Trotsky December 1925-March 1926

Problems of the British Revolution

Translator’s Note

This collection of articles was first brought together in book form under the title Where is Britain Going? Second issue published by the State Publishing House in Moscow and Leningrad in 1926. A previous English version of the first article appeared in the periodical Communist International No. 22, 1926 and one of the last articles in the June 1926 issue of International Press Correspondence. The present publication however represents the first complete English translation of the collection;
New Park Publications, Problems of the British Revolution by Leon Trotsky, July 1972.

Problems of the British Labour Movement

THE article printed below consists of fragments written at various times since the end of last year. These fragments were originally intended to form the material for a more complete work. The General Strike like any momentous event at once shifted our perspectives, brought forward some problems and removed others. From the point of view of understanding and evaluating the General Strike and its outcome it would now appear more appropriate to print these fragments in the form they were written, namely, chronologically following the facts and events to which they refer.

December 22, 1925.

We have already mentioned that we have in our possession two letters from a British ‘left’ socialist separated by an interval of several weeks.[See Pravda and Izvestia, February 11, 1926.] The first letter was written before the Liverpool Conference of the Labour Party (September 1925)[1] and the second after it.

‘The most fateful question in the world of politics’, writes our correspondent in the first letter, ‘is without doubt the question of what will take place at Liverpool at the Annual Labour Party Conference.... The Liverpool Conference will in all probability not only reverse last year’s resolution banning communists from membership but it will possibly too give rise to a decisive split in the ranks of the Labour Party.’

As we now know exactly the opposite happened. The right wing were wholly victorious. The lefts presented the most wretched picture of impotence and confusion. The ban on communists was confirmed and strengthened.

In the second letter written just after the conference our correspondent makes the following admission:

With regard to the Liverpool Conference at which I was not present, I can make only one comment. The rights gained the upper hand while the lefts once again revealed insufficient cohesion. The communists also gained a victory. The rights played directly into the hands of the communists....

Our correspondent himself scarcely understands what this signifies. But nonetheless the logic of the facts is simple: if you wish for victory over MacDonaldism, over organized betrayal and over treachery elevated into a system then you must operate not in the spirit of the ‘lefts’ but in the spirit of the Bolsheviks. It is in this sense and only in this sense that the rights play into the hands of the communists.

The working class is in the words of the same critic ‘burdened by both the extreme wings’. How remarkably put! What our ‘left’ calls the right wing is the official leadership of the Labour Party. The political will of the British proletariat must pass willy-nilly through the customs house of Thomas[2] and MacDonald.[3] The opposite wing, that is the communists, represent a tiny persecuted minority inside the labour movement. In what way can the working class be ‘burdened’ by them? It is at liberty to listen to them or not for they do not have in their hands any means of imposing themselves. Standing behind Thomas and MacDonald is the whole machine of the capitalist state. MacDonald expels the communists while Baldwin[4] puts them in jail. The one complements the other. The working class will be able to throw off MacDonald only when it genuinely wishes to throw off Baldwin. It is absolutely true that the working class is burdened by its dependence on the conservative Fabian’ bourgeois. But how it can rid itself of them and what path it should choose it still does not know. The lefts reflect the lethargy of the British working class. They convert its as yet vaguely defined but profound and stubborn aspiration to free itself from Baldwin and MacDonald into left phrases of opposition which do not Place any obligations upon them. They convert the political feebleness of the awakening masses into an ideological mish-mash. They represent the expression of a shift but also its brake.

We have already heard a prophecy to the effect that the Liverpool Conference would give rise to a decisive split in the ranks of the Labour Party and we have seen what a cruel mockery life has made of this prophecy. The essential thing about centrists is that they do not make a decision to decide. It required the imperialist war to force the centrists to split away temporarily from the social-imperialists. As soon as the impact of events was relaxed the centrists turned back. Centrism is incapable of an independent policy. Centrism cannot be the leading party in the working class. The essential thing about centrism is that it does not make a decision to decide except where events seize it firmly by the throat. But it has not yet reached this stage in Britain: that is why there was no split at Liverpool.

But what would have happened if a split had nevertheless taken place? Our correspondent leaves us unclear on this question:

As a result of such a split in the existing Labour Party two parties would in the end be formed: the one left-liberal and the other genuinely socialist. Even if you allow that development will lead to economic crises and revolutions the socialist party which would emerge from the split would be able to place itself at the head of the revolution yet Trotsky does not take this point into account.

