Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

Trotskyism versus Centrism in Britain

The First British Trotskyists

Dear Comrade Groves [1],

I have your letter of four weeks ago. Excuse me for not answering sooner. I am at present busy with extremely important work. Aside from this, it is very difficult for me to write in English and it would take me a great deal of time to do so. In addition I did not know whether you could read German or French. At the present time there is an American comrade here who will translate this letter into English. Because of all these reasons you can understand the exceptional delay in answering you.

The same necessary work, which will take at least one and a half months, prevents me from paying close attention to the British question, which is of immeasurable importance to us. Even with regard to reading the British papers, I find little time for it. I trust that the second volume of my History of the Russian Revolution which I am now completing will serve in good stead the communists over the entire world, and especially Britain, in the current era which will bring great tremors in Europe and the rest of the world.

The above will explain why it is difficult for me to give a precise opinion at the present time on the question of the next practical steps for the British Communists and the Left Opposition. In one or two months I shall turn my attention to this. For the present I am forced to confine myself to considerations of a most general character.

One of my English friends wrote to me on the 9th October, prior to the parliamentary elections, about the fast growth of the Communist Party, and of a certain approach of the rank and file members in the ILP towards communism. My correspondent speaks also of a regrowth of the Minority Movement [2] in the trade unions and the growing leadership of the same minority in the sporadic strike movements. These isolated instances in the background of the world crisis and the national crisis which Britain is going through allows us to accept the idea that in the last two years there has been a strengthening Of the Communist Party. The elections brought an absolute disillusionment in this respect. Of the many hundreds of thousands of votes which the Labourites lost, the Party at best swung to its support 20,000 which is, in consideration of the increased total number of voters, an invalid conjunctural fluctuation, and not by any means a serious political conquest. Where is the influence of the Party among the unemployed? Among the coal miners? Among the young generation of workers who, for the first time, voted? Actually, the election results are a horrible condemnation of the policies of the Party and the Comintern.

I have observed very little the tactics of the British party during the last year and I do not want to give judgement about what it learned, or whether it really learned anything. However, it is clear to me that independent from its recent and latest errors, the Communist Party is paying by its impotence of the past year, for the shameful and criminal politics of the Comintern, bound up with the Anglo-Russian Committee and later with the “Third Period” These errors were ruinous especially for Britain.

It surprises one anew what a terrible load of humiliation, conservatism, bigotry, conciliation, respect to the summits, to titles, to riches, to the Crown, drags in its thoughts the British working class which is at the same time capable of grand revolutionary insurrections Chartism, pre-war movements of 1911, movements following the war, the strike movements of 1926.

The British proletariat, the oldest with the most traditions, is, in its thinking methods, most empirical, carries in its chest two souls, and turns, as it were, with two faces to historical events. The contemptible mercenary and servile bureaucrats of the Trade Unions and the Labour party give expression to all that is rotten, humiliating, serf-like and feudal in the British working class. Against this, the tasks of the Communist Party consist in giving expression to the potential revolutionary qualities of the British working class, which is very great and capable of developing immense explosive Powers. But in the very critical period of British history, 1925-1927, all the policies of the British Communist Party and the Comintern consisted in the slave-like assimilation of the trade union leadership, its idealization, blotting out its treason, and fastening the confidence of the working class to it. The young British Communist Party was because of this deeply demoralized. The whole authority of the October Revolution, USSR and Bolshevism, was in this year attached to the support and solidification of the conservative and servile tendencies of the British working class.

After the Labourites had used the Stalinites to the end and kicked them aside, the chapter of Trade Unionism was mechanically substituted under the caption of the ultra-Left jump to the glory of the “Third Period”. The slogan of “Class against Class” was now issued, interpreted as a slogan of the struggle of a handful of Communists against the “social fascist” proletariat. When yesterday Purcell and Cook [3] were friends and trustworthy allies of the Soviet Union, today the workers who voted for Purcell and Cook transformed themselves into class enemies. This is the political orbit of the British Communist Party, or, rather, of the Communist International. Can we expect another surer way to trample the prestige of Communism and to undermine the confidence of the Party by the awakening workers?

The Moscow bureaucracy of the Communist International at every step runs against a blind alley with its nose, commands a turn either to the Left or to the Right. That is not difficult. All these Kuusinens, Manuilskys, Lozovskys, etc., are apparatus men [4], free not only of serious Marxist training and revolutionary horizon, but also – and this is the important thing – from every control of the masses. Its politics has a pure chancery character. A tactical turn is for them only a new circular. The CC of the British Communist Party [5], according to its strength, carries out the orders. But all of these circulars, through the corresponding politics, transport themselves into the consciousness of the workers. The bureaucratic bankrupts believe that one can mechanically fasten our leadership, on to the working class: on the one side with the aid of cash and repression, on the other side with the help of abrupt leaps, the blotting out of traces, with lies and calumnies. But this is totally untrue.

