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The British Cabinet discusses the Trotskyists

Used by permission of PRO.

The first reference (CAB65/41) by the whole Cabinet to the Apprentices Strike was on 3 April 1944 where it was said by Ernest Bevin, then the Minister of Labour, that the Apprentices Strike on Tyneside, on the Clyde and in Yorkshire had been “instigated by a group which had broken away from the Communist Party when Russia became our ally” and “The Trade Unions are doing what they can to get the strikers to return.” Bevin had provocatively refused to see a deputation and notices calling for medical examinations of strikers (prior to military call-up) were being issued while the DPP was considering the possibility of using the Trades Disputes Act of 1927. What really seemed to worry the Cabinet was the problem of coal supplies and in the document that follows some time is spent demonstrating (with considerable relief) that the Trotskyists had little support among the miners.

Two days later at the Cabinet meeting of the 5th April there was a discussion on the activities of those “fomenting strikes”. Herbert Morrison stated that he had information that the organisation referred to by the Bevin numbered about 1-2,000 members. An examination of the report shows that this was apparently learnt from his press cuttings. (It was of course a great exaggeration, the RCP never numbered more than 400.) The Home Secretary said that he was examining documents with a view to doing something about this and submitting a report. On the 13 April the report on the Trotskyists was submitted and the Cabinet, after summarising it, simply noted it. It was initialled by the Minister but was clearly drawn up by the Security Services. No decisions were taken and it seems that the RCP was not considered important enough to warrant special measures. At about the same time in the preamble to the suggested legislation about strikers (CAB/75/19) Ernest Bevin wrote about unofficial industrial action proposing very savage penalties.

Morrison was clearly much cleverer than Bevin and was much more worried about the Communist Party. He therefore may have wanted to maintain the Trotskyists as an annoyance to the CP in the post-war period.

Ted Crawford
July 1998

WP (44) 202
13th April 1944





Trotskyism is a body of doctrine based on the teachings of Marx, as elaborated by Lenin and interpreted and applied to the conditions of the inter-war period by Trotsky. The cleavage from official Communism, or Stalinism, originated in the opposition between Trotsky’s doctrinaire views and Stalin’s realism. Trotsky denounced the supplanting of the “continuing world revolution” by Stalin’s plan to establish Socialism in the Soviet Union as a prerequisite. He opposed the replacement of democratic discussion of party policy by the personal dictatorship of Stalin, the weakening of the influence of the Soviets (Councils) in the face of a rising bureaucracy, and the revival of economically and socially privileged classes. The Trotskyists do not regard the form of society which now exists in Russia as socialism – they believe that true socialism can be achieved only by more or less simultaneous revolution over the greater part of the globe; and they are bitterly hostile to the Stalinist regime because it has not only “betrayed the revolution” in Russia itself, but by using the national Communist parties as the instruments of its “reactionary” policy abroad has retarded the development of the working class towards world revolution.

The ultimate aim of the Trotskyists is the establishment by means of uprisings all over the world of Workers’ Governments which will introduce common ownership and worker’s control of the means of production. They believe that world revolution will once more become possible as a result of the war. Their immediate policy on the present “pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda and organisation” is to prepare for this revolutionary moment by fostering a militant spirit among the working class and establishing themselves as its leaders. This they seek to do, according to the directions of the late M. Trotsky, by campaigning alongside the workers on the issues which most closely concern them, such as wages, employment and social conditions.

The Trotskyists, while hostile to “fascism”, regard the war as a struggle between rival Imperialisms, a struggle which is being used by the capitalist class as an excuse more effectively to exploit and oppress the workers. The USSR, although degenerate, is still a workers’ State and must be helped in its resistance to fascism; but the Trotskyist believes that capitalist Governments cannot by their nature effectively oppose fascism, and that he can therefore only help the USSR if he first overthrows his own Government.


