The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham



The Communist League did not remain long outside all parties. By the middle of 1934 discussions were taking place about joining not the ILP but the Labour Party, and it quickly entered that autumn. Within the Labour Party it rediscovered access to a South London following and found a ready platform in the Socialist League. For a time it ceased to be an identifiable faction, but began again in 1936 as the Marxist League, principal exponent of Trotskyist views and opponent of the Unity Campaign from within the Socialist League. The demise of the Socialist League in 1937 ended effective activity despite attempts to replace it, and the Marxist League dissolved that October.

The Communist League complained to the IS, that the December 1933 split flouted majority rule. In a sharp reply it was told that respect for majorities had to be earned and that there were international as well as national boundaries to them. [1] The IS further considered the CL narrow in outlook and experience [2] and effectively withdrew official status from it. [3]

The split was a blow, as eleventh hour concessions by the Majority indicated. Yet the CL was now free of pressure from an international body in whose grasp of British affairs it did not have complete confidence. Events were to give some support to the argument that the CL rather than the international was in closest touch with affairs in Britain. When the new national committee met early in the year it held a broad discussion about entrism [4] and showed awareness of Labour’s rising fortunes and the importance of this for Trotskyist growth: the Communist League would have to be part of the movement to put Labour back in power. [5]

The CL view was now that the fragile eggs of Trotskyism could not be entrusted only to the leaky basket of the ILP. Indeed Dewar and Groves were coming to believe that of the internationals only the second looked likely to revive. [6] The Red Flag perceived a strong link between the fortunes of social democrats everywhere. Most notably the great Labour victory in the LCC elections of March 1934 was connected with the decision of socialists in Vienna to mount armed resistance to Dollfuss. [7] The CL strongly backed Labour in the elections. To communist criticisms it replied:

Actually the result of the election was a striking confirmation of the opinion previously expressed – “that the anger of the workers against the National Government would find its expression at the present stage, through the Labour Party: that the policy of contesting any or every constituency would only result in the further isolation of the revolutionary movement.” [8]

Like Harber in the ILP at this time Groves was sensitive to Labour’s revival. The Red Flag even argued that a rising vote indicated an industrial upswing also. [9] The League was becoming scornful of any activities outside official movements. It admonished communist fondness for rank and file organisations [10] and scorned the ILP, for turning towards the CPGB rather than the Labour Party and trade unions.

Communist League advice did not rest upon underpinning official activities. Part of its argument about the orientation of the NUWM was that within the mainstream the movement would have to broaden its political outlook. Yet at least until the middle of 1934 the Communist League was still issuing ultimatums to the labour movement. When the ILP-CPGB drive for May Day brought forth only a limited response, it concluded:

“ it drives home the very real and urgent need for the assembling of all left: wing (sic) and revolutionaries behind the banner of the Communist League, as a step towards the establishment in this country of a new fighting party of the British workers. [11]

In the pages of The Red Flag a critique of the ILP and the communists, similar to that of the Marxist Group, is made. But the CL was in an inferior position to make it since there was no reason why it should be able to participate in debate. [12] Until the Communist League entered the Labour Party after the summer, it lacked a positive direction for its work and its energies were apparently diffused in several directions.

Internally, League affairs were not happy. Groves thought the national committee “very feeble” and functioning as a collection of factions rather than as a national body. [13] The League’s main strength was the two strong locals of Balham and Chelsea, though there were several smaller local groups. [14] It had a definite asset in The Red Flag [15] and continued to turn out its distinctively produced leaflets on issues of the hour. [16] But there is no evidence of significant growth by the League [17] in its phase of standing apart from all parties, although it had survived against predictions. [18]

The League’s international standing was uncertain. It had lost official status but was still part of the ICL. It continued to campaign for the Fourth International yet apparently took no part in gatherings of that body. [19] It was approached by Albert Weisbord, whose Communist League of Struggle had split from the American movement [20] but continued in correspondence with Trotsky. [21] Perhaps a prime catalyst of continued loyalty to the ICL was the League’s growing interest in social democracy, which was paralleled by the thinking of Trotsky and the International. [22] The Red Flag policy of faithfully publishing the writings of the Opposition leader now brought it the reward of articles which supported its own inclinations. [23]

Yet this did not imply monolithic support in the Communist League for Trotsky’s views. The publication of War and the Fourth International [24], a manifesto which decisively wrote off the Comintern and the Labour and Socialist International and anticipated the Transitional Programme of 1938 in its catastrophist predictions, provoked a minor crisis. War and the Fourth International, together with Trotsky’s urgent appeals for unity in France [25] had the effect of predicting an immediate decision between fascism and revolution. In Britain, Lee Bradley demanded clarification as to how an immediate perspective of civil war accorded with CL support for the return of a Labour Government. Since the Fourth International was so weak it needed to gather strength before it could bring the social crisis to a head. [26] If anything, this marked a misconstruction of War and the Fourth International, since its author was also forcefully advocating entrism by the French, Belgian and, soon, the American Trotskyists. Trotsky’s argument was that the case for a united front against fascism was best advanced from within a mass party. The League as a whole rested strongly on Trotsky’s analysis of fascism in Germany [27] with its powerful call for unity, but communism was about to dish Trotskyism en passant by moving towards a united front.

Growing League interest in the Labour Party culminated in entry into the Balham and Tooting D.L.P. in the summer of 1934. [28] In July of that year dissident members of the Labour League of Youth were urged not to be enticed out of it by the YCL, but to stay in the Labour Party and build a mass base. [29] Within the League several drafts were made of statements of immediate intent. One by Hanton startlingly concluded that the League should concentrate on the ILP. [30] This was rejected for Groves’s draft, a frank statement of entrist purpose. In its printed version [31] the CL stated it would work loyally in the Labour Party. A new Labour Government would, it believed, be seen by most workers as “ the path to emancipation” ; whether it would be a Government of real advance would depend on the success of the left in obtaining commitment to a socialist programme and unity of the labour movement. The present National Government was seen as the last strong popularly elected parliamentary administration of the bourgeoisie. Without labour action, fascism would quickly loom.

