A new oral history project aims to record the memories of socialist activists from the 1960s and early 1970s. Project members Sue Sparks and Hazel Croft explain its aims and its relevance for activists today in an interview with rs21 members.
rs21 What was IS, and why do you think it’s important to record its history?
Sue Sparks The International Socialists (IS) was the successor organisation to the Socialist Review Group (SRG) founded in 1950. This political current originated in Trotskyism, which was the main opposition to Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Trotskyism was plunged into crisis following the Second World War because, far from collapsing, the Soviet Union and its bureaucratic ruling class was strengthened. At the same time, the onset of the Cold War led to an arms race, and repression against the left and the labour movement in many countries.
There were a number of responses to this on the revolutionary left. For the IS tradition, it was crucial to reject the idea that the Soviet Union was in any sense a workers’ state, or in transition towards socialism. This developed into the theory of state capitalism, and an emphasis on the idea that the emancipation of the working class was the act of the working class itself. From this, the group developed clear political positions on the impossibility of socialism being achieved on behalf of the working class, whether through parliament, or at the point of guns and tanks (as in Eastern Europe), or by peasant armies (as in China or Cuba). The stance of IS on the Cold War was summed up in the slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism’. The SRG and then IS (the name changed in 1962) was active in CND, and later in opposing the war in Vietnam, though without sharing the illusions in the NLF held by many of their supporters.
The emphasis on workers’ self activity and rejection of a parliamentary path to socialism also meant that IS was in a good position to appeal to a section of militant trade unionists when the major battles of the early seventies took place. The stress on rank and file organisation and the role of shop stewards and workplace reps cut with the grain of the time.
Why seek to preserve the memories of those who were involved in the organisations? It was a time of growth for the left, of excitement about ideas for transforming society, not just in terms of traditional socialist ideology but also confronting how that could be made relevant to wider movements of liberation. Those included women’s liberation, the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland and the struggles against racism and for LGBT+ rights, as well as national liberation movements globally. IS did not get everything right and the project’s participants have reflected on its failures as well as successes. We believe these experiences will be illuminating for contemporary and future activists.
Hazel Croft Just to add that I think it’s vitally important to capture as many of the memories of those who were involved in the SRG and IS, both in terms of what Sue says about capturing the experiences of those involved in such momentous political times, and around issues of socialism, imperialism, liberation movements, gender, racism. We want to hear all voices about the experiences of being on the radical left in Britain, the experiences of organizing, how people saw left organization both at the time and in retrospect. What did people think they achieved? What was good about the organization? What were it mistakes and how inclusive was it? That is why we have been keen to interview not only those who were in the leadership of the organization but also people who organized the branches, or in their workplaces, and who were not well known on the left. We want to hear about all levels of experience and activity and how people felt about it.
rs21 Why was the IS History project set up, and what made you want to get involved with it?
Sue: The project originated in a number of people realising that the window of opportunity for capturing the memories of those involved in the SRG/IS was closing. As someone who was a member of IS, and who experienced the group and the movements in the early to mid 70s (and afterwards) I felt I could make a contribution. It is important to say that the project is not part of a plan to write a history of the organisations, it is simply an attempt to record the memories and reflections of those involved. The archived interviews will be stored, managed and made available through the Modern Records Centre at Warwick, where there are already substantial archives relating to the labour movement and the left.
Hazel: I joined the IS History project team because it captured two interests of mine – in the history of the far left in Britain and my interest as someone who has studied history academically. I was interested as a historian in what people would remember, the issues people would raise and the way people would remember. In recent years I have also done much thinking, and rethinking, about the way far left organisations operate and the way that various power imbalances play out within them. I was very interested to hear how people would reflect on their experiences in the organization as well as their views of the IS’s theoretical contributions and the various struggles they were involved in.
rs21 What things have most struck you from the interviews you have done or read?
Sue: The vitality and intellectual curiosity of the interviewees and the fact that, whether or not they are still formal members of any organisation, they are almost all still committed to the central ideas of IS. They have varying views looking back, especially on the form of organisation which is appropriate, but they haven’t become right wing or made their peace with capitalism. On IS’ industrial work, we have plenty of accounts of close contacts with shop stewards and convenors (for example in a Lucas factory in Birmingham in the early 70s, and in the London docks), of successful sales of Socialist Worker at factories and other workplaces, and of the production and distribution of factory and workplace bulletins e.g., GKN Worker in Birmingham, Pigeon Post at Reuters in London. We haven’t yet interviewed anyone with direct experience of IS’ factory branches, and would love to hear from anyone who was involved in one.
