Ian Birchall remembers the life of revolutionary socialist Colin Barker.
Colin Barker, who died on 4 February, was a Marxist writer and activist over six decades, for much of that time as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. His contribution in many different fields was enormous, and one short article cannot cover it all. What follows is simply an attempt to recall parts of Colin’s life and how it impinged on my own and on the movement we were both committed to. Colin wrote prolifically throughout his life and those interested should look at the selection of writings on the Marxist Internet Archive and on Colin’s own website.
I first met Colin in the autumn of 1962, around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, which reminded us all just how high the stakes were in the current political situation. We were both post-graduate students at Oxford; Colin had just completed a degree in English and was now converting himself into a sociologist. Richard Kirkwood had invited me to attend International Socialism (IS) meetings, which I did with great interest, although I thought it was a discussion group rather than an embryonic vanguard party. Colin was already a member of what was then the Socialist Review Group, soon to become International Socialism. I joined shortly afterwards.
Colin and I soon became good friends, and spent many hours talking as we explored the implications of the revolutionary socialist organisation we had committed ourselves to. At Easter 1963 we marched together from Aldermaston, and in the summer he came to stay at my mother’s home in Yorkshire. I remember walking across Ilkley Moor discussing what our position should be on the Vietnam War, which was just beginning to escalate.
What is striking about my recollections, and Colin’s own memories of the period, is that although he was enormously impressed by IS leaders Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron (initially more by the latter) they were not the sole source of his politics; he was reading widely and drawing on a whole range of material from the anti-Stalinist Marxist tradition. In the very last communication he wrote, less than a day before his death, he referred to the great impression made on him by Hal Draper’s Two Souls of Socialism. He learned a lot from publications of the Solidarity group (animated by Chris Pallis) which produced some remarkable descriptive accounts of capitalist alienation and oppression. A little later I remember him distributing copies of the booklet Facing Reality by Cornelius Castoriadis, CLR James and Grace Lee Boggs, and enthusing about Peter Sedgwick’s translation of Victor Serge’s Memoirs, with its positive but far from uncritical view of Trotsky and Trotskyism. That recognition of a multiplicity of traditions was not unusual in the early IS, and Colin, I think, never lost the sense that there was much to be learned from a variety of sources.
In autumn 1963 Colin moved to Manchester, but we continued to correspond. The IS group was very small and promotion was rapid. Mike Kidron, editor of International Socialism, recognised Colin’s ability and quickly drew him in as a writer. Colin’s academic work (he worked on a PhD, though never completed it) came together with his political concerns. He had learned from Marx that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class itself (a phrase he repeated in his last letter) but that left open the question as to what – in Britain in the 1960s – that working class actually was.
His first attempt at an answer came in Spring 1964, in an article in International Socialism called ‘Britain: The Wages Struggle’. This looked in considerable detail at incomes policy and long-term contracts and concluded: ‘Control of wages under capitalism, whatever the means employed, is not in the interests of the working class… The self-activity of the working class is the essential means for the ending of all class society.’
Remember that at this time Tony Cliff had never written at any length on the industrial struggle in Britain. So, when in 1966, in response to Labour government attacks, he dropped his other work to produce a short book on Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards it was not surprising that he turned to Colin for help. Their collaboration seems almost unbelievably primitive by twenty-first century standards – Colin did not have a telephone, and if necessary Cliff would communicate by telegram. But if Cliff originally saw Colin as a research assistant, Colin soon became an equal partner. He wrote the whole of the sixth chapter entitled ‘The dead weight of bureaucracy’ and the Conclusion, urging, ‘…the formation of a national shop stewards’ movement – an idea which, since the First World War, has existed almost solely in the minds of some of those whom Harold Wilson calls “wreckers”, and whom we see as the potential builders of the mightiest socialist movement yet in the history of Britain.’ For a time he was, as he put it to me many years later, Cliff’s ‘blue-eyed boy’.
