Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 2

Problems of the British Revolution

On the Tempo and Timescale
of the Revolution

(February 1926)

EVENTS over the year which has passed since my book Where is Britain Going? was written have in no way developed according to the scheme of either Baldwin or MacDonald. The starry-eyed idealism of the Conservative minister has faded away very rapidly. The communists who had been expelled from the Labour Party by MacDonald have been put in jail by King George’s judges, thus putting the party on an illegal basis. These same judges pat young fascist thugs encouragingly on the back and recommend the violators of the law to join the police who are charged with safeguarding the law. The judges thereby bear witness to the fact that the difference between violation of the law by fascists and safeguarding the law by the police merely relates to the form and in no way to the essence. The fascists are good citizens but too impatient: their methods are premature. The class struggle has not yet reached civil war. MacDonald and Lansbury are still performing their functions restraining the proletariat with the fictions of democracy and the myths of religion. Fascism remains in reserve. But the capitalist politicians understand that matters do not end with the methods of democracy and in private Mr Joynson-Hicks [1] is trying on Mussolini’s [2] mask.

The tough repressiveness of the Baldwin government complements, out of necessity, its wretched confusion on economic problems. Faced with the new economic facts, the protectionism of the Conservative Party is just as feeble as the free trade of the Liberals was. It was clear from the very start that the vain attempts at protectionism would run into the conflicts of interests of the basic branches of the British economy. But a year ago we still did not think that a protectionist programme would degenerate into such a farce. In the period since then, duties have been imposed on lace, gloves, musical instruments, gas mantles, penknives and toilet paper. No more than 10,000 workers are employed in these branches of industry. Yet there are 1,231,900 miners. And the registered unemployed number 1,215,900. Isn”t Mr Baldwin abusing “gradualness” just too much?

The Liberal Party whose downfall continues to remain one of the sharpest political expressions of the decline of Britain has for the most part abandoned any hopes of independent power and while the right wing dreams of a role as a left brake on the Conservatives its left wing would like to support MacDonald from the right who, in turn, will have increasing need of such support as time goes on. When old Asquith [3] commented ironically upon the speech of Snowden [4] and Churchill, of whom the former urged the Liberals to enter the Labour Party and the latter to enter the Conservative Party, then Mr Asquith was right in his way: between dying in the capacity of yes-men of old political adversaries and dying on the principles of independence the difference is not so great.

The role of the MacDonald clique over this period can be adequately characterized by a simple juxtaposition of facts. In 1924 the MacDonald government convicted communists under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797 (of the era of the French revolution!). At the end of 1925 MacDonald carried out the expulsion of communists from the Labour Party. The ultra-reactionary Home Secretary in the Conservative government, the already mentioned Benito Hicks, has convicted communists under the same Act of 1797 and has placed the leaders of the party in jail. The working masses protest. The MacDonald clique too is compelled to issue inarticulate sounds of protest. Against what? It is quite evident that it is against the rival Hicks taking the bread out of its mouth.

Neither the economics nor the politics of Britain over the last year provide any reason whatsoever to make alterations to the conclusions drawn in our book. There is no cause to react to the gnashing of teeth in the bourgeois press, of Britain and especially of America. “Behind the mask of a new book”, howls one of the New York papers, “the author teaches Americans and Englishmen how to conduct an uprising”. The paper then demands tough measures against the book on account of the geographical distance of the author. All this is in the order of things. There is no occasion to reply. Events will reply. The only thing that I have learnt from the criticisms in the British bourgeois press is that Mr Winston Churchill is not yet a lord as I had mistakenly or at least prematurely supposed.

The official Menshevik Press says essentially the same thing; only the appeal to the bourgeois police against the “sermon of violence” has a somewhat more masked form. But here, neither, is there any place for polemics. For us at the present stage of development the British opposition on the left is far more interesting. From its literary representatives we will however hear little. “If the crazy Moscow tendencies are able to find roots here then it will be simply thanks to the greed of our bourgeoisie and the compliance of the leaders of the Labour Party” and so on and so forth. This is the gist of the articles of Lansbury, Brailsford and others. The complete centrist stamp of thoughts and arguments could be predicted in advance. To hope for a positive attempt at an analysis of facts and reasoning on the part of these gentlemen is about equivalent to expecting milk from a billy-goat.

