Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

Trotskyism versus Centrism in Britain

The ILP After Disaffiliation

To the Comrades of the Independent Labour Party. – You have published my Copenhagen speech on the Russian Revolution in pamphlet form. [1] I can of course, only be glad that you made my speech accessible to British workers. The foreword by James Maxton [2] recommends this booklet warmly to the Socialist readers. I can only be thankful for this recommendation.

The foreword, however, contains an idea to which I feel obliged to take exception. Maxton refuses in advance to enter into the merits of those disagreements which separate me and my co-thinkers from the now ruling fraction in the USSR. “This is a matter,” he says, “on which only Russian socialists are competent to decide.”

By these few words the international character of socialism as a scientific doctrine and as a revolutionary movement is completely refuted. If socialists (communists) of one country are incapable. incompetent, and consequently have no right to decide the vital questions of the struggle of socialists (communists) in other countries, the proletarian International loses all rights and possibilities of existence.

I will allow myself, moreover, to affirm that, while refraining formally from judging the struggle which split the Russian Bolsheviks, Maxton, possibly without wishing it, has nevertheless expressed himself in hidden form on the essence of the dispute and, in effect, in favour of the Stalinist fraction, since our struggle with it concerns precisely the question as to whether socialism is a national or international matter. Admitting the possibility of the theoretical and practical solution of the problems of socialism within national limits, Maxton admits the correctness of the Stalinist fraction which bases itself on the theory of “socialism in one country.” [3]

In reality, the disputes between the Russian Bolsheviks are not only Russian disputes, just as the conflicts between the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, and the Communist Party of Great Britain are not only British conflicts, The matter concerns not only the fate of the present Communist International but of a proletarian International in general.

The grouping of forces, not only in the USSR, but also far beyond its limits, goes along the dividing line between “socialism in one country” and International Socialism. Sections of true Internationalists, taking as the point of departure the theory of permanent revolution [4], are to be found now in almost all the countries of the world. Their number and influence grows. I consider that on the basic questions of the struggle between us and the Stalinists, every member of the ILP not only can, but is by duty bound to arrive at his independent opinion.

On my part I am ready to help as much as I can, in print, writing or orally, every British socialist, every British worker, in the study of the disputed questions of the International.

I will be very grateful to you if you will publish this letter in your organ.

Comradely yours,
L. Trotsky

Letter to the Independent Labour Party (dated 8th August 1933),
New Leader, 25th August 1933

* * *

Whither the ILP?

The latest political decisions [5] of the National Council of the British Independent Labour Party show clearly that after its break with the reformists the party continues to move leftward. Similar processes are to be observed in other countries: a left wing forms within the social-democratic parties which splits off at the following stage from the party and tries with its own forces to pave for itself a revolutionary path. These processes reflect on one side the deep crisis of capitalism and of reformism which is inseparably bound up therewith, and on the other – the inability of the Comintern to group around itself revolutionary currents within the proletariat.

In Britain, however, the situation is complicated more by an unheard of combination. Whereas, in other countries, the Comintern continues to treat the left socialist organizations as “left social fascists” and as “the most dangerous Counter-revolutionists”, a permanent collaboration has been established between the ILP and the Communist Party of Great Britain. How these leaders of the Comintern combine this collaboration with the theory of social-fascism, remains a mystery. In the July issue of the theoretical organ of the Comintern, Fenner Brockway [6], the newly appointed secretary of the ILP, is called a “counter-revolutionist” as heretofore. Why the British Communist Party made a united front this time not from below but from above moreover, with leaders who prove to be “counter-revolutionists, and a united front made not for one single practical action but for collaboration in general, – no mortal can solve these contradictions. But if the principles be left aside, the matter can be explained very simply: under the exceptionally favourable conditions of Great Britain the Comintern managed completely to isolate and weaken its British section by the ruinous policy of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the “third Period”, “social-fascism, and the rest; on the other hand, the deep social crisis of British capitalism pushed the ILP sharply towards the left; not heeding consistency or logic the totally discouraged Comintern grabbed this time with both hands the alliance proposed to it.

We could have and should have welcomed and heartily supported the collaboration of the ILP with the Communist Party had it not been based on evasiveness, suppressions and ambiguities on both sides.

Of the Communist Party the National Council says that it is “revolutionary in outlook as ourselves.” That is all we learn with regard to the appraisal of the Communist Party and of its policy. Every serious and thinking worker will inevitably ask: why are two parties necessary if they have both an equally revolutionary outlook. This worker will be even more astonished upon learning that the leaders of one of the equally revolutionary parties consider the leaders of the other Party as “counter-revolutionaries” and “left social-fascists”. Possibly the National Council refrains from a critical estimation of its ally so as not to undermine the alliance itself. But an alliance of revolutionary organizations which is based not on open mutual criticism but on diplomacy will be thrown over by the first gust of the political storm, like a house of cards.

The theses of the National Council explain the bloc with the Communist Party, first as a step towards the united front, secondly as a stage in the creation of a mass revolutionary party. Each of these two arguments has its weight; but mechanically placed side by side they contradict each other. The theses repeat that the united front should embrace any and all organizations of the proletariat insofar as they wish to participate in the struggle: the Labour Party, the trade unions, even the Co-operative Party. But we know well, and not from literature but from the tragic experience of the German catastrophe [7], that the Comintern rejects the united front with reformist (“social-fascist”) organizations. How does the ILP intend to build a united front with reformist organizations in alliance with the Communist Party: only from below and under the leadership of the communist bureaucracy guaranteed in advance? To this question there is no answer.

