Commemorating the role of the early IS

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I was most interested to read the obituary of Ian Macdonald QC (December SR). The story of a life devoted to fighting within the legal system for justice and against racism was indeed inspiring.

But I was a little surprised that there was no mention of the fact that, in the 1960s, Ian was for some years a leading member of the International Socialists (IS), the forerunner organisation of the SWP.

I knew Ian a little in those days. In 2009, when writing my biography of Tony Cliff (the founder and leader of the IS), I interviewed him about his memories of his days in IS.

In the early 1960s Ian was involved in the Islington Tenants Association, campaigning against the abuses of private landlords. Here he met Chanie Rosenberg (Tony Cliff’s wife) and then Tony Cliff himself.

He joined IS and became a member of the Islington branch which Cliff regularly attended. Over 40 years later he still had very positive memories of Cliff — he was “charismatic but also good fun”, and his politics “came right out of his belly”.

Cliff was equally enthusiastic about Ian. This was a time when IS was shifting from work in the Labour Party Young Socialists towards involvement in local industrial struggles and community campaigns like those of tenants.

Ian seemed to Cliff to be a model of the kind of activity that IS members should be engaged in. He frequently quoted Ian’s name and for a time seemed to lionise him.

At the same time Ian was in regular contact with CLR James (author of The Black Jacobins). Although James had rather different ideas from Cliff, he approved of Ian being in IS.

In those happy days it was possible to work with two remarkable Marxist thinkers without being asked to choose which one was giving the “correct” leadership.

The Wilson Labour government saw large increases in council rents (a prelude to Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing). Ian and a few friends set up the GLC Action Committee against Greater London Council rent rises; they produced Not a Penny on the Rent, which sold 30,000 copies every fortnight; at one point a 100,000 people were on rent strike.

Ian left IS in 1968, partly for personal reasons and partly because he opposed the turn to democratic centralist organisation in that year. He was in sympathy with the document signed by Sean Dunne, Ken Lowe, Helen Lowe and Judy Roberts. (Extracts can be found on my website, Grim and Dim, in the item “1968: The Turn to Democratic Centralism” http://grimanddim.org/tony-cliff-biography/1968-the-turn-to-democratic-c...)

There seems to have been no bitterness about his departure. He continued to see Cliff from time to time and they were on good terms; Cliff never tried to recruit him back.

The half-century since 1968 has been a difficult time for all of us, and comrades have taken different paths. But I think Ian’s early experiences in IS were a part of what went to make him such a redoubtable fighter for justice.

Ian Birchall
London