Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Louis Sinclair (1909-1990)

Louis Sinclair, who spent much of his life in tracing and listing the very numerous books, articles, letters and other writings of Trotsky, has died after a long and painful illness.

His devotion to this self-imposed task made him one of the very few who, having decided in his youth to support the cause of Trotsky, went on in later life to keep his convictions unchanged and to render valuable service to Trotskyism while standing aside from all of the contending groups claiming Trotsky’s mantle.

He was born into a Jewish working class family in Glasgow, and appears to have been recruited in 1937 in that city to the Militant Group, probably by Tom Mercer. He opposed the split which led to the formation of the Workers’ International League. In uniform early in the war he recruited to the Revolutionary Socialist League an important cadre of the ILP in Scotland, Jack Hamilton, whom he won from pacifism; the death of this comrade in a motorcycling accident was a sad blow. In Italy in 1943-44 Louis worked with Bill Quin and Charlie van Gelderen to make contact with Italian revolutionary workers and to found the Italian section of the Fourth International.

After demobilisation he went back to school teaching, at which he earned his living for the rest of his working life, specialising for one period in the special education of children handicapped by deafness.

It is not known at precisely what point he ceased to be directly connected with the Revolutionary Communist Party, but the strong probability is that he sympathised with the Left Fraction, led by John Robinson and Tom Mercer. In any case, after the collapse of the Revolutionary Communist Party in 1949, there is no sign that he ever identified himself with any of the contending groups claiming to represent the heritage of Trotsky. He became deeply committed to the series of efforts which were to bear fruit in his monumental Trotsky Bibliography, the researches for which took him to libraries and private collections all over Europe and North America.

He would tell his friends of some of his experiences, with great relish. On one summer holiday journey, it appears, he went to Helsinki in Finland, where he had written in advance for admission to the leading library. He presented himself to the librarian there, who said that there was someone waiting to see him. This turned out, to his complete surprise, to be an old railway worker, who had heard “on the grapevine” that Louis was coming to ask about publications by Trotsky, and had travelled 400 miles down from the Far North, to show him a treasured text of one of Trotsky’s pamphlets in the Finnish language.

The present writer had reason for gratitude, when writing his Trotskyism in Britain: 1931-1937, Louis supplied the significant resolution on Labour Party ‘entrism’ in Britain, drafted by James, Harber and Klement, and agreed at the so-called First International Conference for the Fourth International in July 1936. He had located it in the Labour Movement Library in Copenhagen, and there was not, to my knowledge, a copy of it anywhere in the British archives.

Apart from a small circle of friends, of whom Charlie van Gelderen was the closest, Louis remained for many years rather an isolated figure. The academic establishment tended to cold-shoulder him and the leaders of such a group as the Socialist Labour League derided him as a scholastic and refused to listen to suggestions which he based on his reading of Trotsky’s work.

In more recent years, however, his work has been richly and justly acknowledged by such scholars as George Breitman and Pierre Broué, whose way forward Louis’ pioneering work had helped to clear. He greatly appreciated this recognition, which led to his early participation in the discussions leading to the establishment of the Leon Trotsky Institute and of the Cahiers Leon Trotsky.

His old university in Glasgow was also to give him well-deserved academic recognition and now houses his vast and enormously valuable collection of books and documents.

Throughout the turmoil of decades in the Trotskyist movement since the Second World War, his faith in the destiny of the working class as the primary motive force for ending the death agony of capitalism never wavered. He consciously set before himself the aim of preparing for the future, by helping to supply those ideological weapons which future movements of newly-radicalised workers would need in the process of liberating themselves from the stranglehold on their organisations of Social Democracy and Stalinism.

John Archer

Updated by ETOL: 21.7.2003