Leon Trotsky

Once Again: The ILP

An Interview


Source: New International, Vol.3 No.1, February 1936, pp.5-10.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive (August 2006)
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive www.marx.org) 2006. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

QUESTION [1] – What do you mean specifically when you say, at the conclusion of your article, that the ILP must still “work out a Marxian program”?

ANSWER – My whole article was a documentation of the instances in which ILP policy still fails to be Marxist, to be revolutionary: its failure to break sharply with pacifism and with Stalinism, and to turn its face fully to the British masses and to reach a clear position on international organization. These defects are one and the same. Take, for example, pacifism. Despite the revolutionary phraseology of What the ILP Stands For, it is still possible in the ILP that Maxton, McGovern and Campbell Stephen can issue an authoritative statement urging the workers not to bear arms when war comes. This is a bankrupt policy; this is only defeatism against the workers, not revolutionary defeatism against capitalism. Moreover, war is an international product of capitalism and can be fought only internationally. Which are the workers’ organizations in other countries that the revolutionists in the ILP must unite with? Not the CI as your pacifist leaders had fondly imagined, for the CI is committed to social-patriotism. Not with the International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Unity (IAG, i.e., London Bureau) for of the ten groups forming this Bureau some have expired, others are pacifist or even social-patriotic, and only the Dutch party (RSAP) is in agreement with the ILP on the fight against sanctions and for independent workers’ action only. This party has long since declared for the Fourth International and this week (about November 21, 1936) declared also for a break with the Bureau. It is, then, the Dutch party and the other parties openly fighting for the Fourth International with whom the ILP must of necessity solidarize itself if it is to join in the international revolutionary fight against war.

In the New Leader I read that both the Lancashire and London and Scottish divisions of the ILP have already declared themselves to be in opposition to the pacifist statements of the Inner Executive, and the similar utterances of McGovern in the House of Commons. But this is not enough. Their fight can succeed only if it is positive – not simply “against pacifism”, but for revolutionary defeatism. This can only mean that the main fight will be for the Fourth International.

QUESTION – Was the ILP correct in running as many candidates as possible in the recent General Elections, even at the risk of splitting the vote?

ANSWER – Yes. It would have been foolish for the ILP to have sacrificed its political program in the interests of so-called unity, to allow the Labour Party to monopolize the platform, as the Communist party did. We do not know our strength unless we test it. There is always a risk of splitting, and of losing deposits but such risks must be taken. Otherwise we boycott ourselves.

QUESTION – Was the ILP correct in refusing critical support to Labour Party candidates who advocated military sanctions?

ANSWER – No. Economic sanctions, if real, lead to military sanctions, to war. The ILP itself has been saying this. It should have given critical support to all Labour pary candidates i.e., where the ILP itself was not contesting. In the New Leader I read that your London Division agreed to support only anti-sanctionist Labour Party candidates. This too is incorrect. The Labour Party should have been critically supported not because it was for or against sanctions but because it represented the working class masses.

The basic error which was made by some ILPers who withdrew critical support was to assume that the war danger necessitated a change in our appreciation of reformism. But as Clausewitz said, and Lenin often repeated, war is the continuation of politics by other means. If this is true, it applies not only to capitalist parties but to social democratic parties. The war crisis does not alter the fact that the Labour Party is a workers’ party, which the governmental party is not. Nor does it alter the fact that the Labour Party leadership cannot fulfill their promises, that they will betray the confidence which the masses place in them. In peace-time the workers will, if they trust in social democracy, die of hunger; in war, for the same reason, they will die from bullets. Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the workers. It is possible, of course, that a Labour government could introduce a few mild temporary reforms. It is also possible that the League could postpone a military conflict about secondary issues – just as a cartel can eliminate secondary economic crises only to reproduce them on a larger scale. So the League can eliminate small episodic conflicts only to generalize them into world war.

Thus, both economic and military crises will only return with an added explosive force so long as capitalism remains. And we know that social democracy cannot abolish capitalism.

No, in war as in peace, the ILP must say to the workers:

“The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well, we will go through your experiences with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party program.”

Morrison, Clynes, etc., represent certain prejudices of the workers. When the ILP seeks to boycott Clynes it helps not only Baldwin but Clynes himself. If successful in its tactic, the ILP prevents the election of Clynes, of the Labour government, and so prevents their exposure before the masses. The workers will say: “If only we had Clynes and Morrison in power, things would have been better.”

