1967: Debate with Colin Barker
In December 1966 I withdrew briefly from the International Socialists – I rejoined in June 1967 at the time of the Six-Day War in the Middle East. I am not particularly proud of my resignation letter, and would have been happy to let it lie in the dustbin of history – but for one thing. It provoked a far more interesting document, Colin Barker’s reply to me. Colin’s article is an excellent description of the political reorientation of the IS Group in the 1966-68 period. Colin’s piece reflects Cliff’s thinking – but it is a better and more balanced account than anything Cliff wrote at the time. In fact Colin sent a first draft of the article to Cliff who described it as “excellent”. I now acknowledge that Colin was right and I was wrong – except on the question of Vietnam. Once again I am most grateful to John Rudge for locating these long forgotten documents and the Cliff-Barker correspondence.
International Socialism Group Bulletin No 1 February 1967
Ian Birchall writes:-
John Phillips has asked me to set out my reasons for leaving the IS Group. I have no desire to say anything in a spirit of bitterness about an organisation of which I have been an active member for four years, and from which I have learnt most of what I know about Marxism. But I hope that my criticisms may contribute to constructive discussion about perspectives.
Since the Group has no formal leadership (though a leadership group clearly exists) and there is no formal channel whereby a ‘line’ is laid down or changed, it is difficult to fully document a criticism. But I want to criticise the total practice of the Group as I have experienced it, and not to recount anecdotes or attack personalities.
The Group’s great contribution over the last few years has been its effort to dispel illusions about Parliament and resolution-mongering, and stress the need to build rank-and-file organisations. As the Labour Government has fulfilled our predictions, more and more people have come to accept the truth of this analysis. However, I believe the crucial necessity is to take the next step and attempt to politicise the fragmentary rank-and-file organisations that exist. The Group has taken the opposite view: that the necessity is simply to foster rank-and-file militancy. No revolutionary group can cut itself off from militant struggles as they occur, but when there is talk of a group ‘submerging‘ itself in the fragments of the movement, then it is in danger of ceasing to be a revolutionary group at all. Reformism from below is only marginally better than reformism from above.
The dangers are two-fold. In the short-term, we live in a rapidly changing situation. The Group’s analysis has been based on a full employment situation, which focusses militancy on the shop floor. In a situation of Common Market plus permanent unemployment things will be different. There is a grave danger that membership won and organisation built on a purely fragmentary basis will be lost in a situation where the issues change quickly.
In the long-term, (though the Group always seems a bit ashamed to talk about the long-term) I cannot accept the belief that fragmented militancy will naturally grow into political consciousness. Such spontaneism would be elitism – it would mean that, comes the crisis, the masses turn to a pre existing political clique rather than evolve their own political consciousness. But anyway it won’t happen. Our job is to politicise the struggle, and not to substitute ourselves for the rank and file.
There seem to me four main consequences in the Group’s activity of these attitudes:
Among newer members of the Group, there is a positive contempt for theory; the Group is doing nothing to combat this. There are no plans for publication of anything other than of a short-term agitational nature. The theory of state capitalism has recently been described as ‘something to talk about in the pub’ and ‘useful against the Pabs, but not now’. For me it is an organic part of an understanding of the international situation and the concept of workers’ control.
The Group’s internationalism has suffered. The Group has been lethargic on Vietnam; because we did nothing about it, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which could have been used to wage a political struggle on the issue, has fallen into the hands of a group of apolitical atrocity-hunters. The opportunistic and muddled line on Rhodesia was symptomatic. The struggle against imperialism elsewhere in the world has been virtually ignored.
Short-sighted, opportunistic jumping from one issue to another has meant that the organisation has suffered. Both locally and nationally, individuals have taken on responsibilities in certain fields, and then been left holding the baby when the Group has decided to seek fresh pastures. Labour Worker appeared as a fortnightly for six months, with an incompetent editor, a membership unwilling to support it, and members of the Working Committee actually encouraging branches not to sell it, all because there was no-one prepared to take any responsibility about the decision.