In this argument grains of truth become lost in a welter of confusion. Of course a split by centrists like our critic away from the Fabian bourgeoisie would not be irrelevant to the labour movement. But to bring about such a split at present would require insight and determination, which are the very qualities of which the British ‘opposition’ have not the slightest trace. If the centrists do split away then it will be at the last minute when there is no other way out. But a party which hatches out at the ‘last moment’ cannot lead the revolution. This does not mean that the centrists who have split away could not find themselves temporarily ‘at the head’ of the masses similar to the German Independents[6] and even Social-Democracy at the end of 1918 and to our Mensheviks[7] and Social-Revolutionaries[8] after February 1917. Such a stage in the development of the British revolution cannot be excluded. It may even prove to be inevitable if the sharpening of social contradictions proceeds more rapidly than the formation of the Communist Party. Under the pressure of a General Strike and a victorious uprising, a certain section of the ‘left’ leaders could even come to power — with approximately the same sensations and moods with which a calf goes to the slaughter. Such a state of affairs would not however last long. The independents despite all their policy might come to power. But they could not retain that power. From the centrists power must pass either to the communists or return to the bourgeoisie.

The German Independents who had against their will been elevated to the summit of power by the revolution immediately shared it with Ebert[9] and Scheidemann.[10] Ebert immediately entered into negotiations with General Gröner to suppress the workers. The Independents criticized the Spartacists,[11] the Social-Democrats slandered them and the army officer-caste shot Liebknecht[12] and Luxemburg.[13] Events from then on followed their logical sequence. The coalition of the Social-Democrats and the Independents gave way to a coalition of capitalists and Social-Democrats. And then the Social-Democrats proved unnecessary. Ebert died at the right moment. The revolution which had started out against Hindenburg[14] ended up by electing Hindenburg President of the Republic. And by that time the Independents had already returned to Ebert’s ranks.

In Russia the Menshevik and Social-Revolutionary patriots who had opposed the revolution by every means in the name of defence were raised to power by the revolution. The Bolshevik Party despite a decade and a half of uncompromising educational, organizational and militant work found itself in the early stages in an insignificant minority. While prepared at any moment to come forward on the left flank against every attempt at counter-revolution it all the same set course for a ruthless ideological struggle against those parties which had found themselves against their will ‘at the head of the revolution’. Only thanks to this did October become possible.

A split by the British independents from MacDonald and Thomas five minutes before the bell is not excluded. Nor, in the case of a precipitate development of events, is the centrists’ coming to power excluded. One cannot doubt that in this event they will implore MacDonald and Webb[15] to share their burden with them. Nor can one doubt that MacDonald, either personally or through Thomas, will conduct negotiations with Joynson-Hicks.[16] A powerful mechanism for liquidating the proletarian half-victory will be set in motion. It is quite possible that a new split will take place within the lefts. But the development will follow the ‘Russian’ rather than the ‘German’ path only where there is present a mass communist party armed with a clear understanding of the whole course of development.

December 28, 1925.

Our ‘left’ critic accuses us precisely of the fact that we place our stakes on the British Communist Party. This does not mean that he himself rejects it out of hand. No, the position of a ‘left’, drifting like a boat with neither rudder nor sails, consists in neither acknowledging anything out of hand nor totally rejecting anything. Here we once again feel obliged to make a quotation:

Instead of seeking to regenerate the masses they (the communists) attempted to drive them along with a bludgeon and the masses do not take to this at all. A striking testimony in support of the correctness of the principles they defend lies in the fact that in spite of their crude tricks at the expense of their friends and their enemies and in spite of their very deep ignorance of the very masses that they wish to lead they nevertheless have a great influence. If workers join them then they do so out of desperation and because they can see no other answer — not because they approve of the party as it is now but because they are forced to accept its conclusions.

This statement is truly remarkable as an involuntary testimony by an opponent in support of those ideas and methods against which he is waging a struggle. The inner strength of communism proves to be so great that an increasing number come to support it in spite of the ‘crude’ character of the communists. ‘But the workers do so out of desperation!’ exclaims our critic himself too apparently not without desperation. It is completely correct that workers come — and increasingly so as time goes on — to a state of real ‘desperation’ because of worthless, treacherous, cowardly or dissolute leadership. Nor can one think that the British workers with their age-old traditions of liberal politics, parliamentarism, compromises, national self-esteem and so on will take to the revolutionary path other than in a state of utter desperation with those very politics which had previously given them something but which all along the line deceived them. Here the critic has come to the crux of the matter. It is just herein that the strength of the communist party lies, in that despite its numerical weakness, its inexperience and its mistakes the whole situation increasingly compels the working masses to pay heed to it.

