The History of British Trotskyism to 1949

by Martin Upham



In the two years from 1936 to 1938 British followers of the Fourth International made their most sustained effort to date to achieve a united body which might have some impact on events. There were many difficulties on the way. Those pressing hardest for unity were outside the Labour Party and therefore in living contradiction of the “Geneva” resolution. Those within the Labour Party were opposed to unity which did not resolve tactical differences. These objections were partly overcome by the intervention of the International which sought to pressurise an unready British movement into its own timetable for unity. The result was an inherently unstable British Section and confirmation of the pessimistic forecast made by WIL, the only group to stay aloof.

Fight appeared on 10 October 1936 in a sixteen page issue appended to which was a four page supplement on the Moscow Trial. It led with a statement on the need for a new international and launched an attack on Brockway who – unlike Maxton, it was felt – knew the right course and shunned it. It carried an interview with Trotsky, and much other material on the Trials including a document of the Geneva conference. Right from the start Fight ran advertisements for The Red Flag and Youth Militant. This brotherliness originated in joint control of the paper by the Marxist Group and the Bolshevik Leninists in the Labour Party. The paper’s statement of intent declared:

We, the Bolshevik-Leninists of Britain, whether we are in the Labour Party, ILP, Co-op or Trade Union, will fight with the workers ... [1]

Around the time of the first trial the Marxist Group had worked closely with the Bolshevik-Leninists. There had even been a joint executive formed from the two to control whatever ILP union factions were under Marxist Group control. [2] At the national meeting of 11 October a Central Co-ordinating Committee was established for all three groups. It met twice more in 1936, but then lapsed for a time. [3] Chief obstacle to regular functioning was the blurring of the decisions taken at the October national meeting by the sudden decision of the Marxist Group to withdraw from the ILP, motivated by that party’s decline since its Keighley conference. The Marxist Group informed the National-Administrative Council of the ILP, that it would withdraw and call on all revolutionaries to join it. [4] On the eve of the launching of the Unity Campaign the Group held its first meeting, began to imitate the action of a full-blown party [5] and made its counter proposals for unity. [6] By February 1937 it had pulled out of the ILP

A Marxist Group outside all parties had implications for Trotskyists elsewhere. Independent existence had been adopted in defiance of the Declaration of the International Bureau. Joint control of Fight ceased at once, since the Marxist Group majority on the editorial board imposed its view. [7] The rapid shift in Marxist Group policy is difficult to explain. The Bolshevik-Leninists attributed it to middle class influence, but this cannot be empirically sustained. [8] It shivered a not overlarge organisation into three fragments. [9] There were international parallels to the step now taken by the Marxist Group and knowledge of them helped reinforce the reaction of other Trotskyists. [10] The Bolshevik-Leninists, for whom presence in the Labour Party was the Ark of the Covenant, were naturally inclined in favour of the Marxist League, though they differentiated between Groves and Dewar and its other members. But the League had concluded by late 1936 that the time for exclusive Labour Party work was nearing its end and when it looked for unity it was the Marxist Group, not the Bolshevik-Leninists, which interested it. [11] The Bolshevik-Leninists, known from January 1937 as the Militant Group, not unreasonably concluded that new efforts to achieve unity were not likely to be efficacious. They were larger than the other two groups put together; there were many workers among their members; they were moving out of a purely youth milieu: they considered that they now had a case for recognition as the British Section of the international movement. [12]

The International Bureau did not move this far but it did encourage the Bolshevik-Leninists to build pup the strongest organisation they could. By a December 1936 declaration it had called for a conference of those of the country’s Trotskyists who accepted the Geneva resolution. [13] The Militant Group reacted along slightly different lines, with a February call for unity with the Marxist League on the basis of the Geneva resolution. [14] All three groups had members at the national meeting of 14 February 1937, convened in the presence of Braun of the International Secretariat. [15] The Militant case for unity in the Labour Party was countered by a Groves-Wicks bid for unity of all three factions. Braun seems to have endorsed the Militant approach, by opposition to an early split from the Labour Party, though he expressed reservations on its youth line. [16] He concluded that little progress was likely to be made towards fusion and encouraged it to concentrate on its own work. [17] It was ironic that the two groups closest in their tactical views should in practice be so bitterly divided as were the Militant Group and the Marxist League. [18]

Yet it is impossible to understand their actions or those of the Marxist Group except in the light of a deeply held conviction that every possible step must be taken to rally the workers against war. [19] Militant propaganda against the Unity Campaign was galvanised by the certainty that the Left and the CPGB would accept a war for democracy. Fight insisted that every form of war preparation must be opposed: war could be supported only when Britain was in the workers’ hands. All of them were haunted by 1914 when socialist leaders in every country had yielded to a chauvinist mood. During the years immediately before the war this lent their writings an abstract slant as they fought old battles. It was a sense of approaching war which led the Marxist Group to seek independence from the ILP, even at the risk of expulsion from the international movement. [20] The new party had to be built:

Do not hesitate, do not put it off. Above all do not be disconcerted by the fact that we are not a large organisation. Particularly we appeal to old revolutionaries, disillusioned by the crimes and treacheries of the Stalinists. Everyone who comes makes us larger. [21]

Repetitive appeals of this kind did not make a strategy for producing a powerful Trotskyist movement. They flew in the face of Trotsky’s own pleas of 1933 and 1936 for a sense of proportion, but they were also an anticipation of the 1938 decision to launch a Fourth International in the hope of holding the revolutionary forces together. James shared an international illusion that successive labour movement defeats left workers looking for an alternative. Hence Fight had the tone of a paper merely drawing attention to the obvious. The Labour Party, it declared, would only bring disillusionment. “The sooner this happens the better. To be disillusioned with Labour Party reformism is the first step to revolutionary clarity”. [22] When confronted by the London Busmen’s Strike, Fight observed that the behaviour of the LPTB and union officials “occasions no surprise”. “The mere substitution of, say, Bevin by Papworth would achieve nothing”, it warned. [23] Fight and the Marxist Group did not deceive themselves that they were a party. But they believed that coming disaffection from established parties would lead people to look for one [24]: the Fourth International had to maintain an independent presence so that it could be found. Other Trotskyists, engaged in entry work, had, in Fight’s view, a futile task. The ILP had reached the limit of its leftward swing in early 1935. “To think that the ILP, as a party, can be won for revolutionary Marxism, is, in fact, not to think at all”. As for the Labour Party, a Trotskyist presence within it was usually justified by reference to the presence of the masses: Fight expressed great scepticism as to whether this was indeed where they were. It also felt that earlier objections to being separate from all parties were no longer valid. Trotskyism was better known in 1937 than in 1932 and the capitulation of the Comintern more abject than before. Advanced workers searching for international socialism would not find it “hidden away in the rotten archives of the Labour Party”. They were also moving away from Stalinism. On these doubtful arguments was predicated the Marxist Group case for independence. [25]

The existence of the Marxist Group was an invitation to other Trotskyists to realign. It had personal links with some Marxist League members, perhaps made easier by the departure of former Group members who had been in the Communist League minority for the Labour Party. [26] It was also pursuing a policy of publishing Fourth International documents and seems to have consciously followed a tactic of regroupment. In July 1937 discussions between the Trotskyists began again, precipitated by a call from the Group at its half-yearly conference for an aggregate of all Bolshevik-Leninists. But this did not imply an altered view by the Group of the need for an open identifiable Fourth International fraction:

The methods of a fused group can be none other than the maintenance of an independent platform and propaganda allied to correct fraction work in the mass organisations. [27]