Mentioning in passing that the bloc with the Communist Party has pushed certain sections of the “official movement” to the right, the National Council expresses the hope that these prejudices can be conquered by an active participation in daily struggles. The fact that the reactionary prejudices of the leaders of the Labour Party and of the General Council of trade unions do not frighten the leaders of the ILP only does the ILP credit. Unfortunately, however, it is not only a question of prejudices. When the communist bureaucracy declares that reformism and fascism are twins, it not only criticizes the reformist leaders incorrectly, but it provokes the rightful indignation of the reformist workers. The theses, it is true, say that the criticism of reformism should correspond to actual facts and push the reformist workers forward and not back; but the Communist Party is not mentioned in this connection by one word. What can be made of the theory of “social-fascism”? And how can the policy of the united front be built on this theory? To pass such questions in silence in the resolution does not mean to remove them from life. An open discussion could possibly force the Communist Party to adopt a correct position; diplomatic evasiveness can only pile up contradictions and prepare a new catastrophe for the next mass movement.

Without defining in principle their attitude to official communism (Stalinism) the theses of the National Council stop midway in their relation to reformism. The reformists must be criticized as conservative democrats and not as fascists, but the struggle with them must be no less irreconcilable because of it, since British reformisin is the main hindrance now to the liberation not only of the British but also of the European proletariat. The policy of a united front with reformists is obligatory but it is of necessity limited to partial tasks, especially to defensive struggles. There can be no thought of making the socialist revolution in a united front with reformist organizations The principal task of a revolutionary party consists in freeing the working class from the influence of reformism. The error of the Comintern bureaucracy consists, not in the fact that they see the most important condition for the victory of the Proletariat in the leadership of a revolutionary party – that is entirely correct – but in that being incapable of gaining the confidence of the working masses in daily struggle, starting as a minority in modest roles, it demands this confidence in advance, presents ultimatums to the working class and disrupts attempts at a united front because other organizations are not willing to hand it over voluntarily the marshal’s baton. This is not Marxist Policy but bureaucratic sabotage. A secure and firm victory of the proletarian revolution – we repeat it again – is possible only under the condition that a revolutionary. that is a truly communist, party will succeed in gaining the firm confidence of the majority of the working class before the overthrow. This central question is not touched in the theses. Why? Out of “tact” with regard to the ally? Not only that. There are deeper causes. Insufficient clarity of the theses with regard to the united front flows from the incomplete realizations of the methods of the proletarian revolution. The theses speak of the necessity “to wrest the control of the economic system and the state from the capitalist class and to transfer it to the working class.” But how solve this gigantic problem? To this pivotal question of our epoch the theses reply with a naked phrase: “this can only be achieved through united action by the working class.” The struggle for power and the dictatorship of the proletariat remain abstractions which can be easily dissolved in the amorphous perspectives of the united front.

In the realm of ready made revolutionary formulae the bureaucracy of the British Communist Party is immeasurably better equipped. Precisely in this lies now its advantage over the leadership of the ILP. And it must be said openly: this superficial, purely formal advantage may under the present circumstances lead to the liquidation of the ILP without any gain accruing to the Communist Party and to the revolution. The objective conditions have more than once pushed tens and even hundreds of thousands of workers towards the British section of the Comintern, but the leadership of the Comintern was capable only of disillusioning them and of throwing them back. If the ILP as a whole should enter today the ranks of the Communist Party, within the next couple of months one third of the new members would return to the Labour Party, another third would be expelled for “conciliatory attitude towards Trotskyism” and for similar crimes, finally, the remaining third, disillusioned in all its expectations would fall into indifferentism. As a result of this experiment the Communist Party would find itself weaker and more isolated than now.

The ILP can save the workers’ movement of Britain from this new danger only by freeing itself from all unclarity and haziness with regard to the ways and methods of the socialist revolution and by becoming a truly revolutionary party of the proletariat. There is no necessity of inventing anything new in this field, all has been said well by the first four congresses of the Comintern. Instead of feeding on bureaucratic substitutes of the epigones it is better to put all the members of the ILP to the study of the resolutions of the first four congresses of the Comintern. But this alone does not suffice. It is necessary to open a discussion in the party on the lessons of the last decade which was marked by the struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Left Opposition. The content of this struggle was made up of the most important stage of the world revolutionary movement; economic and political tasks of the USSR; problems of the Chinese revolution; the policy of the Anglo-Russian committee; methods of the united front; problems of party democracy; the causes of the German catastrophe. This enormous cycle of problems cannot be passed by. These are not Russian but international problems.

