Chris Ford: International Socialist Tradition at the Crossroads Documents of the IS Opposition 1974-75
- Category: IS History
- Published on Tuesday, 30 July 2013
- Written by Chris Ford
Published here are selections of writings of the IS Opposition, they were provided by Jim Higgins former IS National Secretary some years ago. Several others are published in his book More Years for the Locust.
- Guidelines for an IS Programme
- The Situation in IS (1975)
- Letter from Harry Wicks to IS National Committee (1975)
- Tony Clark, Leni Sollinger: Letter to the National Committee (1975)
- The International Socialists: Our Traditions (1974)
- Granville Williams, et al: To Our Comrades in the International Socialists (1975)
The recent crisis in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain has brought to life amongst a section of SWP members, and the multitude of ex-members, like this author, a discussion about the International Socialist tradition, how did something so promising turn out this way?
The selection of documents published here are therefore not only to restore to the movement opinions which are now of historical value, but to restate them as a contribution to this discussion. It may be asked what can be the value of these documents from an opposition within the International Socialists some 38 years ago. What becomes apparent very quickly on reading these texts of the IS Oppositionists is how familiar they are, that they could have been written today. This is because the issues addressed by the IS Opposition are in many essential aspects still the problems of today’s SWP/International Socialist Tendency. From our current vantage point we can trace deep roots of the current convulsions precisely to this key turning point in the history of the International Socialist tradition.
Many who are new to revolutionary socialism comment on the International Socialists with affection and some talk of the need for something similar today. Of course intolerant grumpy old sectarians, who were once grumpy young sectarians, are more dismissive. An assessment made by a long forgotten pamphlet of 1975 of the time provides an apt contextualisation of the IS for readers:
Over the past decade many new people have been drawn into socialist politics. The upsurge in working class struggles and the creation of new forms and centres of political action amongst women, blacks, students, community groups and a host of radical campaigning organisations, have been accompanied by a renewed interest in Marxism. Correspondingly the various parties and organisations of the revolutionary left which base themselves on a Marxist outlook have grown in numbers and influence. Perhaps even more important, the growth in concern and respect for Marxist ideas has generated a widespread desire for a renewal within Marxism. Established Ideas and doctrinaire approaches to the inherited body of Marxist thought have been challenged and critically scrutinised.
One of those organisations which has gained ground over this period is the International Socialist Group.1
This is how the old Communist Party of Great Britain wrote of IS in its own critique, that an organisation of substantial influence in the trade unions who for years displayed contempt and hostility towards the anti-Stalinist left to be forced to respond seriously is a measure of the significance of IS itself.
In 1968-1974 the International Socialists had indeed grown, and though still small it was as Jim Higgins wrote later “the significant fact about IS is in the early 1970’s is that it was qualitatively different from all the previous groups and sects, deriving from the FI, that this country has seen. It did have some penetration in the working class, it did have small but significant worker membership and it also had the resources in manpower and technical assets to mount worthwhile initiatives”.2 In this period there was an upsurge of working class organisation and struggle, it smashed the anti-union laws of the Tory government, freed the imprisoned Pentonville Dockers through a mass strike wave, in these conditions IS played its part and grew with the struggle. In 1975 the Labour Government was elected by a popular vote, it repealed the anti-union laws, brought in an array of progressive reforms – whilst on the other hand it set about austerity through the Social Contract of wage restraints. The movement did not simply retreat, trade union membership continued to grow for another five years to reach its peak in 1979 to 15 million. Nevertheless the capitalist counter-offensive was underway. The situation was changing and it was at this point when change was also demanded of IS to face this situation that the IS Opposition emerged in 1974 and fought at the September 1974 and May 1975 conferences, it continued its struggle inside IS until winter 1975.
The IS Opposition did not fail because it lost in a democratic vote as Ian Birchall has argued – the IS conference was gerrymandered. The IS constitution stated that the form of electing for conference delegates could only be changed by conference – instead the National Committee changed the system to ensure that the IS Opposition was grossly under-represented. This is also the period when the restriction was introduced that factions have a limited existence before a conference – a rule used for expelling IS Oppositionists.
One of the aspects of the IS Opposition view that speaks to today’s debate is the question of class, the necessity for developing working class composition, worker leaders, and of a “consistent working class orientation” as the former IS National Secretary Jim Higgins demanded. I recall well a heated argument amongst members of the old SWP Glasgow East Branch in 1987, where a member (now prominent in UCU) was being strongly advised not to spend too much time at the Caterpillar plant then under workers occupation, as it would only demoralise him. That such a view had come to pass is itself a yard stick of the retrogression from the days of the International Socialists. Ian Birchall the biographer of Tony Cliff in writing on the breakup of IS provides us with an insight to the thinking of the alternative to the IS Opposition, he writes:
“In retrospect therefore, I think Cliff’s faction in 1973–75 made many gross errors of tactics but that the basic political line was vindicated. Certainly there are elements of megalomania and obsession in Cliff, but I think that is probably inevitable in anyone who is going to build an organisation. I have seen Cliff lie and manipulate in a quite outrageous fashion on occasion but I have accepted it because I am totally convinced of his absolute revolutionary integrity.’3
Jim Higgins on reading this response concluded not only that it was “pathetic” but – “I think Cliff would be an inestimable asset, so long as he was not the hub of the revolutionary wheel. It was that I was trying to change and that the Birchall’s of this world were prepared to tolerate. It is rather like Frankenstein’s monster creating himself.”
1. The Soviet Union State Capitalist or Socialist? A Marxist Critique of the International Socialists, by David Purdy, CPGB, 1975, p.3.
2. Jim Higgins to Ted Crawford, 10th November 1989, unpublished letter.
3. Ian Birchall, letter to Ted Crawford, 5th November 1989, unpublished.
4. Jim Higgins to Ted Crawford,10th November 1989, unpublished letter.