Fortunately we do have in our hands a document which is distinguished by a considerably greater spontaneity and as it were, naturalness. A Russian comrade who maintains a correspondence with figures in the British labour movement has sent me two letters from a “left” member of the Independent Labour Party directed against my book Where is Britain Going?. These letters seemed to me more interesting than the articles by British and other “leaders” some of whom have lost the ability to think and others of whom had never acquired it. I do not at all mean to say by this that the writer of the letters argues correctly. On the contrary it would be hard to conceive of a greater chaos than that which reigns in his thoughts, which by the way he himself regards to be his principal advantage over the finished compromisers of the MacDonald variety and over the “dogmatists of revolution”, that is ourselves. Through our Russian and international experience we are pretty well familiar with confusionists of this type. If we nevertheless consider the critical letters of the “left”, which had not been intended for publication more instructive than the glossy articles of the specialists of centrism then it is just because, in the honest-to-goodness eclectic mish-mash of the letters, the political shifts in the masses are more directly reflected. It goes without saying that we are using the letters with the kind permission of both the English and the Russian correspondents.

The ideological groupings in the British labour movement and particularly in its leading layer can be divided along three basic lines. The leading position in the Labour Party is occupied by the rights as the Liverpool Conference once again showed. The official ideology of these gentlemen who will stop at nothing in the defence of the foundations of bourgeois society consists of the left-overs of bourgeois theories of the 19th century and primarily of its first half. At the other pole stands the small minority of communists. The British working class will achieve victory only under the leadership of the Bolshevik party. Today it is still walking in toddler’s shoes. But it is growing and can grow up rapidly.

Between these two extreme groupings there stretches, as between two shores, an innumerable quantity of shades and tendencies which, though having no future in themselves, do prepare it. The “theoreticians” and “politicians” of this broad middle tendency are recruited from eclectics, sentimentalists, hysterical philanthropists and, generally, muddlers of every type. For some, eclecticism is a complete life’s vocation while for others, a stage of development. The opposition movement headed by the lefts, semi-lefts and the extreme lefts reflects a profound social shift in the masses. The woolliness of the British “lefts” together with their theoretical formlessness, and their political indecision not to say cowardice makes the clique of MacDonald, Webb and Snowden master of the situation which in turn is impossible without Thomas. If the bosses of the British Labour Party form a bridle placed upon the working class then Thomas [5] is the buckle into which the bourgeoisie inserts the reins.

The present stage in the development of the British proletariat where its overwhelming majority responds sympathetically to the speeches of the “lefts” and supports MacDonald and Thomas in power is not of course accidental. And it is impossible to leap over this stage. The path of the Communist Party, as the future great party of the masses, lies not only through an irreconcilable struggle against capital’s special agency in the shape of the Thomas-MacDonald clique but also through the systematic unmasking of the left muddleheads by means of whom alone MacDonald and Thomas can maintain their positions. This is our justification for paying attention to the “left” critic.

It goes without saying that our critic accuses our pamphlet of rectilinearity, a mechanical posing of the question, a simplification of reality and so on and so forth. “Running through his [i.e. my] book is the conviction that the decline of Britain will proceed for another four to five years [?!] before it will bring on serious internal complications.” While in the opinion of the critic the next 12 months will form the peak of the crisis after which “subsequent development over the coming decade [?!] will take place without major difficulties”. In this way, our critic first ascribes to me a firm prediction with regard to the sharpening of the crisis over four to five years and then counterposes to this an even more firm prediction which divides the coming period of British history into two periods: 12 months of sharpening crisis and ten years of peaceful prosperity.

