Duncan Hallas

Revolutionaries and the Labour Party

* * *

and the Labour Party

The Trotskyists and Entrism

In August 1932 Reg Groves and Harry Wicks were expelled from the Communist Party. Very soon after, their supporters in Balham, Battersea and Tooting were excluded for refusing to disavow them. They had all, with others, been involved in the production or distribution of The Communist, a duplicated journal (published anonymously) which had made available in English Trotsky’s Germany: the Key to the International Situation, a brilliant polemic for the united front against fascism in Germany and against the lunacy of treating the social-democrats and “social-fascists”. It had also announced the formation of the British section of the International Left Opposition. [22] This was a small group. The appeal against the expulsions at the CP Congress in November had just thirteen signatures.

Until the summer of 1933 the Trotskyist groups in all countries had directed their efforts to trying to change the line of the Communist Parties, in particular to arguing for a return to the united front tactic and a rejection of the sterile ultra-leftism of the “Third Period” line and the absurdities of “social fascism”. Soon after Hitler’s victory early in 1933, Trotsky came round to the view that this was no longer a tenable proposition. In July 1933 he wrote:

The Comintern cannot remain what it was on the eve of the German catastrophe. The road taken by the Comintern is now quite definite. One cannot hope for a miracle. It is doomed to defeat. The idea of reform is to be rejected, nationally and internationally, for the Comintern in its entirety, because it is nothing more than an unscrupulous, bureaucratic caste that has become the greatest enemy of the working class. It is absolutely necessary to free the proletarian vanguard from the dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy. What does this turn mean in essence? We cease to be a faction: we are no longer the Left Opposition, we become embryos of new parties. [23]

The analogy strongly suggested the need for a womb in which the embryo could gestate. One immediately offered itself in Britain. Not the Labour Party, but a left-wing breakaway from it. A study of this episode is instructive.

Already in June, Trotsky had noted that, in the aftermath of the destruction of the whole German workers’ movement by fascism:

The Social-Democracy is everywhere experiencing an acute crisis. In a number of important countries more or less important left wings have already separated themselves from the Social Democratic parties. This process flows from the whole situation. That it has not yet taken on a more developed character is due to the mistakes of the Ste/mist bureaucracy, which puts a brake on the internal differentiation in the ranks of reformism and closes the door of communism to the revolutionary wing ... The International Left Opposition faces a new task: to accelerate the evolution of the left socialist organisations toward communism by injecting its ideas and its experience into this process. There is no time to lose, if the independent socialist organisations remain in their present amorphous state for a long period of time, they will disintegrate. [24]

The British representative of this international trend was the Independent Labour Party, an original founding component of the Labour Party, which had become a focus of opposition during the second Labour government (1929-31) and had split from the Labour Party in 1932, taking out about 17,000 members. [25] Politically, the ILP could best be described as centrist, often revolutionary in words (it increasingly described itself as a revolutionary socialist party), but vacillating and semi-reformist in practice. It was, however, a leftward moving centrist organisation in 1932-3.

Trotsky proposed that the British Trotskyists enter the ILP. He wrote a number of articles and letters on the subject. [26] The majority of the British Section, which was now around forty strong, disagreed. A minority supported Trotsky.

It is important to understand the basis and perspective of the proposed entry: they are summarised in Trotsky’s letter to the British section in October 1933:

We do not exaggerate the significance of the ILP. in politics as in the physical world, everything is relative. in comparison with your small group, the ILP is a big organisation ...

It seems to me that you are inclined to look at the ILP through the eyes of the Stalinist party, to exaggerate the number of petty-bourgeois element and minimise the proletarian elements of the party. But if ... the workers make up only 10 per cent ... you will get one thousand revolutionary minded workers, and in reality many more.

The jump from a thousand to ten thousand is much easier than the jump from forty to one thousand.

You speak of influencing the ILP from the outside. Taken on a wide historical scale, your arguments are irrefutable, but there are unique, exceptional circumstances that we must know how to make use of by exceptional means. Today the revolutionary workers of the ILP still hold onto their party. The perspective of joining a group of forty, the principles of which are little known to them can by no means appeal to them. if within the next year they should grow disappointed with the 1LP, they will go not to you but to the Stalinists, who will break these workers’ necks.

If you enter the ILP to work for the Bolshevik transformation of that party (that is, of its revolutionary kernel), the workers will look upon you as upon fellow workers, comrades and not as adversaries who want to split the party from the outside.

