The “IS tradition” and the Independent Labour Party

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

The “IS tradition” of the 1960s, which members and old ex-members of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) cherish, was in fact largely taken from the Independent Labour Party in its last years.

The first part of this article described the earlier history of the ILP. After 1946 the ILP mutated. This article tells the rest of the story.


From about the time James Maxton died, and Fenner Brockway, John McGovern and others left to join the Labour Party, the ILP shed its character as a trimming, evasive, manoeuvring left social-democratic organism, and took on the character of an “ideological” grouping expressing its ideas in angular, sharp, and uncompromising form. At least, its weekly paper, now edited by George Stone, did that, most of the time.

By the late 1940s, the organisation, as an organisation attempting to do things, had shrivelled up, reduced to very little. It remained comparatively rich, and that helped it sustain the Socialist Leader as a big political weekly which, in the 1940s and ’50s, was read in the labour movement far beyond the ILP’s own ranks.

Of the groups which Trotsky rightly called centrist in the 1930s, those which survived the war — the group round Marceau Pivert in France, the Spanish POUM in exile — were by the late 1940s bitterly anti-Stalinist. So was the ILP. The coverage in Socialist Leader was shaped by George Stone, who was (I believe: it isn’t entirely clear) some species of “Shachtmanite” on the USSR in his theory, and most certainly was that in his political comments.

In the 1930s and early 40s the ILP and its press had been “soft” on Stalinism, “explaining” things away, avoiding sharp definitions and, even more so, sharp political conclusions. They saw the USSR as evolving into something better than Stalinism. They were in the “Brandlerite” spectrum — more like critical or liberal Stalinists than revolutionary opponents of Stalinism. Their sharp contrast with the Trotskyistson on this led then to bitter conflict.

By the late 40s the ILP and the “orthodox” Trotskyists had swapped positions. The ILP press was emotionally sharply hostile to the USSR. The USSR was no longer evolving towards something better than Stalinism. It was a definite entity, with definite characteristics — a form of exploitative class society. (Though there were exceptions here too: centrists are… centrists!)

By contrast, the press of the Trotskyists in the 1950s — most notably, the Mandel-Pablo tendency of the Fourth International, but not only these — was jelly-soft on Stalinism. It made excuses, it “explained” unpleasant things in “historical” and “dialectical materialist” and “relativist” excuse-making terms.

The ILP had not only shifted to the attitudes of the Trotskyists in Trotsky’s time, but aligned with the dissenting “other Trotskyists”. It had links — reprinting and exchanging articles, for example — with the Workers’ Party of the USA in the late 1940s and into the ’50s.

Throughout the 1950s the ILP – or, anyway, the Socialist Leader — was the main exponent of “Third Camp” (or, as they mostly said, “Third Force”) politics in Britain. The ILP was part of a loose “Third Camp” international network which, in the mid-50s, held international conferences with a very wide “catchment area”. At the September 1955 conference you could find the International Socialist League of the USA (“Shachtmanite”, successor to the Workers’ Party) side by side with the ILP, Pivertists, the Socialist Review group (ancestor of the SWP) and... the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party (then a long way from what it would become in Syria and Iraq).

What in the 1960s would become “the IS tradition”, to which a lot of SWPers and ex-SWPers still refer fondly with ignorance, was in the late 1940s and through the 1950s the ILP. (With one major difference).

Like the 1960s IS, but before them, the ILP were Britain’s anti-Leninist “Luxemburgists”.

The counterposition of Luxemburg to Lenin went back to 1922, at least, when Luxemburg’s lawyer Paul Levi, expelled from the German Communist Party, published her prison writings critical of Bolshevik Russia, which she had not chosen to publish. Luxemburg’s 1904 criticism of Lenin’s book on the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, which Luxemburg or the editor of Neue Zeit, Karl Kautsky, had entitled Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, was by 1935 being circulated (in Britain, by quasi-anarchists) under the title Leninism or Marxism.

Trotsky’s "Luxemburg and the Fourth International" demonstrated how nonsensical this counterposition of Lenin and Luxemburg was. But the “reconstructed” Luxemburg was very useful for those who, remaining socialists, identified Leninism and Stalinism.