In the letter there are not unfortunately any economic arguments. In order to give the prophecy concerning a year of crisis and a secure decade any economic weight it has to be allowed that the writer is linking his prognosis with the present acute financial difficulties which flow from the return to the gold standard and the regulation of the debt question. The economic crisis is apparently reduced by the writer to a deflationary crisis and for this reason he assigns to it such a brief period. It is quite probable that after the most grave financial and credit difficulties have been overcome a certain relaxation of the money market will in fact ensue and consequently likewise in commercial and industrial activity. But a general prognosis cannot be based upon fluctuations of this sort which have essentially a secondary nature. And in any case the prediction of a prosperous decade is derived from absolutely nothing. Britain’s fundamental difficulties are rooted in, on the one hand, the re-grouping and relative movement of world economic and political forces, and on the other in the inner conservatism of British industry.

The immeasurable industrial and financial preponderance of the United States of America over Britain is a fact whose importance in the future can only grow. There are not nor cannot be any circumstances which can mitigate the mortal consequences which arise for Britain from the unparalleled superiority of America.

The development of modern technology and in particular the growing importance of electrification is aimed directly against the coal industry and obliquely against all of the generally extremely conservative British industry which is based largely upon coal.

The growth of the industrial and political self-sufficiency of Canada, Australia and South America which revealed its full proportions after the war is inflicting continually fresh blows upon the metropolis. The dominions are, for Britain, turning from sources of enrichment into sources of economic deficit.

The national movement in India, Egypt and in all the East is directed first and foremost against British imperialism. There are hardly any grounds to expect that this movement will begin to weaken “in 12 months”.

The existence of the Soviet Union – and in this one can agree with British Conservative and Liberal politicians – contains within itself considerable economic and political difficulties for Great Britain. There are here once again no grounds for thinking that these difficulties will diminish in 12 months.

If the so-called pacification of Europe continues it will entail the re-birth and strengthening of German competition. And if pacification is succeeded by a military or a revolutionary crisis this too will strike at the economy of Great Britain.

The coming period will therefore create even more severe conditions for British capital and thereby the question of power will stand out before the proletariat with still greater sharpness. I did not set any time scale. The only remark in my book in this regard stated that the revolutionary development of the British working class will be measured in quinquennia rather than decades. It is clear that by this I did not mean that a social overturn would take place “in four years” (although I do not consider even this excluded). My point was that the prospects of revolutionary development should be reckoned not over a number of decades, not on sons and grandsons but on the generation living now.

At this point I am obliged to include an extensive quotation from the “left” critic’s letter:

Trotsky speaks nearly all the time about decades. But can you speak of decades when applied to the economic or even to the political situation? I think not in any instance. It is impossible as Trotsky himself has previously pointed out, to assign and fix an exact date when the explosion of the revolution will begin and although he had in mind more the impossibility of indicating the day [?] I consider it to be impossible to predict even the year [?]. A revolution depends above all upon economic factors and at the present time there are an endless number of economic factors which may prove to favour or oppose a revolution in Britain. A revolution could have flared up on August 1, 1925 as a result of the crisis in the coal industry. A revolution may break out with the renewal of the crisis next May. A revolution may be accelerated by the Far Eastern crisis, war, the economic collapse of other countries, the short-sightedness of a few industrialists at home, the inability of the government to solve the unemployment problem, a crisis in other branches of industry besides coal, and also by socialist propaganda among workers which elevates their demands and hopes. Each of these possibilities is highly probable in the conditions of the present day and not a single one of them can be predicted even to the month. The present day is characterized by extreme economic and consequently political instability; one move can ruin the whole game but on the other hand the existing system can be artificially maintained for many years more. Thus the British revolution, if you understand a political revolution by that, is marked by uncertainty.

The confusion in these lines is absolutely unimaginable, and yet it is not a personal confusion, but on the contrary it is deeply typical. It is the confusion of the people who “speaking generally” recognize the revolution but who fear it to the marrow of their bones and who are ready to adopt any theoretical justification for their political fear.

