Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The WIL view

We reprint the following document to provide a contrast to the article on the Left Fraction by Harry Selby. It first gives an account from the point of view of the Political Bureau of the Workers International League of the development of Trotskyism in Britain up until the “Peace and Unity Conference” held in August 1938. It then deals with developments after the conference, especially in respect of the disintegration of the Revolutionary Socialist League. Reasons of space prevent us from reproducing in this issue the various resolutions, statements and letters to which reference is made in the document.

The document was intended to accompany the discussion inside the WIL initiated by the proposal of the minority led by Gerry Healy for immediate unification with the RSL on the basis of the proposals of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. Undated and untitled, the document was written in the latter half of 1943. The last date given in the document is 4 July 1943, but it was probably issued around 11 September, as it was written to accompany a document which appeared on that date answering a criticism of the WIL made by Lou Cooper of the Socialist Workers Party of the USA.

John Archer adds that in his opinion the statement may have also arisen because there was contact at a rank and file level between members of the WIL and the RSL.

In order to acquaint our membership with the events leading up to the present relations between ourselves and the RSL as well as with the International Secretariat, we present a short factual summary of the early development of the Fourth International in this country together with the main documents relating to the 1938 Unification Conference.

British communism has always been more backward than in other countries. This was the case not only among our own cadres, but also in the Communist Party, whose leadership was always regarded by the International movement as the most backward in the world.

The initial cadres of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party of Great Britain were, in the main, petit-bourgeois. While accepting the ideas and principles of the International Left Opposition, they made no attempt to concretise these ideas and apply them to the British movement. The spirit of a petit-bourgeois discussion circle was fostered in the early meetings. No real attempt was made to acquaint the youth members and sympathisers with the theoretical differences between the Bolshevik Leninists and the Stalinist bureaucracy nationally or internationally, or with the programme of the Left Opposition. The leadership showed the greatest incapacity to train the younger elements or to conduct any decisive political action.

During the period of the campaign of the Left Opposition for re-entry into the Communist parties, it was possible for a loose collection of individuals to hold together, for in this country it enabled them to appear in public as “critics” while binding them to no real programme of activity. However, when the German betrayal impelled the Left Opposition to consider the reform of the Comintern no longer possible and to adopt the perspective of orientation towards the new Fourth International, the basic weakness of the British Bolshevik Leninists was revealed.

The directive given to the British comrades was to turn towards the centrist organisations as the main field of work. This perspective worked out by comrade Trotsky was fundamentally correct, but due to the complete incapacity of the Trotskyists to carry out this tactic, the outcome resulted in failure. This turn towards the centrists marked the first of what was to be a series of splits. Incapable of acting as a unified body, the opposition burst asunder, one group entering the ILP, the other at first remained independent and later entered the Labour Party. This initial split took place without any thorough discussion or preparation, the factional lines running parallel to the personal alliances of the various individuals.

From 1934 until 1938 a continuous series of splits took place. The political lines were, as a rule, not fundamental in character, but on questions of tactics, which were raised to immutable principles. The factions were characterised by a core, who, generally speaking, broke along lines of personal affiliation. The few who remained on the periphery of these factions – mainly fresh elements turning to the Trotskyist viewpoint – moved aimlessly from one group to another, seeking a lead.

The French Party’s turn to the Socialist Party and the Oehler split in America over the question of entry into the Socialist Party, created a new basis for the various factions. The “principle” of the “independence of the Bolshevik Party” became the centre of the new and “higher” forms of political discussion.

During the whole of this period, the International Secretariat was completely misinformed as to the real situation in the British movement – its strength, the forms of work it conducted, its support among the workers, and in every other aspect of its activities. The loose connection between the IS and the British movement facilitated this.

The Trotskyist groups which evolved and disappeared were myriad. The Communist Left Opposition, the Marxist League, the Marxist Group, the Militant Group, the Chelsea Action Group, the Revolutionary Socialist League, the Unified Revolutionary Socialist League, the Militant Labour League, the Revolutionary Workers League, the Workers International League – all these in the London area alone, and others emerged from time to time in the provinces.

