“He kept on asking questions”:
Colin Barker 1939-2019

Issue: 162

John Charlton

Colin and I first met in 1962 when the Socialist Review Group, the ancestor of the Socialist Workers Party, met at Caxton House Settlement at Finsbury Park.1 I suspect that like me he was a bit in awe of the leading lights: Mike Kidron, Tony Cliff, Chanie Rosenberg, Connie Lever, John Palmer, Jim Higgins, Peter Sedgwick, Ray Challinor and Alasdair MacIntyre. Colin came with a contingent from Oxford including Ian Birchall, Richard Kirkwood and Dave and Sandra Peers. I don’t remember Colin speaking in discussions at that point, or indeed ever before he moved to Manchester in 1963. I think we chatted in the kitchen where tea and sandwiches were provided by women comrades. This passed without comment at the time, but when the new women’s liberation movement emerged from the late 1960s Colin was quicker than most men in recognising its many challenges to socialists. That was of a piece with the person he was. The red thread that ran through his political work and his academic work throughout his life was a dedication to grassroots revolt and an empathy with others.

Colin hailed from Ilford. His parents were not political people. He said, “Three topics were forbidden at our table: religion, politics and sex.” His mother Edith—the more forceful of his parents—was an old Liberal voter. He remembered her saying after seeing Jo Grimond, the party leader, for the first time on their new TV, “He sounds like a Tory!” Thus ended her support for the Liberals. His father Fred was a glass designer. Involved in making radar screens, a reserved occupation, he was not called up in 1940. Among a number of prestigious pieces of work for the London Sandblast Company, he worked with the artist John Piper to translate his designs into glass for the main doors at the new Coventry Cathedral. He didn’t see the doors in situ until Colin took him to visit the ­cathedral in about 1989.

Edith and their young son were evacuated to a farm near Gloucester during the “phoney war” in 1939, returned briefly to East London and then, right after the Blitz, were dispatched to Wigan “for the duration”. After their return two siblings, Linda and Martin, were born. Colin won a scholarship as a day boy, to a minor public school and a place at Oxford to read English Literature. When mildly under the influence, in the 1980s one of his party pieces was to recite the Prologue to Piers Plowman in early English. After bumping into disreputable Marxists at Oxford he shifted disciplines to the then less fashionable subject of sociology. He said, “It was like a duck to water.” It was important to Colin that he made a political impression on his parents. Mildly antisemitic in the 1930s, they were nonetheless horrified by the re-emergence of fascist tendencies in the 1960s, which Colin helped explain to them. When the Anti-Nazi League marched past their house in the late 1970s his parents were the only ones in the road to go out to applaud the marchers as they went past—at the cost of a number of old friendships in their road.

Why Manchester for Colin? In the early 1960s outside of London there were fledgling branches only in Glasgow, Newcastle, Oxford and Liverpool. Cliff would suggest places for new recruits from the universities to settle. He suggested Tyneside to Dave and Sandra Peers and Manchester to Colin. A job at the Daily Record took Paul Foot to Glasgow. Like all newbies at the time it did not seem too difficult to draw a small group of like-minded individuals together. Cliff would say you can build a branch anywhere as there are always a few dissenting oddballs around. Getting beyond the “like-minded individuals” meant finding out about the local labour and socialist movement including the Labour Party Young Socialists, CND and Anti-Apartheid groups. Colin was particularly good at finding and talking to individuals and, especially, listening to their stories. Even so, walking into new situations did not come easily to him. He was diffident but determined. He liked stories of defiance and was perhaps encouraged by hearing of the insolent confidence of militants like Geoff Carlsson, convenor at ENV, Willesden, whose struggle Colin and Joyce Rosser wrote up for International Socialism in 1967.2 When meeting managers, Carlsson was reputed to arrive early at the boardroom to sit in the chairman’s chair with a Woodbine in his hand and his feet on the table top. When asked if he did that at home, he replied: “Daily when I get in from work.” But Colin’s best story involved Wally Preston, the power worker militant with whom he wrote the booklet The Power Game.3 To gain entry to workplaces, not his own, Preston would wear a suit and tie and carry a briefcase. He’d wave a letter at the gate calling “Health and Safety!” and ask to see the shop steward. He’d ask him to call a meeting on health and safety in the canteen where he would denounce the safety precautions at that factory, open the briefcase and hand out leaflets.