The Group’s relationship with other organisations, especially the CP, has been dangerously opportunist. Political cooperation must be based on openness and honesty, not on the evasion of issues. In the interests of ‘unity’, Group members have suggested in public that by uniting with Frank Cousins and the CP we can ‘beat the freeze’. In my eyes, the political illusions thus fostered are more important than a struggle which may be obsolete in a couple of years.
In these circumstances, although I shall still work with the group on specific issues, I cannot accept Group discipline (which is what membership means to me, if not to the Group).
It is the political issues which are basic to this criticism. If members of the Group wish to discuss them, I would soonest do this in polemic in the Group’s publications. If they do not, then I shall feel my view of the Group is confirmed.
International Socialism Group Bulletin No 2 March 1967
Colin Barker writes:-
Ian Birchall’s resignation document has raised several important issues which have not been sufficiently discussed in the Group. In several points he is, I believe, correct in his estimate of our mistakes, although I have also to say that his resignation on these issues is, in my view, not at all justified. As a critic of the group on the outside of the group he is politically impotent; the group is a democratic one, and revolutionary duty should have required that he criticize the group from within, in a comradely fashion.
Although I believe some of the specific criticisms to be partially justified, they are not justified in the terms in which he makes them. In other words, the general assessment of the political situation and of the tasks of the IS Group is seriously at fault. It is true, as Ian says, that criticism is difficult to document because we have not done enough in the way of discussing, in a serious theoretical manner, the practice of our group. This Bulletin should, if properly used, help to fill the gap. The fact that our Group is operating in a situation that cannot, in certain respects, be compared with the situation facing any previous revolutionary organization, makes it especially important that we do discuss exactly what we are and where we are going. We need to educate ourselves in the practical meaning of terms like ‘party’, ‘united front’, ‘propaganda group’ and so on. We need continual informed criticism of the life of the branches, from the branches themselves and from the central organizations of the group. The recent reorganization of the group’s national structure should facilitate this to some degree; if it does not, then it will have been a failure.
At the same time, the fault is a relatively new one. Until recently, the group was more or less a simple propaganda group, seeking to provide coherent analyses of large-scale political problems, to define its tradition, and to group around it such people as it could. It was not, in general, involved in day-to-day issues among workers. In its relations with other tendencies, the same was true: we worked with them (or against them), in organizations that were propaganda organizations, even if, like CND, they had a quite broad popular base. This was true until some months after the advent of the Labour Government. Nor is it easy to see how things could have been different, given the general political situation and the relations between the group and the working class movement. As a propaganda group, we said many things to a few people. We convinced, or failed to convince, those with whom we came into contact on the basis of a whole series of intellectual arguments, in a relatively abstract way. We published journals and books, and gave lecture courses. Partly in consequence, our membership was considerably weighted towards students, the more ‘intellectually’ inclined of the YS, etc. Our actual working-class membership was very small and our influence in day-to-day working class struggles similarly tiny.
Over the last year and a half, this situation has changed considerably, although the extent of the change has varied from branch to branch and even from individual to individual. Our relationship with the most militant and active sections of the organized working class in particular, has altered quite considerably; and, in consequence and cause, our activity has also changed. The group is becoming less of a propaganda group and more of an embryonic revolutionary party. In two areas in particular — the CARD/tenant axis and the shop stewards – we have become involved in activities from which we were in the past almost entirely absent. Many of our comrades are now involved in much more bread-and-butter, day-to-day problems of fragments of the working class. For a revolutionary group, this is an enormous step forward. The change has not been achieved without some early disorientation; some individuals and branches have not been able to adjust easily to the new circumstances or the new demands made on them. Nor is our group peculiar in this: the history of every revolutionary grouping is full of examples of early difficulties in adapting to new political situations. The reception given to Lenin’s April Theses in the Bolshevik Party when Lenin first propounded them is the most famous instance, but by no means the only one. And we were wrong not to discuss the change more. To my knowledge the changed situation has only been properly discussed by collections of branches twice, once at the rather abortive Leeds school in May 1966, and once at the London area school in June 1966. At both of these Cliff suggested that the group was entering a new political period, but the group generally failed to initiate a full discussion of the implications of this change, either in the branches or in our publications. Yet this was perhaps the most important theoretical issue we had faced for a long time.