In its view the Marxist League and Militant Group were making sacrifices in the Labour Party in return for access to potential which was less than that available outside the party. Not surprisingly Starkey Jackson of the Militant told the conference that there was little basis for cooperation. He was unmoved by a Group offer to canvass in local elections. This was no less likely, he thought, to jeopardise a Labour Party presence than it would have been six months earlier. [28] Militant perceived, not surprisingly, that nothing essential had changed. It decided to abstain from the Central Co-ordinating Committee until that body’s affairs were covered by a definite remit. [29] It was prepared to continue cooperation with the, Marxist Group over such activities as the Trotsky Defence Committee or the Committee for the Defence of the POUM. It did not, however feel able to speak on public platforms as this would invite “premature expulsion from the Labour Party”. Tactics were as important as principles and it saw no reason to change them. It foresaw only limited possibilities for cooperation. [30] Militant’s preference was still for unity with the Marxist League since both were operating in the Labour Party sphere. It had experienced little encouragement in response to its advances [31], and saw only limited value in joint meetings with the others unless they were to assist joint work in the Socialist Left Federation. Morally its position was strong. It continued to feel it was pursuing the line of the Geneva conference resolution; Braun had on his February visit advised consolidation of its own position, rather than fusion, as a main immediate task; in g the summer it had convened what it felt was the most successful Trotskyist conference to date. [32] It was more entrenched by August than it had been at the National Meeting of February 1937. If offered joint fraction work where it and the Marxist Group found themselves in the same organisation, but declined all joint activities which would compromise it within the Labour Party. It agreed to a swap arrangement for all three papers and went so far as to propose phased publication so that a new Trotskyist paper appeared at fortnightly intervals, with each – if it wished – carrying articles from members of other groups. [33]

But there was more interest in the Marxist Group initiative [34] in the Marxist League, which did not operate in the Labour Party within a long term perspective. Marxist Group interest in a combined drive within the SLF had some appeal when the League discussed it at a members” meeting of 23 July 1937. The Marxist League did not consider that all Trotskyist activity should take place within the Labour Party. It had recognised, for example, the importance of work within the ILP Nor did it concede to the Marxist Group that revolutionary questions were subordinated to immediate issues: the problem was to relate immediate issues to the struggle for workers’ power. Like the Militant Group, the Marxist League immediately perceived the Marxist Group’s fusion proposals to consist essentially in the addition of a Labour Party fraction to its independent presence. Its counter-proposal was a committee composed of three members of each faction to meet monthly, arrange joint meetings and monitor the work of the two groups and the League. After six months, during which all three factions would refrain from public attacks on each other, “concrete proposals for fusion” would be submitted. [35] The CCC met on 12 August 1937 and Starkey Jackson there proposed a joint meeting of “ the groups. This should have been decisive since Militant’s objections were the most deep-seated. But the Militant executive withdrew Jackson’s proposal after they saw the editorial in the August Fight, which attacked the presence of revolutionaries in the Labour Party. [36]

The Marxist League had continued to publish The Red Flag on an occasional basis, and also to put out Trotsky’s writings. [37] Its members persisted with the Socialist Left Federation. But in October 1937, the Marxist League officially dissolved itself and suspended publication of The Red Flag. Some time later a majority of former ML members gathered and considered the overall position of Trotskyism in Britain. They set up an ad hoc committee and approached the Marxist Group for fusion. Late in January 1938, a joint commission was established with three members from either side and it was this body which drew up a political statement and constitution which each party then discussed. The political statement called for “a strong centralised independent organisation (to) be built on the platform of the Fourth International”. The problem of where to be in the short term had been resolved in favour of a body separate from other parties, though the new body would aspire to organise workers in the established organisations. There would eventually be a revolutionary party under whose discipline militants in reformist and centrist parties would work:

This would end the situation which confronts many today of being the “left” critics, who, as time drags on, soften and adapt themselves to the so-called “long perspective” of protracted work in the reformist organisations which is a renunciation of the task of preparing the revolutionary party. [38]

Clearly this fusion was a conscious rebuff to the chosen method of The Militant. The renunciation of abstract discussion in small. closed circles however, might have been applied to all three factions. There was thought to be some ground for optimism in differentiation in the Labour Party which the policy of Cripps and the communists during the Unity Campaign was thought to have delayed: there were now “signs of the emergence of a militant opposition on the crucial issue of war”..

On the eve of their fusion, the Marxist Group and the Marxist League joined the Militant Group in united condemnation of Lee. The occasion of their formal protest was the Lee group’s action in starting publication of Workers International News:

Each of the existing groups wishes to dissociate itself entirely from this enterprise; deplores the attempted creation of a fourth Trotskyist “group” in this country; and objects particularly to the impression given by Lee’s journal that it represents and is under the patronage of the International Secretariat. [39]

Sumner-Boyd, the author of these lines, had been a participant in the first two issues of Workers International News, but now informed the IS that he had formed “an erroneous impression” of WIN’s object and policies and ceased collaboration. Lee, complained the united British groups, would run the journal as a personal vehicle and not submit to discipline. He had also published, in pamphlet form, the summary of the Dewey Commission’s final report.

But collaboration against Lee was not enough to break down all barriers. The Marxist Group and the former Marxist League members were alone the active parties to the projected fusion. The Fusion Conference convened on February 17 1938 with Henry Sara in the chair. Wicks introduced the discussion, arguing that the standing distinction between those in and those out of the Labour Party could be overcome. There would be an independent organisation with more successful fraction work in the mass parties. He quoted the Communist Party as proof that this duality was viable. Two years in the Labour Party had been, for the Marxist Leaguers, a “bitter experience”. With the party moving towards war, there was no organisation or paper which represented the policy of Trotskyism. [40] They needed an “open voice, an unambiguous and revolutionary paper”. The discussion revealed that the protagonists of fusion had not achieved unanimity. Cooper argued that the statement blurred differences over the Left Federation. Frost proved him right by categorically rejecting work in that body, and Lane pointedly enquired what the attitude of the Federation was to the Militant Labour League. Sumner-Boyd only went some limited distance towards meeting these objections with his argument that there had to be some organisation such as the SLF in order to provide a platform within the Labour Party. There were, effectively, three attitudes towards the Labour Party: Jackson, a fraternal visitor from the Militant, expounded the standard entrist case; the Marxist Group had no time for any kind of contact with the Labour Party; the former Marxist Leaguers were largely in agreement but still favoured participation in the SLF What should also be stressed is that the cause of the new intransigence towards the Labour Party was its slide towards support for a putative anti-fascist war. In the end CLR James put it as the view of the commission that those within the SLF should attempt, in their near future, to evaluate their experience within it. Only then could a decision be made. After the conclusion of discussion Jackson indicated that the Militant Group was quite prepared to discuss fusion of the MLL with the SLF Hugo Dewar, however, one of those who had remained aloof from the fusion made it clear that he saw the prime task as building up the SLF, that the independent group was secondary, and that “we” (he and Groves presumably) were not prepared to see the SLF made into a Trotskyist organisation. [41] With one encouragement and one warning in its ears, the Fusion Conference elected a central committee of seven and took the name Revolutionary Socialist League. [42] The RSL affiliated at once to the Bureau for the Fourth International.

The RSL did not conceive itself as starting from scratch:

We do not need to create all our cadres. The work of the Communist Party in its early days has not been without results. [43]

There were, it argued, thousands of disillusioned revolutionaries around who had been alienated by the Trotskyist analysis, but the Trials had opened their eyes. This was an expectation carried over lock, stock and barrel from the Marxist Group. Fight, cheaper and livelier than before, became the official paper to tap the mood. [44] The RSL took on an aggressive propagandist plan of public meetings. It was the last great era of the open-air gathering [45] and with unemployment high, a speaker could still draw a crowd. The RSL, launched on an independent tactic, had to put an emphasis-on direct appeal and ran a summer campaign of open-air rallies in London, Sheffield and elsewhere. [46] Some members were picked up by this method, but the sought-for thousands never materialised [47], and some time in the summer the RSL had to give up an asset unique among Trotskyist groups, the tiny premises from which C.L.R. James worked in Grays Inn Road.