Bruce,[17] the Australian Prime Minister, in defending his policy of banishing revolutionary labour leaders said on the eve of the last elections:

The Communist Party in Australia has a membership of less than a thousand. But it is able to direct 400,000 workers in the Commonwealth.

The Times quoted these words with great approval (see the leading article of November 12, 1925). While speaking about Australia The Times of London has Britain in mind of course. In order to emphasize this the newspaper states with a blunt frankness:

The truth is that the great majority of those Labour leaders in Australia who are moderate in their views are equally moderate in their ability. The control of the party is passing more and more into the hands of its ‘wild men’.

This is what in Russian is called ‘beating the cat but slanging the sister-in-law’. We are quite prepared to agree with the paper that the ability of the official leaders of British Labour Party (this is what The Times implies) is just as moderate as their views. But in the last resort independent abilities are not required of them for they transmit the will and the ideas of the British bourgeoisie into the milieu of the working class. They were ‘skilful’ for just as long as the bourgeoisie was all-powerful. We should say that even the sage Times seems to us somewhat inane when it mumbles away about the mutual relations between the United States and Britain. This stems from an inner consciousness of weakness together with an effort to preserve the appearance of strength and a restrained gnashing of teeth. In the final count the cause of the decline of The Times as well as the disclosure of MacDonald’s modest capabilities lies in the poor balance of trade and payments of Great Britain. And inasmuch as the most powerful historical factors are at work in the disruption of the British balance of payments there can be no doubt that the working masses will increasingly fall into desperation with their old leaders and fall under the influence of the ‘wild men’.

January 5, 1926.

In an American publication with pretensions to Marxism and even communism (Freiheit) it has been pointed out in condemnation that while criticizing the British centrists I had failed to take into account that ‘revolution’ which had already taken place in the British trade unions.

There is no need at this point to mention the fact that the causes and prospects of the evolution of the trade unions have been noted in the chapter ‘Trade Unions and Bolshevism’. Nor is there any need to repeat the rudimentary concept that without a turn by the working class, and consequently by its trade unions too, towards a revolutionary road there can be no talk of a conquest of power by the proletariat. But it would be the utmost disgrace to brush aside the struggle against opportunism in the top leadership by alluding to the profound revolutionary processes taking place in the working class. Such a supposedly ‘profound’ approach stems entirely from a failure to understand the role and the significance of the party in the movement of the working class and especially in the revolution. For it has always been centrism which has cloaked and continues to cloak the sins of opportunism with solemn references to the objective tendencies of development. Is it worth wasting time and energy in fighting the muddleheads of the type of Wheatley,[18] Brailsford,[19] Purcell,[20] Kirkwood[21] and others, now that revolutionary aspirations are on the increase in the proletariat, now that the trade unions are turning towards co-operation with the Soviet trade unions and so on and so forth? But in actual fact expressed in this alleged revolutionary objectivism is merely an effort to shirk revolutionary tasks by shifting them on to the shoulders of the so-called historical process.

And it is in Britain that the danger of this sort of tendency is particularly great. Yesterday we had to prove that objective conditions there are working in a revolutionary direction. To keep repeating this today is to knock at an open door. The growing preponderance of America; the burden of debts and military expenditure; the industrialization of the colonies, dominions and the backward countries in general; the economic strengthening of the Soviet Union and the growth of its attractive revolutionary force; the liberation movement of the oppressed nations; all these are factors which are growing. Through an inevitable series of fluctuations in the conjuncture of events British capitalism is going to meet a catastrophe. It is clear what shifts in the correlations and consciousness of classes this implies. But the objective pre-conditions of the proletarian revolution are being prepared and are maturing far more rapidly than are the subjective. And this is what above all must be remembered today.