The Incomes Policy book was extremely important for the IS group’s development, marking a turn from purely propaganda work inside the Labour Party to modest intervention in industrial struggle. I should add that I was distrustful of this shift, seeing it as a retreat from ‘Politics’ into purely economic struggle, and briefly dropped out of the organisation. Colin wrote a reply to me in the Internal Bulletin, sharply critical but ultimately fraternal (unfortunately I don’t have a copy to hand). He was of course right and I learned a lot from the exchange.
But Colin’s contribution was not only as a writer. He persuaded the University Labour Club to organise a debate in which Cliff participated, and also set up a small meeting with Cliff in his student room. Four people sat on the bed and Cliff had the one chair. At the end all four joined; this was the foundation on which all subsequent SWP organisation in Manchester was built.
The Incomes Policy book was very important for developing the organisation in Manchester. Colin sold sixty copies on a Communist Party-organised coach to a demonstration in London. 500 books were sold in Manchester and the branch grew to a membership of sixty.
But as well as organising Colin was still writing, still thinking. In 1967 he produced a second article on the British working class, ‘The British Labour Movement: Aspects of Current Experience’. Here he analysed the impact of the long post-war boom on patterns of struggle, arguing that, ‘the old means of securing reforms are in decay, and new ones are taking their place’ and that ‘as well as the direct struggle over wages, there is a growing struggle in the workshops over the question, who is to control?’ But while drawing out positive features he avoided any romanticism, judging that ‘the current form of the struggle, bitty, uneven, narrow, selfish – the routine economic struggle of trade unionism in a period of continuing capitalist prosperity and growth – will never solve the problems posed in a fragmentary way every day of every worker’s life.’ And he concluded that ‘the rebuilding of a revolutionary party in Britain begins now with the materials to hand.’ For those who have only known the post-1968 SWP with its constant stress on ‘building the party’ it should be remembered that this was still far from orthodoxy. Colin, as often, was ahead of his comrades.
Colin was also much influenced by his involvement in the dispute at the small Roberts-Arundel factory in Stockport, where management was attempting to destroy union organisation. A long strike got widespread solidarity from other workers, and there were vigorous demonstrations. On one occasion there was a real possibility that demonstrators could have occupied the factory. Many years later Colin recalled: ‘That afternoon in Stockport was the thing that convinced me that we needed a party. With another twenty members we would have won the day.’ Some of what Colin wrote about the events has only recently come to light.
Things moved rapidly in 1968 with the social explosion in France. Cliff decided that the time was now ripe to transform IS into a democratic centralist combat organisation. There was a heated internal debate, with the emergence of several factions. Colin was a signatory to a document entitled ‘Platform Four’, and probably played some part in drafting it. This was critical of the various other positions being argued within the organisation, but also of the pre-1968 IS for not giving enough attention to the question of the party: ‘Comrade Cliff and others have always emphasized the need for a revolutionary party… Where IS’s position was wrong was in relegating the process of building a revolutionary party to the distant future. As a consequence, the nature of the revolutionary party and its relation to the class was rarely debated concretely’. (There are substantial extracts from this and other documents at grimanddim.org).
Colin recently commented on Platform Four: ‘It was the product of the period of semi-insanity around and between the two conferences, when the IS far too quickly made a “turn to democratic centralism” under Cliff’s urging. All of a sudden, we were “Leninists” which was a little like being bears with very little brain. Not that this was “general” insanity: we were very involved in the brilliant autumn march in London against the Vietnam War, for example.’