And it is not inappropriate to suggest that one of the reasons for Ian Birchall’s resignation was precisely this failure on the Group’s part. Certainly it is doubtful whether Ian would have used some of the terms he has used in his document if this matter had been properly discussed.
For Ian’s central charge against the group is incorrectly expressed. He counterposes ‘politicizing the fragmentary rank-and-file organizations that exist’ and ‘simply fostering rank-and-file militancy’, as if either of these could be a solution by itself. Ian plumps for the former choice: but in a way that seems to imply a continuation of the group’s former simple propagandistic role. And the group, he alleges, has chosen the latter road – believing that ‘the necessity is simply to foster rank-and-file militancy.’
I believe that this interpretation of the group’s present position is erroneous. Now that we are an active group, we face different problems from those we faced in the past, and the basis of recruitment to the group (and of developing as a leadership in day-to-day struggles) is also changing. We are not large enough to lead the working class by ourselves, that is certain. Nor are we now so small, in terms of numbers or potential impact, that we can do nothing at all. As the largest single coherent revolutionary socialist tendency in Britain, our task is a very considerable one; our tactics have to be adapted to the particular set of relations between ourselves and the working class in general.
To date the incomes policy, etc. seems to have impinged seriously on the consciousness only of the pre-existing militants in industry. The class as a whole is still relatively inactive, partly because the government’s policy has as yet not affected most workers very closely. Such political activity as there is against the freeze is mainly conducted by a very small section of the class, numbered in thousands at most, rather than tens of thousands. These militants, generally, have live political traditions and ties that are different from our own. In particular, the most highly organized and leading section of them is to be found in the ranks of the CP (and ex-CP). The CP has effectively defined the nature and purpose of militancy, industrial and political, in Britain, for several decades. Until recently, moreover, possibilities of joint work with members of the CP – outside such propaganda organizations as CND – have hardly existed. Industrially, we have had little to offer the CP militants except a more correct interpretation of Russian society and perhaps a greater personal militancy on picket lines in a few cases. But there has been little basis for a challenge to the leadership of the CP in industrial organization.
But over the past few years, for reasons analyzed elsewhere, the CP’s hold on industrial militants has weakened. The opportunity for new kinds of work with CP militants exists, provided they are handled properly. In particular, the politics of the ‘united front’ have become essential.
The basis of united front politics is quite simple, and was most fully developed by the Bolsheviks in the period from June to November 1917. The united front for us means practical fighting unity with other tendencies where we agree. Our own revolutionary determination in these matters, and our greater theoretical clarity, ought to give our much smaller forces a leading role in practical struggles against incomes policy, attacks on trade unions, etc. Our analysis of the current situation in the trade union movement is confirmed in the writer’s daily experience of the industrial struggle, and provides a basis for attracting sections of the CP’s industrial militants towards us. For the CP itself is far from united. The central issue for us is the maintenance of our organizational separateness, with all the necessary clarity and sharpness. We are not uniting with the CP in toto, but only over certain matters, practical day-to-day matters, where there is a natural basis for agreement. The maintenance of our organizational and theoretical separateness in such a united front is crucial, if we are to attract the militants – they must know that there is something to be attracted to!