The British workers think slowly, since their consciousness is filled with the rubbish of centuries. But they think. Single articles, appeals, slogans, generally pass them by unnoticed. However, whole periods of politics (Anglo-Russian Committee, “Third Period”) in no respect pass without a trace, at least, with the most progressive, militant critical and revolutionary section of the working class. When one imagines the education of the revolutionary consciousness as the cutting of threads on a screw, one must say that the leadership of the Comintern, at each time, does not employ the proper tool nor proper calibre, and not in the direction necessary, thereby breaking the grooves, crumbling and demolishing. Without the smallest exaggeration one can confirm that from 1923 (for Britain especially from 1925) had the Comintern not existed, we would have today in Britain an incomparably more important revolutionary party. The last elections illustrate with power that frightful conviction.

Here begins the task of the Left Opposition. The English communists, among whom are naturally many devoted, honest, self-sacrificing revolutionaries, cannot but be discouraged with the results of a decade of activity, and that in exclusively opportune conditions. Pessimism and indifference can also take hold of very good revolutionaries when they do not understand the causes of their own weaknesses, nor find the way out. Criticism, i.e., in the light of Marxism that openly illuminates the path of the party, its zig-zags, its errors, the theoretical roots of these errors – that is the foremost and necessary condition for the regeneration of the party. It is especially necessary, when this has not been done to begin the publication of the Most important documents of the International Left opposition concerning the question of the Anglo-Russian Committee. This is the point of departure for the British left wing

The Left Opposition in Britain, just as communism generally, has the right to count upon a promising future: British capitalism falls from great historical heights to an abyss that is clear to all. One can, with assuredness, say that the recent elections represent the last gigantic rise of the natural “grandeur” of the British bourgeoisie. However, it is the rise of a dying lamp. For these elections, official British politics will in the coming period pay heavily.

The bankruptcy of the great national heroes of the three parties, just as the bankruptcy of British capitalism, are absolutely inevitable. Despite all obstacles from the Communist International, the mole of the British revolution burrows much too well its earthy path. One has every right to hope that these elections are the last rise of reliance of the millions of workers on the capitalists, lords, intellectuals, educated and rich persons, those united with MacDonald and the Sunday Pudding. These gentlemen will find no secret. The real secret is this: the proletarian revolution. just as the actual elections prepare to smash the conservative and servile soul of the British proletariat, it will be followed by the powerful blossom of their revolutionary soul.

Yet, immediately the victory of the conservatives brings heavy trials for the British proletariat and the deepening of international dangers. Especially does this endanger the USSR. Here we can see what little aid was brought to the USSR through the uninterrupted cry for her “defence”. For a period of two or three years, one expected this defence from Purcell, Hicks, Citrine [6] and later this defence was taken up by the Communist Party against the “social-fascist’ proletariat. And, now, it has in the defence of the USSR all in all received 70,000 votes. All that the Left Opposition demanded, the rupture of the shameful bloc with Purcell, was charged by Stalin as a refusal to defend the USSR from British imperialism. Now we can draw the balance: Nobody has given such service to the expiring British imperialism as the Stalin school. Of course, the chief of this school earned two orders of the Garter.

The British Left Opposition must begin systematic work. You must establish our staff-centre though a small one. You must build your own publication, even on a modest scale…. It is necessary to have a steady, uninterrupted activity, to educate our cadres, although in the first stages few. The fundamental power of history is in our favour. When, in Britain, more so than elsewhere, communism in a short time can conquer the consciousness of the wide masses, so can conquer, in the same short time, within the communist movement, the supremacy of the ideas of the Left Opposition, that is, the ideas of Marx and Lenin. I sincerely wish our British friends success on this path.

With best Communist greetings
Yours L. Trotsky

Letter to Reg Groves (dated 10th November 1931),
The Militant, 5th December 1931

* * *

Dear Comrades,

You have begun publication of a little monthly, The Red Flag. [7] This is a modest step forward. We must hope that other steps will follow.

The advance of communism in Great Britain in no way corresponds to the rate of decay of British capitalism. The conservative traditions of British politics, including the politics of the working class, are in themselves obviously insufficient to explain this. We only declare what is true and cannot be refuted when we say that above all, and, alas, with greater effect than any other factor, the progress of communism during the last years has been hindered by the leadership of the British Communist Party. It of course has not acted independently, but has only blindly followed the orders given by the leaders of the Comintern. But this does not free the British Communist bureaucracy from its responsibility or lessen the damage it has done.