When the ILP’s sister organisation in America, the Lovestone group, decided to dissolve, in 1940, Bertram Wolfe, one of its central leaders — who had defended the first and second Moscow Trials — published Luxemburg’s criticism of the Russian Revolution as a comment on Stalinism, and on Leninism's alleged responsibility for it.

Despite being culpably soft on Stalinism, the ILP got in on the anti-Leninist/ Trotskyist “Luxemburg” racket very early. In a 1940 review of Paul Frölich’s book on Luxemburg (Frölich had been a leader of the ILP’s German “sister group” of the 1930s, the SAP), Jennie Lee, wife of the Labour MP and future founder of the NHS, Nye Bevan, who had been as soft or softer on Stalinism as the other ILP leaders, presented the full “Stalin and Lenin are one, and Luxemburg understood that early", thesis in the ILP paper.

Others in the party would pick it up and keep it fresh in the pages of Socialist Leader — such as Walter Padley, who would become the leader of the important trade union USDAW.

ADVOCACY of “workers’ control” was an important part of the propaganda work of a revolutionary socialist group – but not instead of the struggle for state power. That was the centrist version of it (it would be IS's version of it in the 1960s). The ILP in the 1940s and ’50s advocated workers’ control in the workplaces as in and of itself a solution to the working-class need to control society.

The ILP’s pacifistic attitude to war was sharply pronounced in the 50s, as in the 60s. it would be pronounced in the gestation-stage late 50s and early 60s SWP.

The slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, later taken up by the IS/ SWP, was half-coined by Fenner Brockway as editor of the ILP public discussion journal "Left", at the end of the Second World War. It headed an article by Michael Foot, reprinted by the ILP journal from the Labour Party paper, the Daily Herald. Foot advocated that Britain (not the working class, as such) should stand apart from the two blocs, headed by the USA and Russia. (The article did not have that headline in the Herald, nor did Foot use that succinct expression in the article).

The Workers’ Party weekly Labor Action carried the idea as a front page headline in 1947, adding the positive socialist alternative to Washington and Moscow: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism”. It would become the self-defining slogan of the Socialist Review group in the 1950s.

The explanation of post-war capitalist economic stability in terms of the arms economy, which in myth was a special contribution of Socialist Review/ IS/ SWP, was also propagated by the ILP. Indeed, it was the common property of most of the left — the Workers’ Party/ ISL, but also the Pabloite Fourth International in the early 1950s, and, for that matter, the Communist Parties. What was distinctive about the version of it developed by Cliff and Kidron in the late 1950s and the 1960s was not the idea of the role of arms in the economy, but the perspective of long-term, indefinite capitalist stability. That was what the early 1960s IS drew from it.

Every element bar one of the 1960s “IS Tradition” was the property of the ILP of the late 1940s and 50s. Even the fetishistic slogan, “Build the Revolutionary Party” — build the ILP as an alternative to both Labour and the Communist Party — was a leitmotiv of the ILP. The distinction in Britain of being the first to use that slogan as a front page headline belongs not to the Healyites, who went mad with it after the mid-1960s, but to the ILP.

THE major difference between late ILPism and the “IS tradition” — and between the ILP and the “Shachtmanites” — was the attitude to the Labour Party. The ILP, after having tried and failed, on a number of occasions between the late 1930s and 1945, to rejoin the Labour Party , was aridly sectarian, standing in “principled” aloofness from Labour, making a fetish of its own organisation. By contrast, Socialist Review and the IS group were in the Labour Party.

In the 50s and into the early 60s, Socialist Review even presented its socialist programme as something for a Labour government to do. One of its conclusions from the political perspectives drawn from the “permanent arms economy” was to see the Labour Party as politically central. Its conclusion from its “Luxemburgism”, after 1958-9, was that anything other than deep immersion in the social democracy — the Labour Party — “until the revolution” would be sectarian. (The SWP’s current story, in Ian Birchall’s quasi-official “history” for example, that they were only in the Labour Party to find “an audience” is, like so much of their “history”, moonshine and myth).

The difference over the Labour Party was no small one, but it — and the way SR/ IS stressed the “permanent” quality of the “permanent arms economy” — were the only differences of political physiognomy between the ILP and the “IS tradition”.

Socialist Review began to take over the former political identity of the ILP in a comprehensive way in 1958-9, as the ILP itself faded.