The Militant Group faced 1938 without its most dynamic branch but this was not a fatal blow. It retained a national framework. The Militant Labour League had been launched and Jackson had felt confident enough to tell the February 1938 Fusion Conference that roots had first to be sunk in the Labour Party before independence could be achieved, and to underpin his argument with Trotsky’s 1933 thesis on the ILP. [48] He and Harber, Lee Davis, Margaret Johns, John Archer and John Goffe held together as a leading cadre. Militant continued to appear regularly and, though the organisation lost members to WIL, it gained some too.

In what had been its main field, the Labour League of Youth, expansion was blocked. In 1937 there had been a limited debate between Trotskyism and Stalinism in Advance; in 1938 there was none. [49] The 1938 conference of the League marked no advance from the previous year. [50] But the Militant did not now rest mainly on its youth presence. It subordinated its other activities to the MLL since it seemed likely that the approach of war would bring with it illegality. Militant knew it could not prevent war and would only make limited progress during a war. Its hope therefore was to dig in deeply within the Labour Party, a body it tended to equate with the mass movement. The Group resolved therefore to prepare for illegal conditions and resist adventurist pressures which might lead to premature separation:

Naturally our work in the Labour Party in wartime will be severely limited, but outside it will be completely impotent. [51]

Like the Marxist Group’s foray into independent life, the MLL was intended to provide a rallying point against war. It was a front for the Militant Group itself and at no time achieved an independent existence. [52] One reason would be the.decline in Labour Party activity immediately before the war, just when it was becoming an exclusive preoccupation of the Group [53]; another was that the MLL was working in a somewhat competitive market. During the initial months of its life the Socialist Left Federation still existed: later there were the Socialist Anti-War Front and the No-Conscription Fellowship. [54] All three of these bodies had more appeal to non-Trotskyists who were opposed to prevailing communist policy. But while this might be explained partly by the willingness of Groves and his comrades to blur their differences with pacifism, the MLL itself did not put a full Trotskyist line. The programme adopted by its first conference contains transitional demands similar to those advanced by the Founding Congress of the Fourth International in September 1938, but there is no reference to the International or Militant’s belief in the need for a new party. [55] Without these two statements of principle, however necessary it may have been for tactical reasons to drop them, even the MLL appeared as an anti-war organisation. And yet the MLL argument was expressed in undiluted Leninist terms. The clash between democratic and fascist powers was presented as a distinction between satiated countries and those with colonies. [56] The real enemy was at home, it argued, but only the working class could overthrow it. That was why a popular front or peace alliance had to be rejected, for it politically disarmed the working class and made it easier for capitalism to go to war. [57] Like the Group, the MLL campaigned for a “Third Labour Government” and its speakers at local meetings demanded a special party conference to change Government foreign policy. [58] There was no prospect of this taking place, but Transport House began to watch the League. [59]

Outside the two main groups there were in 1938 three other factions who identified themselves with the Fourth International.

(1) Workers International League:

Following the split of 19 December 1937, the Paddington branch of the Militant Group took steps to secure its position. It made efforts to convince other group members to join it, with some success. It maintained its distinctive style of street and public paper sales, while continuing to be active within the Labour League of Youth. It may also have been the first Trotskyist faction in Britain to cover strikes on a regular basis. Most remarkably of all, the group set itself the task of “re-forming of the ranks of revolutionary socialism”. On 1 January 1938 it began publication of Workers International News, the first theoretical journal of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. [60] Early editions showed an attempt to put right a perceived deficiency in the movement’s performance by putting some of Trotsky’s prolific output into print. [61] After a few months original articles began to appear, though by then WIN’s loyalty to publishing Trotsky had laid it open to the type of criticism levelled at the 1933 Red Flag.

What was Paddington’s purpose? The controversy over their intention at the December 19 GMM can never be resolved. Very quickly eight members of the Militant Group resolved to establish a new body, the Workers’ International League. They later saw themselves as having made a conscious break with 1930s experience. [62] Regroupment was an early success as WIL had within its ranks members of three different Militant Group branches, as well as the brief adherence of Hilary Sumner-Boyd. [63] During 1938 it made considerable efforts to contact provincial branches: had there not been tangible discontent, it would have met with less success. Its energetic youth work built a local base [64], though it did not launch an agitational journal until September. [65] By the time of the second fusion of Trotskyist groups in July 1938, Workers” International League had thirty members. [66]

(ii) The Revolutionary Socialist Party:

In Scotland a faction of the Socialist Labour Party, itself little more than a shell, split away in the early 1930s and evolved towards the Fourth International. [67] Taking first the name International Socialist Labour Party and then the Revolutionary Socialist Party, it published a journal The British Revolutionary Socialist [68] at slightly irregular intervals. It had an Edinburgh office and most members lived in the city, though others were scattered in Glasgow and Yorkshire. [69] Leading members included the Taits, a family with a background in De Leonism, and the pamphleteer Frank Maitland. [70] The RSP, rested on outdoor meetings and had no interest in Labour Party work. Though its concerns had been largely Scottish the RSP approached the ILP in 1937. [71] When the ILP rebuffed it, it turned towards the Trotskyist movement. It wrote to Trotsky and contacted his British followers in London. [72]

(iii) The ILP fraction

Those who had not followed CLR James out of the ILP attacked the party leaders” centrism and propagandised for the Fourth International up to the eve of the war. Their activities were based on the Clapham ILP, and its bookshop, a Trotskyist centre throughout the decade. There was support from Militant Group members in Liverpool, who had stayed in the ILP. [73] At the 1937 annual conference of the party, Ernie Patterson, with few backers, pressed the case against the Unity Campaign, attacked the Trials and demanded the formation of the Fourth International. [74] Only when, with the backing of the London Division, he deleted from the official resolution on resistance to war, qualifications on party support for colonial revolts, did he meet with success. [75]

As one of the ILP’s rare trade union activists, Patterson found space in The New Leader and used it with some skill. [76] He also held a place on the party’s London Divisional Council. In 1938 his assault on the popular front, morally strengthened by knowledge of the fate of the POUM in Spain, had the backing of Jack Huntz and CA. Smith, but still fell. In the debate on Labour-ILP relations, he argued strongly for a limited united front but rejection of reaffiliation. Smith again supported him and his plea fell narrowly by forty-nine to fifty-five. [77] The following year Patterson reversed his view on affiliation and was part of the majority which carried it. Apart from his activities, Trotskyism had little to show in the ILP after 1936 though attention continued to be paid to the tiny, but lively, Guild of Youth. Future Trotskyists within its ranks included Sydney Bidwell, Sam Bornstein and Ted Fletcher, who that year succeeded the late Bob Smillie as chairman. Trotskyist influence was nevertheless not confined to the efforts of those who remained active within the ILP. In Controversy, the journal launched by the party in October 1936 for discussion purposes, Trotsky and British Trotskyists were published, and there were occasional written debates between them and members of the CPGB. [78] Controversy tended to confirm continued communist suspicion of the ILP as a Trotskyist breeding ground.

