Unearthing Hidden Histories: an interview with Ian Birchall

ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig interviews the historian and socialist Ian Birchall. Birchall speaks about his life, activism, and historical and political work. His work has involved discovering relatively unknown activists and revolutionaries, many from Africa, while championing Marxism as a powerful but flexible tool of analysis and criticism. Birchall argues that the idea of social transformation, the hope for a world based on the satisfaction of human needs, has lost none of its power.

For readers of roape.net can you tell us a little about yourself. What were some of your earliest political steps?

I have been involved in left-wing politics for something over sixty years. This began with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, then Anti-Apartheid and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, later the Anti-Nazi League and more recently Stop the War. For some fifty years I was a member of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP – previously the International Socialists] but left in 2013 after a very bitter internal dispute. I still think of myself as a Marxist and revolutionary socialist. I’ve also written quite widely, especially on the history of the socialist movement; books on Babeuf, Sartre and Tony Cliff [the founder of the SWP]. And I’ve translated some of the works of Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer and Victor Serge, people who were among the earliest supporters of the Russian Revolution, but later became intransigent anti-Stalinists [some of Ian’s work can be found here and here].

My own evolution was necessarily slow. I was born in 1939 and grew up in the aftermath of World War II. Britain was still at the head of the biggest colonial empire in the world, though it was beginning to disintegrate. In my childhood home we had a large map of the world above the fireplace, with the British Empire coloured red. I remember a friend of my father’s telling me “We should never have given India away”. As a child I was required to collect money for missionaries, to bring the “true” religion to those who had other beliefs. This included Muslims, whom we were taught – ignorantly and offensively – to call “Mohammedans”.

Very slowly I began to question things. I opposed the Suez invasion in 1956, which led to a débâcle that was the end of the road for the British Empire. It was largely a gut reaction against jingoism rather than any sophisticated understanding of what was happening. I was also increasingly aware of racism, though not through direct experience – there was not a single black pupil in my very middle-class grammar school. But I was aware of the discussion about immigration – and also of the arguments about South Africa. I was very influenced by reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country when I was about seventeen, which left me with a hatred of racism.

It was when I left home to go to university that I became more deeply involved. I joined the Labour Party and supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which briefly won a majority in the Labour Party. In the 1959 election I heckled Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when he spoke at a rally in my hometown in Yorkshire; I shouted, “How About Nyasaland?” [Malawi]. This was reported in the local press. While in Oxford I picketed the South African cricket team.

After completing my first degree I spent a year teaching in France in 1961-62. This was the final year of the Algerian war, and I have ever since been fascinated by that period. I was in a remote rural region and was not directly involved in any activity, but I was aware of the situation and the rumours of impending civil war. I talked to people who had served in the army in Algeria. I came to realise that not all politics developed through the peaceful framework of British parliamentary democracy.

You described some years ago how if it hadn’t been for your politicisation with the International Socialists in the early 1960s you might have disappeared into academic obscurity. Can you describe the environment and experience of those early years in the radical left?

I joined the International Socialists at the end of 1962, as a post-graduate student. It was just after the Cuba Crisis, which had been a powerful reminder that the whole future of humanity was at risk, and I was anxious to be involved in some form of action.

I had been a supporter of the Labour Party left [as embodied in the weekly paper Tribune and MPs like Michael Foot] and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament [CND]. I was committed to the politics, but often found their arguments intellectually inadequate – superficial or moralising.

For two or three years I had known individuals and publications from a Trotskyist background. There were two groups – the Socialist Labour League [SLL] and the International Socialists [IS]. The SLL was in some ways impressive, and I was briefly attracted to it. But it was sectarian, seeing itself as the sole bearer of the “correct” position, and had a grossly exaggerated overestimation of revolutionary prospects in the 1960s.

I was much more impressed when I attended a meeting addressed by Michael Kidron, one of the IS leaders. I came away thinking “this man really understands how the world works”. A few weeks later I joined the organisation – though I was fairly vague about what I had joined.