Had it been a question of a formed, homogeneous party with a stable apparatus, entry in it would not only be useless but fatal. But the ILP is in altogether a different state. Its apparatus is not homogeneous and therefore permits great freedom to different currents. The revolutionary rank and file of the party eagerly seeks solutions. Remaining as an independent group, you represent in the eyes of the workers, only small competitors to the Stalinists. inside the party you can much more successfully insulate the workers against Stalinism ...

Whether you enter the ILP as a faction or as individuals is a purely formal question. in essence, you will of course be a faction that subm its to a common discipline. Before entering the ILP you make a public declaration: “Our views are known. We have based ourselves on the principles of Bolshevism-Leninism and have formed ourselves as apart of the international Left Opposition. its ideas we consider as the only basic on which the new international can be built. We are entering the ILP to convince members of that party in daily practical work of the correctness of our ideas and of the necessity of the ILP joining the initiators of the new International.” [28]

To summarise, the entry was proposed in “exceptional circumstances”, most important, the extreme numerical weakness of the British Trotskyists. It was an entry into a leftward moving centrist party which claimed to be revolutionary and which was supposed to contain “one thousand revolutionary minded workers” and “no stable apparatus”. The object was to win the ILP to the ideas of the Fourth International (a right-wing breakaway being assumed) and the operation was to be conducted as “open penetration”, declared in advance. There was to be no question of the Trotskyists representing themselves as other than they were.

The arguments of the oppositional majority of the British Section were not so contemptible as they have often subsequently been represented. They knew the ILP first hand, as Trotsky did not. As Harry Wicks recalled, many years later:

The ILP, if you are in Bradford, Keighley ... the ILP was proletarian in composition. Now the London ILP ... was made up, over all these years, of middle class people: it was middle class ... I participated with the Battersea YCL in Brockway’s election against Churchill somewhere about 1922 (Brockway, now Lord Brockway, was a leading figure of the ILP left) in Westminster. All these years the London was middle class, vegetarian, all the “isms” associated with the promenade concert type, the organ recital type – not that rye anything against concerts, but it was an entirely different product to what constituted us as Communists at that time ... It was an entirely different social composition and social outlook. Moreover the ILP, although it had disaffiliated itself from the Labour Party, had a sizeable parliamentary fraction. Now those people, Campbell Steven, Maxton, Kirkwood: they used to live in Battersea. We knew them as very experienced people and the thought of our little grouping of thirty or forty people being able to enter and bypass that set-up, to anyone knowledgeable, it was not on. [29]

The British Trotskyists were confined to London, largely South West London, with a little group developing in East London. The weakness of their majority position was its inability to offer any kind of national perspective for the immediate future. Trotsky’s proposal appeared to open up the prospect of reaching the northern workers of the TLP from inside the party and was, moreover, part of the international perspective. That same summer the ILP called an international conference in Paris to discuss the new situation arising from Hitler’s victory and the failure of the German workers’ parties to prevent it. Fourteen left socialist or dissident communist parties and groups attended. Only four, not including the ILP, signed the call for a new International, sponsored by the Trotskyists, but Trotsky had not yet despaired of this “new Zimmerwald”,of which the ILP was an important part. And so the British minority split away; led by D.D. Harber (an ex-LSE student who had visited the USSR) they entered the ILP (December 1933).

In terms of Trotsky’s perspective the entry was a failure. The ILP leaders proved to be hardened centrists. Led by the parliamentary fraction (the ILP still had three MPs as late as 1945) they proved to be a sufficiently “stable apparatus” to prevent a Trotskyist takeover. The ILP never supported the idea of a Fourth International; indeed it became a persistent opponent of the FI.

From a more modest perspective, however, the entry was a considerable success. A supporter of the minority wrote, forty years later, that they “undertook this [entry] rather late, when opportunities had already been lost, and they wasted more time acclimatising themselves, but around the end of 1934 their numbers had arisen by about six times”. [30] That would give from about a hundred to a hundred and fifty members, most of them gained in one year. No precision is possible in this or later figures for entrist groups. Nonetheless there can be no reasonable doubt that the ILP entry, out of which was recruited the “second generation” of British Trotskyists, was one of the most successful operations of its kind. The testimony of an opponent of the tactic, Harry Wicks, is decisive:

They won over people of a very impressive calibre ... C.L.R. James, a West Indian, a brilliant speaker ... tremendous energy ... drove himself ... Arthur Ballard, he was a carpenter, a very talented comrade ... Eddie Patterson ... a marvellous debater, very earthy working class speaker ... he later became General Secretary of the ISTC ... Bert Matlow, the only British Trotskyist that Trotsky ever gave ten marks out of ten to ... and many others. [31]

There then arose a question that was to recur again and again. When to end an entry? When to break, at the height of the wave, so to say, and to pull out the maximum possible number of workers to form the revolutionary party? In the case of the ILP entry the matter was complicated by arguments about whether, or when the possibilities of converting the ILP as such into a revolutionary party had become exhausted.

