IS in the 60s: May 68 and after

How can revolutionaries build an organisation from tiny beginnings? Colin Barker played a key role in the development of the International Socialists in 1960s Manchester. In the final part of this interview with Colin Wilson, he talks about the political developments of the late 60s – the women’s movement, fighting racism after Enoch Powell and the impact of the revolutionary explosion in France in May ’68.

Workers students united we will win - Paris 1968
Workers students united we will win – Paris 1968

You’ve mentioned lots of people, but virtually all of them are men. That’s presumably one of the biggest differences from now? What role did women play in IS?

By ’67 we were recruiting young women to our branch, women were joining. But the first few years that I was in the IS, I think there was only one woman who was a member who wasn’t somebody’s wife or girlfriend. On the whole, women played a very subordinate role. I remember IS had a national meeting in ’66, in a hall near Finsbury Park tube station, and just before lunchtime one woman went round to speak to the other women in the room, tell them that it was time to make the tea for the comrades. I went to help. I’d just started going out with this woman, and in any case I’d always been brought up by my mother that you should help in the kitchen. Nobody said “this is wrong”. Two or three years later, she’d have been shouted at, of course. But we were part of that society – women had their place. It was making the tea. Terrible! It was taken for granted.

But then when the women’s movement developed it changed very quickly?

Yeah. That’s really ’69, I think, is the year that the women’s movement really hits the headlines and hits the IS. But before that it was a very masculine political world. I mean, when I talk about recruiting workers – the idea of recruiting a woman worker hadn’t even crossed our horizon. When was the Ford Women’s Strike? 1968? I’d had a message from London, I was ready to help a delegation that was coming up to Manchester to raise money, to take them round factories and so on. But then never came, so we never had that opportunity. That would have been the first time, really, that I knew about women going on strike with their own particular demands. It wasn’t that anybody was hostile to the idea – it just didn’t happen.

’68, ’69, that must be the time of the London night cleaners’ campaign. Really, feminism came to Britain in the shape of the trade union movement, women workers asserting themselves. I think it was ’69, there was a conference in the City of London, that was the first time that we debated “the woman issue”. There were two speakers: one said, “This is a class question,” and the other argued that it’s an independent question. So we had these two positions presented at the IS National Meeting. This is the first time it’s been debated. The women in the organisation are really excited about it. A group of them, I think from London, had clearly had a plot in advance of the meeting, because Chris Harman was the first man to speak, and he walked up to the front of the meeting to speak, and they wolf-whistled at him. It was a brilliant demonstration, all these women wolf whistling together! This was a new issue. I think if Cliff had gone it would been Cliff who got wolf whistled, the first man to speak was going to get it. Chris stood there looking absolutely baffled.

The strike of women sewing machine workers for equal pay at Ford is portrayed in the film Made in Dagenham. The night cleaners’ campaign fought to improve conditions of women who did cleaning work at night, for example in central London offices.

Chris Harman was a leading member of IS/SWP from the 1960s until his death in 2009.

The events of 1968 were a turning point…

’68 is a very important year in the history of IS, because it’s when things changed, for several reasons – all to do with the outside world, but we responded. In April, Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. The key thing is that London meat porters and especially London dockers go on strike in his support. We have one docker, Terry Barratt. The CP goes to the dock gates with a priest, and argues against racism on a completely bland, liberal line. Terry and some IS members put out a leaflet attacking Enoch Powell on a class basis, saying he’s an enemy of the working class. Anyway, they lost. We were isolated.

We had a national meeting shortly afterwards, and Cliff says, this is the most important thing that’s happened in British politics for years. It’s the first political strike since the war. He’s quite right. He says, I think we should immediately put out a leaflet – and he has a draft of it, it’s called “The Urgent Challenge of Fascism” and it says “this is the first political strike in Britain since the war, it’s racist, there is an urgent menace of racism, and what we must have is unity of the left. So we call on all the left to join in one organisation.” You can see that we’ve grown a bit, we’ve maybe three or four hundred members at the beginning of ’68, we’re testing our muscles, and we make an appeal for unity of the left on the basis of opposition to imperialism, especially the Vietnam War, opposition to racism and immigration controls, opposition to incomes policy and support for workers’ control. Most of the rest of the left responded with absolute disdain to this appeal – this is in April. Then comes May.