The group was led by Kidron and Tony Cliff. Cliff was known above all for his work arguing that Russia, Eastern Europe and China were not in any sense a form of socialism, however degenerated or distorted, but “state capitalist”. It took me a little time to come to terms with this. Kidron’s work was primarily on the contemporary economy. He argued that the post-war economic boom in capitalism was real [something denied by many on the left], but that it was impermanent and would come to an end.

It was a tiny group – just over a hundred members when I joined. But the Cliff-Kidron duo had drawn some interesting people around them. There were writers and intellectuals like Peter Sedgwick and Alasdair MacIntyre. Among recent recruits of my own generation were people such as Chris Harman, Nigel Harris and Colin Barker, who would go on to become distinguished Marxist writers, as well as Paul Foot, one of the finest journalists of his time. I was in particular friends with Colin Barker, and together we thrashed out some of our ideas. See my obituary of Colin here.

The Marxism I learned from Cliff and Kidron was a powerful but flexible tool of analysis and criticism. Concepts of class, capitalist contradiction and the inadequacy of reformism were used to illuminate the modern world. But it was always stressed that we must look at the reality of the world as well as the theory – as Cliff put it many years later “If you sit on Marx’s shoulders you see far, but if you sit on Marx’s shoulders and close your eyes, you don’t see very far at all.” There were no sacred texts; arguments could not be resolved by citing the “great teachers”. Trotsky had been wrong about Russia, Lenin’s theory of imperialism was out-of-date. It was an intellectually stimulating environment, and one which contrasted with the academic milieu I was also getting to know, where all too many people knew little – and cared less – about anything outside of their academic specialism.

We were a very small group and there was no pretence that we were the “leadership”, or even the embryo of it. There was no claim to a monopoly of truth; I remember Colin Barker enthusing about CLR James and Victor Serge. And the group was marked by a sense of humour. Cliff was notorious for using jokes to make political points. In general, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously; there was a widespread use of self-deprecating humour.

Yet at the same time comrades did, in a sense, take themselves seriously. In my long evolution away from Christianity, one of the things that struck me was the way in which most self-proclaimed Christians didn’t take their beliefs seriously. Thus I was repeatedly told that the passages in the Gospels where Jesus said the rich would go to hell shouldn’t be “taken literally”. Now in IS I met people who put their money where their mouths were, who devoted enormous time and energy to the cause they believed in without hope of personal reward. I’m not saying they were saints or ascetics. But I remember the young Paul Foot, a very talented journalist with great prospects ahead of him, who devoted many unpaid hours to the IS publication Labour Worker, with a tiny circulation, when this was a positive diversion from his journalistic ambitions.

In 1964 I moved to London and met more of the IS group’s working-class members. Again the milieu was marked by intellectual curiosity and open debate. A number of those I knew later took advantage of the expansion of higher education to get formal qualifications – but it was the IS which first awakened their intellectual interests.

I don’t want to romanticise. We made many mistakes and misjudgements, there was sometimes friction and personal antagonism. But overall, I am very glad to have been in IS at that time. It gave me an education I could not have found in any university.

Much of your work as a historian has been unearthing hidden, or at least lesser known histories of the revolutionary left and some of its important activists. One figure who you have long championed is Jean-Paul Sartre. Can you describe your work and interest in Sartre, and his contribution to Marxism? I am thinking in particular of his astonishing support and involvement in Algeria’s war against French occupation between 1954-62.

You are right to point to one of my main preoccupations, discovering relatively unknown activists. Sheila Rowbotham coined the phrase “hidden from history” to refer to the history of women, but I have been interested in both women and men who have been neglected by historians, often because of the appalling divisions within the left. Stalinism obliterated whole sections of history that were inconvenient to its narrative, and often sections of the far left have only told the story of their own currents. [More on this under question 6].