By the spring of 1935, at latest, Trotsky had become convinced that the ILP leadership and its international allies were hopeless as a revolutionary prospect. In truth, the ILP leaders, who had managed to avoid joining the CP even 1920, were never such. The fact was now obvious and Trotsky recognised it. A good many of his followers who were inside the ILP were unwilling to accept this obvious conclusion and to split, with their gains, from that party.

Naturally, a substantial political issue, which was obvious to the ILP membership at large, was necessary as the pretext for the split. One soon appeared. In October 1935 Mussolini, dictator of fascist Italy, sent his armies to conquer Ethiopia, one of the two remaining independent states in Africa (the other being US-dominated Liberia). The Labour Party called for economic sanctions against Italy through the League of Nations (the “League of Imperialist Bandits”, as Lenin had called it) which had been set up by the victors of 1918.

The ILP parliamentarians took a neutral position between Ethiopia and Italy. They refused to support Ethiopia on an anti-imperialist basis. The Marxist Group, the organisation of the Trotskyists in the ILP, did its communist duty. It organised a campaign against any reliance on, or support for, the British capitalist state, or any other capitalist state, in support of the Ethiopians and at the same time called for workers’ sanctions against Italy (i.e. a boycott by British dockers, seamen and other workers of trade with Italy). It carried the ILP conference of Easter 1936 for this line (in alliance with the pacifists and the Brockway-led “centre”) against the parliamentary leaders. Maxton, the best known and most popular of the parliamentary group, then announced that he and his colleagues would resign rather than accept an ILP call for workers’ support for “one side in a quarrel between dictators”. At that point the Brockway-led “centre” reversed its position, on the basis that “the ILP is nothing without its MPs”.

Obviously, this was the ideal time to lead all the revolutionary- minded delegates out of the conference, to denounce the ILP as politically bankrupt, and to set up shop as an independent revolutionary organisation. It did not happen. The Marxist Group, by now dominated by C.L.R. James, remained obsessed by the unreal prospect of “capturing” the ILP and its remaining 4,000 or so members. It was an early example of one of the perils of entrism, the process of adaptation and accommodation to the host organisation. [32]

Trotsky reacted sharply. He wrote, in April 1936:

After the conference had rejected the scandalous pacifist quackery by a vote of 70 to 57, the tender pacifist Maxton put the revolver of an ultimatum at the breast of the conference and forced a new decision by a vote of 93 to 39 ... A party that tolerates such conduct is not a revolutionary party; for if it surrenders (or “postpones”) its principled position on a highly important and topical question because of threats of resignation by Maxton, then at the decisive moment it will never withstand the immeasurably mightier pressure of the bourgeoisie ... Fenner Brockway’s position on this question is a highly instructive example of the political and moral insufficiency of centrism. Fenner Brockway was lucky enough to adopt a correct point of view on an important question ... The difference lies in this, however, that we Marxists really mean the thing seriously. To Fenner Brockway, on the other hand, it is a matter of something “incidental”. He believes it better for the British workers to have Maxton as chairman with a false point of view than to have a correct point of view without Maxton ... My conclusions? The cause of the ILP seems to me to be hopeless. The 39 delegates who, despite the failure of Fenner Brockway’s faction, did not surrender to Maxton’s ultimatum must seek ways of preparing a truly revolutionary party for the British proletariat. It can stand only under the banner of the Fourth International. [33]

The matter was not so simple, however. For, by this time, Trotsky was convinced that “preparing a truly revolutionary party” in Britain meant entry into the Labour Party. Soon another split gave rise to a total of three Trotskyist groupings: Harber’s Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party, the Marxist League (the Groves-Wicks group which had also entered the Labour Party), and the Marxist Group in the ILP. Taken together, they probably amounted to something under two hundred people at a generous estimate.

Leave aside the Marxist Group, what did the others suppose that they were doing? Bridges, for the Harber group, puts in clearly:

When we had joined the ILP, back in 1934, we had wanted to counteract the influence of the Stalinists there and to win it over as a going concern to the Fourth International, leaving behind only incorrigible pacifists and reformist. As to the Labour Party, on the contrary, nobody suggested for a moment either that it could be won over as a whole, or that its apparatus could be captured and used for revolutionary purposes. Those fantasies date from a later period.

We recognised that our forces were small and that our “entry was the best way, given our small numbers, of placing ourselves in the correct position to approach workers who were tending, for want of anything better, to fall under Stalinist influence ...

