Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3

F.A. Ridley: An Appreciation

IT is a sad duty to announce to our readers the death of Francis Ambrose Ridley in a Muswell Hill nursing home on 27 March.

Ridley’s general contribution to working-class culture was enormous, although you would not gather this from the scant reference made to him in writings about it by New Leftists and Stalinists. He also occupied a pre-eminent position in Secularist propaganda, until they decided that only those with university qualifications were fitted to speak on their behalf. He refused to make any concession to the idea that religion and Socialism were in any way compatible, and insisted on the thoroughgoing atheist assumptions of Marxism. He was an opponent of British imperialism from start to finish: already in the early 1930s he held that the key to the British revolution lay in India rather than in Britain, and his last unpublished work was a mammoth history entitled The Rise and Fall of the English Empire. He was aware from an early date of the stranglehold that the Communist Party of Great Britain was gaining over the output of the left in this country, and after his publisher Wishart had been taken over by Martin Lawrence, and Gollancz also fell under its spell, he was a key figure along with C.L.R. James and Frederick Warburg in trying to mount a counter-operation.

Although he is always regarded as inseparable from the Independent Labour Party, whose best theoretician he was, and was repeatedly elected onto its National Administrative Council with a vote second only to James Maxton’s, Ridley did not in fact join it until just before the Second World War, and was too much of an individualist to give his wholehearted allegiance to any party ‘line’. In his books he went his own way, and his courageous opposition to the war, for example, was appreciated by many outside the party’s ranks. Even the Anarchists were glad to publish his pamphlets, and they give him regular space in their War Commentary.

Ridley’s overall contribution, vast as it was (he wrote over 50 books and pamphlets), will not be dealt with here, as other obituaries have brought it to the notice of the public. Our general lack of space and particular interest in the history of the Trotskyist movement obliges us to focus more narrowly.

Ridley’s encounter with Trotskyism has either been undervalued, or has remained largely unknown, since the organisation he set up in 1929, the Marxian League, had no direct successors. This is at first sight surprising, since several of those who were to play a prominent part in the Trotskyist movement in the future, both in Britain (for example, Hugo Dewar, Gerry Bradley, Max Nicholls, Ryan Worrall and Wally Graham/Nardell), and in Sri Lanka (Philip Gunawardena and Colvin R. de Silva) received their first training in its ranks. This may be because in practically every other country the movement recruited almost exclusively from the Communist parties, and even in Britain the first stable Trotskyist organisation properly so-called emerged from a split in the Communist Party, the Balham Group. Yet Ridley’s initiative is a startling pointer to the future peculiar character of British Trotskyism, for it developed with little reference to the Communist Party, and we should remind ourselves that apart from in 1941–46 and 1956–59 the majority of recruits to the movement have never come from the ranks of Stalinism. As a result the Trotskyist movement in Britain has never subscribed to any orthodoxy from Paris, Mexico or anywhere else, and it is noteworthy that its most successful groups seem to have made most progress when they were at their point of greatest disagreement with the international movement.

This may well be because, as Pablo once put it, the British Communist Party was the most sectarian in the world, and was already a dried-up shell when Ridley was setting up his own group. At a time when the Trotskyists were trying to work inside the Communist parties for the reform of the Communist International as a loyal opposition, they could hardly be expected to share Ridley’s views that already by 1932 the Communist parties and the Comintern were write-offs, that the trade union movement had already become fully integrated into the capitalist state, and that there was not much to be made out of working either inside it or the Labour Party. Ridley’s habit was always to draw conclusions for day to day activity from global generalisations about the nature of the epoch, as is made clear by our article below. His contributions to the American Militant over the pseudonym of ‘Caius Gracchus’ were very severely handled by Trotsky, and Aggarwalla’s trip to Paris to gain recognition from the International Secretariat as the official section drew a blank. The Trotskyist movement seemed too narrow and too hidebound for Ridley’s very personal style of politics, and whilst the obituary he wrote for Trotsky in the New Leader shows that the Old Man retained his personal regard, he did not extend it to his followers. The briefing he provided for Walter Padley’s case against Ted Grant in June 1943 resulted in the only recorded example of a defeat for the Workers International League in a public debate of this kind, as far as we can tell.

To show our regard for his memory, and in the hope that the young revolutionaries of today will be encouraged to grapple with his puzzling and yet strangely innovative legacy, we reproduce here the article Ridley wrote for The Adelphi, and which appeared in its edition for May 1932 (pp. 494–502).

Al Richardson

F.A. Ridley: Marxism, History and a Fourth International

Updated by ETOL: 21.9.2011