Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

Trotskyism versus Centrism in Britain

Cardinal Questions
Facing the ILP

For the Fourth International

I am informed that the ILP has weakened considerably in the last period. Its membership, it is claimed, has fallen to four thousand. It is possible, even very probable, that this report is exaggerated. But the general tendency does not seem to me improbable. I will say more: the leadership of the ILP bears a considerable share of responsibility for the weakening of the organization before which all the conditions opened up and – I want to hope – still open up a wide perspective.

If a worker barely awakened to political life seeks a mass organization, without distinguishing as yet either programmes or tactics, he will naturally join the Labour Party. A worker disillusioned with reformism and exasperated by the betrayals of the political and trade union leaders has attempted more than once – and to some extent is attempting even now – to join the Communist Party, behind which he sees the image of the Soviet Union. But where is the worker who will join the ILP? And exactly what political motives will impel him to take this step?

It seems to me that the leaders of the ILP have as yet not given themselves a clear answer to this cardinal question. Working masses are not interested in shadings and details but in great events, clear slogans, far-seen banners. What is the situation with the ILP’s banner? Not well. I say this with great regret. But it must be said. To suppress or embellish the facts would be rendering a poor service to your party.

The ILP broke away from the Labour Party. That was correct. If the ILP wanted to become the revolutionary lever, it was impossible for the handle of this lever to be left in the hands of the thoroughly opportunist and bourgeois careerists. Complete and unconditional political and organizational independence of a revolutionary party is the first prerequisite for its success.

But while breaking away from the Labour Party, it was necessary immediately to turn toward it. Of course, this was not to court its leaders, or to pay them bittersweet compliments, or even to suppress their criminal acts – no, only characterless centrists who imagine themselves revolutionaries seek a road to the masses by accommodating themselves to the leaders, by humouring them and reassuring them at every step of their friendship and loyalty. A policy of this sort is a road that leads down to the swamp of opportunism. One must seek a way to the reformist masses not through the favour of their leaders, but against the leaders, because opportunist leaders represent not the masses but merely their backwardness, their servile instincts and, finally, their confusion. But the masses have other, progressive, revolutionary traits that strive to find political expression. The future of the masses is most clearly counterposed to their past in the struggle of programmes, parties, slogans and leaders. Instinctively working masses are always “for unity.” But besides class instinct there is also political wisdom. Harsh experience teaches the workers that a break with reformism is the prerequisite for real unity, which is possible only in revolutionary action. Political experience teaches all the better and faster, the more firmly, logically, convincingly and clearly the revolutionary party interprets the experience to the masses.

The Leninist method of the united front and political fraternization with reformists exclude each other. Temporary practical fighting agreements with mass organizations even headed by the worst reformists are inevitable and obligatory for a revolutionary party. Lasting political alliances with reformist leaders without a definite programme, without concrete duties, without the participation of the masses themselves in militant actions, are the worst type of opportunism. The Anglo-Russian Committee [1] remains forever the classic example of such a demoralizing alliance.

One of the most important bridges to the masses is the trade unions, where one can and must work without accommodating to the leaders in the least, on the contrary, struggling irreconcilably against them openly or under cover, depending on the circumstances. But besides the trade unions, there are numerous ways of participating in the daily life of the masses – in the factory, on the street In sport organisation even in church and saloon, under the condition that the greatest heed to be paid to what the masses feel and think, how they react to events, what they expect and what they hope for, how and why they let themselves be deceived by reformist leaders. Observing the masses constantly and most thoughtfully, the revolutionary party must not, however, adapt itself passively to them (chvostism [tail-ending]); on the contrary, it must counterpose their judgement to their prejudices.

It would be particularly wrong to ignore or minimize the importance of parliamentary work. Of course, parliament cannot transform capitalism into socialism Or improve the conditions of the proletariat in rotting capitalist society. But revolutionary work in parliament and n connection with parliament, especially in Britain, can be of great help in training and educating the masses. One courageous exclamation of McGovern refreshed and stirred the workers, who had been deceived or stupefied by the Pious, hypocritical, flag-waving speeches of Lansbury, Henderson and other gentlemen of His Majesty’s Opposition” of flunkeys.