It is true, of course, that the mental content of Clynes and Baldwin is much the same except, perhaps, that Baldwin is a little more “progressive” and more courageous. But the class con’ent of the support for Clynes is very different.

It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who voted Labour. It is a great danger for revolutionists to attach too much importance to conference decisions. We use such evidence in our propaganda – but it cannot be presented beyond the power of our own press. One cannot shout louder than the strength of his own throat.

Let us suppose that the ILP had been successful in a boycott tactic, had won a million workers to follow it, and that it was the absence of this million votes which lost the election for the Labour Party. What would happen when the war came? The masses would in their disillusionment turn to the Labour Party, not to us. If Soviets were formed during the war the soldiers would elect Labour Party people to them, not us. Workers would still say that we handicapped Labour. But if we gave critical support and by that means helped the Labour Party to power, at the same time telling the workers that the Labour Party would function as a capitalist government, and would direct a capitalist war – then, when war came, workers would see that we predicted rightly, at the same time that we marched with them. We would be elected to the Soviets and the Soviets would not betray.

As a general principle, a revolutionary party has the right to boycott parliament only when it has the capacity to overthrow it, that is, when it can replace parliamentary action by general strike and insurrection, by direct struggle for power. In Britain the masses have yet no confidence in the ILP. The ILP is therefore too weak to break the parliamentary machine and must continue to use it. As for a partial boycott, such as the ILP sought to operate, it was unreal. At this stage of British politics it would be interpreted by the working class as a certain contempt for them; this is particularly true in Britain where parliamentary traditions are still so strong.

Moreover, the London Division’s policy of giving critical support only to anti-sanctionists would imply a fundamental distinction between the social-patriots like Morrison and Ponsonby or – with your permission – even Cripps. Actually, their differences are merely propngandistic. Cripps is actually only a second-class supporter of the bourgeoisie. He has said, in effect: “Pay no attention to my ideas; our differences are only small.” This is the attitude of a dillettante, not a revolutionist. A thousand times better an open enemy like Morrison. Lansbury himself is a sincere but extravagant and irresponsible old man; he should be in a museum not Parliament. The other pacifists are more duplicit – more shifty; like Norman Angell, who demands more sanctions now, they will easily turn into social-patriots as war develops. Then they could say to the workers: “You know us. We were anti-sanctionists. Even the ILP supported our struggle. Therefore you can have confidence in us now when we say that this war is a just war.” No, the ILP should have applied the same policy of critical support to the whole of the Labour Party, only varying our arguments to meet the slightly varied propaganda of pacifist and social-patriot. Otherwise illusions are provoked that pacifism has more power to resist than has social-patriotism.

This is not true; their differences are not fundamental. Even among the Tories there are differences on sanctions and war policies. The distinction between Amery and Lansbury is simply that Amery is more of a realist. Both are anti-sanctionists; but for the working class, Lanbury with his illusions and sincerity is more dangerous.

Most dangerous of all, however, is the Stalinist policy. The parties of the Communist International try to appeal especially to the more revolutionary workers by denouncing the League (a denunciation that is an apology) by asking for “workers’ sanctions” and then nevertheless saying: “We must use the League when it is for sanctions.” They seek to hitch the revolutionary workers to the shafts so that they can draw the cart of the League. Just as the General Council in 1926 accepted the general strike but behind the curtains concluded a deal with the clergy and pacifist radicals and in this way used bourgeois opinion and influence to “discipline” the workers and sabotage their strike, so the Stalinists seek to discipline the workers by confining the boycott within the limits of the League of Nations.

The truth is that if the workers begin their own sanctions against Italy, their action inevitably strikes at their own capitalists, and the League would be compelled to drop all sanctions. It proposes them now just because the workers’ voices are muted in every country. Workers’ action can begin only by absolute opposition to the national bourgeoisie and its international combinations. Support of the League and support of workers’ actions are fire and water; they cannot be united.

Because of this, the ILP should have more sharply differentiated itself from the CP at the elections than it did. It should have critically supported the Labour Party against Pollitt and Gallacher. It should have been declared openly that the CP has all the deficiencies of the Labour Party without any of its advantages. It should have, above all, shown in practise what true critical support means. By accompanying support with the sharpest and widest criticism, by patiently explaining that such support is only for the purpose of exposing the treachery of the Labour Party leadership, the ILP would have completely exposed, also, the spurious “critical” support of the Stalinists themselves, a support which was actually whole-hearted and wwcrictical, and based on an agreement in principle with the Labour Party leadership.