We knew that we had to express our ideas in the form of concrete proposals, that we would not win if we preached abstractly our maximum programme and our criticisms of reformism and Stalinism ... We warned to attract workers into struggle on the basis of demands which would lead them beyond the minimum programme of the reformist and their Stalinist collaborators, towards the maximum programme, the seizure of power. [34]

Note the lowering of the sights, the fundamental shift of emphasis away from the need for a revolutionary party as the indispensable instrument for achieving workers’ power, towards “demands which would lead ... towards ... the seizure of power”. Of course, the Trotskyists of this period believed in the necessity of the party, but the fatal slide towards the notion that “demands” have some value independently of the revolutionary workers’ organisation which, Malone, can lead the struggle for their realisation, is already present in embryonic form. Inevitably, “demands on the Labour Party” became the central focus of Trotskyist politics.

Actually, for Trotsky himself, the shift was inextricably tied up with his assessment of the immediate perspective. In the well known Interview with Collins in the summer of 1936 he said:

England must inevitably develop in common with the rest of Europe. That must give rise to a strike wave in the near future, which will drive the last nail into the coffin of the ILP. The ILP is not a mass but a propaganda organisation, and since their propaganda is centrist and not revolutionary, this dying corpse must be completely swept aside during a working class resurgence. [35]

Trotsky was not altogether wrong. From the low point of 1934 (134,000 workers involved in strikes and lockouts and 959,000 strike days), the movement revived considerably in 1935 and 1936, reaching a climax in 1937 (with 610,000 workers involved and 3,413,000 strike days). Moreover, a quarter of these disputes were for union recognition or in solidarity with other workers, i.e. contained an offensive element. Union membership rose from 4,392,000 in 1934 to 5,842,000 in 1937. [36]

Yet the scale of this revival was not remotely comparable with the great strike waves in France and the USA at this time, and its political effect was vastly weaker. Moreover, after 1937. there was a sharp downturn in numbers of disputes, numbers of workers involved and numbers of strike days (altogether the number of strike days remained well over the 1934 level – 1,360,000 in 1939).

Another fact of significance was that the CP, abandoning its ultra-left line after 1934, played a prominent role in many of these disputes – the London Busmen s movement is an outstanding case – and was rebuilding its industrial cadre. [37] Its total membership had risen from 3,200 at the beginning of the decade to some 7,000 in 1935, the great majority of them workers. The Trotskyists were increasingly cut off from these, some of the best and most class conscious workers, and were soon to be cut off totally by the Moscow Trials.

Entry into the Labour Party was intended to win fresh revolutionary forces. The Harber group was explicit, stating, in September 1936:

As Bolshevik Leninists we enter the Labour Party for one reason alone – to make contact with the masses of politically conscious workers and to gain supporters from among them for the formation of a Marxist party and a Fourth International ... A minimum requirement may be stated, namely that within a year some hundreds of Labour Party workers are ready to form with us a new party when the moment comes. If a year’s work by the group reaches less than this, then the step of joining the Labour Party has failed to bring the necessary results. [38]

On that basis the entry was a total failure. Indeed it was a failure on any basis, unless sheer survival as a shrunken rump can be counted as a success.

The Trotskyist groups managed to unite (in two stages) in 1938, after negotiations in 1936 had proved abortive. Only one small group, the Lee group which had little more than a score of members in 1938, stayed out. The fused organisation, the RSL, claimed, very optimistically, some 200 members (“at the absolute outside” was Harry Wicks’s comment), that is, little if any more than in 1935. By the spring of 1944, when this RSL, or Militant group (so called from its paper) ceased its independent existence, it was down to 75 members – divided internally, moreover, into no less than three permanent factions! [39]

The Labour Party did, of course, contain “masses of politically conscious workers”. Individual membership grew from 297,000 in 1931 to 447,000 in 1937 and it was considerably more proletarian in composition than it is today. But these workers, including that smallish proportion of them who actually attended their Labour Party organisations, were reformists. Their thinking and expectations were far, far away from those of the little band of Trotskyist entrists and the magic of “Transitional Demands” could not begin to bridge the gap. There was no “revolutionary rank and file” such as the ILP had been supposed to contain. Moreover, the Labour Party was moving rightwards in this period. It had revived electorally after the disaster of 1931 (when it still won over 30 per cent of the votes cast but got only 52 MPs), capturing the London County Council for the first time in 1934 and polling nearly 38 per cent of the total vote in the general election of 1935 (with 154 MPs).