Groves spelled out the implications in a gloss. [32] The time had come, he suggested, to draw conclusions from 1934 discussions on the Labour Party. There must be an end to internal wrangles and spasmodic street activities. In their place must come systematic fraction work in the Labour Party: this would be the prime means of recruitment to the CL. For the time being, the League would have to settle for the establishment of a national base, an objective less ambitious than launching the Fourth International. [33] This last argument was not confined to Britain and was vehemently opposed by Trotsky. [34]

In the Left Socialist Parties there had been great interest in the programme of the Opposition. But horror at Hitler’s ability to take power had in the CL view, led the mass of people to hurry into ill-conceived unity [35]: new alternatives to the major parties had been by-passed and the Fourth International had not been built. It was still needed, “now more than ever” , but until the time was ripe a road to the masses must be found via their day-to-day concerns. Some workers had understood the meaning of recent defeats, and it was to them that The Red Flag would address itself. [36] The task was complicated by the new advocacy of a united front by communists. [37] The call for such an alliance had been a cardinal principle of Trotskyism. Now it was dished by Stalin and Thorez. But the CL critique of suspending criticism within a united front could still be made.

The CL turn towards the Labour Party is a rare instance from the annals of British Trotskyism where joining or leaving a larger party did not cause a split. Participants recollect that they had a following immediately they joined the Labour Party. Those who were well-known figures in their locality (Wicks in Battersea, Groves in Balham) started with an advantage. In Wimbledon, Henry Sara was short-listed for a parliamentary candidature. [38] Groves was actually selected as delegate from the Balham and Tooting division to the 1934 Labour Party conference with near unanimous backing, though he was in the end barred by the NEC. [39] The division’s membership almost trebled in the immediate aftermath of the League moving in. Also on the wider stage, Wicks was now able, as a Labour Party member, to secure a delegate’s place at a conference summoned by the London Trades Council, from which body he had been excluded for many years.

The NEC did not prevent the League entering the Labour Party. It was of course tiny in comparison to the CPGB, the main preoccupation of those whose responsibility it was to watch infiltration. The previous year the Labour Party had published The Communist Solar System, a forceful rejection of communist tactics. It may well be that Morrison, its author and hammer of the left throughout the decade, had his own reason for turning his blind eye to the Communist League. [40]

The Red Flag appeared in a new series in November, more of a magazine than a, paper and carrying trenchant criticisms of the united front as proposed by the communists. [41] It turned out to be the first and last of the new series. Having marched-back into step with the International Communist League, the British seem to have marched away again. For more than a year, until the start of 1936, there is no evidence of internal life inside the CL. Possibly the loss of a paper which could only claim a limited impact in any case was considered only a small sacrifice for securing a place inside the Labour Party. [42] Additionally it could be argued that new arenas of work were opening up. The CL was aware of communist penetration of the League of Youth [43], but its main interest was the Socialist League.

In November 1934, the Socialist League, which had achieved an important impact on Labour Party conferences, resolved to turn itself into a “mass organisation” . [44] This was fortuitous for the CL which must also have been aware that Trotsky was still considered legitimate in this sector at least. [45] The CL established a Balham and Tooting branch of the Socialist League in time for it to move resolutions at the League’s Bristol Conference.

The CL arrived in the Socialist League [46] at exactly the right time to advocate to a willing audience the case which came most naturally to it: the need for an industrial drive. One Balham and Tooting motion declared trades councils “local unifying centres of the Movement” ; the other called for a drive to commit trade unions to Socialist League policy. [47] Locally the Balham and Tooting branch campaigned against the Unemployment Assistance Act. The Socialist League was trying to transform itself from an association of middle class radicals into a movement with a working class base. Groves and his colleagues were uniquely placed to make efforts in this direction. Perhaps as a result of rapid success in the Socialist League the Communist League as an identifiable faction ceased to exist. Its 1935 influence is apparent in the activities of Groves who was speaking on League platforms from May and in the autumn published a pamphlet on the importance of trades councils on the League’s behalf. [48]

The relationship of the Communist League to organised Trotskyism, never unambiguous, progressively dissolved. The negative meaning of joining the Labour Party was that it felt no confidence in establishing a separate organised presence. An attempt to link up with Harber who abandoned the ILP for the Labour Party early in 1935 foundered on Harber” s objections. [49] What the ex-Communist Leaguers established during this year was a current of opinion rather than a disciplined fraction.

By the autumn Groves had advanced to a position of prominence within the Socialist League. He became one of the most regular contributors to The Socialist Leaguer and its successor The Socialist, ably contrasting the rightward trend of communism with the leftward trend of socialism. [50] When the League, like the ILP, adopted the workers” sanctions line on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia [51], he was prominent in its mobilization against war. [52]

At this time a remarkable opportunity was presented to the Trotskyists with the ILP and the SL, both still organisations of some account, advocating a line on the issue of the hour of which they could approve. Yet their forces were divided between these two organisations and the League of Youth, and no common campaign was launched. United Trotskyist activity did not take place until a year later, at the time of the Moscow Trials, and by this time the arch-enemy, the CPGB, was far deeper entrenched. Not only had tactical differences led to a diffusion of the weak Trotskyist movement, but they had led also to some adaption by the respective factions to the organisations which they were working. In that autumn of 1935, the Marxist Group was projecting the transformation of the ILP into a revolutionary party, a thesis explicitly rejected by the Communist League. [53] Groves and his comrades meanwhile mounted no systematic criticism of the Socialist League.

