To mark the 10th anniversary of Tony Cliff’s death in April 2000 Alex Snowdon analyses the development of the radical Marxist’s trailblazing organisation, the International Socialists.

anti-Vietnam war protest, 1968

The 1960s was a decade of huge growth for the International Socialists, the predecessors of the Socialist Workers Party in the UK. A thousand members by the end of the tumultuous year of 1968 may not seem special, but the organisation was tiny – around 60 members – at the start of the decade. To grow from 60 to 1000 in less than ten years is extraordinary. It is interesting to survey this period of growth and identify some crucial factors and turning points.

IS entered the 1960s as the Socialist Review Group, founded in 1950 due to a split from the main Trotskyist organisation in the country, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). It barely grew up to 1960, but then things changed. By 1964 there were at least 200 IS members (the name had changed in December 1962) and by the start of 1968 this had doubled to 400. During the course of 1968 a sharp orientation on radicalised students and the anti-war movement helped enable a surge in membership.

The organisation was theoretically distinctive mainly because of its theory of state capitalism, which understood the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe as a particular form of capitalism – this distinguished the group even from other Trotskyists. The core idea was summed up by the line ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism’, whereas most Trotskyists (never mind the broader left) viewed the Soviet Union as at least a degenerated form of workers’ state. The group’s theorising was primarily associated with Tony Cliff.

But just as important as the theory and political analysis was an orientation on interventions (however small) in the outside world, unlike far-left sects that tended to bicker with each other and pay little attention to what lay beyond. This reflected a deep concern with recovering the real tradition of revolutionary Marxism – the red thread of authentic socialism from below – and commitment to embodying and applying that ida rather than seeking ideological purity. Theoretical clarity and an external orientation were vital in pushing the small group forward in a climate dominated by much larger forces like the Communist Party.

CND’s activities in the early 60s proved a useful milieu for SR group members, but it was involvement in the newly-launched Labour Party Young Socialists that drove membership and levels of activity forward in the early 1960s. Ian Birchall, historian of IS/SWP (his biography of Cliff is forthcoming), writes:

“It is against the background of the growth of the CND that the decision by the Labour Party, in February 1960, to launch a new national youth movement, the Young Socialists, must be seen. The Labour leaders were deeply distressed by a decade out of office, a continuing inability to attract young voters, and the sight of thousands of energetic young potential canvassers wasting their time on anti-Bomb marches. They had no affection for youth movements, which were traditionally inclined to be well to the left of the Party.

So the bureaucrats gritted their teeth and launched the Young Socialists-and moreover gave it a relatively liberal constitution. In the short term it paid off – by the Spring of 1961 Transport House was claiming 726 YS branches, and the first national conference had over three hundred delegates. There was a large new spool of fresh fish, and every Trotskyist grouping in existence was getting its fishing rod ready.”

The SR group launched a new paper called Young Guard, in September 1961, to relate to this phenomenon. It wasn’t exclusively the group’s preserve, but SR group members were central to it. This publication and the network around it were somewhat unconventional, at the same time as remaining faithful to Marxist politics:

“It was part of the success of Young Guard that it was able to break out of the traditional milieu of revolutionary politics. The cultural atmosphere around Young Guard – characterised mainly by beer-drinking and folk-singing – may not have met the approval of revolutionary purists or puritans, but it enabled a new generation of young workers to move towards the traditions of Marxist Politics.”

One of the interesting things about this period is how different elements – Marxist ideas, class struggle, movement work – related to each other. According to Birchall:

“The young people who were turning to socialism in this period were mainly workers – manual or white-collar – but they had no traditions of trade union organisation. The typical political evolution of a young comrade at this time was as follows: first get involved in CND demonstrations, then join the Young Socialists, and, via Young Guard, come into IS. It was probably only after this that the comrade was persuaded of the importance of going to his union branch meeting.”

It is interesting to note that young workers constituted a high proportion of new members and periphery, but they weren’t from traditional union backgrounds (and this was at a time when unions were stronger, with deeper traditions of shop stewards organisation, than today). Relating systematically to a wider movement – CND, in this case – was evidently vital for SRG/IS connecting with these young workers. It is also obvious from this account that the publication, Young Guard, was vital in forging those links.