The ILP had links with the Workers’ Party/ ISL, as we have seen. Max Shachtman spoke at the ILP’s summer school in 1949. (There is, by the way, no evidence in either Socialist Review or Labor Action of any close ties between the SR and the ISL before late 1955). Between the ILP and the WP/ ISL, too, the defining difference was the Labour Party. The “Shachtmanites” were vehement advocates of doing socialist work in the Labour Party.

The picture I have painted of the politics of Socialist Leader and the ILP is, however, only part of it. Left without qualification, it would be a false picture.

For the ILP was not in any degree a politically homogeneous organisation. In terms of the day-to-day politics of its membership, it was a hopeless hodge-podge. For example, side by side with the Shachtmanite politics on Stalinism which Stone imprinted on the Socialist Leader lived a whole layer, or, better, a whole spectrum of the ILP which was quasi-Stalinist and, on some issues, downright Stalinist.

When the Russian bureaucracy bloodily suppressed the Hungarian Revolution of October-November 1956, Socialist Leader carried not only socialist condemnation of the Russians and solidarity with the Hungarians, but also a commentary by its leading “columnist”, over decades, F A Ridley, proclaiming that “the choice” in Hungary was between the “Red International” (he meant the Stalinists) and the “Black International” (he meant the Catholic Church, which had great weight in Hungarian society).

He chose to back the “Red International”. That is, to back the butchers of the Hungarian working class, which had resorted to a general strike after the definitive military victory of the Russian tanks over Hungarian street-fighters. armed with rifles and petrol bombs.

ILP chair Jim Graham took the same line. So did some “orthodox Trotskyists” in the ILP, who were in fact political supporters of Isaac Deutscher (who justified the Russians on Hungary, as he had justified their suppression of the East German workers’ rising in mid 1953).

From the mid 30s, even after the departure of the group which included C L R James, there were always Trotskyists in the ILP.

Most important, however, were individuals or very small groups who were looking for a political home. Those included Harry Wicks, who would become a hero to certain IS and ex-IS people in the 1970s. But they came in all political shapes, sizes, and styles.

A surprising number of ex-RCP — and pre-RCP — sectarians seem to have found their way into the ILP, or at least into the pages of Socialist Leader — including Reg Groves, one of those who in the early 1930s had then rejected Trotsky’s advice to join the ILP...

A loose social-democratic outfit at its very best, the ILP and its press offered a “home” to anybody who cared to come in, politics a matter of indifference. “The party”, the ILP, the fetish — that was what mattered, not politics. Thus, in terms of the politics of its members, the ILP was a real political menagerie in which “Shachtmanites” coexisted with Stalinists and Deutscherites; crypto-Council Communists (the party published a pamphlet by Anton Pannekoek on workers’ control) side by side with aspirant parliamentarians; and kitsch-Luxemburgists side by side with (platonic) Leninists, not to speak of pixilated Stalinists.

POLITICALLY, its nearest equivalent in recent years is, I suppose, the group around the late Al Richardson and Revolutionary History, which kept open house for anyone who would get involved, people who would bring their own politics and prejudices and experiences, digested or smeared all over their faces.

The late Walter Kendall, author of one useful book on the revolutionary left in Britain before World War One, contributed the same romancing, uncomprehending foolishness to both the 1950s Socialist Leader and to Revolutionary History. (Boosting, for example, the Italian quasi-fascist Bruno Rizzi, given prominence by Trotsky in a 1939 polemic as a foil, but whose “contribution” to the debate on the nature of the USSR is entirely mythical: nothing he said was new or distinctive).

The ILP entered its final phase as the 50s turned into the 60s. There was almost nothing left in the way of organisation, and the paper became a shadow of itself. Socialist Review/ IS “took over”, so to speak, the ILP’s political stock-in-trade, adding Cliff’s idiosyncratic account of Russia as “bureaucratic state capitalism”, and grew with the Labour Party Young Socialists. The “ILP youth” — of whom there were very few — contributed a member to the editorial board of the Cliffite journal in the early 1960s.

The Socialist Leader moved from Glasgow to London, and by about 1964 the paper was dead matter, produced by an essentially a-political functionary. Symbolically, the ILP rented out most of the space in their building on Kings Cross Road, from which the paper was produced, to the RSL/ Militant (today, the Socialist Party).

Links: First part of article
Second part of article