Ian Birchall


The First Ten Years


Extract from Ian H. Birchall, History of the International Socialists – Part 1: From Theory to Practice, in International Socialism 76 (1st series), March 1975.
Re-printed as part 1 of The Smallest Mass Party in the World, SWP 1981.
Transcribed by Michael Gavin.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

The origins of the International Socialists are in the Trotskyist movement. The historical achievement of Trotskyism was to keep alive the Marxist method and its insistence on the revolutionary role of the working class in the face of the barbarous distortions of Stalinism. Some excellent revolutionaries swallowed every barbarity and change of line from Moscow because there seemed to be no alternative; others were so sickened with Stalinism that they wrote off the Russian Revolution altogether and became social democrats or even drifted to the extreme right. The achievement of Trotskyism in preserving Marxist ideas and keeping together a small group of Marxist cadres far outweighs any theoretical errors or incidental absurdities.

But the 15 years that followed the Second World War offered a very hostile environment for revolutionaries, an environment in which throughout the world anti-Stalinist Marxists found themselves confined to tiny groups on the margins of the working class.

There were two main reasons for this. Firstly the Cold War, beginning in 1947, led to a massive political and ideological assault on the Left. While there was nothing comparable to McCarthyism in Britain, there was a systematic witchhunt of Communists in the trade union movement, while publishing houses turned out floods of pseudo-intellectual “refutations” of Marxism.

Secondly, and even more fundamentally, the prolonged post-war boom made it exceptionally hard to relate political ideas to the actual experience of workers. The political and economic struggles seemed to be totally separated. In the ten years from 1953 to. 1962 there were only 30 “constitutional” stoppages in the engineering industry, and in the five years from 1954 to 1958 there were none at all. As The Economist rather sadly commented: (1) “full employment since the war has not led to more strikes because the unions, now more highly organised than ever, have been getting their own way without recourse to them.” In short, workers were able to solve their immediate problems without any kind of generalisation. The fifties saw the growth of the shop stewards movement as we know it today, but they also saw the Tory Party re-elected with increased majorities at three successive elections.

Things had changed radically since the early years of Trotskyism, and the movement had to reconsider the basis of its politics. Very briefly, there were two main issues. (2) Firstly, Trotsky’s perspective for the immediate pre-war period had been that the coming war would end in a massive crisis with great revolutionary possibilities. He was wrong. In the short term the mass .Communist Parties headed off revolution; in the longer term Marshall Aid and the development of the arms economy opened up a new period of capitalist expansion. This meant a need to re-examine radically theoretical views of modern capitalism.

The second question that confronted the movement was one that had already been much discussed – the so-called “Russian question”. Up to his death Trotsky had always argued that Russia, despite Stalin’s crimes, remained a workers’ state, though a “degenerated” one; he rejected the view that Russia had reverted to capitalism, or that a new form of class society had grown up there. By the late forties, however, a new element entered the debate. Following the great carve-up of the world at the end of the Second World War, Russia had taken over a number of countries in Eastern Europe and established regimes there which were becoming more or less identical with the set-up in Russia. The question that was – were these too workers’ states? If not, how come they seemed to function in exactly the same way as Russia? If they were, then didn’t that mean you could have a workers’ state without a workers’ revolution and without an independent, revolutionary party?

It was in this situation that a grouping within the British Trotskyist movement developed the theory that Russia, and the East European states, were “state capitalist”. (3) The main theoretical elaboration was the work of Tony Cliff. The theoretical confusion in the Trotskyist movement was accompanied by a degeneration in the organisation and the standard of internal debate. As a result the comrades who held the “state capitalist” position were either expelled or left, and late in 1950 began to publish a duplicated paper Socialist Review. The new group, taking its name from the paper, held its founding conference at Whitsuntide 1951.

To-an outsider the debate about the “class nature of Russia” often seems arid and almost theological. But the issue was a very real one. The “state capitalist” theory stressed that what was central to class nature of a society was not ownership, but control. The absence of workers” control in Russia was not a defect in an otherwise progressive system, it was a clear indication that the system was in no sense a workers” state. The central position that “workers’ control” always had in IS’s political analyses and industrial strategy directly from the theory of state capitalism.