In our epoch a revolutionary party cannot but be international. What is the position of the ILP on this? Having entered into an alliance with the Communist Party the ILP has not determined its international position. It broke with the Second International and made an alliance with the Third, but it also enters into a labour alliance with left socialist parties. This alliance, in its turn, is not homogeneous. There are elements in it which gravitate towards Bolshevism, but there are also elements which pull towards the Norwegian Workers’ Party. [8] That is, in reality towards the social-democracy. What position does the ILP take on all these questions? Is it willing to share the fate of the historically already doomed Comintern, does it want to try to remain in an intermediary position (which means to return by round about ways to reformism), or is it ready to participate in the building of a new International on the foundations laid by Marx and Lenin?

To the serious reader it is clear that our criticism is least of all inspired by animosity towards the ILP. On the contrary, we see too clearly that if this party should ingloriously disappear from the scene socialism would suffer a new hard blow. And this danger exists and it is not far removed. In our epoch it is impossible to remain long in intermediary Positions. Only political clarity can save the ILP for the proletarian revolution. The aim of these lines is to help revolutionary clarity to pave its way.

Written on 24th August 1933 and published in
Red Flag, October-November 1933

* * *

The ILP and the New International

After a brief interval I am returning again to the policy of the Independent Labour Party. This is occasioned by the declaration of the ILP delegation at the Paris Conference [9], which permits a clear idea of the general direction the ILP is heading as well as of the stage at which it now finds itself.

The delegation considers it necessary to call a world congress of “all” revolutionary parties beginning with those adhering to the Third International. “If the Third International proves unprepared to change its tactics and organization, the time will have come to consider the formation of a new International.” This sentence contains the very essence of the present policy of the ILP. Having shifted decisively to the left, to communism, the members of this Party refuse to believe that the Communist International, which has numerous cadres and material and technical means at its disposal is lost for the revolutionary movement. It is necessary, they say, to make one more test of the ability or inability of the Comintern to change its policy.

It is incorrect, even naive, to pose the question in this manner. The ability or inability of a party is not determined at a congress but in daily struggle, and particularly in times of great dangers, momentous decisions and mass action. After the victory of Hitler. for which the Comintern bears a direct responsibility, the leadership of the Comintern not only has left its policy unchanged but also has intensified its disastrous methods. This historic test has a thousand times more weight than all the declarations that the representatives of the Comintern might make at any one congress. It must not be forgotten that congresses represent elements of “parliamentarism” in the workers’ movement itself. While parliamentarism is inevitable and necessary, it cannot add anything fundamentally new above what has been actually attained in mass struggle. This refers not only to the parliamentarism of the bourgeois state but also to the “parliamentary” institutions of the proletariat itself. We must orient ourselves by the real activity of working class organizations and not expect any miracles from the proposed world congress.

During a period of ten years (1923-33), the Left Opposition acted as a faction of the Comintern, hoping to attain an improvement in its policy and regime by systematic criticism and an active participation in the life of the Comintern and its sections. The Left Opposition, therefore, has a colossal experience of an international character. There was not a single, important, historic event that did not force the Left Opposition to counterpose its slogans and methods to the slogans and methods of the bureaucracy of the Comintern. The struggle around the questions of the Soviet economy and the regime of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Revolution, Anglo-Russian Committee, etc., etc., remained comparatively little known to the workers’ parties of the West. [10] But two chapters of this struggle passed before the eyes of the advanced workers of all the world: they deal with the theory and practice of the “third period” and with the strategy of the Comintern in Germany.

If the Left Opposition can be blamed for anything, it is certainly not for an impatient break with the Comintern. Only after the German Communist Party, which had been gathering millions of votes, proved incapable of offering even the least resistance to Hitler, and after the Comintern refused to recognize not only the erroneousness of its policy but even the very fact of the defeat of the proletariat (in reality the victory of Hitler is the greatest defeat of the proletariat in the history of the world!) and replaced the analysis of its mistakes and crimes by a new campaign of persecution and slander against real Marxists – only after this did we say: nothing can save these people any more. The German catastrophe, and the role of the Comintern in it, is infinitely more important for the world proletariat than any organizational manoeuvres, congresses, evasive declarations, diplomatic agreements, etc. The historical judgment on the Comintern has been pronounced. There is no appeal from this verdict.

The history of the Comintern is almost unknown to the members of the ILP, which has just recently taken the revolutionary path. Besides, no organization learns only by books and files. The ILP wants independently to undergo an experience that already undergone on a much larger scale. Had this involved only the loss of a few months, one could have reconciled oneself to it despite the fact that each month of our time is much more precious than years of another period. The danger, however, is that, aspiring to “test” the Comintern by drawing closer to it, the ILP may, without realizing it, follow the ways of the Comintern – and ruin itself.

The trade union question remains the most important question of proletarian policy in Great Britain, as well as in the majority of old capitalist countries. The mistakes of the Comintern in this field are innumerable. No wonder: a party’s inability to establish correct relations with the working class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement. That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this question.

The trade unions were formed during the period of the growth and rise of capitalism. They had as their task the raising of the material and cultural level of the proletariat and the extension of its political rights. This work, which in Britain lasted over a century, gave the trade unions tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism, under the conditions of decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organizations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.

