Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Brief notes on the history of the Left Fraction

The following article was written by, Harry Selby in or around 1964 as an internal document of the Left Fraction, which was at that time publishing the monthly paper Politics. The Left Fraction ceased its activities in 1967. This article is interesting in that it gives a view of the history, of Trotskyism in Britain that is entirely, different to any, so far published, especially, in respect of the conduct of the Trotskyists during the Second World War and the role of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International A similar view was expressed by, the exiled Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis, see Munis and James Cannon, Defense policy, in the Minneapolis Trial, International Bulletin, June 1942. Other material on the Trotskyist movement and the Second World War will be published in Revolutionary History. Details on the Left Fraction during the 1940s are contained in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, War and the International, London, 1987, pp.41-42, 106-108 and 145-149.

Harry, Selby, who had been expelled from Glasgow Labour Party, on more than one occasion, later. accepted nomination as the Labour candidate for Glasgow Govan when it became vacant in 1973. Losing the by-election to Scottish National Party, leader, Margo Macdonald, he won the seat in the February, 1974 general election and increased his majority in the subsequent general election in the October of that year. He died in January 1984.

The Left Fraction, British Section of the Fourth International (In Opposition) is the development of the struggle commenced by Leon Trotsky against the Stalinist disrupters of the world revolution and their successors in the ranks of the FI.

The Fourth International was founded in September 1938 at the instigation of Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution. The history of this development can be found in articles written by Pablo in the Fourth International and in a pamphlet together with the thesis published at that time. There is no need then to go into details here when all the relevant facts can be got elsewhere. But there is one outstanding part in the history by Pablo and that is his exaggeration of the part played by the “Trotskyists” in this country during the war. The part played by the British Section in the struggle against the war was pitiful and completely barren. The reason for this was the defencist and opportunist policy pursued by the “Trotskyists” as will be understood better when the details of the history are expressed.

As a consequence of the inauguration of the Fourth International a fusion of groupings expressing revolutionary and anti-Communist Party policies and calling themselves Left Oppositionists brought about the formation of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). This was composed in the main of tendencies which had been advocating revolutionary policies inside the Labour Party, the ILP and others who had been openly advocating Trotskyist ideas at street corners and by selling papers. The RSL was recognised as the British Section of the FI and all members and groups placed their publications and resources at the service of the leading body of the RSL in conformity with Bolshevik practice. Minority rights were respected as were differences of tactic. An entry tactic was agreed upon and the RSL turned to work inside the Labour Party, it being accepted that the ILP had failed to develop any further to the left. A concession was allowed for a period to those who did not wish to enter the LP and two papers were published, one ostensibly for sale inside the LP and the other for sale to the public. From the outset an error was made in allowing a minority to have rights outside the organisation. But since it was to be for a limited period only it was felt that no great harm would be done and that those who subscribed to open work would be won round to an acceptance through experience of the true nature of the struggle.

Two groups found themselves unable to take advantage of the concession, the Lane Group and the Lee Group (Workers International League (WIL), both of which refused to hand over to the newly appointed leadership their resources as did the other groupings. In other words they rejected democratic centralism and Bolshevism. The Lane group had little influence outside of one London area and soon departed the political scene. The WIL (Lee Group) had among its leading members, Haston, Grant, Healy and Levy, all of whom had a CP background and showed all the characteristics of the policy referred to as third Period Stalinism. That is the policy of attacking everyone who did not accept the CP as being fascists of various kinds. Labour Party leaders were social-fascists, Trotskyists were Trotsky-fascists, etc. As a result of this policy the CPs succeeded in not only isolating themselves from the working class but in demoralising them as well. Unity was made impossible by such attacks on the accepted leaders of the workers and stupid appeals to the workers to unite from below which split the advanced elements from the more backward. As a consequence of the rise of Hitler and the destruction of the working class parties in Germany the CPs acting on the instructions from the Stalinists in Moscow changed the line to one of allying themselves with all “progressive” forces - not only the erstwhile social-fascists but even liberal bourgeois were now regarded as being comrades. From one demoralising policy to another. Bourgeois democracy became the end and all those who did not accept the need to defend this conception became in turn the “supporters of fascism”. A complete reversal of the previous position. Stalinists found themselves alongside social-democrats defending capitalism. This was too much for many of the most active rank and file propagandists of Third Periodism and some of them tagged on to the tendency going towards Trotskyism just as after the Hungarian Rising in 1957 a number of leading members defected and without shedding their Stalinism came into the periphery of the Fourth. Among those who rejected the new “Popular Front” line were the aforesaid leaders of the WIL. Not only did this grouping refuse to accept the discipline of the Fourth International it continued to call itself Trotskyist and internationalist when it was neither. It was condemned not only by the RSL but by the whole International as being disruptive, opportunist and a menace. Nevertheless it continued to intrude into the affairs of the RSL and the FI. Unfortunately all of the members of the FI were not so disciplined themselves and instead of sending the WIL packing they continued to regard it as a sympathetic body. Because of their intense activity the WIL gave the impression of sincerity which fooled many people into believing them to be Trotskyists. Even the IS and the editor’s of the International accepted them. Meanwhile inside the RSL, because of the war which commenced almost immediately on the morrow of the founding of the RSL, all the latent tendencies which had kept the various tendencies apart in the past. expressed themselves. The pressure of war and the isolation of the revolutionary cadres affected many. We had therefore the expression of pacifist tendencies, both plain and revolutionary as well as the exposition of the classical Leninist position of desiring the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie. A revolutionary class in an imperialist war desires the defeat of its national army in order to utilise the situation of the humbling of its masters to overthrow them irrespective of the nature of the enemy.