It had been thought at the time of the February 1938 fusion that the conversion of a majority of former Marxist Leaguers of itself constituted a strong argument with which to approach the Militant Group anew. After reflection the RSL Central Committee rejected this course in view of the entrenchment of positions. It was only the growing threat of war which led it to extend a further invitation to unite. Open preparations for war, it argued, compelled revolutionaries to reappraise their tactical line. The RSL suggested that in the event of war, it would be disastrous if Trotskyists were not united. Since the Militant Group’s Labour Party presence was not intended to be permanent, just when would it be brought to an end? It argued that gains could not be made of an order which would justify an extended stay. Against the possibilities within the Labour Party had to be set the foundation of a party which could act with tremendous effect on the various disjointed groups and individual Trotskyists and neo-Trotskyists who exist in this country in many thousands. This was somewhat sanguine, and limited in its impact by the admission that a united group would number 200. [79]

The postponed first conference of the Fourth International was planned for 1 September 1938. This meant new pressure on countries where the Trotskyist movement was divided to pull together. The IS intervened in Britain to condemn the Lee split as being “on a basis devoid of all political meaning” [80] (though it called on Militant publicly to clear Lee’s name from any calumny). [81] All British groups, it declared, had to make self-criticism and prepare for unity. The SWP was deputed to meet all groups standing for the Fourth International and prepare “an objective statement of the position of the various groupings in order that the next international conference can settle the English question on the basis of precise proportions”. [82] The Militant Group had derived great security from its belief that it was applying the Geneva resolution, but it had failed to secure official British Section status and its position was weakened since the IS resolution put priority on unity and not tactical agreement. Militant dropped its argument that different tactics meant different organisations, but insisted that the main field of operation had to be the Labour Party. It told the RSL in May 1938 that a fusion was acceptable provided those in the Labour Party did not have to associate themselves openly with the outside body. Within the Labour Party they would continue to put the Trotskyist programme but remain mute on the need for a new party and the Fourth International. The SLF and MLL, could be unified on the MLL programme [83]: within the Labour Party they still suggested the main thrust of Trotskyist activity must be to try and wrest the leadership of left wing workers from the communists. Thus, argued the Militant Group, there should be the open organisation, (the MLL), within which there would be a disciplined group of Bolshevik-Leninists steering for a split. No time limit could be set upon the experience. The weakness and division of the Trotskyists had prevented them taking advantage of the first left swing at the time of the Unity Campaign, but a new opportunity approached. Trotskyism would not, it argued, be in a position to offer alternative leadership on the outbreak of war: its aim should therefore be to hold together. There could be no assumption that war itself would be the signal for a split from the Labour Party: that would depend on what had been achieved by then. The existence of an open Fourth International Party, of whose use to it Militant was still unconvinced, was the price for securing unity of all Trotskyists now in the Labour Party. The outside body would have a limited propaganda role: and must avoid masquerading as a party. Conceding its continued existence was the limit of compromises the Militant was prepared to make. [84]

Militant had pledged itself to the IS work for unity. [85] In June 1938 it was approached by Harry Wicks, acting secretary of the new RSL urging it further in this direction. [86] The plan was to convene a conference and thus implement the IS declaration. Invitations would be sent, he reported, not only to the RSL and the Militant Group, but to Don James’s dissidents in Liverpool, to the RSP, to the WIL and to the Leninist League. [87] Militant agreed to a conference but demanded the exclusion of WIL and the Leninist League, which its Glasgow members knew. Its counter-proposal was a fusion of itself with the RSL. [88] This offer was turned down and Militant’s worries about the Leninist League scorned. [89]

Some time in July 1938, J.P. Cannon, a leader of the American Socialist Workers Party, then at a zenith of influence [90], arrived in Britain as midwife to the merger. [91] He met each party to the project separately to persuade them to come in. His immediate object was a unified delegation to the imminent Fourth International conference. Only in WIL’s case did he meet the membership and not just leading figures [92] but he secured the agreement of all except the Leninist League to take part in a conference. He did not, however, dispel WIL’s doubts about the possibility of fusing such different factions into one.

The National Conference of Bolshevik-Leninists gathered in the New Morris Hall on 30-31 July 1938, with Sara again the chairman. It had before it papers from the RSL, RSP and WIL. It seems that the Militant, which was to dominate the new body, did not submit a document. The RSL argument was familiar: “the policy of confining our work to that of a fraction within the Labour Party is calculated to sow the most dangerous illusions among the workers”. After the debacle of the Socialist League there was suspicion of left wing movements. Neither the SLF nor the MLL had met with success in 1938. If the ILP reaffiliated, these two would be reduced to insignificance; but if the ILP was in the Labour Party, a dangerous rival to the Fourth International would be removed. Militant had argued that a split would be justified only by the prospect of establishing an alternative leadership. But, countered the RSL, there could be no such outcome without a clear break with the Labour leaders over the war question. The Transitional Programme was now to hand with supporting quotes for such a thesis. It also tilted the argument towards independent rather than entrist activity. Indeed the shift in the approach of the international from support for the Militant to encouragement of unity via the RSL seems to have been decisive.

The limited progress which the Revolutionary Socialist Party had met in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and elsewhere in Scotland was, like the RSL’s early experiences, empirical proof that independence could work. It claimed to have attracted a larger crowd than the Labour Party or the communists in Edinburgh to its May Day rally. The RSP submission to the conference rested upon a De Leonite interpretation of British history in the twentieth century – “the long struggle of the workers to break away from the Labour Party”. The RSP had no time for entry work. “Never must the revolutionary banner be lowered in capitulation to such a party.” A political crisis had arisen which a new party must meet; on the industrial field there was “a spontaneous movement of the masses ... of the utmost significance”. An independent party was needed to marry the two. If it could it would catalyse a revolutionary mood before the war; if this proved impossible it would work by every means possible for the defeat of British capitalism, even if by then it was in alliance with Russia. [93]

The WIL recognised that all groups united in seeing the epoch as one of imperialist crisis and decay. They differed on “how to overcome the present exasperating isolation of the revolutionary elements from the broad masses”. [94] The RSL, claimed WIL, made ineffective criticism from outside which could yet be damaging. Revolutionaries could not abandon the Labour Party. Politically awakening workers would just pass through it unless there were revolutionaries present around whom they might gather. While Labour at present was weak, it would grow, and its current feeble condition could give revolutionaries extra weight [95] and influence in the short run on which they might capitalise in the long. Nor did presence in the Labour Party mean submersion, as WIL’s own active life had shown. WIL dismissed the MLL and the SLF, each less likely to provide revolutionary support than an ILP returned to the Labour Party. Within that party it urged all groups to organise “full strength at the point of attack”.

No minutes of the conference have been located. The proceedings unfolded under the influence of Cannon’s prestige, knowledge of the approach of the Founding Conference and also Lee’s bitter phrases. [96] The final agreement [97], though drawn up by Cannon, was more in the nature of a British compromise. It set up one organisation, the Revolutionary Socialist League, to run all activities, funds and property and to engage a full-time secretary. This much was to be expected. But whereas the main emphasis was to be placed on Labour Party work “in the next period”, members fully active outside the party were not required to join. [98] A publishing house was to be established to run a Fourth International journal fused from Fight, Revolutionary Socialist and Workers International News. The Militant would continue to appear as an agitational paper published by the MLL There would also be an internal bulletin for all comrades every two months. While everyone was to sell the Fourth International journal, there was no explicit clause enforcing sales of Militant on those outside the Labour Party, and it is difficult to see how such sales could have been achieved. The agreement allotted five executive places each to the RSL and Militant Groups, to the RSP and WIL went two apiece. After six months a national conference would elect a new executive. During that time the parties pledged them selves to “liquidate” past conflicts, collaborate harmoniously, and impose Fourth International discipline on disrupters. The final stage of unification was to be ratification of the agreement by the member ship of all parties to it and a general aggregate meeting of all members. When each group had elected its members to the unified executive, that executive would elect delegates to the imminent World Congress.