From that point on, the most important task of the revolutionary Party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy. In this decisive field, the Comintern revealed its complete inadequacy. In 1926-27, especially in the period of the miners’ strike and the General Strike, that is, at the time of the greatest crimes and betrayals of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, the Comintern obsequiously toadied to the highly placed strike-breakers, cloaked them with its authority in the eyes of the masses and helped them remain in the saddle. That is how the Minority Movement [11] was struck a mortal blow. Frightened by the results of its own work, the Comintern bureaucracy went to the extreme of ultra-radicalism. The fatal excesses of the “third period” were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it. Isolating itself more and more from the working class, the Communist Party counterposed to the trade unions, which embraced millions of workers, its own trade union organizations, which were highly obedient to the leadership of the Comintern but separated by an abyss from the working class. No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been within its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern. [12]

As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role. Nevertheless. they still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done? The revolutionary road is seriously compromised in the eyes of the left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: the trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of one who is in a blind alley. Meanwhile, the trade union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, ever more impudently replacing internal democracy by the arbitrary action of a clique, in essence, transforming the trade unions into some sort of concentration camp for the workers during the decline of capitalism.

Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: is it not possible to by-pass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organization. such as revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, Soviets and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts is that they reduce to organizational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.

Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to” win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organizations’ internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness, in the spirit of the parliamentary oligarchy of the era of “rotten boroughs.” [13] Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext. This argument can be developed further: why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repressions and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here, since the trade union bureaucracy has definitely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental. It is absurd to think that it would be Possible to work against the trade union bureaucracy with its own help, or only with its consent. Insofar as it defends itself by Persecutions, violence, expulsions, frequently resorting to the assistance of government authorities, we must learn to work in the trade unions discreetly, finding a common language with the masses but not revealing ourselves prematurely to the bureaucracy. It is precisely in the present epoch, when the reformist bureaucracy of the proletariat has transformed itself into the economic police of capital, that revolutionary work in the trade unions, performed intelligently and systematically, may yield decisive results in a comparatively short time.

We do not at all mean by this that the revolutionary party has any guarantee that the trade unions will be completely won over to the socialist revolution. The problem is not so simple. The trade union apparatus has attained for itself great independence from the masses. The bureaucracy is capable of retaining its positions a long time after the masses have turned against it. But it is precisely such a situation, where the masses are already hostile to the trade union bureaucracy but where the bureaucracy is still capable of misrepresenting the opinion of the organization and of sabotaging new elections. that is most favourable for the creation of shop committees, workers’ councils and other organizations for the immediate needs of any given moment. Even in Russia, where the trade unions did not have anything like the powerful traditions of the British trade unions, the October Revolution occurred with Mensheviks Predominant in the administration of the trade unions. Having lost the masses, these administrations were still capable of sabotaging elections in the apparatus, although already powerless to sabotage the proletarian revolution.

It is absolutely necessary right now to prepare the minds of the advanced workers for the idea of creating shop committees and workers councils at the moment of a sharp change. But it would be the greatest mistake to “play around” in practice with the slogan of shop councils, consoling oneself with this “idea” for the lack of real work and real influence in the trade unions. To counterpose to the existing trade unions the abstract idea of workers’ councils would mean setting against oneself not only the bureaucracy but also the masses, thus depriving oneself of the possibility of preparing the ground for the creation of workers’ councils.

In this the Comintern has gained not a little experience: having created obedient, that is, purely Communist, trade unions, it counterposed its sections to the working masses in a hostile manner and thereby doomed itself to complete impotence. This is one of the most important causes of the collapse of the German Communist Party. It is true that the British Communist Party, insofar as I am informed, opposes the slogan of workers’ councils under the present conditions. Superficially, this may seem like a realistic appraisal of the situation. In reality, the British Communist Party only rejects one form of political adventurism for another, more hysterical form. The theory and practice of social fascism and the rejection of the policy of the united front creates insurmountable obstacles to working in the trade unions, since each trade union is, by its very nature, the arena of an ongoing united front of revolutionary parties with reformist and non-party masses. To the extent that the British Communist Party proved incapable, even after the German tragedy, of learning anything and arming itself anew, to that extent can an alliance with it pull to the bottom even the ILP, which only recently has entered a period of revolutionary apprenticeship.

Pseudo-Communists will, no doubt, refer to the last congress of trade unions, which declared that there could be no united front with Communists against fascism. It would be the greatest folly to accept this piece of wisdom as the final verdict of history. The trade union bureaucrats can permit themselves such boastful formulas only because they are not immediately threatened by fascism or by communism. When the hammer of fascism is raised over the head of the trade unions, then, with a correct policy of the revolutionary party, the trade union masses will show an irresistible urge for an alliance with the revolutionary wing and will carry with them onto this path even a certain portion of the apparatus. Contrariwise, if communism should become a decisive force, threatening the General Council with the loss of positions, honours and income, Messrs. Citrine [14] and Co. would undoubtedly enter into a bloc with Mosley [15] and Co. against the Communists. Thus, in August 1917, the Russian Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries together with the Bolsheviks repulsed General Kornilov. [16] Two months later in October, they were fighting hand in hand with the Kornilovists against the Bolsheviks. And in the first months of 1917, when the reformists were still strong, they spouted, just like Citrine and Co., about the impossibility of their making an alliance with the dictatorship either of the right or left.

The revolutionary proletarian Party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based programme. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism. equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness.

From the point of view of both these closely connected criteria, the ILP should review its relation to the Comintern as well as to all other organizations and tendencies within the working class. This concerns first of all the fate of the ILP itself.