Unfortunately, having become an independent party, the ILP turned not toward the trade unions and the Labour Party, not toward the masses altogether, but toward the Communist Party, which had during a number of years conclusively proven its bureaucratic dullness and absolute inability to approach the class. If even the German catastrophe taught these people nothing, then the doors of the Comintern should bear the same inscription as the entrance to hell: Lasciate ogni speranza [Leave all hope behind].

The ILP had not freed itself by far of all the defects of the Left wing of the Labour Party (theoretical vagueness, lack of a clear programme, of revolutionary methods, of a strong organization) when it hastened to take upon itself the responsibility for the incurable failmgs of the Comintern. It is clear that in this situation new revolutionary workers will not join the ILP; rather, many of its old members will leave it, having lost patience. If semi-reformists, petty-bourgeois radicals and pacifists leave the ILP, we can only wish them a happy journey. But it is a different matter when discontented workers quit the party.

The causes for the enfeeblement of the ILP are seen with special clarity and precision when the problem is approached from the international point of view, which is of decisive importance in our epoch. Having broken with the Second International, the ILP approached the Third, but did not join it. The ILP is simply hanging in mid-air. Meanwhile, every thinking worker wants to belong to the kind of party that occupies a definite international position: in the unbreakable union with co-thinkers of other countries he sees the confirmation of the correctness of his own position. True, the ILP enters the so-called London Bureau. [2] But the chief characteristic of this Bureau consists, unfortunately, in the absence of all position. It would suffice to say that the Norwegian Labour Party, which under the leadership of the treacherous opportunist Tranmael [3] goes ever more openly along the Social Democratic road, belongs to this Bureau. Tranmael and Co. need the temporary alliance with the ILP and with other left organizations to pacify their own left-wing and gradually to prepare for themselves the way to the Second International. Now Tranmael is approaching the harbour.

On the other side, the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP) and the Independent Socialist Party of Holland (OSP) [4] also belong to the London Bureau. Both these organizations stand on the point of view of the Fourth International. Their adherence to the Bureau merely reflects their past. We, the International Communist League (Left Opposition), have considered and now consider it a great mistake of our allies, the SAP and the OSP, that they have not yet broken openly and decisively with Tranmael and with the London Bureau in general. We do not doubt, however, that the hour of such a rupture is near.

What is the position of the ILP? Entering the London Bureau, it becomes by this very fact an ally of Tranmael, that is, essentially of the Second International. Through the SAP and the OSP, it becomes a sort of ally, or semi-ally, of the Fourth International. This is not all – outside the London Bureau, the ILP finds itself in a temporary alliance with the British Communist Party, that is, with the Third International. Are there not somewhat too many Internationals for one party? Can the British worker make head or tail out of this confusion?

At the Paris Conference, the ILP delegates said that they did not lose hope of attracting the Comintern to participate in the building of a broad revolutionary International. Nearly a half year has elapsed since them. Is it possible that no answer has come yet? How much time do the leading comrades of the ILP need to understand the Comintern is incapable of making one step forward, that it is completely ossified, that as a revolutionary party it is dead? If the ILP wants to continue waiting for miracles, that is, to live in hopes on the Comintern, or to remain outside of the main historic currents, its own members will inevitably lose confidence in it.

The same fate awaits the Swedish Independent Communist party. [5] For fear of making an error, it abstains from all decision, not realizing that precisely this is the greatest error. In general, there are not a few politicians who consider evasiveness and waiting for problems to solve themselves as the highest wisdom. “Do not hurry with the Fourth International,” they say, “now is not the time.” It is a matter not of bureaucraticallv “proclaiming” the new International but of uninterrupted struggle for its preparation and building. “Not to hurry” means in practice to lose time. “Perhaps the new International will not be needed,” perhaps “a miracle will happen, perhaps ...” This policy, which seems to some people very realistic, is the worst type of utoptanism, spun out of passivity, ignorance and belief in miracles. If the Swedish Independent Communist Party will not shake off its pseudo-realistic superstitions, it will weaken, waste away and finally be torn between three Internationals.