QUESTION – Should the ILP seek entry into the Labour Party?

ANEWER – At the moment the question is not posed this way. What the ILP must do, if it is to become a revolutionary party, is to turn its back on the CP and face the mass organizations. It must put 99 per cent of its energies into building of fractions in the trade union movement. At the moment T understand that much of the fractional work can be done openly by ILPers in their capacity of trade union and coopera’ive members. But the ILP should never rest content; it must build its influence in the mass organizations with the utmost speed and energy. For the time may come when, in order to reach the masses, it must enter the Labour Party, and it must have tracks laid for the occasion. Only the experience that comes from such fractional work can inform the ILP if and when it must enter the Labour Party. But for all its activity an absolutely clear program is the first condition. A small axe can fell a large tree only it is sharp enough

QUESTION – Will the Labour Party split?

ANSWER – The ILP should not assume that it will automatically grow at the expense of the Labour Party, that the Labour Party Left wingers will be split off by the bureaucracy and come to the ILP These are possibilities. But it is equally possible that the Left wing, which will develop as the crisis deepens, and particularly now within the trade unions after the failure of the Labour Party to win the elections, will be successful in its fight to stay within the Labour Party. Even the departure of the Socialist League to join the ILP would not end these possibilities, for the Socialist League is very petty bourgeois in character and is not likely to organize the militancy within the Labour Party. In any case, the history of the British general strike of 1926 teaches us that a strong militant movement can develop in a strongly bureaucratized trade union organization, creating a very important minority movement without being forced out of the trade unions.

Instead, what happens is that the labor fakers swing Left in order to retain control. If the ILP is not there at the critical moment with a revolutionary leadership the workers will need to find their leadership elsewhere. They might still turn to Citrine, for Citrine might even be willing to shout for Soviets, for the moment, rather than lose his hold. As Scheidemann and Ebert shouted for Soviets, and betrayed them, so will Citrine. Leon Blum, rather by the revolutionary pressure of the French masses, runs headlines in his Populaire – “Sanctions – but the workers must control”, etc. It is this treacherous “heading in order to behead” which the ILP must prevent in Britain.

QUESTION – Is Stalinism the chief danger?

ANSWER – Of all the radical phrasemongers, the ones who offer the greatest danger in this respect are the Stalinists. The members of the CPGB are now on their bellies before the Labour Party – but this makes it all the easier for them to crawl inside. They will make every concession demanded of them, but once within – they will still be able to pose as the Left wing because the workers still retain some illusions about the revolutionary nature of the Comintern – illusions which the ILP in the past has helped to retain. They will utilize this illusion to corrupt the militants with their own social-patriotic policy. They will sow seed from which only weeds can sprout. Only a clear and courageous policy on the part of the ILP can prevent this disaster.

QUESTION – Would you recommend the same perspective for the ILP Guild of Youth as the adult party?

ANSWER – Even more. Since the ILP youth seem to be few and scattered, while the Labour Youth is the mass youth organization. I would say: “Do not only build fractions – seek to enter”. For here the danger of Stalinist devastation is extreme. The youth are all-important. Unlike the older generation they have little actual experience of war; it will be easier for the Stalinists and the other pseudo-revolutionary patriots to confuse the youth on the war issues than to confuse those who survived the last war. On the other hand, the willingness of the Stalinists to drive these same youth into another actual war will make the young workers properly suspicious. They will listen more easily to us – if we are there to speak to them. No time must be lost. Out of the new generation comes the new International, the only hope for the world revolution. The British section will recruit its first cadres from the 30,000 young workers in the Labour League of Youth. Their more advanced comrades in the ILP youth must not allow themselves to be isolated from them, especially now at the very moment when war is a real danger.

QUESTION – Should the ILP terminate its united front with the CP?

ANSWER – Absolutely and categorically – yes! The ILP must learn to turn its back on the CP and towards the working masses. The permanent “unity committees” in which the ILP has sat with the CP were nonsense in any case. The ILP and the CPGB were propaganda organizations not mass organizations; united fronts between them were meaningless if each of them had the right to advance its own program. These programs must have been different or there would have been no justification for separate parties, and with different programs there is nothing to unite around. United fronts for certain specific actions could have been of some use, of course, but the only important united front for the ILP is with the Labour Party, the trade unions, the cooperatives. At the moment, the ILP is too weak to secure these; it must first conquer the right for a united front by winning the support of the masses. At this stage, united fronts with the CP will only compromise the ILP. Rupture with the CP is the first step towards a mass basis for the ILP and the achievement of a mass basis is the first step towards a proper united front, that is, a united front with the mass organizations.