In 1936 they made a new attempt to pull together their support. A bulletin was launched in the name of the “Marxist League” , its main content two articles from the pen of Trotsky. [54] Its editor, Hugo Dewar, recognised the sea change which had occurred in communist policy since The Red Flag had ceased publication in November 1934 and promised that the paper would now reappear. New Comintern policies, he suggested, had wrongfooted the Trotskyists, who must now make a critique from the left instead of the right. [55] 1936 brought an inquiry from Trotsky as to the progress made in the Labour Party and seeking an exchange of information. There seems to have been little awareness in the international of what was happening in Britain, but Trotsky knew enough to inquire whether members had been lost from “the opportunist adaption to the party apparatus.” [56] He may have had in mind Groves, who in 1936 was a favourite speaker at Socialist League rallies and its authority on trade union affairs. [57]

The new Red Flag appeared in May as the “organ of the Marxist League” . It noted how the policies against which it had campaigned previously were now abandoned, and that “the battleground for the creation of the new revolutionary leadership is, at present, within the organised labour movement” . Within this entrist perspective, albeit qualified, The Red Flag promised a propagandist contribution towards policy, the building of a strong left wing and “the presentation and application of revolutionary Marxism” . The paper promised to maintain contact with groups abroad working for the same purpose. All this came without a word about Trotsky and the Fourth International, but the Marxist League was alive, as was Trotsky himself, to developments within the Labour League of Youth. Conflicting political groupings had combined at the League of Youth conference to carry demands for autonomy against NEC opposition. The Marxist League thought futile the perspective of “a quick, snap division and the subsequent dragging out of a small section” , a slap on the wrist for Harber’s Bolshevik-Leninists. As for Advance, its campaign for organisational independence was belied by its political dependence on reformism. Turning to the other arena of Trotskyist activities, the Marxist League had few kind words for the ILP, whose conference had shown itself willing to throw over pacifist policies but not the leaders who advocated them. ILP opposition to the bankrupt second and third internationals focussed on the London Bureau, but that body, by refusing to come out for a new international, condemned itself to swing between the other two. Yet The Red Flag had nothing at all to say, in this its first issue of the new series, about its own theatre of operations, the Socialist League, although it was the only Trotskyist journal in regular printed publication during 1936. It gave Trotsky’s writings regular publication, something they had not had in Britain since the paper’s first series. [58] There remained from 1934 a propaganda tone, concentration on issues of history and theory, and zeal to debate with communist policy. [59] The paper was strong on the need to retain rights of criticism within the united front [60] and on the developing revolutionary situation in Spain.

Grove “s progress within the Socialist League – London area secretary from September 1935, London Region representative on the National Council from September 1936 [61] – tended to outdistance the others. None of them seem to have obtained League positions, though Jack Winocour [62] wrote for The Socialist – Hilary Sumner-Boyd had his hands full as business manager of The Red Flag and, the following year, as secretary of the Trotsky Defence Committee. Hugo Dewar was the organiser of the League, and Wicks and the more distant Purkis were busy on trade union matters. [63]

Without The Red Flag that summer no Trotskyist analysis would have been made in printed form at all of the Moscow Trials and the revolution and civil war in Spain. There were many papers in the labour movement which did not swallow the Stalinist line on either, but none could be relied upon to put the Trotskyist view. In September The Red Flag tried to relate the two issues by a novel argument that those being purged in Moscow were the most enthusiastic protagonists of assistance to the Spanish workers. But this was during the non-interventionist phase of Soviet policy; when that came to an end it was politically far more difficult to argue against Russia, seemingly the only friend the Spanish workers had. The Red Flag sought for Spain the independent working class policy that had received support during the Abyssinian crisis. Trade Union action was advocated to bar supplies to the rebel forces and those countries. backing them, to “stop the press lies” and obtain provisions for the Republic from the Cooperatives. [64] In the early phases of the war, The Red Flag was searching for a Marxist policy. Its opposition to the Popular Front principle was already set down. But it parted from Trotskyism in its failure to keep an independent distance from the POUM in Spain. It published a resolution of that party” s central committee, hailed the party’s growth and declared:

“ Upon the rapid evolution of POUM Central Committee into a Bolshevik Party depends the fate of the Spanish Revolution. “ [65]

The POUM was not a Trotskyist party, though there were Trotskyists within it. It had close relationship with the ILP (its sister party) and the Socialist League. [66] The Red Flag might be expected to be among POUM’s few defenders in Britain, but it failed to make simultaneously the standard Trotskyist critique of the party’s “centrism”. It commented “many of its (the POUM’s) friends have criticised it because it made so many concessions to the demands of the other parties”. In fact the POUM had, from September 1936 to the time of its ejection on 16 December, been a member of the Catalan coalition government, a popular front of the very kind to which The Red Flag was so strongly opposed, [67] and the orthodox Trotskyist denunciation of this was fierce. [68]

The personal position of Groves, if not that of all members of the Marxist League, was strong as the projected Unity Campaign began to build up in the autumn. Groves joined the National Council of the League as representative for its London Region in September and was to be for once in a position to mount an effective rather than a propaganda opposition to the communist version of a unity pact. He also bade fair to be the League’s chief pamphleteer with two more contributions during 1936. [69]

But the Marxist League did not cover Socialist League affairs at all: effectively it pursued the very policy of suspension of criticism for which it attacked parties to the Unity Campaign. Nor did the Marxist League use its paper to expound a policy on immediate issues for which it might hope – to capture the-Socialist League. Of the trouncing of the left at the Edinburgh conference, The Red Flag wrote,

It is only the lack of organisation and the confusion created by the Communist Party’s retreat from revolutionary Marxism that has prevented the creation of a powerful militant movement within the unions and the local Labour Parties. With a correct policy and leadership such a movement could transform the political situation in this country. [70]

But what would this powerful militant movement be? An improved Socialist League? And if so, what improvements needed to be made within it? These questions remained unanswered. Curiously the League considered that its support had grown to the point where it might consider breaking away [71] though lack of distinct policy meant it had not put its backers to the test. To the other groups it spoke of the possibility of the “existing left in the ILP, a considerable section of the youth and of the discontented rank and file, and the ILP” blazing, through a breakaway, the trail of a future revolutionary party. Seemingly the Marxist League foresaw the Socialist League breaking away en bloc: it would have a rude awakening.