It is sometimes alleged that the creation of the Socialist Review group represented some sort of concession to Cold War pressure at the time of the Korean War. In fact, the Korean War was not the issue at the heart of the split. Rather it was the shamelessly opportunist support for Tito’s Yugoslavia by the rest of the Trotskyist movement (4) from 1948 onwards that highlighted the principled differences. Moreover, anyone who in 1950 wanted to “capitulate” to pro-American pressures had plenty of other and more comfortable openings available; one could become a right-wing witch-hunter in the Labour Party or trade union movement, or join the circles of Washington-financed anti-Communist intellectuals.

And for those who resisted the pressure to give in to Western imperialism, there was still the danger of submitting to Stalinist pressure – of taking a more or less uncritical attitude to Yugoslavia, North Korea or other Stalinist states. It was precisely this trap that the rest of the Trotskyist movement was falling into. By so doing it was abandoning the very essence of Trotskyism, namely, independence of both Western imperialism and Stalinism.

From the beginning the Socialist Review group made no concessions to the Western Alliance and the South Korean dictatorship it supported. “The Labour movement must oppose the alliance with Truman, Adenauer, Syngman Rhee and the other representatives of ‘Western Democracy’; they must fight for an alliance with the millions of toilers of Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world.” (5) It denounced the “full-scale colonial wars” in Vietnam and Malaya. (6)

The logic of the position that the Eastern European states were “workers’ states” was, of course, that revolutionary parties were not necessary for the establishment of workers’ states. The Socialist Review group, on the other hand, stressed that only the working class could establish socialism; and that it was necessary to build independent workers’ parties. As a resolution carried at an early national meeting of the group (7) put it, “Our grouping, based on the conception of Russia as a state-capitalist country, is the nucleus of that new Marxist party, and can be built firmly ONLY on the acceptance of party discipline in the tradition of Bolshevism under Lenin’s leadership.”

The other essential component of IS’s basic theory was also developed at this time. This was the idea of the “permanent arms economy” (8), which sought to explain how the prolonged post-war boom was possible. The argument that it was arms expenditure that was postponing capitalist crisis was vital for an argument on two fronts. On the one hand the Communist Party and most sections of the Trotskyist movement refused to recognise any significant change in the capitalist system; slump was predicted every time the unemployment figures went up a few hundred. On the other hand theorists of the Labour Party right – such as Anthony Crosland – argued that the system had been fundamentally transformed and that expansion and reforms could continue indefinitely.

Against this the arms economy theory argued that the post-war boom was a prolonged and deep-rooted phenomenon, and that revolutionaries must plan their strategy accordingly. But against the reformists it argued that capitalist stability was bought only at the price of creating weapons that could destroy humanity itself; moreover, that the crisis could not be put off indefinitely:

“The war economy may thus less and less serve as a cure for over-production, a stabiliser of capitalist prosperity. When the war economy becomes expendable, the knell of the capitalist boom will surely toll.” (9)

Together with “state capitalism” the arms economy theory equipped the meagre forces of the Socialist Review group to face reality.

Splits are not to be undertaken lightly in the revolutionary movement. Unity of action combined with full and fraternal debate is often a preferable solution. But when the whole question of political direction and strategy is at stake, a split becomes inevitable. In these terms the split of 1950 was justified.

Marxists are not fatalists, and in any historical period there is something for a revolutionary to do. But there are historical situations where objective factors prevent revolutionary ideas from reaching a mass audience. In such a situation small groups can play a vital role simply in keeping the revolutionary flame alight. Marx in a letter to Bolte wrote: “Sects are justified (historically) so long as the working class is not yet ripe for an independent historical movement.” (10)

But to accept the necessity for a sect is not to justify sectarianism. A correct analysis, on its own, guarantees nothing. A number of other groupings with a state capitalist analysis of Russia emerged around this time in various parts of the world. Most of them either just disappeared, or got lost in the lunatic fringe of sectarian politics.

Such dangers were very real ones for the newly formed Socialist Review group. At the first recorded meeting (September 1950) there were just 33 members represented. Groups existed in London, Thames Valley, Crewe, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester. 19 of the 33 were in the Labour League of Youth. Although it was claimed this 33 represented a quarter of the total forces of British Trotskyism, it was nonetheless a minute force. 350 copies of the first issue of the paper were produced; sales were apparently sufficiently encouraging for the figure to be raised for the second issue ... to 375!

For any small group there are two opposite pitfalls. One is to see itself as the centre of the universe, and thus become obsessed with defending itself against its equally insignificant rivals. The other is to surrender to its own importance, and therefore to project – the job of making the revolution on to someone else – the colonial revolution, the left trade union leaders, or whatever. Examples of both errors abound.