Sartre, of course, is hardly hidden. He had been important for my political evolution since I first read him at the age of sixteen. He affected my political evolution alongside my membership of IS – and I was sometimes criticised for it. But it was Chris Harman, editor of International Socialism, who first encouraged me to write at length about Sartre.

My concern, in my book Sartre Against Stalinism, was twofold. Firstly, to rescue Sartre from his many critics who accused him of being sympathetic to Stalinism. Certainly, he made some serious misjudgements, but the main thrust of his political activity was anti-Stalinist. And secondly I wanted to use Sartre and the various controversies he was involved in to bring back into the history of the French intellectual left a number of figures often forgotten or marginalised – Colette Audry, Daniel Guérin, Jean-René Chauvin, Pierre Naville, the young Claude Lefort and others.

I’ll say a bit more about Sartre and Marxism under question 4. As for what you call his “astonishing support and involvement” in the Algerian war for independence, it is certainly true that Sartre’s role was very creditable, but it was far from unique. Because of his fame it is easy to overstate his role. There was a small but significant number of women and men – perhaps a thousand at most –  who gave practical support to the National Liberation Front [FLN], by smuggling money, distributing publications, supporting Algerian workers in factories like Renault, and even organising jail-breaks. These were the so-called “suitcase-carriers”. Some had been inspired by Sartre, and his public declarations were of value to them. Sartre himself, precisely because of his prominence, could not engage in such work, and his contribution was largely journalistic. I think it’s important to remember the whole group of very determined and courageous people, and not focus on the individual Sartre.

Sartre raised major theoretical questions for Marxism, many of these were read and taken up by Frantz Fanon in his last book, The Wretched of the Earth. What do you think we have to learn from Sartre’s work and life today?

For me the central question in all of Sartre’s work is the relationship between theory and practice. His theatre and fiction focus on questions of choice and responsibility. When I worked at Middlesex Polytechnic, I taught an interdisciplinary course on Sartre. It provided a fascinating opportunity to discuss a range of political questions, notably racism, and it deeply engaged the students who took up positions for or against Sartre.

Having said that, I think it is important to stress the limits of Sartre’s work. As you say, he certainly “raised major theoretical questions” for Marxism. Whether he answered them is quite a different matter. I find Sartre much more interesting for the questions he asks than for the answers he gives.

Perhaps the fundamental question that Sartre poses, in a variety of ways, is that of the relation between the historical process and individual action. For Sartre history is open – there is no guaranteed future, and we are responsible to the extent that our actions prepare that future. In that sense Sartre stands in the classic Marxist tradition of Marx’s “Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please” and Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism”. In his biographical writings – Baudelaire, Genet, Flaubert – he tries to show how individuals choose themselves in specific social conjunctures.

So, I think Sartre remains very relevant. The question of how I, as an individual, relate to the historical process is a vital one, especially in a time when there is no easy answer in the form of “Join the party”. In recent years there have been some important studies which opened new perspectives on Sartre – Sam Coombes: The Early Sartre and Marxism, and Paige Arthur: Unfinished Projects: Decolonization and the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre – and I think Sartre will continue to make a contribution to political debate for some time to come.

Social movements – and revolutions – has rippled across Africa in recent years – in particular in Algeria and Sudan in 2018/9. Elements in these struggles have fought to transform the ‘revolutions’ into meaningful transformations of the political and economic structures. Some authors have pointed to the ‘failure’ or lack of organisation that could have helped in cohering movements and propelling them beyond a ‘circulation of elites.’ Do you think we have anything to learn today from the contribution of Lenin’s work and activism on questions of organisation and politics?

Lenin was a great Marxist, and his life and writings repay study. Above all his State and Revolution is a work of enormous importance, which thoroughly demolishes the idea that socialism can be equated with state ownership and control. Indeed, Lenin was criticised by contemporary Marxists for having come too close to anarchism. Its value is not lessened by the fact that the realities of life in Russia after 1917 proved more complex than Lenin had foreseen.