The first and last big political division within the Socialist League came not from inside but from outside. During the closing-months of the year secret negotiations between the leaders of the ILP, CPGB and Socialist League led to the signing of a Unity Agreement. [72] There is no doubt that the accession of the Socialist League, a Labour Party body, was the crucial step for the ILP and the CPGB, both of whom were outside. Rumours abounded in and out of the League that a pact between the parties was under preparation. It is remarkable that Groves should have been absent from the vital meeting of the SL executive on 20 November 1936 which approved the agreement [73], and that The Red Flag should fail to appear during the three critical months during which the fate of the League was decided. [74] When Groves and the paper joined battle in January 1937, the issue was already resolved.

A better organised Marxist League, and one moreover which had fought every inch of the way on SL policy in 1936 might, arguably, have had substantial backing against Cripps when the terms of the Unity Agreement became known in December. More important still, the Marxist League was propagandising against the Socialist League when it was divided from other Trotskyists over tactical issues, a damaging example of disunity which did not pass unnoticed. [75] The January 1937 Red Flag led with an open letter to Fenner Brockway by the hand of Stuart Purkis. [76] It reminded the ILP leader that Trotskyism had a consistent record on the united front and argued that seeking a split over a constitutional issue was not the way to achieve it. Purkis implied strongly that Brockway’s attacks on Trotskyism were not unconnected with the negotiations to launch the Unity Campaign [77]; and enquired how parties so divided over Abyssinia, the Trials, the Comintern line and Spain could possibly unite. [78]

This attack, well-argued as it was, fell almost completely beside the point. Why should The Red Flag take on Brockway? It had no members in the ILP. Was Brockway’s involvement in the Unity Campaign in some way less important than that of Cripps? There was no critique of the role Cripps had played in negotiations, even though there was ample room and opposition was growing strongly. [79] The best prospect of torpedoing the Campaign was to concentrate all strength at the point of attack: the leaders of the Socialist League. By its silence The Red Flag could only have sent messages that it considered all was well. [80]

When Groves acted, he apparently did so as an individual, not as a member of an organised faction. He circulated all SL branches with a confidential letter against the agreement in January 1937, and a copy of it came into the hands of The Daily Herald who published it. [81] The special conference of the Socialist League convened on 16-17 January 1937 to consider the executive proposal did endorse it but only against stiff opposition. It was done on a minority vote, fifty six to thirty eight with twenty three abstentions [82], and there were doubts about the validity of the majority. [83] Two days later the agreement was signed. The appearance of Groves’s letter in the Herald led to a strong attack on him by John Strachey in The Daily Worker [84] but the battle had been lost. Movement by Transport House against the Socialist League because of its support for the campaign was predictable and predicted. Threats culminated in a March decision by the NEC to proscribe League membership.

After the event an effort was made to rally those who wished to continue the work of the Socialist League inside the Labour Party. A bid was made in May 1937, at the annual conference of the League, to repudiate the agreement and maintain an active independent League. Its Hendon Branch argued for keeping the agreement and the League, but withdrew to give a straight vote between the ML amendment and a recommendation from the leadership to dissolve the League. Conference voted by fifty one to ten to dissolve and thereby pre-empt expulsions of individual members. [85] An important platform for mounting a non-Stalinist critique from within the movement had been destroyed. [86] It was now Labour or communism. [87]

The Trotskyists’ best hope was to gain support from within a thriving organisation. Launching a new one was entirely a different matter. The SL had been born of the maximalist wave of 1932, when all leading party members sought to make their distance from MacDonaldism by espousing undiluted socialism. In 1937 this type of rhetoric was found predominantly on the right wing while the left and the communists had shifted to seeking any form of coalition, however broad, which might dislodge the National Government. [88]

An intended replacement for the Socialist League was launched in June, one month after the decision to dissolve. [89] The Socialist Left Federation seems never to have exceeded 100 members. [90] The leading cadre of the Marxist League, Sara, Wicks and Sumner-Boyd were all involved, and Groves was chairman. There was some non-Trotskyist involvement, with the secretaryship falling to the ex-communist Margaret McCarthy, who had sympathised with Trotsky in the early 1930s. [91] But she and a handful of others did not make an army. Nor could the largely unemployed membership hope to match Cripps’s financial support for the SL. The SLF held meetings, buts its executive proceedings were perhaps most notable for bitter clashes between Groves and D.D. Harber, who sought to swing it behind the line of Militant. [92] Harber’s strivings for a Trotskyist front did not appeal to Groves who sought to keep non-Trotskyists within it. It mattered very little, as the SLF died in the New Year after achieving little impact.

The factional clash at the SLF merely illuminated the continuing division of Trotskyist forces. The Marxist League had failed to send delegates to the pre-conference of the International Communist League convened in July 1936 [93] but was sufficiently moved by the (“Geneva”) resolution on Britain to send three delegates to the national meeting of Bolshevik-Leninists on 11 October. [94] It had attempted to unite with Harber in 1935 when he joined the Labour Party from the ILP. Attempts were being made in 1936 by Marxist League members, and notably Wicks, to gather the factions together round a strong Trotsky Defence Committee. But the Marxist League was resistant to the Geneva resolution, and especially its emphasis on Labour Party work. The only tangible gain of the national meeting was a commitment by all participants to set up a national coordinating committee in response to Trotsky’s suggestion of a Lenin Club to ensure cooperation. [95]

The ML viewed the existence of a separate Bolshevik-Leninist group in the Labour Party as impossible to justify and a fault not of its making. [96] The Bolshevik-Leninists themselves saw the ML by its presence in the Labour Party as closer to the Geneva resolution with its emphasis on concentration of forces within Social Democracy than was the Marxist Group, which was in late 1936 leading an independent existence. [97] Spurred by the crisis surrounding the Unity Campaign the Bolshevik-Leninists approached the Marxist League for a meeting to discuss joint activity. The Marxist League, however, insisted on the presence of the Marxist Group since it placed far less value than did the Bolshevik-Leninists on tactical agreement over the need to be within the Labour Party. [98] The meeting of all three on 14 February 1937 failed to solve any problems. [99]