By September 1938 there were three distinct groups in existence in the London area as follows (the names of the leaderships of these organisations are given to identify them, as subsequently the names were changed): The Revolutionary Socialist League (James, Duncan, Lane, Wicks, Dewar), the Marxist League (Wicks, Dewar) had just entered into a unification with the RSL on the basis of the Independent tactic. The Militant Group (Harber, Jackson) was an entrist group in the Labour Party, and the Workers International League (Lee, Grant, Haston) was an entrist group in the Labour Party.

There also existed the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Edinburgh, which was moving towards the Fourth International and was about to effect a unification with the RSL on the basis of the Independent tactic. The leaders of this group were Maitland and Tait.

Each year, and sometimes twice a year, a “unity” conference was called, but without any serious preparation or intention. The soft elements who had proved themselves incapable of any continuity of organised work, who had dropped out of the movement from time to time, appeared on the platform and played a prominent role in the “discussions”. Each year it became more and more obvious that a genuine unification among the old elements was absolutely precluded, because of the determination of the “leaders” to retain their independence and resist any encroachment on their positions, and, most importantly, because of the absence of a genuine rank and file. It was evident that unification would only take place on the basis of a common programme of action, on the basis of common work.

Such was the position in the British movement when the “Peace and Unity Conference” took place in September 1938. In the bulletin circulated for pre-conference discussion, there were three theses submitted for discussion by the WIL, the RSL and the RSP. The conference was attended by representatives of these three groups, as well as a representative of the Militant Group. At this conference the “Peace and Unity Agreement” was drawn up and presented by the American comrade. There was no political discussion on the differences of tactics and perspective, for Britain, which had separated the groups for years – only this “Peace and Unity Agreement” which the groups were given 20 minutes to sign. All groups signed except the WIL. We reproduce here the Peace and Unity Agreement.

(Here follows the text of the Peace and Unity Agreement of August 1938)

The American comrades addressed the whole of the membership of the WIL on several occasions with the object of convincing them to accept the above agreement as the basis for unity. The WIL unanimously rejected this. We claimed that the so-called “unification” was not a unification at all but was merely the prelude to further splits because of two fundamental factors: there was no unified tactic and therefore no unified body; with two tactics in operation without a majority decision, it was impossible to work as a unified body. The WIL expressed to the American comrade the desire to become a sympathetic section of the Fourth International, which he assured us he would exert his influence to effect. We were asked to send a delegate to the International conference, failing which we were to hand a statement to DDH [Harber], a delegate of the unified section who attended the conference. The WIL decided to send a written statement and delivered it by band to DDH, as instructed by the American comrade. The statement of the WIL is produced below.

(Here follows the text of the statement addressed by the WIL to the Founding Conference of the Fourth International)

The International Conference accepted the “unified” organisation, the RSL, as the official British Section of the Fourth International. It rejected the application of the WIL to be recognised as an official section or even a sympathetic section and predicted its inevitable degeneration and collapse.

Below is produced the statement of the 1938 International Conference on the “Lee Group” (WIL). It must be pointed out that the accusation in Section 3, that our statement was addressed to the world at large, presents a mis-statement of fact. We addressed our statement in a sealed envelope to the conference as headed.

(Here follows the resolution of the Founding Conference of the Fourth International on the “Lee Group” [WIL])

Hardly had the ink dried on the Peace and Unity Agreement and the American delegates departed for home, when the cracks in the “unified” organisation began to appear. These cracks rapidly widened into splits. After signing the agreement, the RSP, which launched a vicious attack against the WIL at the International Conference because of our warnings on the nature of the unification, had split away before the year had ended. What is more, they split precisely on the basis we predicted. The “lefts” soon followed suit, setting up their own “official section” of the same name, the RSL. This was followed by a rapid disintegration of the majority of such provincial groups and contacts as the unified section still retained. It is noteworthy, that although the International took a very “hard” stand when the WIL refused to accept the Peace and Unity Agreement as the basis of agreement and made a caustic public condemnation of the WIL, no public statement was ever issued denouncing the splitters from the “unified” section. Thus we have it that such elements who did not enter the unification honestly – Wicks, Dewar, Lane, Maitland, etc., etc. – these are the people who are using the statement of the International against the WIL today.

For the information of members, we produce the statements of the first two splits issued by the RSP and the RWL (the latter is the nucleus of the present ”TO” [Trotskyist Opposition]). Although these are somewhat lengthy they are of value insofar as they demonstrate the exact line of development as foreseen by the WIL.