The RSL, RSP and Militant signed the Peace and Unity agreement. But the WIL refused, despite repeated appeals from Cannon, to take part, resting on the argument that there could be no true unity until experience forged it. [99] There was support for this view outside its ranks [100], but most seem to have genuinely believed that they had conquered the debilitating weakness of the 1930s. The unified Executive Committee elected Harber (Militant), Maitland (RSP), and C.L.R. James (RSL) as its delegates to the coming conference. Sumner-Boyd was also to attend as a consultative delegate, and he took one of the sets of minutes. WIL sent with Harber a statement that it stood on the Geneva resolution, that the controversy over the Labour Party had been fudged in the new RSL, that individuals were effectively left to work where they wished. WIL argued that as the organisation implementing the Geneva resolution it ought to be the official British Section. Failing that it requested sympathising a status and offered collaboration with the RSL in all shared fields. [101]

The “Geneva” conference [102] to found the Fourth International lasted for one day, 3 September 1938. Thirty delegates from eleven countries attended. [103] With difficulty a majority had been assembled to consummate the swing away from the Comintern begun after the German debacle of 1933 by launching a new international. Unifications in Britain and Greece, facilitated by the approach of the Conference now were quoted as auspicious signs:

These two steps symbolised for the conference the growing integration of our international movement made possibly by our whole past course, which was based not on the concept of superficial, temporary, and deceptive advances but on the concept of the process of revolutionary selection which alone leads to the creation and victory of the tempered revolutionary party. [104]

In Britain there was no political disagreement, only the tactical clash over the Labour Party. The International had determined upon “a definite roll-call of our forces” and looked at Britain in that light. [105] In fact there was no opposition among the British groups to the launching of the Fourth International [106]: WIL in particular identified itself with this cause right from the start. Nonetheless, the Statutes made it clear that there could be but one section of the Fourth International in a given country. Cannon argued that the recent British fusion demanded the recognition of two places on the IEC and James and Harber were elected to fill them. A discussion on Britain followed. Conference resolved to offer Lee a hand of friendship, but if he rejected it to fight him. Clart argued for a conciliatory approach in view of the strength of the RSL’s position. [107] Nevertheless, WIL was unambiguously condemned. It was held to have been established and maintained for purely personal reasons:

Under these circumstances it is necessary to warn the comrades associated with the Lee group that they are being led on a path of unprincipled clique politics which can only land them in the mire. [108]

The following day the new executive of the Fourth International met. It was this body which discussed the Lee group in detail. Shachtman, supported by Cannon, argued against sympathetic affiliation for WIL on the grounds that its action showed it moving away from the Fourth. Cannon thought WIL akin to Molinier’s organisation [109], but on a lower plane. Maitland spoke forcefully against WIL [110], but James and Harber joined in only to assent to the proposed resolution, which the IEC then went on to pass. [111] The International Youth conference passed a guiding resolution on the – English Youth Movement, moved by Gould. [112] It expected the situation in the Labour Party League of Youth to develop in favour of the Trotskyists and proposed concentration there with work in the YCL and Guild of Youth from within the League of Youth. Achievements there in the past year were thought meagre, not only for objective reasons but because of inefficiency. As a remedy, a certain amount of specialisation was proposed: as many as possible should concentrate on youth work and compose a youth section of the RSL Note was also taken of the “nascent” youth apprentices movement [113] and the RSL youth was thought to have a great responsibility to steer towards it. [114]

On his journey back to the United States, Shachtman had further discussions with the British including the WIL. There was no tangible result. The first important development after the conference was the loosening of the cadre which had dominated the British movement during the middle of the decade. Sumner-Boyd who had been present at all important developments since 1936 left almost at once for an academic career in Turkey. [115] James, reduced in effectiveness by a stomach ulcer, left, perhaps without warning, in early October 1938 to join the SWP in the United States. [116] Some time during the year Jack Winocour also departed for America. [117] This had the effect of weakening the RSL half of the fusion. [118] Those that remained from the RSL side felt that there had to be action to make a reality of the agenda set by the Transitional Programme adopted by the Founding Congress. [119] But they were confronted by a political environment more hostile than before. There was no widespread movement against the coming war and what the Trotskyists had to say about it was less effective for the impact of the Trials. [120]

Unity had thus come late and in most unfavourable circumstances for all the optimism of the Transitional Programme. It was also to be shortlived. Unity was achieved because many in Britain genuinely desired it and because differences were felt to be relatively unimportant in the face of approaching war. If the International Secretariat had stood firm on its 1936 Geneva resolution and its statement in December of that year, unity could not possibly have come about. But the IS never made the Militant Group, the faction in Britain operating its policy, its official British Section. It only conferred this status on the fused RSL, which resulted from the Peace and Unity conference of July 1938. This was a hasty affair arranged within an international timetable, not one which suited the natural course of events in Britain. The only group in Britain to perceive this clearly was the Workers” International League which would have, no part of it. The next six years were to vindicate its abstention and prove the International’s condemnation of it a wild misjudgment.



1. Fight, 10 Oct. 1936.

2. Bolshevik-Leninist statement to Joint Session of groups, 11 Oct. 1936, For Discussion, 1, 28 Nov. 1936, 15.

3. Statement to the Bureau for the Fourth International from BL Group in the Labour Party regarding the fulfilment of the Geneva Resolution on the question of the Unity of the British Groups, 29 Dec. 1936.

4. In the view of the Marxist Group the ILP had fudged on Abyssinia, the Popular Front, the Trials and Spain. The leadership was “a body of political manoeuverers without vision or principle” (Towards the New Workers’ Party, Statement to the ILP NAC from members of the former Marxist Group, Fight, 12 Dec. 1936).

5. The Marxist Group was proclaimed as an independent force at a public meeting on 16 December 1936.

6. The Marxist Group analysis of the Unity Campaign was rather more concrete than that offered by the other Trotskyists. If there was agreement between the ILP, CPGB and Socialist League, it asked, why were they not all in one party? There were differences and they could not be blurred:

The Marxist Group will therefore not apply to join this bloc as outlined by the ILP and it warns the workers that no ultimate good will come of it. The CP will swallow the majority of the Socialist League and half of the ILP for its counter-revolutionary policy. The ILP, will capitulate entirely to the CP or run for shelter into the Labour Party. (Fight, Jan. 1937.)

7. The Bolshevik-Leninists had sold the first (10 Oct.) issue of Fight but withdrew from any contact with it after this to avoid embarrassment in the Labour Party (EC, Bolshevik-Leninist Group in the Labour Party, Statement to the Bureau for the Fourth International, 29 Dec. 1936, 3).

8. In opting for independence C.L.R. James, chairman of the Group, had the support of Arthur Ballard, its secretary, who was a Croydon carpenter, Jock Milligan, a building worker and Karl Westwood. The charge of middle class influence is levelled in EC of the Bolshevik-Leninist Group, Statement to the Bureau, 4.

9. Arthur Cooper (who had voted with James on 15 November at the crucial London meeting of the Group), Frederick Marzillier and Ernie Patterson stayed within the ILP These three were all Londoners, but they were thought to have more support among provincial Marxist Group members than among those in the Capital. They were a minority sufficiently sizeable to retain fraction status within the Marxist Group, though this seems to have meant very little. Cooper, at least, left the ILP later. A third part of the Marxist Group was identified as the former members of the Communist League minority, all but one of whom now joined the Labour Party.