So Lenin should be studied. Of course, there are competing accounts, and I would particularly recommend the presentations of Lenin by Alfred Rosmer, Victor Serge and Clara Zetkin. But we have to be careful what learning from history means. History does not repeat itself. I would prefer to say that by studying how revolutionaries have confronted unique circumstances in the past we can prepare ourselves to confront unique circumstances in the future.

That Lenin’s political leadership and the role of the Bolshevik Party which he had built over preceding years were a vital element in the success of the Revolution of October 1917 is not in doubt. In the aftermath of 1917 it was natural that revolutionaries elsewhere would try to imitate the methods which had brought success in Russia – although Lenin, in his last speech to the Communist International, warned powerfully against slavish imitation of Russian methods. When Stalinism began to crumble in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed natural for the anti-Stalinist left to think in terms of a return to Leninism. For example, we in the International Socialists predicted in 1968 that we faced a period of heightened struggle. We were right – in 1974 strike action by miners brought down a Tory government, and a little later Portugal moved to the brink of revolution. We needed a more interventionist form of organisation, and the only model we had, imitated flexibly, was that of the Bolshevik Party.

But now it is clear we failed. We are further from the goal of “building the party” than we were in 1968. Certainly, there will be social upheavals and crises in the future – it is in the nature of capitalism that this should be so. But whatever revolutionary situations may arise – and all revolutions are surprises [as was 1917] – it is clear that they will be very different from the October Revolution.

It has been a widespread practice on the far left to explain all failures of revolution with the over-simplified formula “there was no revolutionary party”. There is an element of truth in this but in itself it is inadequate. Any analysis of the factors in a revolutionary conjuncture will show that the state of the far left can only be understood as part of the total situation. It will not do to see it simply in terms of a failure of effort – we didn’t sell enough papers, recruit enough members.

That any challenge to capitalist power will require organisation is undoubtedly true. What form that organisation will take I am certainly not in any position to predict. All I would say is that in the present period, when revolutionary upheaval seems relatively remote, building “the party” [especially when the chosen organisation is built in opposition to all other organisations] is less of a priority than making socialist propaganda – through publications, websites etc. – and winning people to the ideas of socialism; those people will have to resolve the problems of organisation as the situation develops.

For me, some of your work on Algerian [and French] revolutionaries in the 1910s and 1920s [and the 1950s] is particularly interesting.  Taking a figure like Robert Louzon for example, he seemed to edge the early communist movement in Algeria to a more radical position – which saw the political struggle of Algerian workers, as equal to the role of French workers. These efforts were snuffed out by the Stalinisation of the Soviet Union, and communist parties around the world, but there were many positives signs. How do you interpret this period and some of its astonishing figures?

The whole historical experience of Stalinism has meant that it is only comparatively recently that we have begun to get an accurate picture of the early years of the Communist International. Stalinist historians simply wrote out of history people and events that did not fit their narrative. And histories from the Left Opposition often lapsed into an opposite error, of romanticising the period of the “first four congresses” of the Communist International – the period 1919-22, when Lenin and Trotsky were the dominant figures. Only towards the end of the last century, with the work of historians such as Pierre Broué, have we begun to get a more balanced and better documented account of the early period.

In the example I know best, the French Communist Party, it is only in the last few years that two histories of the Party’s origins, by François Ferrette and Julien Chuzeville, have radically revised previous accounts, drawing out the important part played by revolutionary syndicalists in the founding and early years of the party, and giving more prominence to such figures as Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, Pierre Monatte and  Boris Souvarine.

You are right to draw out that this first period of the international Communist movement, a period of great hope and radical aspirations, deserves to be rescued from obscurity and studied without being overshadowed by the subsequent history of Stalinism.

