who in their own terrain were unable to win the mass of people around them except perhaps in the temporary euphoria of one college or one workshop” (TLIB, p35)

This old way of doing politics, Sedgwick announced, had been tested by Powellism, by the redundancies of the mid- and late-1960s and had failed. Now, the left, if it was to survive, had to learn to organise on a different scale.

“We have all fled from the tasks of the Socialist campaigner”, Sedgwick wrote, “into the peculiar satisfactions of the prophet or the administrator, the minimal shop steward or the archetypal student leader, the paper-selling wanderer or the paper-reading follower: these postures are so much less demanding, so much more fulfilling in the short term than the role of active ferment among a group of people who see us every working day, know us by name and by face and will call us to account for every word and action” (TLIB, p37).

These are difficult passages to reread now, in a knowledge of how the SWP was going to end, as a party which misused the activist imperative to deflect attention from its mistakes of its leadership. (Indeed, Sedgwick himself would be one of the first to disown them: leaving IS just two years later in 1978 after it had changed its name to the SWP)

That history acknowledged, the transitions Sedgwick was speaking for were ones which were as much needed then as they are now. At some point the left will need to make those shifts, as it did 35 years ago: from the purely national perspective to local plans to give it meaning, from radicalism to class, and from a way of politics appropriate to a time of defeats to one capable of a time of victories.