The danger is not that the bourgeoisie will again pacify the proletariat, nor that an era of liberal labour politics is again opening up before the trade unions: the United States has monopolized for itself the ability to give a privileged position to broad circles of the proletariat. The danger comes from another direction: the formation of a proletarian vanguard can lag behind the development of a revolutionary situation. While faced with the necessity for decisive actions the proletariat might not find at its head the necessary political leadership. This is the question of the party. And this is the central question. The most mature revolutionary situation without a revolutionary party of due stature and without correct leadership is the same as a knife without a blade. This is what we saw in Germany in the autumn of 1923. A Bolshevik Party will take shape in Britain only in a perpetual and irreconcilable struggle against centrism which is becoming the substitute for the liberal policy of labour.

January 6.

The struggle for a united front has such importance in Britain precisely because it answers the elementary requirements of the working class in the new orientation and grouping of forces. The struggle for a united front will thereby pose the problem of leadership, that is of programme and tactics and this means the party. Yet the struggle for a united front will not in itself solve this task but will merely create the conditions for its solution. The ideological and organizational formation of a genuinely revolutionary, that is of a communist, party on the basis of the movement of the masses is conceivable only under the condition of a perpetual, systematic, inflexible, untiring and irreconcilable unmasking of t he quasi-left leaders of every hue, of their confusion, of their compromises and of their reticence.

It would be the crudest blunder to think — and this can be seen to happen — that the task of the struggle for a united front consists in obtaining a victory for Purcell, Lansbury,[22] Wheatley, and Kirkwood over. Snowden,[23] Webb and MacDonald. Such an objective would contain within itself a contradiction. The left muddleheads are incapable of power; but if through the turn of events it fell into their hands they would hasten to pass it over to their elder brothers on the right. They would do the same with the state as they are now doing in the party.

The history of the German Independents, let us again recall, provides us with instructive lessons on this account. In Germany the process took place at a more rapid tempo owing to the directly revolutionary character of the recent years of German history. But the general tendencies of the development are the same whether you call MacDonald Ebert or you christen Wheatley and Cook,[24] Crispen[25] and Hilferding.[6] The fact that Hilferding, the most vulgar Philistine, still makes references to Marx while Wheatley displays a preference for the Holy Father in Rome flows from the peculiarities of Britain’s past as compared with that of Germany but for the present day it is of tenth-rate importance.

January 7.

The left faction of the trade union leaders leads the General Council on a number of questions. This expresses itself most clearly in the attitude towards the Soviet trade unions and to Amsterdam.[27] But it would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of these lefts upon the unions as the organizations of class struggle. This is not so much because the masses in the trade unions are not radical enough, on the contrary the masses are immeasurably more left than the most left of the leaders. In the British labour movement international questions have always been a path of least resistance for the ‘leaders’. In regarding international issues as a sort of safety valve for the radical mood of the masses Messrs leaders are prepared to bow to a certain degree to revolution (elsewhere) only the more surely to take revenge on the questions of the domestic class struggle. The left faction on the General Council is distinguished by a total ideological formlessness and for this very reason it is incapable of consolidating around itself organizationally the leadership of the trade union movement.

This too explains the impotence of the lefts within the Labour Party. The latter rests of course upon the same trade unions. It might appear that the left faction which ‘leads’ the General Council would have taken control of the Labour Party. But we see something quite different in reality. The extreme rights continue to control the party. This can be explained by the fact that a party cannot confine itself to isolated left campaigns but is compelled to have an overall system of policy. The lefts have no such system nor by their very essence can they. But the rights do: with them stands tradition, experience. and routine and, most important, with them stands bourgeois society as a whole which slips them ready-made solutions. For MacDonald has only to translate Baldwin’s and Lloyd George’s[28] suggestions into Fabian language. The rights win despite the fact that the lefts are more numerous. The weakness of the lefts arises from their disorder and their disorder from their ideological formlessness. In order to marshal their ranks the lefts have first of all to marshal their ideas. The best of them will only be capable of doing so under the fire of the most ruthless criticism based upon the everyday experience of the masses.

January 12.

More influential leaders of the ‘lefts’ like Purcell, Cook, and Bromley[29] besides our ‘left’ critic in his letter were as late as September 27 predicting that the Labour Party Conference would be distinguished by a great swing to the left. The opposite came about: the Liverpool Conference which was separated by a few weeks from the Scarborough Trades Union Congress” gave a complete victory to MacDonald. To ignore this fact, to gloss over it, to minimize it or to explain it by accidental secondary causes would be crass stupidity and courting defeats.