10. There was strong hostility within the International Communist League to entering social-democratic parties. Joining the ILP provoked no crisis outside Britain, but the French turn followed by that of the Belgians was denounced by many leading figures. When the Americans entered the Socialist Party in 1936, the dispute was extended. C.L.R. James was in touch with Creme who belonged to the Canadian followers of B.J. Field, who had split from the CLA during his leadership of an industrial dispute in 1935. Whatever the significance of this and other contacts in terms of influence, James argued along similar lines to those of Bauer against the French turn and Hugo Oehler against the American turn. The views of Oehler, a veteran labour organiser, who split from the CLA in 1935 are well expressed in his remark at an October 1934 Plenum of the League:

In fact, French, Belgium, (sic) and British entrism were disasters (and) because of excessive organic unity, virtual capitulation. (quoted in C.A. Myers, op. cit., 16)

11.Wicks may have joined the Fight editorial board early in 1937 (A. Cooper to Wicks, 25 Jan. 1937. This information is crossed through in the letter). He was also collaborating with James on World Revolution (1937). It was to be the League which secured the Group’s attendance at the February 1937 national meeting against Bolshevik-Leninist inclinations (see below).

12. Additional arguments they deployed were that they were the only group in Britain following international recommendations, and that conferral of official status would hasten the disintegration of the other two, a process already underway, (EC, Bolshevik-Leninist Group, Statement to the Bureau, 5-7).

13. Declaration of the International Bureau for the Fourth International on the subject of the English Marxist Group, 13 Dec. 1936, n.p., kindly lent to author by Mr. John Archer.

14. Minutes B/L Group Secretariat, 13 Feb. 1937, H.P., D.J.H. 2a/3a.

15. “Braun” was the pseudonym of Erwin Wolf (1902-37) secretary of the IS until his murder in Spain, probably by the G.P.U., late in the year. The initiative for this meeting came from the Militant Group who sought a common approach to the Unity Campaign. Interim Reply of the EC, Militant Group to the Marxist League, 3 Aug. 1937, in Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.] 1937.

16. These are likely to have been misgivings about its campaign for early independence for the League of Youth (Secretary, London Group, [Militant Group], Report to Provincial Branch on Joint Meeting, 14 Feb. 1937, H.P., D.J.H 2A/3B).

17. Statement of the Executive Committee of the Militant Group on Inter-Group Relations, 20 Aug. 1937, in Inter-Group Relations, [Sept] 1937.

18. The Marxist League never sold Youth Militant but did put efforts into a short-lived and narrowly based Socialist League journal Socialist Youth, of which, suggested Militant, it had control. The League also circulated the POUM bulletin in England. The irony that two groups who vehemently opposed the Unity Campaign could not themselves unite, passed without comment.

19. Without this sense of time running out, it seems unlikely that the Marxist Group would have made its rapid turn away from the ILP This explains the willingness of Cooper to reverse his earlier view and move into independence. Other prominent members of the Group with ILP connections were Arthur Ballard, the Croydon carpenter who had once run the Strand ILP bookshop with Jon Kimche and was now Group secretary, and Jim Wood, who was married to Audrey Brockway.

20. This threat was scarcely veiled, see the concluding words of Declaration of the International Bureau, 13 Dec. 1936.

21. Fight, April 1937. Nevertheless, the Marxist Group had Labour Party members. One of them, “PT”, spoke at the Fusion Conference of 27 February 1938 (RSL, Internal Bulletin, 1, April 1938, 11).

22. Fight, July 1937.

23. ibid.

24. James, with his relatively wide reputation, had an appeal to those of other parties and of none. The years immediately before the war were intensely productive for him. He published The Black Jacobins, a study of the Haitian slave revolt of Toussaint L’Ouverture, in 1938 and the following year translated Boris Souvarine’s Staline. His later fame as a theorist of nationalism in developing countries was anticipated in his last years in Britain by his pivotal position in the London community of black radicals. He was editor of International African Opinion, the journal of the International African Service Bureau, of which George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah were members. Padmore’s wife had acted as James’s secretary during the writing of World Revolution.

25. This argument can be followed in Fight throughout 1937, and especially in its August issue.

26. Harry Wicks assisted C.L.R. James with World Revolution (1937) and had helped him as early as Minty Alley, a novel written while the Marxist Group was still in the ILP (Interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979). Wicks was also a member of the Fight editorial board in 1937 and, as first secretary of the Trotsky Defence Committee, in contact with all groups. His Notes on the History of Bolshevism (1937) were drawn up with help from D.D. Harber whom he would encounter in the British Museum.

27. Statement of Marxist Group from its half-yearly conference, 11 July 1937 (Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.] 1937, 1). The Group’s favoured sectors for joint fraction work were certain local co-ops, union branches, trades councils and the Socialist Left Federation. There was not unanimous support within the Marxist Group for its interest in the SLF objections were raised – and sustained – by Bill Duncan and Hilda Lane (see below).

28. Marxist Group Proposals for Joint Work, 28 July 1937, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.]1937. Other suggestions included were a central London meeting on Stalinism and the Colonial Struggle and a system of exchange sales for the three group papers.

29. ibid., 4-5.

30. Interim Reply of the EC, Militant Group, 5 Aug. 1937, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.] 1937, 2.

31. Interim Reply of the E.C., Militant Group to the Marxist League, 3 Aug. 1937, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept] 1937, 3-4.

32. The August 1937 Militant Group conference is described in the previous chapter.

33. Statement of the Executive Committee of the Militant Group on Inter Group Relations, 20 Aug. 1937, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept]. 1937.

34. Statement to the ML from the Marxist Group, Marxist League, Information Bulletin, 20 July 1937, Warwick MSS 15/4/1/16.

35. Marxist League Reply to the Marxist Group and Proposals of the ML, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.] 1937, 2-3.

36. Reply of the EC, Militant Group, to Proposal of Co-ordinating Committee for Joint Membership Meeting to Discuss Perspectives, 27 Aug. 1937, Inter-Group Relations, [Sept.] 1937.

37. In attractively designed cyclostyled editions it brought out Of Those Who Forget Their ABC and A Letter to a Social Democratic Worker concerning the United Front of Defence (Warwick MSS 15/3/1/70 and 71).

38. Political Statement, Revolutionary Socialist League, Internal Bulletin, April 1938, Special Number, 2.

39. “Charles Summer” to International Secretariat, 6 February 1938.

40. Militant presumably did not qualify because it did not call for the Fourth International or for an independent revolutionary party.

41. For the record of the debate, see RSL, Internal Bulletin, 1, April 1938, 8-15.

42. This name may have been suggested by a desire to attract radical former members of the Socialist League.

43 C.L.R. James, Revolutionary Socialist League, Fight, April 1938.

44. Sub-titled, “(Organ of the Revolutionary Socialist League affiliated to the Bureau for the Fourth International)”. It appeared every month until July 1938, the month of the second merger, when shortage of funds stopped it coming out.

45. R. Barltrop records the SPGB’s attempt to rally support by open air meetings in The Monument (1974).

46. One of the speakers used was Hugo Dewar, who had not participated in the February 1938 merger. Apart from the Marxist League cadre, there were within the RSL Cliff Stanton, Ivor Cresswell, Rowlands and Bradley (whose connections stretched back to the Communist League).

47. On the eve of the second fusion the RSL claimed a fifty per cent increase in membership since the first, (RSL, On The Necessity for an Independent Bolshevik-Leninist Organisation in Britain, 24 July 1938, National Bulletin, H.P., D.J.H., 2A/12A/ 3-4). Other fields of work open to the RSL were the trade unions and co-ops. Its members intervened in the Men’s Guild of the Co-operative Movement, but were unable to prevent support for the peace alliance launched by Reynolds’ earlier in the year from sweeping on. Fight recorded in May 1938 that the communists, formerly “uncritical and subservient lackeys of the Labour Party”, now rejected resolutions for a Labour government in favour of a peace alliance.