Trotsky’s expectation that it would be radicalised by a working class resurgence’ proved false. Writing of the capture of the LCC (and its retention in 1937), G.D.H. Cole notes:

Undoubtedly this success, achieved by a moderate socialist policy in the London area, encouraged the Labour Party nationally in its swing to the right, for the national leaders were disposed to argue that the experience of London showed both that moderation was the key to victory and that a moderate policy could demonstrate its soundness by its practical results. [40]

The “native” left in the Labour Party, mostly led by the Socialist League from 1932, had become caught up in the CP’s “unity” campaign, the essential content of which, from 1935, was the promotion of the “Popular Front” of Labour, Liberals and CP and a military alliance with Russia against Germany. The dominant right wing, flying the flag of independence from entanglements with the Liberals, forced the dissolution of the Socialist League early in 1937. The left, disorientated and demoralised by Popular Frontism, was on the retreat. Trotskyist attempts to create a “substitute Socialist League”, first the Socialist-Left Federation, then the Militant Labour League, failed to get off the ground (although the MLL created sufficient notice to be made a proscribed organisation).

Then there was the effect of Stalin’s anti-Trotsky campaign. The first of the big Moscow show trials, the Zinoviev-Kamenev trial, started. in August 1936. The accused duly confessed that, on the Orders of the arch-fiend Trotsky, they had organised sabotage, wrecking and murder in order to “restore capitalism” in the USSR in collaboration with the Gestapo. The British CP and many of its left Labour allies mounted a vicious lie and slander campaign against the Trotskyists, and indeed all left-wing opponents of Popular Frontism, as “fascists” and “Hitler’s agents”. It had a considerable effect in deepening their isolation.

There was one relatively bright spat in this gloomy picture, the Labour League of Youth. This grew quite fast in the early thirties and was always a centre of the left. The CP had gained an influence by 1934 and its leading supporter in the LLOY, Ted Willis (now Lord Willis and a member of the SDP), became successively Chairman of the East London Federation and Chairman of the National Advisory Committee. The CP-line paper, Advance, edited by him, became the semi-official organ of the organisation. By 1936 some thirty thousand members were claimed, no doubt with the usual exaggeration. That year the Labour Party conference voted to disband the NAC, postpone the next LLOY conference and lower the age limit to 21 (from 25) but the right wing found it difficult to make immediate headway on the ground, for the simple reason that it had practically no supporters in the League. The LLOY had become a CP-line organisation by then. The March 1937 issue of Advance proclaimed, under the signature of Ted Willis:

The recent trial and sentences on the Terrorists in Moscow were of particular interest to members of the League of Youth for an obvious reason. That being the fact that, for the last year we have been blessed (is that the right word?) with a tiny group of people in the League who style themselves Trotskyists ... Turn them lock, stock and barrel out of the Labour movement. [41]

In the highly political atmosphere of the LLOY the Trotskyists were able to keep a toe-hold. Arguments about reform or revolution and Marxist criticism of the CP’s class-collaborationist Popular Front line were possible here. A member of the Marxist League, Roma Dewar, even managed to win election to the otherwise Stalinist dominated NAC in 1936. Of course, this youth work was largely concerned with “arguing our maximum programme and our criticism of reformism and Stalinism”, the very thing Bridges deprecates. Whatever successes (in terms of recruits, as opposed to resolutions passed) were obtained by the Trotskyists were obtained here. But by the summer of 1939 the LLOY was effectively liquidated by Transport House and by the impact of conscription. Willis and Co departed for the YCL.

It may be argued that the dismal failure of this entrist operation was due, not to the tactic, but to the overwhelmingly unfavourable character of the situation, that, as Trotsky said to James early in 1939: “the whole situation is against us ... We are in a small boat in a tremendous current. There are five or ten boats and one goes down and we say it was due to bad helmsmanship. But that was not the reason – it was because the current was too strong.” [42] No doubt there is a great deal of truth in this. Whatever tactics had been adopted, no great gains were likely. But it is not the whole truth. The Labour Party is a very deleterious environment for revolutionaries, especially when, unlike the CP sympathisers in the twenties, they have no open revolutionary party to relate to. The tendencies to adapt to the norms of Labour Party life, to resolution pushing as a central activity, to become accustomed to sailing under false colours, to fetishise “demands”, to put one’s faith in “great historic forces” rather than seeking every chance to try to force the pace: all this is very strong.

The majority of the British Trotskyist entrists were profoundly affected. The Labour Party had become a way of life for them. This was proved conclusively in the next phase, the second world war.

