Duncan Hallas

The sad fate of British Trotskyism

(October 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 91, October 1986.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

War and the International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937–1949
Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson
Socialist Platform, £5.95

A PREVIOUS work by these authors, Against the Stream (reviewed in our March 1986 issue), took the story of Trotskyism in Britain up to late 1937. It was in a parlous state at that point. Split into three rival groups whose combined total membership (under 200) was stagnant, if not actually declining, and riven by conflicts both political (about perspectives and tactics) and personal, it was increasingly isolated by the growing influence of Stalinism on the left.

In these unpromising circumstances the international leadership of the Trotskyists exerted itself to unify the groups. In the event unification was achieved in two stages (April and August 1938), a small breakaway from the remnant of the old SLP also joining the fusion. The claimed membership of this RSL (the name adopted) was 170.

A mini-group, the Workers International League, refused to join in on the basis that there was no real basis of agreement on the perspective and orientation of the united organisation.

It may be doubted that this was the real stumbling block. The American Trotskyist leader Cannon once said, ‘Everyone has at least two reasons for his position, a good reason and the real reason.’ In this case, at least, the aphorism fits. The WIL arose out of a split in the Militant group (the biggest of the three that ultimately fused) towards the end of 1937 around an apparently trivial issue (the alleged misdemeanours of some recruits from South Africa during a laundry workers’ strike). Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Gerry Healy and a few others walked out.

Obviously, the laundry workers strike issue was the occasion rather than the cause of the split. The real difference was that Haston and the rest were groping towards an aggressive, interventionist political stance as opposed to the increasingly passive (and formalistic) approach of the others. Hence their refusal to join in the fusion of August 1938.

It proved to be entirely justified. To this little group (perhaps 20 members in early 1938) were recruited almost all of the Trotskyists of the next generation – the war generation. The war from September 1939 put the groups to a severe test. Both remained internationalist but their fates were very different. The WIL proved viable and grew (to more than ten fold by 1943). The RSL, the official ‘British section of the Fourth International’, failed miserably.

The difference lay in the WIL’s eagerness to intervene in any actual working class struggle, as opposed to the RSL’s near-exclusive concern with institutions (in practice largely Labour Party wards and constituency meetings).

These quickly atrophied from 1940 on. Bornstein and Richardson, who believe in ‘entry’ in nearly all circumstances, nevertheless concede:

‘The RSL’s failure to relate to the day-to-day experiences of the working class stemmed from its retreat into the Labour Party ... Labour Party inner life was at a minimum due to the electoral truce. Wards hardly met ... As the Labour Party is essentially an electoral machine, the fact that elections were not being fought had a paralysing effect. Theorising totally divorced from action led to abstentionism, reflecting itself in inactivity at crisis points, concessions to pacifism, a retreat into clandestinity, and a regime of permanent factional conflict, resulting first in splits, and then in complete disintegration’

The WIL, on the other hand, responded to the changed circumstances of war, although without formally abandoning entrism at first.

The WIL’s real break came from June 1941 onwards. The Labour Party had supported the war from the outset and entered the government in the summer of 1940, but the Communist Party had an anti-war position until 22 June 1941 when Hitler’s forces invaded the USSR. It then somersaulted into the most extravagant chauvinism. This opened up real possibilities for the WIL.

Although the CP’s anti-war line was far from revolutionary, so long as it was maintained the CP supported strikes and promoted shop floor organisation (which was extremely weak before the war). Its paper, the Daily Worker had been suppressed by the government and as a fairly big organisation, it was the natural focus for discontent – and there was plenty of that. But from June 1941 the party not only opposed all strikes, but took the lead in urging sacrifices of working conditions in the name of higher output at all costs. Thus the still tiny WIL (with around 80 members by then) had an open field on the left in terms of industrial intervention. Of course it was not easy. It was very tough going. But, for the first time, there were real openings.

The WIL’s paper (the Socialist Appeal from June 1941) reported and supported workers in struggles and was used to reach militants. By no means only a strike-sheet – it put revolutionary ideas in clear and popular language – it did focus on the disputes and made some impact, although it was only a four page monthly and then (from 1943) fortnightly. The WIL grew to something over 250 by late ’43. This period of real achievement is very well covered in the third chapter of this book which conveys something of the atmosphere and excitement of the time. The quality of some of this layer of recruits was impressive, militants of some standing and experience (of course there were ‘raw youth’ too – I was one of them). In March 1944 the remnants of the RSL fused (reluctantly in many cases) with the WIL and the fused organisation proclaimed itself the Revolutionary Communist Party – in contrast to ‘His Majesty’s Communist Party’ as the Appeal called the Stalinist organisation.

A very grand title for a group of 300 or so (the CP had about 50,000 at the time). It points to a grave problem. The WIL/RCP had an absurdly over-optimistic and apocalyptic perspective. The 1942 perspective document (later published as a pamphlet) was called Preparing for Power! (It may be as well to point out that the present sect using the title has no connection with the real RCP.)

Now, the ‘revolution at the end of the war’ prognosis was in no way peculiar to the RCP. It was the line of the Fourth International and derived directly, from Trotsky’s writings of 1938–9.

But, of course, it was disastrously disorientating when, in 1945, the wartime radicalisation (which was real and substantial) was found to have produced a massive revival of social democracy and Stalinism in Europe (and Stalinism in Asia) and the revolutionaries found themselves marginalised.

The WIL/RCP’s success and apparent influence were due to a peculiar combination of circumstances which faded fast after 1945. The RCP leadership (or rather its majority – there was a minority led by Gerry Healy which supported the ‘catastrophic’ perspective of Mandel and the SWP (US) for years longer) tried hard to reorient themselves to come to grips with the new situation – including the totally unexpected development of new Stalinist states. Ultimately they failed.

The RCP shrank and, in 1947, gave up the ghost. Our own tendency was formed during these debates and emerged as the Socialist Review group in 1950–51. It was necessary, in the process, to reject much of the RCP’s theoretical baggage. One thing the Socialist Review group did inherit was the model (even if only as an aspiration at times) of an active, flexible, interventionist (where possible) organisation whose fixed point of reference was working class struggle. And that was vital.

Last updated on 7.3.2012