The party has fundamentally the same base as have the trade union leaders. But the General Council whose authority is extremely limited does not have any power over individual trade unions nor less over the country. But the Labour Party has already stood in power and is about to do so again. This is the gist of the question.

In connection with the Scarborough congress the liberal Manchester Guardian wrote that Moscow’s influence made itself felt only in the left phraseology while in practice the trade unions remained under the leadership of wise and experienced leaders. The liberal newspaper has need of consolation. But there is in its assertions an element of truth and a large one at that. The resolutions of the congress were the more to the left the further removed they were from immediate practical tasks. Of course the leftness of the resolutions is symptomatic, marking a turn in the consciousness of the masses. But to think that the leading figures at Scarborough might become the leaders of a revolutionary overthrow of power would be to lull oneself with illusions. It is sufficient to recall that 3,802,000 votes were cast in favour of the right of oppressed nations to self-determination and even to secession and against only 79,000. What an enormous revolutionary swing this might appear to be! Yet on the question of forming shop committees — not for an armed uprising nor for a General Strike but for nothing more than forming shop committees and only ‘in principle’ at that — the voting was 2,183,000 in favour and 1,787,000 against; in other words congress was split almost in half. On the question of extending the powers of the General Council the lefts suffered a complete defeat. It is small wonder if after all the left resolutions the new General Council has proven to be more right than the old one. It must be clearly understood : this sort of leftism remains only as long as it does not impose any practical obligations. As soon as a question of action arises the lefts respectfully surrender the leadership to the rights.

January 13.

A spontaneous radicalization of the trade unions expressing a deep shift in the masses is in itself totally inadequate to liberate the working class from the leadership of Thomas and MacDonald. National bourgeois ideology in Britain presents a formidable force — not only in public opinion but also in established institutions. ‘Radical’ trade unionism will break itself again and again against this force as long as it is led by centrists who cannot draw the necessary conclusions.

At the same time as the British unions fraternize with the Soviet trade unions which are under the leadership of communists, at Liverpool the British Labour Party which rests upon these same unions expels British communists from its ranks thus preparing a government — fascist operation to smash their organizations. It would be criminal to forget for one day that lefts such as Brailsford and even Lansbury in effect approved of the Liverpool Conference resolution and blamed the communists for it all. It is true that when indignation with the reactionary police-state spirit of the Liverpool conference revealed itself from the lower ranks, the leaders readily changed their line. But to evaluate them ore must take both sides of the matter into account. Revolutionaries need a good memory. Messrs ‘lefts’ do not have a line of their own. They will go on swinging to the right under the pressure of bourgeois Fabian reaction and to the left under the pressure of the masses.

In. difficult moments these pious Christians are always ready to play the part if not of Herod then of Pontius Pilate and facing the British working class there are many difficult moments ahead. There is inside the Independent Labour Party[31] a movement favouring unification of the Second[32] and the Third[33] Internationals. But try asking these people whether they would agree not to unification but to a militant agreement with British communists and they recoil there and then. In all matters relating to revolution there reigns supreme among the British ‘lefts’ a ‘love for the distant’. They are for the October revolution, for Soviet power. for the Soviet trade unions and even for a rapprochement with the Comintern but under the immutable condition that the British Constitution. the system of parliamentarism and the system of the Labour Party suffer no harm. It is necessary to direct the main blow against this repulsive two-faced policy of the lefts.

To this one should add: in the sympathies of many lefts for the Soviet Union (alongside hostility towards their own communists) there is contained a good deal of the deference of the petty-bourgeois towards a strong state power. This should not be forgotten. Of course the petty-bourgeois who has turned his face towards the Soviet Union is more progressive than the petty-bourgeois who goes on his knees before the United States. This is a step forward. But one cannot build revolutionary perspectives on this deference.

December 25, 1925.

