This third and final volume of Trotsky’s writings on Britain is organized around three topics: the decline of British imperialism, the struggle against centrism and the movement for colonial liberation all of which are extremely relevant today. They demonstrate his wide historical knowledge as well as his mastery of the dialectical method, so antagonistic to the deep-rooted empiricism which is part of the British tradition and continues to dominate the labour movement.
When the volume opens the second government of Ramsay MacDonald was in power and Trotsky was an exile in Turkey. The refusal of that government to grant him a visa so that he could accept an invitation from the Independent Labour Party gave him an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the reformists. Although Trotsky had expressly stated that if permitted to reside in Britain he had no intention of interfering in political affairs they were evidently afraid of granting asylum to a prominent revolutionary, especially one who had made such an unsparing criticism of British imperialism and its Labour lackeys.
Other items in the first section extend Trotsky’s analysis of the crisis of British capitalism, whose world role was being taken over by the United States. Anglo-American antagonism was a dominant factor in the 1920s which Trotsky was right to emphasise, though it was held in check by the need of both powers to oppose the pretensions of France in Europe and Japan in Asia. In the next decade, of course, the resurgence of an expansive Germany placed it temporarily in the background again.
Trotsky well understood that the ability of the British ruling class to continue with parliamentary forms of rule testified not to the strength of these political forms, but to its immense wealth accumulated in the past. This acted as a cushion as the economy slid rapidly into the slump, but did not at all mean that the danger of fascism was to be excluded or that the working class could come to power through parliamentary means. As he put it: “The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the British proletariat must not reckon on any historic privileges. It will have to struggle for power by the road of revolution and keep it in its hands by crushing the fierce resistance of the exploiters. There is no other way leading to Socialism. The problems of revolutionary violence or ‘terrorism’, therefore have their practical interest for England also.”
This was how Trotsky stated the classic Marxist position before the Stalinists discovered the “parliamentary road” and in opposition to the Labour Party reformists. Among the latter the Fabians were the most pernicious. The Fabian Society had been set up in conscious opposition to Marxism and among its early adherents were the Webb couple, Sydney and Beatrice, a great influence behind the scenes in the Labour Party. Both Lenin and Trotsky made pungent remarks about the Fabians and Trotsky’s dissection of the Webbs is a classic of its kind. Hostile to Bolshevism and to revolution, they had no difficulty in adapting themselves to Stalin and compiling a massive tome complimentary to the bureaucracy and composed entirely from the propaganda material supplied to them.
The central task which Trotsky undertook during his exile was to rally supporters of the Left Opposition in every country in the struggle against Stalinism, at first with the perspective of returning the Communist Parties to a Bolshevik course and then, after the defeat of the German working class in 1933, to build new revolutionary parties and a new Fourth International. In the first items in this section, then, it should be recalled that the Opposition was still directed to the reform of the Communist Parties, which were carrying on the policy of the “third period” decided on at the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in 1928. At this time Trotsky defined Stalinism as “bureaucratic centrism”. After the policy foisted by Stalin on the German Communist Party had resulted in the smashing defeat of the working class by Hitler in 1933, Trotsky extended his analysis to take this into account and saw that the degeneration of the bureaucracy had made it a counter-revolutionary force. Its own re-assessment led it to abandon the sectarian excesses of the “third period” and adopt the opportunist class collaboration line of the Popular Front. By this time Trotsky was seeking in every country to rally the forces for new parties, starting with the small groups of oppositionists, and build a new Fourth International it was a tactical question to decide where they should direct their immediate attention to win cadres and build up links with the working class.
In Britain Trotsky saw the Independent Labour Party, which disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1932, as one of the main sources from which these cadres could be won. An important factor here was the crushing effect which Stalinism had had in bringing about the defeat of the General Strike and in demoralizing the Communist Party which shortly jumped headlong into the “third period” adventure. “Without the smallest exaggeration” wrote Trotsky, “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.”
It was in this situation that Trotsky advised the supporters of the Left Opposition in Britain to begin by making a critical examination of the policy of the Communist Party. He insisted, too, that a study should be made of the struggle inside the Soviet Union from which the Left opposition had emerged. From the start the leaders of the ILP set up a barrier to any real examination of such questions. Instead they made their own adaptation to Stalinism, even in the “third period”. It was in 1933, immediately after the German defeat, that Trotsky urged that his supporters should work to try to save the ILP and make it the basis for a real revolutionary party.
Trotsky expended considerable patience in trying to explain to ILP members what had to be done. Besides an explanation of the role of Stalinism, he insisted on the need for a turn towards the trade unions—which the ILP was never able to make. “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”, he wrote. The unions had acquired tremendous authority among the workers, but the trade union bureaucracy used this authority “against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction”. The most important task had consequently become that of “the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy”. This could not be done” however, by turning away from the unions, as the ultra-lefts argued, but only by carrying on revolutionary work inside them which “performed intelligently and systematically, may yield decisive results in a comparatively short time”.
Trotsky was against opposing to the trade unions what he called “the abstract idea of workers’ councils”; the ground had to be prepared by revolutionary work inside the unions. It was this work which the ILP never carried out and which was a principal cause of its disintegration. At this time it had an extremely heterogeneous character, but it attracted a certain number of revolutionary workers repelled by Stalinism and looking for an alternative to reformism. The perspective of entry into this party could only have a short-term character: to win cadres either to transform the party or, if that proved impossible, to bring out the kernel of a new party.