Still separated from the other groups by tactical differences and personal antipathy, the ML faced 1937 without even a base for activity. The Red Flag appeared sporadically after February [100] and was published for the last time in October 1937. Differences developed within the League. Groves had perhaps ceased to believe in the need for an organised Trotskyist faction. His rapid advance within the Socialist League may have been due to this as well as to his undoubted ability as a propagandist. In April 1937 he had become prospective parliamentary candidate for Aylesbury, where he was the following year to fight an important by-election. [101] After years of sectarian politics he, and also Hugo Dewar, put value on the Socialist Left Federation, a body which kept them in touch with people outside the factional struggle. [102] They had enough support behind them in October for agreement to be reached on dissolving the Marxist League and putting an end to The Red Flag.

The history of the Communist/Marxist League is a lesson in the damage brought by disunity. It had capable members who lacked sufficient flexibility and sense of proportion to seize an opportunity provided by the ILP in 1933. Their political independence led them to see that in 1934 there were greater prospects in the Labour Party and especially the Socialist League. But just as the ILP Trotskyists lacked the CL leaders’ greater organising ability, derived from a communist training, so they in turn lacked sufficient members to turn the tide their way in the SL. Worse still they proved unable to keep in being as an organised fraction and insufficiently firm in their politics to withstand the pressure of an unaccustomed environment. It is possible that greater firmness in 1935 and 1936 might have led to action being taken against them by the Labour Party apparatus or even the Socialist League. As it was they were unable to rally a majority against Cripps when it really mattered. They had failed to unite with Harber’s Bolshevik-Leninists in the League of Youth. They lacked a long term perspective of working within the Labour Party. It is therefore difficult to see what alternative they had to dissolution in October 1937, though external events were to haul them back into the British Trotskyist mainstream.



1. The IS Reply To The British Majority, 23 Jan. 1934, Writings Supplement, 1934-40, 440. In 1947 when a split over entry also took place the International again backed a Minority and there was a reversal of roles with an international leadership acting against established leaders in Britain.

2. This reference to the CPGB background of many in the CL was not absolutely correct since there were ex-Marxist League members among them. It could also be argued that by its desultory fashion of joining the ILP the Minority had shown itself devoid of that very communist quality, organisational discipline.

3. ibid., 441. Trotsky’s draft of this letter was refashioned by Bauer with the chief effect of explicitly taking away British Section status and conferring sympathising status on both Majority and Minority, ibid., 892n. The League shortly concluded that struggling for status in the ICL was “a losing battle”, (Warwick MSS, n.d., (Jan. or Feb?] 1934).

4. Notes for guidance at this meeting under the title Our Attitude to the Labour Party have been located. There are two drafts: one – apparently the earlier – is dated 20 Jan. 1934 (Warwick MSS).

5. Labour’s electoral revival of the early 1930s is discussed by C.T. Stannage, The East Fulham by-election, 25 Oct. 1933, Historical Journal, Vol.14, 1971, 165-200 and R. Heller, East Fulham Revisited, J C.H., Vol.6, No.3, 1971, 172-96. See also M. Ceadel, Interpreting East Fulham, in C. Cook and J. Ramsden (eds.), By-elections in British Politics, 1973, 11839 and The Red Flag; (Jan. 1934).

6. R. Groves to Sara [Feb.? 1934].

7. The Red Flag, March-April 1934. The CL detected a feeling of hope in the labour movement in 1934 as a result of these struggles (interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979).

8. ibid.

9. In its January 1934 issue.

10. The Red Flag presented rank and file trade unionism as the result of false political perspectives: economic recession, it argued, meant a weaker not a stronger movement. New unions or workers’ councils meant only isolation. Even the usefulness of the NUWM was doubted: the TUC or Trades Councils could develop far more impressive agitation over unemployment. Yet NUWM success was due if anything to resistance by its leaders to King Street directives See H. McShane and J. Smith, Harry McShane: No Mean Fighter, 1976, 215, passim. For the NUWM generally, W. Hannington, Unemployed Struggles, 1918-1936 (1977, first published 1936).

11. The Red Flag, May-June 1934.

12. Will the ILP Break at York, The Red Flag, March-April 1934. The article argues that the “nerveless hands” of ILPers must save their party and turn it to the Fourth International.

13. R. Groves, Warwick MSS, [Jan. or Feb.?] 1934. Hugo Dewar was secretary of the NC, which was seven strong.

14. L. Bradley, untitled Warwick MSS (n.d.). Bradley, a member of the Chelsea Group brought onto the NC after the split, proposed a tighter, more centralised structure and made severe criticisms of the League’s failure to intervene effectively at a recent Conference of Action.

15. The Red Flag failed to appear in December 1933, and in the new year sometimes came out in point issues.

16. See below and also the leaflet Five Communist Reasons for Voting Labour, an early attempt at Labour Party orientation, issued during a 1934 by-election at Hammersmith North.

17. High spots in 1934 were the recruitment of five expelled Croydon communists and three from Tottenham (The Red Flag, Oct. 1934).

18. The Red Flag, May-June 1934. On 3 May, Stuart Purkis resigned from the League. No reason was given in his letter of resignation but he had dragged his feet at the time of the turn away from Communist Parties a year earlier. Purkis now concentrated on trade union activity rising to the position of executive member of the RCA and president of the St. Pancras Trades Council. He continued to assist his comrades from time to time, notably during the Moscow Trials.

19. No-one from Britain attended the ICL, plenum of October 14-16 1934. Only Harber and Kirby joined the extended plenum of the following spring.

