A teacher and student of revolution

February 8, 2019

Phil Gasper pays tribute to a brilliant socialist author, academic and revolutionary.

THE MARXIST writer, scholar and activist Colin Barker died at his home in Manchester, England, on the morning of Monday, February 4, at the age of 79.

Colin was one of a kind. He was a brilliant and original academic who also remained an active revolutionary socialist for almost his entire adult life. And as tributes flooded in after his death, people repeatedly referred to his kindness and generosity.

Colin joined the International Socialists (IS) when he was a student at Oxford University in 1962, attracted by its undogmatic approach to Marxism, its analysis of the Soviet Union as state capitalist, and its view that socialism had to be based on workers democratically controlling society.

The following year, Colin moved north to continue his studies at Manchester University. The IS was still a tiny group, and when he arrived, he was the only member in the city.

Colin Barker
Colin Barker

Colin liked to tell the story of how he started building a branch. Tony Cliff, the founder of the IS and a brilliant speaker, came to Manchester to participate in a debate with other left-wing groups. The next night, he met with Colin and three of his friends in Colin’s bedsit.

There was only one chair in the room. Cliff sat on it and talked for an hour while the others sat on Colin’s bed. By the end of the evening, all three of Colin’s friends had joined, and the Manchester branch of the IS was born.

By this time, Colin was playing a leading role in the IS on a national level. In 1966, he helped Cliff write a pamphlet on “Incomes policy, legislation and shop stewards” aimed at trade union militants that was widely read. He helped the organization grow in Manchester by building solidarity with workers’ struggles and campaigning against racism.

Colin became a lecturer in sociology at Manchester Polytechnic (which later became Manchester Metropolitan University) and began making important contributions to Marxist theory. The idea of “the working class as the key creator and re-creator of capitalist society” and “as a potential agent of social transformation, of its own emancipation” was central to Colin’s work.

His article on “The State as Capital,” drew attention to the important economic role of the capitalist state. A few years later, he wrote “Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration,” a detailed Marxist analysis of the development of capitalism in 19th century Japan that was originally produced as a handout for his students.

What you can do

Colin’s family has asked that those who would like to remember him and what he stood for contribute at a fundraising page set up for his chosen charity: Medical Aid for Palestinians.

There are three archives of Colin’s writings: at his personal website, at Academia.edu and at Marxists.org.

Colin’s activism never flagged. In the late 1970s, he was the secretary of the Manchester branch of the Anti-Nazi League. His recollections of that period later appeared in Daniel Rachel’s oral history Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge.

WHEN THE radical trade union Solidarnosc emerged in Poland in the early 1980s and began to pose a threat to the Stalinist regime that ruled the country, Colin visited the country with his wife Ewa to observe the situation firsthand.

Solidarnosc led what was then the largest general strike of world history, and anti-Stalinist socialists were inspired by this show of workers’ power in the heart of the Eastern European empire of the USSR, with its false claims to stand for socialism.

The uprising was eventually crushed by Russian tanks in December 1981. Colin wrote two book-length studies of what happened, celebrating the movement’s high points and analyzing why it had been defeated.

In 1987, Colin edited Revolutionary Rehearsals, an indispensable collection of essays on a series of revolutionary or near-revolutionary situations in France, Chile, Portugal, Iran and, of course, Poland.

The volume captured the incredible energy and excitement of these developments, with workers getting a taste of what it would be like to run society in the interest of the vast majority. In the final chapter, Colin drew lessons from these struggles, pointing to the absence of revolutionary organization as the common thread behind their eventual defeats.

That conclusion was why Colin was an active member of the IS and its successor organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), for decades.

But he was also completely principled. In 2013, after the SWP had covered up a rape allegation against one of its leading members, Colin left the group he had helped build for over 50 years and helped found a new organization, revolutionary socialism for the 21st century (rs21).

Colin was also a longtime friend of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S. He visited the U.S. several times to speak for the ISO. Although he was already ill, Colin came and spoke at the Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago last year. He was delighted to reconnect with old friends and see a new generation of socialist activists engaging with Marx’s ideas.

ON THE day before he died, Colin sent an e-mail message to his friends reporting on his health and reflecting on his life. His final remarks stand as his political testament:

Back in the early 1960s I started becoming a Marxist. I think the essay that most influenced me, and whose principles I have tried to follow ever since, and whose ideas I have tried to deepen, was Hal Draper’s “The Two Souls of Socialism,” first read in winter 1962 after I’d joined the IS. (It’s on the web. Read it if you never did before.)

It placed revolutionary socialism, or what he termed “socialism from below” at the centre of what mattered in politics — against and in contrast to all forms of “socialism from above” whether of the Stalinist or social-democratic/parliamentarist kind.

Some time later, and still in that lifelong process of becoming a Marxist, a friend from Detroit (who introduced me to C.L.R. James) first showed me the passage in The German Ideology where Marx explains that the reason that a revolution is needed is that there is no other way that the great mass of humankind can get rid of “the muck of ages” than by actually participating directly in a revolution through which they take direct democratic control of their everyday lives and build a new form of democratic state.

As Marx would write later, with Engels’ agreement, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself.”

Those amazing ideas became a lodestone. Few today agree with them, perhaps, but what a measure they provide for grasping the movement of popular history up to the very present moment.

Time and again, those ideas have surfaced and been knocked back. They will revive again and again. The wager — that they can win out in practice — has given meaning to my life.

Further Reading

From the archives