The Trotskyist movement has existed in Britain since 1929, the year of Trotsky’s expulsion from the USSR. The movement originally consisted of several small groups, from which there emerged in 1937 the Revolutionary Socialist League (the official British Section of the Fourth International) and the Workers’ International League. The Revolutionary Socialist League was stultified by internal strife and the Workers’ International League outdistanced it in members and activity. The two parties have for some time been urged by the International Secretariat to unite, and on the 12th March, 1944, they at length did so. The new body has (to the annoyance of the Communist Party of Great Britain) taken the name “Revolutionary Communist Party” and has succeeded the Revolutionary Socialist League as the British Section of the Fourth International. It is too early to say what the relations of the party with the International will be, but the International is loosely organised and is not likely to have the will or the means to do more than advise the party on broad issues; nor is the party under its present leadership likely to submit to any attempt at dictation.

The leadership remains in the hands of the former leaders of the Workers’ International League, James Haston, Mrs. Mildred Lee, Edward Grant, Roy Tearse and Harold Atkinson (see Appendix A). This group is in effective control of the organisation, which is strongly centralised. District Committees exist in London, Scotland, Tyneside, Merseyside, Yorkshire and the Midlands, but do not act without close consultation with Headquarters. No figures of the total membership are available, but in London, where the movement is strongest, there are 152 members, of whom thirty-two are in the forces. Outside London the party has about twenty branches. A branch rarely has more than twenty members and sometimes has less than ten, and the total number of members in the forces is unlikely to be more that a hundred. On this basis the total membership is probably well below a thousand. Membership, however, is confined to those who have served six months probation and proved themselves active workers, and sympathisers are probably more numerous than official members. Even allowing for people who are prepared to work for the movement from outside, the number of active Trotskyists in the country is very small. The party is strongest, outside London, on Clydeside, and the weakest in the Midlands and South Wales. It hardly exists outside the larger industrial areas.

The Trotskyists, like the Stalinists, attempt to increase their influence by penetrating other organisations. Attempts to penetrate Trade Unions have met with little success, but some progress has been made in the ILP, which the Trotskyists regard as the party commanding the largest following of militant workers. This progress is most marked on Tyneside, where the divisional representative on the ILP national Committee is also a member of the Central Committee off the Revolutionary Communist Party.

In the Autumn of 1943 the Militant Workers’ Federation was formed to co-ordinate the activity of militant groups which had arisen spontaneously among dissident Communists and members of the ILP and WIL. The Federation is directed by the Revolutionary Communist Party; its secretary is Roy Tearse, who claims that it now has nine regional Committees. The most important of these are the Clyde Workers’ Committee and the London Militant Workers’ Committee. There is a committee at Sheffield and possibly also at Huddersfield, Barrow and Rugby; and there are small groups of sympathisers on Tyneside, Merseyside and in Nottingham, which Tearse may count as committees. The federation is not much more than a paper organisation, but it is useful to the Trotskyists as a source of contacts and as an instrument of their individual policy, particularly among engineering workers.

The Revolutionary Communist Party has three papers, Socialist Appeal, a fortnightly publication of which 8,000 to 10,000 copies are printed, Workers’ International News, a theoretical organ of which 2,000 copies are printed at irregular intervals, and The Militant Miner, a small local sheet which has been taken over from an independent group in Lanarkshire on its fusion with the Workers’ International League. The Ministry of Supply refused last October to continue to supply the Workers’ International League with newsprint pending the production of satisfactory evidence of their pre-war consumption. This has not been forthcoming, and the party has been forced to reduce both the size and the circulation of Socialist Appeal.


There are no indications that Trotskyist organisations receive money from abroad. The members are expected to contribute liberally and are apparently prepared to do so. Haston is reported in the Daily Telegraph of the 10th April, 1944, as saying: “Most of our members pay 5s. a week when they can, and those who can afford it pay a 25 per cent. levy on their wages.”