20. Albert Weisbord (1900-77) expressed disquiet to Henry Sara about the role the IS had played in the December 1933 split in the Communist League and called for an international congress of Opposition groups (A. Weisbord to Sara, 6 June and 9 July 1934, Warwick MSS 15/3/1/54 and 55). The Red Flag contented itself with announcing in its April-May issue that a plenum of the ICL was to thrash out the British problem.

21. In July Trotsky wrote to all the British groups seeking their attendance at a proposed international conference where a British Commission comprised of “our best international comrades” would with their help determine perspectives. [Trotsky] to [British groups], n.d., Warwick MSS. This may have been an early attempt to convene the conference which actually met in July 1936.

22. Trotsky had now concluded that the trade unions were the most important field of work and that ̶the ILP, in this respect, is becoming more of a handicap than an aid”, ibid. In the late summer of 1934 the French Bolshevik-Leninist group entered the SFIO, not without internal anguish, but under pressure from Trotsky.

23. “V”, The French League and the Socialist Party, The Red Flag, Nov. 1934. This was a compression of two articles from Trotsky which urged the French turn. They were pseudonymous because of the conditions attached to his presence in France.

24. Writings (1933-34), 299-330.

25. France is now the Key to the Situation, March 1934. Writings (1933-34), 238-44. The article appeared under the title For the Fourth International in The Militant (New York), 31 March 1934.

26. L. Bradley, untitled manuscript, (1934), Warwick MSS

27. See Forward Against Fascism, a leaflet forbiddingly sub-titled “a Thesis for Labour Youth”, July 1934, Warwick MSS 15/3/1/56. See also Groves’s review of Fascism and Social Revolution by R.P. Dutt, a book which loaded the blame for Hitler taking power on “social fascism”. Groves wrote: “Fascism derives its support from the middle classes and from the lumpen-proletariat. Social Democracy is based upon the workers. Parliament is the main arena of Social Democracy and the workers’ organisations upon which it rests.” (The Red Flag, Aug. 1934)

28. In July 1934 The Red Flag commended the division’s resolution to Labour’s annual conference though it needed “clarification in a number of important details”.

29. See Forward Against Fascism.

30. W.G. Hanton, Draft for Immediate Programme, 17 Aug. 1934, Warwick MSS 15/3/1/59.

31. A leaflet printed on both sides, 1934, Warwick MSS.

32. Statement to all members concerning the present policy of the League and its International, 23 Aug. 1934, Warwick MSS 15/4/2/12.

33. He argued that the reawakened interest of the IS in social democracy was “a striking justification of the stand we had made many months ago, and a tribute, although possibly unintended, to the political sense of the majority comrades” (ibid., 4). While the majority had the previous year proposed a diffusion of energies it had not suggested the concentration on the Labour Party that was now proposed.

34. See for example To Comrade Sneevliet on the IAG Conference, 26 Feb. 1935, Writings (1934-35), 187-95.

35. “We can see now that, whilst, as a result of our work, the reasons for Hitler’s victory and the defeat of the workers’ organisations were made clear to scores, perhaps hundreds, (the mass) either drew back in confusion or pressed forward for a hurried consolidation of the workers’ ranks, irrespective of political ideas or party divisions” (The Red Flag, Oct. 1934).

36. It would speak to “revolutionary Marxists”. In the autumn the enlarged plenum of the ICL declared not an independent party but an instrument for creating them. (The Present Situation in The Labour Movement and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninists, Oct. 14-16, Documents, 61-2).

37. One account of the development of Comintern policy, with particular reference to events in France is in J. Braunthal, History of the International, Vol.2, 1914-1943, 415-46.

38. Interview with H. Wicks (30 Nov. 1979).

39. He was replaced at the last minute by J.N. Pyne, a former Balham Group member. In a speech seconding the reference back of a passage on the united front in the NEC report, Pyne accused the executive of not being serious in its call to boost Labour Party membership since it did not welcome the adherence of a CL repelled by dictatorial communist methods, (LPCR (1934), p.135).

40. Morrison might never have quoted British Trotskyists against the CPGB, but he did use Trotsky himself in this way to rebut left critics of the SPD’s part in failing to prevent Hitler coming to power:

“ Trotsky himself has criticised the Communist International for its handling of the situation, and Trotsky is right and Miss Wilkinson is wrong.” (LPCR (1933), 221)

Morrison was to be well informed about Trotskyist movements in Britain for a decade. He may have appreciated that only an ex-CPGB member like Groves would be well equipped to handle such arguments as those of Dutt. See Groves’s lengthy review of Fascism and Social Revolution, The Red Flag, Oct. 1934.

41. It carried sixteen small pages, poorly laid out.

42. Trotsky himself had considered it fair exchange for ILP entry during the debate of the previous year (see above).

43. The Red Flag, Nov. 1934.

44. B. Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930s, Cambridge 1977, 91.

45. The editor of the SL journal Socialist Leaguer was Frank Horrabin who had defended Trotsky in the 1920s. The journal thought Trotsky’s History “the authentic voice of the proletarian revolution” early on, (Oct.-Nov. 1934, 77) and a year later H.H. Elvin in the course of an otherwise favourable review of A Handbook of Marxism regretted an excess of Stalin and the absence of Trotsky (The Socialist, Nov. 1935, 6).

46. CL members were by no means the only ex-communists drawn to the Socialist League. J.T. Murphy, a contemporary evacuee, was first League secretary. His successor William Mellor had, like Frank Horrabin, briefly been a party member in the early 1920s.

47. Socialist League, Third Annual Conference, preliminary agenda.

48. Trades Councils in the Fight for Socialism, Sept. 1935.

49. After this a tacit division of labour developed between Harber and Groves. Harber did obtain the position of West London Sales Leader for the Socialist Leaguer in May 1935 (see June 1935 issue), but nothing significant resulted. The base of Harber became the Labour League of Youth. The Communist League had a slim interest in youth work via Socialist Youth, a paper launched by the SL. But this had only a limited impact. An informal and personal link between the two factions existed in the person of Roma Dewar, younger sister of Hugo, who had launched the duplicated Trotskyist journal Youth Militant in the Labour League of Youth.