Thus you mention Robert Louzon. Louzon was a remarkable activist over many years. Radicalised as a teenager at the time of the Dreyfus case, he was involved, in Tunisia in 1921, with launching the first Arabic-language Communist daily paper – rapidly suppressed by the authorities. In 1937, at the age of 55, he fought at the front in the Spanish Civil War. And in 1960, aged 78, he signed the Manifesto of 121, supporting those who took illegal action in opposition to the French war in Algeria. As you say, an “astonishing figure”. But I have never found a biography or even a substantial article analysing his life and work, nor any collection of his extensive writings.

There are a number of other activists and events from this period who have been largely ignored by historians. The French Communist Party [PCF] showed a vigorous commitment to anti-imperialism, on the part of at least a section of its membership. The young Ho Chi Minh, who was a founder-member of the PCF, launched and edited a paper called Le Paria [the Pariah], aimed at immigrants and readers in the colonies. He built up a whole team of militants and writers of colonial origin, whose activities and development deserve further study. One of these was Lamine Senghor; if he had not died before he was forty, Senghor would undoubtedly have become one of the first great black working-class leaders in France. Verso is promising us a full biography of Senghor. [See Jacobin here] Le Paria ceased publication in 1926, but it had successors, as shown by Hakim Adi in his excellent book Pan-Africanism and Communism [2013].

Another figure largely ignored by historians is Hadj-Ali Abdelkader [there is one biography, published in Algiers, but little else]. Born in Algeria, he came to Paris and was a founder-member of the PCF; in 1924 he became a member of the Central Committee – while continuing to be a practising Muslim. [Some years ago there was a bitter controversy in the French Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste when a hijab-wearing woman was selected as an election candidate. The comrades who objected seemed to have forgotten an episode from their own tradition.] He played an important rôle in the emergence of a movement for Algerian independence and helped to draw in Messali Hadj, often seen as the founder of Algerian nationalism.  [See Ian’s article on Abdelkader here].

There is further work to be done on anti-imperialism in the early years of the Communist International, and the rôle of activists of colonial origin. Michael Goebel’s interesting book  Anti-Imperial Metropolis [2015] has made a useful contribution, but there is much more to be said.

For a journal like ROAPE – committed to ‘radical analyses of trends, issues and social processes in Africa, adopting a broadly materialist interpretation of change’- it’s important to emphasis non-European Marxist traditions and diverse socialist histories. In 2014, in the journal, Biko Agozino did this for Marx’s own writings [see his article here]. Your political education was in an organisation established by a ‘unorthodox’ Marxist, Tony Cliff, originally from Palestine. In the 1960s and 1970s, some of the greatest events took place in parts of the world far from the capitalist centre – in Chile, Cuba, parts of Africa and Asia. Can you speak a little about this period and how the left you were a part of negotiated the extremely variegated movements and struggles around the world?

The story is complex and sometimes contradictory. Internationalism was obviously central to the IS group – as was shown by its very name. We believed that since capitalism was a single world system it could only be replaced by an international – and internationalist – alternative. The idea of permanent revolution, and in particular the rejection of “socialism in one country” was one of the most fundamental things we took from Trotskyism.

Cliff, of course, played a crucial role in establishing the style of the organisation. His Jewish identity – and notably his love of Jewish jokes – was a central element of the image he projected. As a speaker he exploited brilliantly his imperfect grasp of the English language.

The specific question of Palestine was less prominent. We knew Cliff had been jailed – by the British authorities – and that was obviously something to his credit. But he spoke relatively little about the Middle East – until 1967 when the Six Days war reawakened his interest in the struggle against Zionism. But though he subsequently wrote and spoke a good deal about contemporary events, he still said relatively little about his own activity in Palestine. It was only when I was writing his biography after his death that I began to be aware of the full story – or at least parts of it.

