Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3

A Tribute to Ryan Worrall (1903–1995)

RYAN LYNDAL WORRALL, who died on 12 December last year, was a doctor and philosopher of science who made an important contribution to the formation of the Trotskyist movement in Britain, even though he was always a very independent-minded individual, a ‘free spirit’ who did not fit easily into the apparatus of any party. He was born in Australia on 7 April 1903, and went to Russia through the good offices of the Quakers Maud and Dorothy Paget as the correspondent of the daily paper of the Australian Labour Party, visiting Leningrad, Moscow, Nizhni Novgorod, Samara, and a nearby village called Toske. He left the USSR for Britain in 1927, joining in succession the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party, where he became secretary of the Portsmouth branch, which sent him as a delegate to the party’s Tenth (Bermondsey) Congress in January 1929. He was so influenced by the ‘Third Period’ line adopted there that he began to advocate armed struggle both in Britain and Germany, was suspected of being a police spy, and was expelled for ‘political unreliability’.

A subsequent visit to Germany while Hitler was rising to power convinced him of the total futility of ‘Third Period’ politics, and he joined the Marxian League of Hugo Dewar and F.A. Ridley, who retained his friendship and admiration for the rest of his life. When the Marxian League broke up, he joined the Communist League led by Henry Sara, Reg Groves and Harry Wicks, though his attempts to rejoin the Communist Party to assist their work inside it were thwarted by the apparatus. He was a close friend of the Japanese Trotskyist literary translator Eiichi Yamanishi, whose intellectual duels with Hartmann, a founder of the American Socialist Workers Party whose wife was a code-breaker in the American embassy in London, so enlivened the group’s internal affairs. When the Communist League split in December 1933, Worrall supported the faction led by Denzil Harber, Stewart Kirby and Margaret Johns advocating entry into the ILP. But he did not remain there for very long, for he did not get along with Harber, whom he regarded as dogmatic and didactic, and was expelled from the Central London group after replying to one of Harber’s acidic remarks by throwing a punch at him. He was the first amongst the British Trotskyists to take up a state capitalist position on Russia, which he argued in his USSR: Proletarian or Capitalist State?, Socialist Review, November–December 1939; Left, no. 39, December 1939, pp. 319–25; and the Modern Quarterly, Winter 1939, pp. 2–9. This caused sufficient stir at the time to attract the attention of Rudolf Hilferding, who answered it in one of his last articles, State Capitalism or Totalitarian State Economy (reproduced in C. Wright Mills, The Marxists, New York 1962, pp. 323–8).

During the Second World War Worrall served as Medical Officer of Health for Brighton, where he was fined and dismissed from his post under Defence Regulations for putting out a leaflet objecting to the suicidal policy of sending evacuee children ‘to the front line’. He had to be reinstated after a German bomb killed several of the children there during a cinema matinée (Ray Challinor, The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: Essays on the Second World War, Whitley Bay 1995, p. 58). After the war he dropped out of politics and devoted himself to scientific thought and research. Some of the above details of his career were gleaned from Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream, London 1986, pp. 31–3, 52, 57, 58, 101, 110, 113, 147, 167, 267, supplemented by interviews with Dr Worrall by Al Richardson on 26 November 1978, and by Walter Kendall and Ted Crawford on 25 October 1995.

Worrall travelled a good deal in the years before the war, visiting the USA a couple of times, and staying with Scott Nearing in New Jersey. He supported himself by working as a locum for three or four months a year, and along with some money from Australia, this enabled him to devote his time to writing his books on politics, science and dialectics. These included The Outlook of Science (London 1933), Footsteps of Warfare (London 1936), and Energy and Matter (London 1948). They were highly thought of and well reviewed in the left press, and were even commended by Einstein. Worrall was particularly interested in the relationship between dialectics and the methodology of scientific understanding, and entered into correspondence with Trotsky, who was also preoccupied with this question at that time (cf. P. Pomper [ed.], Trotsky’s Notebooks, 1933–1935, New York 1986, pp. 37–78 and 86–116).

We are greatly indebted to the Workers Revolutionary Party for allowing us to reproduce the following letters from Trotsky to Worrall from their archives.

Büyük Ada, 4 July 1933

Dear Comrade Worrall,

I was absolutely sure until yesterday that I had already sent you a letter about your book [1], but comrade Shachtman declares that this is not the case, and in fact no copy of a letter can be found. I leave aside the puzzle unsolved, and I express to you my best thanks for having sent me the book. It is absolutely magnificent that an English comrade should have published a book on dialectical materialism, not in order to crush it but in order to defend it against all foes. I read two chapters with great interest. Now the book is being read by Shachtman and I shall continue my reading of it later on.

Can you find it possible to send me some information about yourself, and especially your attitude towards the Left Opposition in general and towards the English group in particular? Your warm sympathies for the Opposition, comrade Shachtman has already told me about.

Fraternally yours

Leon Trotsky

Hönefoss, 27 May 1936

Dear Comrade

This is to introduce Kjell Ottesen [2], a member of the Norwegian Workers Party who goes to England in order to work as a journalist. Ottesen does not belong to our tendency, but is a very good comrade who deserves full confidence. I beg you to give him your kind support for his journalistic job.


Leon Trotsky

PS: I beg your pardon not to have answered your two letters and not to have acknowledged receipt of your book you were so kind to send me. [3] But presently I am very much occupied by my work, and I hope to be able to write you more in detail in the next time.


1. This would be Dr Worrall’s first book, The Outlook of Science, London 1933.

2. Kjell Ottesen was a student who visited Trotsky in Norway in 1936 (cf. P. Broué, Trotsky, Paris 1988, p. 811).

3. This would be Worrall’s second book, Footsteps of Warfare, published by Peter Davies in February 1936.

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011