Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 2

Problems of the British Revolution

Brailsford and Marxism

(March 1926)

THE London edition of Where is Britain Going? has appeared with an unexpected foreword by Brailsford [1], the former bourgeois radical who after the war joined the Independent Labour Party and now edits its organ. Mr Brailsford despite his socialist sympathies has not ceased to be a radical. And as moderate liberals stand at the head of the Independent Labour Party Brailsford has ended up on the left wing.

The fact that it is not in backward China nor even in japan, where radical bourgeois publishers consider it still useful to issue books by Russian communists, but in Britain with her crying social contradictions that the appearance of a book by a communist with a patronizing foreword by a member of MacDonald’s party is possible, serves in the eyes of any Marxist as evidence of the inconceivable backwardness of British political ideology as compared with her material relations. In this judgement which needs no proof there is at once a condemnation of this sort of unexpected literary bloc. We do need a unity of front with the working masses. But the unity or a semi-unity of a literary front with Brailsford signifies but an aggravation of that ideological chaos in which the British labour movement is rich enough as it is.

There is however no mistake herd on Brailsford’s part. His historical mission consists in “correcting” Thomas and MacDonald, in creating a safety valve for the discontent of the masses, in blurring the edges and in dissolving cogent thought into a formless “leftism”. It is of political advantage to Brailsford, whose intentions we do not in the least suspect (though we do bear firmly in mind that it is from reformist intentions that highways to hell are built), to appear within the same covers as us. The working masses of Britain are immeasurably more to the left than Brailsford. By “fraternizing” with Moscow communists Brailsford camouflages his adherence to a party which expels British communists.

But we have different tasks. We do not want masks. Our first obligation is that of destroying ideological masks. The British working masses are immeasurably more to the left than Brailsford but they have not yet found the appropriate language for their own inclinations. The rubbish of the past still separates the leftward moving masses from the programme of communism with a thick layer. So much more impermissible is it then to add even a shred to this garbage. In fighting for the interests of the miners the communists are prepared to take several steps alongside Mr Brailsford in this struggle. But with no ideological blocs, and no united front in the field of theory and programme! And this very Brailsford himself puts it thus with regard to the American edition of our book: “We are separated from these people by a gulf.” Correct, correct and three times correct! But from the standpoint of Marxism there is nothing more criminal than to throw literary olive branches across this political gulf: the worker who is deceived by the camouflage will set his foot down and fall through.

For Mr Brailsford camouflage is necessary. He makes use of a revolutionary book in order to fight against revolution. Brailsford, a defender of democratic illusions and parliamentary fetishes is saying in his foreword: “Just look, in our British democracy we can publish a Bolshevik book without fear thereby demonstrating the breadth and power of democracy.” Moreover by his little demonstration Brailsford would like to gloss over the, for him, inconvenient outcome of the recent trial of the communists. Brailsford himself openly admits this. The sentencing of the British communists now, when the revolution is taking shape only at a remote distance, is an immeasurably sharper and more convincing refutation of democratic illusions than all our books and pamphlets. Brailsford understands this. In fighting for the preservation of democratic illusions he “greets” the appearance of our book in these words: “If it may come freely from the Press in public, if it may be discussed ... then the nightmare of this trial is dissipated.” By sparing democratic illusions at such a cheap price Brailsford wants to give the British proletariat the idea that once a revolutionary book accompanied by an appropriate dose of antidote in the shape of a pacifist foreword appears on the British book market it is thereby proven that the British bourgeoisie will tamely bow its head when the banks, land, mines, factories and shipyards start to be taken “democratically” away from them. In other words Brailsford unceremoniously admonishes our book with concepts directly contrary to its aim, sense, spirit and letter.

It is not surprising if Brailsford reproachfully describes the “Russian methods” of polemic as ruthless and hopes that they will produce in the British reader quite a different impression from that intended. Let us wait for the “impressions”. Readers vary. Methods of polemic flow from the essence of the politics. “Ruthlessness” is caused by the necessity to reveal the reality behind a deliberate falsehood. Nowhere in Europe does canonized hypocrisy – “cant” – play such a role as in Great Britain. Different political groupings and even the most “extreme” of them are, when fighting against each other, accustomed not to touch upon certain questions or to call certain things by their proper names. The reason is that from time immemorial the political struggle has been waged inside the ranks of the possessing classes who have never forgotten that a third party is listening in. The system of conventions, implications and reservations has over the ages worked itself downwards and today finds its most reactionary expression in the liberal Labour Party including its radical opposition wing. Here it is not a question of literary style but of politics. Our polemic repels Brailsford because it lays the class contradictions absolutely bare. It is ,quite true that in those enlightened readers who have been brought up in the parliamentary tradition of political cant this polemic will produce not sympathy but annoyance. But Brailsford notwithstanding this is just the effect that the author, rightly, intends. It is also quite true that politicians with such an education still form a dense stratum between the working class and the programme of communism. Nevertheless, in Britain too, class realities are more powerful than traditional hypocrisy. Once aroused, British workers blazing themselves a trail through the thicket of inherited prejudices – both those of Baldwin and Brailsford – will find in our polemic a particle of their own struggle. And this again will be the effect that we intend.