Indeed let us take a closer look at the writer’s line of argument. He is knocking at an open door when he proves that the tempo of development of the revolution and consequently its date depend on the interaction of numerous factors and circumstances of both an accelerating and a retarding effect. Hence he draws the conclusion indisputable in itself of the impossibility of predicting the timing of the revolution. But he contrives to formulate this most elementary thought thus:

Trotsky considers it impossible to predict the day of the revolution but he, the sage critic considers it impossible to predict even the year. This contraposition appears to be completely implausible by its childishness. It may even seem that it does not deserve an answer at all. But as a matter of fact how many “extreme lefts” are there who have not thought over, even in the rough, the most elementary problems of the revolution and for whom the very fact of reflections about its day and year represent a huge step forward, similar for example to the transition from total illiteracy to the muddled reading of individual syllables?

If indeed I had considered it impossible to determine in advance the day [?!] of the revolution then I would have probably attempted to determine the week, month, or the year. But you see I did not make such an attempt. I merely indicated that the social development of Britain had entered a revolutionary phase. At the end of the last century one could speak of a revolution in Britain only within the context of the most general foresight. In the years immediately preceding the imperialist war one could already point with certainty to a number of symptoms which evidenced the approach of a turning point. After the war this turn, and in the event a sharp one, set in. In the past the British bourgeoisie had by oppressing the toilers and plundering the colonies led the nation on the path of material growth and thus guaranteed its rule. Today the bourgeois regime is not only incapable of leading the British nation forward but neither can it maintain for it the level already achieved. The British working class is beating against the contradictions of capitalist decline. There is not a single question of economic life: the nationalization of the mines, and the railways, the fight against unemployment, free trade or protectionism, housing and so on which does not lead directly to the question of power. Here is the social-historical foundation of a revolutionary situation. Of course it is a question of the struggle of living historical forces and not of an automatic accumulation of arithmetical quantities. And this alone makes impossible a passive prediction of the stages of the process and timing of the denouement. A finger must be kept on the pulse of the British economy and politics and, while not omitting overall perspectives for a moment, one must attentively follow all the partial fluctuations, the flows and the ebbs, and determine their place in the process of the capitalist decline. only upon the basis of such a general orientation can the revolutionary party conduct its policy the flexibility of which is expressed by the fact that it does take partial fluctuations into account but in no way loses sight of the basic line of development.

My “left” critic has evidently heard something – in quite another connection – about the determination of the “day” of the revolution and has not grasped that then we were referring to the moment of armed insurrection placed on the order of the day by the revolution. Here are two questions which although interlinked are quite distinct.

In the one case it is a question of a historically based prognosis and the general strategic line flowing from this; in the other, of a tactical plan which presupposes a more or less exact determination of a place and time. It would not enter anyone’s head – except perhaps that of the British Attorney-General – to say that in Britain at the present moment armed uprising is on the order of the day and that fixing its plan and thus its date is a practical task. And yet only in this connection could we speak of the day or of days. In Germany in the autumn of 1923 matters stood in just this way. Today in Britain the question is not one of assigning a “day” for the revolution – we are a long way from this! – but in clearly understanding that the whole objective situation is bringing this “day” closer and into the ambit of the educational and preparatory work of the party of the proletariat and at the same time creating conditions for its rapid revolutionary formation.