QUESTION – Should the ILP forbid groups?

ANSWER – It can scarcely do that without forbidding its leadership, which is also a group, a Centrist group, protected by the party machinery, or without denying the very fractional principle by which it must build its influence in the mass organizations.

Factions existed in the Bolshevik party as temporary groupings of opinion during its whole life – except for a brief period in 1921 when they were forbidden by unanimous vote of the leadership as an extreme measure during an acute crisis.

QUESTION – How far can factions develop with safety to the party?

ANSWER – That depends on the social composition of the party, upon the political situation and upon the quality of the leadership. Generally it is best to let petty bourgeois tendencies express themselves fully so that they may expose themselves. If there are no such tendencies, if the membership is fairly homogeneous, there will be only temporary groupings – unless the leadership is incorrect. And this will be shown best in practise. So, when a difference occurs, a discussion should take place, a vote be taken, and a majority line adopted. There must be no discrimination against the minority; any personal animosity will compromise not them but the leadership. Real leadership will be loyal and friendly to the disciplined minority.

It is true, of course, that discussion always provokes feelings which remain for some time. Political life is full of difficulties – personalities clash – they widen their dissensions – they get in each other’s hair. These differences must be overcome by common experience, by education of the rank and file, by the leadership proving it is right. Organizational measures should be resorted to only in extreme cases. Discipline is built by education, not only by statutes. It was the elastic life within it which allowed the Bolshevik party to build its discipline. Even after the conquest of power, Bukharin and other members of the party voted against the government in the Central Executive on important questions, such as the German peace, and in so doing lined themselves with those Social-Revolutionists who soon attempted armed insurrection against the Soviet state. But Bukharin was not expelled. Lenin said, in effect: “We will tolerate a certain lack of discipline. We will demonstrate to them that we are right. Tomorrow they will learn that our policy is correct, and they wil not break discipline so quickly.” By this I do not advise the dissenting comrades to imitate the arrogance of Bukharin. Rather do I recommend that the leadership learns from the patience and tact of Lenin. Though when it was necessary, he could wield the razor as well as the brush.

The authority of the national leadership is the necessary condition of revolutionary discipline. It can be immensely increased when it represents an international agreement of principles, of common action. Therein lies one of the sources of strength of the new International.

QUESTION – What do you think of the ILP colonial policy?

ANSWER – So far, it seems to be mainly on paper. Fenner Brockway has written some very good articles on the Mohmand struggles, and upon Ethiopia. But there should be many more – and beyond words, there should be action. The ILP should long ago have created some kind of colonial bureau to coordinate those organizations of colonial workers who are striving to overthrow British imperialism. Of course, only the real revolutionists in the ILP will bother to work for such policies. It is the test of their revolutionary understanding.

QUESTION – What should be the basic concept of illegal work?

ANSWER – Illegal work is work in the mass organizations – for the ILP it is systematic entry and work in the trade unions, cooperatives, etc. In peace-time and in war, it is the same. You will perhaps say: “They will not let us in. They will expel us.” You do not shout: “I am a revolutionist,” when working in a trade union with reactionary leadership. You educate your cadres who carry on the fight under your direction. You keep educating new forces to replace those expelled, and so you build up a mass opposition. Illegal work must keep you in the working masses. You do not retire into a cellar as some comrades imagine. The trade unions are the schools for illegal work. The trade union leadership is the unofficial police of the state. The protective covering for the revolutionist is the trade union. Transition into war conditions is almost imperceptible.

QUESTION – What specifically do you think the ILP should do in order to build a new International?

ANSWER – The ILP, if it intends to become a genuine revolutionary party, must face honestly the question of the new International.

The Second International is bankrupt, the ILP has already said. It now recognizes the betrayal of the Third International. It should also realize that the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity is a myth. It. should draw the only possible conclusion and add its name to the Open Letter for the Fourth International.

QUESTION – You mention that the IBRSU offers no basis for the struggle against war. What is the policy of this Bureau? What is its future?

ANSWER – The Bureau has no common policy; its parties are going in all directions. The SAP of Germany now marches steadily Rightwards toward social democracy and Stalinism. Today I have news that the congress of the RSAP, one of the largest parties in the Bureau, has voted by an overwhelming majority to sever its old close cooperation with the SAP and also to break off completely with the Bureau and to associate with the parties which work to build the Fourth International. It even passed a vote of censure on the Central Committee for having maintained a connection with the SAP as long as it did.