Birchall also indicates the centrality of ideas – of a high political level and theoretical clarity – in strengthening the fledgling organisation:

“Recruits were being made on the basis of ideas rather than activity. Indeed, IS did not have activity of its own, distinct from participating in the activities of the Young Socialists and CND. And the process was not, in strict terms, a radicalisation inside the Labour Party. Those who came to IS at this time, were not longstanding Labour Party members, but young people who had come in around the CND mobilisation.”

It was Marxist ideas that allowed the group to recruit and grow rapidly, despite not having its own independent activity. Immersion in broader campaigns and forums – with a highly flexible approach – combined with political clarity and distinctiveness took the group from 60 to 200 members in just a few years. By 1964 problems of sectarianism in YS, together with the Labour Party’s animosity towards it, meant it was no longer a productive milieu for IS – and consequently tactics and orientation changed.

Of the mid-60s, Birchall writes: “It was during this time that the political and organisational style which was to characterise IS began to develop. This had two main features. The first was a sense of proportion, of the relative insignificance of IS as an organisation. When IS had two hundred members, and the SLL, at best, twice that many, the question at stake was not the ‘crisis of leadership’, the struggle for control between groups of which 98 per tent of workers had never heard. It was the much more modest task of educating those who were around to listen and of striking roots in the class in a small way where this was possible.

The second feature was an awareness that the revolutionary organisation had to be built inside the working class and not in isolation from it. The question was one of involving and developing comrades, not of building walls to preserve the purity of the embryonic party. Hence the flexible attitude to membership taken by the IS group. New comrades were involved in activity, participated in meetings and – somewhat unsystematically – were introduced to the group’s political positions. This was important in that the comrades, while being aware that they were in a tiny minority, felt themselves part of a broader movement – CND or Labour Party left – and thus never had the sense of isolation from reality so easily generated by sectarian politics.”

I quote this at length because, it seems to me, both those aspects are vitally important. The orientation on wider movements and struggles prevented a sense of isolation while keeping members in constant contact with reality. It encouraged an open, non-sectarian attitude. Part of this was a series of attempts to relate to workplace resistance, in however modest a way. A paper, Industrial Worker (renamed Labour Worker shortly after), was launched in 1961 and included articles written by industrial militants. Birchall writes:

“By 1964 Labour Worker had achieved a circulation of over 2,000, and in April 1964 the first Labour Worker conference was held in London, attracting about 150 people. This put the main stress on the coming Labour government and the threat of incomes policy. Steps were being taken to prepare for the struggles to come.”

Building the organisation

In 1964 Harold Wilson led Labour back into government after 13 years of Tory rule. Around this time the small International Socialists (IS) organisation, with around 200 members, abandoned working in Labour Party’s Young Socialists, which had in any case only ever been a temporary tactical orientation.

Having grown from just 60 members a few years earlier, IS was a young group in both senses: still a fairly new organisation, at least for most members, young recruits comprised a high proportion of members. It was during 1960-64 that Paul Foot and Chris Harman had both joined IS, as did Ian Birchall whose history of IS provides valuable material (as does Tony Cliff’s memoir, A World to Win). They were part of a generation of recruits who went on to build an organisation that by the end of 1968 would have 1000 members and a weekly newspaper (the weekly Socialist Worker was launched in September 1968).

CND's Ban the Bomb march from Aldermaston, 1 March 1963

A crucial feature of the mid-1960s for IS was an increased orientation on the workplaces. Shop stewards organisation in the trade unions was strong at this time: rank and file militancy often won concessions from employers, without the union bureaucracy having much of a role. IS sought to relate its politics to these grassroots workplace militants. There were successes and failures but there were enough successes to help IS increase its membership to over 400 by the start of 1968.

The most important single initative was a pamphlet called ‘Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards’, written by IS members Tony Cliff and Colin Barker. Despite IS only numbering in the hundreds, an estimated 10,000 copies were sold. Shop stewards themselves constituted a high proportion of those buying and reading this pamphlet, which articulated a distinctively socialist analysis of current government polices and advocated resistance through the power of organised workers.