In his second letter the same critic brings to the aid of his scepticism about dates (in fact scepticism about revolution) still more unexpected arguments. “The domain of economics,” he argues, “is, practically sneaking, limitless ... new inventions, re-grouping of capitalist forces ... the other side also recognizes the danger. ... America too may take measures against an impending collapse of Britain. In a word,” the critic concludes, “the possibilities are very many and Trotsky has by no means exhausted them all.” Our “left” has need of all possibilities except one: that of revolution. While playing hide-and-seek with reality he is ready to seize hold of any fantasy. In what sense for example can “new inventions” alter the social conditions of the development of Great Britain? Since the time of Marx there have been plenty of inventions through which the effect of Marx’s law of the concentration of capital and the sharpening of class contradictions has not weakened but on the contrary has become stronger. New inventions will in the future also provide advantages to the more powerful, i.e. not to Great Britain but to the United States. That the “other side”, that is the bourgeoisie, is aware of the danger and will fight against it by all means is beyond question. But just this is the most important prerequisite for revolution. To hope for a saving hand from America is in the end completely preposterous. It is more than probable that, in the event of a civil war in Britain, America will attempt to assist the bourgeoisie but this merely signifies that the British proletariat will have to seek allies beyond its frontiers too. We think that it will find them. Hence it follows that a British revolution will inevitably acquire an international scale. We least of all intend to dispute this. But our critic means something else. He expresses the hope that America will so relieve the existence of the British bourgeoisie that it can assist it to avoid revolution altogether. It is hard to think of a better one than that! Each new day testifies that American capital forms a historical battering ram which intentionally or unintentionally is dealing the most crushing blows to Britain’s world position and internal stability. This however does not in the least prevent our “left” from hoping that American capital will kindly squeeze up to help British capital. For a start he must evidently expect that America will relinquish the discharge of the British debt; that she will hand over to the British Treasury the $300m which form her reserve of British currency without compensation; that she will support Great Britain’s policy in China; that perhaps she will also hand over to the British Navy a few new cruisers and sell back her Canadian shares to British firms at a discount of 50 per cent. He must in a word expect that the Washington government will put the management of the affairs of state into the hands of the ARA [6] having picked for this the most philanthropic quakers.

People who are capable of consoling themselves with nonsense of this sort must not lay claim to the leadership of the British proletariat!

Problems of the British Revolution


1. William Joynson-Hicks (1865-1932), right-wing authoritarian Conservative politician, who was Home Secretary from 1924 to 1929. As such he was responsible for the prosecution and jailing of the leaders of the CPGB for sedition during the run-up to the General Strike and during the strike itself he was one of the most hawkish members of the government.

2. Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the fascist dictator of Italy who started political life as a socialist activist and became editor of Avanti, the Socialist Party paper, before World War I. During the war he became a rabid agitator for Italy to enter the war on the side of the Entente. Following the First World War he extended his extreme nationalism to organizing an anti-labour paramilitary terrorist movement, the Fascists or blackshirts. After the betrayal of the revolutionary working class in 1920-21 by the reformists and centrists he obtained the backing of the Italian bourgeoisie and formed a bonapartist government. By 1926 he finally abolished every trace of bourgeois democracy and freedoms. Having liquidated the organized labour movement he embarked on an imperial policy, bloodily seizing Abyssinia in 1935, sending armies to Spain and occupying Albania in 1939. In 1940 he led Italy into the Second World War in alliance with Hitler. After defeats in Greece and then in Italy he resigned in 1943. With the defeat of Nazi forces in Italy he was captured and hanged by partisans.

3. Herbert Asquith (1852-1928), Liberal politician and prime minister from 1908 to 1916, when he was ousted by David Lloyd George.

4. Philip Snowden (1864-1937), Labour politician who served Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first and second Labour governments (1924, 1929-1931) and defected to the National Government along with Ramsay MacDonald and Jimmy Thomas in 1931.

5. Jimmy Thomas (1874-1949), trade union official and Labour politician, served in the first Labour government (1924) as as Colonial Secretary and became Minister for Employment in the second Labour govedrnment (1929-1931). Along with snowden he was responsible for the proposal to cut unemployment assistance which split the government and along with Snowden and MacDonald he defected to the National Government, in which he served in the same position until 1935.

6. The American Relief Administration which as an official body ostensibly provided medical aid and civilian supplies for areas under famine and epidemic primarily in central and eastern Europe at the end of the First World War. It also sent aid to White-held areas of Russia if not to the White armies themselves.

Volume 2 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007