Brailsford’s foreword represents an intermixture of immoderate praise and moderate censure. The praise relates to what is secondary, the form of the book. The censure is directed against the essence. The immoderate nature on the praise is to lend extra weight to the careful attacks on Bolshevism. Brailsford operates expediently. He fulfils his assignment. He is interested in camouflage. But we need complete clarity. That is why we reject equally both Brailsford’s praises and his censure.

Brailsford operates expediently but is utterly impotent all the same. But then this is not his fault. He cannot leap out of the historical task of centrism; blurring realities in order to sustain illusions. We have seen how ridiculously Brailsford dealt with the lessons of the trial of the communists. This same impotence lies at the root of the whole of his appraisal of our book. On the one hand for him it emerges that the book is based on the knowledge of facts and an understanding of the logic of their development. On the other, it turns out that the author of the book is “a man of another world” who is incapable of comprehending either the nature of British Protestantism or the force of parliamentary traditions. It is not only in parliament, but also in the Church, trade unions and even clubs, Brailsford tries to convince us, that respect for the majority has been instilled into generations of British people. “What does a Russian know about this and how can he assess the force of traditions in our ancient civilization?” Brailsford’s arrogant helplessness lies in his method: he does not understand the material basis of social development as the decisive factor. He halts before traditions, before the ideological residue of old struggles and thinks that this crust is an eternal one. He does not know the simplest laws of the dependence of ideology upon class foundations. Arguing with him on these matters is as good as trying to convince the inventor of perpetuum mobile who denies the law of the conservation of energy. It is plain to any literate Marxist that the more firmly the conservative forms of British society have ossified, the more catastrophically new eruptions of the social volcano will explode the crust of the old traditions and institutions.

The ideas and prejudices which have been handed down from generation to generation become a factor of great historical force. This “independent” force of prejudices condensed by history is only too evident in Brailsford himself. But material facts are nevertheless stronger than their reflection in ideas and traditions. And of this it is not hard to be convinced at the present day, faced with the most instructive picture that we have of British liberalism in its death throes. Can one find another tradition more powerful than this? At its source liberalism was connected with the first Protestant movements and consequently with the revolution of the 17th century which opened the history of the new England. And yet this mighty liberalism is before our eyes warping and crumbling like a sheet of parchment tossed on to a hot hearth. Living facts are more powerful than dead ideas. The decline of the middle classes in Britain and the decline of British capitalism in the world are material facts which are mercilessly settling the fate of British liberalism. The figure of the agrarian reformer Gracchus Lloyd George who in the evening denies what he said in the morning in itself forms a marvellous mockery of liberal traditions.

We heard from Brailsford that for “a man of another world” an understanding of “how deeply the instinct of submission to the will of the majority is stamped in the consciousness of the British people” is unattainable. But it is a remarkable thing that when Brailsford descends from the heights of doctrinairism into the sphere of living political facts he himself unexpectedly reveals at times the mystery of “submission to the will of the majority”. Thus in tracing the course of the last Liberal conference which against all its “traditions’ and more important, against its own wishes adopted (in half-measure) Lloyd George’s charlatan programme of land, nationalization, Brailsford wrote in the New Leader of February 26: “The payment of expenses from a central fund (in Lloyd George’s hands) and the provision of a gratuitous luncheon apparently created the right sort of majority.” Luncheons created a majority! From these realistic words it is evident that the democratic instinct of submission to the majority instilled by a number of British generations and unattainable to men “of another world” every so often requires in addition free roast beef and other auxiliary resources to display its omnipotence. Brailsford could scarcely write better words than these. Our idealist has here collided with the thing that usually spoils metaphysical schema: a slice of reality. It has been long known that German Kantian professors in the course of devising an eternal morality stumbled on such obstacles as inadequate wages, intrigues of their colleagues or a cantankerous aunt. The democratic socialist Brailsford has slipped up, far more dangerously than he might imagine, on roast beef. Of course we people of another world are incapable of appreciating the noble worship by all British people of parliamentary methods. But then why embarrass us with the report that inside the Liberal Party, the creator of parliamentarism, a majority is achieved by means of hand outs and a series of lunches, free, but we must suppose, quite copious. A majority achieved in this way is very like a fraudulent or falsified majority. But here of course at the moment only the struggle for parliamentary seats and portfolios is at stake. What will happen when the issue is posed point blank: who should have state power: the bourgeoisie or the proletariat? And who shall have the property; the capitalist or the people? If through considerations of parliamentary careerism the leaders of the Liberal Party successfully set bribery and falsification into motion then at what violent means and at what crimes would the ruling classes stop when the whole of their historical fate is on the order of the day? I very much fear that if, out of the two of us. one is a man of another world who does not” understand the most important thing about British politics, then it is Mr Brailsford. He is a man of another era. The new era is ours.