The Movement’s income for 1943 was £2,654. Sales of Socialist Appeal brought in £781, and it is believed that Mildred Lee contributed most of her private income of £350. There were a few substantial subscriptions, including sums of £30–£50, believed to have come from a Cumberland mill-owner, but the greater part of the total was received from branches and anonymous individuals in amounts varying from a few shillings to £5.

Policy and Methods

While the British Trotskyists follow the line of the sect in regarding the war as a struggle between rival Imperialisms, their policy is not directly aimed either at stopping the war or at procuring the defeat of their country. They point out that the suffering the war brings is the fruit of the greed and cruelty of the capitalist “boss”; but they do not agitate for peace, and their programme (see Appendix B) includes a pledge of full support for the Soviet Union. Their propaganda appears to be intended rather to stir up class feeling among the workers than to have any direct effect on the war.

The main object of Trotskyist policy is to stimulate and focus discontent and to obtain the leadership of the group of militants thus formed. The party seeks not only to take the place vacated by the Communist Party as the leader of the normally discontented elements, but to attract to itself the larger body of workers who, while not yet ready to take up a militantly anti-government attitude, are suspicious of their employers, doubtful of the sincerity of the Government’s promises of post-war reform, and tiring of the industrial truce and the leaders who seek to enforce it. The party’s appeal to these groups is somewhat similar to that of the Communist Party before June 1941. There are the same bitter attacks on the callous, profiteering “boss”, on “anti-working-class legislation”, on the sacrifices demanded of the workers, and on the “imperialist war”. On the latter subject the Trotskyists are, however, less persistent and less defeatist than were the Communists.

To carry out this policy they campaign on issues and in areas where there is already strong feeling among the workers. Although the party is always ready to exploit grievances in any factory or mine where it has contacts, it is too small and scattered to be able to start trouble on any considerably scale by itself, and it can make more progress by clinging to the fringes of a big strike than by leading a small one. It secures a wider field for its propaganda, a field already well prepared by the mere existence of a grievance strong enough to cause a strike; and in the bitter aftermath of a big dispute it may hope to start a new branch of the party or a committee of the Militant Workers’ Federation. The party’s technique is accordingly to fasten on an area where a strike is threatening or has broken out; one of the leaders, or the local group if there is one, makes contacts among the strikers and sells literature; the cause and course of the strike is reported in Socialist Appeal; and, whatever the outcome, the moral drawn is that only by militant activity under new leadership can the workers secure their rights. But the effect is small.

Socialist Appeal devotes a good deal of its space, though by no means all, to discussing strikes and industrial grievances. It attempts to discredit the Government, the employers and the trade-union leaders; but, while it undoubtedly fans discontent and encourages strikers, it seldom explicitly incites to strike and it makes no attempt to foment sympathetic strikes. The party’s slogan is not “Strike!” but “Break the coalition: Labour to power”. It desires the establishment of a Labour Government because it believes than any post-war Government must fail to fulfil the workers’ expectations, and that the failure of a Labour Government will produce a disillusion strong enough to throw the working class into the arms of the extremists.

Influence on Industry

The influence of the Trotskyists in industry is still slight. In connection with the recent strike of engineering apprentices, there is evidence that Roy Tearse and Heaton Lee, the party’s organiser on Tyneside, advised and directed the boys’ leaders and that on the Clyde the apprentices were working in conjunction with the Clyde Workers’ Committee. At Barrow in September 1943 Trotskyists had some part in directing the strike committee during the early days of the strike, but the cause of the strike was a strongly felt industrial grievance and not Trotskyist agitation. Trotskyists also took some part in the strikes at the Rolls Royce aircraft works, Glasgow, in August 1941 and July 1943, in a strike at the Barnbow Royal Ordnance Factory in June 1943 and in the Yorkshire Transport strike in May 1943, but their activity has consisted in advising and encouraging the strike leaders rather than in provoking the strikes.

