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Ian Birchall

A possible arena for useful socialist debate

(December 1981)

From Socialist Review, No. 38, 14 December 1981–22 January 1982: 11, p. 29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the summer issue of Socialist Review (1981: 7) we reported on the initiative of a number of socialist intellectuals to set up a Socialist Society. At the time we commented that the enterprise was basically worthy of support, but that the project was somewhat woolly and that various contradictions had remained unresolved.

Since that time a Steering Committee has been regularly meeting to prepare for the launching of the Society. It has not resolved the contradictions, but has produced some concrete proposals for action.

The basic aims of the Society would be to provide a framework for theoretical and polemical discussion of socialist ideas. In practical terms various proposals have been floated.

The proposed political basis of the Society could not be explicitly Marxist, though it would call for support for public ownership and the radical transformation of the existing state. Clearly this leaves open the possibility of collapse into being a left cover for the Labour left (and not-so-left). There are no guarantees that the Society will not go down the same drain as the left clubs of 1959–60, the Centre for Socialist Education of 1965, the May Day Manifesto of 1967 and the National Convention of the Left of 1968. But if the Society does get off the ground, it will be a modest gain for the left, offering an arena in which it may be possible to have clear and sharp political debate without sectarian abuse.

The Society’s main audience will probably be among left intellectuals, and its chance of succeeding depend in part on the particular problems of the left intelligentsia in this period of industrial downturn and political upturn.

Since 1968 there has been a substantial enclave of self-proclaimed Marxism within the British academic system. Though this generated some interesting work it remained on the margins of struggle – indeed for many the Althusserian mystique offered a positive justification for the separation of theory and practice. But now the situation is changing.

The academic left is under attack, not only in the form of an ideological backlash, but more fundamentally in terms of the massive cuts that the government is implementing in higher education. On top of this there is the rise of Bennism and the collapse of Eurocommunism as a viable tendency. A further factor in the recent development of the academic left has been the proliferation of publishers and caucuses in specialised areas – radical philosophers, socialist economists etc. etc. There is a need for some sort of coordination between such bodies.

The Socialist Society may, then, respond to some of the needs of the present period. It make no pretence to be an alternative party; its present Steering Committee contains members of the Labour Party, CP, SWP, IMG, Big Flame and non-aligned individuals. Its existence will not change one iota our task of building a revolutionary party rooted in the working class. But the battle of ideas is one part of that task; and if the Socialist Society provides an arena for that battle, we should welcome it and help it to develop.

Charmed circle

If that is to happen two dangers must be avoided. Firstly, the debate must be open and wide-ranging. The books and seminars must be must not be confined to the charmed circle of established contributors to such journals as New Left Review. They must draw in those who have been involved in the real struggles of the last few years.

The trade union presence must not be limited to a few tame left bureaucrats. With the collapse of Eurocommunism, it is a fitting time to debate some of the basic issues of socialist theory – reform or revolution, the nature of the capitalist crisis and of the ‘socialist’ countries. The anti-Leninism currently fashionable on the academic left must not be allowed to ostracise any currents from the debate.

Secondly, the majority of those currently involved in preparing the Socialist Society belong to the Bennite current, or at least to those who give critical support to Benn. In itself that is no problem. If one of the aims is to provide a forum for debate between revolutionaries and the Labour left, then we can hardly ask for the Labourites to be excluded. But there is the constant danger that, in the cut and thrust of Labour Party factionalising, the Society will be diverted from its original purpose and turned into just one more in the array of Tony Benn fan clubs. If that happens, then the Socialist Society will be just one more footnote in the history of British centrism.

A conference has been called to launch the Society, to be held at the Institute of Education (Malet Street, London WC1) on the weekend of January 23-24. This will be open to all individuals sympathetic to the aims of the Society. It will consist mainly of workshops to discuss practical areas of work, with one main plenary session to adopt a constitution and membership charter, and to elect a Steering Committee. The Conference fee will be £5 (£2 for the unwaged) and there will be a creche. For further details and registration write to WGSS, c/o 7 Carlisle Street, London, W1V 6NL.


Ian Birchall
(Member of Provisional Steering Committee)

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