Written on 4th September 1933 and published in
The Militant, 30th September 1933

* * *

In the Daily Worker [17] of 14th September I found the letter of Comrade C.A. Smith [18], who defends the ILP from the accusation that its delegates have participated in Paris in the building of a Two-and-One-Half International. I have no basis whatsoever to interfere in the essence of this polemic. I must point out, however, that from the letter of Comrade Smith the conclusion might be drawn that in Paris there was actually laid the foundation for a Two-and-One-Half International, although without the participation of the ILP. I consider it necessary to dispel any misunderstandings that the readers of the New Leader [19] might have on this score.

It is true that certain organizations which occupy an intermediate position between the Second and the Third International, such as the Norwegian Workers’ Party, the French Party of the Proletarian Unity (PUP) [20], the Italian Maximalists [21] and others, have participated in the Paris Conference. But precisely all these organizations expressed themselves against the new International.

For the creation of the new International, not a Two-and-One Half, but a Fourth International, were the following organizations: The International Left Opposition, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP) of Germany [22] and two Dutch Socialist Parties, the Independent Socialist Party and the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Holland. [23]

I urge the readers of the New Leader, as, however, also the readers of the Daily Worker, to acquaint themselves with the declaration of the named organizations On the Necessity and Principles of a New International. Here I shall quote only one paragraph (8) out of eleven.

“While ready to co-operate with all the organizations, groups and fractions which are actually developing from reformism or bureaucratic centrism (Stalinism) towards revolutionary Marxist policy, the undersigned at the same time declare that the new International cannot tolerate any conciliation towards reformism, or centrism. The necessary unity of the workers movement cannot be attained by the blurring of reformist and revolutionary conceptions, or the adaptation to the Stalinist policy, but only by combating the policies of both bankrupt Internationals. To remain equal to its task the new International must not permit any deviation from revolutionary principles in the questions of insurrection, proletarian dictatorship, Soviet form of the State, etc.”

In conclusion, I allow myself to say that the International Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) is much further removed from centrism (2½) than the present Barbussized [24] Comintern.

With revolutionary greetings,
L. Trotsky

From a letter to New Leader (dated 2nd October 1933),
published 13th October 1933

* * *

It was all rather breathtaking. Driven at midnight to a station in Paris; put on a train but kept ignorant of destination; leaving the train according to instructions at a certain time; recognized by a comrade, armed with a telegraphed description of us; whirled off for a further journey; admitted past various obstacles; and finally greeted with tempestuous heartiness by Leon Trotsky himself.

We settled down to business immediately, and for over ten hours, with breaks only for meals, plied one of the world’s most distinguished revolutionaries with questions. No one could fail to be impressed by the man’s enormous vitality, or charmed by his frank and eager courtesy. Clear analytical exposition, supplemented by a wealth of vivid imagery and forceful metaphor, made his conversation both an intellectual and an aesthetic delight.

“You are aware,” I said, “that at the Paris Conference of Revolutionary Socialist Parties the ILP voted against the main resolution (because we considered the condemnation of the Comintern unbalanced or exaggerated), and also against the proposal to form a Fourth International. We are consequently particularly desirous of hearing: (a) Your chief criticism of the Comintern; (b) Why you despair of its reform; (c) What action you propose taking?”

Trotsky’s criticisms, delivered with great verve and clarity, related both to the Communist International’s policy and to its organization. The latter he declared to be bureaucratic, and corruptly bureaucratic at that. Discussion is stifled, criticism regarded as disloyalty, and all who oppose the bureaucratic tops expelled as heretics.

Bolshevik self-criticism, said Trotsky, is a departed glory. In the early days, even during the Civil War, perfect freedom of discussion was the rule. In the Red Army there was strict military discipline with severe punishment, yet even there in policy discussions private soldiers, as party members, frequently attacked Lenin (as well as Trotsky himself), or the Central Committee as a whole, and criticized them unsparingly. During the Civil War a Congress was held every year, with an additional Congress in a case of emergency; now five years pass and there is no Comintern Congress.

Functionaries of the Comintern Praesidium are changed by the decree of the Political Bureau of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Brandler [25], the German CP leader, criticized the Comintern policy in Germany. He was summoned to Moscow and detained there several years, finally getting away by extraordinary methods. If a man refuses to go to Moscow when ordered thither he is immediately expelled from the party.

This suppression of internal criticism, insisted Trotsky, arises from the determination of the Stalinist faction to retain control in the teeth of a wrong policy. But the results of bureaucratic rule themselves influence policy. The bureaucratic mind has an essential distrust of the masses, and in consequence develops the usual characteristics of bureaucracies, whatever their time or place. Specifically, the present Russian bureaucracy differs from the bourgeois bureaucracies of the capitalist countries, in that the former desires to preserve the Soviet Union and the latter desire to overthrow it. Generically. however, they are identical in outlook and methods.

Decisions are taken without consulting the rank and file, and every art of lying, concealment and repression is used to compel acceptance of the line laid down by the executive, often out of touch with the situation it is attempting to control. Further, the bureaucracy never dares to admit its mistakes, which are the more grave the more the bureaucracy considers itself infallible. The most glaring instance of this refusal to admit mistakes is afforded by the German debacle.