48. RSL, Internal Bulletin, 1, April 1938, 12.

49. There were denunciations however. Willis and Bernstein warned delegates to the approaching annual conference that the Trotskyists would put amendments which, if accepted, would put the stamp of impossibility or unreality on its programme (Advance, March 1938). Their views were echoed in a warning from Gollan that Trotskyists would “hinder and disrupt” the development of the League of Youth into a mass force and “confine it to an oppositional movement” (Defend The People, Easter 1938).

50. Fight (April 1938) noted few had rallied to the Youth Militant proposal of a campaign against conscription. The New Leader (11 March 1938) saw its delegates as “small, hopelessly outnumbered”.

51. The Group and the struggle against War, passed by the Political Education Committee, 30 March 1938 (National Committee, 9 April 1938).

52. The first national MLL conference claimed 150 members, not a large number though greater than that of the SLF Margaret Johns, editor of Militant, told it that there was a print run of 2,000 monthly, not greatly in excess of its circulation as organ of the Militant Group. The MLL branch structure – six in London, seven in the provinces – resembled that of the Group, (Report of the first National Conference of the Militant Labour League, (1938), H.P., D.J.H. 3/2).

53. Constituency membership in 1937-39 was: 447,150; 428,826; 408,844 (LPCR, 1979).

54. At its first annual conference the MLL spoke of continued work with the SLF and “considerable influence” within the SAWF, (see below, Report of the first National Conference).

55. ibid.

56. Manifesto of the Militant Labour League, [1938], (published by “J.D. Parry”, probably a pseudonym).

57. S. Jackson, “Peace Alliance” – The Road to War (1938). Jackson presented Ernest Bevin and Harry Pollitt as divided only on tactics, the one representing British capitalism, the other the Soviet bureaucracy. His alternative was a Third Labour Government.

58. Manifesto of the Militant Labour League.

59. A.L. Williams, (Leeds party agent) to J. Middleton, 14 Oct. 1938; H. Atkinson (London District Organiser) to Middleton, 18 Oct. 1938, (Middleton Papers, Labour Party Head Office).

60. Sub-titled “Theoretical organ of the Workers International League”. The priority this small group gave to theory contradicts the received wisdom about them as primarily an activist group not at home in the realm of ideas.

61. Beginning with GPU Stalks Abroad. Open letter to all working class organisations, (WIN, 1 Jan.1938, 1-3), the journal published thirteen articles by Trotsky in its first nine issues.

62. [WIL document on the history of Trotskyism], [Autumn?] 1943.

63.The Paddington, North and Central branches. Sumner-Boyd had, like other Marxist League members, been left without an organisation following its October 1937 dissolution. While the majority of former ML members regrouped, Boyd seems to have believed Lee’s purpose not to be a new group but only the establishment of a journal. He contributed an article, Stalin the Assassin, to the 1 January 1938 issue and collaborated on the second. On 6 March, however, he informed the IS that his cooperation had ended, (see above).

64. On 15 April, an eight page magazine, The Searchlight, was published from the Paddington League of Youth over the name of Gerry Healey (sic). Only Vol.1, No.1 has been located.

65. Youth for Socialism, see below.

66. Interview with E. Grant, Jan. 1973.

67. The historian of the SLP, Raymond Challinor does not trace this postscript to the party (The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977).

68. Later the Revolutionary Socialist, (1d monthly). Numbers 10, 11, 12 (July 1934, August 1934 and January 1935), are deposited at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

69. In 1934 and 1935 the Revolutionary Socialist reported some support in England. The Leeds branch of the Militant Group encountered RSP members in Fitzwilliam, Yorks. in 1937 and found them ultra-left, presumably in their attitude to the Labour Party.

70. Principally W. Tait, the organiser, though A. Tait was also active. Maitland had written for The Plebs (History – which made Scott unnecessary, vo1.26(1934) 44-5) and was the author of several pamphlets including Holidays with Pay (1938), 7p.

71. The RSP applied for affiliation but was rejected by the ILP’s NAC on 10 August 1937 (J. Jupp, op. cit., 244). It had attended congresses of the London Bureau though it had never been an affiliate. ILP rejection came about from fears that the RSP was already under Trotskyist influence.

72. The RSL informed it that a unity conference of British Trotskyists was imminent and this naturally increased RSP interest. Frank Maitland helped bridge the gap between the two with his article The Antics of Forward, Fight, (Aug. 1938); (W. Tait and F. Maitland, Statement of the RSP, 23 Dec. 1938, in WIL document on history of Trotskyism, [1943], 9).

73. These included Cund, of Kirkdale ILP, who had a full time party post.

74. The New Leader, 2 April 1937; R. Bishop, The Independent Labour Party in Conference, Inprecorr, Vol.17, No.16, 10 April 1937, 380-1. Bishop argued that while most organised Trotskyists had pulled out, “the leadership has taken over Trotskyism as its ideological stock-in-trade”. It may be that Trotsky’s thinking did inspire Brockway from time to time, but he had no respect for his movement, dismissing it as “the merest trifling sects” (The New Leader, 16 April 1937).

75. The New Leader, 2 April 1937.

76. See his fantasy of a Pollitt speech in the House of Commons, I dream about Harry Pollitt, The New Leader, 13 Aug. 1937.

77. The New Leader, 22 April 1938.

78. The rareness of such occurrences has been commented upon by J. Saville, in his article May Day 1937, loc. cit., 268. Among the articles of interest in Controversy are H. Sara, Communist Party History, Sept. 1937; “Communist”, Six Questions to Trotskyists, and C.L.R. James, Reply to ”Communist”, Feb. 1938; L. Trotsky, The Communist Manifesto Ninety Years After, April and May 1938; S. Hook, The U.S.S.R. Frame-Ups, May 1938; and L. Trotsky and P. Sloan, The Soviet Purge, July 1938. Sara was Controversy’s reviewer for Japan’s Gamble in China for which he adopted a detached style. When he reviewed Harold Isaacs’ The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (1938), he was less restrained (The New Leader, 21 Oct. 1938). The book had an introduction by Trotsky and Sara criticised Isaacs for failing to follow the evolution of his thought.

79. C. Summer, secretary RSL, to Militant Group, 22 April 1938, Internal Bulletin, 3, July 1938, 1-2.

80. Resolution of the International Secretariat on the R.L. affair, Beginning May 1938, H.P., D.J.H. 2B/4/I. The IS described the WIL as “a new, minute, independent, so-called ‘Trotskyist’ group” and declared unity in Britain to be the most crucial task of the hour.

81. Jackson, van Gelderen and “J.S.V.” were charged with the main responsibility for poor handling of the Lee affair. The charge of misappropriating funds was branded “pure calumny” by the IS though it made no comment on other allegations concerning Lee’s activities there. The Militant Group declined to publish a statement clearing Lee’s name on the grounds that the matter was only of narrow interest and that Lee had not used WIN for the purpose. (Militant Group to the IS, 19 June 1938, H.P., 2B/4/2.)

82. Resolution of the International Secretariat.

83. If Groves’s “bureaucratic control” prevented amalgamation, then the RSL members in the SLF must join the MLL This organisation was recognised as the Trotskyist faction, and Militant better known than The Call (see below).

84. From the Militant Group, 27 May 1938 (RSL, Internal Bulletin, 3, July 1938).

85. Though it expected more from the I.S. on what it considered Lee’s factional course (Militant Group to IS, 19 June 1938, H.P., 2B/4/2).

86. RSL, Internal Bulletin, 3, July 1938, 7.

87. A Glasgow-based group, followers of Hugo Oehler who had opposed on principle the French turn and the proposition to enter the American Socialist Party. In October 1935 the Oehlerites had been expelled from the CLA for violation of party discipline by publishing their own journal. They then formed the Revolutionary Workers’ League.