In his foreword Brailsford does not miss the opportunity to take up a defence of religion; It is curious that in doing so he calls himself an agnostic. In Britain this word tends to be used as a polite, drawing-room, emasculated name for an atheist. More often it characterizes a semi-atheism which is unsure of itself i.e. the variety of idealism which on the question of God abstains from voting, to put it in parliamentary language. And so we see here once again the force of cant, convention, the half-truth, the half-lie and philosophical hypocrisy. Implying his atheism and calling himself an agnostic Brailsford here takes on the defence of religion. These are the ambiguous customs which British revolutionaries will have to expel from the ranks of the labour movement. Enough of hide-and-seek, call things by their names!

Brailsford defends religion by denying its class character. Not a single Russian is able, don”t you see, to understand what British religion is, with its “traditions of free discussion, its democratic form, and its relative freedom from any other-worldliness’ and so on and so forth. There is not a single democratic priest who could pronounce a more apologetic speech in defence of religious dope than does our “agnostic”. His evidence in support of the Church must acquire the greater weight since he declares himself to be an unbeliever. Here is duplicity and falsehood at every step. While attempting to refute the bourgeois character of Protestantism, Brailsford accusingly asks whether Trotsky has ever been to a Non-Conformist chapel in a mining area, whether he has read Bunyan [2] and whether he has ever taken a look at the revolutionary history of the Anabaptists [3] and the men of the Fifth Monarchy. [4] I must admit that I have not been in a miners’ Non-Conformist chapel and that I am very insufficiently familiar with the historical facts of which Brailsford speaks. I promise to visit a mining area and its chapel as soon as Brailsford’s party takes power and permits me in accordance with the principles of democracy, unimpeded passage through the possessions of His Majesty. I will attempt to acquaint myself with Bunyan and the history of the Anabaptists, in the Fifth Monarchy before that date. But Brailsford is cruelly mistaken if he thinks that the facts and circumstances he has enumerated can alter a general evaluation of religion and in particular of Protestantism. I once visited, together with Lenin and Krupskaya [5] a “free church” in London where we heard socialist speeches interspersed with psalms. The preacher was a printer who had just returned from Australia. He spoke about the social revolution. The congregation begged God in the psalms that he establish such an order where there would be neither poor nor rich. [6] Such was my first practical acquaintance with the British labour movement nearly a quarter of a century ago (1902). What role, I asked myself at the time, does a psalm play in connection with a revolutionary speech? That of a safety-valve. Concentrated vapours of discontent issued forth beneath the dome of the Church and rose into the sky. This is the basic function of the Church in class society.

To be sure different Churches fulfil this task in different ways. The Orthodox Church, while not having overcome primitive peasant mythology as time went on, turned into an external bureaucratic apparatus existing alongside the apparatus of Tsarism. The priest walked hand in hand with the constable and any development of dissent was met with repression. It was for this reason that the roots of the Orthodox Church proved to be so weak in the popular consciousness and especially in the industrial centres. In shaking off the bureaucratic ecclesiastical apparatus the Russian worker in his overwhelming mass and the peasant milkmaid together with him, shook off religious thinking altogether. Protestantism is quite another matter: it came to its feet as the banner of the bourgeoisie and the small people of the towns and the countryside against the crowns of the privileged and courtly, and against the cavaliers and the bishops. The genesis and development of Protestantism is so closely bound up with the development of urban culture and the struggle of the bourgeoisie for a firmer and more stable position in society that there is really no need to prove it. The bourgeoisie could not of course fight successfully for, and then retain power if it had not made its banner to some degree or other the banner of lower social layers that is, the artisans, peasants and workers. In its struggle against the nobility the bourgeoisie tied the lower layers very firmly to itself using the Protestant religion. Of course the Scottish woodcutter would not put into his psalms the same subjective content as the respectable Mr Dombey, or his honourable grandson sitting in the House of Commons either to the right or to the left of Mr MacDonald. And just the same applies to liberalism too. The liberal workers, not the trade union bureaucrats but the proletariat understood the liberal programme completely differently from Gladstone. They introduced a class instinct into their liberalism but a helpless one. But will Brailsford dispute on these grounds that liberalism was the programme of the middle and small merchant, the industrial bourgeoisie and the bourgeois intelligentsia socially rising upwards?