The 1968 changes opened up many possibilities for IS – the organisation grew rapidly, became more interventionist, and in the early seventies attracted a significant number of industrial militants. Colin welcomed this, even if he did not completely approve the way the changes were made. But there were other developments that were less welcome. In 1968 IS had made a call for unity of the left; if there had been a fusion with Tariq Ali and the International Marxist Group it could have provided the foundation for a much larger revolutionary organisation. The IMG did not accept the proposals; however, IS was joined by a small group, Workers’ Fight, led by Sean Matgamna, the forerunner of today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The group had its main base in Manchester and Colin had played some part in negotiating the fusion. But he was utterly unprepared for what was to happen. Matgamna, at that time an ‘orthodox Trotskyist’, maintained his own organisation, with its own discipline, membership subs and even probationary membership; even worse it attacked IS’s political positions, and especially the ‘state capitalist’ analysis, in the most vitriolic terms. The atmosphere became so poisonous that the Manchester branch was split in two to keep the warring factions apart. For Colin it was a very unhappy time, though in one sense it had a positive outcome. The polemic obliged him to think through the theory of state capitalism in greater depth, something which was manifested in his later writings on Poland.
As the organisation changed, so did Colin’s role. In the 1970s there was a certain distancing. He dropped off the National Committee and for a brief while, I believe, actually left the organisation, although he rejoined in 1977. He once told me he had decided to be a ‘bad member’ – a rather curious formulation which meant, I think, that he would support the organisation politically and financially, but that he would not jump through all the hoops required of party loyalists, and would pursue his own intellectual work without letting his priorities be dictated by the organisation.
In fact he was a pretty good member. He was a popular speaker at the party’s Marxism conferences, wrote regularly for the party press, played an active role in the Manchester district and was a member of the Rank and File group in the educators’ union NATFHE (in which his brother Martin was a leading figure), which laid the foundations on which today’s UCU Left was built. He was also from 1974 to 1976 reviews editor of International Socialism, doing the job much more successfully than his predecessors, a troika including Christopher Hitchens. As well as commissioning reviews he wrote a monthly survey of other books published, showing that he was reading at a prodigious rate.
1980 saw the rise of Solidarność in Poland, followed in 1981 by Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law in order to suppress it. Within weeks Colin and his anagrammatic partner Kara Weber had produced a book-length study of the events which made up a whole special issue of International Socialism. This was not just a narrative account, but sought to examine the factors producing the crisis in Polish society. In particular they challenged the whole notion, accepted even by many who were critical of the bureaucratic regime, that Poland had something that could be described as a ‘planned economy’: ‘The difference between what the planners suggested should happen, and the actual out-turn, is sufficiently marked to throw considerable doubt on the description of the Polish economy as genuinely planned… Such large-scale over- and under-fulfilment of targets suggests the very opposite of planned growth.’
Something should be said here of his partner Ewa’s role. Obviously her Polish background was a crucial contribution to the couple’s joint work. But the partnership went much deeper. As well as a personal relationship, this was a political and intellectual alliance. I have no insights into Colin and Ewa’s life together, but even to an outsider it was clear that this was something special. Partnerships that last for fifty years are rare on the left – or anywhere else. Some years ago Colin nursed Ewa through a near-fatal illness, and she tended him in his last months. As he wrote when he was aware of his impending death, ‘It is a lot easier thinking about your own death than it is about your partner’s.’ Suffice it to say that without ‘my beautiful and loving missus’ (as he called her in his last letter) Colin’s life and achievement would have been much thinner.
For nearly forty more years Colin continued to make his contribution, as a speaker and writer, and notably in cooperating with and encouraging other comrades, many of them younger, in Britain, North America and elsewhere. And he co-organised a whole series of conferences – which continue to be held – in Manchester, entitled Alternative Futures and Popular Protest. It is impossible to summarise the breadth and depth of this work. Two themes, the ways in which patterns of working-class struggle pointed towards possibilities of an alternative society, and the key role of the capitalist state, recurred again and again.
I will just mention one project with which I personally was associated, the volume Revolutionary Rehearsals which Colin edited, with its studies of potentially revolutionary developments in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and Poland. Colin was very much an active editor, encouraging and enthusing his fellow-contributors, but also engaging in political dialogue with them. Yet it should also be noted that the project did not entirely meet the approval of the SWP leadership. SWP orthodoxy was that the reason various social upheavals had not come to fruition was that ‘there was no revolutionary party’ (October 1917 being the model against which all else was to be judged). And if the required party was absent, it was because we had not made enough effort – not sold enough papers, recruited enough members, etc. So reasoned the apparatchiks. Cliff knew this was inadequate but did not always say so. For Colin the interplay of subjective and objective factors was a more complex matter, and he tried to use Rehearsals to show this.