But the positions of the IS group have to be placed in the context of the development of the world after 1945. There were two main developments in the post-war world which did not fit the previous perspectives of revolutionaries. Firstly, Western capitalism entered a period of boom and expansion; for many workers in the prosperous capitalist countries this meant full employment and rising living standards. And this meant a decline in revolutionary aspirations on the part of workers.

At the same time came a deep crisis for Western imperialism. In 1945 the British and French empires still dominated large parts of the world. Within twenty years they were more or less gone. France in particular suffered two disastrous wars in Indochina and Algeria, and Britain and France were humiliated by the Suez adventure in 1956. This was complemented by revolution in China and later in Cuba.

This was the context for the so-called “Third-Worldism” which was widespread on the international left. The concept of a “Third World” was short-lived; the term was coined 1952; by 2007 it was described by the Guardian style guide as “outdated” and “objectionable”. But for a brief period in the 1960s there was a widespread tendency on the left to believe that the locus of revolutionary change had shifted from those countries in which capitalism was most highly developed to the territories of the so-called “Third World”.

The IS group kept its distance from Third Worldism. There were two elements to this. One was the theoretical work of Michael Kidron. Whereas most tendencies on the Marxist left, whether Communist or Trotskyist, still saw Lenin’s Imperialism as providing a theoretical framework, Kidron argued that Lenin’s account did not fit the reality of capitalism in the 1960s. So he concluded that “to believe nowadays that the short route to revolution in London, New York or Paris lies through Calcutta, Havana, or Algiers, is to pass the buck to where it has no currency.” [See Kidron’s articles “Imperialism – Highest Stage but One” and “International Capitalism”]

Alongside Kidron’s theoretical analyses there was a more practical argument. Tony Cliff could get very indignant about the “vicarious pleasure” derived by sections of the left from revolutions in other parts of the world, which he saw as reflecting the fact that they had no roots in struggle in their own home territory. To some extent this drew dividing lines between us and other currents on the left. Thus Tariq Ali was very friendly to the IS group in the 1960s – but refused to join us because he believed we were “Eurocentric”.

Nonetheless a certain number of international questions were of great importance. One was South Africa. I remember IS comrades being involved in a very vigorous demonstration in Oxford against the South African ambassador immediately following the jailing of Nelson Mandela. The recent book Apartheid is Not a Game by Christian Hogsbjerg and Geoff Brown shows how important the campaign against the South African sporting teams was in radicalising a generation of activists, including a number of IS members.

Vietnam was even more important. I and a number of IS members were on the very first demonstration against the Vietnam war, in February 1965, after Malcolm X had visited the London School of Economics. Yet it should also be said that Cliff and Kidron were a bit slow to get involved in the Vietnam movement. They thought our priority should be the industrial struggle in Britain and did not see how central Vietnam was to the crisis of American imperialism. It was the younger comrades, notably Chris Harman, who argued for IS involvement in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign [VSC]. The VSC was set up by another Trotskyist group, the International Marxist Group, but we participated from the outset. Again Vietnam was vital in the radicalisation of a generation of activists.

But although we called for victory to the Vietnamese, and participated enthusiastically in VSC activities [often chanting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” along with the others] we also made it clear that we did not believe that the Vietnamese leadership was about to establish socialism; we considered them essentially Stalinist in their politics. After independence came the military conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia and the appalling revelations about atrocities in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. For some on the left this led to disillusion, but for IS comrades it did not go against our analysis.

Likewise, we did not join in the enthusiasm for Cuba widespread on the left [though of course we defended Cuba’s right to independence from American imperialism]. Thus when Che Guevara was murdered in 1967 I wrote a brief critical assessment. I was sharply criticised by another comrade, Peter Sedgwick.

Sedgwick was absolutely right to criticise the tone of my article, the self-satisfied dogmatism of a young comrade who has just learnt the line and is claiming a monopoly of truth. Yet I persist in thinking that the historical experience has shown that, contrary to what was then the dominant view on the far left, Guevarism did not offer a way forward for Latin America.