May ’68, of course – bang! Out of a clear blue sky comes this incredible storm in France. Totally unexpected by everybody, including the left in France. Ewa and I had just got together, we went for our first holiday together to Paris, for a week in April. Rudi Dutschke had been shot in Berlin, and we went on a demonstration in support of him. In Chris Harman’s book The Fire Last Time he says there were two hundred people on it – that’s an exaggeration, it was maybe a hundred lefties marched to the German embassy, and as soon as the police arrived they all ran away, except for me and Ewa who didn’t know you had to. Then we saw the police with these long batons and we decided to look like tourists as fast as possible. Anyway, we’d gone to the demonstration with someone from Socialisme ou Barbarie – we met up with him later and he said that he wished he lived in England, because we’d had the big Grosvenor Square demo against the Vietnam War. Nothing happens in France, he said – “French students are completely apolitical, they are cowards, etc, etc” – six weeks before the night of the barricades, he said this! Nobody knew it was coming.

Rudi Dutschke, a leftist German student leader, was shot in the head but survived for some years.

Over 200 people were arrested after police and protesters fought in Grosvenor Square, the location of the US Embassy in London, in March 1968.

But the sense of excitement, once it happened! It just shook the left up. And all of a sudden there are all these students, in Britain, who are becoming revolutionaries under the impact of the French events. This is so exciting – if you’re a student with half a brain you want to go on demonstrations, you want to go to meetings about this and so on. And we’re the ones who have just issued a unity call – so we mop up. We say that there should be one organisation – we say it inside the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, we say it in all sorts of student settings… There was a great meeting of a short-lived organisation called the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation in Sheffield. On the platform were three old men – Tony Cliff, now aged 51, Pat Jordan for the IMG and somebody else. One of our comrades from Manchester got up from the floor and said, “The philosophers have merely interpreted Marxism, the point is to change it!” Two of them looked sour, and Cliff got up and applauded. Opportunist to the end!

So how did the events of ’68 lead to the IS adopting democratic centralism?

Cliff looks at the May events and he writes a pamphlet with Ian [Birchall]. All the stuff that came out on the left in the year after ’68 is terrifically excited about “the revolution in France” and so on. New Left Review had a book with Penguin called “The Revolution in France”. Cliff, along with Ian, says “Hmm – what revolution? It could have been a revolution, but it wasn’t.” So it’s a very downbeat pamphlet compared with all the other literature that came out. It says, “You know what? A lot of the factory occupations in France were controlled by the Communist Party, lots of workers were sent home, there was no co-ordination between the factories, the Communist Party was able to call the events off, call the strikes off. What was missing was a serious revolutionary party that could have altered the direction of it – the left was too weak. There’s an obvious lesson to be drawn.” So Cliff is immensely excited by what’s happened in France, and Cliff is the key thinker in all of this, he’s just talking to everybody he possibly can, pressing people with questions: “These committees of action – were they soviets? I don’t think they were, you know.” What happened, what didn’t happen, what could have happened. [See France: The Struggle Goes On]

Worker-student action committees were set up in France after May ’68. Soviets, or workers’ councils, were set up in Russia in 1917 and were key to workers seizing power.

And Cliff just thinks: you know, we’re in another period now. We’re no longer in what we’d been accustomed to. The world had changed. He writes a very important article called “On Perspectives” which I think appeared in the autumn of ’68, the beginning of ’69. To the fury of all sectarian Marxists, he said “We have to raise theory to the level of practice.” It’s a wonderful formulation. It was scandalous to the Matgamnas and so on, for whom you have to raise practice to the level of theory. You already had theory, the question is: are the workers living up to it? So Cliff looks at his own organisation and he thinks, “we’re not up to it. We’re loose, we’re federal, we’re all over the place, we’re not organised sufficiently.” And we’d grown like the clappers – we doubled our size in 1968. So you’ve got to think about your structures when you’re suddenly bigger – bigger suddenly than the SLL, we overtook the SLL in ’68. They made this terrible, terrible mistake. There were 100,000 people on this demonstration in October 1968 against the war in Vietnam. Very, very militant demonstration. And the SLL said, “this is a reformist demonstration, because it is presenting a petition at Downing Street.” So their leaflet was entitled “Why we are not marching.” If you want a gift from a rival organisation! All the people on the demo were talking about revolution!

