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Left Archive: Report on International Socialists Conference 1975 – International Socialists (UK). March 18, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Socialists [UK], Irish Left Online Document Archive, Socialist Workers' Party.
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IS DOC COVER

To download this document please click on the following link: IS DOCREV2

The above document is a report for the SWM internal bulletin, from an SWM guest at the IS conference. Many thanks to the person who donated this to the Archive. They offer an outline of the contents of this document below:

In the light of the current crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party these documents throw light on a turning point in the party’s history. The SWP’s roots lie in the division of British Trotskyism in the late 1940s. A handful of activists, grouped around a Jewish Palestinian immigrant, Yigael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff) formed the Socialist Review Group. The group were not orthodox Trotskyists and indeed were regarded as somewhat heretical because of their espousal of the theory of state capitalism regarding the USSR, their non-apocalyptic perspective (they suggested capitalism was getting stronger, not on the verge of collapse) and their dangerously libertarian, somewhat ‘Luxemburgist’ attitude towards party structure. On the far-left Cliff’s group were regarded as modest, practical and possessing a sense of humour about themselves, certainly in contrast to their rivals in British Trotskyism.

The SRG grew slowly, changing their name to the International Socialists in 1962. The IS was able to take advantage of the ferment of the Vietnam War and student protest to recruit several hundred young members by 1968. Unlike some of the other far-left groups, who were carried away by student protests or the lure of Third World guerilla struggles, the IS contended that the working class remained central to socialist strategies. They had a small core of working-class militants, some of them ex-members of the Communist Party. They embarked on a strategy of focusing on workplace sales of their paper, Socialist Worker, and of building rank and file groups among union activists. As working class militancy escalated in the early 1970s the IS was able to grow modestly among manual workers, recruiting miners, steel workers, in the car industry and transport. (Three respected London dock shop stewards, Eddie Prevost, Bob Light and Mickey Fenn, all former CP members, joined IS during this period for example.) Rank and file groups were set up for teachers, nurses and local government workers as well as in the factories. At one point the organisation even set up factory branches. (The best history of the organisation in those years is Jim Higgin’s memoir More Years For the Locust).

As Higgins notes:

‘The Bellevue Socialist Worker Rally, in Nov 1973, was successful with 1,200 people attending. The following April, the Rank and File Conference was held in the Digbeth Hall, Birmingham. Some 600 trade unionists applied for credentials and it is possible to gauge the effectiveness of the previous work with rank and file papers by the fact that of 32 TGWU branches participating eight of them were from London bus garages where Platform circulated. Hospital Worker encouraged nine NUPE branches, two T&G and one COHSE branch to send delegates. Carworker was influential in getting 21 AUEW and TGWU branches in the motor industry and 27 shop stewards’ committees to the conference. In all more than 300 trade union bodies applied for credentials, including 249 trade union branches, 40 combine and shop stewards’ committees, 19 trades councils together with a few strike committees and occupations.
If this did not look like the Petrograd Soviet in 1917, or 1905 come to that, it was a very creditable event. It is true that a majority of the contributions from the floor were from IS members; it was still a matter of consequence that they were all experienced trade unionists with something credible and apposite to say. Better still was the fact that there was a not insignificant number of non-IS militants who spoke in support of the programme and in favour of a continuing organisation to develop the rank and file movement. Outstanding among these was George Anderson, chairman of the joint shop stewards’ committee at Coventry Radiators, and Joe McGough, convenor of Dunlop Speke and chairman of the Dunlop National Combine Committee.’

Higgins argues that the IS in the mid-1970s missed ‘the very best chance we have had since the 1920s to build a serious revolutionary socialist organisation.’ As the documents reproduced here reflect, the prospect of revolution in Portugal had also raised hopes of radical change. But within the IS the problems of maintaining a workplace focus were becoming apparent. (Note too the role members played in trying to dampen anti-Irish feeling in the car factories in Birmingham after the November 1974 bombings).

The IS would see several small splits over the next few years, many of them raising questions about the leadership’s commitment to internal democracy, and in 1977, at the urging of Cliff and his supporters, would transform itself into the SWP, an avowedly ‘Leninist’ party. (Cliff’s three volume biography of Lenin has been unkindly described as being like a biography of John the Baptist by Christ himself). The turn to the SWP was accompanied by another round of splinters.