The CI line there was tragically wrong, declared Trotsky, and many of the ablest communist leaders recognize this. It led the German workers to certain and frequently predicted disaster. Yet immediately after the disaster, the CI solemnly declared that its line had been correct!

This same distrust of the masses was revealed through the history of the Anglo-Russian Committee, when the CI recognized as the representatives of the British workers the trade union bureaucracy – even during the actual days of their betrayal of the General Strike of 1926! – and worse still, after it. Bureaucratic distrust was shown in the CI’s terrible mishandling of the Chinese Revolution [26], when they placed it under the direction of the bourgeois Kuomintang, which, as Trotsky had foretold, soon after betrayed it with massacre and torture.

Bureaucratic distrust is shown repeatedly, continued Trotsky, in the CI’s attitude to other organizations, where, despite the slogan of United Front from Below, the aim has been not so much to mobilize the revolutionary workers as to capture the organizational apparatus. All of this, reinforced by the financial control of the CI bureaucracy over its national sections, breeds a mentality of dependence, of unquestioning obedience, which is the very antithesis of the critical and independent mind required for a revolutionary “What were the Comintern errors in Germany?,” I interpolated.

“The mistakes have continued for ten years: missing the revolutionary situation in 1923 (the Occupation of the Ruhr); steering a course to armed uprising after the relationship of forces had radically changed against the proletariat; a turn towards “courting” the Social-Democracy (1926-1927); a new turn towards adventurism (“Third Period,” conquest of the streets, etc.); a radically false policy with regard to the trade unions; the replacement of educational work by “ultimatism’; the creation of tiny parallel trade unions – that is, the isolation of the party from the class; the theory of social-fascism and the renunciation of the policy of the united front; nationalistic agitation and the adaptation to fascism (“national liberation” of Germany, the participation in the Prussian plebiscite together with the Nazis) [27]; systematic destruction of all defence organizations established by local workers’ organizations.

“Social-democracy and fascism are not twins, as the CI declared,” insisted Trotsky. “True, Social-Democracy supports the bourgeoisie; but it does not (despite treacherous leaders) support fascism, whose victory signifies the extermination of Social-Democracy as a party.”

“What are your chief criticisms of the present policy of the CI?” I asked.

“Chiefly, the theory of ‘Socialism in one country’ and its resultant policy of ‘centrism’.” Trotsky defined centrism as the sum total of all the tendencies between Marxism and reformism which move from one to the other. The CI bureaucracy is predisposed to become reformist, but cannot do so because it is tied to the Soviet state. Yet it cannot be revolutionary because it has abandoned the theory of world revolution. So it swings between the two poles and remains centrist.

“Secondly, the theory of socialism in one country is not an abstract principle, but a matter of life and death. The present crisis in capitalism arises not only from the contradiction between productive forces and private property, but also from that between productive forces and national states. The task of socialism is not to push back the productive forces within the boundaries of a single state, but, on the contrary, to organize them on a world scale. And this presupposes the world revolution, which ought to be the basis of the Comintern”.

This is not incompatible with the rapid industrialization of Russia. It was Trotsky who in 1923 was pleading in speech and writing for a Five-Year Plan, when Stalin was deriding him as an optimist. When the bureaucracy was at length converted to this optimism, they swung into the opposite extreme and fell into the error of “Socialism in one country”.

“Do you support the proposal for an industrial and transport boycott of fascist Germany at the earliest possible moment?”

“Yes, at the earliest suitable moment; it is only a question of capacity.”

“At the Paris Conference,” I said, “The ILP urged an amendment calling for a protest or demonstration strike of definite and limited duration with regard to some special Nazi outrage, but this was rejected.”

“This time the ILP line was the perfectly correct revolutionary policy,” replied Trotsky.

Next I asked: “Why do you despair of the Comintern’s correcting its policy?”

“First, because there is no democracy within the party and critics who attempt to correct its line are expelled. Secondly, this fight is not of recent origin: it started ten years ago. The crucial instance is Germany. If that cannot convince the bureaucracy of its errors, then nothing can. And if the ILP is still to wait hopefully a little longer, how much longer will you wait, and what evidence will finally satisfy you? The destruction of the now endangered Soviets would surely be too high a price for the enlightenment of the ILP!”

“Then what do you think must be done?”

“Form the Fourth International” said Trotsky, “to include all revolutionaries who accept the principles of Marx and Lenin, and know that, the Second and Third Internationals are both bankrupt – the one through reactionary reformism and the other through bureaucratic centrism. We of the International Left Opposition are ready, however, to make a united front with the Comintern bureaucracy for the specific purpose of defending the Soviet Union.”

“And what is your advice to the ILP?”

To remain independent at all costs, until it has completed its movement from reformism to revolution, from an empirical to a theoretical basis. You require a firm grasp of the revolutionary theory of the capitalist state. a correct evaluation of social and economic forces. adequate information of the movement of revolution and reaction outside Great Britain and a definite plan of the revolutionary course within Britain – a plan flexible in detail but rigid in principle.”