So we grew, and there was this fantastic feeling – this could happen here! Would we be ready? We’re putting out a call for unity, we’re saying that we need to build a revolutionary party in Britain. And everywhere. That’s the lesson of the French events – if you haven’t got a revolutionary party you can have fantastic movements and end up with nothing. And I still agree with that, basically. It still didn’t mean that we went around saying “we are the revolutionary party” – we were saying that we need to create one, which we hadn’t been saying before. We’re now in the era in which it’s necessary to build revolutionary parties, that’s what we were saying – not we are the revolutionary party. We want others to join us in building such a thing.

And because there was a rising tide anyway of industrial militancy we also made a turn towards the [organised working] class – what we’d been doing here and there in a few branches, like in Manchester going to the Roberts-Arundel strike, all branches were now encouraged to do. Which are the key factories in your area? Can you find people inside them to write leaflets with? Can you sell papers outside? Can you put bulletins from the outside into the factory?

You’d already written a book with Cliff, hadn’t you, about incomes policy, which was sold to a lot of workplace militants?

That was earlier, in 1966. If you read the last chapter of that, which I wrote, it doesn’t say anything about parties at all. In fact, the only place where parties are mentioned is in the introduction, which was written by Reg Birch, who was a Maoist and who said “this is a very good book, but it doesn’t mention the need for a party.” [See Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards]

There was a lobby of parliament organised by the CP, and there were two buses went down from Manchester. I went down, I took fifty copies of that book and I sold the lot, in a day – I sold them up and down the bus, and then I sold the last one outside the Houses of Parliament while workers were waiting to lobby their MPs. We sold five or six hundred copies in Manchester with a branch of six or eight members at that time. The guy who organised the bus, who I’d got to know through the Roberts-Arundel strike, who was a very nice man from the CP, he said “you’d like the address list, wouldn’t you, of the people on these buses?” People just give you things, from time to time, if you’re doing things right. I said, “I’d love it” and so one of our comrade’s dad had a car which he let us use one night a week and we went round visiting, we knocked on militant Labour and CP shop stewards’ doors and said, “we’ve got this book.”

You said the IS was “loose and federal”…

Well, it depends what you mean. In the early days, when I joined, everybody was invited to the National Meeting. One of the things that started to happen after ’68 was that there were National Meetings that were made up of delegates. But basically each branch was a law to itself. You had a more interventionist national leadership, that started trying to steer things and make things happen in a similar way.

There was an office, and for the first time we had a political secretary – Jim Higgins became National Secretary. I remember saying to him once, “What would you do if you were no longer National Secretary of the IS?” “I’d form another organisation,” he said. He really wanted to be National Secretary.

What role did Cliff play?

Cliff was on the phone all the time. Cliff was really the organiser of the SWP. He did it by use of the telephone – and of course talking to people individually. He toured the country – he did meetings all over the place, and always he would stay with a comrade and talk about what was happening in the area, who they should recruit, who had been at the meeting. He was the most important organiser we ever had. He knew the IS extremely well. Mike Kidron never bothered with that sort of thing – he was an amiable intellectual but he didn’t do that sort of nuts and bolts stuff. Cliff was always interested in the nuts and bolts. Perhaps people who joined later weren’t so aware of him doing that. And he had his favourites – I was one of Cliff’s blue-eyed boys, but then we fell out. He relied on people to make things happen in different parts of the country. And he paid special attention to the places where the opportunities were greatest and try and generalise from that.

“Federal” doesn’t really capture this. After ’68, we elected a National Committee of forty members at the National Conference – we’d never had that before. Initially we did it on the basis of factions, so factions had rights, so the Trotskyist Tendency had two members of the National Committee, and I think Platform Four had five – it was utterly bonkers.

Altogether, IS in the 60s sounds quite like rs21…

I do have a feeling of being back in the 60s. That’s to say, we’ve got a very small group, very unevenly organised in different parts of the country. In Manchester we have a branch of maybe over half a dozen, in reality. A big meeting for us is one that gets into double figures, and we haven’t had many of those. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a boring rs21 local branch meeting – even if there’s only been four people in the room, we’ve always had an interesting discussion, because the rules are that you can discuss what you like and say what you like. You can try things out, and if somebody doesn’t agree with you, they just say so, they don’t hammer you into the floor. That’s how it should be.



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