The RSL stayed in the Labour Party, still waiting for its mass radicalisation, although, with the electoral truce from 1940, Labour Party organisations tended to decline considerably in numbers and to slide into inactivity. The small Lee group (called the WIL) turned outwards to agitational work with its paper Youth for Socialism (the Socialist Appeal from June 1941). Especially after the CP switched to a pro-war line in 1941, the Appeal devoted a great part of its space to industrial disputes and the rest to revolutionary propaganda. The kind of work carried out was that familiar to SWP members today. And on that basis the WIL was able to recruit while the RSL declined. By 1943 the WIL had grown to about 250 members (from not more than 30 in 1939), very small but certainly bigger than any British Trotskyist group hitherto. And this growth was achieved very much “against the stream” of British working-class politics and entirely by open work.

In 1944, after fusion with the reluctant rump of the RSL – some, at least, of whose members were allowed to stay in the Labour Party as a fraction – growth continued (there were 3,710,000 strike days in 1944) and by the end of the war the RCP (the fused organisation) was claiming 500 members. [43] This was certainly an exaggeration (made possible by uncertainty as to how many members there were in the armed forces) but it safe to say that virtually all the new forces won to revolutionary Marxist politics in the war years were won by the WIL/RCP outside the Labour Party.

The WIL had formulated its attitude towards entrism in 1942. the permissible use of the tactic was:

to enter a reformist or centrist party which is in a state of flux, where political life is at a high pitch and where the members are steadily moving left. It is essentially a short-term perspective or work in a milieu where favourable prospects exist for a short space of time. [44]

This was the approach scornfully referred to by latter-day entrists as “a raid”: it is not materially different from the perspective of Trotsky’s proposal to his followers to enter the French socialist party in 1934 or even Harber’s to enter the Labour Party in 1936.

In 1945 the RCP reviewed the matter, opted to continue open work, but also conceded that a new entry might be necessary in certain circumstances, viz.:

stagnation of the RCP and its isolation from the mass of militant workers, particularly the advanced strata in a period of social upheaval, the unprecedented growth of the Labour Party, particularly amongst the youth; the emergence of a left centrist wing moving in the direction of revolutionary struggle. [45]

Since there was nothing like this in the immediate post-war period, the RCP leaders concluded that entry was not on. The trouble was that there was no “period of social upheaval” outside the Labour Party either. Nobody was “moving in the direction of revolutionary struggle” in those days and so the RCP did stagnate, indeed it began to decline.

The fact was that the RCP, like virtually all the Trotskyist organisations internationally, had a fundamentally false analysis of both the prospects for western capitalism and for Stalinism. The details cannot be pursued here. [46] Suffice it to note that the growing realisation that something was very wrong precipitated a crisis which eventually led to the dissolution of the organisation (1949). Out of the wreck emerged three fragments, all of which became entrist, although in very different ways. At bottom, they simply lacked the forces for credible open organisations.

There was the Socialist Review group, forerunner of the SWP, with a claimed membership of 33 in 1950, which decided “to direct our primary efforts towards the League of Youth” [47] (it had been revived by the Labour Party and the age limit raised to 25 in 1948). The object was simply to recruit there, there was no grand perspective of big short-term growth through mass radicalisation. Then there was the Rally group, forerunner of today’s Militant tendency, which also expected a long haul, but which was, otherwise, much more an “orthodox Trotskyist” formation in those days and was even smaller than the Socialist Review group.

Finally there was The Club, by far the biggest of the three, which adopted a highly secret entry tactic (the existence of the organisation was denied) and which was now the official Fl section. It held to the view that a massive economic crisis was imminent, that as it developed workers would flood into the Labour Party and “demand solutions” and that the projected “left-centrist wing moving in the direction of revolutionary struggle” would then appear. True, the leaders of this body, the ancestor of the WRP, conceded that this had not yet happened but it would happen soon and so the Trotskyists must get into the wards so as to be positioned to take the leadership of the expected infix of revolutionary-minded workers. To this end they had established a paper, Socialist Outlook (1948) which, by their highly original theory, was to “evolve” politically with the movement.

The Outlook was an artificial left reformist paper, with which were associated people like Ellis Smith MP, President of the patternmakers, Bessie Braddock MP, later a notorious witchunter, Tom Braddock MP (no relation), Jack Stanley, General Secretary of the Constructional Engineers, Ernie Roberts of the AEU and Frank Allaun. Effective control however, lay with members of The Club – so long as they stuck together. Thus the thing would evolve from left reformism through centrism to revolutionary politics, in step with the leftward moving mass workers’ current! It was a complete fantasy. No such current appeared, although a genuine Labour (reformist) left did so in due course (from 1951 onwards).

What concerns us here are the gains, real or supposed, made by these organisations on the basis of entrism over twenty years, roughly till the middle sixties. The period was one of massive industrial expansion, full employment and rising living standards for the great mass of workers. It was also one of right-wing dominance in the unions (with very few official strikes) but also of the growth of powerful shop floor organisation, unofficial disputes – usually short lived and typically successful, plant bargaining and “wage drift”.