Regretfully we took our leave to catch the night train to Paris. More than once we turned back to salute the erect figure of the former Red Army leader, who stood waving repeated farewells. While not prepared to accept all his conclusions, we were glad to have heard his own statement of his case. So, too, we believe, will be the majority of revolutionary socialists in Britain.

Interview with C.A. Smith (29th August 1933),
New Leader, 13th October 1933

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Index


1. In Defence of the October Revolution lecture to an audience of Social-Democratic students in Copenhagen, 27th November, 1932

2. James Maxton (1885-1946), Scottish socialist and leader of the Independent Labour Party; joined ILP in 1904; active opponent of World War I, close associate of John Maclean and leading figure in the Red Clydeside movement; elected to parliament in 1922; led the ILP out of the Labour Party in 1931/32.

3. The theory of “socialism in one country” was developed by Bukharin and taken up in 1924 by Stalin as the platform of the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and represented a complete break from Marxism. In the next period it became the programme of betrayal of revolutionary opportunities in Germany and China, and also led to the failure of the General Strike in Britain, further consolidating the position of the bureaucracy within the Soviet Union. This same theory was used to impose the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy on the Communist International as a whole, in the form of the draft programme for the Sixth Congress in 1928. Trotsky’s reply to this document, which analyses the class roots of “socialism in one country”, is contained in The Third International after Lenin.

4. This was Trotsky’s most important contribution to Marxist theory in the period before 1917. It was a view he formulated in 1906 that because of the weakness and backwardness of the Russian bourgeoisie, any revolutionary upheaval would be forced to go beyond the anti-feudal (bourgeois) phase to the anti-capitalist (socialist) one. Furthermore, the revolution which thus took place could only develop in co-operation with the more advanced capitalist countries where the initial revolutionary thrust might be weaker. This view was in all essentials accepted by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1917, and the Russian Revolution of November 1917 was based on its assumptions.

5. A year after breaking from the Labour Party, the ILP’s NAC meeting in July 1933 attempted to hammer out a programme in which the parliamentary struggle would be secondary to a campaign of agitation industrially. The ILP was to intervene more forcibly in trade unions, trades councils, the NUWM, and to set up “Workers’ Councils” to agitate against wage cuts etc. and “to act for the working class in a revolutionary crisis”.

6. Fenner Brockway (1888-1988), British socialist and leader of the Independent Labour Party; joined ILP in 1907; editor of Labour Leader, the ILP paper, 1912-16; a militant pacifist during World War I, he was jailed several times; Editor of New Leader, the renamed ILP paper; 1926-29 and 1931-46; Chairman of ILP 1931-33 and General Secretary of ILP (1933-39); member of parliament 1929-31 and 1950-1964.

7. When Hitler came to power in 1933 the German working class was not only disarmed by the refusal of the Social Democratic leaders to fight (they went so far as to offer to participate in the Nazi Labour Front), but by the ultra-left policy of the Stalinists, who branded the Social-Democrats as “social fascists” and wrecked the possibility of uniting social-democratic and communist workers in defence of rights.

8. The Norwegian Workers’ Party (NAP) referred to elsewhere as the Labour Party, first won representation in the National Assembly in 1906, and in the following period was influenced by syndicalism under its leader Martin Tranmael (1879-1967), who was for a time associated with some of the groups that set up the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. In 1919 the majority of the party supported the call for a Third International and delegates were sent to early congresses, but they never really agreed with its basic principles, and in 1923 they left, a minority seceding to form Norwegian CP. The NAP did not at first re-join the Second International being associated with the Paris conference of 1933 and other centrist international movements. In 1934 they opposed the establishment of a new International and began to co-operate with social-democratic parties in the other Scandinavian countries. In the following year, as the governing party in Norway, they granted asylum to Trotsky, but under Soviet pressure they soon interned and silenced him for four months and then deported him to Mexico. Finally, in 1938, the party returned to its spiritual home in the Second International.

9. This was the meeting in August 1933 of the group of centrist organizations then known as the International Labour Community but more usually as the “London Bureau” (see note). These organizations in some cases rallied to the Fourth International, but mostly disintegrated or liquidated themselves into Stalinism or social democracy.

10. This material is in print, however, in a series of studies and documents published partly also in foreign languages. For the British comrades, the publications of the American League (Pioneer Publishers) are of great importance. Whoever wishes to study seriously the ten-year struggle of the Left Opposition for the reform and improvement of the Comintern must study all these documents. – L.T.

11. The Minority Movement: 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.

12. The Profintern (Red International of Labour Unions) was founded on the initiative of the Communist International in July 1921, bringing together trade unions and trade union federations opposed to the Amsterdam reformist trade union international. Like the Comintern, it degenerated into an instrument of Stalinist policy and collapsed long after it had ceased to pursue revolutionary aims.

13. These were parliamentary seats before the Reform Act of 1832 where very small electorates were controlled by rich patrons who could decide on the MP and his policies.

14. Walter Citrine (1887-1983), British trade unionist; Acting General Secretary of the TUC 1925-26, General Secretary of the TUC 1926-46.

15. Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), British politician best known as the founder of the British Union of Fascists; originally elected as a Conyervative MP in 1918, he became dissatisfied with the party’s politics and became an Independent MP in 1922; in 1924 he joined the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party, aligning himself witht he left; by 1930 he had became dissatisfied with the lack of radicalism of the second Labour government and left the party in early 1931 to found the New Party, which initially attracted support from various sections of the political spectrum, including a number of well-known left-wingers; following a tour of Europe Mosley became attracted to fascism and set up the British Union of Fascists modelled on Mussolini’s Fasist Party in 1932.