50. After the French Socialist Congress, The Socialist Leaguer, July/Aug. 1935, 214.

51. Somewhat unfairly to the ILP, Daniel Waley finds the SL the principal upholder of the anti-imperialist, anti-sanctions view, British Public Opinion and the Abyssinian War, 1975, 25-6.

52. The League launched an anti-war campaign in September 1935, centred on area conferences. Groves was the secretary of the London conference held that month and a week later was elected to the area committee at an aggregate meeting.

53. The Red Flag, Oct. 1934.

54. Marxist Bulletin, Jan.-Feb. 1936. No further issues have been located.

55. “This, (the dropping of sectarian policy by the Comintern) together with ... the special position our group holds in the organised workers” movement more than justifies our re-entry into the sphere of publication.” Dewar went on to imply that The Red Flag had last appeared in Feb. 1935; in fact it ceased publication in November of the previous year. His expressed hope of re-establishing contact with erstwhile readers of The Red Flag is an admission that the League had effectively been liquidated in 1935.

56. Warwick MSS, 15 Jan. 1936. The letter was not addressed but contextually would appear to have been destined for a member of the Marxist League. It consisted of a list of questions which it undertakes to consider on a private basis.

57. The ML handled trade union matters more confidently than the other two factions, but at this date it had an unimpressive record by comparison with the American Trotskyists, who had led two important strikes. For the New York hotel workers” strike, led by B.J. Field, who was a CLA member for its first weeks, and for the Minneapolis teamsters” dispute, see C.A. Myers, The Prophet’s Army, Westport, Conn. 1977, 63-4, 82.

58. There is at least one Trotsky article in each of the early Red Flags of the new series, including his comments on Stalin’s interview with Roy Howard (May), extracts from his introduction to the second French edition of In Defence of Terrorism (June-July); an article on Spain (September) and an extract on the peasantry from The New Course (Jan. 1937).

59. A lengthy critical review by Wicks of Ralph Fox’s Lenin under the title Some Notes on the History of Bolshevism appeared first as a serial in The Red Flag and then as a pamphlet in 1937.

60. See Henry Sara’s review of William Gallacher’s pamphlet Pensioners of Capitalism, where great play is made with the reversed communist stand on the united front.

61. B. Pimlott, op. cit., 218n. This was a significant achievement in the London-centred League.

62. Spain has Lighted a Torch, (Oct. 1936). The article was a strong argument against coalition with bourgeois parties. Winocour, who wrote for The Red Flag under the pseudonym Bill Commoner, was an American who returned to the United States in 1938. I am grateful to Mr. Harry Wicks for this information about Winocour’s pseudonym. The SL was always attracted to a class analysis of the Spanish struggle, see its manifesto A Workers’ or a Fascist Spain? (1936), Warwick MSS 15/3/8/227, ii.

63. Purkis was president of the St. Pancras trades council. He helped over the Trotsky Defence Committee from the outset and contributed to The Red Flag after the Unity Campaign was launched in January 1937. Another contributor to the paper, probably pseudonymous, was Jack Glasgow.

64. The Red Flag, Sept. 1936.

65. Who Leads the Fight for Workers” Party in Spain?, The Red Flag, Oct. 1936.

66. It was linked to the ILP through the London Bureau, while the Socialist League published a bulletin on its behalf in Britain.

67. The paper’s claim that it “defends POUM when even its closest allies in Britain remain silent for their own fractional advantage”, was an effective riposte to the ILP, but also perhaps a concession to feelings within the Socialist League. The Bolshevik-Leninists accused the Marxist League of supporting POUM’s “opportunist policy” by organising distribution of the POUM bulletin, (E.C., B/L Group, Statement to the Bureau for the Fourth International, 29 Dec. 1936). In February 1937 The Red Flag advertised the Red Aid Fund of the POUM

68. See F. Morrow, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Spain, New York, 1974, 112-20. Morrow’s book was published first in 1936.

69. East End Crisis!(1936), 6p., was an anti-fascist pamphlet aimed at the Mosleyite offensive in London. It made a standard Marxist analysis which blamed exploitation on class not race and its intensification on increased competition in a dwindling market. British financiers backed Mosley so that divided East Enders might be rendered helpless before them, suggested Groves, and proposed combination of workers against sweating, bad housing and the Means Test. Arms and the Unions (1936), 12p., called for the maintenance and extension of trade union organisation in the face of rearmament.

70. In its October 1936 issue.

71. “The time is approaching when that support will have to be organised independently and openly”, (ibid.). At the meeting of Bolshevik-Leninists on 11 October the League declared it now believed the time for exclusive Labour Party work to be coming to an end, (A Short Statement from the Marxist League to the delegates from the Youth Militant Group and the Marxist Group, 11 Oct. 1936, Warwick MSS 15/4/1/13).

72. The background to this agreement can be followed in P. Seyd, Factionalism Within the Labour Party: The Socialist League 1932-1937 in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.) Essays in Labour History, 3, 1918-1939, 1977, 219-224. See also B. Pimlott, op. cit., 94-7, which absorbs the treatment in his earlier article The Socialist League: Intellectuals and the Labour Left in the 1930s, J.C.H., Vol.6, No.3, 1971, 35-8. More general are M. Foot, Aneurin Bevan, 1, 1897-1945, 1966, 169-210 and F. Brockway, Inside the Left, 1942, 264-75.

73. P. Seyd in A. Briggs and J. Saville, op. cit., 229n.

74. After a six page issue in October, The Red Flag did not come out until January 1937, when it carried a strong attack on the Unity Agreement by Stuart Purkis.

75. Trotsky Defence Committee members met Fenner Brockway on 27 November 1936 for a broad discussion. On 4 December The New Leader carried an article, What Price Unity?, in which Brockway sharply condemned Trotskyists as destroyers not builders. This was of course the moment of the split of C.L.R. James and the Marxist Group from the ILP to attempt an independent existence.