Inside, the. RSL the slogan of “Arming the Workers” was challenged as being Defencist, Similarly was the slogan of “Deep Shelters” (See Bolshevism or Defencism). Both these slogans while. appearing to be leading the workers against the bosses were in fact directing the struggle of the workers into defencist channels..

As a result of this, the Leicester group of the RSL issued a document calling upon the RSL to rescue Bolshevism from its disrupters. This opened up inside the RSL a discussion on the nature of the war and the role of the party. The CC dominated by the weak centrists denied the elementary rights of democratic centralism and used all kinds, of evasions to cover up for its anti-Bolshevik position. The Centre had previously shown its disregard for democratic centralism, by trying to put an interpretation on it that the leadership had the right to change policy. As a result of this struggle from 1940 on the elements inside the RSL crystallised round three tendencies, the Left Fraction, based on Bolshevism or Defencism, the Centre occupying a position of balance between the Left and Right Wing which had openly come out in favour of a Defencist position similar to that adopted by the WIL. Confusion was made worse by the fact that the International Secretariat (IS) based in the USA followed a defencist line put forward by the SWP there. This was based on a travesty called the American Military Policy which purported to be the line advocated by Trotsky, It was not so. Trotsky had formulated a policy to be used in the USA based upon the non-entry of the USA into the world conflict. This was a policy which placed the emphasis on the working class getting arms and training by demanding this from the capitalist class as a transitional demand during peacetime and the emphasis was that the training and arms would be used for the defence of the workers not against a foreign but their own bourgeoisie. But the US “Trotskyists” turned this into a demand that the workers be armed to fight Hitler since the capitalists were not good at doing so. This was openly expressed in the defence position at the Minneapolis trial of leading members of the SWP. Munis, of the Spanish section in exile, objected along similar lines to that of the Left Fraction. Unfortunately no one else in the International took up the struggle. The WIL adopted word for word the line of the SWP and the IS as they did on every other erroneous one in order to win the support of the International for recognition as the British Section. The Right Wing inside the RSL was in constant touch with the WIL, one of the leaders, Lawrence, actually taking a job as organiser for the WIL with which he could see nothing wrong. By such means the kernel of British FI policy was eliminated

The Reconstitution Conference, was held on 1 January 1944 and the, motion to fuse, was carried by 74 with the Left abstaining with 29.

In this way the British Section of the Fourth International was liquidated into the WIL. The Left Fraction, accepted all International instructions under protest pointing out what would inevitably happen.

The subsequent Conference took place between the RSL and the WIL wherein the WIL supported by the Right Wing and partially by the Centre carried all their policies and proposals into the new, PARTY (?). The Revolutionary Communist Party was launched. It was not revolutionary nor communist nor a party but it carried on the fight against the Left Fraction. It adopted the open party tactic spending all its time attacking the CP and the LP outside of both of them. Needless to say its progress was negligible. It set about building up oppositional organisations to the existing Shop Stewards movement even further isolating themselves from the working class. By this time the war was, as far as this country was concerned, past the Defeatist stage, the weight of US arms was telling and Germany while still holding out was on the run. Nevertheless the adventurers inside the Fourth International were not content to smash the RSL. They now wanted to smash the Left Fraction. The Left Fraction had set itself up as a disciplined grouping with two professionals and it continued to print the Militant Miner. This was as a consequence of the fact that the name of the Pioneer Publishing Association was in the hands of a member of the Left Fraction. The Left had been producing the official paper in this country based on the LP tactic and used the allocation of newsprint (which was rationed) to build up support for the policies of the FI inside the ranks of the organised workers. The centre was mainly in the coalfields and the paper was used on behalf of the miners.