88. E.S. Jackson to RSL, 9 July 1938, ibid., 9.

89. C. Summer to the Militant Group, 14 July 1938, ibid., 11-12. Naturally an open faction like the RSL would be less concerned than one in the Labour Party about a third less than ten strong which opposed Labour Party membership in principle. But within the RSL itself there were also doubts about the catholicity of the invitation to the forthcoming conference, (W. Duncan, Fusion and CC Muddle, 14 July 1938, H.P., D.J.H., 13A/3).

90. When the CLA left the Socialist Party of America in mid 1937 it took this name.

91. It was a sign of the times that Cannon, following the recent murders of Trotskyists, was carrying a gun (Interview with E. Grant, 3 Jan. 1973).

92. The WIL convened a meeting of its full membership, thirty strong and all in London at this point (Interview with E. Grant). He met only the leaders of the Militant Group (Interview with M. Johns).

93. Revolutionary Socialist Party NEC, The Revolution in Britain, National Bulletin, [July] 1938 (sep. pag. 1-7).

94. Contribution by Workers’ International League to the Discussion on the Tasks of Bolshevik-Leninists in Britain, June 1938, H.P., D.J.H. 5/1, 1.

95. At the present moment the right wingers search for a stick with which to beat the Stalinists who threaten to tear the machine from out of their hands. They do not hesitate to publish selected articles by Trotsky in Forward and to quote from the Trotskyites. Only from within the Labour Party is it possible to extract a price from the bureaucracy, forcing it to acknowledge the revolutionary content of Trotskyism instead of merely utilising the anti-Stalinist aspect of its revolutionary programme (ibid., 4).

96. Lee referred to the pre-conference negotiations as a French bedroom farce; he called the factions Kilkenny cats, tied by their tails, fated to fight for evermore (Interview with John Goffe, 1974).

97. For full text, see Appendix D.

98. It was this clause in particular which was to attract the objections of WIL. Nor was WIL the only critic. In 1941 the Left Fraction (q.v.) opposed the concession of minority rights in an agreement it construed as based on Labour Party work (Brief Notes on the History of the Left Fraction, 2). The Socialist Workers Group (q.v.) declared that the fusion “took place under pressure from the international and left unsolved the burning question of the ‘Labour Party perspective’” (For the Building of the British Section of the Fourth International, 30 April 1941, H.P., D.J.H. 7/1).

99. [WIL document on the history of Trotskyism], 5.

100. Two RSL members, Bill Duncan and Hilda Lane were unhappy that fusion could take place without resolving disagreements over the SLF In their view working within a “centrist” organisation was a very different matter to setting one up, (W. Duncan, Fusion and CC Muddle, 14 July 1938, H.P., D.J.H. 13 A/3). Some months later the RSP wrote “the Unity agreement was more of an organisational than a political document. Unity was achieved without preliminary discussions on the various national and international issues”, (Letter and Statement of the RSP (Edinburgh) and reply of Executive Committee, [Jan.? 1939], 7 H.P., D.J.H. 13 A/6.)

101. Statement of Workers’ International League to the International Congress of the Fourth International, 1938, [August? 1938], reprinted in [WIL document on the history of Trotskyism], 7-8.

102. Held in reality at the Rosmers’ home in the Paris suburbs. Geneva was a subterfuge used for security reasons.

103. Shachtman was chairman and the joint secretaries were Sumner, Hic and Gould. The published minutes are Sumner’s.

104. Review of the Conference, Documents, 160. Growth in “England” (though the RSP was surely included) was quoted with that in the USA as evidence of fruitful activity by the International Secretariat. The figure of 170 members given for England does not appear fanciful.

105. It was faced not only with unifications in Britain and Greece but also with the withdrawal of Vereecken and Sneevliet. The Poles constituted a loyal opposition within the conference (I. Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, 419-29).

106. James argued against delay, refuting Shachtman’s argument that the launch had been delayed in 1936 by hope of convincing the centrists (Documents, 298). He was the chief British participant. Like Harber he was at his second conference. With seven others he interviewed observers from the PSOP and the POUM; he argued that the KPD collapse of 1933 was a conscious policy; he moved an amendment from the RSL Central Committee to the slogan of the right to work in the Transitional Programme, seeking the insertion of Keir Hardie’s phrase, “work or full maintenance”. When Russia was discussed James defended the progressive nature of the Soviet economy against Craipeau but anticipated his own split from the Fourth International by joining Shachtman in resisting a precise characterisation of the Russian bureaucracy.

107. Documents, 302. In Harber’s record it was James who made this adjustment.

108. [Fourth International], On Unification of the British Section, [Sept. 1938], Documents, 270. WIL was accused of not even making a statement though it had sent an appeal with Harber, (see above, 265)

109. Raymond Molinier was the leader of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, one of two warring factions which comprised the French Trotskyist movement. The International Conference of 1936 had expelled Molinier for use of funds to maintain hegemony in the French Section. The Founding Conference declared the ranks of the FI open to PCI members but not to Molinier (Documents, 262-4). Cannon’s comparison seems to have been intended to draw a parallel between the personal roles of Molinier and Lee.

110. Described as a “vicious attack” by WIL, [WIL document on the history of Trotskyism], 8.

111. This paragraph is based on Harber’s minutes of the executive meeting, [RSL], Report Of International Conference [Sept.? 1938], (Warwick MSS.). According to the RSP a misunderstanding of the conference arrangements, (which were shrouded in secrecy), led to Willie Tait, Harber and van Gelderen missing the main conference, (Letter and Statement of the RSP, loc. cit., 6). Tait may be in error for Maitland, but neither this, nor van Gelderen’s presence has been confirmed.

112. Gould (often known in the International as Anton) was a youth leader of the SWP. and was to be youth representative on the resident I.E.C. established in the United States after the outbreak of war.

113. There had been strikes among apprentices in 1937, in which the CPGB had intervened.

114. Resolution on English Youth Movement”, D.D. Harber, Report of International Conference, 1938, 1, Warwick M.S.S., 21.

115. He began teaching at Robert College, Istanbul whence, until his death, he made a deep impression on Turkish intellectual life. He wrote the definitive Strolling through Istanbul, collected the works of Turkish artists and “effectively created the modern Turkish theatre”, (The Times, 18 Sept. 1976).

116. The SWP’s black membership was negligible and Cannon, during his visit, invited James to undertake a lecture tour of the States. James informed Starkey Jackson, the new RSL secretary of his impending departure in September. One of his last acts before leaving was the Manifesto of The African Service Bureau, whose call for inter-racial unity against imperialist war was endorsed by the MLL (Militant Oct. 1938; I. Oxaal, Black Intellectuals Come to Power, 1971, 71,.117. Interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979.


118. Harber also moved out of London about this time to take work as a CIS agent in Eastbourne. As an asthmatic he would expect also to improve his health in the sea air (Information from Mr. J. Harber).

119. “The strategic task of the next period – a pre-revolutionary period of agitation, propaganda, and organisation – consists in over coming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard.” (The Transitional Programme. The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International, reprinted in Documents, 182).

120. At least one Trotskyist, Arthur Ballard, became disillusioned with the movement after the third trial and C.L.R. James was unable to persuade him to remain active (Interview with H. Wicks, 30 Nov. 1979). Ballard appears to have rejoined the ILP shortly after this. He began to write for The New Leader on colonial affairs and opened a regular column, In the Empire late in 1938 which he used on 9 December to review The Black Jacobins. At the 1939 annual conference of the ILP he moved a Hampstead/Hounslow/Wimbledon resolution on subject peoples which was carried with NAC support.

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Updated by ETOL: 6.4.2004