16. Trotsky refers to the July-August period of the Provisional Government when Petrograd was threatened by the counter-revolutionary General Kornilov. The reformist Mensheviks and petty-bourgeois Socialist-Revolutionaries were forced to unite against him.

17. Paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, founded 1st January 1930 and ever since reflecting every twist and turn in the policies of Stalinism. Its name was chnaged in 1966 to Morning Star, to facilitate its orientation to middle class circles and the Labour “lefts”.

18. C.A. Smith, British socialist; member of the Independent Labour Party; advocate of Fourth international with#in ILP until about 1935; Chairman of ILP 1931-41; later drifted to the right.

19. The original name of the ILP paper was Labour Leader. In 1922 when Brailsford took over as editor, the name was changed to New Leader. It was published as such until 1946, when the much depleted ranks of the ILP began to produce Socialist Leader, which still appears.

20. In November 1929 six Parisian CP municipal councillors, including Louis Sellier (1885-1978), Party General Secretary six years previously, were expelled for opposition to the party’s ultra-left line. In the following month they established an organization known as the “Parti Ouvrier et Paysan”. They soon afterwards joined with a group also expelled from the CP to form the “Parti d’Unité Prolétarienne” (PUP), publishing a paper called Que Faire? (What is to be Done?). Trotsky characterized them as a rightward-moving group comparable to the followers of Brandler and Lovestone, and unable to answer the question they posed in the title of their paper.

21. A centrist tendency within the Italian Socialist Party which continued to exist in exile after Mussolini’s suppression of the working class movement. Affiliated to the London Bureau.

22. Formed in October 1931 by several left-wingers who had been expelled by the Social Democrats. Early in the following year the Party was joined by a group of German right oppositionists (Brandlerites) led by Jacob Walcher (1887-1970) who soon assumed the leadership. Though they supported the call for a New International in 1933, the SAP later became actively hostile to it. They even supported the popular front in the mid-30s and soon afterwards disintegrated altogether. Walcher became a minor functionary in the East German Stalinist regime after 1945. The leader of the SAP’s Youth Section whose activities prevented the establishment of a youth international under the auspices of the London Bureau, was the future Chancellor of West Germany Willi Brandt.

23. The Dutch Revolutionary Socialist Party was established in 1929 by Henryk Sneevliet (1883-1942), a leading revolutionary of both the Netherlands and Indonesia who had left the Dutch CP in 1927. It supported the 1933 call in the London Bureau for a new international. It was joined in this by the Dutch Independent Socialist Party, which then split from its own right wing and merged with Sneevliet’s organization in 1935 to form the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party of the Netherlands. It continued, however, to remain associated with the London Bureau, breaking all connections with Trotskyism in 1938.

24. Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) was a talented French who produced a fine anti-war novel, Le Feu (Under Fire), in 1916. He established a literary magazine in 1917 called Clarté, which generally supported pacifist and leftist causes, and in 1921 declared that Communism sprang from “the eternal truths of reason and conscience”. On this idealist basis he joined the Communist Party in 1923 and became a notorious Stalin-worshipper. He was associated with the earliest steps in Popular Front policy such as the 1932 Amsterdam conference. He died in Moscow at the Seventh Comintern Congress when such policies were being given the final Stalinist seal of approval.

25. Heinrich Brandler (1881-1967) was a building worker from the Sudetenland. Active in the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party before 1914, he played a major role in the Communist Party from its foundation, assuming the leadership in 1923. Blamed for the defeat of that year, he was removed from his post and spent a long period in Moscow. He set up the Communist Party Opposition, which associated itself with Bukharin’s criticisms of Stalin’s ultra-left turn of 1928. Expelled from the German CP and the Comintern in 1929, he operated as part of an International Right Opposition with Lovestone, Pepper and others, and maintained a political organization, mainly in exile in France, at least until the outbreak of the Second World War, showing little ability to adopt a consistent criticism of Stalinism – particularly over the Moscow Trials. After the war, he returned to live in West Germany.

26. In this period the Comintern leadership under Stalin forced the young Communist Party to work under the control of the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, then coming under the leadership of the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek. CP members pushed the revolution forward in the cities and were murdered in their thousands by Chiang. All efforts to come to terms with the Kuomintang, including its left section under Wang Ching-wei, came to nothing. Wang became a Japanese puppet and died in 1934 and Chiang ultimately accepted the patronage of the American imperialists to be dictator of a regime set up in the island of Taiwan. The full story of the Comintern’s role in the events of 1926-7 can be found in Trotsky’s Problems of the Chinese Revolution.

27. In 1931 the Nazis and their me right wing allies managed to get a plebiscite in Prussia in an effort to force out of office the regional government, then run by the social democrats. Although the German Communist Party leaders at first wanted to oppose this, under the direct orders of the Comintern they decided to vote with the Nazis against the social democrats. This incident represented for Trotsky one of the most criminal results of the “third period” policies of Stalin.

Volume 3 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007