This is the final post in a mini-series. The two previous posts looked at organisations which decided to join Big Flame. This one is about a group which didn’t, despite a lot of discussions and the hopes of some in BF. Like the other two organisations, it came from a very different political background to BF. In this case, the International Socialists tradition.
International Socialist Opposition
The International Socialists (IS) were the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The name change came in 1977. Before that in 1973-74 the IS leader, Tony Cliff, initiated a series of changes. A new emphasis on “young workers” rather than shop stewards, and what was presented as the need for the group’s paper Socialist Worker to become more popular. Jim Higgins was removed as National Secretary, Roger Protz as the Socialist Worker editor, and a number of others from the Executive Committee.
Looking back later, opponents of the leadership saw these moves as preparations for the redefinition of IS as a party. There are two articles which discuss the events of these years: More Years for the Locust: the Origins of the SWP by Jim Higgins, available at both marxists.org and andyw.com, and The Making of a Party? The International Socialists 1965-1976 by Martin Shaw, which was originally published in the 1978 edition of the Socialist Register.
The opponents of the changes declared themselves as the International Socialist Opposition (ISO) in 1975. By May that year 135 IS members had indicated their support for its platform. Their position was lost at the IS Conference that year (new arrangements for appointing delegates were introduced which the ISO saw as a manoeuvre to limit their numbers). At the end of the year the ISO’s leaders were expelled, and many others followed them out of IS.
Some commentators have drawn attention to the fact that those who became the ISO had supported, or at the very least not opposed, previous expulsions from IS: the Trotskyist Tendency in 1971, and the various currents called by their opponents the “Right Opposition” in 1973, (these groupings survive today as the Alliance for Workers Liberty, and partly through the Revolutionary Communist Group).
Of the several hundred people who left IS following the expulsion of the ISO, about 150 formed a new group called the Workers League (WL). It included Roger Protz, John Palmer and (for a time) Jim Higgins. It published its own paper Workers News (first issue in Feb/March 1976), later renamed Socialist Voice.
Shaw writes of WL: “Although it expected to quickly double its original 150 membership with further refugees from the SWP, it failed to project itself as a political alternative and in fact recruited very few. Its leaders were initially committed to the “workerist” politics of IS in the early ’70s, although very slowly as their membership declined a re-valuation of some key questions began to take place. Very many more IS members left as individuals, rather than with the ISO. Among the intellectuals, there were a number who were critical of the organisation’s degeneration, but it was here perhaps that there entered an element of farce: there was no concerted protest, and a number left as individuals while others made their peace with the leadership”.
Not only did the WL not grow, but it seems to have started losing substantial numbers fairly soon, long before the ISA was established. One explanation which has been advanced suggests that it never saw itself as a new political group, but as an external faction to influence the SWP, and it was soon clear that this strategy was a hopeless one. Within a couple of years those remaining in WL dissolved themselves into a new grouping.
This was established at a conference of International Socialists and Revolutionary Unity in February 1978. Martin Shaw (who wasn’t in WL) seems to have been one of the main movers. The conference established the International Socialist Alliance (ISA) This was more of a network than a membership organisation, and spent a lot of its time talking to the IMG (International Marxist Group) and Big Flame, discussing the steps towards regroupment.
The people signed the call for the International Socialists and Revolutionary Unity conference were: Bob Cant, Ray Challinor, Tony Clark, Celia Deacon, Soonu Engineer, James Hinton, Richard Hyman, Hugh Kerr, Richard Kirkwood, Richard Kuper, Stephen Marks, John Anthony, Mary Pearson, Gordon Peters, Pete Sedgwick, Martin Shaw, Mike Sheridan, Leni Lolinger, John Whitfield, Granville Williams, John Whitfield, and Harry Wicks. I don’t know how many of them stayed after the conference. There were over 150 at Revolutionary Unity conference. The first two ISA conferences were attended by 50 to 100 persons. Towards the end the numbers involved in the ISA were much smaller.
When the ISA was formed, the prevailing view was against fusion with the IMG unless wider forces were involved. As numbers dwindled and IMG pushed strongly for regroupment, the views of some changed. Back in 1978 Big Flame hadn’t agreed to sign a declaration intended to lead to fusion between it and the IMG and ISA (see Episode 24 in the Big Flame history series). Then in 1979 it rejected another approach from the IMG for fusion.
The ISA dissolved in November 1979, and according to both the final ISA bulletin and an issue of Socialist Challenge newspaper of the time, two caucuses had formed. One of people considering joining the IMG, and the other considering BF.
In various places BF writers had acknowledged the positive contribution of the IS tradition to the revolutionary left in Britain, for example, seeing some parallels with mass politics in “the IS tradition’s break with orthodox Trotskyism, which particularly enabled them to re-analyse post-war relations between reformism, working class consciousness and organization” (“Has Big Flame got a Future?” Internal Bulletin October 1978). In 1977 at the time of the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation (see Episode 11) amongst the various groups flagged up as targets for discussions was a group of ex-IS members in Coventry. About half a dozen of them, including Roger Klein, decided to join BF in late 1978 (as far as I know they weren’t involved in the ISA). They all appear to have left by the early 1980s.
During the last few months of the ISA, this document was produced by BF addressed to ISA supporters (dated October 1979, it was also published in a BF conference bulletin): Big Flame contribution to the ISA post-conference bulletin.
The document sets out at length a history of BF’s relations with the IMG, and some political differences between BF and the IMG. It argues that the previous two years had seen BF “move politically towards more ‘classical’ positions” on such issues as voting Labour and the importance of trade union work. It goes on to suggest that ISA supporters could “enrich and to a certain extent help transform BF”, and could survive politically and personally in BF’s “healthy internal life”. The document concludes “we hope that as many IS supporters as possible who agree with the general approach of BF” will participate in the ISA caucus discussing BF.
After the ISA
The November 1979 Big Flame National Committee heard that some ISA members would probably join BF “quite soon”. I can find no further mentions in old BF documents. I don’t know what happened to the ISA BF caucus, and can’t find anyone who is able to help me. At least two people who attended ISA meetings (one in Haringey and one in Leicester) did join BF (Gordon Peters was one), but apparently as individuals rather than through any caucus. If others did join in this way at the very end of the ISA, they were clearly few in number and probably didn’t stay in BF that long.
Those who had been involved in the ISA went in many different directions. A few did join the IMG (e.g. Steve Marks, Jonathan Baume), some the Labour Party (e.g. Martin Shaw), some put their efforts into the Socialist Society (e.g. Richard Kuper, John Palmer). Most seem to have carried on as independent socialists or left active politics.
Why did so few ISA members join BF?
The reasons why Big Flame was not a particularly attractive option can be found in a series of articles in an ISA Bulletin from 1979. On the one hand BF had “improved enormously last couple years”, evolving from what was seen as “naïve anarcho-libertarianism”. It was “more open” than the IMG. On the other hand it tended to have “a rather sectarian approach toward the IMG”. It was “very small”, its “influence patchy”, and “been in somewhat of a mess of late” losing working class and women members.
For people who had set out hoping to achieve a large scale unity project, there can have been little attraction in joining a tiny group of around 150. Particularly when their past experience was in a group of over 3,000 members.