The new RCP wanted the paper ration for their own ends and the Left Fraction refused through their nominee to disrupt the work of the paper. Ultimately the RCP acted and demanded the Left act in a disciplined way (the RCP conception of discipline) which meant that the Left should desert the miners. They were offered a duplicated sheet instead of the printed paper. But the Left Fraction placed the primary needs of the International above the demands of the usurpers of the RCP.

Arising out of this act and of a further act of where the Left Fraction refused permission to two of its fraction members to be withdrawn from LP work to do open work for which they were not expelled but threatened, etc., without charges being preferred, the Left Fraction was called upon to give an undertaking not to break discipline in future. This the Left could not do since signing such an undertaking was an admission of guilt in the past.

The RCP taking full advantage of its power expelled the Left Fraction. This the Left had forecast at the time of the Fusion. It was only a question of when and how. In actual fact one of the conditions that the WIL had laid down to its allies inside the RSL was that the Left be expelled. So it came as no surprise. Stalinist gangsters do not change their methods. Theirs is the job of destroying Bolshevism.

In September 1945 the Left Fraction was expelled again. It once again appealed to the IS but got no reply or satisfaction. The Left had taken full cognisance of being so excluded from the British Section of the FI and that it would have to reconstitute itself as the FI section in opposition. We recognised the degeneration that had taken place inside the FI itself mirrored by the RCP during the war was not confined to this country. On no issue did the leadership of the opportunist and indisciplined elements of the WIL/RCP cross swords with the IS whose support it was seeking in order to get recognition for the purpose of destroying Bolshevism entirely in this country.

The Left Fraction then set about reconstituting itself as an independent entity, fighting to build the British Section of the FI and at the same time fighting on a world scale to get rid of the disrupters of the IS. It appealed to the World Party and to the national sections but failed to get any response. The World Party was too busy trying to build sections at any price and of any kind that it had also given up any pretence of Bolshevism. It continued to deny elementary rights to maltreated minorities, but nevertheless it had not as a party failed the workers, so we continued to give it our support.

Meanwhile the RCP was undergoing upheavals internally. It had the authority and it had to determine tactics. It split open over the question of Entrism versus open work. Since they were no good at either, in their open work they were ultra-left Stalinists and in their entry work they were bad centrists. So it was only a question of time till a split occurred. The Open tacticians led by Grant disappeared, the Entrists led by Healy found themselves with a raiding tactic inside the LP. They sought after positions as councillors and MPs under the belief that by being better sham-lefts they could advance the struggle. Ultimately they became undercover agents for the Tribune. Their latest end is known as the Socialist Labour League whose adventurist tactics once again befoul the name of Trotskyism. 8

The Left Fraction left to its own set about establishing itself, carrying out the LP Tactic in conformity with the conception worked out that the struggle for the revolutionary party would be fought inside the LP in the forthcoming period for reasons explained elsewhere (see Once More the Tactic).

A National Committee was set up with our two professionals and a duplicated paper The Voice of Labour 10 was produced. After the first two issues two of the leading members Mercer11 and Selby were expelled from the LP for contributing to the paper. The expulsion was an act of bureaucratic violence against the elementary rights of the members of the working class. As a consequence of this attack by the bureaucrats of the LP differences arose inside the Fraction as to what the attack was and what should be the best method of fighting it. These differences were ultimately to prove fundamental. A section led by JLR considered that the leading members, the professionals were guilty of desertion by their attitude to the attack and by their non-production of the Voice of Labour on the scheduled date. An extraordinary Conference was held but no definite decision was arrived at, rather a compromise which while condemning the professionals for their mistake did not condemn them as being guilty of desertion. A re-arrangement was made and the centre was transferred to London but the seeds of disunity had been planted and general fatigue took its toll. The members of the Fraction had undergone a struggle for years inside the RSL then the RCP and now flung into a fight against the right wing of the Labour Party on the basis of an elementary right in this demoralised condition proved too much for most. Internal disputes reached a level of personal recrimination. Together with this differences arose as to the nature of the states being set up by the Stalinists in the occupied territories, producing a polemic which was not conducted in the friendliest of terms. The Fraction finally collapsed when the leadership tried to direct the Fraction into the newly-formed Socialist Fellowship. This organisation was set up by some members of the LP – erstwhile Lefts who were feeling the growing frustration of the Labour Party in office which to them was departing from “socialist” policies. This was in 1948. The Healyites jumped on this bandwagon and the leaders of the Left advised the Fraction to join. Since this was in contradiction to the policy of the Left previously determined a conflict expressed itself. The Fraction split, those who joined the Fellowship sinking themselves entirely into it. 12 Therein the differences between the tendencies expressed themselves, some ending up in the CP as an “opposition” others faded out of politics and the rest succumbed to Healy. Ultimately the Fellowship died, the Socialist Outlook, the paper, was banned and the rump set about selling Tribune which used their efforts to increase its circulation in return for an occasional article or letter from the Healyites as payment.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Fraction, which had constituted a majority, deprived of the resources which had been taken over entirely by the professionals and no doubt given to Healy, was in great difficulty. They, dependent on the professionals and without much technical ability, crumbled. Attempts were made to continue by printing leaflets to be handed out at LP meetings, etc., but the lack of morale as well as frustration finally caused most of the members to give up the fight.