76. For which he borrowed Brockway’s title What Price Unity?.

77. Brockway had been sharp not only in The New Leader but also in A New United Front, Controversy, Dec. 1936.

78. The Red Flag carried an editorial note declaring some differences with Purkis” s views, though no details were given. Purkis’s concession that Brockway had fought for the right to maintain criticism within the United Front may well have caused disquiet.

79. See below.

80. The decision of the SL executive on 20 November had been that the League would make a campaign with the CPGB even without ILP involvement (P. Seyd in A. Briggs and J. Saville, op. cit., 220). This made The Red Flag line even more fatuous. It was remarkable that even in the New Year no analysis was made of Cripps’s role in the steps which were to lead to the dissolution of the SL. The nearest it came was a warning in February 1937 that the course of events would punish those who lent themselves to communist falsehoods.

81. The Daily Worker (18 Jan. 1937) named Groves as the source of the leak and accused him of “opposition to any attempt at building the unity of the working class movement in Britain”. Groves wrote to the paper that he supported a united front but that he objected to “sacrificing the Socialist League’s position in the organised Labour Movement without sufficient advantage to the revolutionary left in return”.

He went on to argue, like Purkis, against suspension of the right to criticise, reasoning:

No revolutionary fears an open discussion of policies. The Communist Party enforced this kind of agreement precisely because it was preparing to put over a campaign designed not only to destroy a handful of Trotskyists in this country but to destroy revolutionary socialism generally.

The Daily Worker printed only part of Groves’s letter. The full text appeared in The Red Flag, Feb. 1937. The Red Flag had always opposed the suspension of criticism in a united front. See “W.H.”, The United Front in Britain and France, Oct. 1934.

82. B. Pimlott, op. cit., 97.

83. M.S. Davidson of the Manchester Socialist League argued that the agreement had been negotiated without their mandate, that vital information had been withheld from branches until the day before the conference, that some branches were not represented at the conference, and that others who did attend broke their mandate, (letter, New Statesman and Nation, 30 Jan. 1937).

84. John Strachey wrote:

The fact that Mr. Reginald Groves, the proponent of Trotskyist views in the Socialist League, was, on his own admission, willing to make desperate attempts to stop the conclusion of the recent unity pact, and that it was through his efforts that the Daily Herald was given the full particulars of this pact, is a serious instance of this activity. (i.e. Trotskyist willing ness to collaborate with Labour’s right wing – M.U.) (Daily Worker, 22 Jan. 1937.)

That he had revealed details of the pact was a new accusation against Groves. He countered the earlier one of leaking his circular letter by suggesting, perhaps tongue in cheek, that “a disloyal branch secretary” might have been responsible (The Red Flag, Feb. 1937). J. Jupp, with his belief that Groves repeated arguments advanced by League officials, seems to reflect the Strachey view (The Left in British Labour 1931 to 1941, Univ. of London, M.A. thesis, 1956).

85. R. Bishop, The Socialist League Suspends Activities, Inprecorr, Vol.17, No.22, 22 May 1937, 517. Bishop refers to “a small nest of Trotskyists” who opposed this tactical move backed by the CPGB, but others opposed dissolution as well, including the absent Brailsford (Pimlott, op. cit., 104-5).

86. “The net result of the Unity Committee’s activities was a further weakening of the moribund ILP, to the benefit of the CPGB, and the dissolution of the Socialist League. Thus vanished the only body within the Labour Party offering some possibility of revolutionary socialist propaganda against the policy of the party itself and of the communist “cells” within it.” (H. Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain, 1976, 111-2.)

87">87. B. Pearce, The Left in British Labour (author’s unpublished manuscript), 9-10.

88. This evolution is well illustrated by the development of Tribune, which effectively replaced The Socialist, into a fellow-travelling journal immediately before the war, (M. Foot, Aneurin Bevan. A biography, Vol.1: 1897-1945, 1966. (See Appendix B.)

89. The New Leader, 18 June 1937.

90. This was the belief of Don James who, as a Militant group member in 1937 challenged its involvement in the SLF. (See Chapter VII, below.)

91. P. Seyd in A. Briggs and J. Saville, op. cit., 230n. Though repelled by Trotskyists she had met in Glasgow sometime after she resigned from the CPGB, McCarthy came to be intellectually convinced of Marxist League policy, (M. McCarthy, Generation in Revolt, 1953, 258; M. McCarthy to Sara, 27 Jan. 1938, Warwick

92. Interview with R. Groves, April 1980. For Harber’s view and that of the Militant Group, on replacing the SL , see the discussion on the Socialist League at Minutes, London EC, [Militant Group], 20 Feb. 1937, H.P., D.J.H. 2A/4.

93. “For material reasons”. British Trotskyists may have met Shachtman and Muste as they passed through Britain on their way to Geneva, (L. Trotsky to Muste, How the Conference Was and Wasn’t Prepared, 17 July 1936, Writings: Supplement (1934-40), 698-703).

94. For Discussion, 28 Nov. 1936.

95. ibid. Trotsky had suggested the Lenin Club in the Interview by Collins, Writings (1935-36), 77.

96. A Short Statement from the Marxist League to the delegates from the Youth Militant Group and the Marxist Group, 11 Oct. 1936 (Warwick MSS 15/4/1/13).

97. For the views of the Bolshevik-Leninists, see Chapter VII.

98. It reasoned that the need was to draw together all those who stood for the Fourth International rather than make decisions for or against the Labour Party or the ILP, ibid.

99. See Chapter VIII.

100. It came out in three issues after this date, perhaps chiefly deserving attention for the way it put before British readers statements from the POUM revealing the murderous course of events in Barcelona. See especially its issue for May-June 1937.

101. See Appendix

102. Dewar explained his views to the fusion conference of 27 Feb. 1938, (RSL , Internal Bulletin, 1, April 1938, 14-15.). He flatly opposed any attempt to transform the SLF into a Trotskyist body.

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