So, in general I would argue that the IS current did make a contribution to the debate on revolutionary internationalism and the revolution in the Third World. Perhaps at times we lapsed into Eurocentrism, but I think we did grasp some important features of the dynamics of the revolutionary process. And we laid the basis for our intervention at the end of the century, when imperialist wars took on a new form.

Reflecting on an earlier period of political activism in the 1970s, especially around the question of Black liberation and Black Power, what do you think are some of the important historical lessons for today, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement?

I’m going to be very cautious in responding to this. Because of my age and health, I haven’t been involved in any recent activity, and I have to rely entirely on second-hand information. But even if I were better informed, I should be reluctant to draw “lessons”. I don’t think it is for those of my generation to try to recruit the new generation of activists to organisations or programmes, or to try to identify patterns of historical development. We should always be ready to recognise the originality of the experience of a new generation.

To take an example. I am very suspicious of the use of the term “fascism” as applied to current events. Thus Donald Trump was evil and dangerous – but he was not a fascist, and calling him one made it more difficult to develop a strategy to fight him.

So just a few observations.

As someone who has been involved in anti-racist activity over sixty years, I believe that we have made real progress. In comparison with the 1960s racism is less blatant, more on the defensive. Yet at the same time I hardly expect the victims of racism to be very impressed with the argument that things were even worse sixty years ago. There is still a long fight ahead.

The sheer scale of the Black Lives Matter movement has been remarkable. According to Priti Patel, some 137,500 people attended protests in Britain over the weekend of 6-7 June, more than took part in the biggest Vietnam demonstration in 1968. And within a week of the first demonstrations in the USA the movement had spread to at least a dozen other countries. Such rapid growth of activism is undoubtedly something very positive.

I would also mention Extinction Rebellion, which has also far outstripped the traditional far left in radicalising and mobilising new activists.

I am also delighted at the way that the enemies of Black Lives Matter keep calling it “Marxist” in an attempt to discredit it. In fact, the result will be to get more people asking questions about what “Marxism” actually is. I remember in 1958, when I was very young, a building workers’ strike on London’s South Bank was widely denounced as inspired by “Trotskyists”. I had barely heard of Trotsky, but I immediately started to try to find out more about him.

In the period that opened up in 1968, racism and imperialism were central questions. In 1968 we were inspired by Vietnam and the French general strike, but it was Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech that really confronted us with the dangers and responsibilities of our own situation. Numbers of trade unionists, including London dockers, took strike action in support of Powell. The Labour Party response to the Powell speech was appalling – for a fortnight Wilson and the other Labour leaders remained silent.

Terry Barrett was a London docker who had joined the International Socialists. When the dockers voted to strike in support of Powell, Barrett gave out a leaflet pointing out that Powell had called for mass sackings on the docks. Barrett showed great courage but was totally isolated.  But the fact that IS took a firm anti-racist position helped to attract some of the people who would build the Anti-Nazi League a few years later.

In the French student movement of 1968, and the ensuing general strike of ten million workers, a number of activists were people who had been radicalised by opposition to the war in Algeria. For example, Yvon Rocton had been a conscript in Algeria and was disciplined for opposing the use of torture. In 1968 at the Sud-Aviation aircraft factory in Nantes he led a factory occupation which was to be the first in France, and sparked off a national wave of occupations.

How BLM [and XR] will develop as organisations, I don’t know. But the most important thing is that there are thousands of people, many young, who must be thinking, arguing and reading, working out a way forward. In a way it reminds me of the nuclear disarmament movement of the early 1960s. Again there were thousands of us, asking fundamental questions about strategy. Should we work inside the Labour Party – or outside? Was non-violence a moral principle or just a useful tactic? CND as an organisation had largely disappeared by about 1965. But many of those thousands of activists reappeared in a variety of other struggles.

The activists of BLM will work out their own future. But they will undoubtedly learn from history. For history always proceeds with both continuities and discontinuities. As Victor Serge put it, future struggles will be fought by people who are “infinitely different from us, infinitely like us”.