Politically, 1945-51 saw quite substantial reforms introduced by the Labour government and a growth of reformism (the Labour Party reached its peak individual membership in these years – 1,015,000 in 1952), followed by a long period of “moderate” conservative rule (thirteen years) with a slowly declining Labour vote (48.8 per cent in the 1951 general election, 46.4 per cent in 1955, 43.8 per cent in 1959, 44.1 per cent in 1964 when the Labour Party returned to office). Labour Party paper membership was down to 751,000 in 1961 but thereafter rose modestly for the next three years (the Labour Party was in office from 1964 to 1970). The earlier part of the period saw the cold war and a growth of right- wing (including right-wing Labour) influence. After 1951 there was the long drawn out struggle by the Tribunite Labour left against the dominant right, a conflict finally resolved by the death of the right- wing leader Gaitskell and the election of Harold Wilson (who “incorporated” the Tribunites) in 1963.

Some other things are relevant too. The British invasion of Egypt, Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Hungarian revolution (all in 1956) and the rise of CND (from 1958). “In 1960 the Socialist Review group was not significantly bigger than it had been ten years earlier. Its small size had prevented it benefitting from the events of 1956 ...” [48] Much the same could be said of the Rally group. There had indeed been a fight in the revived League of Youth around the question of “National Status” but the League declined and was closed down altogether in 1955.

The Club had made decidedly more progress. In spite of suffering from a split in 1953, and from the banning of its paper by the Labour Party a year later, it was able to intervene energetically in the crisis and split in the CP in 1956-7. [49] Its leading figure was able to claim (truthfully) that “we recruited some important cadres from the Communist Party and the YCL”. [50] With these gains it set up in 1958 the Socialist Labour League, an open organisation but one intended to work inside the Labour Party (its open members were soon expelled). What could not be claimed was that there had been any significant recruitment of Labour Party members. It is true that the SLL advanced the perspective of the imminent development of a massive Labour left and recruited ex-CP members into the Labour Party on that basis, but neither it nor anyone else was gaining genuine Labour Party people in any numbers greater than would fit comfortably into a telephone booth.

Then came a change, an exception and a very important exception. As before the war, it came from the youth. In 1960, in the aftermath of their 1959 electoral defeat, the Labour Party leaders decided that, after all, a youth organisation was indispensable if they were to match the Tory electoral machine. Gritting their teeth, they set up the Young Socialists, complete with a national paper called surely with conscious irony, New Advance, and the promise of a national conference and an elected national committee.

The setting up of the YS coincided with the high tide of CND and it grew quite fast, mainly from young unilateralists. Of course it soon became a battleground between the Labour right controlling Transport House but very weak in the YS, the SLL faction (whose paper was Keep Left) and an uneasy coalition of the Socialist Review and Rally forces who ran a joint paper – Young Guard – from 1961. The SLL was the biggest force and recruited considerably, so too did the smaller Socialist Review group. By 1964 it had grown to around 200 members, mostly recruited in the CND/YS milieu.

As in the late thirties the Labour youth organisation was highly politicised, the questions of the “workers’ bomb”, i.e. the class nature of the USSR, the nature of imperialism, the possibility or not of parliamentary roads to socialism and so on were furiously debated. It was an atmosphere very, very different from that of the Labour Party itself. [51]

Transport House soon went on the rampage with proscriptions and expulsions. In September 1964 the SLL forces seceded, claiming to be the authentic YS and taking out sizeable numbers. [52] Thereafter, the LPYS, so called to distinguish it; declined considerably in numbers and, especially after the Socialist Review (by now International Socialists) turned to open work, came more and more under the influence of the Militant tendency (so called from 1965 on). After the middle sixties this was the only sizeable group with an entrist strategy until quite recently. [53]

A calm and objective assessment of the experience of entrism in Britain, prior to the recent influx of assorted lefts and revolutionary grouplets into the Labour Party, leads to the conclusion that the tactic has produced significant gains for revolutionaries in only two types of case: the entry into a centrist party, the ILP, and the successive entries into the Labour Party youth organisations. The Labour Party, as such, has generally proved a barren field. [54]

Naturally, this fact does not, in and of itself, demonstrate the irrelevance of entrism today. It is necessary to examine the concrete circumstances, both in terms of the class struggle generally and in terms of developments in the Labour Party. To these we now turn.