Colin would scour the local papers for reports of disputes and go to the picket lines, sometimes with a small collection and an offer to type up a leaflet. In the early years he assisted shop stewards’ committees at several major disputes including Roberts-Arundel Engineering at Stockport, Pilkington’s Glass Works at St Helens and Carrington Oil Refinery at Warrington. Helping out could lead to making strong contacts with stewards followed by organising small meetings with first-rate speakers, mainly from London, especially Kidron and Cliff. From 1964, Labour Worker, the forerunner of Socialist Worker, was the ice-breaker for doorstep visits. In these early years some impressive militants were recruited to the International Socialists in Manchester including Beresford Edwards, Wally Preston, Ron Murphy, Jack Gately, George Dykes and Rick Sumner. Colin beavered away at building a viable group that soon included working class members alongside students and teachers. He wrote countless leaflets and when the IS started to organise factory branches and produce workplace bulletins he was at the centre of that. In the 1970s several factory branches were set up at big workplaces including Greenings Cables in Warrington, Massey Fergusons, Trafford Park, Ferranti, Oldham and Gardners Engineering at Patricroft—all holding regular meetings at which Colin often spoke. A former SWP district organiser said that when he arrived in Manchester, “Colin’s fingerprints were all over the district.”

He was also a national figure in the IS group through his involvement with the journal which was an essential part of his intellectual development. His first and long-term contribution was as a reviewer, then as reviews editor. In little more than a decade he reviewed over 70 books and farmed out several hundred to others. From the start his range of interests was very broad and included sociology, economics, industrial relations, labour and trade union politics, labour history, international politics and literature. Reading them consecutively today we can see the young Barker, from his mid-20s, accumulating knowledge for future deployment. He once said that being reviews editor was a great way of building a library. This was not entirely a joke—books were expensive. Duncan Hallas ended one review of a Penguin book with: “worth reading though 1/6d is a bit steep for a paperback”.

Colin’s comments are sharp and critical though his generosity peeped through by recognising that even right-wing thinkers may have something useful to say. He managed to be both kind and tough to Allan Flanders, the doyen of industrial relations academics, in reviewing his semi-official tome on the Fawley Oil Refinery productivity agreements of 1962. Colin’s snappy review title “Fog at Fawley” is an example of his ability to create a telling phrase.4 This review was an early engagement in the issue that was to become the centre-piece of employer strategy from the 1960s onwards. He helped Cliff with the book, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them.5 Built from dozens of interviews with shop stewards, the book became the most successful ever produced by the IS, selling thousands of copies. Collaboration marked the activity of the IS group and Colin was a most effective collaborator on many projects, starting with Incomes Policy, Legislation and the Shop Stewards, which he wrote with Cliff in 1966.6 This had also been a big seller and a path-breaking tool for contacting shop stewards and union officials.

In this phase of his political life Colin was enthusiastically involved in branch building. Manchester became a star branch in Cliff’s eyes with over 60 members by 1970. However, at the end of the 1960s there was a hiccup. After Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 the IS put out an appeal for unity on the left. Discussions took place with other groups but only one, the small Workers’ Fight group, agreed to organisational union and Colin was an enthusiastic part of the discussion. Unfortunately WF saw the unity appeal as an opportunity to enter IS, treating the group solely as a recruiting ground. Workers’ Fight’s strongest group was in Manchester. The branch became a sectarian cockpit. This was a mode of politics Colin found utterly alien. For a time the experience demoralised him. If action had not been taken by the executive committee, he would almost certainly have left the IS then. An interim solution was to split the branch, isolating the WF faction. At the following national conference, Workers’ Fight was expelled. Hallas, who had recently returned to active politics after more than a decade’s absence, gave key support to Colin on this issue. It was the start of a long friendship.