With great difficulty the spark was kept alive. But as soon as new contacts were made, Hardie in conjunction with Coms Low, Gilmour and Brannigan 13 set about rebuilding the Fraction on the basis and tradition of the Old Left Fraction in its struggles inside the RSL and Seq. New comrades were developing and Hardie 14 who had been in constant receipt of FI material was approached by the IS in the person of Tampoe 15 of the Ceylon Section. We were invited to join the newly reformed British Section of the Fl. This was being done under the leadership of Grant. We objected to Grant’s past and pointed out that we could not join unless we were permitted to conduct the LP Tactic as we saw it and not as Grant and Co did. This was accepted by Tampoe. We pointed out the indisciplined position but since it was imperative to try to rebuild the Left Fraction we were prepared to tolerate the indiscipline of the IS.

For four years during which we tried to get the new RSL to act as principled Bolsheviks, the Glasgow Group, now joined by Nottingham comrades, set about preparing the Left Fraction. We polemicised inside the RSL for the LP Tactic but the dead hand of Grant and his RCP past prevented progress. The Left Fraction broke off association with the RSL and set about building itself up. We tried then to work with the International Group 16 based in Nottingham since they had also split from the RSL. But they, like Grant, had a bad past which they were incapable of overcoming. They had come from the CP and had no conception of Bolshevism at all. They were completely opportunist, lacking even the slightest idea of discipline. After one year during which they failed to reply to Once More the Tactic we broke off having decided that groups with such pasts could only be a hindrance. From then on we built on our own. We commenced to produce Politics. We set up a national organisation and the Left Fraction, the inheritor of Bolshevism in this country, was once again in being. The Fourth International now has a viable group in this country which while it may not yet have the status of a national section, has the tradition, has the capacity and has the will to be it. We are carrying the struggle once again to the international plane and it is hoped that this time we shall get at least a bearing.

Our history is one of constant struggle, of expression of differences, of polemic. We were born to fight for clarity and so long as we continue to fight for principles there is little doubt that the Left Fraction will succeed in its original task, of building the Revolutionary Party of the working class, not only here but throughout the world.

Harry Selby

1. Pablo: Michel Raptis. then International Secretary of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. See his series of articles Twenty Years of the Fourth International, Fourth International, Spring, Summer and Autumn 1958 and M. Pablo, The Fourth International – What It Is, What It Aims At, Fourth International pamphlet, 1958.

2. The Lane Group: the Revolutionary Workers League.

3. A reference to Jock Haston, Ted Grant, Gerry Healy and Sam Levy. Comrade Levy has informed us that he was not previously in the CP nor was he a leading member of the WIL. Grant was never in the CP either.

4. Bolshevism or Defencism, an internal document of the RSL, May 1941, written by John Robinson and Will Dillon,

5. A reference to A Circle or a Party?, published by the Leicester group of the RSL, August 1941.

6. John Lawrence, an RSL leader, associated with the Trotskyist Opposition within it.

7. The Militant Miner was the RSL’s monthly paper. previously Youth Militant and the Militant, subsequently the Militant Scottish Miner.

8. The Socialist Labour League was formed in 1959 and became the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1973.

9. Once More the Tactic, an RSL internal document produced by the Left Fraction.

10. The Voice of Labour was the duplicated external paper of the Left Fraction.

11. Tom Mercer, a leader of the Left Fraction.

12. Tom Mercer and Roddy Hood joined the Socialist Fellowship and Healy’s group the ‘Club’.

13. Low, Gilmour and Brannigan were cadre names for Selby, Brian Biggins and another, unidentified, Left Fraction leader.

14. Hardie: probably another cadre name for Selby

15. P.B. Tampoe was a leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party – Revolutionary

16. The International Group was comprised of a number of ex-CP members who had joined the Trotskyist movement after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003