The effect of these was not readily apparent because the party’s central role in anti-fascist struggles and in unemployment agitation meant that it continued to recruit young workers into the late 1970s. By the 1980s this had changed however. The advent of Thatcher and Reagan saw the party adopt the perspective of the ‘Downturn’: the workers movement was on the defensive internationally and therefore a rank and file perspective was unrealistic. Instead the party concentrated again on student recruitment which meant that by the mid-1980s, while claiming a membership of 4,000, the SWP was heavily white-collar and student based. A small number of manual workers remained but for a variety of reasons the period of the early 1970s marked their only serious toehold in the broader working class. The party however maintained a full time apparatus, a weekly paper and a presence that could sustain itself through the next two decades. As a member in the 1980s, the early 70s were always held up as an example of how the party could grow in a period of workers struggle. Why a large chunk of that membership and influence were lost was never adequately explained. It is unlikely that the party will ever get an opportunity like that again. Current events suggest that they would not deserve it.

By More in sadness than in anger.

Left Archive: International Socialism 51, International Socialists (UK), April-June 1972 May 2, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Socialists [UK], Irish Left Online Document Archive, Socialist Workers' Movement, Socialist Workers' Party.
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To download the above file please click on the following link: INTL SOC 72

This is an handsome document, issued by the International Socialists in Britain, predecessors of the SWP [UK], in 1972, is a special issue with a focus on Ireland.

The range of contributors is striking, from amongst others Eamonn McCann, John Palmer and Brian Trench. McCann considers ‘After 5th October 1968’, Palmer ‘The Gombeen Republic’ and Trench ‘The Two Nations Fallacy’ and there is ‘A factual survey’ of the Six Counties by Paul Gerhardt.

The article by Brian Trench is, perhaps, of particular interest in that it engages directly with the Irish Communist Organisation which it describes as a ‘reactionary Stalinist sect’. And it notes that ‘this group moved within the course of one year from describing Paisleyites as fascists to seeing them as the organised expression of legitimate Protestant national demands’.

It further argues that ‘in adopting this position, the ICO, and others who have since followed them, condemned themselves to inactivity. While state forces attacked the opponents of the Unionist regime, and the nationalist population in general, the advocates of the ‘two nations’ theory were so concerned with distancing themselves from supposed Catholic nationalist desires to oppress the Protestants, that they were unable to oppose the actual repression!’

The Eamonn McCann piece has an interesting analysis on some of the reasons for the emergence of the Provisionals, one of which it ascribes to the Left being ‘still imprisoned within the sectarian strait jacket, forced to operate almost excluseively within the Catholic community but unable to give any clear lead to the Catholic masses… and unwilling to cause a split in the [Defence Committee] barricaded area [in Derry] and doubtful about the extent of its own support, it never seriously attempted to wrest leadership from the moderates’.

And continues:

The raging bitterness of the Catholics in Belfast especially after the August days was certain sooner or later to swamp Fitt and Hume. Emotions were too strong to be contained for long within the thin shell of timid respectability. The Provisionals filled the vacuum created by the effective absence of the left and the irrelevance of the right.

This last point is of some interest, given the concentration in many accounts of the period on the left and less focus on right and centre right forces and the part they played.

The Palmer piece is also of interest as it engages with the nature of British capital in the Irish economy.

And it notes that “The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that between a third and a half of all manufacturing concerns are either controlled or owned outright by British firms. Perhaps 70 per cent of the 100 largest companies in the Twenty-six counties are British controlled in part or entirely.”

In 1971 profits totalling £21 millions – 60 per cent of total profits of all publicly quoted companies – were pocketed by British investors.

Also published is the Programme of the Socialist Workers Movement. This is headlined as follows:

An important development in Irish Politics is the appearance of the Socialist Workers Movement, a marxist organisation based largely in the republic but with connections in the six counties.

It’s a fascinating document, not least because of the more contemporary echoes. Consider by way of example a review by one Chris Hitchens, or the list of names on the editorial board. Also note the front cover, a painting by Robert Ballagh and the short and sympathetic piece on the Underground Press which examines Oz, Time Out and IT magazines.

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