The two year faction war hurt Colin. He lost his taste for direct branch building in Manchester, and began to describe himself as “a bad member”. This was clearly not true. He became a regular and welcome speaker across the north but took on probably the most important task of all, district treasurer, which he took very seriously for over 20 years. He also used his wide knowledge and friendships across the labour movement to very good effect in big campaigns like the Anti-Nazi League. Again it was the wider movement that gave him energy. For the ANL he recruited Labour MPs as supporters and even football stars like Paddy Crerand (Man United) and Dave Watson (Man City). He claimed to have invented the famous ANL yellow lollipop first used in Hyde—though this is contested. He was a lecturer in sociology at Manchester Polytechnic (to become Manchester Metropolitan University) where he was an activist in his ATTI/NATFHE branch. He is remembered with affection by NHS activists where he played a supporting role in some big disputes. One recalls: “He loved a good picket line. He approached them with warmth and glee. He twinkled. He was a great advert for the SWP.”

From a visit to Paris with Cliff in 1968 to talk with French comrades he was always interested in forging international links. In the late 1970s during the early years of the American sister group the International Socialist Organisation he made several visits to the United States where his talks made a lasting impact.

Almost at the same moment as his American interest grew he began a new intellectual journey. Together with his wife Ewa he turned his attention to Poland. The country was wracked with dissent and opposition to the Stalinist regime. He saw the situation as having the greatest potential for workers’ revolution since 1917. Colin and Ewa had got together in 1968. Polish by birth and early upbringing, Ewa understood both the language and the country’s culture. She read documents produced in the struggle and visited Poland to talk with activists. By the late 1970s Poland was of great interest to many Western commentators. What Colin offered that was unique was a methodology, a close knowledge of recent uprisings in France, Chile and Portugal and nearly two decades of close involvement in labour struggles in Britain. The Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81—a great title—is, I think, his best book.7 Sections of it throb with life as he takes the reader into the heart of Solidarity, the organisation spawned by the workers’ rising against the state, which reached into all corners of Polish society. He dissects that society coolly and with subtlety, especially the many facets of the Catholic Church in its ambivalent relationship with the post-Stalinist state. Poland continued to interest Colin. In a later essay he showed his originality again in a further article: “Fear, Laughter, and Collective Power: The Making of Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, August 1980”.8 He was examining the part played by emotion in social conflict long before such enquiries became fashionable.

The Polish experience took Colin in a new direction: the analysis of social movements, to which he devoted much of his time. He produced two further books and a shoal of articles, but he may be remembered most in this field for the International Alternative Futures and Popular Protest Conference which, from 1997, he organised annually in Manchester. The conference brought together dozens of academics and activists from many parts of the world. In a way it was his seminar group, a testing ground for revolutionary theory and practice. Colin never claimed to be a founder of social movement theory. He always recognised his debt to a previous generation including Reinhard Bendix, Sidney Tarrow and particularly, Charles Tilly. But, he did bring something unique to the study: his hands-on activism, his grounding in non-Stalinist Marxism and the work of his own special tutors, Kidron, Hallas and Cliff. Colin did much original work, but he always acknowledged his debt to older comrades. I was with Colin in New York in 2000 when we received the news of Cliff’s death. He said it was like losing his own father. This was not mere sentiment but a recognition of the importance Tony Cliff had played in his own development. The additional loss of Hallas, Foot and Chris Harman in a single decade had an immeasurable impact on Colin. In 2010 he wrote the introduction to a volume of Chris’s work in which he wrote: “Chris was a very modest person and this comes across in his writing style. One of the most genuinely learned men most of us have ever known, he never showed off. He wrote with great clarity, always seeking to persuade.”