As he stressed in his conclusion revolutions require not just a party, but a transformation of mass consciousness and creativity: ‘For consciousness is inseparable from everyday social practice. New languages, symbols, artistic forms are adopted to express the new conditions; the flourishing of posters, symbols, newspapers, leaflets, badges and jokes bear witness to the profound shifts going on in the consciousness of millions. New moral principles are enunciated, old rules challenged.’
And if he ended up by insisting on the need for revolutionary organisation, he did so in terms which stressed both the difficulty and the complexity of the building of such organisations: ‘It would be foolish to suppose that the building of such parties will be easy, for there are no magic formulae. Modesty and realism are vital. Nothing is more useless than revolutionary posturing, the substitution of impressive slogans for the real work of organising, recruiting and developing what will initially be small groups of committed revolutionary socialists. There is a bourgeois caricature of revolutionaries as burning-eyed and impatient idealists. In reality, genuine revolutionary socialist politics has to be founded on a profound patience, a willingness to see success in the sale of a handful of newspapers, an argument won, a single recruit to Marxism made, a tiny branch founded in a great city, a contact established somewhere new.’
Throughout all these years Colin remained a loyal and active member of the SWP. Yet he never surrendered his political and intellectual independence. He had worked very closely with Cliff in his early years and he never forgot what he had learned; as he wrote on the occasion of Cliff’s death: ‘In the 1960s and early 1970s he was the most amazing teacher for me’. Yet he often had reservations about Cliff’s later thinking. At a meeting in the late eighties Cliff criticised Mike Haynes in a discussion about the peasantry; Colin spoke in support of Mike, and Cliff responded by asking ‘Do you agree with Lenin?’ Colin replied that he agreed with what Cliff had written in the sixties, implying that he preferred the younger, more iconoclastic Cliff to his older and more defensive successor. At one point in the 1980s Cliff asked Colin if he should write on Trotsky or on Keynes. Colin replied that he should write on Keynes but Cliff did not take his advice, choosing to write a long and often defensive study of Trotsky. If he had followed Colin’s advice he might have produced something much more illuminating about the nature of modern capitalism.
Mike Kidron too had been very important for Colin, recruiting and encouraging him as a writer. But when Mike distanced himself from the organisation at the first Marxism conference, Colin was one of those who challenged him, saying that his method ‘seems to me a continuation of 19th century evolutionism. You divide the world into two parts – before and after. Everything is either before or after and there is no sense of contradiction in your account.’ [John Rudge has transcribed these meetings from recordings, which were in Colin’s enormous collection of Marxism tapes; they will eventually be made available.] Yet quite recently Colin wrote to me saying how much he regretted having lost contact with Kidron after his departure from the SWP.
This was typical of Colin. He was never afraid of polemic, of stating his position firmly but sharply, yet he also insisted on standards of fraternal debate. In 1988, I wrote an obituary of Raymond Williams, in which I referred (in a footnote) to ‘a characteristically undialectical formulation’ used by Alex Callinicos. I promptly received a letter of reprimand from Colin, telling me this was not the way disagreements should be presented.
But he never believed, as some of the younger enthusiasts did, that the party had a monopoly of truth. He supported the journal Historical Materialism from the beginning, although initially it was out of favour with the party. In conversation he would joke about and criticise the leadership – I remember him referring to one leading Central Committee member as ‘Comrade Stupid’. I think he, like myself, regarded the party rather as one might regard an old friend, whom one loves dearly despite the fact that they have some very irritating personal habits.
Everything changed in 2013, when it became clear that the party’s faults ran much deeper than irritating habits. There is little pleasing to recall from that horrible year, which must have been as painful for Colin as it was for me. But when, after some anguish, I signed the first opposition statement, I was pleased to see Colin’s name there alongside mine. It seemed that we were standing up for the values we had learned in the 1960s against what the party had sadly now become.