(Then follow the statements of the Edinburgh RSP and the London ”RSL” [later called the RWL] splitting from the united RSL, section of the new Fourth International)

Once again the old situation existed, except that it was more chaotic than at any time in the past. Our movement continued to consist of “general staffs” but without the armies.

During this period the WIL continued its work, convinced that the only way out of the impasse of British Trotskyism was to turn our backs on the old clique spirit and petit-bourgeois milieu and draw in fresh workers to reinforce the ranks of the movement. That we suffered from the denunciation of the IS is undoubted. But as we had the correct policy and the correct attitude, the general harmony within our ranks gave us a superiority in the orientation and organisation of our cadres. A new phase began in the development of our movement. Whereas in the years 1934-39 we witnessed a series of interminable splits, superficial re-unifications and splits again, the last period 1939-43 has marked a period of genuine unification of all the serious elements and the growth and influence in our ideas among the British working class. This unification has taken place within the framework of the Workers International League. Any member or section seeking the road to the genuine building of the party in Britain found their way into the WIL as an organisation putting forward the policy of the Fourth International, conducting its activities in a serious and disciplined manner, and basing itself upon the principles of democratic centralism.

Just over 12 months ago we made contact with the comrades in the RSL who now constitute the TO. At that time the RSL was composed of three warring factions, the so-called “Left” (Robinson, Mercer), the “Centre” (Harber, Davis), and the “Right” (Lawrence, Lane). The TO claimed to hold a position identical to the WIL on the political and tactical questions facing our movement. The “Left” characterised the WIL, as well as the IS and SWP, as “chauvinist” and “opportunist” and retained the entrist tactic. The “Centre” was between the two, claimed also that the WIL and the IS were “chauvinist” and “opportunist”.

It must be pointed out that the TO was working in very close and comradely collaboration with the WIL. We were paying Lawrence at the same rate as our professionals – in effect he was a professional for our organisation. But as a result of Stuart's intervention the TO changed its course. It turned away from collaboration with the WIL and returned to the perspective of re-entering the RSL with the object of gaining the majority,

Today the position of the RSL is that both “Left” and “Right” have been expelled. The TO has taken into its ranks elements who have opposed the political position of the WIL and the Fourth International for a period of years, who have opposed entry into the WIL on the grounds of political differences. That the TO has been influenced by these elements is undoubted.

In a letter to the WIL, dated 4 July 1943, they write:

We are not prepared at this stage to open up “written discussion” with WIL on the points of agreement and disagreement with your present political program – but we certainly do not consider the program as a whole to be incompatible with membership of the FI.

Not only have the TO moved their political position, but they have expelled and are expelling members from their ranks who disagree with their tactics and who demand a genuine collaboration with the WIL, and yet remain in agreement with the basic policy on which the TO was formed.

Thus, from a position of comradely collaboration with the TO, we have reached a position today where the TO has political disagreements with the WIL; they have made no gains from the RSL; they are expelling members who disagree with their tactic and methods and demand a genuine collaboration with the WIL. The responsibility for this situation rests on the shoulders of Stuart, who prevented the TO from fusing with the WIL in the most favourable circumstances and diverted the political struggle onto organisational questions. When his tactic of re-entry into the RSL appeared to be failing (far less winning the majority), Stuart proposed to the TO … that they found a new Trotskyist party in this country, that they establish a new Trotskyist journal, with no apparent programme other than the alleged programme of “Democratic Centralism” and that they conduct a public struggle against the WIL and the RSL. He thus repudiated his previous “principled” position, apparently lending international authority to a further split in out. movement. Here is reproduced the letter from Stuart to the TO:

(Then is reproduced the letter of JB Stuart [Sam Gordon] to JL [John Lawrence] dated 4 February, 1943)

As the result of this and other letters of Stuart, the leaders of the TO are drawing the logical conclusions: when the TO eventually does fuse with the WIL, they will maintain their fraction within the WIL as the “true” Fourth Internationalists. In other words, instead of liquidating the factions after the fusion. the TO is discussing the maintenance of the split within the ranks of the fused organisation, yet it has no avowed political differences. This is a false and unprincipled conception of unification and lays the basis for a future split.

The above documents provide the facts of the British situation as a background to the discussions now opening up in the organisation.

Political Bureau
Workers International League

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003