The pamphlet was more than just a recruiting tool – it was evidently very useful in winning respect for IS from a layer of left-wing workplace reps. It helped give the organisation, which had few members in union positions, a sharper orientation on the rank and file of the trade union movement. Birchall recalls: ‘The Incomes Policy book was an important step forward for IS. It was sold systematically by a process of visiting any discoverable contact in the labour movement. It was widely read and appreciated by militants and enabled IS to be recognised as part of a real movement, rather than as a group of talented but isolated theoreticians.’

The IS newspaper Labour Worker reflected the group’s orientation, as indicated by the title, and served as an agitational tool. There was some success in involving workers in writing for the paper, which had a circulation of about 2000 in the middle of the decade (remarkably impressive for an organisation of that size). Together with the Incomes Policy pamphlet, the paper was clearly crucial in applying IS politics concretely and enabling a modest group to reach a much wider audience.

The more theoretical publication, International Socialism, played a central part in giving IS distinctive theoretical and political positions. Its theoretical edge was an important part of why socialists didn’t just join IS but became actively involved and remained members in the long term. Birchall writes: ‘By the end of 1967 the membership had increased slowly but significantly over 400 as against 200-odd when Labour came to power. More important, it was a membership geared, not simply to arguing the line, but to making interventions, albeit usually very low-level ones and to servicing the ongoing struggle. Without the base, and even more importantly the orientation established in this period, the break-through of 1968 could not have taken place.’

1968 was indeed the big breakthrough: membership more than doubled in less than a year. Just as importantly, IS members were actively involved in a mass movement – the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign mobilised tens of thousands in demonstrations. Opposition to the US war in Vietnam reached its peak, against the backdrop of political upheavals internationally that fed a radical political atmosphere amongst a layer of British youth.

In this climate IS was able to take decisive initiatives like launching a weekly newspaper, as well as intervening in anti-war protests, playing a leading role in student direct action and recruting students in large numbers. The weekly Socialist Worker launched in September was only 4 pages and had modest circulation. But by 1972 it had grown to 16 pages and circulation increased enormously.

There was nothing inevitable about IS building successfully out of the events of 1968. It required a sharp turn to organising in the colleges and thorough, non-sectarian involvement in the Vietnam solidarity movement. Tony Cliff records in his memoir that he personally spent several weeks visiting the London School of Econmoics (LSE) every day and debating with students in the canteen. Intervening in the big anti-war demonstrations meant enthusiastic particpation but also a willingness to engage in serious arguments. Simply repeating anti-war slogans wasn’t enough to win increasingly radical students and young workers to revolutionary Marxism.

Some IS old-timers – which in that context meant those who had been members for 5 years or so – were unsettled by the influx of new members, worrying about the politics being liquidated. There were serious tensions, as a consequence of rapid growth combined with the heady atmosphere of 1968 creating such upheaval in the organisation. But IS survived the debates and intense factional disputes.

The majority of the leadership, around Tony Cliff, argued successfully for greater centralism and cohesion. For example, the new Socialist Worker needed to carry a clear editorial line on issues of the day. This required an elected national leadership providing political direction, with a small team of journalists accountable to the organisation.

Democracy at every level was essential. Local groups of IS members had to discuss and plan local activity in a nationally-agreed framework. Free, open discussion and debate were vital. At the same time it couldn’t be feasible for every headline in the newspaper to be subject to votes at members’ meetings! A democratic centralist combination of free discussion and cohesive action and organisation was required.

The organisation of 1000 grew to over 3000 by 1974. During those years Socialist Worker’s circulation rose to a peak of up to 40,000. IS developed, in these years of upturn for working class struggle, a significant implantation in grassroots union organisation; at one stage there were as many as 40 factory-based branches.

The early 1970s were far more favourable times for revolutionary socialists than most of the previous decade, largely due to high levels of industrial militancy and strikes which had cohered to challenge the Tory government’s authority. It was possible for a revolutionary organisation to take leaps forward. However, it was only in a position to do so because of the persistent work in the 1960s, transforming a tiny group of 60 into a credible organisation of 1000 by the close of 1968.

First published in two parts by Luna17

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.‚Äč He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).