“But the masses,” object some pseudo-realists, “are as afraid of a new International as of a new split.” This is absolutely natural. The masses’ fear of a new party and of a new International is a reflection (one of the reflections) of the great catastrophe, the terrible defeat, the disillusionment of the masses, their bewilderment, their disbelief in themselves. How long these moods will last depends mainly on the course of events but to a certain extent also on us. We do not bear any responsibility for the course of events, but we answer fully for our own attitude. The advantage of the vanguard over the masses is that we illuminate theoretically the march of events and foresee its future stages. The formless “ passive longing for “unity” will receive blow after blow. The rottenness of the Second and Third Internationals will be revealed at each step. Events will confirm our prognosis and our slogans. But it is necessary that we ourselves not be afraid to unfurl our banner right now.

Lassalle used to say that a revolutionary needs the “physical power of thought.” Lenin liked to repeat these words, although, in general, he did not like Lassalle [6] much. The physical power of thought consists in analyzing the situation and perspectives to the very end and, having come to the necessary practical conclusions, defending them with conviction, courage, intransigence, not fearing someone else’s fears, not bowing before prejudices of the masses but basing oneself on the objective course of development.

The ILP of Great Britain must place itself right now under the banner of the Fourth International, or it will disappear from the scene without leaving a trace.

Letter to a member of the ILP (dated 5th January 1934), The Militant, 27th January 1934

* * *

The lack of a real ideological position on the part of Comrades Bauer and P.N. [7] appears most plainly on the question of the ILP. Bauer was in favour of the entry of the British section into the ILP from its beginning. P.N. was against this, but after his trip to Britain, having become aware of the actual situation at first hand, he recognized the incorrectness of his original position. To set up an ideological difference between the ILP and the SFIO [8], especially the latter’s Parisian organization and the Young Socialists, is simply ridiculous. Neither P.N. nor Bauer has made any attempt to explain the difference in their ideological stand with regard to Britain and France.

However the experience of the British section, on a small scale, is highly instructive. The “majority” maintaining its “organizational autonomy” actually finds itself in a state of constant internal strife and division. Certain leaders have left the organization altogether. On the other hand, the “minority” that entered the ILP has maintained its internal solidarity and its connection with the international Bolshevik-Leninists, has made large use of the publications of the League in America and has had a series of successes inside the ILP. We must learn from the example.

From a summary of discussion at a meeting of the Communist League of America (6th August 1934),
Internal Bulletin No.17 of the Communist League of America, October 1934.

Volume 3, Chapter 2 Index


1. The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee, established in April 1925 as a result of efforts to heal the split between the Amsterdam-based International Federation of Trade Unions and the Red International of Labour Unions. A delegation of British trade union leaders headed by Purcell visited the Soviet Union in November 1924 and closer unity was suggested by Tomsky on behalf of Soviet Union leaders. In the following April a conference was held in London, a Joint Declaration was issued, and this Committee was established. At the Scarborough TUC of September 1925 this policy was endorsed, and Tomsky was received as a fraternal delegate. Although the Committee met twice before the General Strike of May 1926 it did little even to carry out the limited aim of uniting the two trade union centres. The role of the TUC in the General Strike, among other things returning the contributions of Soviet trade unionists, inevitably provoked a crisis. Three further meetings were held, in Paris in July 1926, in Berlin in the following month and in April 1927. Instead of breaking from the policies of betrayal of the British trade union leaders, the Soviet representatives under the instructions of Stalin argued that the Committee should be made more effective and should campaign on such questions as the threat of war. In the end the Committee was broken up by the action of TUC leaders in 1927 when they refused to hold a full meeting, abandoning their militant cover and entering into a period of even closer collaboration with the employers in the Mond-Turner talks.