Nevertheless the politics of the united front require a rather different attitude to relations with other groups than has been the case in the past, in our purely propagandistic period. While in no way making organizational or theoretical concessions to the CP, we cannot and must not seek to speed up the process of attraction too much. Sectarianism is the greatest possible danger in the present situation. We have to accept people as they are, if we are to change them. A personally friendly and open style of behaviour is required, with a stress on those areas on which there is agreement rather than disagreement. We have to be able to exploit disagreements and differences within the ranks of those who oppose us, and to be very sensitive to small changes in attitude. No one must be condemned simply as a ‘Stalinist’ or a ‘social democrat’ or a ‘centrist,’ and left to rot in his theoretical iniquity. We have to abandon that destructive tradition, developed by Trotsky’s epigones, of personal unpleasantness as a means of expressing political differences. Had this been the tradition of the Bolsheviks — the tradition of ‘ultra-hardness’ that the SLL in particular delights in — the Bolsheviks would never have conquered state power.
The possibility of quite considerable growth in our membership and influence among the working class in the next few years seems good, if we work correctly. Certainly we shall have to train our comrades, inside and outside the group, to a higher theoretical level than is implied by the simple politics of the united front. We must not abandon theory, and Ian is completely correct in this point. (I don’t know if his accusations are correct elsewhere; in Manchester they certainly aren’t.) But Ian’s conception of developing the group is rather timid and sectarian. He warns of the risks of building membership and developing new organizations on a purely fragmentary basis and then having them collapse in a few years time when (or if) circumstances change. In what appears to be Ian’s perspective, we must either choose to build the group more slowly — making sure that at each stage every worker and young socialist knows the whole of our theoretical position — maintaining our theoretical purity unsullied, or we must rush to recruit hundreds of members on a completely opportunistic basis, with the danger that in a relatively short time they will leave us again because we only taught them one thing, which after a time will no longer be true. If these were the real alternatives, then we should all have to follow Ian out of the group, and probably continue out of politics altogether.
But why should they be? In the past we recruited people on the basis of ‘opposition to all bombs east and west’; CND is a rump organization today, yet a very large proportion of those comrades are still with us, and are strangely unaffected in their loyalty to the group by the changed political situation. Why didn’t they leave us? Because, although not necessarily very well, we trained them and broadened them. Why should we not do the same with industrial workers, from the CP or anywhere else? They love political education, after all, for they know how useful a weapon it is. Ian’s ‘grave danger’ is no danger at all — provided we do something about it. I hope Ian will be back in the group soon, helping with our political education, doing lecture tours, etc. We’d love to have him come to Manchester, where we desperately need outside lecturers. The members we have won on a purely fragmentary basis would love to have him help them round out theoretically.
But the game can’t be played from the sidelines. We have to be actively involved in the day-to-day struggles, or we have no basis for politicization or anything else. And we have to be involved at the level of the problems of those we meet, not at some artificially determined ‘correct’ level. Nothing can be more dangerous than high-minded abstentionism. Marxist theory is a flexible instrument, not a rod of iron. This is its strength.
Similarly, Ian’s presentation of a polar opposition between fragmented militancy and political consciousness is quite unreal. To be sure, the one does not grow into the other spontaneously. Who ever thought that it did? What we have said is that the Government’s intervention on an increasing scale in industrial relations questions will tend to bring the political aspects of trade unionism more to the fore. This is likely to make industrial workers more receptive to political propaganda. But the propaganda still has to be made, by our group. And in the process of making this propaganda in a clear way, based on a sharp class analysis, we ought to increase our influence further. As for the remark about the group ‘substituting itself’ for the rank and file, when and where have we done this? If we haven’t, why raise it?
In the new situation, the group has two main problems: first, making sure that the theoretical level of our members, in a period of expansion of membership and of activity, is maintained; and secondly, of finding the best way of allocating our meagre resources to the maximum effect. We suffer, if anything, in most branches from a surfeit of activities, all of them potentially valuable from any point of view, and a scarcity of people to carry them out. We badly need new members in many of the branches, and we need politically sensitive and educated members.
Education is a greater problem now, when the basis of recruitment is shifting, and people are being attracted into IS not so much directly because of our overall analysis, but because of the ways in which we engage in activity. This is an excellent development, of course, for any revolutionary grouping — to attract militants in various fields because of our own militancy and clarity of activity in the various political milieux in which we meet them. But the need for education, and for informed theoretical discussion at a level which will be meaningful for most of our comrades and periphery (i.e. all too often not at the level of our main theoretical journal), certainly grows. For Ian to leave the group at such a time is a pity.
