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International Socialism, Autumn 1960


John Fairhead

Why Britain is still going


From International Socialism (1st series), No.2, Autumn 1960, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Where is Britain Going?
Leon Trotsky
Socialist Labour League Publications. 7s 6d.

The Socialist Labour League has done the working-class movement a service by producing this cheap reprint of a booklet which Trotsky wrote in 1925. Yet it is important that this should not be just another opportunity to kiss the sacred relics and make the sign of the cross.

Within its immediate context what Trotsky wrote was brilliantly confirmed within twelve months of its authorship. Not only did the events of 1926 provide an occasion for British working-class leaders to conform exactly to the classic pattern of social democrats confronted by crisis, but Trotsky’s criticism of Comintern support for the “Lefts” on the TUC was tragically justified.

As a weapon in the fight against the conservative bureaucracy in the Russian communist party, the book was a success. As a treatise on the revolutionary past of the British working class, it has never been surpassed. As an analysis of the mechanics of Labour opportunism, it has lost none of its value. But as a prognosis and guide to action for the revolutionary Left in Britain the book is useful only as an example of use of the Marxist method: all Trotsky’s long-term predictions were wrong.

At issue are not mere errors of timing. Every current of socialist thought has shared a number of illusions about the development of twentieth-century capitalism which are expressed by Trotsky in a passage worth quoting in full:

“It is absurd to think that the mighty Labour wave which is to raise Macdonald to power will immediately afterwards deferentially recede. No, the demands of the working class will grow extraordinarily. Here there will no longer be any room for the excuse of dependence on Liberal votes. The opposition of the Conservatives, the House of Lords, the bureaucracy and the monarchy will double the energy, impatience and agitation of the workers. The lies and calumnies of the capitalist Press will lash them forward. If under these circumstances their own government were to display even the most unfeigned energy, it would nonetheless seem too indolent to the working masses. But one may with as much reason expect revolutionary energy from Macdonald, Clynes and Snowden as one may expect a sweet scent from a rotten beetroot. Between the revolutionary pressure of the proletariat and the frantic opposition of the bourgeoisie the Macdonald government will sway from side to side, irritating the one, not satisfying the other, provking the bourgeoisie by its dilatoriness, intensifying the revolutionary impatience of the workers, kindling a civil war, and endeavouring at the same time to deprive it of the necessary direction from the proletarian side. This period will inevitably strengthen the revolutionary wing, and will raise to the top the most far-seeing, determined and revolutionary elements of the working class.”

What neither Trotsky nor any other Marxist foresaw was the ability of capitalism, in its bureaucratic-monopolist phase, to yield concession after concession alike to the working class at home and to the nascent bourgeoisie of the dependent territories.

This ability proceeds from a curious dialectical combination. On the one hand big business, drained and weakened by war, was compelled in the years after 1945 to permit the Labour government to proceed with the statification of the economy to an extraordinary extent. On the other hand the strengthening of capitalism which this process induced (alongside American subsidization and the advance of preparations for World War III) allowed the granting of a whole series of working class demands which Marxists had in the past regarded as transitional. Short of explosion in war, there is no sign of this state of affairs being ended. The case Trotsky argues in the passage quoted (which is also the basis of such documents as the Fourth International’s transitional program) is thereby shattered. The conceding of these demands, far from raising the consciousness of the workers and agitating their impatience, threatens to undercut social-democracy itself. For if a Conservative or Liberal, a Republican or Democratic party can concede such demands, wherein lies the need for independent reformist working-class organization? This is the dilemma which underlies the crisis within the Labour Party and social democracy in general.

It is time revolutionists recognized that the crisis of bureaucratic-capitalist society will be not phased, but cataclysmic. What is required is the socialist education of the whole class, its permeation with a consciousness of its capacity for power and the quickening of its will to power. This will be done by understanding and utilizing the new forms of organization of the class which are being Built at site and shop level; and by assembling and training a cadre of Marxists, reared on an understanding of the new conditions and a realization that the new organization of the class will be built on the foundations of the disintegration (and not the stage by stage “exposure”) of all existing organizations.

The slogan of “Labour to power” has a hollow ring when it is no longer even certain that Labour will take office. It is now that the history of the early struggles of the British workers, so brilliantly described and analysed by Trotsky in these pages, gains a new and exciting significance.

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