A foreign communist who knows Britain well and has only recently left there wrote to me the other day as follows:

During my stay in England I had numerous conversations with certain prominent left leaders on the subject of the British revolution. I brought away approximately this picture: they are sure that in the near future they will win a majority in parliament and will commence a careful but decisive implementation of the maximum demands of the working class such as the nationalization of the mines, certain other branches of industry, the banks and so on. If the industrialists and bankers dare to resist then they will be straight away arrested and their enterprises will be nationalized too. To my question: what in this case will the fascist bourgeoisie who have the army and the navy in their hands do? They replied: in event of armed resistance on the part of the fascists they will be declared outlaws and the overwhelming majority of the British people will back the Labour Party in defence of the legal government. When I pointed out: since they will inevitably resort to arms wouldn’t it be better .o prepare the working class now for such an outcome so that the armed forces of the bourgeoisie cannot catch it off-guard? They replied: such a preparatory move would be a premature signal for civil war and would prevent the Labour Party from winning a majority in parliament. To the question: on which side of the barricades will MacDonald, Snowden, Thomas and their friends be, they replied: on the side of the bourgeoisie most probably. Why then do you work together with them against the communists in order to strengthen a party leadership which will betray the working class at the critical moment? To this came the reply. we think that we will nevertheless [!] retain a majority in parliament behind us and that a split by MacDonald and his liberal friends will not threaten in the slightest a favourable outcome to a peaceful revolution.

This sheaf of personal impressions and conversations is truly precious. These people have decided in advance to come to power in no other way than through the donkey’s gate over which the enemy, armed to the teeth and standing guard, has shown them to. If they, the lefts, take power (through the indicated gate) and if the bourgeoisie rise up against this legal power then the good British people will not tolerate this. And if MacDonald and Thomas whom the wise lefts are carrying on their backs are found by chance to be in a plot with the armed bourgeoisie against the unarmed workers then this should not cause alarm to anyone for the lefts have provided for victory in this event. In a word the brave spirits and wise men have firmly decided to conquer the bourgeoisie whatever the political combinations and at the same time maintaining the best relations with parliament. the law, the courts and the police. The only trouble is that the bourgeoisie does not intend to surrender the privilege of the legal expropriation of power to the lefts. By advancing the fascist wing more energetically, as the threat of civil war becomes more immediate, the bourgeoisie will find sufficient means of provocation, of a legal state coup d'état and so on. In the final count the question is not who can best interpret laws and traditions but who is master in the house.

The discussion which has recently flared up in the British Labour Press on the question of self-defence is in the highest degree significant. The question itself arose not as a question of armed uprising for the seizure of power but as a question of strikers repulsing blacklegs and fascists.

We have already shown elsewhere how trade unionism by the logic of development — and especially in the period of capitalist decline — inevitably bursts the framework of democracy. It is not possible to postpone arbitrarily class conflicts until the conquest of a parliamentary majority. Cramped by its own decline the bourgeoisie puts pressure on the proletariat. The latter defends itself. Hence the inevitable strike clashes. The government prepares strike-breaking organizations on a scale previously unheard of. The fascists link up with the police. The workers pose the question of self-defence. At this point the foundation of civil war has already been laid.

A worker writes in Lansbury’s Labour Weekly:[34] ‘Fascism is purely and simply a military organization and is not amenable to argument. It can only be successfully countered by a similar organization on the other side.’ [Ernest Johns, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, September 5, 1925] The author recommends taking the military organization of fascism as a model. That is correct: the proletariat can and must learn military knowledge from the enemy.

And it is from the same source — the objective sharpening of class contradictions — that the pressing desire of workers to draw soldiers over to their side flows. Agitation in the army and the navy is a second powerful element in the civil war the development of which does not stand in a direct connection with the winning of a parliamentary majority. Ile defection of a considerable part of the armed forces to the side of the workers can guarantee the conquest of power by the proletariat without any parliamentary majority. The workers’ majority in parliament can be destroyed if armed force is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Whoever does not understand this is not a socialist but a numskull.

In opposition to the slogan of arming the workers the wise men of the left have scraped together all the prejudices and platitudes of centuries past: the superiority of the moral factor over force, the advantages of gradual reforms, the anarcho-pacifist idea of the peaceful General Strike which they require not as a means of struggle but as an argument against insurrection, and a heroic readiness ... to permit violence in the so-called ‘extreme case when it is forced on us’. Obviously this means when the enemy has caught you off-guard and is crushing you unarmed against the wall.

March 5, 1926 (from a letter).

In Britain more than in all the rest of Europe the consciousness of the working masses, and particularly that of their leading layers, lags behind the objective economic situation. And it is precisely in this direction that the main difficulties and dangers lie today. All the shades of the bosses of the British labour movement fear action because the historical impasse of British capitalism places every problem of the labour movement, however major, at point-blank range. This relates especially to the coal industry. The present miners’ wages are maintained by a subsidy from the state, burdening an already crippling budget. To continue the subsidy means to accumulate and deepen the economic crisis. To withdraw the subsidy means to produce a social crisis.