But in opposition Colin always stood by the principles of fraternal debate. I remember at least two occasions when, although deeply disappointed by the conduct of comrades from Manchester, he insisted on continuing to recognise the good work they had done in the past. He signalled his disapproval of my own vituperative antagonism to Alex Callinicos. And while some of us hastened to resign immediately after the defeat at the December conference, Colin took his time to think and did not leave until February 2014.
Then, however, he joined rs21 and became an enthusiastic member. In some ways I think he saw rs21 as recreating the IS he had known as a young man – a small organisation which recognised its own insignificance yet also knew it could exercise real influence through the power of its ideas.
For many years I had not been particularly close to Colin – we would meet, perhaps, at Marxism, and sometimes go for a meal with other friends. But neither of us ever forgot those early years when we had been discovering Marxism in a context of rising struggle. When I went to Manchester to interview Colin for my biography of Tony Cliff, we spent hours talking and reminiscing.
Despite his busy and productive life he always found time for friends. When he heard that I had mobility problems and was feeling isolated, he telephoned me to help me keep in touch. The last time I saw him and Ewa was about a year ago. He was in much better shape than myself and was talking of his plans for his eightieth birthday which would have been next June – though he acknowledged that he might not get there.
Then came the terrible news of his illness (emphysema and a tumour on his lung). I could not help remembering that, many years ago, as part of an SWP fund-raising effort, I had sponsored Colin to stop smoking. Unfortunately we had not been vigilant enough – as soon as the money was in, he returned to his habit. Colin circulated reports on his condition, under the title ‘Colin Barker status report’; despite his rapid physical deterioration these were marked with lucidity, humour and courage.
And he continued to write; in his last months he was working on an article which was to form part of a sequel to Revolutionary Rehearsals. A first draft was circulated for comment to many friends. Under the title ‘Social movements and the possibility of revolution’ Colin came back to the question that had preoccupied him since the 1960s – how do the patterns of today’s struggles point to tomorrow’s social transformation? He showed a typically iconoclastic regard for the socialist pantheon by evoking ‘fundamental strategic and tactical questions, summarised by Marvin Gaye and V. I. Lenin: What’s going on? and What is to be done?’ While recognising the importance of the Russian Revolution, he took some distance from the ‘Leninism’ of his erstwhile comrades: ‘There are senses in which “October” does not offer a very useful model for the problems of revolution in the 21st century.’ His optimism was real but very cautious: ‘…”the next new left” is still in process of formation. Its discontinuity with the last new left will be considerable, and probably in ways we can barely imagine… Its emergence may take some time.’ Colin was, I think, still working on this at the time of his death, but let us hope it will be published in some form.
And in his very last Status Report, sent out the day before his death, Colin showed that his bodily decline had in no way affected his fierce intelligence. He referred to, ‘the passage in The German Ideology where Marx explains that the reason that a revolution is needed is that there is no other way that the great mass of humankind can get rid of “the muck of ages” than by actually participating directly in a revolution through which they take direct democratic control of their everyday lives and build a new form of democratic state. As Marx would write later, with Engels’ agreement, “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself.” Those amazing ideas became a lodestone. Few today agree with them, perhaps, but what a measure they provide for grasping the movement of popular history up to the very present moment. Time and again, those ideas have surfaced, and been knocked back. They will revive again, and again. The wager – that they can win out in practice – has given meaning to my life.’ These words will serve as his testament.
Colin and I grew up in the shadow of threatened nuclear war. Today it is climate change that may well destroy human civilisation. New challenges will produce new forms of resistance. But there will be continuity as well as change. Colin’s work – of necessity incomplete and sometimes offering more questions than answers – is now the property of those who survive him, and will serve as a source of enlightenment and inspiration to those pursuing the same goals that he devoted his life to.
Colin’s funeral will take place on 20 February in Manchester. Memories of Colin can be sent to email@example.com