Trotskyist influence in mining is considerably less than in engineering. There is no evidence that Trotskyists have ever started mining strikes or exercised any appreciable influence on their course. They are drawn to the coalfields by a desire to make converts and they are rarely in touch with strike leaders. In South Wales the Workers’ International League had at the time of this recent strike two contacts, each of a fortnight’s standing, and no organisation. The intervention of the leaders was confined to two visits by Haston, one on the 10th March, four days after the strike had begun, the other on the 18th March, two days after the majority of men, including those in the area Haston visited, had returned to work. The mid-March issue of Socialist Appeal, the smallest that has yet appeared, was devoted entirely to the strike but was not out until it was almost over.

In Yorkshire the Trotskyists have only two groups, at Leeds and Sheffield. Each has about twenty members, most of whom have no connection with mining. During the recent strike small-scale propaganda has been carried on in her spare time by a local leader (Betty Hamilton) with a handful of assistants. Five hundred copies of Socialist Appeal have been sent to the area and pamphlets have been distributed. No national leader has covered the strike, but Edward Grant, editor of Socialist Appeal, who is suffering from a break-down, interrupted a rest cure to address one meeting and do some canvassing. It was attended by fifty people, few of whom showed any enthusiasm. Victor Gavzey – aged 19 – the only other person of Trotskyist sympathies who is known to have addressed meetings, moved a resolution at one of them that the men should return to work and then ask for an increase in pay. The Trotskyists were certainly not responsible for starting the strike, and there is no evidence that they have been responsible for prolonging it. Considering their limited strength in the area and the small scale of their activity, their influence on the situation must have been very small.

The only Trotskyist mining group of any significance is that organised in Lanarkshire by Hugh Brannan, secretary of the national miners’ group of the ILP and a Trade Unionist of standing. The group is, however, very small and its influence is limited.

The Trotskyists are attracting workers whose discontent and desire to hit out at the employer and the Government can find no other outlet. They have achieved a small and localised but recognisable influence; and they are confident that the appeal of their militant programme will become stronger as the strain and friction inseparable from prolonged industrial effort increases. They have a closely knit core of energetic leaders and a membership which makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in numbers. They are helped by the absence of competition, except from the ILP, which they hope to use as a conscious or unconscious ally, the lack of normal political and trade-union activity, and the sense of frustration which is alleged to be produced in the absence of marked progress towards either victory in the field or reconstruction at home. These advantages are temporary and, unless the Trotskyists can exploit them much more rapidly than at present, it seems unlikely that they will ever rise to a greater position than that of sparring partners to the Communists, who would very much like to see the Trotskyists and their small paper suppressed.

Home Office, Whitehall
13th April 1944

Appendix A

Officials of the Revolutionary Communist Party

James Ritchie Haston, National Organiser, aged 32, describes himself variously as an aero engineer, a builder and a journalist. He has been an active Trotskyist since 1936, and from August 1941 until the amalgamation was employed as National organiser of the Workers International League. He is in grade 4. Several attempts by the Ministry of Labour to place him in other employment have failed.

Mildred Lee, Secretary, aged 31, is a South African and a milliner’s buyer by trade. She came here in 1938 with her husband, the founder of the Workers’ International League, and she remained as the League’s Secretary when her husband returned to South Africa. She devotes most of an income of about £350 a year received from South Africa to the cause.

Edward Grant, Editor of the Socialist Appeal, aged 30, is also South African and has been connected with the Workers’ International League since its inception. He was posted to the Pioneer Corps but fractured his skull before joining up and was discharged. It has proved impossible, owing to the effects of his injury, to find him alternative employment.

Roy Tearse, Industrial organiser, is 25. He served four years in the Royal Navy and was discharged in 1937 on medical grounds. He suffers from the effects of infantile paralysis. From 1941 to 1943 he was employed as an aero engine tester at De Havillands, Edgware, but was again discharged on medical grounds and has been certified by the medical referee unfit for regular employment. He was for two years a secret member of the Workers’ International League under an assumed name while acting openly as an energetic member of the ILP but has lately resigned from the latter and avowed his Trotskyist allegiance. He is secretary of the Militant Workers’ Federation.