In writing this piece I have concluded that his leaving the SWP was connected to his growing interest in social movements, in a sense seeking solutions to deeply frustrating problems. Of course it was not the ultimate cause. That was the crisis in the SWP stemming from rape allegations in 2013-14. Colin’s breaking point was what he saw as the national and local leadership’s inadequate handling of the business. However, his dissatisfaction with the organisation had been rumbling on for some time. In personal discussion he would say that the party has nothing interesting to say on big questions, that its intellectual contribution to revolutionary socialist theory and practice had diminished, in his words, “to vanishing point”. In discussion he cited an inadequate analysis of the implications of the long downturn for revolutionary organisation, questioning adherence to the Leninist model of party organisation based on democratic centralism. This was a strong contrast with what he had argued in Revolutionary Rehearsals, his 1987 collection of essays on post-1968 uprisings.9 There he wrote: “In no case did a significant revolutionary socialist party offer an alternative path to be taken. In our view that missing element played a major part in the destruction of these movements.” So far as I know he did not specifically confront this question in writing. However Colin was clear that he had found a lively discourse on ways and means in the social movement community.

But for the 2013 crisis he might have just continued paying a passive role in party affairs. Leaving the party was certainly not an easy decision. Colin had been part of its fabric for most of its active life. There may be readers of this journal who saw his leaving the SWP as him giving up on a central feature of our tradition: the building of a revolutionary organisation. That was certainly not how he saw it. That’s why he gave enthusiastic support to his new organisation, RS21, to a small extent at least, trying to recreate the excitement of his own political baptism in the early 1960s. As someone who stayed with the party I continued to view him as a dear friend, comrade and teacher of new ways of seeing. Only time will tell who made the best call.

Colin Barker was a revolutionary socialist activist and one of the sharpest and most productive of his generation. He kept on asking questions even when satisfactory answers did not seem in reach. He continued working right up to his very last day. His final letter to family and friends was beautiful in asserting his lifelong commitment to socialism from below. He died with such grace. He never wrote his intended paper on the role of surprise in revolutionary moments but he was always looking for them in his research. We can be sure that he would always be ready when one leapt out.

He wrote to friends just before Christmas:

So much, on the one hand, to fear and to loathe. And yet… I read about the caravan through Mexico and the ordinary people’s solidarity it met with (most of the way), about the Australian school students striking over climate change, about the rise of new movements like Extinction Rebellion, about successful strikes here and there, about the yellow vests protests in France, about huge women’s protests in different countries, about the wonderful people who are still sending aid and support to the migrants at Calais, about the revival of “socialism” as an idea in the US. There is a new world struggling to be born, still, and it seems just a little more restive.

John Charlton is a long-term member of the SWP living in Newcastle.


1 I would like to thank Ewa and Martin Barker and several comrades for help in writing this appreciation. I am entirely responsible for the opinions expressed.

2 Rosser and Barker, 1967.

3 Barker, 1972.

4 Barker, 1965.

5 Cliff, 1970.

6 Cliff and Barker, 1966.

7 Barker, 1995.

8 Barker, 2001.

9 Barker, 1987.


Barker, Colin, 1965, “Fog at Fawley”, International Socialism 20 (1st series, spring), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/barker-c/1965/xx/fawley.htm

Barker, Colin, 1972, The Power Game (Pluto Press).

Barker, Colin, 1987, Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

Barker, Colin, 1995, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81 (Bookmarks).

Barker, Colin, 2001, “Fear, Laughter and Collective Power: The Making of Solidarity at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland, August 1980”, in Jeff Goodwin, James M Jasper and Francesca Polletta (eds), Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements (Chicago University Press).

Cliff, Tony, 1970, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them (Pluto Press).

Cliff, Tony, and Colin Barker, 1966, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards (London Industrial Shop Stewards Defence Committee), www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1966/incomespol/index.htm

Rosser, Joyce, and Colin Barker, 1967, “A Working-Class Defeat: The ENV Story”, International Socialism 31 (first series, winter), www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/barker-c/1967/xx/env.htm