It is true, and this is what Brailsford wants to adduce, that many petty-bourgeois radicals and opponents of the class struggle were inclined towards atheism while the pioneers of trade unionism stood in equal measure for Christianity and for the class struggle. But there is no contradiction here with what has been said above. Marxism in no way teaches that every man receives his share of religious and philosophical convictions depending upon the scale of his income or his wages. The question is more complex. Religious, as indeed any other. ideas being born out of the soil of the material conditions of life and above all the soil of class contradictions, only gradually clear themselves a way and then live on by force of conservatism longer than the needs which gave birth to them and disappear completely only under the effect of serious social shocks and crises. The petty-bourgeois British radicals from the utilitarian and Owenite schools could be militant atheists only as long as they seriously believed that they possessed the painless means of solving all social problems. But in proportion as class contradictions sharpened, militant radicalism disappeared or moved over into the Labour Party bringing into it its threadbare idealistic arrogance and its political impotence. The organizers of the trade unions who had been thrown up by workers’ strikes could not renounce the basis of their activity and the source of their influence, that is the class struggle. But they at the same time remained within the narrow limits of trade unionism not leading the struggle to the necessary revolutionary conclusions and this allowed and still does allow them to reconcile trade unionism with Christianity, i.e. with a discipline which imposes upon the proletariat the faith and morality of another class.

It is completely indisputable that the revolution will find a good share of the Welsh miners still in the grip of religious prejudices. It cannot be doubted that despite this the miners will do their job. From some prejudices they will free themselves in the heat of the struggle while from others only after victory. But we categorically deny that the Welsh miners and the British proletariat in general can be shown the correct path by people who have not separated themselves from infantile nonsense, do not understand the structure of human society, do not grasp its dynamics, do not understand the role of religion in it and to one degree or another are ready to subordinate their actions to the precepts of ecclesiastical morality which unites oppressors with oppressed. Such leaders are unreliable. For their part the working class can expect capitulation or direct treachery – justified by the Sermon on the Mount – at the most crucial hour.

The traditional force of British Protestantism is clear to us. Brailsford depicts the matter in vain, as if he were judging Protestantism by orthodoxy. Nonsense. We Marxists are accustomed to taking historical phenomena in their social context, in their concrete aspect, and to judge them not by their names but by that content which living, that is class-divided, society imparts to them. The traditional power of Protestantism is great but not limitless. In its very essence, that is as a religious and not political teaching, Protestantism is more elastic than liberalism which represents its younger brother. But the elasticity of Protestantism has its limits. The profound turn in the fate of Britain predetermines them. All her national traditions will undergo a test. What was shaped by centuries will be destroyed in the course of years. The revolution will bring a process of verification based on inexorable facts which will reach into those last refuges of consciousness where the inherited religious prejudices are concealed. Our task is to assist this cleansing operation and not to block its way as the ambiguous agnostics do by implying their atheism only to defend religion.

We can see in this way that on the most important questions on which the historical life and death of the proletariat depend we and Brailsford stand on different sides of the ideological barricade. That is why our appearance before the British reader within the same covers forms the crudest misunderstanding. With the present article I am correcting this misunderstanding as well as I can.

Pravda, No.60, March 14, 1926

Problems of the British Revolution


1. Henry Noel Brailsford (1873-1958). A socialist writer who came to prominence as a journalist in the Daily News over the issue of women’s suffrage. He joined the ILP in 1907 and took a pacifist position in the First World War. He was editor of the ILP paper New Leader, from 1922-26 and as such was an opponent of MacDonald within the ILP. He was active in efforts to reunite the Second and Third Internationals and in the ILP campaign of 1926 entitled “Socialism in Our Time”.

2. John Bunyan (1628-1688), a former soldier in the revolutionary parliamentary army who became a radical preacher. While in prison for preaching without a licence he started The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most widely read and translated works of 17th century English literature.

3. Puritan sect at the time of the English Revolution, which opposed infant baptism and emphasised congregational organization in opposition to government by the church hierarchy. The name came to be applied generally to the extreme left wing in religion and politics during the Civil War period.

4. A group of Puritans during the English Revolution who believed that the return of Christ and the establishment of the millennium was imminent. They engaged in risings in 1657 and 1661 against the respective governments existing at these dates.

5. Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1869-1939), Lenin’s wife and a leading figure in the Bolshevik Party in her own right.

6. Trotsky related this episode in chapter 11 of his autobiography, My Life.

Volume 2 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007