Harold Atkinson, Chairman and Treasurer, aged 31, has been associated with Trotskyism since 1938. He is employed as a draughtsman by Messrs. Griffin & Tatlock. He devotes most of his spare time to the business side of the organisation but does not often appear in public.

Heaton Lee and Ann Keen, who have been associated with Tearse in the Tyneside apprentice strike, are trusted and experienced Trotskyists; both are believed to be members of the Central Committee. Lee was born in South Africa on the 19th January, 1916, and came to England in 1937 already a convinced Trotskyist. He is a civil engineer by profession and since 1938 has been employed by Messrs. Wimpey on works in London, Glasgow and Tyneside. He is reported to have met Mrs. Keen in the course of his voyage to England. She became converted to Trotskyism and has lived with Lee and collaborated in his Trotskyist activities ever since. While they were in Glasgow Lee acted as Workers’ International League district organiser and Keen as literature secretary; when they moved to Newcastle they continued to work in these capacities. On account of his work Lee appears little in public, and confines himself to organisation, making and developing contacts, and lecturing on political subjects under the auspices of the National Council of Labour Colleges. Mrs. Keen regularly sells Socialist Appeal and other literature in the streets. (Heaton Lee is not believed to be any relation of Mildred Lee’s husband.)

Appendix B.


An end to the coalition with the Bosses. Labour Trade Union Leaders must break with the Capitalist Government and wage a campaign for power on the following programme:–

Industrial and Economic Policy

1. Nationalisation of the land, mines, banks, transport and all big industry without compensation, as the prerequisite for a planned economy and the only means of ensuring full employment with adequate standards of living for the workers, and the operation of the means of production under control of workers’ committees.

2. Confiscation of all war profits, all company books to be open for trade union inspection, control of production through workers’ committees to end the chaos and mismanagement.

3. Distribution of food, clothes and other consumers’ commodities under the control of committees of workers elected from the Co-ops distributive trades, factories, housewives’ committees, and small shopkeepers, and allocation of housing under the control of tenants committees.

4. A rising scale of wages to meet the increased cost of living with a guaranteed minimum; the rate for the job, and industrial rates for all members of the armed forces.

Democratic Demands

5. Repeal of the Essential Works Order, the Emergency Powers Act and all other anti-working class and strike-breaking legislation.

6. Full electoral and democratic rights for all persons from the age of 18 years. Full democratic and political rights for the men and women in uniform.

7. Immediate freedom and unconditional independence for India, Ireland and all the colonies of Britain; immediate withdrawal of the British armed forces from these countries; full economic and military assistance to the Indian and colonial peoples to maintain their independence against all imperialist attack.

Military policy

8. Clear out the reactionary, pro-Fascist, and anti-Labour officer caste in the armed forces and Home Guard; election of officers by the ranks.

9. Establishment of military schools by the Trade Unions at the expense of the State for the training of worker-officers; arming of the workers under the control of workers’ committees elected in the factories, unions and in the streets for the defence of the democratic rights of the workers from reactionary attacks by the enemies of the working class at home and abroad.

International Policy

10. Against race hatred and discrimination of all forms (Vansittartism, Anti-Semitism, and the Colour Bar); for the fraternisation and co-operation of workers and soldiers of all countries.

11. Unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against all imperialist Powers; despatch of arms, food and essential materials to the Soviet Union under the control of the Trade Unions and factory committees.

12. A Socialist appeal to the workers of Germany, Europe, Japan and the rest of the world, on the basis of this programme in Britain, to join the Socialist struggle against Nazism, Fascism and all forms of capitalist oppression and for a Socialist United States of Europe and a Federation of Asiatic Soviet Socialist Republics.


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