Colin Barker, 1939 – 2019

As revolutionary socialists originally from Britain, we were both very saddened by the recent death of Colin Barker, a lifelong revolutionary socialist in the International Socialist tradition, from which Socialist Alternative arose. 

We have been inspired by his fantastic writing about socialism from below – and were both very privileged to personally fight alongside him for some of the time we were active in the Socialist Workers Party.

Colin’s life and politics are a great counter to the cynics who sneer at young people for fighting for a socialist future, dismissing it as the rebellion of misguided youth. Colin was a revolutionary for more than 60 years, and his belief in the power and potential of ordinary people to transform themselves and the world remained strong throughout that time.

He joined the IS whilst a student at Oxford University in the early 1960s, moving to Manchester shortly afterwards. He helped build the revolutionary left while a lecturer, writer and trade unionist in Manchester. He worked very closely with Tony Cliff, the founder of the IS tradition, contributing much to the development of Marxist theory. 

From the very early years, Colin combined revolutionary theory and practice. He was always excited whenever struggle broke out and threw himself into the political debates around strikes and campaigns as well as building practical solidarity. In the late 1960s, for example, Colin was deeply involved in a dispute in a small factory just outside Manchester, where the bosses were trying to destroy trade union organisation. The pamphlet he wrote was adopted by the strike committee and sold thousands of copies. 

This engagement with struggle would characterise the whole of Colin’s six decades as a revolutionary – spanning the periods of worker militancy in the early 1970s, the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s, the great miners’ strike of 1984-85, through to the anti-capitalist and massive anti-war movement beginning in the early 2000s.

Anyone who ever met Colin was struck by his unrelenting belief in socialism from below. 

This belief can in part be attributed to Colin’s first-hand experience of the massive struggles of Polish workers in the Solidarnosc movement of 1980-81. Together, Colin and his lifelong partner Ewa, herself of Polish descent, produced an entire issue of the International Socialism Journal about the tumultuous events that rocked the Stalinist regimes in Poland and across Eastern Europe.

Ewa and Colin’s observations about how mass struggle can shake even powerful regimes influenced the focus of much of his later writings and his infectious excitement about the possibility of lasting social change. 

Among the many engaging articles and books Colin wrote and edited, Revolutionary Rehearsals is a must read for those wanting to understand how mass struggle has erupted in more economically advanced countries and why revolutionary moments are a regular feature of capitalism.

Our memories of Colin are of someone who loved to spend time with young activists engaged in the day to day business of building revolutionary organisation.

His wealth of knowledge and experience in both British and international politics meant that he could always contextualise a particular struggle or campaign you were involved in, offering relevant comparisons and insights.

Colin brought gravitas to the debates and discussions in which he took part, but he wore his experience lightly, believing that you could always learn from others. Regardless of whether a comrade had been involved in the struggle for many years or a few months, Colin took them seriously. 

Though our struggles alongside him took place in separate decades, we both remember him as someone who valued our contributions to building both campaigns and revolutionary organisation.

He loved the energy and enthusiasm of younger comrades, often getting just as caught up in the excitement of a relatively small protest as he did about the big struggles he had been a part of in the 1970s.

In meetings and discussions, Colin’s contributions always deepened your understanding of the immediate issue at hand by connecting to the lessons of history, making Marxism accessible and relevant to today’s struggles.

Though Colin was someone who was involved in revolutionary politics for a long time, he embraced each new struggle and campaign with the enthusiasm of a new activist participating in their first action. He showed passion and commitment to winning as many people as possible to the politics and activism necessary for success.

In the build-up to the launch of Unite Against Fascism in the early 2000s, for example, Colin spent hours persuading many key figures in the trade union and socialist movement in the Manchester area to throw their support behind the initiative. He was also willing to walk the streets of the city centre, getting shops and cafes to display leaflets and posters. 

Colin was a real inspiration to many socialists through his activism, meetings and writings – both in Britain and beyond. His writings are essential tools for all of us seeking to understand the world better in order to transform it.  

Our solidarity goes to Ewa, Hannah, Nancy and everyone who was more convinced of the need for socialism by their connection to him.