The Socialist Review group was, throughout the fifties, a purely propaganda group; it was not able to make any meaningful intervention in the class struggle. But propaganda has to have an audience; and unless a revolutionary group remains in intimate contact with its audience, the dangers of falling into a complete fantasy world are great indeed. Throughout the fifties the Socialist Review group, despite its limited numbers, always strove to relate to the actual problems of the working class. Minutes of the discussion of the paper Socialist Review dating from 1951 (11) show a concern to make the paper relate. “The main points were that there was not enough on Britain, and editorials should be on British matters”; “It was generally felt to be still too much composed of anti-Stalinist articles.”

In practice this meant work in the Labour Party. All members were expected to be active in the Labour Party; before the 1951 General Election a directive was issued stating: “It is most necessary that our comrades become known to the working class in their local areas as the most energetic and anti-Tory Labour Party workers.”

But Labour Party work was not undertaken on the basis of impending crisis; there was no expectation of imminent split, no hope of capturing the leadership of a section of the Party. In a period of stability, when the traditional Labour Left was declining in strength and power to mobilise, such a perspective could have led to dangerous opportunism (as was the case with Socialist Outlook – published by the forerunners of the Socialist Labour League (now the Workers Revolutionary Party) – which opened its columns to Party bureaucrats like Bessie Braddock). The Labour Party was seen as an arena which made it possible to keep contact with the working class movement, and as a source of recruits. The latter was, of course, particularly applicable in the case of the youth movement. A resolution carried in December 1950 stated: “That we concentrate in the next period on recruiting, and direct our primary efforts towards the League of Youth, accepting all elements who will accept our theoretical position, even though their theoretical level is low.”

Trade union intervention was necessarily very limited for a small group with few industrial workers. But priority was always given to the few opportunities that did exist. Minutes of the first few months of the group’s existence record discussion of the coining USDAW Conference, at which a comrade was to be a delegate, and the recommendation that a comrade should stand for the NEC of NALGO. There was regular work on the Birmingham Trades Council.

And in 1959 Geoff Carlsson, a founder member of the group and convenor at the ENV factory in North West London, ran for the Presidency of the AEU. The number of AEU members in the group could have been counted on the fingers of one hand, and there was no intervention other than the work of individuals. But candidates had the right to circulate an election address, and Carlsson used this to put forward an alternative policy for the union. After criticising the right-wing leadership of the union for failing to give a lead over wages or redundancies, he went on:

“In the elections over the past years, members have bad to choose between candidates backed by the right-wing Labour or the Communist Party. The choice has not been easy. Although most members owe allegiance to the Labour Party, they cannot accept the policies pursued by the right-wing of the Trade Unions and Labour Party when these have included wage-freezing, class-collaboration and ‘sell-outs’. Alternatively, although they respect the militant activities of the individual Communist Party member in the daily struggles on the shop floor, they cannot ignore the external loyalties of the Communist Party to Russia; nor forget the anti-working-class measures adopted by that country in East Berlin, Poznan, Hungary, etc.”

That there was some response to this position was shown by the voting; Carlsson, without any machine at his disposal, got 5,615 votes out of a total of 91,400, against 57,127 for right-winger Carron and 19,799 for Communist party member Birch.

It was not the concrete achievements of any of the activities of the fifties that mattered; they were, of course, quite negligible. What did matter was an orientation to the working class, an orientation that was to make intervention possible when things hotted up in the sixties.



1. 6 April 1957

2. For a fuller treatment of the questions see D. Hallas, Building the Leadership (IS 40), and Fourth International In Decline (IS 60); also The Origins of the International Socialists (London 1971).

3. The theory is expounded most fully in T Cliff, Russia, A Marxist Analysis (London. 1974) (an expansion of the original document from 1948). A shorter and more readable account is C Harman, The Eastern Bloc in World Crisis, (London 1971).

4. Cf. Origins of the International Socialists, pp.49-62, 96-7, 102.

5. Editorial, Socialist Review, Vol.1, No.6, November-December 1951

6. Socialist Review, Vol.1, No.4, May 1951.

7. 9-10 December 1950. Where no published source is given for quotations, they are taken from unpublished minutes and internal documents of the organisation.

8. Most fully expounded in M Kidron, Western Capitalism since the War, (London 1968).

9. T Cliff, Socialist Review, May 1957.

10. Marx & Engels, Selected Correspondence, p.326.

11. 19 September, 10 November.


Last updated on 6.3.2002