Entrism was, of course, a tactical question, as was entry into the ILP rather than into the Labour Party. The small numbers of the Left Opposition made it likely that they could be much more effective at first in the smaller party where there was already a nucleus of revolutionary workers. Under the leadership of Fenner Brockway, James Maxton and the other Clydeside MPs, the ILP was oriented towards parliamentary work and was unable to shake off the heavy weight of reformism, pacifism and petty bourgeois addiction to good causes which it carried over from its origins. It was perfectly able to do this while adapting to the Comintern and spurning all Trotsky’s efforts to turn it towards the working class and the building of a revolutionary party as part of the Fourth International.
The ILP was deeply entangled in the vice of centrism, veering between reformism and revolution and finally, like its brother parties of the London Bureau on the continent, moving decisively to the right. Trotsky exposed these vacillations and traced them to their roots. The addiction to radical phraseology devoid of practical significance was an abiding characteristic of the ILP which came out very clearly in the proposed general strike against war. Here was a party, with no roots in the trade unions, proclaiming as its policy a general strike to stop war at its very outset. As Trotsky pointed out, a party strong enough to call a successful general strike of this kind would be able to make the revolution. To call such a strike without the support of the mass of the working class would turn inevitably into a putsch and simply result in the crushing of the advanced elements which took part.
By resolutions of such a type, which sounded very left and revolutionary, the ILP concealed the fact that it was evading its real tasks. This was shown by its preference for a so-called “united front” with the Stalinists over a turn towards the Labour Party and the trade unions. Yet, by existing side-by-side with the Communist Party, the ILP recognized the need for creating a new International against the Third International—“If in the opinion of the ILP the Comintern could be reformed” Trotsky challenged, “it would be its duty to join its ranks, and work for this reform. If however, the ILP has become convinced that the Comintern is incorrigible, it is its duty to join with us in the struggle for the Fourth International. The ILP does neither. It halts midway, it is bent on maintaining a ‘friendly collaboration’ with the Communist International.”
The ILP and its allies in the London Bureau played an increasingly treacherous centrist role as the years passed. The classic case was the role of the POUM in Spain; the other parties followed diverse roads but they maintained their hostility to the Fourth International. The pacifist and parliamentary wing of the ILP established its dominance and its decline became more rapid. By 1936 Trotsky was telling his British supporters “The ILP is not a mass but a propaganda organization, and since their propaganda is centrist and not revolutionary, this dying corpse must be completely swept away during a working class resurgence.” The time had come, therefore, to enter the Labour party, while leaving some comrades in the ILP to do faction work and maintaining an independent paper.
The ultimate degeneration of the ILP was shown by two episodes of which Trotsky writes. The first was its prostration to the bourgeoisie and to petty bourgeois pacifism shown when Maxton hastened to congratulate Neville Chamberlain when he returned proclaiming “peace with honour” after the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938. The second was when Brockway refused to support the Dewey Commission into the Moscow Trials and called instead for an “inquiry into the role of Trotskyjsm in the working class movement”. This capitulation to Stalinism came at the very time when Brockway’s co-thinkers of the POUM were being hunted down and murdered by the agents of the GPU in Spain.
The final section consists again of writings on British imperialism, this time from the standpoint of the revolt of its colonial slaves and Irish subjects. It includes wartime articles as well as extracts from the resolutions and theses for the First Four Congresses of the Communist International. Trotsky exposes the shameful complicity of the Labour reformists in colonial exploitation. Of special importance is the article entitled The Revolution in India, which applies the theory of the permanent revolution to that country in opposition to the Menshevik conceptions of the Stalinists which are the basis for the policy of the Indian Communist Party to this day. The pro-Moscow party supports the National Congress of Indira Ghandi in the same way that the Chinese Communist Party, on Stalin’s instructions, supported Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.
The theory of the two stage revolution, which justified support for the national bourgeoisie, was the complement of the policy of “socialism in one country”, as it still is. Indeed the policy of the Indian Communist Party is more reactionary today than when Trotsky was writing, while the counter-revolutionary role of the national bourgeoisie is still more obvious. The bureaucracy no longer even talks about “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, but of the bourgeoisie itself taking the non-capitalist road at the head of an all-class coalition which excludes only the big landlords and monopolists.
Trotsky, on the other hand, insisted that: “The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above.” History has confirmed this, if in an unexpected way. Faced with the uprising of the masses at the end of the Second World War, the British Raj handed over to the bourgeois leaders of Congress and the Muslim League who became the guarantors of Indian’s continuation as a field for capitalist investment and exploitation.
As British capitalism, its heritage from the past now turned into a definitely negative factor, is hurled into a crisis of even wider scope than that of the 1930s, Trotsky’s writings in this volume acquire a direct relevance to the task of building the revolutionary party. The names and labels may have changed but the labour bureaucracy, the Stalinists and centrists have still to be swept away. Trotsky’s analysis of these trends and the lessons he drew from the history of Britain thus not only retain their force today, they assume still greater importance as a guide to revolutionary practice.
Last updated on: 2.7.2007