A critical examination of the policy of the British Communist Party during the last eight or ten years constitutes a most important task in the education of the Left Opposition itself. You should study the official publications of the Party throughout this period carefully, digest them, and reveal the party line on the main strategical problems: its attitude towards the Labour Party, the trade unions, the Minority Movement, the colonial revolution; the united-front policy; the ILP, etc. The mere selection of the most striking quotations and the presentation of them in chronological order would expose not only the glaring contradictions of the “general line”, but also the inner logic of these contradictions, that is, the violent oscillation of the centrist bureaucracy between opportunism and adventurism. Each one of these tactical zigzags pushed Communists, sympathizers, and potential friends to the right, to the left, and finally into the swamp of indifference. We can say without the least exaggeration that the British Communist Party has become a political thoroughfare and retains its influence only in that section of the working class which has been forcibly driven to its side by the decomposition of both capitalism and reformism.

Along with the new printed publication, you have at your disposal a hectographed (excellently hectographed!) bulletin, The Communist. [8] It would be extremely desirable to devote the greatest possible space in this publication to an examination of the policy of the British Communist Party along the lines indicated above, and also to a discussion of controversial questions within the Left Opposition itself. While persistently striving to widen our influence among the workers, we must at the same time concentrate on the theoretical and political education of our own ranks. We have a long and laborious road ahead of us. For this we need first-class cadres.

With all my heart I wish you success,
Leon Trotsky

Letter of greetings to Red Flag (dated 19th May 1933),
The Militant, 22nd July 1933

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Index


1. Reg Groves (1908-1988), left-wing British journalist and historian; one of the leading members of the Balham Group, the first Trotskyist group in Britain.

2. A body of trade unionists was organized under the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1924 from the militant rank and file in many industries. It built up support and its conferences secured increasing representation up to the 1926 General Strike. However, it never really broke from its syndicalist antecedents and came under the control of Stalinist policies, collapsing under the suicidal dual unionist policies of the Comintern in the late 1920s.

3. Alfred Purcell, left-wing member of the General Council of the TUC; president of the TUC 1924. – A.J. Cook (1883-1931), British coal miner and militant trade union leader; General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain 1924-31.

4. Otto Kuusinen (1881-1964) was a Finnish social democrat who fled to the Soviet Union after the collapse of the Finnish Revolution of 1918. He became a Comintern functionary and a consistent supporter of Stalinist policies. He was Comintern Secretary from 1922 to 1931. Dimitri Manuilsky (1883-1952) was at one time a member of the independent Marxist organization, Mezhrayontzi, along with Trotsky, and with him joined the Bolsheviks in 1917. In 1919 he became one of the leaders of the Ukrainian government. Thereafter he was a supporter of Stalin, being particularly associated with the “left” phases of his policies, replacing Kuusinen as Secretary of the Comintern in 1931, and himself giving way to Dimitrov in 1935. Details of Trotsky’s assessments of these and other Comintern leaders of the period can be found in his article Who Is Leading the Comintern To-day?, in Trotsky’s The Third International After Lenin.– Solomon Lozovsky (1878-1952), Russian revolutionary of Jewish origin, official in Soviet government and Soviet government; joined RSDLP in 1901 and supported the bolshevik faction after the split; General Secretary of the Profintern 1921-1987; Deputy Foreign minister from 1939; arrested in 1948 during Stalin’s anti-semitic campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans” and executd in 1952.

5. The term “Central Committee” for the leading body of the CPGB came into use only in the late 1920s. The same body was at first called the “Executive Committee” and then “Central Executive Committee” after the 1922 Reorganization Report. By the 1950s there had been a reversion to the original title reflecting the CP’s pretensions to Bolshevik forms of organization.”

6. George Hicks (1879-1954), British trade unionist; originally a lewft-winger, but moved to the right during the 1920s; member of General Council of the TUC 1921-1941. Labour MP 1931-1950. – Walter Citrine (1887-1983), British trade unionist; Acting General Secretary of the TUC 1925-26, General Secretary of the TUC 1926-46.

7. This was the first printed paper produced by the British Trotskyist movement. It appeared monthly from May 1933 to November 1934, under the rubric “Organ of the Communist League”, and from the late summer of 1936 to June 1937 as the voice of the Marxist League.

8. This was the first publication of the British Trotskyist movement, appearing in May 1932 and being described as the “Monthly Theoretical Organ of the British Section of the International Left Opposition”.

Volume 3 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007