The necessity of a technical and economic reconstruction of the coal industry represents a profoundly revolutionary problem and requires a political ‘reconstruction’ of the working class. The destruction of the conservatism of the British coal industry, this foundation of British capitalism, can only be through the destruction of the conservative organizations, traditions and customs of the British labour movement. Britain is entering an entire historical phase of major shocks. An #economic’ solution of the problem can be expected only by the conservative British trade union leaders. But it is just because the British trade union leaders direct their efforts towards an ‘economic’ (i.e. peaceful, conciliationist, conservative) solution of the problem, that is they run at right angles to the historical process, that the revolutionary development of the working class in Britain in the period to come will have higher overhead costs than in any other country. Both the rights and the lefts, including of course both Purcell and Cook, fear to the utmost the beginning of the denouement. Even when in words they admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle which will release them from these perspectives. And in any event they themselves will stall, evade, temporize, shift responsibility and effectively assist Thomas over any really major question of the British labour movement (with regard to international questions they ire a bit bolder!).

Hence the general situation can be characterized in this way. The economic blind alley of the country which is most sharply expressed in the coal industry thrusts the working class on to the path of seeking a solution, that is on to the path of an even sharper struggle. Its very first stage will as a result reveal the inadequacy of the ‘usual’ methods of struggle. The whole of the present-day ‘superstructure’ of the British working class — in all its shades and groupings without exception — represents a braking mechanism on the revolution. This portends over a prolonged period the heavy pressure of a spontaneous and semi-spontaneous movement upon the framework of the old organizations and the formation on the basis of this pressure of new revolutionary organizations.

One of our principal tasks is to assist the British Communist Party to understand and think out this perspective fully. Inside the trade union apparatus and amongst its left wing the active elements, that is the elements who are capable of understanding the inevitability of major mass battles, and who are not afraid of them but go to meet them, must be sifted out far more energetically and decisively than has been done up to now. The tactic of the united front must be increasingly and more firmly placed within the context of this perspective.

With regard to the miners’ strike, it is not of course a question of an isolated strike, however big it may be, but the commencement of a whole series of social conflicts and crises. In this situation one cannot of course orientate oneself with the conceptions of Purcell and others. They fear the struggle more than anyone. Their thoughts and words can at best have in our eyes the importance of a symptom.

The British trade unions fear (in the form of their bureaucracy and even of its left) our ‘intervention’ in their internal affairs no less than Chamberlain does.[35]

There are any number of inhibiting elements in the apparatus of the British working class. The whole situation can be summarized in the fact that the alarm, discontent and pressure of the British working masses is all along the line running up against the organizational and ideological barriers of the conservatism of the apparatus. Under these conditions to worry about how best to assist the impatient leaders is really to pour water into the ocean.

Everything goes to suggest that in Britain in the next period Q have in mind two or three years), a struggle will break out against the will of the old organizations yet with the complete unpreparedness of the young ones. Of course even with the firm revolutionary (i.e. active) footing of the Communist Party and of the best ‘left’ elements it cannot be assumed that the proletariat will come to power as the result of the first big wave by itself. But the question is this: Will this left wing pass through the first stage of the revolution at the head of the working masses as we passed through 1905; or will it miss a revolutionary situation as the German party did in 1923? This latter danger is in the highest degree a real one. It can only be reduced by helping the left wing (the really left wing and not Lansbury or Purcell) to an effective orientation. And to accomplish this task (that of assisting the revolutionary, elements in Britain to a correct orientation) it must be clearly understood that all the traditions, organizational habits and the ideas of all the already existing groupings in the labour movement in different forms and with different slogans predispose them either towards direct treachery or towards compromise, or else towards temporizing and passivity in relation to the compromisers, and complaints about the traitors. [See Where is Britain Going? (New Park Publications, London) pp. X-XV for a further article on this subject written on May 6]

May 13.

The defeat of the General Strike is ‘logical’ at the present stage in that it flows from all the conditions of its origin and development. This defeat could have been foreseen. There is nothing demoralizing about it. But we will deal with the lessons of the defeat and of the General Strike itself later.

Moscow, May 19, 1926.