The Spanish POB is, in a certain sense, similar to the ILP Its leadership is not internationalist in perspective but its membership includes an important section who are for the Fourth International. The USP of Rumania is also developing towards a revolutionary-internationalist position. Recently it expelled the tiny Stalinist faction within it, and it is already being accused of “Trotskyism”. I hope that in the near future they will recognize the necessity of joining in the great work of building the Fourth International.

As for the other members of the Bureau, they are either nonentities or they have no real relation to the Bureau. The Italian SP (Maximalist) is not a party, only a microscopic group living for the most part in exile. The Austrian Red Front only two years ago had 1,000 members in illegality. Today it is non-existent, dissolved. Why? Because it had no program – no banner!

The Polish ILP is only a topic for humor, a caricature organisation of no political importance, while the Bulgarian LSG is never heard of. Like the Norwegian Mot Dag – another “member” of the Bureau – it is only a small Left wing group of intellectuals which is in process of decomposition. Here in Norway, the one workers’ party is the NAP. It belonged to the Bureau for two years, but does so no more and is in no way desirous of building a new International. Just now I have received word that the NAP decided (on the very same day that the Dutch party withdrew from Bureau) to sever even formal connections – for opposite political reasons. Only two parties of consequence remain to be considered – the ILP and the Swedish SP. Already the latter grows cold to the Bureau as the SP turns to the Right like the NAP. It is altogether likely that it will follow.

The Bureau suffers the fate of all Centrist organizations in times of acute class struggle; it is destroyed by the release of the centrifugal forces within itself. We predicted that the IAG would lose both to the Right and to the Left. It is happening before our eyes, and even more quickly than we had expected. History could not arrange a better demonstration of the correctness of our analysis of Centrism. If the ILP does not soon make up its mind it will find itself sitting in lonely possession of the Bureau.

QUESTION – Was not Doriot also a member of the “Seven Lefts”?

ANSWER – Certainly. He may never, for his own reasons, have adhered formally, but he was chosen with Schwab and Gorkin to form the Bureau’s World Committee for Peace Work. The committee, of course, never functioned. Later, when Doriot came to terms with Laval he slipped out of the committee as quickly as possible. Before, the IAG had met in St. Denis, under his protection. Later, when they called him on the ‘phone it was always busy – connected with the government. Doriot is quite openly a traitor. It is interesting that at the last IAG conference Doriot was the loudest in condemning the Trotskyists for their slogan of the new International, and the SAP quoted him with enthusiastic approval.

QUESTION – May not the Bureau recoup its losses from other forces?

ANSWER – The course of events is not that way. Zyromski, in France, has been the great hope of the IAG. He was, together with Pivert, a year in the Bataille Socialiste. Since that time, the Bataille Socialiste has ceased to exist. The reason? Like the Austrian Red Front, it had no clear program, no banner. Pivert has moved further Left and Zyromski has had to solidarize himself with the Right, with Blum himself. Zyromski now plays the perfidious role of Stalinist social-patriot within the SFIO.

Pivert has now built up another Left group, but this too will not last six months. It is composed of one element afraid of the patriots and another afraid of the Bolshevik-Leninists. The group calls itself “Revolutionary Left”. It is a little Left, but it is not yet revolutionary.

QUESTION – What do you think of the Lovestoneite argument, which we hear in the ILP, that the CPSU must still be a good party because it exists in a workers’ state.

ANSWER – That is not a Marxian argument, that is metaphysics. If a workers’ state automatically produced a good government there would be no need for a communist party within it. The fact is that the CP as the government of the workers’ state is not a “thing-in-itself” but is subjected to the play of different historical forces. It can deviate, degenerate, become a danger to the existence of the workers’ state. That is precisely what has happened in Russia.


1. We reproduce here a series of questions put by a member of the Independent Labour Party of England to Leon Trotsky, and then distributed for the information of ILP members. In his commentary, the author writes:

“Being recently in Norway, I availed myself of the opportunity which comrade C.A. Smith once utilized, of securing an interview with Leon Trotsky. The following is an attempt to epitomize some of his conversations as it might bear upon the politics and perspectives of the ILP. My questions were based upon the recent article of Trotsky’s (published in The New International and in Controversy [the internal discussion bulletin of the ILP]) and upon recent policies and events as reflected in the New Leader and the world press.” – E. ROBERTSON

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007