The allocation of resources question is a very difficult one to solve, outside increasing recruitment, and maintaining the level of political consciousness of our new membership. Undoubtedly, we have tended to drop out of some of the activities where we were active before. We are generally inactive in CND, and in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. On foreign issues generally we have not done as much as we used to do. But that we have necessarily become less internationalist because of this is more doubtful. The nature of the group’s work has certainly changed, but the change from propaganda work to much closer-to-the-ground activity on day-to-day issues, from lack of involvement to meaningful involvement, has not made us less internationalist. Work in CARD is internationalism in practice, even if it does sometimes look like revolutionary social work. And if we are faced with choices (as we most certainly are, given our actual resources of people and time) between active involvement with workers in struggle — among Islington tenants for instance — and general propaganda that is removed from the immediate concerns of the class — as in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign — then I believe that we have no choice at all if we are serious about our politics. We do continue to make propaganda about Vietnam and so forth, through our publications, and I remain unconvinced that faction-fighting in a rarefied atmosphere of VSC meetings is more important than developing real roots in the class struggle. Floating balloons look beautiful, but earthworks prepare the soil for sowing.
On Ian’s charge about Labour Worker, I accept that he is more or less correct that we should have changed the paper’s format earlier, that we should not have tolerated the position, and so on. That we have changed the paper to a serious monthly is a correct move, as we have already found. We should attempt to avoid this kind of mistake again. As for the opportunistic jumping from one issue to another, which is part of Ian’s charge, the only question is ‘when?’ That there has been a wholesale shift of attention within the group, which has left a few comrades who could not adapt themselves stranded and gasping like wet fish, is true; but this was a step forward for most of us, and a correct step too.
As for the charge of opportunism in our relations with the CP and other organizations, this charge — if it is meant as an overall charge against the group as a whole — seems to me to be so patently absurd as to require nothing more than a simple ‘rubbish’. In what way we have evaded the issues, particularly in relation to the freeze, I simply do not see. Either Ian will have to spell out his charge, or he will have to retract it. Or perhaps he does not understand the politics of the united front? If Ian does not support Frank Cousins when he attacks Wilson (however mildly) is he then not just as wrong as the people he belaboured so well in his Labour Worker defence of the slogan ‘Victory to the Vietcong’? Beating the freeze is of enormous political importance, in itself. It can only be done in unity with anyone who is prepared to have a go and beat it. Certainly we can’t do it by ourselves. There is, after all, only one way of beating it — by organizing and fighting. That is what we have said. If that is opportunism, then we need a new dictionary.
In conclusion, I should like to quote from Trotsky (Theses on the French Communist Party, worked out between the III and IV Congresses of the Comintern, quoted in chapter five of Germany: What Next). The words seem very apposite:
“The problem of the united front – notwithstanding the inevitable split, in a given period, between the political organizations which lean upon the working class – originates in the urgent need to guarantee to the working class the possibility of the united front in its struggle against capitalism. For him who does not understand this problem, the party is a society for propaganda, and not the organization for mass action.
“Had not the Communist Party broken definitely and irrevocably with the social democracy, it could never have become the party of the proletarian revolution. Had not the Communist Party sought for organizational means to that end, that at each given moment, joint action, mutually agreed upon, be made possible between Communist and non-Communist (including the social democratic) working masses, it would have revealed thereby its incapacity — on the basis of mass action — to win over the majority of the working class.
“After dissociating the Communists from reformism, it is not enough to bind them by organizational discipline; it is also necessary that the organization be taught how to guide all collective activities of the proletariat, in all spheres of its living struggle. That is the second letter of the ABC of Communism.”
It is clear that the group has failed in one thing — we did not teach one comrade at least the letter B.
[NOTE (2019): CARD, referred to in Colin's piece, was the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, formed in 1964, which lasted till 1967; its founders included CLR James.]