Hazel: Absolutely – everyone I’ve interviewed, and in all the interviews I’ve listened to, has stayed committed at some level to socialist ideas and principles and their involvement in IS remains a vital part of who they are. I also don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they regretted their involvement in the IS, although they may subsequently have done things differently. Some have had varying criticisms of the organisation – views on what could have been done better, things they’ve come to disagree with and so on, but it has really struck me how on key issues those central principles have remained.
I’ve also been struck by how varied, and interesting, people’s backgrounds and family stories have been, and how everyone – even when they protest to the contrary – has really fascinating insights and stories. Sometimes people worry that they won’t recall everything about the IS, but for future historians it will be just as interesting to see what people do or do not recall. And if we did all the interviews again on a different day, we would likely get a slightly different set of reflections. But taken together, you really begin to build up a picture of the vibrancy and importance to people of the IS.
rs21 The left of the 1960s and 1970s was very male-dominated. Was this also true of IS, and what was the impact of the women’s liberation movement on IS (and vice versa)?
Sue: IS was no exception to this, but its youthfulness at that time and its relative openness to the exhilarating ideas swirling around in the wake of 1968 meant many of its female members and some of the men were influenced by, and involved in, the women’s movement, including the socialist feminist current. There was clear support by IS for issues like a woman’s right to choose and equal pay, and enthusiastic involvement in the National Abortion Campaign, equal pay strikes etc., but there was a definite view that having separate women’s organisations was divisive. From what people in interviews have said and my own memories, there was a sense that women’s oppression was seen as secondary to class struggle and that although bourgeois women could possibly achieve equality under capitalism, working class women would need to wait till after the revolution.
Hazel: Yes, it is clear from the interviews that the women’s liberation movement did have a big impact on many IS members. Some women IS members were directly involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement and its socialist feminist wing, but often the engagement of IS members was more peripheral. Some women’s struggles were viewed as being more class based and thus IS members were more likely to be involved, such as the equal pay disputes and the fight for a women’s right to choose. We have interviewed a couple of people who were at some stage very involved in Women’s Voice, the magazine/newspaper produced by IS. Others have said that in retrospect they felt that women’s liberation was not seen as central, and was viewed as subordinate to the class struggle (still largely seen as male) rather than integral to it – however this was not something they expressed or even thought at the time.
So far we have interviewed a lot more men than women who were IS members, which seems to me interesting in itself. Most of the names that have been passed to us from various sources have been male, and we have tried to prioritise interviewing women. But it is hard to judge whether this preponderance of male interviewees just reflects a greater male involvement in the IS, or whether it also indicates that women members were more invisible and less well-known – that women members were more likely to be branch building and organizing rather than doing the writing and speaking – which some female interviewees have referred to.
rs21 Why does this history matter today? What do you think are the main lessons or ideas that revolutionaries today can take from the experience of the IS?
Sue: The theoretical contributions made by SRG/IS remain important and relevant today, though like all political theories they have needed to be updated and developed as reality changes. In fact, one of the main legacies of IS is the lesson that we as revolutionaries cannot simply rely on the insights of the past, however important. There are no sacred texts that provide all the answers. By preserving the memories of people who were active revolutionary socialists at a time of working class upsurge and intellectual ferment, we can hopefully learn from their successes and failures and think afresh about the ideas and forms of organisation which are relevant today.
Hazel: It is also crucial to make sure we, and future historians and socialist activists, hear the voices of those who committed themselves to fighting for a better world. The archive we are creating will be a hugely important resource. History is rarely written from the perspective of those fighting for change from below, and it is even rarer to hear from those involved in far left organisations. This project brings to life the voices of people who dedicated part of their lives, to fighting and organising for a socialist future and a world free from oppression. It is an inspiring story that deserves to be told, and one we can learn from – what people did to build socialist organization, how they organized at work and in their communities, and how they felt about their involvement. We are also asking people in retrospect what they think they achieved when they reflect upon their involvement and that too has valuable things to say for anyone involved in organizing today.
If you were a member of IS and would like to be interviewed for the project, or if you would like to get involved in the project, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org . The project is crowd-funding to support travel and data storage costs, as well as to employ someone to help with administration and writing summaries of interviews. You can donate at https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/ishistoryproject