Duncan Hallas

Confusion reigns

(September 1984)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.68, September 1968, p.10; and Letters, Socialist Worker Review, No.69, October 1968, p.31
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

British Trotskyism
John Callaghan
Blackwell £19.50

This book starts off with the brief period (1944-47) when practically all British Trotskyists were united in one small organisation, and then traces the subsequent developments to the present time.

As a history it has the grievous fault of carelessness. There are too many slips on matters of fact, especially dates. Typical examples:

Trotsky did not decide that a new revolution was necessary to establish workers power in the USSR in 1936 but in October 1933; the Trotskyist-led Young Socialists came out of the Labour Party in 1964, not 1965; the ANL was not founded (nor even thought of) in 1976 and so on.

Mistakes of this sort are irritating but, worse still, even textual quotations are not immune. The present reviewer is quoted as writing (in 1971) that the founders of our organisation “saw themselves as mainstream Trotskyists differing only on unimportant questions from the dominant group ...” What the text cited actually says is “differing on important questions from the dominant group ...”, which is a very different matter. We did not set up a separate organisation on account of differences we thought unimportant.

Nonetheless John Callaghan has made a serious attempt at an account of the ideas and organisations and, since there is no other remotely adequate account, this book may well come to be regarded as an authority. Therefore it is worthwhile subjecting it to critical examination.

The author writes to defend a definite standpoint. “The thesis advanced here”, he writes “will attempt to show that the classical Marxist tradition, of which Trotskyism is a principal organised lcgatce, was not only unable to theorist the liberal-democratic state, but advanced a theory of imperialism and the imperialist epoch that prejudiced Marxist discussion against taking this issue seriously.”

The Bolshevik experience reinforced these tendencies and added some new dimensions – notably the militarism of the Comintern and the alleged universalism of the Bolshevik scenario – which helped to create a powerful metaphysical pathos among Communists that incorporates an imagery and associations inimical to internal democracy and political pluralism. This, rather than just the organisational precepts of Leninism, is at the roots of all authoritarian tendencies among Trotskyists.

The history, then, is written to point out this moral and the author tells us, candidly enough, that the “chief guide to my choice of material on which to focus my attention is the question of democracy.” Of the four aspects of the “relationship of Trotskyism to democracy” which “will be examined throughout this study, the first is the ‘internal regimes’ of the far left organisations.”

What a grotesque disproportion between aim and method! The big fundamental question; the nature of the capitalist state, the class character of bourgeois democratic regimes etc, are not directly argued at all in the book. Yet if the Marxist theory of the state is wrong then the social-democratic labourite tradition is right on this absolutely central matter and the revolutionary tradition as a whole is wrong. These are questions of an altogether different order of importance than the minutiae of organisational structures in the Socialist Workers Party and the various grouplets about which Callaghan displays an obsessive (if not always well-informed) interest.

It is not that internal structures are unimportant. It is that they are, or ought to be, related to function. Do we need a revolution to establish workers’ power or can ‘the liberal-democratic state’ be transformed piecemeal into an instrument of the working class?

To judge purely by the internal evidence of the book, Callaghan formerly held the first position and is now sliding towards the second, without, however clearly stating it, perhaps without actually deciding. Yet the type of organisation needed for revolutionary politics is very different from that adapted to reformist ones.

Callaghan has a purely abstract concept of democracy. he does not really start from a class analysis. To take a glaringly obvious example; the Labour Party has always had an internal regime which by Callaghan’s own criteria, is pretty undemocratic (and on occasion brutally so) but its commitment to bourgeois democracy has never been in doubt. The two things are not at all incompatible, indeed they are functionally related.

Still, more strikingly, Callaghan speaks of “socialism in the USSR, of the sovietisation of Eastern Europe” and so on. It is not that he has illusions in the political character of these regimes, nor that he believes that socialism is possible without real and effective democratic control. It is simply that he does not think consistently about the class content of political forms.

Confusion reigns. He appears to hold, I say appears because like so much else in the book it is implied rather than stated clearly, some kind of ‘deformed workers’ state’ analysis of the stalinist states. At any rate they are “post-capitalist”, the state capitalist analysis being “a shibboleth with few organised adherents outside Britain”.

The Revolutionary Communist Party broke up because Trotsky’s view of the world, which it inherited proved seriously misleading in various ways and because in the end its leadership proved politically incapable of resolving the resulting problems. By 1949 it was finished. Of the organisations that can trace their descent back to it, two, the SWP and Militant, are of significance today. Each gets a lengthy chapter and is duly condemned.

Callaghan is much more sympathetic to what used to be called the International Marxist Group – its regime of permanent factions appeals to him strongly – but even the ex-IMG insufficiently purged itself of the Comintern heritage in his view.

It is not surprising that he praised the “feminist, environmentalist and peace movements” for the range and depth of their critique of capitalism.

Inevitably the author’s politics mar the history. There is a good deal of information in the book. Callaghan has accident ally done serious research and his rather numerous errors appear to be due to carelessness and the lack of understanding of the real problems of revolutionary organisations, rather than to wilful distortion. Anyone curious about Trotskyism in post-war Britain will find the book interesting. But don’t rely on Callaghan’s interpretations and treat his facts with caution.



Appendix (Correction):

A serious study

(October 1984)

An error has crept into my review of John Callaghan’s British Trotskyism (SWR September issue). It needs to be put right: not only because it is grossly unfair to Callaghan but also because it can mislead interested comrades.

The review, as printed, reads “Callaghan has accidentally done serious research and his rather numerous errors ... etc.” I didn’t write that and certainly didn’t mean it.

Callaghan’s research is thorough and, I am certain, not at all accidental. For example, his description of the absurd and increasingly dishonest economic perspectives for the post war period advanced by Ernest Mandel (on behalf of the Fourth International) and Tony Cliff’s devastating reply (on behalf of the British RCP) are clearly outlined in Callaghan’s book.

The contrast between Callaghan’s treatment of the matter and, say Tariq Ali’s hilariously fictionalised account in The Coming British Revolution indicates that Callaghan has seriously studied the available material and sources very carefully, and the same is true of his handling of other disputes.

I don’t withdraw one word of my criticism of Callaghan’s rightward moving centrist political judgements, or of his numerous factual errors, or of his consequential failure to understand the real problems of revolutionary politics today.

But Callaghan’s book (unlike Ali’s) has to be treated as the serious, well researched, work of a political opponent.

Duncan Hallas


Last updated on 9.11.2003