Walter Rodney, the Guyanese scholar and activist, explained in 1975 that his political model was CLR James, a man who was already, at that point, in his mid-70s, and that he hoped – if he lived long enough – that he would remain as steadfast and revolutionary in his old age as James, so no one who say, seeing him walk past, ‘there was a revolutionary, but I have no idea what he is doing now’. This is something you have managed to do – to remain constant. In a conversation we had a few weeks ago, you said when I explained that I was in my late 40s, ‘well, watch it, the decades go past in a whirlwind …’ How do we manage our grand narratives, and political projects, in lives that are so short? How do we sustain ourselves?

Perhaps you do me too much credit. I have always believed in Rosa Luxemburg’s formulation that the future of humanity is a choice between socialism or barbarism. When I look at the world today, I can envisage barbarism very clearly. Climate change threatens the whole future of the human species. The population movements it will enforce will lead to the rise of a nationalistic right, determined to close frontiers. And increasing friction between nations will make the possibility of nuclear war ever greater. But a transition to socialism in the present period is much more difficult to envisage. Despair is very much an option.

But I’ll try to end on a more cheerful note.  My generation of socialists is beginning to die out – so I have quite often attended funerals and read obituaries. And I have maintained contact with a number of old comrades. And one thing that strikes me is how many of those I was active alongside half a century and more ago have remained in political activity of some sort. Of course, there have been partings of the ways, often marked by hostility and sometimes very painful. And many of those who once called themselves total revolutionaries are now immersed in single issues, from trade unionism to a range of campaigns – or even the Woodcraft Folk. But they remain committed to socialist values, to an aspiration for greater equality and cooperation. I am sure that it was the power of the ideas we encountered in our youth that has shaped our whole lives since then. Socialist ideas are very tenacious, and though there have been renegades, they have been few in number. How things will work out for the generation now emerging I don’t and can’t know – but I don’t think the idea of social transformation, the hope for a world based on the satisfaction of human needs and genuine democratic control by those who perform the labour required by society, has lost its power.

Ian Birchall is an author of numerous articles and books, a former lecturer in French at Middlesex University, and his research interests include the Comintern, the International Working Class, Communism and Trotskyism, France and Syndicalism. He has been a lifelong socialist and activist.

Featured Artwork: Colin Fancy – his work can be viewed here: Artivists at Work.


  1. An excellent interview. Birchall’s account of the intellectualism of IS in the 1950s and 1960s was most evocative, and it would be lovely to see a new generation developing the same critical independence. Maybe this is more likely to happen in Africa than elsewhere. We certainly have some impressive, confident intellectuals on the continent. The significance of SA for politicisation in Britain was a good point to make. It was certainly central for me, and, I think, gets squashed under the weight of CND and Vietnam. I thought the mild euorcentric dig was fair. I sensed this when I returned from Swaziland in 1973, and it held me back from joining the party for a few months, until I got beyond it to see that the other side of the coin was a welcome orientation on intense class struggle. The questions on Sartre and his African influence were interesting, and I was disappointed that Ian did not use this to talk about 1968 in Africa. Actually, as a literary theorist, he might have been able to say something about the impact of African experiences on the development of European culture, and the impact of South African revolutionaries in Britain – on the Militant as well as the IS, through Hirson, Kidron, Rosenburg and others. This stimulating of non-Stalinist Marxism in Africa is important, and the Birchall interview was a valuable contribution.

    One other little thing, I didn’t realise that Colin Fancy is now a cartoonist!

  2. Many thanks for sharing the interview.

    The question I would have liked to ask to comrade Ian is what was the position of his party when the Labour Party government of Harold Wilson orchestrated the genocide against the Igbo in Biafra in partnership with the USSR and the Nigerian military dictatorship, costing 3.1 million lives in 30 months?


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