22. Groves, How British Trotskyism Began, 1974, p.58.

23. Trotsky, For New Communist Parties and the New International in Writings 1933-4, 1972, pp.26-27.

24. Trotsky, The Left Socialist Organisations and Our Tasks in Writings 1932-33, p.274.

25. Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party, 1968, p.76. According to this source, the ILP was down to 4,400 by 1935.

26. Whither the Independent Labour Party?, How to Influence the ILP, The ILP and the New International, Principled Considerations on Entry, The Fate of the British Section, The Lever of a Small Group. All in Writings 1933-34.

28. Trotsky, The Lever of a Small Group, Writings 1933-34, pp.125-126.

29. Wicks, Recorded interview, 1980. Henceforth cited as Wicks, RI.

30. Bridges, Trotskyists and the Entry Tactic in Marxist Bulletin, Summer 1975, p.22. Bridges is a pseudonym for a long-standing Trotskyist who came into the movement around this time.

31. Wicks, RI.

32. It was not the only instance of accommodation at this time. At the general election of November 1935, in which the ILP ran 17 candidates and won 4 seats, the question of whether to call for critical electoral support to all Labour candidates (except where the ILP was running of course) or only for those Labour candidates who opposed League of Nations sanctions, had arisen. A section of the Marxist Group took the second position, thus breaking with Lenin’s approach of critical support for Labour in spite of its programme, not at all because of it. What was involved was an unprincipled political concession to the illusions of the pacifists and centrists in the ILP and their left Labour counterparts.

33. Trotsky, On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo, Writings 1935-36, pp.318-29.

34. Bridges, op. cit., p.26.

35. Trotsky, Interview On British Problem, Writings 1935-36, p.377.

36. Barau, British Trade Unions, 1947, pp.245-51.

37. Glatter, London Busmen in International Socialism (1st series) 74, January 1975.

38. On the Work of the Bolshevik-Leninists in the Labour Party, quoted from Revolutionary Communist Papers 8, 1981, p.26.

39. Higgins, Ten Years for the Locust, International Socialism (1st series) 14, Autumn 1963, p.29.

40. Cole, A Short History of the British Working-Class Movement, 1948, p.442.

41. Willis, We Have Our Wreckers Too, quoted from Moscow Trials Anthology, 1967, p.8.

42. Trotsky, Fighting Against the Stream in Writings 1938-39, pp.252-3.

43. The RSL was forced into the fusion by the International Secretariat of the FI. One of the three permanent factions within it (the smallest) favoured fusion. Another, the so-called Left Faction (about 20 strong), never really accepted fusion and was formally expelled in 1945. It continued to vegetate in the Labour Party on Clydeside for many years before withering away. Its one great success was the election of Harry Selby as MP for Govan. The majority (Harber) faction opposed fusion but accepted it as a matter of international discipline. The fused organisation was essentially a continuation of the WIL.

44. WIL, Preparing for Power, 1942, p.9.

45. RCP, Revolutionary Communist Policy, 1945, p.28.

46. Hallas, Building the Leadership, International Socialism (1st series) 40, Oct/Nov 1969, gives the essential facts.

47. Birchall, History of the International Socialists in International Socialism (1st series) 76, March 1975, p.18.

48. Ibid., p.18.

49. The split in The Club was part of the split in the FI internationally that year. The CP lost about 7,000 members in 1957. Some gave rise to the “New Left”.

50. Healey, Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, 1974, Vol.3, p.50.

51. Coggins, The Young Socialists: Labour’s Lost Youth, 1964, gives a good idea of the atmosphere of those days.

52. In September 1964 the “independent” (i.e. SLL) YS mounted a demonstration of several thousand – 4,000 were claimed – in London. By the next summer a campaign was launched for 5,000 new members (Whelan, The Credibility Gap, 1970, p.12). Of course, the outcome was the near collapse of the organisation; but the initial forces taken out must have been considerable.

53. Strictly speaking this is inaccurate. In 1962 the International Group (IMG from 1965) was set up by supporters of the Mandel wing of the FI on an entrist, indeed deep entrist, basis. Its paper, The Week, can best be described as a soggier version of Socialist Outlook with a strong dash of Third Worldism thrown in. However this grouping did not grow significantly until the late sixties and then, not, of course, out of its Labour Party work.

54. The entrist tactic was applied by Trotskyists in various countries from 1934 onwards. The results, so far as it is possible to get at the facts, seem to confirm the generalisation made in the text. Certainly, this was the case with the (fairly well-documented) entries into the French and American Socialist Parties in the thirties. The case of the LSSP (Ceylon), the biggest party in the FI in the forties and fifties, is no exception. This party was a centrist formation in origin and was “captured” intact by Trotskyists. It collapsed into reformism in the early sixties, entering a coalition government in 1964.


Last updated on 5 July 2019