2. The name usually given to the group of centrist organizations which split from the and Second International in 1931. After the failure of the “Vienna Union” or Two-and-a-half International in 1923 to fulfil the role of intermediary between the reformist and revolutionary internationals, some of those involved, particularly Fenner Brockway cherished the idea of forming a similar body for some time afterwards. Thus when the ILP began its left-moving phase during the second Labour Government, he got the leadership to agree in 1930 to approach other “left’ organizations for the establishment of such a body. This was discussed with some of the parties involved at the July 1931 meeting of the Second International in Vienna, and during a continental tour made the following year by Brockway and McGovern. In April 1932 a loose federation of centrist organizations was set up in Berlin under the name International Labour Community. This body, which would probably have been entirely forgotten otherwise, assumed some importance in 1933 when a number of those associated with it began to call for the establishment of a Fourth International. Thus Brockway and his allies began their balancing trick between Stalinism and Trotskyism which sometimes earned their organization the title of the “Three-and-a-half International”. The official name was changed to the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity in 1935, though they were most usually known as the “Seven Left Parties” or the “London Bureau”. Although a number of groups did join the Fourth International, most of them, if they had any significant following, supported the popular front line – the SAP in Germany being one example – or else evolved into a familiar variety of left reformism, as in the case of the Norwegian Labour Party. Perhaps the most disastrous result of the activities of the London Bureau was to lend a certain credibility to the Spanish POUM, which made itself a prisoner of the Popular Front, with terrible consequences for the Spanish working class.

3. 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). 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.

– Martin Tranmael (1879-1967), Norwegian socialist; while working in the USA he came under the influence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the Wobblies); after his return to Norway he became active in the NAP and was soon a leader of the left wing; supported affiliation to the Comintern, but then led the NAP out of the Comintern in 1923 after a conflict with Zinoviev.

4. the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP) originated in a split to the left from the SPD in 1931. It managed to attract the support of other individuals and groupings including aprt of the Brandlerite KPO, most notably Paul Flich and Jacon Walcher. It argued strongly for a united front against fascism, but was unabloe to win the argument. After the Nazi seizure of power the party leadership was taken over by the left. After initial discussions with Trotsky about the formation of a new Fourth international the SAP became a mainstay of the London Bureau, which Trotsky characterised as centrist. - Independent Socialist Party of Holland (OSP) was founcded in 1932 after the leadership of the SDAP (the Dutch Social Democrats) had banned De Fakkel, the internal opposition publication of the left of the party. In 1935 it merged with Henk Sneevliet’s RSP to form the RSAP.

5. Established by Karl Kilboom (1885-1961) and most of the former leaders of the Swedish Communist Party after their refusal in 1929 to support the ultra-left turn of the Comintern. It was later known as the Socialist Party of Sweden and was actively associated with the centrist London Bureau before it eventually turned to social democracy.

6. Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864), German writer and lawyer. In 1848-9 he took part in the democratic movement in the Rhenish province and early in the 1860s joined the German working class movement, becoming one of the founders of the General Association of German Workers (1863). He stood for the unification of Germany from above under Prussian hegemony, negotiated with Bismarck behind the backs of the workers’ movement, and advocated state-financed co-operatives, foreshadowing the later opportunist trends in the leadership of the German working class. Remained an idealist all his life. His theory of “the iron law of wages” was strongly attacked by Marx.

7. These were members of a tendency within the international Trotskyist movement who were opposed to the entry of the French section into the social democratic party. Eugene Bauer – pseudonym of Erwin Ackerknecht (1906-1988) –, though a member of the International Secretariat, broke from the movement on this question, and in October joined the SAP. He later became a noted medical historian. Pierre Naville (1904-1993) was one of Trotsky’s earliest supporters in France and eventually followed the rest of the section into the Socialist Party. After further disagreements, he left the Trotskyist movement during the Second World War, and after it was a member of various centrist organizations, most recently the PSU (Unified Socialist Party).

8. After the chief organizations of French social democracy (the Socialist Party of France led by Jules Guesde and the French Socialist Party of Jean Jaurès) were united in 1905, they adopted the title French Section of the (Second) Workers’ International, partly to symbolize the role of the International in the fusion. The majority of this party seceded at the Tours Congress of 1920 to form the French Communist Party and those reformists who remained kept this title.

Volume 3 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007